We Are All Clowns

Lyn Hejinian on her groundbreaking My Life and reordering time.

Convention holds that the overall importance of a life can be understood by chronologically recounting its significant events. Lyn Hejinian’s seminal My Life, recently reissued by Wesleyan University Press, upends the conventional form of autobiography. Through a series of prose poems, My Life tells her story by attempting to replicate the way life unfolds moment by moment, each saturated with a limitless number of occurrences—memories, perceptions, ideas, stories, conversations, and more. The poems pressure language to contain this vast flux while keeping it as open-ended as our lives. In doing so, Hejinian makes language one of her primary subjects, and shows that only through it can we know ourselves.

The first version of My Life, written in 1978 when Hejinian was 37 years old, consisted of 37 prose poems, each comprising 37 sentences. When she was 45 years old, she revised it, creating 45 poems, each with 45 sentences. And in 2003, she published a 10-part, closely related work called My Life in the Nineties. The new Wesleyan edition brings together all this work in one volume. The Poetry Foundation recently corresponded with Hejinian via email, and an edited, condensed version of that correspondence follows.  

What was it like returning to My Life at intervals over several decades? Did you laugh at some of the sentiments of your 37- or 45-year-old self? 

My returns to My Life did not provoke me to laugh at my earlier manifest self. Nor did I delve into the pathos of (my) lost innocence. Because the work isn’t, in fact, a narrative account of my life, I didn’t feel obligated to account for its sentiments (to use your term—which is a good one). They were/are cultural artifacts as much as they are “mine.”

I do regret not bringing the darker, scarier perceptions more into the foreground, so that they would have been evident from the outset. I didn’t intentionally hide them. I see them at many places, but something in the work’s tone has veiled or recolored them, so to speak.

The poem, in both versions, begins darkly, with a father returning from the war. Yellow, which is at the very least a “sunny” color, gives way to purple.

A moment yellow, just as four years later, when my father returned home from the war, the moment of greeting him, as he stood at the bottom of the stairs, younger, thinner than when he had left was purple—though moments are no longer so colored.

Something somber has taken place and done so unconsciously or inadvertently, in a realm beyond my control—in reality.

Did revisiting the book let you play with one of its central paradoxes—that we continuously circle back to memories as a way of shaping our identities, yet always in a new context, thus altering our identity and memories?

In essence, you are asking, and quite rightly, about the very possibility of a first memory. The “moment yellow” refers, in fact, to my real first memory insofar as I remember validly or accurately, and to the extent that I can locate a first one. A subsequent early memory, from when I was two or three, is of a purple blanket or something purple—glimpsed as a door opened and I saw my father for the first time in two years, home from naval duty in the Pacific.

But the nature of memory isn’t what was of primary interest to me in My Life. As you suggest, it is the processes of perception, and of description, the shaping forces that construe identity through its contexts—the public and private spaces into which a specific person enters. It is important to me politically that the subjectivity or sensibility at the center of My Life not be read as typical or exemplary; I want to resist putting a universalist (and by implication authoritative) voice in play. It is within that orbit of a strangely anonymous, language-masked specificity that I would hope My Life unfolds.

When you expanded My Life from 37 to 45 prose poems, what was your method? Did you keep the 37 original sentences intact and add new ones, or did you revise all of them?

I thought of time, and time-situated experiences, as structuring principles as well as thematic elements. One can’t not have experienced something (though, obviously, one can forget having done so). One can’t undo one’s life. Or so I proposed when considering my rules for adding to the original 37-based text. So my rule—the only one—was that I could add, and only add; nothing could be taken out. I added eight new sentences to each of the existing sections and eight entirely new sections of 45 sentences each. That was simple. I also allowed myself to add phrases to some of the old sentences, and even to add a letter one or two times (changing “he” to “she” and thus accomplishing a bit of gender play). I did not have any rules to dictate where I inserted the new sentences—I did that by feel, so to speak.

