What Hannah Weiner Means to Me

by on Apr.14, 2012


Not too long ago, I woke up with a sentence in my head:

“Where is Art Going and Where has it Been?”

As a very conventionally educated poet and literary type, I had been ‘raised up’ to believe that artistic creation started and ended with the artist. What was in the classical period referred to as ‘the Muse’ was transformed in the Renaissance to ‘Genius’, the special property of an extraspecial individual. The invidual Genius owned his Genius. He was a master; he created masterpieces; he was surely not visited by lady spectres who planted ideas in his head (except metaphorically speaking, in order to shore up his role as the individual male inheritor of classical Greats). Genius was a sort of tautological current; it was God-given but thereafter was the personal property of the Genius.

Well, ok.  But somewhere in my 20s I realized that this personal-property-genius model was actually a way to set up an artistic 1% and conserve resources there. That is, if we allow that only individuals of Genius possess Genius, and there is naturally a limited amount of Genius in the world, and all the awards, lucky breaks, publictions, etc are awarded by merit, then they should go to those Geniuses, and too bad for the rest of us. Genius and native ‘Merit’ began to seem like codewords to me, or like a forcefield—if you subscribed to them, those notions blocked you from seeing the fact that the literary and art worlds are like any other institutions, based on certain people holding on to certain powers while hiding behind such supposedly great watchwords as ‘Tradition’, ‘Standards’, ‘Genius’.  Words like ‘Genius’, which themselves suggested private ownership of the indelible property of Art, actually were a way to control who controlled Art’s resources.

That’s why it’s been very important to me to discover artists like Hannah Weiner. I think Hannah Weiner was amazingly great in all respects. I love her voice (both on the page, in video, and in audio). I love her bonkers early work with its corny puns and its loopy generosity. In the early performance pieces she made herself a host for Art—she would host both the Coast Guard and the down town arty types to perform her Code Poems, or she would invite the public to her place of business (designing underwear) or sell hotdogs as an edible pun on her name. She would also host forms and genres and media—codes, flags, horns, lights, invitation cards, underwear, a vacuum, police tape, etc. At such events, her own person became a site where all these different groups and media made contact and relayed energies and transformed each other—dots and bars became light, words became hotdogs, concept became performance, charisma (her own) became conviviality (of the group). And she never took these events too seriously, even though what she hosted was the most vital Art process of all– she channeled the eternal force of Art into material and into human temporality, made Art arrive and perform. Art comes to a human address.

After she became ‘clairvoyant’, these processes and vectors intensified and contracted. Unexpectedly,  she saw words everywhere—on bodies, lampchains, walls, etc. What’s interesting to me about this is that the first part of her career, as a medium for media and as a host for Art, served as a kind of training to be able to cope with becoming a medium in the spiritual sense. Hannah Weiner is a hero to me because she developed the technology for her new radical occult mediumicity:

I bought a new electric typewriter in January 74 and said quite clearly, perhaps aloud, to the words ( I talked to them as if they were separate from me, as indeed the part of my mind they come from is not known to me) I have this new typewriter and can only type lower case, capitals, or underlines (somehow I forgot, ignored, or couldn’t cope with in the speed I was seeing things, a fourth voice, underlined capitals) so you will have to settle yourself into three different prints. Thereafter I typed the large printed words I saw in CAPITALS the words that appeared on the typewriter or the paper I was typing on in underlines (italics) and wrote the part of the journal that was unseen, my own words in regular upper and lower case.[i]

Thus while the amount of time and labor she spent with her Spirit Teachers must have been a lonely and exhausting and exacting endeavor, she remarkably transferred their presence into a variety of other media—the Clairvoyant Journals and other texts, small books and letters and advertisements and pamphlets, as well as tape recordings and live and recorded performances and interview. In other words, while the experience of mediumship may have been radically isolating in its pragmatic demands, it was also an amplification of the process of ‘hosting’ and mediumicity she developed in her early practice. When the spirit teachers (textually) appeared, Hannah Weiner was gloriously up to the challenge.

