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

1 November 2017

KF: It’s a kind of fable for now.

LH: So that’s like the species thing. I think an element of The Grand Piano, a very strong thread that runs through it, and it’s sometimes articulated and explicit and often not, is telling the story. And not all the stories are exactly the way everyone remembered them. Some of the dynamics of composition … I want to give Barrett Watten enormous credit for dreaming up the form, designing the books and cracking the whip to keep everybody doing it. And there were a few people, three in particular, who really did need a lion tamer to keep them on task. I was not one of those people, but sometimes I wish I could be.

The process was a closed format collaboration for the ten authors, plus one person who was invited, Alan Bernheimer, to write one of the essays about a wonderful film maker who died of AIDS, Warren Sonbert. Some general theme would get proposed and argued about. We would all send drafts to each other: we each write ten essays, and send a draft of the essay that’s loosely about the theme that’s been settled on, or refusing to, which is ‘doing the theme’ without doing the theme. And then all the other nine would critique it. There would be raging arguments. It was often not a friendly process, and definitely not nourishing and supportive, unless you could take argument and contention to be that. But it remained the fact that this account is ten different accounts, and it’s ten different accounts thematised.

At the reception of The Grand Piano as the little books came out, the East Coast became quite sardonic in many cases. People would make comments like: ‘well they’ve got a grand piano, I’ve just got a harmonica’. And everyone would laugh and think, ‘we’re so cool we’ve just got harmonicas’. The Grand Piano was the name of the café where we did a lot of the readings in the early days. That’s the name of the title in order to aggrandise our orchestral production [laughing]. I think ultimately, a lot of us as it happens are from California, which is quite odd or rare. California is a place for which the final frontier is Hollywood and now Silicon Valley. It’s a place to which people have come from the East. And as it happens, I think everyone who contributed [to The Grand Piano] is born in California. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing that suffuses one’s consciousness.

KF: It’s sort of displaced and relocated every time in these essays. I mean, there are ten of you writing ten essays on theme, but there are also nine hyper-critiques of every single essay that’s coming out. The very idea of The Grand Piano exhausts me, and it must have exhausted you in some degree. But it also proliferates in the way the Scheherazade story does. The stories can never be told fully. I don’t know if you’re writing for your lives any more, but there’s a serious – I’m not just being flippant here – there’s a political urgency to such a project.

LH: I want to say one more thing, because I do want to open this up. The names and labels of schools aren’t important. But it’s not the case that it’s all ‘just poetry’. In the vehemence with which people embrace their aesthetics and argue for them and theorise them and fight about them, there is a lot at stake. It doesn’t not matter. I don’t know how exactly to articulate this, especially at this time. But the humanities more generally are under attack, because ‘they’re impractical and useless, who cares?’ – and to then say ‘avant-garde’ – it’s really worth caring about, even if it’s only a few of us, and so it’s not all just peaches and cream. I just wanted to make that clear. I very sweetly say: the labels don’t matter but the shit matters.

KF: And in the Australian context, when we think of country and the agonisms of that, the story matters immensely. Every story matters.

LH: Well you have a contentious poetry scene right now, right?

KF: We do. And in the bigger sense we have a contentious everything scene, because we are unsettled and resettled and colonised continually. And the political force of the allegory means something in Aboriginal Australia that is very powerful and very important.

[Comment by Deborah Bird Rose; Lyn Hejinian responds]

LH: I launched myself into political organising at U C Berkeley at the moment when the tuition was raised by 40% and staff and workers were laid off. The custodial workers [maintenance staff] used to be five people to clean a building, and suddenly there was one person to clean a building. The waste baskets in the chemistry and biology labs were only emptied once a week. A lot of toxic materials were just sitting there festering. It really became dangerous for students and custodial workers. But I’m also a tenured full Professor in an English department, so I felt pretty protected. There’s no excuse not to jump in. I think we’ve put fingers in the dam here and there, and the on-rush of a neoliberal take-over of public education has been slowed, and some people have been embarrassed.

Even if we don’t win, right now matters. It really counts what you’re doing. Don’t postpone the doing of it. And it’s actually fun, even though it can be very scary. I do recommend people be careful and know what they’re risking consciously, and that they volunteer for it – like getting arrested for example – but it seems like part of the mandate of being alive is to actually live your life.

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