My Life is a rollicking read: punning, idiom-cracking (“pretty is as pretty does”); arresting statements of fact (“a moth has more flesh than a butterfly could lift”); transitional sentences that read like punch lines. In My Life in the Nineties, you write that “everyone is out of place in a comedy.” How do you view the role of comedy in My Life

When I wrote those words—“everyone is out of place in a comedy”—I almost certainly had my book A Border Comedy in mind. One of its conceptual premises is that border zones are areas of displacement and encounter, and so [they] put people in novel, unfamiliar, and disorienting situations. This makes people vulnerable, not so much to violence but to making stupid (funny) mistakes, inadvertently breaking rules, misunderstanding currency or comments, etc.

In what I’m terming border zones, too, the status of individual and social identity is getting queried (and now and then queered, perhaps). Borders recontextualize behavior, and even meaning. And because identity is unfolding incessantly, in lived experience, liminal situations can prove disorienting. My sense is that almost all social spaces are border zones. To some extent, we are all clowns. And we feel that. There’s some pathos lurking in the disjunct between who one feels oneself to be and who one feels others think one is, or between just treatment and unjust treatment, or within different social and economic contexts, etc.

But there is comedy, too—sometimes dark, sometimes restorative, or seemingly so. My Life toggles between the two, often very rapidly. “As the spouse bends over the skillet, she turns to observe him at work, she cannot help laughing, it is either a compliment or a complaint. At the time the perpetual Latin of love kept things hidden. Then love perpetuates one’s interest in an old-fashioned medium, the printed page. My son wrote to every governor and asked for photos and facts about his or her state. The head is a very hard case.”

The gap between laughter and weeping is often a tiny one.

Throughout My Life, you repeat phrases and sentences that often seem to arise from childhood memories of events or perceptions. The repetitions create a sense of continuity among the shifting meanings and discontinuity of the text. What do these repetitions represent about memory and time?

Memories recur, but always altered by the contexts in which they recur—always carrying new meaning, new sense, new implications, however minuscule or trivial. Underlying my awareness of the world from a very early period was a concern for the non-triviality of the ordinary, the everyday. At a certain point—in the late 1970s and early 1980s—feminist work often foregrounded the quotidian. And, though it was rarely if ever formulated as such, the avant-garde of that time upheld an interest in the everyday—in the never-exactly-identical recurrences of detail, the never-entirely-effaced trace. Techniques of defamiliarization are precisely intended to revivify the familiar, animate the ordinary, and make the world strange so that it’s visible—even amazing—again. Re-enchantment would be the term to use now, perhaps. Memory is important thematically throughout My Life and My Life in the Nineties. Memories defeat the pastness of the past, counter its deadening effect—or try to. They reorder time, or disperse it. But I wanted to strongly suggest in the book that ordinariness, the quotidian, even the trivial, are worth remembering, and [are] the very substance of time.

In My Life, sentences are mashed up against each other, often unrelated by logic, association, narrative, or speaker. Their dizzying disconnectedness is balanced by evocative memories and stories, and lucid aesthetic and philosophical thinking. As you’ve explained in your essay “The Rejection of Closure,” this type of open text “invites participation” and “rejects the authority of the writer over the reader.” How do you compose so as to give as well as take away a reader’s bragging rights?

To some extent any text, once published, invites participation, if not interpretation. It’s the degree to which I yield my authorial authority, or offer to share it, that you are asking about, though, right? The reader gets “bragging rights” when she can legitimately claim to be the author or coauthor?

At this point, I would revise my claim that the “open text” (or any text, for that matter) “rejects the authority of the writer over the reader.” It just isn’t the case that any and every “reading” is a right one, even when the text in question is maximally ambiguous or opaque. Anyone who has had the chance to teach literature knows that. Wildly personal and/or idiosyncratic interpretations (of the sort that sometimes appear, for example, in freshman papers on Modernist poetry) are not usually helpful, at least not to understanding a work of art. “The Waste Land” is not a portrait of St. Louis, though T.S. Eliot was born there. Hamlet is not schizophrenic. The s-sounds in Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” are not intended to evoke the serpent in Eden, etc. But there is ample richness in all three of these works, which are beyond what their respective authors consciously intended, and beyond dictation, so to speak.

