An Interview with Matthew Henriksen
Matthew Henriksen's first book, Ordinary Sun, published by Black Ocean, has been praised as one of the best poetry collections from a small press in 2011. Henriksen and his poems certainly deserve the hype -- one would be hard pressed to find another book of contemporary poetry as intelligent, kinetic, and emotionally illuminated as Ordinary Sun -- though these poems, with their errant music and "disfigured grace," elude reduction and demand discussion. Henriksen co-edits, with Adam Clay, Typo, one of the longest standing online literary journals, and in Brooklyn, as editor of Cannibal Books and curator of the Burning Chair reading series with his wife Katy, and now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, as the organizer of the Frank Stanford Literary Festival, Henriksen has shown his intense dedication to supporting that discussion and the community that sustains it. This interview was conducted via e-mail over the course of a couple weeks.
In talking about the poems in Ordinary Sun, Johannes Göransson says at Montevidayo that you are "obviously invested in being eaten and deformed by bees." Do you agree with Johannes about these bees? How many bees does it take to eat Matthew Henriksen? How does a poem deform its reader, or its writer?
Johannes argued that I wanted to put the reader through a sort of violence of experience, and he also called me a Romantic. Then he called himself a Romantic after explaining that some people don't want to "go there" when reading poetry. Of course, I agree with Johannes on those counts, but I contend that people who don't want to "go there" might as well not read poetry. Yes, I want to be devoured by experience, but I don't have any illusions about transcending it. We live in a closed world, regardless of our ideas. Our ideas themselves form part of the boundary between the known and the unknown. Sadness and joy arrive from the same source: that we cannot encounter the closed world in its entirety. We can't know everything, but we can experience intensely. I believe what Walter Pater said art does: heightens experience and so makes the most of our moments. When I ask my two-year-old daughter if she's hungry, I impose a mandate on the language so I can get a necessary result. Why impose mandates on poetry when each image offers an infinite playground? Bees as imagery provoke an untranslatable experience through the variety of sensory appeals. No bee is going to devour me, but the imagination allows us to "go there." The sound of bees buzzing resembles the sensations of multiple stings. The imagined stings remind me of putting my bruised thumb in cold water. The cold water can awake a sensation that might suggest the numbness of the empty universe burning with so many stars like needles in a foot numb as a pincushion. Each experience contains an aspect of the infinite. I don't want to "go there" when it's time for my daughter's lunch, but I don't comprehend another purpose for poetry. People who talk about meaning in poems and then put quotation marks around the word are not reading poetry. Language, like any aspect of experience, can't avoid meaning. The word "thumb" contains infinite associations, some of which we can't verbalize, but poetry can evoke meaning beyond language. Most contemporary narrative and rhetorical poems bore me because they limit themselves to statement, but the lyric can tell a narrative of perspective through immersion in an experience and can convey rhetoric by superimposing the poem's perspective over the reader's senses. I don't want my poems to deform anyone. I'd like to smash the deformed notions we too often wear as protective goggles. It would take exactly one bee to devour me.
At times in Ordinary Sun you appear to be consciously antagonistic toward the reader. For instance, in the section "Corolla in the Midden" you write, "I can have more empathy for a dog // than a child and have no empathy / for you, only a disfigured grace to strike // your notions to smoke until / we have between us / only motionÉ" While at first unforgiving, what these lines seem to be suggesting is that the reader has a certain responsibility to struggle, psychologically, emotionally, semantically, in anticipation of the other communication, beyond the stability of "self," that the poem aims to enact. Is the line the vehicle to transmit this "disfigured grace"? How do you feel, for instance, when a reader, in turn, admits to feeling antagonistic toward your poems? What happens when there is "between us / only motion"?
