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Thursday, March 3, 2011
Bronwen Tate talks with Matthew Henriksen
BRONWEN TATE: I've been thinking, reading your book and just in general recently, about how words name things that exist in the world (bees, the moon, a table), but also are constantly in play with other uses of the same word in other writing. And poetry is sometimes trying to slough off those allusions and make the reader actually see a moon (not a symbol) and at other times relies on allusions to make meaning or create depth. Can you talk a bit about how this works in Ordinary Sun? Do you see your writing moving in one direction or another? Is a knife ever just a knife?
MATTHEW HENRIKSEN: A knife is never a knife as long as I cannot say for certain what a knife is. What does a knife do? I can say that it cuts, but I have not been cut by a knife. Therefore, I have no intimacy with knives. I know what a person is because I know what a person can do. A person loves, and I have been loved by a person. I am a person because I have inflicted my love intimately upon another. In poems, I am not comfortable with "knife" as symbol or as word. If I believe in the holiness of poems, I find holiness in the literal presence of the image, which is neither of the word "knife" itself or what "knife" suggests. The image is the event of a group of words flashing upon the brain and creating a "place" where shapes, colors, and sounds--conceivable sensations--occur. The act of impression, not merely the result, defines the image's presence. If a knife gets into my brain as an image I know what it is. The image is always intimate, inflicted by another and leaving a scar of memory. In "Copse," I do not talk about a knife but my friend's table, "where knife-gnaws never healed." I can't make the reader actually see that table, but I can try to impress the knife-inflicted damage on the brain of another. The image does not come from the actual table or the moment when I saw the table but from the scar of memory that coincided with writing that line. Images are more like ideas than facts, which is lucky for us, because we cannot posses a fact as intimately as we can an idea. The idea of my friend's table made me sad, and the image contains rather than symbolizes that sadness.
BT: I agree with you about the poem being a point of encounter where an experience takes place – both for writer and for reader. What I was concerned with, maybe, was the question of while you can say that "if a knife gets into my brain as an image I know what it is," how much do you care if/that your reader knows or receives the same thing? You say that you have no intimacy with knives, but I could say that I have a great and lasting intimacy with the knife I've used to chop hundreds of onions or that I've known the surgeon's knife, though I slept through it.
I think that some of the power of your poem in "Copse" comes from the recurrence of knives in the poem: "the floor dull as knives," as well as "where the knife-gnaws never healed." If a floor can be dull as knives, it's dull in the way that a knife can be scratched and worn and blunted. The scratched and blunted knife of the first couplet is still in my mind when I read of the knife-gnaws and adds violence to it. It takes more force to make a dent with a dull blade.
But talk to me about holiness or the holiness of poems. Ordinary Sun seems to me to make its way through the impossibilities of various offered kinds of holiness, of "dismantled catechism." I would venture that your idea of holiness might be linked to grace, be it a "disfigured grace" or the act of "hazarding grace" or the "grace [that] disturbs our sentiment for violence."
MH: We don’t share our minds: we share the world. Or, more exactly, we share the experience of experiencing the world. We cannot transfer that experience through language, imagery, art, or science. The experience belongs to the perceiver. When I write, the reader I consider belongs to my experience. Once a reader takes the poem, “Matthew Henriksen” gains an identity determined by the reader. I do not think it possible to share experience, though art allows for convincing imitations. Of course, I don’t know. Maybe someone sees “knife” just like I do, with all the same connotations. My poem “Parkway and Bennett” describes the lawn of the corner house where I grew up. My brother and sister can certainly recreate a similar image and set of connotations, but the three of us will never look at it the same way. I’m resigned to that loneliness and create poems out of that void. My poems are psychic space probes that will never return. Sometimes grace overcomes that distance. In spite of our definite isolation, we experience closeness. I think everyone, myself included, cheapens that closeness through short-cuts, by naming ourselves avant-garde artists or Libertarians or Christians. We assert that familial bonds are unbreakable when the grace of familial love resides in the difficult fact that our love for family, even our children, is ultimately conditional. I need not give examples. In my experience, grace always arrives through the dismantled, disfigured, and disturbed. I see the world as irrevocably flawed, and art is a failure that imitates that flaw. The physical world veils much of itself; I can barely sketch a picture of a tree in my mind, much less convey an image through words. But I try to make a new experience out of words, an echo of the original that ultimately has no connection with the tree but with the impression the tree left on me. I make poems so I can see the impressions myself, so I can see the experience apart from the world. And I send them back out into the world because I made them from what I gathered there. I get everything I need from poetry in making poems and letting them go. But sometimes they land with someone, and a reader comes back to me and says something about the poem that resembles what I thought I wrote. That proves to me that grace exists elsewhere, but I cannot say that it is the same grace. If I knew, I wouldn’t need grace.
