Saturday, November 01, 2003


Lyn Hejinian’s sentences are more straightforward than Scalapino’s &, indeed, those in My Life in the Nineties are noticeably more straightforward & less apt to be “sentence fragments” than the ones in either published version of her breakthrough My Life. Nineties, as I think I’m going to refer to it, builds on & plays with its relation to that famous earlier work, but is far less “a continuation” of the project than it might at first appear. For one thing, it doesn’t appear to incorporate the reiterative material folded in throughout the earlier, larger project, other than the slightest sprinkling of phrases, playfully added as an allusive garnish rather than integral to the form itself.


But most importantly, the reduced number of sentence fragments combined with the notably longer paragraphs – Hejinian does appear to be going for the sentence-for-every-year approach, although I haven’t counted to see if each of the paragraphs here contains the same number of sentences (as I presume that it must) – to give the poem a radically different sense of rhythm, one that is more casual & relaxed than My Life. This new prosody fits well with Hejinian’s fundamental optimism – she still seems startled at the idea that she of all people should have become one of the defining poets of our time:


To be born at all seems chancy, and having been born, that it should have happened now and here and in human form to me even more so, but after that the most remarkable things occur at points of forced encounter between facts of equal strangeness.


The contrast with Scalapino, born just a few years later, raised in the same city, both attending John Muir Elementary, each the daughter of a professor at the same university, could not be more pronounced. Indeed, this contrast is part of what gives Sight, the booklength collaboration between these two poets, its extraordinary energy. Indeed, more than any other poets I can think of, Leslie Scalapino & Lyn Hejinian are the two great architects of the sentence in my generation, Hejinian’s luxurious elaborations reminiscent of (tho not nostalgic for) the 19th century novel, Scalapino’s rapid-fire shifts articulating an entirely different sense of energy & possibility.


Both conceptions of the sentence deserve greater investigation & thought. In Hejinian’s case, the historic function of the 19th century novel – the last moment when the world-making construct of fiction itself could be anything other than ironic & self-mocking* – and explicitly of the sentence in that work is worthy of much greater consideration. It is a process of thought articulated in stages, enabling care, a panoramic view if that’s required, self-reflection – all the elements that will enable & empower modernism a generation hence. Yet Hejinian’s project as a poet is anything but backward looking – as these constructivist memoirs demonstrate precisely through their subversions of the form. The sentence in her work is a tool of investigation, to a degree matched perhaps only by Barrett Watten, each phrase a probe into the real.


I feel as though I am only scratching the barest surface here, both in discussing Lyn’s work & that of Leslie’s as well over the past couple of days. What I want to get across most, though, is that I think there is a major project that is being outlined by these two simpatico but radically dissimilar writers, one that meets & perhaps reaches its greatest fruition in a reconceptualization of what the sentence is & can be. I’m not sure that either, finally completes that project except insofar as each seems to play such a critical role in staking out what its terms must be. In fact, I’m not sure that the next step is a project that any of us 50-somethings can embark on at all, but it’s out there & when somebody “gets” it, this new further sentence will seem as apparent to our lives as the writing of Melville should have seemed to his.





* A moment that occurs when, “In the Heart of the Hibernian Metropolis,” at the start of the seventh chapter of Ulysses, Joyce starts to peel away the onion-skin layers of realism away from the real itself.

Friday, October 31, 2003


Unlike the New Sentence, the characteristic Scalapino sentence shifts direction two, three, many times before coming (occasionally) to a period.


So that any gap or distance that might be felt between sentences — which might also be paragraphs — is not felt, or is hardly felt, precisely because the referential frame of the sentence functions as if an irresistible gravitational force, sucking attention back in to an unstable & sometimes altogether absent center.


One senses — & sensing would appear to be the primary mode of comprehension in reading any work by Scalapino — that she objects on principle to syntax, to anything that takes our attention away literally from the present (word, always word) & that this objection, resistance, is precisely what animates, illuminates this most syntactic of poets (not unlike, say, the ways in which Robert Grenier's objections to speech illuminate his own engagement with the spoken).


Scalapino's resistance comes across often (always?) as emotion — exactly. It reinforces the tenor of her text — she is often angry — Autobiography is for all its marvels also an accounting of every slight, each humiliation, especially in/of childhood.


This emotive core is at the heart of Scalapino's integrity as a poet. Hers is a commitment to telling it true quite apart from any distractions of that mask, clarity. It is this integrity, I think, that has given Scalapino such a deeply loyal group of readers. That commitment to truth telling may be the rarest of all human virtues, but is one that Scalapino has in spades.

Thursday, October 30, 2003


Books I took with me to Reno:


Ø       Lyn Hejinian, My Life in the Nineties

Ø       Stephen Ratcliffe, SOUND / (system)

Ø       Leslie Scalapino, Zither & Autobiography

Ø       Aloysius Bertrand, Flemish School, Old Paris, & Night & its Spells

Ø       Daniel Davidson, Culture

Ø       Bruce Sterling, The Artificial Kid


But I didn't realize until I read it today that two of these six writers attended the same elementary school: John Muir in Berkeley. This being Lyn Hejinian & Leslie Scalapino. Hejinian may have finished there by the time Scalapino arrived or possibly simply never crossed paths in the way that, say, fourth graders are typically kept apart from the kindergartners even now.


I've noted before how moving I find Scalapino's Autobiography & reading it on the plane just deepened my sense of awe. Perhaps it is in the nature of the project — it is not that this is the first work of Scalapino's to deal explicitly with memory, but rather that she is very carefully attempting to unpack those memories almost one detail at a time without, in the same act, violating their spirit. So that the larger structure, and even the structure of individual sentences, proceed with a high degree of parataxis & torque, without ever losing sight of her argument.