Insisting on the reader's responsibility has nothing to do with my intentions. I don't see my poems as delivering rhetoric through a presentation of a single voice directed at a single reader or any external audience. Each poem arises from a myriad of inner voices addressing each other. Maybe that sounds crazy, and it might be easier to describe the poems as my conscious mind addressing my functional person. Once I finish a poem, I don't feel invested in the response from readers. Each poem results from an inner quarrel. I'm not after answers, especially not on behalf of others. The act of making a poem resolves the discordance of that inner quarrel by condensing the myriad voices into a unified music. I want to lay the quarrel out so I can make visual and auditory sense of my experiences for myself. The various emotional and intellectual aspects tied to an experience fail to unify in rhetoric or symbolic imagery, as both call for moving past an experience and reflecting back to assert a point, which leaves the experience in the poem's wake and accents an abstract replacement. Replacing the experience with a reflection or epiphany precludes the potentiality of discovering wisdom in the actual experience. I don't want to leave any of the experience out: the hard part is getting it all in. The less time I spend struggling with how to exist, how to survive, how to be happy, and the more I convince myself to drop my psychological burdens and just look at rocks and trees, the more I understand the potential within beauty. Intellectual beauty defines wisdom for me, and raw experience offers beauty beyond artifice.
The poets I most want to emulate exceed recasting experience as the poem's artifact and move into pure self-expression, a dialectic of personal experience intensified by awareness. Alice Notley gets more experience into a poem than anyone. She brings her poems down to the level of neurons firing. Frank Stanford similarly intensifies visceral and emotional experience, though I'd compare reading his poems to feeling blood rush through the veins. I don't see either of them addressing a reader outside the self, though both of them ride the second person pronoun heavily. The best poems are apostrophes. Talk intensely and without irony to no one long enough and your start to see your own investments in other people's interests fall away. You can't fit much experience into a poem at all if you don't first break everything down. The line, of course, delivers everything in a poem by disrupting our usual habits of perception and processing. I could call the line the force that drives disfiguring music. I see both nature and society as disfigured, and in that flaw beauty becomes more readily apparent. The line attempts to force us to hear and to see.
I made an error reading the words "flaw beauty" as a single noun. I am excited by that error, and want to keep making it. Besides that, it's intriguing to me that you so adamantly eschew Romantic conceptions of poetry (Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility"; and in talking with Bronwen Tate you blindfold Keats and talk about "negative capability in reverse," which I am still grappling with) while still being receptive to being called a Romantic. Obviously it's not 1804 and you're not writing about lying on a couch being nostalgic about daffodils. But it seems the function of an "inward eye" is integral to your poems. Though your "inward eye" is closer to Blake's "abyss of the five senses" than Wordsworth's "bliss of solitude." There's also the fact that Wordsworth neglects to mention that these daffodils, as he remembers them, have all died, and that, more importantly, he will die. Is ignoring death an error? What does it mean to be a Romantic in the hollowness of late capitalism?
Blake would not distinguish between the inward and outward eye, because in his poems the eye looks inward and outward simultaneously. Wordsworth leaves out at least half of all experience, the corporeal half, where death resides, but the body makes the mind possible. In his marginalia to Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, Blake protests, "Imagination has nothing to do with memory." Imagination allows us to cross the threshold of the senses, but we can't evade the senses by reverting inward into memories.
I pursue a method akin to Blake's process of reforming the individual psyche through a violent dismantling and reinvention of perception. His "abyss of the five senses" refers to an Aristotelian view that identifies the self as an isolated vessel amid objects, whereas Blake subsumes the object world within the mind, through negative capability in reverse, or, better yet, positive capability, whereby we can embrace external experience by acknowledging the fact that perceived objects literally appear as internal images in the mind only. Contrary to Wordsworth's retreat into the intellect, Blake superimposes the intellect's perceptions back out onto the world, so that the duality of exterior and interior unifies, or at least overlays. Today I read this line in one of Laura Riding's poems: "Thought looking out on thought / Makes one an eye." Imagining the object world as simultaneously external and internal allows us to see without separating one half of the experience from the other. It is an error to ignore anything. To ignore the sensory restraints on intellectual freedom would have limited Blake's capacity to pursue freedom as an absolute. He could have, like Wordsworth, turned the eye inward, found a reduced version of freedom, and settled for recompense there. To ignore the inconveniences of capitalism, which distorts our ability to imaginatively embrace the object world by implying an intrinsic materialism in imagery, would force me to turn inward to abstraction or outward to a dwindling natural world. I write about broken glass in the streets because I'm a Romantic who will not ignore his world.
