Zither & (Autobiographical) Introduction: The Writings of Leslie Scalapino

Laura Hinton


I. Introduction (On Wings of the World)


For me, writing's experiment of mind formation. One ‘has to' leave formation, not be in formation.


— Leslie Scalapino, Autobiography


I was first introduced to Leslie Scalapino in the summer of 1992. Our introduction itself certainly “left formation” — that is, my planned “formation” of how the event was to have taken place. I had arranged with the poet Lyn Hejinian to conduct an interview with her and — at Lyn's suggestion — with Leslie Scalapino in California. I knew Lyn's work well, but had not yet read Leslie's work in depth. I agreed to a joint interview, then nervously planted myself inside the dungeon-like atmosphere of Columbia University's library stacks, reading what turned out to be a pretty complete collection of Leslie Scalapino's small-press works to date. Among these medieval-looking shelves, and sitting at small wooden tables carved with students' initials blazoned under hanging light bulbs, I read books for the first time like The Return of Painting and Crowd and not evening or light. These mysterious new writings compelled me. They seemed a radical departure from anything I had yet read in contemporary literature. They challenged the fundamental conventions of literature itself. I had never experienced writing like that of Leslie Scalapino. As an adventure in “mind formation,” I looked ahead to the interview.

I flew from New York to California, where I was to meet with Lyn and Leslie upon arrival. Leslie had generously offered to pick me up at the Oakland Airport and drive me to her nearby home, which we would use as the site for our work together. Living then on a fellowship, I sought a “bargain” cross-country flight. My “Wings of the World” charter must have appeared in one of those tiny boxed advertisements from the New York Times Travel Section. Arriving at JFK Airport, I discovered that my “Wings of the World” flight was running a few hours late. It wasn't until we were up in the air, however, that “Wings of the World” announced that we would be landing at a different Northern California airport than that for which I had booked my flight.

I remember staring down at the calm-appearing mirror of the San Francisco Bay as the plane circled widely, wondering how I would get myself across that rather large body of water that separates the San Francisco Airport from the Oakland East Bay. Meanwhile, Lyn was patiently waiting for me at Leslie's house, tape recorder all set to go. And Leslie was walking around the Oakland Airport looking for a “Wings of the World” flight that did not exist, and a young literary critic who apparently did not exist. No one had ever heard of “Wings of the World” (or me) at the Oakland Airport.

as for me later actual land in coming down in the plane at S.F.

physical blackness of land created by [one's] vulnerability — to stupid-
ity — is letting it alone

           (Leslie Scalapino, Zither 53)

The interview did take place (and would be published in Private Arts in 1994). I was relieved that both Lyn and Leslie would treat this late and slightly bizarre entré of mine as predictable in the world of wings and landings. Since that time, Leslie herself has had a series of remarkable “landings.” She continued publishing throughout the mid-1990's and into the new millennium more than a dozen new books, in increasingly high-profile presses like Wesleyan. She has had experimental theater pieces performed in both San Francisco and New York; co-edited a important anthology of poems against the war (now coming out in second edition); has built her own publication house, O Books, into one of the premiere small presses; has been the subject of at least one major academic conference — Barnard College's “Poetry of Plays” — and her work has been the subject of countless critical essays, reviews, and interviews in both academic and non-academic journals. Leslie continues to gives several poetry readings a year, on both East and West coasts, in small and large venues, and, recently, in London.

Today Leslie Scalapino is considered one of American literature's most important experimental writers. She is heir to American versions of surrealism; to the anti-institutional poetics of the “Beats”; to mystic American poets influenced by Asian philosophy. And she is an important figure in the West Coast Language movement. I recently heard Leslie read again in New York City. It was the evening of the city's first blizzard of what would turn out to be a brutal winter. As I trudged that December night in my snow boots dug out from the closet, I wandered far into Manhattan's Lower East Side, away from the East Side subway line, toward Bluestocking Books, where the reading was scheduled to take place. The streets were nearly impassible and the sidewalks layered several inches in unplowed snow. Gales of wind blew forcefully and the snow continued to fall. I wondered how Leslie, a native Californian, would find her way to this Lower Manhattan region, where even cab drivers would not pass. I wondered if anyone would attend the reading.

