‘A Fable for Now’: Kate Fagan Interviews Lyn Hejinian

By and | 1 November 2017

KF: Right. And if a thousand eyes are watching the same event, it’s happening a thousand times at the least. I’d not really thought about the ‘circus’ trope seriously until I listened to you read this morning. And it occurred to me that as a fable of phenomenological duration, where time is not chrono-linear but spatialised always, and also in the custody of many eyes, it’s very powerful. Is there a sense in which you could speak to that?

LH: The term repertoire completely surprises me. I think it’s magnificent. There are two ways I can think of it in terms of music. One of course is ‘the set’, the list of what you’re going to play, or in improvised music, what configurations or instruments will happen. But then there’s also the personal riff, like what you can do. The musicians I know are always worried they’re going to keep falling back on their habitual riff: ‘I know I can really go up and down the saxophone, I can smoke that’. But you can only do that so many times until everybody says, ‘there they go again, up and then down’. And it becomes like schtick, which is different from repertoire and from riff. That’s certainly something I think about in attempts not to fall onto riffs and to undercut myself.

But that’s not a really good answer to your question. The return of an event I think is extremely interesting in everyday life. Like the event of brushing your teeth, as well as the event of, again, being crushed by some stupid political or judicial decision. And I think a thousand eyes looking at events, or the million eyes, given the ‘society of the spectacle’ kind of thing – I think that’s really problematic and fascinating terrain. It’s about relationships and relationality and the urgency, the need for people and creatures, all creatures I suppose.

I’m really interested in this ‘other creatures’ thing. We have two cats, and I really have tried to figure out what they’re thinking. I’ve gotten on the floor and crawled and followed the cats’ path and paused and … nothing! I don’t hear what the cats hear. I don’t know why they do that! Why, when I put the bowl of water here on my desk, does the male cat go over there and around the room, along the wall and jump onto this and come over and see me put it there, when it wanted the water?

KF: This is a footnote more for comic effect, but I recently heard an interview with somebody in Sydney who rang up a radio station to say that their Alsatian loves to watch the news with them. It eats dinner and comes in and sits on the couch, very pleased, until it hears the ABC news theme song. Then it throws itself at a particular wall in the house every time it hears the theme, to the point where they’ve had to repaint the wall, because it’s getting muddied by the auto-painting of the dog responding to the ABC news theme song.

LH: The ABC should change its theme.

KF: It’s phenomenal and creaturely in ways we can’t comprehend. We can’t comprehend that creaturely interface between music and ourselves and the environment that we build and the creature within it making that response.

LH: I think there’s a real requirement that we attempt to understand what other eyes are seeing, and an absolute requirement that we don’t attempt it. That we don’t claim other people’s experiences by saying, ‘oh, I see what you see’. We don’t. And there’s one way in which to establish camaraderie and solidarity, a sense of being in this, in common; and then the other is leaving other creatures’ spaces alone. So that’s a subtle one to consider. I think you just have to do both. Again, going back to categories, it’s not an either / or. It’s like we do both.

KF: I might ask you about an historical note now, to bring a couple of other works into the room before we invite everyone into the conversation. I want to discuss The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography. It’s a very recent or ongoing undertaking by various poets and writers who were involved in the early days of Language Poetry. There’s an essay of yours, your essay in number 7, which concerns music. I’ve come to this through repertoire. Your essay talks about the late 1960s and early 1970s in San Francisco, in relation to scenes of innovation in other art-forms. Terry Riley was there at that time, and still is, cracking out In C and other extraordinary works of improvisation, spatio-temporal collapse and inquiry. There’s a sense of abandon to that work.

It made me think of the impossibility of the ‘school’ that you were talking about before; an impossibility of dividing these art forms and practices from one another. So, through the trope of playing the grand piano, and through the musicality of that, there’s a recognition in common: that these ideas and formations – I’m hesitant to say forms – allegories, rhapsodies, can be shared in common, despite the exquisite particularity of every single note that’s being sounded within.

And I want to move past that idea back to place and country, because we have Deborah Bird Rose here with us this morning; Deborah and Lyn spoke together in Melbourne. With your step toward the creaturely, Lyn, I wanted to bring into the conversation particular ideas of landscape and ‘ruined pastoral’ that we’ve been speaking about in other contexts. I wonder how you’re thinking through place and habitat in relation to your work? Ecology and creatureliness are so present in The Book of a Thousand Eyes, and perhaps aren’t foregrounded as much in earlier works.

LH: I’ll get to The Grand Piano; but I think this has to do with geo-political place, rather than eco-landscapes. I mean culture is ecological, obviously, but there’s a kind of ‘Northern California vs. East Coast’ dynamic that is real, but maybe shouldn’t be as important as it gets taken to be. I’ll try to think and talk about that in a minute.

The creaturely thing actually came about because at some point in a class, I heard myself saying that it’s possible for writers to cross-dress. In fact that’s what’s you do when you’re writing, you cross-dress. I don’t write as myself. And then I thought, wow, that’s good. My friend Charles Altieri will often be at a social gathering and he’ll say something, and then he’ll say, ‘oh that’s good’, and he’ll get out his notebook and write down what he’s just said. He’s really impressed himself. I had one of those moments in which I said that writing can allow for cross-dressing. And I thought, wow. That’s good.

I went home and thought, well, why not write as a duck? And then Tolstoy’s story – which I think gets translated as ‘Yardstick’, or perhaps ‘Black Beauty’ which is maybe more familiar – Tolstoy writes a short story from the point of view of a cart horse who thinks humans are very odd. Although they see the world through language, it’s clearly not what the world is about. So I was playing with that a lot, and it really was a trope. I obviously was not writing as a duck, or mother goose (which is a whole other train of thought). But it does relate to mother goose, and my being very interested in fairy tales and narratives and the kinds of stories that people tell about themselves, and the kinds of self-mythologising that go on as people get asked to tell about themselves.

We have a now quite a famous musician friend who one a prestigious award and was interviewed on National Public Radio. I’ve known him for 40 years, I’ve been in his apartment in New York many, many times. And the interviewer asks him about his daily life and he says: ‘fuck, I just live in a little tiny place, my clothes are in a cardboard box, I live simply, man, like it’s about the music man’. And he’s got an art collection to kill for. And it is true that his clothes are in a cardboard box … but the myth that he was projecting! I said, ‘Larry, Larry, listen to X: he’s got three Joseph Cornell boxes’. But that’s a story. And it’s actually a good story for him to tell, because it is useful for young admirers who hear him and aren’t thinking that fame means you live the star’s life and live in a mansion. You keep your clothes in a cardboard box.

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