An Interview with Gina Hyams re: Happenings, Experimental & Poets Theater & Beyond

This is the first in an ongoing series of interviews with various writers, performers, and artists which will appear from time to time on X Poetics. This interview was conducted via email in August.

RTM: You grew up in Florida and then mostly in SF, right?

Gina: Yes, I was born and raised in Sarasota,
Florida until my parents divorced in 1975, when
I was ten, at which point my mother and I moved
across country to a commune in San Francisco’s
Haight-Ashbury district.

RTM: Tell me what it was like growing up in with
an artist mom in bohemian San Francisco in the
70s! And what about your dad?

Gina: Well, I had a great deal of freedom, riding
MUNI alone as a fifth grader. Parenting per se
wasn’t particularly on the agenda. My mother
points out that bookstores in those days were
not full tomes about child psychology – that
all her generation had was Dr. Spock. I’m not
sure that she ever actually read Dr. Spock,
but there’s no question that I was loved
and fed and encouraged. I felt largely
invisible, though, in the face of the adult
drama that dominated the era.

My father was also an artist, a New York Jewish
intellectual born in 1913. After the divorce
I hardly saw him, but he regularly wrote me
letters about synaesthesia, art, and animals.

RTM: How did you get involved with experimental
theater? What got you interested in it?

Gina: My parents directed annual “Happenings”
at the Ringling Museum’s Osolo Theater when
I was little. In San Francisco, my mother
and her friends were involved with Anna Halprin’s
Dancer’s Workshop and she taught Spanish at
San Francisco Mobile School, which was a junior
high founded by members of the experimental
Firehouse Theater who believed that travel was
the bedrock of education. The school was
located in the building that is now Urban High.

I got serious about acting at age 13,
inspired by a wonderful drama teacher
named Deborah Dunn at Everett Middle School
(then still called Junior High)who co-directed
with Abigail Van Alyn a teen drama group outside
of school that wrote its own plays. In retrospect
I realize that the things I most loved about
acting were 1. the attention, the power of
being visible -- I was shy everywhere except
on stage and 2. the sense of community, family,
and collective purpose that infuses theatrical
productions. As for why I was interested in
experimental work rather than traditional, I
think more than anything it was the times.
The notion of pushing boundaries and the
arts synthesizing was in the air and seemed
exciting. Also, because I was so young and so
serious, and there weren’t that many teenagers
around whose greatest aspiration was to be a
member of an experimental theater collective,
I was granted a lot of access and opportunity.

The summer of my 16th year, I visited my grandmother
in Omaha and participated in a workshop production of
a play by Kathleen Tolan at the Omaha Magic Theater,
which was co-founded by two members of the famous
60s Open Theater – playwright Megan Terry and actress
Joanne Schmidman. They asked me back the following year
to tour in an experimental feminist musical about teen
alcohol abuse called Kegger that Megan Terry wrote.
I tested out of Lowell High a year early to do that.
My mom said with pride that she felt like I was
running off to the circus. Singer Joan Osborne,
by the way, was my costar in that production.

In Omaha I became obsessed with learning about 60s
experimental theater history. I read everything I
could about the Open Theater, the Living Theater, and
Peter Brook. Then in my late teens and early 20s
I had the good fortune of assisting Joseph Chaikin
(founder of the Open Theater) at San Francisco’s
Magic Theater and of performing in an Anne Bogart
dance-theater production at PS122in New York.
I also worked with Nina Wise and Ronnie Davis
(founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe).

RTM: And how did you get involved with working
with Carla Harryman?

Gina: I took four years off between high school
and college, eventually enrolling at San
Francisco State University as a creative
writing major,where I worked as the
student assistant at the Poetry Center.
Director Robert Gluck recommended me
to Carla.

RTM: What plays of hers did you act in?
What were those rehearsals like?
Who directed the play?

Gina: Only one, in 1989 at New Langton Arts:
“There is Nothing Better than a Theory”that
she wrote and directed in collaboration with
visual artist Mark Durant and saxophone
player/composer Dave Barrett, who I moved
in with three weeks into rehearsal. My
memory of those rehearsals is that they
were quite stressful,as Carla was hard
to please and pretty clueless as a
director about communicating exactly
what she wanted, but I loved my poppy
red linen dress costume and of course
it was thrilling to meet the man who
would become the father of my child.
The text was completely abstract.
Periodically one line comes back to me:
“The oceaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.”

RTM: You also performed in Camille Roy's
Bye Bye Brunhilde? How was that
experience in comparison?

Gina: It was two or three years later, another excellent dress:
a blood red velvet spandex mini. I played Fear, a lesbian
sadist, and my lover was named Technique. Playwright
Camille Roy wrote the part with me in mind. Go figure!
The language was abstract, but sexy. We performed it
twice in San Francisco (at New Langton Arts and
Theater Rhino and in New York at the WOW Cafe.
I remember when we resurrected it for the New York
tour, that the director,Zack, wanted me to be more
vulnerable, which I thought was ridiculous at
the time, but think he was probably correct in
retrospect. I officially retired from the stage
after that production at age 23.