One matter of intense interest to me is the specific technology of her mediumicity, the synaesthesia (and anaesthesia?) of moving from one medium to another, in both her pre-Clairvoyant and post-clairvoyant work. I’d like to ask you, what is it like to ‘meet’ Hannah Weiner in each of these media? What is the difference between ‘reading’ the Clairvoyant Journal , listening to the tape, and watching the video? Why do you think Hannah Weiner was continually reiterating the specific technology of her mediumicity at the beginning of her performances and texts (i.e. everything is prefaced with some version of her ‘I see words’ speech )? What was her interest in making this process of mediumicity so apparent to others—even going so far as to refer to the ‘words’ as ‘voices’ and translate them from a visually textual to an audial version?

Finally, to return to my early theme of Genius: I suppose we could describe Hannah Weiner as a ‘Genius’ if we wanted to stuff her back into the niches our literary training make available to us but it’s much more exciting for me to do the opposite, to redefine my understanding of Art and Writing using Hannah Weiner as a starting point, to see Art as a series of incomplete or oversaturated transmissions, as a fluid or current or energy that moves from media to media, that differs and sometimes coincides with itself, that writes its name on my body, world and forehead and rips me out into the streets to perform for strangers or see my friends. It also allows me to see my favorite artists as media for media, spectres of radical and radiant conveyance:

Claude Cahun


Joey Arias

Jack Smith


And it also breaks down a bunch of other divides, letting me see that publishers are also obvious media for media, as are translators, and teachers, readers, all conduits, all inspired and haywire playback devices. In this vein I must praise Patrick Durgin for his amazing work editing ‘Hannah Weiner’s Open House’. Although many resources and primary texts are now online for learning about Weiner, his book provides a fantastic introduction to her voice and concerns that lets one navigate the wealth of materials now available (thanks also, largely, to him.) Patrick is thus a medium for Hannah Weiner and her remarkable array of media– he is a medium for media. The same made be said and more for Charles Bernstein, who has been such a generous medium for Hannah Weiner’s living presence.

Well, what do you think?



[i] From “Mostly About the Sentence” as reprinted in Hannah Weiner’s Open House.Chicago: Kenning Editions, 2007. 127.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Ailbhe Darcy

    What’s extra lovely about Claude Cahun in this context is that she wasn’t even really Claude Cahun, right? She was Cahun-and-Moore. Because Marcel Moore took so many of the self-portraits: so they were each a medium for the other.

  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    Silver, (I wrote Ailbhe but the iPhone thus corrected your name!) awesome reading. You are a lady spectre AND a genius 😉

  3. Patrick

    I was going to say, no one’s said it better, because maybe no one has (charisma become conviviality, yes!)–until you namechecked me and I got all bashful. As for “her interest in making this process of mediumicity so apparent to others,” I think even (and mercifully) without the solemnity that goes with it, she thought that an ethical duty came with the gift, so that the media had to be foregrounded–whether that was spirit (“I am trying to show the mind”) or letter–and whether or not there is a difference. That is, I think that though she didn’t think everyone was clairvoyant, she did think the “power” involved was contagious and had to be directed thoughtfully and peaceably. I keep coming to this realization as I continue living with her work.

  4. Damian

    Thanks Patrick for answering that. And what a fun / correct / rad / dead true piece Joyelle thanks!

  5. Corina Copp

    Wondrous. And Cahun also a favorite, nice to think about alongside HW. And yes to shared mediumship with Marcel Moore — also, Claude née Lucy Schwob! So many levels of being/relationality, and scattered (you’d say radiated) herself through media too…

    Have you seen the special issue of Wild Orchids on Hannah’s work, Joyelle? http://wildorchids.endingthealphabet.org/

  6. Monica Mody

    Joyelle, what a lovely essay. You as a teacher were definitely a medium for me, allowing me to meet so many spirits, art-spirits, including Hannah Weiner.

    What if in making art (or performing or seeing friends or ripped streets) we are not just media but: are co-writing the “words” we channel. That the Spirit Teachers could +write only what Hannah Weiner was there to +write. That the energy & generosity & saturation of art (or-) comes from our participation with Spirit, in our exceeding towards Spirit through our participation with it. That in exceeding, there is humility, there is a recognition of our relationship to spirit, to all that hosts it, to the universe.

  7. Neil Gordon

    Thank you SOOOO Much for posting this article on Hannah Weiner!!! Attention to her “Genius” is way over due and her poetry has changed my life and those of others! I noticed in the comments here that most of them where geared toward the visual artists you mentioned and left out Hannah.. a pity. Thanks for keeping her work alive!