An Interview with Poet and Professor Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian

The Interview

Students Emma Campbell, Kahyun Koh, and Anya Vertanessian asked Lyn Hejinian a series of questions about her career and life in the English Department.

  1. Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in poetry? How would you describe your poetic style?

LH: I think the first inspiration was my father’s typewriter. On weekdays he worked in the administration at UC Berkeley (he was Assistant and then Associate Dean of Men—that was the name of the position at the time) and he tried to be a writer at night and on weekends. He wrote some poetry—he had been a student of Josephine Miles when he was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley; but by the time I am referring to he was writing novels. He wrote several, but not much came of them, and when I was in 3rd or 4th grade he gave me his typewriter. And he took up painting; he had several shows and sold quite a lot of work. He never quit his “day job” (university administration), however.

I set the typewriter on a desk in my bedroom and began to write. Or, rather, to type. Pounding the keys and seeing sentences emerge on the page, I felt important and powerful. I was, in effect, escaping the limitations of gender. I could imagine myself as anyone and make it “real” (in print). I wrote a radio play featuring characters from a then popular children’s radio show, “Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders,” a western whose main character was an orphan lad named Bobby Benson. I imagined myself as Bobby Benson and in the play “I” lived through a vast melodrama. I behaved heroically, of course.

I laugh at this now, but having the typewriter—the tool of my trade—gave me a sense of having a trade, that of a writer.

I wrote more plays and the neighborhood kids and I performed them. As I entered 7th grade, we moved to New England (my father left Berkeley for Harvard), and I wrote a “novella”: a first person narrative written in diary form by a boy moving with his family by wagon train to California in the mid-1800s. By 9th grade I had turned to poetry. Poetry seemed far less constrained, freer of rules and narrative expectations, than fiction. I had no interest in standard poetic forms—and I still have only academic rather than practical interest in them. I wanted to think freely, let my mind wander, follow ideas (and phrases) wherever they might go. For a while—but not for very long—I used poetry to express my adolescent angst and longings, but very soon I recognized the banality and the limits of that. It wasn’t self-expression I was seeking but loss of self.

By the time I entered college, I was imagining myself as a rebel, an iconoclast. Perhaps I even really was one, but, if so, it was a life—a rebellion—in my mind and imagination. I had discovered that one could live a wild life in writing while abiding by at least the most basic social mores. Indeed, I wanted to behave myself socially, precisely so as not to get into time-consuming trouble, which would rob me of time for reading and writing (and doing the various things that people do in college, including classwork).

My freshman year, I took a year-long seminar, and, under the tutelage of the linguistic anthropologist Dorothy D. Lee, encountered the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It proposes that every language expresses a particular world view, which is embedded in the lexicon of the language and, more importantly, in its grammatical structures. We perceive the world around us in ways that our language determines. I suspect that anyone who speaks more than one language has noticed how very differently one sees and inhabits the world in each language one knows. This raised the prospect that language, which can be used so differently in poetry from the ways it is used in ordinary expository writing, might be a medium in which one could experience the world in multiple different ways. One could perceive the world differently, one could think differently.

My first work got published (a long poem in a literary journal) the year I graduated from college. Since then I’ve published some twenty or more books. Pretty much all of them represent relatively large-scale projects; they aren’t collections of individual poems. And, though perhaps some sensibility or tone that is peculiarly mine may be evident in all of them, they are stylistically distinct from one another. Language—language in the abstract, language as it sits in a dictionary, language as the raw material of thinking—has no style of its own. It’s an instrument of inquiry and discovery and an improvisatory medium. Style emerges as language is used, but I’ve never tried to develop style for its own sake.