The result is a breathtaking work — be patient & I'll demonstrate this with a quote — but one that it is worth noting was rejected actually by Gale Research, which had originally commissioned it for their series of autobiographic essays by authors. They publish these in a series of extremely pricey anthologies aimed literally at high school libraries. As a rule, their autobiographies are as varied as their authors. Rae Armantrout's True started out as such a project, as did Robert Creeley's Autobiography, and I've read others of considerable interest by Anselm Hollo, Larry Eigner (completed by Jack Foley & others after Larry's death) & Crag Hill. Gale doesn't have an aesthetic bias to push — they are literally after quantity: they can't sell another volume unless they have enough pages of material to include. So it's ironic, in the extreme, that one of the most amazing works to have come out of this dubious documentary project should have been thus rejected.


Virtually everything Scalapino has to say here is of considerable interest. And it doesn't hurt from the reader's perspective that she's had a unique & fascinating life. Her father, Robert Scalapino, is one of the great polarizing figures in Asian American history & political relations — I've never met another Asian historian who couldn't immediately go into some passionate harangue about the man. (When I was a student at Berkeley in the 1960s, anti-Scalapino placards were not uncommon in antiwar demonstrations there &, years later, in the early 1980s, I attended a lecture of his at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco in which he argued that the then-greatest threat to world peace was New Zealand . . . since it would not let U.S. nuclear subs come into its ports.) A cold war liberal who became a Vietnam hawk, he was also the sort of man who would take his entire family along on incredible world jaunts, as in Let's get a car & drive from Johannesburg to Cairo (and in the 1950s, no less, that trip shortened only by the fact that his anti-apartheid views caused him to become persona non grata in South Africa). His three daughters thus had a view of the planet unlike almost anyone else's, in terms of its exposure to different peoples, cultures, histories, conflicts. Every detail of which his daughter Leslie seems to have absorbed & to continues to absorb to this day. (& she notes, understandably, her displeasure at people, men specifically, who make assumptions about her predicated on her relationship to her father.)


Yet it is her mother that Leslie points to in what I take to be perhaps the clearest statements of her relationship to the issues of form & genre she has given us:


My mother, while not needing to 'know the answer' —ever — only the act itself occurring, at the same time had intricate rules (for cleaning house, for the 'right way to do things,' or right order) which while one starting as a tiny child scrutinized her, the source of the trajectories of rules, these were undecipherable, seemed to have no application or basis.

          Only the rules 'having no basis' in fact — 'at all' — jived with beggars running alongside the train car, with men pulling rickshas or men lifting very heavy loads manually destitute otherwise, i.e., frightening close to dying per se.

          She would, for example, have me vacuum the same room over again automatically (so that I knew I would have to do it over again, no matter how well I did it), to vacuum dust that wasn't there — I learned from this 'there are no rules' — no rules govern anything, at all. This was the only relief. My response at the same time as my freaking out was, "whoopi" (in regard to having no rules).


This statement occurs as a rhetorical parenthesis in an account of her first two boyfriends & how the intensity of college relationships raised issues of power, authority & self.


Genre's relationship to rules is different from, say, that of a sonnet as such. When I was in college, the joking definition of a novel was "a long prose fiction with a flaw," something I must have heard from half a dozen different professors. In a similar mode, Gertrude Stein's concept of a play is very different from Eugene O'Neill's or Christopher Smart's. Thus Scalapino's insistence on defining so many of her works through genre, as genre, strikes me as exploring (rather than, say, pinning down) this sense of "rules 'having no basis' fact — at all," the dash for emphatic pause.


It is in this sense that Autobiography is just as advertised, an intense account of life as remembered & of memory as immanence, keeping present at all points just how associational & partial memory always is. That Gale Research manages not to "get it" — this use of quotation mark is definitely infectious — demonstrates all too clearly what happens when the rules that are set up have nothing to do with their content.

Monday, October 27, 2003


On Saturday night, I finished watching the World Series, then went back to my study to finish preparing a talk I’m giving for work on Wednesday – at the Association of Field Service Managers’ annual convention in Reno, to be exact – and didn’t get to bed until the computer clock, which automatically recalibrated back to Eastern Standard Time at the appropriate moment, registered 1:30 AM. I have a private rule not to discuss my day job here, which I won’t other than to note that its writing aspects are as pleasurable in their own way as much of the other writing I do, especially when I’m analyzing a conundrum & coming to new conclusions. Though the process differs.


The way I prepare a talk like this is to bundle all the various PowerPoint slides I already have that might pertain to my topic into a single file. Since I gave presentations that might be seen as direct ancestors of this one, I already had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go with it, the general order & direction. Still, I began with over 200 slides touching both directly on the topic & drilling down on many different specifics. Most of these I wrote myself, but I draw on the work of my colleagues – as they do on mine – a fair amount as well.


One of the most useful aspects of PowerPoint as a writing tool – I’m not thinking of it as an alternative to flash or any of the other high-end vizpo technologies, but rather simply as the generic default program of the corporate presentation – is that its “slide deck” quality leads one almost inevitably to shuffling the cards. I do this a lot, rewriting some slides to fit a new context, when it suddenly seems clear that an aspect I’d previously thought of as a secondary feature now emerges as the primary point I’m trying to make. I go through this process of shuffle, rewrite, discard over & over until, when I shut down last night, I had 55 slides. I want somewhere between 40 & 45 for what I’m doing on Wednesday, so today will be a process of fine-tuning.


That said, I’m going to give the blog a rest for a couple of days. I’ll be back when I return from “The Biggest Little City in America.”

Sunday, October 26, 2003


The webcast of George Stanley’s reading & my conversation with him at Writers House last Thursday is now available here.

The calendar has moved to November 2.

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