In the introduction to the significant feature on Frank Stanford that you recently edited for Fulcrum, "Another Part of the Flood: Poems, Stories, and Correspondence of Frank Stanford," you write that Stanford's "poems are native only to their own universe and present their own system of construction. He is a poet of synthesized contradictions, at once completely outside any aesthetic lineage, as his writing was clearly built out of many lineages, not only of literature but also of film and music." I admit being new to Stanford's work, and newly effected. Intrigued by the title, I first picked up The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. I pulled it off the library shelf, realized that I was holding a 542 page maximalist epic, and read these lines: "I can dream about the ship of blind horsemen / that puts out in your sleep that is rigged by spiders / that has a plank everyone must walk." It felt like some kind of lost treasure. There is fire and grace. Something singular and always breaking and spilling over with imperative lyrical intensity. There seems to be no end to Stanford's ability to descend into experience and image. I was astounded that no anthology, article, or teacher had ever introduced me to his poetry. I couldn't imagine how they could be missing a body of work that is, literally, so immense. What drove you to devote so much of yourself to Stanford's work and memory? Why want to be haunted? You write, "If any poet of the last century displayed vulnerability, it was Stanford." How is it that Stanford's poetry so opens and commits itself to our blood?
Stanford invented a new kind of line in English poetry. The syntactical velocity and auricular variances of Stanford's lines result in instinctual, awed utterances that more immediately and intimately recognize and abide in experience than the more reflective and postured Whitman, Olson, and Ginsberg, who also wrote long, energetic lines but could have only partially at best influenced Stanford. He transmits more sensory and emotive information in a single line than anyone, although I might acquiesce if someone made an argument for Dickinson projecting more information within her lines' condensed infinities. He hits stresses in places that explode and set fire to all the sounds within the line. You can hear hard blues and far-out jazz, Son House and Pharaoh Sanders, the inward stabbing at visceral emotions at once with the mind hurtling wildly beyond the peripheries of the cosmos.
Also, he portrays a love for human beings. People often read The Battlefield as a lyrical rant, when in fact the poem follows a singular narrative in which an adolescent boy, through episodic circumstances and the volition of his tender but liberated heart, winds up on a Freedom Ride. The boy, Francis Gildart, embodies Stanford's ideal hero, whose main characteristic resides in his desire to talk to people and his willingness to praise or condemn them, to demonstrate relentless brotherly loyalty or maniacal vengeance, with his judgments based in their relative levels of humanity, humility, and cruelty. The later poems do not lose that immense empathy, though the narratives shift to interpersonal relationships. In recent years, especially in teaching introductory literature courses, I have noticed that literature that resonates most strongly often focuses on empathy, as if the entire purpose of literature might be to convey empathy in various contexts, in order that we might learn to better seek, practice, and receive it ourselves. Some might rightly point out Stanford's suicide showed a serious lack of empathy for his loved ones, but at some point you have to separate the artist from the work. Otherwise, all literature is unreadable, even Francis of Assisi's writing.
In no way do I feel haunted by Stanford. His poems have an intense power because he figured out how to channel his experiences into condensed language. Stanford fanatics sometimes claim to feel his presence at times when reading his work. I would tell them to keep their hands off his poetry and play with a ouija board instead. That kind of talk insults Stanford's talents and dedication as an artist. In all the time I spent organizing the Frank Stanford Literary Festival, researching and writing the Stanford feature, and advising others in the Stanford projects, the only residue of his death I felt is a profound anger over the sorrow he caused those who loved him, along with a bit of regret over the poems he did not live to write. As far as I am concerned as a poet, I don't care if anyone reads Stanford, because I have those poems in my hands and rattling in my brain. Plenty of poets read him and his work will last. I want to see him published more broadly in the near future, not for Stanford's sake or for mine, but for young poets looking in vain for poetry with the honed intensity Stanford offers. His work can shock poets out of their acceptance of mediocre work constructed on limited principles and convince them to embrace their more instinctual attraction to discovery within poetry's broader potential.
One does not experience empathy lightly, without passion. The Frank Stanford Literary Festival seems unique in its project. I can't think of another comparable event devoted to one artist, especially a poet, in America. You used to teach middle school in Harlem through the NYC Teaching Fellows program. Now, in Arkansas, you adjunct at least five and six classes a semester at local universities. You are also the father of a little girl and a husband. How do you understand yourself as a teacher? How have your experiences as a teacher, particularly in Harlem, affected your understanding of yourself as a poet, as a father?