  1. What was your path to a Berkeley professorship like? How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

LH: My path to a Berkeley professorship was an untraditional one. I have no graduate degree and never planned on or even aspired to an academic career. I married young, had two children before I was 25 years old, and worked—usually part time (life was far less expensive throughout the first half of my lifetime than it is now)—at assorted jobs: copy-editor and “office girl” for a small academic publisher; classical guitar instructor (for 4th grade beginners—I was not much better at the guitar than they!); janitor and “office girl” for a printing company: assistant baker at a pastry shop; assistant to a private detective (doing anti-death penalty work); and a one semester, one course teaching gig at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA). That CCAC course was my first teaching experience; I enjoyed it but wasn’t convinced that I knew enough to be a teacher, and it wasn’t until twelve years later, in 1990, that I began teaching in earnest. That fall I joined the Core Faculty of the Graduate Program in Poetics at New College of California (on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District), and I taught there for eight years, skipping one semester there in order to serve as the Holloway Poet in the Practice of Poetry at UC Berkeley.

It was while teaching at New College that I gained confidence as a teacher. The graduate program offered a two-year MA program, with each semester focused on the literature and literary culture of a different literary-historical period: “The Birth of the Modern (1540-1660),” “Romantics & Revolt (1770-1830),” “Making it New (1820-1870),” and “Shocks & Breaks (1900-1950).” The were no workshops; the emphasis was entirely on literary history and theory and all five of the Core Faculty members plus the occasional guest faculty member taught courses related to each of those periods.

I had read a lot but I had not previously been an academic scholar; framing my courses, doing the research necessary for teaching the material (after, first, finding out what the relevant literary works might be) and writing lecture notes for each class session of each semester was challenging. But it was also exhilarating—the awareness that there was an endless amount to discover and learn about.

In 2000 I was informed that the English Department at UC Berkeley was hoping to hire someone for a “senior poet” faculty position. I applied. In due course, I was invited to do a campus visit—to teach a graduate level master class, to meet with the Chair of the department, to meet with some of the faculty, and to give a reading. I knew that the invitation meant that I was still being considered for the position, but not that this meant I was a finalist. A date was set for my campus visit, and meanwhile I attended a four-day Modernist Studies Conference, which was held that year at the University of Pennsylvania. I was there to give a panel paper, but I attended various other sessions including one at which Edward Saïd gave a keynote address. It was on “late style,” a term he was drawing from an essay by Theodor Adorno titled, “Late Style in Beethoven.” The lateness in question was biological age and in his keynote address, Saïd talked about works created late in life by various artists. For some, late style works reflected an acceptance of life and benevolence of spirit. This style might reflect the artist’s ultimate vision of greater harmonies than the turbulence of youth and history reveal, “a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity” as Saïd puts it; Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale or The Tempest are obvious examples and these are ones that Saïd cites. “But,” Saïd goes on to ask, “what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” This is “late style” as Adorno describes it (he concludes the Beethoven essay with the famous comment, “In the history of art late works are the catastrophes”), and this is the “late style” that Saïd went on to talk about. Inspired by the lecture, being close to 60 years old and thus entering lateness myself, and, furthermore, regarding Western culture, capitalism, and, indeed, much of life on the planet as in its “late” period, I vowed to sustain in my work the qualities of “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction” and I decided not to take the Berkeley faculty position if offered it.

I was offered the position. I felt honored. I didn’t immediately turn the position down. The idea had already occurred to me that teaching, as I’d done it and as I might in the future, was part of my work as an artist. I decided, after all, to accept the Berkeley offer and attempt to sustain an intellectual social space (in the classroom and elsewhere) in which “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction” could be fostered as a creative, rather than bewildering, dispiriting, or stupefying, force. That has been at the heart of my teaching philosophy. It has not meant that I myself am difficult. It has meant, rather, that I have refused to simplify; I have kept a lot of ideas and materials “in the mix,” so to speak.

  1. How, if at all, has your Berkeley professorship or your time at Berkeley overall changed you? What is your favorite Berkeley experience?

