Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Eternal Repository

Dodie Bellamy interviews Lyn Hejinian

On August 30, 1994, Lyn Hejinian and I talked in my living room, as we drank peppermint tea from Fire King mugs. This conversation is part of a larger project of mine, a study of the correspondence between Hejinian and Susan Howe (mid-70’s to mid-8-‘s), which is housed in the Archive for New Poetry at UCSD. This conversation’s very existence raises issues about the documentary value of intellectual exchange, issues familiar to readers of Lyn Hejinian’s poetry. What is the self? How does the “person” function in the larger world? How do women talk to each other? How do history and epistemology affect each other? How do we distinguish the public from the private?

Lyn Hejinian: Probably very few of us realize how intertwined our thinking is with our letter writing, our theorizing with the personal thing we say in letters. It is such an intimate medium. Even when you know some third party is going to be reading the letters some day, you still end up speaking intimately.

Dodie Bellany: It’s just the form that is seductive?

LH: I think so. I love the letter form. I think that’s the one reason I’m glad my letters are in the Archive.

DB: As you know, I’ve spoken with a number of people whose papers are housed at UCSD. You’re the only person who has no regrets.

LH: I love to writer letters. I love to receive them. And I still writer lots of them. I really do think the letter is a literary enterprise, and I always did even when I wasn’t thinking of being archived. My contemporaries and I have always insisted that our poetry is grounded in the world—and that’s really a place where the grounding can begin, the first workings out in stages of ideas, with the relationship of ideas to other things in life preserved. Maybe I’ll writer to Charles Bernstein tonight and tell him about my conversation with Dodie today, and I’ll say more about what I think about letters, and it will be an unfolding.

DB: Michael Davidson said the archives speak back and forth to one another—and after looking at them for a while, they really do. People you think don’t have any connection are suddenly mentioning on another, and it becomes this huge matrix, an organic web.

LH: I like that unfolding; it’s very process-oriented, letter writing, especially when you write a lot of letters over time to the same person.

DB: You seem to be a very private person. On the phone the other day Susan mentioned how careful she felt you were in your letters—and in one of the letters I read you were talking about how you didn’t like to talk about yourself, you didn’t like to reveal personal stuff. How does this feel in terms of having this public record there; is there any conflict?

LH: I think that when I sold those letters I was too cowardly to reread them, so I could delude myself that my archive was just literary. It wasn’t personal.

DB: How were you cowardly?

LH: Because I wouldn’t want to be revealed in all my pathetic singularity [laughs]. There’s some very serious negative aspects to selling one’s letters or to having one’s letters exist in an archive like that, and paramount among them is the question of privacy. Since I was the beneficiary of the money that came in from my letters, it would be slightly disingenuous or two-faced to complain too much about it. I made them public. But some people with whom I was corresponding, whose letters I sold, have felt, for various reasons, unhappy with that decision. Maybe your article will lead to a discussion of what the ethics of living people selling their own papers should be. For me it has been the sole lucrative thing I’ve done as a poet, until recently when I have gotten teaching jobs as an outcome of my poetic enterprises. But I’ve never gotten any money that’s worth speaking of for a poem. Royalties from books? They’re just pathetic; it’s ludicrous to even think about them. So getting twenty, thirty, forty, fifty thousand, whatever different people get for their archives—and mine was on the low end because I didn’t have that much stuff at the time, maybe two, three cartons…but I know other people who’ve had up to twenty-five, thirty, forty cartons, and I’ve heard of people getting as much as $200,000 for their papers. It’s kind of like getting paid for the debris of what you really do. If I sold what’s accumulated since I sold my papers to San Diego in 1984—say if next year I started thinking about selling the next ten years from ’84 to’94—I think I’m going to send a letter to everybody with whom I’ve corresponded and inform them of this decision, and give them the option of sealing their papers—to sell them but sealed. Or to not sell them at all.

DB: Unlike the letters of many other poets, your letters don’t complain about marginalization. They’re much more about building a community. You didn’t seem to feel you were this isolated being writing.

LH: I never have felt isolated. I yearn for more isolation than I actually have, in the sense of time for writing and contemplative time to thing about the sorts of things I write about. As a girl, until the mid-seventies when I moved to the Bay Area, I was very guarded and stayed out of scenes, partly because I had that romantic notion of the lonely poet, and I was attached to that; it made me feel poetical. Also, I think circumstances had kept me excluded or apart from scenes, like going to Harvard which was this old boy’s club. But I didn’t care—I thought those old boys were farts and stupid and untalented and pompous and boring. It had nothing to do with me. I guess I identified with people who seemed the centers of the universe, like Kerouac say, but thought of themselves as marginal. So if I could be like them how could I be marginal if they were the center of the universe? My career’s ended up so much better than anything I would have dreamed could possibly happen, that I could never complain about being excluded. So much good has happened. I don’t have any justification for being pissed off. As we’re looking at the end of this century and these huge anthologies that are coming out, this correspondence with complaints about being marginalized is going to look pretty ludicrous. The language poets, for example, are being taught all over the place. It’s not maybe the mainstreaming of the work, but it’s not by any stretch marginal...


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