I stepped inside the warmth of Bluestocking Books, and, to my surprise, the room was full of people. Amidst the waft of herbal-tea and expresso scents, it was standing-room only. In front, sitting attentively and collectedly, was Leslie Scalapino, ready to read. My wings of the world shed, I sat down to hear the poetry.


II. Zither


One is vulnerable as one lands upon one's subjects and makes them objects of discursive debate. In “landing,” such subjects can appear, at first, “physical blackness.” Especially when treating the work of Leslie Scalapino in a literary-critical venue, I have often felt uncomfortable: moving what I experience as radical and difficult-to-place work into a discursive mode regulated by well-institutionalized “lit-crit” grooves, where words like “formalism” or “feminism” or “cultural studies” have often lost their meaning and theoretical stakes. I feel the tail winds buffeting as I identify “subjects” that also seem questionable entry points into her writing. Many will question the veracity of others' writings on and about Leslie Scalapino's work. And those of us trained in the “interpretative” field of literary criticism are always going to ask: what does it mean? (with a Henry James inflection). Any appearance of “physical blackness” is often viewed with suspicion.

“What does it mean?”

In writing about the writing of Scalapino, I have come to be more accepting both of the “physical blackness” and the “vulnerability” I myself “construct” upon reading and analyzing this dense, difficult poetry/prose — or what is often called “intergenre,” after Ron Silliman's use of that term, meaning “poet's prose.” What Lyn Hejinian, in a previous How2 issue, writes is the “motion” of Scalapino's work I now believe is integral to that work's textual efficacy and effect: and therefore that sense must be retained when we write and talk about it as text. When I am her reader, I, too, must fly with the motion , rather than try to make the restless text “rest,” borrowing that trigger word from Scalapino. For me, it is the experience of reading as-if-in-motion that is the eloquence of Scalapino's writing. It is writing always in motion with and against itself.

This extended How2 section on Scalapino's writing will nevertheless attest to the different ways one can “land” and yet “move with” -- and say something instructive about -- her work. The director Zack examines his personal and professional experience directing Scalapino's experimental poetry-play, How Phenomenon Appear to Unfold . Elizabeth Frost looks at Scalapino's use of visuality, studying its compelling play upon stasis in its uses of photography in Crowd and not evening or light. Jeanne Heuving comments upon the importance of eros in Scalapino’s writing, as it inflects a content-based but also formal analysis. Monica Sirignano reviews Scalapino's recently published piece Zither , from Zither & Autobiography , in the “Alerts” section, suggesting that Zither sets out to rework Shakespeare's King Lear, but does something very different as text. And Ann Brewster provides us with her insightful 1997 (but only now published) interview, probing some of Scalapino's deepest political and aesthetic beliefs. Scalapino herself contributes new writing that also serves as her artist statement.

I often note that those of us writing about another writers' work write out of our own experiential and aesthetic convictions. Last summer, when I was reading Scalapino's book Zither & Autobiography , just off the press, and also reading the drafts for this section and collating section materials, I was suddenly confronted with someone else's death, someone to whom I am very near. I write here now about that near-death experience, which I have come to see as a major “subject” in Zither.

Zither & Autobiography together form a Scalapino “autobiography,” published by Wesleyan University Press in 2003. I had read Autobiography alone, which runs first in the book, a few years earlier, when it was still in manuscript form, courtesy of Leslie, as I researched a piece commissioned by The Literary Dictionary on her life and work. Autobiography is one of Scalapino's most straightforward works of prose. So I was surprised to pick up Zither last summer, and find myself reading what seemed to me a weighty, difficult, intractable text.

It was June and my husband and I had been working every day in our upstate New York garden. It seemed a joyous time for me in our shared labor, rewarded by the daily sight of new shiny unfurling perennial leaves. Then, suddenly, my “perfectly healthy,” athletic husband, in the middle of the night, experienced a major heart attack. He nearly died. Revived in the emergency room, he did, in fact, die, in technical terms, and was brought back. Through the next couple of weeks, we didn't know if or how he would yet survive. He would, and recovered somewhat miraculously, although sustaining major heart damage.