LH: You ask how my time at Berkeley has changed me; I’ve asked myself that question more than once. My education—not my formal education in school, from nursery school to the completion of a BA degree, but my formative education—has had two stages, each occurring in two-decade long periods of enormous intensity and neither, to date, over. The first, from 1975 to 1995, took place in the context of my association with what has come to be known as Language Writing or the Language School—a group of poets, based largely in the Bay Area and in New York City, though the circulation of manuscripts and ideas included people in other parts of the country as well as in Canada and various cities in Europe. Most of us had gone to college (though not all had finished); most of us had been involved in the political as well as sociocultural turbulence (and, I’d say, utopianism) of the 1960s, and most of us throughout our careers as writers have continued to be politically engaged. All of us had carefully read modernist literature and the 1965 anthology edited by Donald Allen titled The New American Poets, which did much to challenge mainstream verse culture and destabilize the canon of twentieth century American poetry. And most of us were reading newly available English translations of literary and cultural theory, which was emerging from the immediate context of the May 1968 political turmoil in Europe. Many of us were also reading newly available English translations of the work of the Russian Formalists, a group of avant-garde literary scholars and theoreticians from the early twentieth century. We attended and participated in poetry readings that took place two or three or sometimes four times a week, talked until late at night at bars, launched literary journals, hosted radio shows, curated readings and lecture series. And we had very little respect for official academia, which, in turn, had very little respect for us.

In much of the work we were writing, experiments with syntax (the structure of phrases or sentences), with form (the structure of elements within a work and the structure of the work itself), with social codes (shifting from slang to “literary” language, using words from the scientific and political and pop cultural as well as literary spheres), and generally disrupting the material text (the actual language on the page and its relation to the things it did, or mostly didn’t, refer to). But there was no Language movement “style.” The possibilities were myriad (and will never be exhausted). What was, and remains, at stake are the structures that shape meaning and control (or facilitate) meaning-making. As I suggested above, all languages have ideologies embedded in them; to say anything is to express (and to impose) a world view. And, since our careers were grounded in the enormous social problems to which major 1960s and 1970s movements were responding (the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-war Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and the more general countercultural movement—“sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll”), it seemed urgent to begin the work of destabilizing language so as to challenge the structures that sustained racism, sexism, militarism, and bourgeois heteronormativity—work that poets, in particular, had the skill to take on.

Perhaps this work—or, rather, the “life of the poet” as we imagined it—or as I imagined it—has always had a pedagogical element to it. I was near fifty when I began teaching in earnest, but maybe I was always doing something very close to what I’ve ended up doing as a university professor, reading widely and critically, pursuing ideas and their trajectories, and always with two goals: to figure things out, both alone and in the company of fellow poet-intellectuals, and to tell others what I was finding out. I’ve never aspired to be persuasive; my pedagogical aim has been close to that of my literary aim: to share the excitement of being a thinking conscious being fueled by curiosity and a lot of intellectual energy.

That said, though, my creative and intellectual experiences as a Berkeley professor were vastly intensified by the challenges offered by great students, great colleagues, and great teaching opportunities. Berkeley’s English Department improved my thinking and the quality of my intellectual life. The dynamic of engagement is always an interpretative process. And since the field of literary studies so often entails interpretation, I’ve spent a significant amount of my time at Berkeley so-to-speak interpreting interpretation. Or, to put that another way, I’ve tried to understand, and come to an understanding with, the structures of the university and the systems that shape literary studies and the fields it comprises. A truly candid answer to the question, “What is your favorite Berkeley experience?” would be “meeting with a couple of colleagues for drinks at Beta Lounge.” But that would also be a somewhat glib answer. A more serious and more considered answer would be “the founding of the UC Berkeley Solidarity Alliance in August 2009 and participating in the work that its many participants did to fight the privatization of UC.” The Solidarity Alliance was always an informal alliance of students, campus workers, people from the campus unions, and faculty, and together we organized protest rallies, protest marches, petitions, meetings. Political organizing is laborious; it requires a great deal of listening as well as speaking; its success depends on the expertise that different groups have to offer and it depends on trust and camaraderie. Being a part of that is certainly one of my favorite things about my Berkeley experience.

  1. Out of many qualified women instructors in the English department, only one—Josephine Miles—was given a tenure track position before 1962. How, if at all, do you think Berkeley’s English Department today has changed from those earlier times of female exclusion in faculty and students?