My first six months of teaching middle school in Harlem were brutal. I could not consistently control my classroom. I was physically assaulted twice and tried to resign three times. Each of the three mornings I arrived with a letter of resignation, one of my kids encountered me coming into school and interacted with me in a way that crushed my will to abandon them. The third time I arrived two hours early to avoid such an encounter, but a kid on the basketball court saw me and came over to sing the theme song to Welcome Back, Kotter. I had been out of school for over a week with pneumonia and had realized I didn't just love the kids in theory but in practice. Once I dedicated myself to the necessary disciplinary practices of an inner city middle school, my students revealed themselves as perceptive, engaged learners. We read Hemingway and Salinger and excerpts from Inferno. We covered basic curriculum and reading strategies, and their standardized test scores leapt. By the beginning of my second year, my classroom transformed into a happy, safe learning environment, and my supervisor could assign troubled kids to my class so that we could practice social interventions, often successfully. I absolutely love teaching college classes, but I'm never going to love students as intently as I loved my Harlem kids.
Going into the public schools, I had no ideas about changing lives, but I saw it happen. Of course, in a place like Harlem trouble isn't merely nagging at the kids' heels. It's a big fucking storm cloud even on the sunny days and it's in every shadow, too. Near the end of my second year, one of our students got killed in a drive-by shooting, a twelve-year-old. One of my students held him while he died as three more watched the life go out of him. I went to the wake. A few young teachers who worked with the same group of students had unofficially designated me as the mentor of the group, but I had no answers for them and could offer no consolation. I had a breakdown, left the school at the end of the year, and couldn't get it together as an adjunct for a couple of years. We'd been trying to intervene with the student who was killed, and I can say with certainty that I could have taken actions that would have probably prevented his death. I don't blame myself, but I'm not willing to skew an experience to fabricate happiness. Without my wife, Katy, I probably wouldn't have come back from that darkness. Now I still get to teach Dante but also I get to come home at night and be a poet and a daddy.
When you teach in an inner city school, you have to create an aura to survive the day. When you go home, you turn into someone else, because you can't carry the grief and stress around with you. Now I don't have to separate my roles. I'm the same person when I write poetry and when I teach. My daughter doesn't see a persona. When we read books or watch videos I don't set myself outside the experience. We have a strong connection through language and music. We go to the park and I talk to her about trees and birds, as I do with my poet friends, only I stay away from abstraction and sarcasm because she can't share in that with me. We look at nature and interact with each other on a more instinctual level, which I prefer. Children see the world with an awe that stands apart from purpose. A child's awe contains all the sadness and beauty I need to experience, so I don't have to grieve or hope.
"An awe that stands apart from purpose," though you didn't state it in this context, seems to be one of the most succinct definitions of poetry one could imagine. Are you ever jealous of the awe your daughter expresses in relation to her experiences? Can a poem ever approach that kind of intimacy?
I'm certainly not jealous of that awe because I experience it constantly, especially around my daughter, Adele. My life has been fortunate. I have suffered only a little, and the bit I could not contend with turned into poems. If I have consciously contributed to my happiness, that arrived out of my commitment to retaining a childlike awe. I turned my back on opportunities and severed myself from connections that might have lead to an easier life financially, but I never saw any point in living for anything other than poetry and family and awe at the pervasive beauty that surrounds us all. I remind myself occasionally that I am doing exactly what I set out to do as a high school kid reading Ginsberg and Cummings and Houseman while ignoring my math classes. I also remind myself that I knew I would be broke and the wealth of poetry, art, friends and experiences that have come in return far outweigh the difficulties I might have functioning in the larger society. Mostly, though, I do not have to remind myself because I am happily reading H.D. or playing in a creek with Adele. I'm too busy discovering language and tadpoles to replace my awe with a more pragmatic way of seeing. The child, of course, electrifies that awe a thousandfold, because she sees a thing newly and reacts with bodily delight. Then I look anew at that thing and cherish it all the more for her seeing it, too. That is exactly what poems do, or can do, when the poet allows psychological burdens and artistic impositions to fall away. We share an intense intimacy in the singular experience of the poem. I would rather not evaluate a poem's imitation of nature, but prefer to appreciate its provocation of intimacy between poet and reader or between poet and self. Art undoes us. Everything in this world undoes me, and as long as I can maintain that childishness I won't have any regrets.