It wasn't until later in the summer that I picked up Zither again. Reading again, I understood that Zither actually was “about” something, through the form it proposed. It was “about” near-death — as language symptom and sign. But it's not that simple to “place” such a subject in any of Scalapino's writings. We cannot speak of themes or topics or subtopis, as we like to do in more classic, “traditional” forms of lyric or prose literature. Here I outline three “subjects” that I find introduced by Scalapino herself, in the first few pages of Zither, and which I believe work themselves out through a schema involving – enunciating – the experience of near-death, or being near to somewhat who has died. The issue of death is replicated in a language so dense, so complex (like the experience of near-death itself) that it is impossible to descramble or replicate in discursive mode. I find the near-death experience that haunts Zither to maintain a profound sense of “vulnerability” I have within and toward this text, which matches my personal experience of vulnerability now in life. As I look out upon “physical blackness,” I experience a revolution in “mind formation” that sometimes leaves me speechless, and sometimes grants me new expressive forms. Sometimes it only grants me “blackness,” but, in this, I find in Scalapino's text an honest relief.

Re-Writing Lear: On Freedom

As to enable a state of freedom, by arriving at such an unknown shape .
                                    ( Zither 51)


The first subject, as I open up Zither (which begins in the middle of the Wesleyan volume), is the subject of freedom, vis à vis what Scalapino calls a “project of rewriting some of Shakespeare's plays ... a rewriting of King Lear ” (51). I read further that Zither is not only a “rewriting” but “a complete transformation of Lear ,” which will be “without using his [Shakespeare's] characters, language, or plot.” (51) Initially, I wonder what this will do or mean.

Here my own autobiography enters the experience of reading, as I see myself re-reading this passage, again, sitting alone in a café in Nice, France. It is late in the summer and we are in the deadliest European heat wave in recent history. Elderly people in Paris, hundreds of miles to the north, are dying in mass, as reported daily in the newspapers. I am in Nice, alone, supposedly taking a “breather” from the summer's tensions, but in this hot stifling air. My husband is largely recovered from his initial ordeal but is not permitted by doctors yet to travel.

I am on “vacation” — from (near) death? Me alone, eating in the night's heat. I have come to France. I am eating Japanese sushi in the Mediterranean city of Nice with Leslie Scalapino's Zither on my lap. It is 9 o'clock in the evening, and the sun is just going down, but it feels sweltering, like 12 o'clock noon. The perspiration drops from my skin and I stare at a Niçoise version of a California sushi roll on the plate before me. It looks too dainty to eat, the size of a diced green onion. I'm not hungry anyway. I am in a Nice café, alone, penetrated by the heat, thinking about my husband, who is not next to me .

I am remembering the contradiction of looking at a small plate of Japanese sushi with French trimmings amidst the Italian-inspired architecture of Nice. And I read:

A complete transformation of Lear is a construct of Western and Asian conceptions as the motions of the mind… As to enable a state of freedom, by arriving at such an unknown shape.
                                      (Zither 51)

There is this arrival at “such an unknown shape.” I proceed avec courage — what the French always say to one another as they disease or death. I start to read Zither again and a space opens up mentally. This is a space about which Scalapino has described as “freedom.” I have just re-read Ann Brewster's interview; I turn to this interview again . In her introduction, Brewster writes that, as an Australian, she was “spellbound by Americans' concept of themselves and others,” as represented, in particular, in the media. She also writes that she is particularly “fascinated by Leslie's investment in notions of ‘freedom,'” which, for her, “seemed an impossible and ghostly phantasm.”