BT: I've been thinking some about this question of trying to convey an experience vs. trying to convey a response to an experience (especially in regards to haiku which I've been reading and reading about recently). But your mention of sending poems out into the world brings me to another question I'd like to ask you: how has your work as a small press publisher effected your work as a writer? If you'd like, maybe talk a bit also about the difference between the online format of Typo and the endless folding-and-sewing of chapbooks.
MH: Editing hasn't influenced my poems, other than introducing me to many writers I would not have otherwise read. Of course, that was hugely important. I didn't start any of the poems that would go into Ordinary Sun until after Adam Clay and I started Typo. Through the Typo inbox I found out about Alex Lemon, G.C. Waldrep, Anne Boyer, and Graham Foust. Through the first few issues of Typo, Adam and I were still in the MFA program in Fayetteville, and our professors hadn't shown us much contemporary poetry. We'd found Ben Lerner and Joyelle McSweeney's poems, but that was far from the type of work we'd been encouraged to read. Suddenly through Typo I found people trying to do things I was trying to do, and also I saw some work that went beyond what I had imagined. As we put together the first five issues, I definitely learned in my own writing to trust the impulse I already had, particularly from reading Frank Stanford and Theodore Roethke, to trust the velocity of language.
The main difference between Typo and Cannibal results from the way people access the work. Cannibal tied in closely with The Burning Chair Readings. The joy came in handing people something gorgeous and rough-looking and cared for that was about to burst with poems that leaned on the wilder side but still had the same qualities as Typo poems. Cannibal brought more intimacy or closeness, because people could see how we made it and most of the copies we sold or gave away in person. If we published someone we didn't know in Cannibal we usually got to be friends with her at some point. People saw the amount of work that went into making Cannibal, though most probably did not realize how much. We'd fold, collate, and poke holes in two to three thousand pages for each issue. The insanity of that labor resulted though in an equally amazing response to the finished product. The other beautiful aspect of Cannibal's history is how collaborative the last few issues became, as far as the making. Katy and I have had lots of fantastic, long nights with friends making books. No one ever expects anything when they help you sew books. It's all about getting poetry out there in a gorgeous format. No one ever wanted to edit or to push poems on me. They'd eat pie and drink wine as payment. Now that we've given up Cannibal I am going to miss that amazement. More so I'll miss finding chapbooks from unknown poets who end up blowing minds. I'm pushing all of that energy back into Typo now. I think some people have sort of moved on from Typo, but that's a mistake. Typo is a serious monster. My attitude about Typo parallels my writing a bit. I want to do the best work I can and move on without thinking about who is reading it and reacting. Of course, Typo is only half mine, and I'm very protective of the other half, they way I'm protective of Cannibal Books poets, only more so since Adam is a brother to me. Even when I had both magazines going, I always put more care into Typo. The distance an online magazine presents between poet, editor, and reader promotes more serious reading.
BT: You mention that you didn't start any of the poems that would go into Ordinary Sun until after you and Adam started Typo, could you talk about how the book became a book? I can recall reading several of these poems in various manuscripts or in the chapbook horse less press did along the way. Tell me about your editing process. How did you decide which poems or sequences would end up in Ordinary Sun? Did you have any kind of editing relationship with Janaka or anyone at Black Ocean after they decided to print the book?