LH: I can’t, of course, speak with any authority about the UC Berkeley English Department during the years when the poet Josephine Miles was a tenured member of it, nor even of the department prior to my joining it. But within my twenty years on the Berkeley faculty, the make-up of the English Department faculty has changed, less because of a felt need to remedy a gender imbalance than because of a desire to respond well to the rapidly changing demographics of California and, indeed, of the U.S. more widely. In my opinion, the University of California has much to do before it can be free of institutional racism. In part, that embedded racism comes with the territory: UC is, quite simply, a massive institution, and institutions are inherently conservative, perpetually determined to replicate themselves. And the Berkeley English Department faculty is certainly still predominantly white. A quick scroll through the faculty roster on the department’s website shows that there are 45 white faculty members and 15 faculty members of color. The number of male and female faculty members, however, is close to equal (31 male and 29 female). That said, the ratio of male full professor to female full professor shows a clear imbalance (18 male and 8 female).

As for the grad student population—it seems that the gender balance is close to perfect. I didn’t attempt to guess the racial/ethnic identity (or identities) of the grad student population. And I have no way to do any analysis of the undergraduate English major population, but my experience strongly suggests that more of those students are female than male.

  1. What advice do you have for undergraduate women who are aspiring writers and/or academics in Berkeley’s English Department? Are there any literary or writing resources at Berkeley that you might recommend to students?

LH: I’m reluctant to give advice in any general way either to aspiring writers or aspiring academics. But, since it’s pretty much always the case that undergraduate women at Berkeley are smart and interesting and therefore wonderful to talk with, and to the degree that I am genuinely interested in their ideas, projects, and aspirations, I can offer support and a kind of intellectual and creative fellowship. But if I really had to give advice to aspiring young women writers in particular, I’d suggest that they read—widely and, to the extent that time allows, randomly and inventively. I’d suggest that they write, and not always or only “sincerely.” Write badly, write lies, pay attention constantly to the language around you. Write yourself into strange or dangerous places, write things you don’t understand. And always write in ways that make you excited to be writing. And I’d suggest that they keep asking themselves what they are doing and why they are doing it? What’s poetry? What do poets do? What’s fiction? What do fiction writers do? What’s “creative nonfiction” (a strange category, since, for example, all scholarly writing—even term papers—can be said to be “creative nonfiction)? What’s at stake in your writing—that’s a question with which all writers, regardless of gender and regardless of age, have to keep posing to themselves. There’s no possible final answer to those questions. Writing is hard and the task is endless. I’ve found that the same is true of academic life. Gertrude Stein once said that she abandoned her novel The Making of Americans because she realized that, after writing 1000 pages of what was to be a description of every kind of person there could be, she decided not to “go on with what was begun because after all I know I really do know that it can be done and if it can be done why do it.” Living the life of a writer and and of a literary thinker can’t be done, and that, I think, is why I going on doing it.

  1. Several years ago, you were a faculty sponsor for a departmental student group on women in intellectual life.  What was your experience working with this group?

LH: The events that comprised the “Women in Intellectual Life” series took place monthly during the fall and spring semesters for around five years. They were intended as informal conversations about a range of issues affecting women living as intellectuals, but, since they were happening in a university setting, the focus was largely on academic life. Many of them had themes. Among them were “Undertaking Professionalism” (critiquing patriarchal models of the “professional” or the “professor,” pointing out or imagining alternative ways to inhabit the social spaces in which ideas are discussed, learned, and taught, laughing at pomposity, etc.); “The Work/Life Balance” (or work/life imbalance; strategies for dealing with the choices that intellectual work asks women to make); “Addressing Aggression(s)” (discussing instances of misogyny, intellectual bullying or belittlement, sexual harassment, and brainstorming strategies for addressing them); “Women, Allies, Caseworkers” (discussing the ways in which women are expected to do much of the care work that keeps intellectual spaces functioning—and the ways that women expect themselves to do that work);

“Women, Privilege, Difference” (a conversation intended to acknowledge and support the differences among women intellectuals—differences of class, race, intellectual and cultural as well as sexual orientation, etc.); “The Future of Women in Intellectual Life” (what might we imagine or hope for, and how do we bring it about?). There were other themes, and very often the conversation digressed because some pressing concern got articulated, often just in the course of discussion, but we typically at least started “on topic.” Usually a couple of women faculty members and a couple of women grad students provided a few brief initial remarks—really just offering thoughts to open the conversation. A few men came to the conversations, but most of them came only to listen. Most of the participants were women in the English Department, though there were also some regulars from Comp. Lit. The conversations were warm and sometimes cathartic. And, at least in my experience, some strong friendships and alliances were forged during the course of them.