I am wondering what is that “impossible and ghostly phantasm” of freedom, as I push the sushi plate aside. I go back to the interview. Brewster ends it with her stunning exchange with Scalapino on this same issue . After a series of questions that inquire into Scalapino's perception of her position as American social critic, Brewster directs her questions back to the topic of freedom, and Scalapino responds that “freedom” is a reader's act. Scalapino continues that she is not concerned with “the patriotic notion or the propaganda notion of freedom,” but rather with “a freedom that occurs in reading.” When Brewster asks if this notion of “freedom” may not occur as “an optimistic invention” based in American idealism, Scalapino responds that her version of “freedom… is more the act of meditation,” alluding to her Zen Buddhism practice, from which might arise “the apprehension of the reality of the instance which is entirely free space , unrelated to an American notion of freedom….” She adds that she would like

to create a place that is a free state as a terrain in the writing. I haven't done it yet so I have to go on finding a way to make that…
                          (see Brewster, “'We're Always at War'…
                          An Interview with Leslie Scalapino”)


When Scalapino writes in Zither that this piece will be an attempt to rewrite Lear , she creates, in fact, what might be called a reversal of the paradigm of Lear , as a model of oedipal agency or the “self”-discovery plot. It reverses this paradigm of plot/agency, as both a narrative and philosophical concept. Lear, as “King” Lear, believes himself to be “free.” He thinks he is free to chose his own kingdom heir, free to chose his relations to kin (his daughters and sons-in-law), free to determine who and therefore what code of ethics or beliefs will succeed him — thus continuing the patrilineage of his narrative self-discovery and the economics of patrilineage undergirding that discourse. King Lear is the drama of one man's belief in a false notion of “freedom.” Lear is manipulated not by “cruel” (“plotting”) daughters but by his own faulty belief in his self-determination. The man who would be king, who believes in his own self-sovereignty, is completely controlled by a patriarchal state's erasure of its own social control of his perceptions. Lear's world, thus, is not “free” at all — and this is his brutal discovery. He is thus a slave to a world of “sense,” that multiplies its chains by his failure to recognize his place within it. His world, thus, is one of inevitable despair, based upon a system of social manipulation that regards its subjects as “free.”

Zither re-writes — I would say un -writes — Lear , through the strangeness presented by its own poetics of freedom, related to the discovery of near-death. From the very beginning of Zither , we read of Scalapino's earliest apprehension of despair through her encounters with other persons' deaths. We glean images of her “child” eyes perceiving the horror of poverty and mass suffering during travels in Asia, and we read of the gift of a “zither” that seems a point of origin and referent -- not toward a poetics of a nostalgic childhood “paradise” “regained” but a spatial ideal marking a “freedom” found through the knowledge of suffering and death. Here Scalapino's Buddhist sense of suffering is an essential component of Zither . It is the acknowledgment and experience of suffering that can set one “free.”

Freedom as Writing and Time

And yet this “freedom,” found through the act of meditation and as portrayed within Buddhist reflections, must be re-situated within the context of Scalapino's belief about “writing” as form of “action,” to understand its impact on the autobiographical text. The presence found in one's act of meditation — neither future nor past, but present — is initiated by Scalapino through the “freedom” she finds in reading and writing. And here I digress into the world of writing and time that is Leslie Scalapino's: 

The account of events as ‘history’ is mechanical, rendering being-
time as separate, for it to be separated as not real.
(Zither 69)

Other early reflections in the introduction to Zither are such recurring meditations on writing as time. Traditional conceptions of time make it “past time,” or, in the autobiography, “time passed.” The autobiography is famous for “making up” these conceptions of time, yet constructing the “past” as if in “real time,” not a construction. The autobiography traditionally makes a monument of (to) time; thus, time does not “pass,” but “rests,” a fetish. Time memorializes itself. But one cannot “be in time” if one is “in the past.” The “events as history” in Zither are re-radicalized as its author sees beyond the mechanics of time, takes them out of the all-too supple, adaptable, screen of fetishistic nostalgia.

Early in Zither , Scalapino alerts us to the struggle over time that is one of the central struggles to know herself. She writes that there are facts, “events,” “gestures” posed on a line like a string. However, she makes the point that she is always inside of the “event” (which, for her, is always writing) and, as a result, that experience is “utterly free” of distortion — and here the issue of freedom comes spiraling back — “free” of other falsely spatialized landscapes or (verbal) contexts. In the following passage, Scalapino mirrors her movement away from the traditional time line of autobiography, expressing her urge to write about events as “being” in any one time:

As writing, the gesture in this is spatially a line in the foreground – …. One brings ‘events’ ‘shreds’ into this line so that ‘being in life’ is either past or present or at any time.