RTM: You went to San Francisco State University as
an undergraduate and that's where we met. Did you
get involved with language writing there?
Do you remember or did you experience the "poetry wars"?

Gina: Yes, I had a language poet boyfriend and I took a lot
of classes with Kathleen Fraser. The focus on formal
experimentation, of thinking of language as paint rather
than strictly as a vehicle for meaning,was appealing to me
in an emotionally repressed sort of way. It was all so
emotionally coy. I was desperate to reveal myself, but my
fellow experimental poets frowned upon confession and
upon anything that smacked of plot. For me it was more
of a phase than true identity. I was aware of the poetry
wars,but didn’t participate other than refusing to ever
take a class with Frances Mayes (this was pre-Under
the Tuscan Sun) because she wasn’t cool.

RTM: You worked at the poetry center there while Bob Gluck
was the director? What was that experience like?

Gina: Best job ever! Bob was the best boss ever! I put up
flyers around campus and sold tickets at the readings
and Bob treated us to staff lunches at Zuni.

RTM: You used to write poetry. Do you anymore?

Gina: Not really, but I fiddle and fiddle with my sentences
and pay keen attention to the music of the language no matter
the topic.

RTM: I know you've done lots of other kinds of writing and I
understand you are working on a novel that you once thought
might be a screenplay. Would you describe that work as experimental?

Gina: No, it’s not experimental, other than my core belief that
transitional clauses aren’t that important. I’m working now to
understand how traditional structure works, like the formula for
a romantic comedy. In a sense figuring out plot is like experimental
poets imposing formal restrictions, like Perec’s not using the vowel e,
to prompt creativity.

RTM: How have your interests and motivations around writing
changed for you over the years?

Gina: I want to be literally understood now, which is different
than when I thought of myself as a poet. Also, writing for me
has become a lot about research, which I love, love, love.
Nonfiction (books and magazine assignments)has become my
ticket to explore the world as much as document it.

RTM: What writing excites you these days?

Gina: In terms of the writing that I’m doing, I’m having
the most fun with my blog of curiosities. It’s more letter
than journal, and letter broadcast via the Internet feels
similar to performance –- the buzzy improvisatory risk
of committing moment to moment, the taking up public space,
the audience interaction. I guess I haven’t retired
from the stage after all.


Gina Hyams is an author and editor who specializes
in travel,tradition, and the arts. Her books include
the bestselling travel-design titles, In a Mexican Garden:
Courtyards, Pools
, and Open-Air Living Rooms and Mexicasa:
The Enchanting Inns and Haciendas of Mexico
, as well
as Pacific Spas: Luxury Getaways on the West Coast,
Day of the Dead Box,The Campfire Collection: Thrilling,
Chilling Tales of Alien Encounters
,and Incense: Rituals,
Mystery, Lore
– all published by Chronicle Books. She is
also co-editor of the anthology, Searching for Mary Poppins:
Women Write About the Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies
Hudson Street Press and Plume, divisions of Penguin U.S.A.).
Gina's essays and articles have appeared in Newsweek,
San Francisco, Berkshire Living, Organic Style,Ideal
, Healing Lifestyles & Spas,and Salon.com.
She has also contributed to Fodor's Travel Publications,
National Public Radio, and numerous anthologies.


Alternatively, Memphis

World Without End

There are worlds within worlds, patterns on walls, or just the old regional flim flam. You said I came from the north, but I understood mid-ness, in between. The old wars boiling in your blood amidst statues of Jefferson Davis. Please pause to see me. Please look again. We each papered and credentialed, symbols of stasis and flight. Please pause to see me. Beyond the simple narrative vectors reach out, poke through the skin. Who knew these old pains would find us. Out at the river, even the water has recycled itself. Yet, the old story. The silence of refusal. Underneath your smile. Behind closed doors.


Brrrrrrrrr--Summer in San Francisco

While some of you may be needing fans and as few clothes as possible to survive the summer heat, here in SF we are experiencing our classic summer weather: the fog rolling in over twin peaks.

You might even need a muff. And so, here's a poem.


mostly urgent escarpment
breathy water & catching, lipped
feathers fabricing soft and catchy
open hands and mouth

under, sub-, sub-marine brine brisk
triangulo you vet my tribler's virtue
help call down its wolf's-bane

fisticuffs if cunctatory could be curatorial
and under certain circs frippery a fortress
sweet, insouciant, disburdened
lashes aplenty

fashion's body is voluminous, strapped yr
eustachian tubes are pleasuring me
agile auditory & someday next
a barbed whirled might unfoundered be