It isn’t that writers abdicate authority but rather that works—or the materials at play in them—exert their own authority. The connections that are generated, along with the logics that motivate them, are multiple and belong to the text as much as to the writer. And finding those connections, discovering and following those logics, is given over to the reader—who may indeed make something new and additional of the text.

You were among a community of writers who came to prominence in the 1970s—the Language poets—who broke ranks from the prevailing confessional poetic mode of the 1950s. You viewed language not as material to mold into poems about conventional lives, but as material that constitutes the actual world and us.

Given your work’s capacity to make us aware of societal conditions, do you hope for a larger readership? Secondly, do you still believe in Language poetry’s capacity to create social change, or do you now view those ideas as utopian, arising as they did in the 1970s?

Though your two questions could be taken as very different from each other, I believe that you are asking about the larger social potential of Language writing—or asking if sociopolitical effects are something to which I, or my friends and I, aspired. So I assume you’re asking about whether any hope I might have for “a larger readership” is something quite different from a desire to be more famous, or eternally canonical, or able to live off royalties, etc. I take it that you would like to know what kind of influence or impact I hope my work might have—and how that compares with the aspirations we had in the early Language writing days.

Setting Language writing aside for the moment, I should note that how to effect social change via aesthetic practices remains a live and urgent question today among young writers and other writers throughout the world. In the 1970s (i.e., just post-1968), it seemed that positing alternatives was tantamount to actualizing them, that new aesthetic forms would catalyze new social forms. That doesn’t seem to have been the case—too much didn’t change, or changed for the worse, and even social changes for the better don’t tidily correlate with aesthetic changes.

It could be that we were simply wrong. It could be that capitalism’s built-in mechanisms for generating novelty were able to appropriate the newness that art was generating and produce even newer newness. (Jean Tinguely’s self-destroying sculptures were nowhere close to the self-destroying mechanics of the computer industry, which makes its objects outmoded almost immediately—and is proud of it.)

Under conditions of global capitalism and against the backdrop of the Occupy movement, with its opposition to political expediency and general assembly modes of decision-making, discussions related to art production are taking place. I don’t feel optimistic that these discussions and the writing that coincides with them will change society, but I am positive they will affect our thinking. Language writing did so; indeed, it changed the history of poetry. Some deplore the results, but many continue to find them provocative and invigorating.

In the course of my own political involvements in the last few years, I have become convinced that it is precisely the involvements that are important. Life unfolds moment to moment, and one wants as many as possible of those moments to be important, for oneself and for one’s time. Poetry will never affect the U.S. presidency, say, but it can make a person glad to be alive for an hour, or a year, and better engaged with the world around him or her.

The themes and methods in My Life in the Nineties are the same as in My Life, but there are some crucial differences. The prose poems are longer, 60 sentences each, giving the book a spaciousness that allows for longer stories and elucidating passages on poetics. While you repeat some of the recurring phrases in My Life, you don’t do so as often. Was your intention in writing My Life in the Nineties to complete the earlier work—to bring closure to an open-ended text?

Not at all. Indeed, my motive for adding that appendix to My Life was to emphasize its continuing openness, as a form and as a compendium of sentence-shaped cognitions and memories. I say “as a form” because I know of at least two other published works that have been explicitly derived from the structure of My Life: John Keene’s Annotations and Geraldine Kim’s Povel. That my text has helped generate subsequent ones is another manifestation of its reader-collaborator force.

Will My Life continue?

Probably not. When I opened up the 37-based version of My Life so as to add to it, I wanted to demonstrate the potential incompleteness of literary texts. And I wanted to make a statement against canonization and commodification. But to generate yet another version of My Life would risk fetishizing the work or its generative concept.

Originally Published: October 8th, 2013

Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...