And by the end of this passage she has moved away from speculations about “past or present” to “present-life” anterior to time's linear definitions:

Being in present-life occurs early. It occurs ‘before’ anything There is nothing before it. Present-life ‘now' is what is ‘early’— it is in fact utterly free.                                                     (Zither 54)

These passages (all from the same paragraph) are spliced together by a passage I find to be pivotal. That passage, or statement, concerns the stoppage of time , as fact of death:

Fearing of one's or other's dying so that one raced toward it or races away… It is ‘to get it over with' as ‘to be there' as ‘to be alive.’
  (Zither 54)

The passage “Being is present life…” itself has occurred only after a short meditation on death and the fear its knowledge invokes to the author as she write on her life. Now we learn that there is this instinct to “race away” (“toward it”?). I read the “racing away” as a mechanism of fear that also drives the life of the living in perceiving the nearness of someone else's death. It is, in a sense, a product of what Sigmund Freud famously called “the pleasure principle,” that primal desire in the biological organism to reach its own “proper” (not premature) death, but which curiously forms a compelling death-drive for the organism as well (because there is pleasure in death's quietude). We learn in Zither that the writing of it was inspired not by the desire to tell Scalapino's auto-bio (self-life), but rather by the fact of an untimely near death, that of a close friend's suicide. The knowledge of this near (near-by) death is also what makes the author live, in classic contradiction: “Being alive also had at an early time such dread, such terror because of the fact of dying.” In this passage, the word “as” functions as a fulcrum joining but also dividing the concept of constructed time (the sweeping process of putting “‘events' ‘shreds'” into the time “line”) from “present-life” as anterior occurrence. The “as” is the marker of the text's — like the life's — internal difference to its own existence.

Whither Zither?

it's not spring yet
(Zither 54 )

“I have no idea what this has to do with dying,” writes Scalapino, presumably about her own writing, in Zither, on p.75. In fact, the “time line” of Zither , if one can see it as that, repeatedly and unrelentingly presents us with the fact of death: not only in the partial dedication to Dan Davidson, whom we later learn in Zither is the suicided friend; but also in the refugees fleeing starvation on freighters, who appear like phantoms throughout Scalapino's sparse description of her Asian travels in childhood; and figures like the “translucent man” who is “lying starving” (66).

And yet Zither is also about a “zither,” which is a musical instrument. It is here a musical instrument that was given as “spring present” and yet “never played.” We read first of the zither as “present,” given in spring, or perhaps a “present” making “spring,” the youthful season of her childhood, occur:

playing zither in spring present — and
it's not spring yet — no child
(Zither 54)

The paragraph before this passage, however, warns us that “the events of history are the ‘experience’ of happiness, or can only be felt as that” (Zither 54). Thus, the object, the “present,” of the “zither,” melds back toward some unknowable emblem of childhood, an “original” signifier that, in fact, cannot exist, an icon of the lost shell of this auto-bio-graphy (self-life-writing). Like the word-emblem “Rosebud” in the Orson Wells' script for the film Citizen Kane , “zither” is both sign of an “original trauma” (and, as such, symbolic) and yet an object that remains true “outside” the real of the narrative fiction — and therefore that which lays outside the time line of “story.” At the end of Citizen Kane , spectators glimpse the word “Rosebud” painted on the side of a sled. Similarly, the “zither” is presented as a viscerally real but “unplayed” word-object, plagued both by its silence in the poetic-narrative and its disappearance from narrative point of view. We are invited by the “language” of the “zither” (it slips off the tongue) to reinvent some seemingly “original” pleasure that has been dammed or ruptured by brutal discovery, in the context of Scalapino's textual “life,” that discovery being the near-friend's death, the experience of the nearness of death. However, this “well- spring ” — here I allude to Julia Kristeva's semiotic concept — of early memory and language formation, which in Zither makes its skittish appearance as both as signifier of one's early (youthful) season and as flowing source of water-life, is “not… yet.” In the time-scape of Zither , the “zither” cannot exist. Any “glimpse” of “zither” is tethered to its impossibility, as fielded through the impossibility of life through death:

We had a zither

) which we couldn't play

not knowing how

[not related to now in

(Zither 74)

Scalapino thus goes on to pose “zither” not as a fact but as question:

zither “why”....