In the spring of 2018, the energy tapered off. It may have been a mistake for us to meet every month. That seemed crucial during the first year—there was so much to say and the women involved very much wanted the camaraderie that talking honestly about the particular difficulties (and pleasures) of being a woman intellectual can provide. But we probably exhausted the conversation—or got exhausted just because we were at the end of an academic year and stressed out by classes and meetings and teaching, etc.

Lyn Hejinian on a Josephine Miles Poem

“On Inhabiting an Orange” is a relatively early poem by Josephine Miles. I think it appeared in her first book, Lines at Intersection, which came out in 1939. In The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (second edition), it is dated 1935, so it may have been published first in a literary magazine. It is not her greatest poem, but I have always admired its inventive prosody and its wit. Here’s the poem:

On Inhabiting an Orange

All our roads go nowhere.
Maps are curled
To keep the pavement definitely
On the world.

All our footsteps, set to make
Metric advance,
Lapse into arcs in deference
To circumstance.

All our journeys nearing Space
Skirt it with care,
Shying at the distances
Present in air.

Blithely travel-stained and worn,
Erect and sure,
All our travelers go forth,
Making down the roads of Earth
Endless detour.

Skipping over the poem’s title (itself a comedic gem), we find ourselves with a seventeen line poem of four-stanzas having what appears to be an over-all regular design, though we note that the last of the four stanzas has an “extra” line. All the lines are relatively short—the longest two lines contain six words, while four have only three and three have only two. It didn’t take me long to type the poem into this document, and it doesn’t take long to read it to oneself, either silently or out loud.

Before I typed the poem, I remarked that I’ve always admired Miles’s “inventive prosody.” It is inventive, of course, but an equally or perhaps even better characterization would be “irreverent.” As the poem begins it immediately establishes a compelling meter, with three strong beats (or stresses) in the first line and two in the second. Each of those lines presents a single, grammatically simple statement. One can readily foresee the rhythmic pulse that will carry the poem forward. And one would be right, but how cleverly Miles plays with the rhythm, adding a few extra dance steps—three extra unstressed syllables—at the end of the third line! “To keep the pavement definitely”: with those extra three syllables the reader prances onward to the stanza’s last line, and there the poet brings her mischievousness to an end; we need, after all, to stay “On the world.”

More soberly now, on better behavior, the reader continues on, bound to the rules of cartography and mathematics, of map projection and the geometry of spheres (or, in this case, of an orange, itself a playful metaphor for planet earth). The poem brings the reader to its end—the way isn’t, really, all that difficult, and there are splendors along the way (the pairing of “in deference” and “To circumstance” is worth visiting just for its own sake). But by the last stanza, though blithe, the reader—or “the travelers”—are “travel-stained and worn.” And the way doesn’t come to an end quite as soon as expected—there’s that extra line, one of the two longest, with an extra stress in it (four beats instead of two or three) to move through. And it doesn’t bring the poet or the reader or the travelers to a destination but, instead, to “Endless detour.”

When one remembers that Josephine Miles suffered from severe arthritis from childhood on and that walking was always extremely painful and almost impossibly difficult, the poem takes on extra intensity. It scrupulously avoids melodrama or self-pity, however—witness the impish “definitely” with which she defies her infirmity, allowing it no authority over her verse though it might limit her body. And nowhere does Miles reveal her disability. It may be common knowledge, but that was not of her doing.

As I’ve already mentioned, my father was a student of Josephine Miles in the early 1930s (he graduated from Cal in the spring of 1936). He was one of the students who sometimes carried her from her office to her classroom or back to her office again. She was only five years older than he (Miles was born in 1911, my father in 1916). I wonder if he was half in love with her. If photos are to be believed, she was quite beautiful.