Response to Michael Cross and Rob Halpern Reading San Francisco Aug. 2, 2008

Lately, in addition to the various institutional settings (Small Press Traffic, The Poetry Center, various bookstores, etc.),The San Francisco Bay Area poetry scene is happening in people's homes. The other night, August 2nd, Tanya Hollis and Taylor Brady hosted a reading by Michael Cross who is visiting the Bay Area from Seattle and San Francisco's own Rob Halpern. What a reading it was too. Tanya and Taylor's flat was packed with people;there were at least 30 of us there. Michael read first. I was not familiar with his work prior to the reading but I am looking forward to reading more of his own writing and the work he publishes as part of his amazing Atticus/Finch chapbook series. As Taylor said in his introduction, Michael's work is rich with a deep and varied lexicon. Cross read from his book Throne in which words like "plinth" recur and alliteration abounds. The sheer pleasure of linguistic jouissance startles as inthis example:

what visage does, debeller, razed, expiating
bas, our auctor wedged da twixt
the visor's amice grey made gaze
to palm some steely rubric-a-touch
harnessed her face lacks thingnesses sides
between the heat of the subject and the heat
of her lawfulness, sighs against
the pressure, kid, wrinkles, bellows,
apophantic facing the subject's front to come

Rob read a couple of short pieces from his forthcomingDisaster Suite
and then from his newly published Imaginary Politicsfrom Blake Riley's TapRoot Editions.The book itself is a beautiful letterpress, hand-sewn work in the unusual size of 10 x 5 inches. Beautiful work Blake! The writing inside is no less astonishing.

I've been reading Walter Benjamin lately and thinking about his angel of history (see quote below**)and then reading Paul Naylor's Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History whose introduction includes a lovely reading of Benjamin's angel which Naylor uses to argue that the writers he examines--Lyn Hejinian, Nathaniel Mackey, Susan Howe, Kamau Brathwaite, and M. Nourbese Philip--are "writing history poetically." I bring this up because hearing Rob read last night brought Benjamin and writing history poetically to mind. How hard it is to mobilize a poetics that can engage history from inside and in a complex fashion and with human scale. Benjamin's angel of history is blown into the future from paradise while it bears witness to the piling debris, the catastrophe that history is. The way Naylor reads it, Benjamin's angel is both witness and messenger. See Michael Cross's review of Rob's Rumored Place (Krupskaya) in which he eloquently discusses Halpern's work vis-a-vis Benjamin.

In Halpern's writing a number of strategies enable the writing of history poetically. The writing serves as both witness and messenger. In Rob's work, the body is the fulcrum. For example:

....We were once ourselves, but
then traversing the trench, a fault between dim pockets
of ruined life forms, I felt something, a kind of mind
without sex, a shudder with no reference, yr breathtaking
crevasse, a loss I can't mourn, which I've hastily mapped
onto this making of waste....So now there's nothing, the shadow
of yr name having melted to my cock, their skin, my
urethane veneer. The moon, the stars, a spangled heaven,
all nesting deep inside the thing's old sunken groin. Our
bodies hewn and, feigning being bodies, sundered by
forces real.

The "I" that is mobilized in this writing is never outside looking in but rather implicated and also resistant.

the forest and the rain, yr face, my verdant slick. nothing
resembles, nothing to see, an abundance without birds.
erection and machinery, no tongue on my thigh, the
world that made you possible, gone now, too. i feel dirty.
my soldier running, or my image for that, a corruption in
the record. such clean subordination. broken subjects,
surface areas, and coastlines now contiguous with the
vastness of that blank, repeating what won't go down

a thing i'll never hear arouses me,
begging you to enter the objects i'm investigating. his
hair. his wood. his barn. his clover. relics of my rapture,
birds remain outside my sentence. you say, i don't believe
a thing you write. i say, i don't remember myself, it could
have been anyone--

And then there is something I can only name as love.

Unwinding into national moods, looting all the shit
our forms so endlessly fulfill, nursing on withdrawn
spectacular slaughter. Now undo this habit. It won't take
long, and then we'll emerge, together, in a hole blast
thru the audio feed, our ears, at last prepared to hear,
discovered in the mud.

and wry criticism:

Now a word for all my Christian Zionist friends. Love,
being a model for the war. Take the IMF, an AK-47 or
machete, my purest intermediaries. Fuck me with the
things our meanings make.

What other writers these days engage with and write from a position of such exposure, vulnerability, abjection, even. But not as a solipsistic, self-aggrandizing pose. This exposure acknowledges and is situated in an address to the other and is an ethical engagement. I suspect that it is the intersection of human relation and the dazzling and horrifying discourse in which we founder, resist, repeat, ask for, use and misuse love and perpetrate individual, institutional and social crimes that takes this writing to the brink of the articulable. Its sheer capaciousness and ability to take us inside engenders hope and awe.

From Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History:

Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,
ich kehrte gern zurück,
denn blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
ich hätte wenig Glück.
—Gerhard Scholem, "Gruss vom Angelus" *

*My wing is ready for flight - I would like to turn back. - If I stayed timeless time, - I would have little luck.

A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
from: http://danm.ucsc.edu/web/KhazarDANM202thesesOnThePhilosophyOfHistory