MH: About two-thirds of the material in Ordinary Sun comes from an extremely long poem called Row that I hacked up and fashioned into small poems and sequences and in some cases into longer poems. The revision process lasted several years. I cut mercilessly and tried to beat the language into a solid form. Revision has become a much more delicate, less painful process for me, so I must have learned something revising these poems. Little in Ordinary Sun resembles the initial plan, except that the book essentially comprises of a series of shorter books intended to revolve around each other.
When I would write new poems, I'd generally have either a longer piece of a series of poems that I would invariably jam into the book and displace other sections with. I don't write thematically or anything like that. I'll never write a poem to create some sort of arch or structure for the book. The sections come from the same central point, a point the book does not describe, because the book does not adhere to temporal movement. The difficulty resided in creating an arrangement that helped the reader get into the poems. Andrea Baker, Jane Gregory, and Kate Greenstreet looked at the manuscript in multiple forms and gave me a sense of how others would read it. That took years, and I'm infinitely grateful for that help. Beyond a few sympathetic readers who understand my perspective, I cannot ask for much more, and those three stand among my favorite poets today.
At Black Ocean, Carrie Olivia Adams and Janaka Stucky focused mainly on ordering the poems. I had long since settled on an order and left it. Also, I had so heavily revised the poems I could not see into them anymore. Their suggestions added to the book's velocity. Carrie's book Intervening Absence prompted me to send my manuscript to Black Ocean: her poems have a delicate face, but the formal elements, both of individual poems and the book's structure, assert strength. Janaka and I had collaborated as event organizers, so I knew where he was coming from. I trusted that if they took the book it would come out all right on the far side.
BT: Well, I think Black Ocean has done a beautiful job with the book. And I certainly know what you mean about revising poems so heavily that you can't see into them anymore. But I was interested by what you said that "the sections come from the same central point, a point the book does not describe, because the book does not adhere to temporal movement." This confirms my own sense of the book, which was of a dark event radiating through the poems without ever being exactly named. I see this refusal to name acted out formally in many of the poems in great memorable lines like "What I cannot find in the morning is most myself," or "I only asked for objects played against/ what held there" or "What she heard about their house dripped from the faucet." This makes me think of something like "the horror, the horror" in Heart of Darkness, how showing the shadow something casts can be much more evocative or chilling than trying to show or name the thing itself. But I also see a kind of narrative built over several of your sequences, through displaced details, permutations, or returns to words that accumulate a specific valence over time. This makes me think about that various elements that can constitute form in poetry. I identified numerous formal "activations" in Ordinary Sun. In "Corolla in the Midden," for example, I was fascinated by the way within a given poem the end of each page insists both on ending and on continuing onto the next page. It obliges the reader to do a sort of back-and-forth dance. So, can you talk a bit about what you see as constituting form in the book? Or just share any thoughts you may be having recently about form?
MH: Eliot describes the utter terror in a leaf scratching the street. That “dark event” pervades all experience and terrifies us precisely because we cannot name it or even fully recognize it. The narrative you see in Ordinary Sun, which I think follows the not-so-terrifying thread of the book, does seem to match with the formal construction. For me, poetry depends entirely on form. At least, form constitutes the aspect of the poem I have a say over. The mystery of the poem, the dark underside, as many have said, comes from dictation or translation and the poet has little say in how that arrives in a poem. The miracles in poems, the grace as we have discussed it, arises from the formal reconfiguring of our shadowy experiences into instruments of language, by which we release that pressure in song. The definitive substance of any poem resides in its sound. I only think about form when writing, if I am thinking. Of course, I’ll write unconsciously, but then I’ll look back and see that four-fifths of the lines scan as blank verse or that I’ve written a fourteen line lyric poem with a volta between eighth and ninth lines. I think about meter. The construction of the line matters more than anything else, at least anything I do consciously. Andrea Baker and I had a running discussion about form all through the making of Ordinary Sun. Those conversations revolved mainly around the line as a sort of delivery mechanism for the lyric. Each line follows another directly, with accumulating momentum, but you can also back up into the lines, because the lines are not temporal, even when narrative. Andrea asked difficult questions, and once I told her I thought of myself as a failed narrative poet. The story falls apart because so much happens and so much of that comes to us through the past in flashes of sound and light. I like failure, especially in art, and form allows me to expose that in myself. I think about iambs and trochees, but I won’t let a formal pattern rule me. In “Corolla in the Midden,” I wanted to break the fourteen line pattern by writing the poem haphazardly, but the turns kept falling into place and I could not revise them out. I put as much pressure as I can on each line and on the poem as a sequence of lines to expose the crack that inevitably turns up in every piece of art. I think that indestructible brokenness gives art the vitality that heals us.