Here Scalapino emphasizes the way the pleasure of the unplayed zither, the “spring present” (presenting spring), displaces a never-pleasure, the unknown shape, only experienced as pure being.

It is this unknown shape to which the near-death experience leads, guiding the time and the narrative frame of this “comic-book”-like series that is the inner- (death)-structure of Zither . It also leads Scalapino, the auto-bio-grapher, to declare her “humility”: “going at it with cockiness won't do it….” Throughout Zither, the auto-bio-grapher repeatedly states that she doesn't know herself (“I have but slenderly known myself”), and that she also does not know her own story (“don't know/what's then ”). Unlike Lear , this text's “original” moment and trauma of self-knowledge, is both utopic and dystopic. There is no original to compare it (oneself) to. No loss, no gain, because the subject was always death and its “separations” to begin with. Scalapino writes : “Past is. — separate — on is the same as they.” As anterior and thus impossible to the text, the “zither” ironically survives as discovery of one's thinking-freedom.

I think, in Scalapino's mind, freedom is always a potential phenomenon, and that it is the potential for freedom that is her eternal “spring present,” her gift to us, as her readers. Freedom-as-spring-zither grants us the capacity both to be both near and separate from death, to move past its hollow void-filled canvas as zithering spectators also can move past images of mass starvation and death-like figures through poetry, not as voyeurs, not immune to suffering. We read of “refugees” in

— the middle — with
[famine] — first ]
                                  (Zither 58)

In disparate point-of-view shots, like cinema, we receive these literal frames (in brackets) of the author's observations of “armed factions” in an “unstable and ungoverned country,” and we watch, as reader-spectators, while narrative-prose parts break visibly into two halves. The “factions/are still-fighting” take over the right side of the page, while, on the left, the author talks about an “outside” where one is concerned with “breathing”:

              [one's breathing]
breathing has to
              realign - to - it
can't — [yet]

“Breathing” is an act of freedom, like observing and knowing. These breathless pulses in Scalapino's writing act much like Emily Dickinson's poetry, to radically undermine syntax and the regulations of grammar (Dickinson also did this, of course, through her use of dashes), here mirroring the chaos of the “unstable… country” that also allows one to see, as if in the breathless patches of verse,

             few trickling — back in
— said [they're]
             — dying
                                                  (Zither 59)


The problem of “zither” is the problem of observing this “dying,” leading one to experience “panicked/flight.” Somehow I have returned, thus, to my own autobiography and flight, whether on Wings of the World over the American continent or over the Mediterranean to eat sushi and to read Zither in Nice.

Is this flight from near-death, or is it flight to realize death is near by?

What am I doing sitting in a deadly heat wave in Nice?

How is the Romantic trope of death a radical poet's linguistic agency?

The “zither” appears before me on the page, and it no longer seems a static object. Forever “unplayed,” it also seems as moveable as spring grass:

     This is not the movement in the grass.

     Nor is their movement zither — we had a zither, as children; there is freighter
     they are themselves in fact . . .
                                          (Zither 64)


BIO: Laura Hinton is the author of The Perverse Gaze of Sympathy: Sadomasochistic Sentiments from Clarissa to Rescue 911 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), and co-editor (with Cynthia Hogue) of We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001). She has published essays, interviews, and reviews about women's experimental writing, as well as film. New poetry is forthcoming in Feminist Studies . Currently, she is working on a book about intergenre writing and also completing a poetry manuscript. She lives in New York City with her husband and son, where she works as an Associate Professor of English at The City College of New York, and organizes the experimental writing reading series “InterRUPTions.”

special feature index

go to this issue's table of contents