BT: You speak of yourself as "a failed narrative poet," but I think one could also say that your poems are sometimes about the ways narrative fails us or is inadequate for understanding what we experience. Narrative implies a beginning and an end, but in fact these are always somewhat arbitrary – there are always things before and after. Poetry, like the novel or anything else, involves selection, but it allows for a wide range of methods or means of selection. This reminds me that I wanted to ask you about Surrealism. I have an ongoing fascination with Lautréamont's "Les Chants de Maldoror" which the Surrealists latched onto for his strange similes especially. I can see similar metaphorical work at times in Ordinary Sun, metaphors where it's more a question of juxtaposition than of comparison. Care to talk a bit about your interest in Surrealism or how it came to title a section of the book?
MH: The title for “The New Surrealism” came from a line in the poem that has nothing to do with surrealism but rather attempts to rename the circumstances of our contemporary experience. I suppose Lautréamont, Breton and Artaud more or less intended that. I have resisted surrealism as an intentional method in my work. Stevens’ The Necessary Angel shaped much of my foundational understanding of metaphor’s vitality, the necessity of a basis in the real allowing the metaphor then to stretch our perceptions. The marriage of surrealism to the narrative construct in my poems probably has more to do with cinema, where my heroes (Federico Fellini, Bela Tarr, and David Lynch) treat narrative structure as a malleable element. Fellini’s meandering storyline in La Dulce Vita, with those characters who step to the forefront and vanish as Marcello meanders from party to party, more closely resembles my experience, exactly because its beginning and end are arbitrary, unless of course you look at the film as an artist’s expression, each scene presenting a complex sensation amid a sequence of sensations that speak musically, as abstract paintings speak musically. In Werckmeister Harmonies, when Tarr puts plot development on hold for about six minutes to let his camera dance along with a man dressing for bed, the experience of that as art seems as odd as watching Jean Amrais walk through a mirror in Cocteau’s Orpheus, because both scenes allow emotions and reflections to accumulate around the image. Nothing I have ever read has struck me as more accurately real than Novalis’ Hymns to the Night. Soaring through darkness, his speaker eyes a barely perceptible mound of dark earth and lands to rest from his flight. In a work of art, a man chopping wood in the winter to heat his cabin in the Rockies is just as surreal. The impossibility of our existence, or call it the miracle of our existence, exceeds determined law. All literature begins with the surreal because language is the most odd and inscrutable component of our reality. In Hunger when Knut Hamsun describes God sticking a finger into the narrator’s brain and the exposed nerves left by the hole there, I immediately relate. We think in the surreal, especially when we think in metaphor. I certainly hope people read my metaphors as juxtapositions rather than comparisons, because comparison implies rhetoric. Can I assert that the poem may offer statement rather than rhetoric, the images and metaphors provoking an emotional experience in the reader that speaks its own language, as music and paint have their languages? I love Larry Levis, William Matthews, and William Heyen, who came in the wake of the Deep Imagists but turned the image into something more clearly made of words spoken from a particular voice. They brought the Modernist “I” back to the subjective, but a more Eastern subjective, where the “I” notices with a degree of detachment the mingling of sensory and intellectual experiences rather than superimposing one on the other. My favorite poets writing today consciously bring the image entirely into the mind, where after all images literally reside, and fuse the image with the emotional and intuitive experience of the perceiver. I mean something like negative capability in reverse, where the poet absorbs the image into the subjective. Isn’t that closer to reality than divorcing the self from experience, no matter how far subjectivity spins experience into the surreal?