Matthew Henriksen is the author of two books of poetry from Black Ocean, The Absence of Knowing (2015) and Ordinary Sun (2011). His poems have been anthologized recently in Hick Poetics and The Volta Book of Poets. A co-editor of the online poetry journal Typo, he also edited Another Part of the Flood: Poems, Stories, and Correspondence of Frank Stanford, which appeared in Fulcrum #7. He lives in the Arkansas Ozarks, where he assists the Northwest Arkansas Prison Stories Project.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My intent was to write fiction, but I could never work my way out of the syntax of the first sentence. I broke and rebroke the sentence structure for musical purposes. Then when I was fifteen a teacher showed me Hart Crane's poetry. And it was all over.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I'd say my poems start with sound, but really there is a sense that comes before it. I know I'm looked at as an emotional writer but the impulse to write isn't emotional: it's an awareness of emotion and a urgency for utterance. The more distance I get from my emotional self, the better I've been able to explore that creature who feels. The tool, of course, is sound. When the experience of becoming aware of the emotion reaches the urgency for utterance, sound isn't enough. There needs to be a phrasing that is both musically explicit and intellectually coherent, something that sounds spoken, even if the speech is weird. I talk weird. When some internal phenomenon works its way outward and finds itself wrapped up in my weird talking, I have the first line of a poem. The rest of the poem just follows that. And then eventually there's a book, because I write the poems in a certain increment of time--for the first book all of my twenties, for the second book the four years from the birth of my child through the end of my marriage--and the poems all come from utterances from whatever part of my internal existence I'm in touch with at that time. Everything I've ever written has come one line at a time: there's no plan.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I ran The Burning Chair Readings in Brooklyn for years, then ran them here in Fayetteville, Arkansas for years. Only recently I handed that work off. Readings are integral to poetry, to poetry as I understand it at least. And they've been at the core of most of my close friendships. The presence of faces and bodies and auditory words brings us closer to the poetry. I also happen to think that most poetry, not all, is essentially comprised of words as sound, not as a system of signifiers. It breaks my heart that I don't give readings much anymore. I just can't afford the travel. And I don't have much community here. There are a few poets truly amazing in the Ozarks. We used to get together every month or so and stay up late into night reading poems to each other, but I've decided to give up the social poetry life. I work two jobs, I have a kid, and I put my girlfriend and things like health and finances at the forefront--so poetry readings had to go. As did watching baseball. But readings are essential. However, there are poets like Paul Celan and Alice Notley and C.D. Wright whose books I open and read and the voices are present. Right now Audre Lorde is doing that for me. If I need to hear a poet read, I open one of Audre Lorde's books to any page and she's right there talking in my ear.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I'm just going to say this is part of why I haven't been writing for most of the last year. I don't think poets have any social obligations. I don't think people in general have any essential social obligations. But I'm making the choice to be as conscious as I can be. I'm looking for ways to become more social as a writer and I don't know how. I've been listening to what others have to say. I work with prisoners. They write and we cast their writing into performances and bring it back to them. It's empowering for them to hear their own words. We don't edit the prisoners. We guide their writing but we don't instruct them in creative writing, at least not in a traditional way. We try to show them that they can tap into memory, or their perceptions, and write out of that space without judging. They tend to go really deep in themselves and often will say of something they've just written, "I never told anyone that before." They'll usually talk about a weight being dropped. Men who didn't like each other in their barracks will bond after sharing a poem or two. Every time I work with prisoners, I see poetry doing what I have always thought it ought to do: we heal ourselves and we learn about each other. When we take the performances out into the public, we see people's perceptions changing. Right now, I don't know how anything like that fits into my writing. For now, I only see myself a a facilitator of this kind of work. I'll start writing again, but I'm going to have to go through some sort of transformation before I'll feel like it's worth anything.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My first book involved numerous outside editors who looked at the manuscript multiple times over the years. The second book didn't get as much feedback, though I begged for it. I think I made a mistake in not taking more responsibility for the work myself. I felt the first book was helped along, like I was the primary composer but there was a collaboration behind my choices. The second book is so much closer to who I was at the time I wrote the poems that they needed to find their own way. I don't plan to ask for much help in the future. I don't think I'll show anything to anyone until I know it's finished. But I always am willing to take an edit. In the end poems are about making them. They're not going to last when we're gone. If they do last at all, it won't be for very long. The poems we are writing hardly exist now, and they're so hard won. I never see any poem as finished because they're intangible flashes, like light in the water. Don't tell me Shakespeare's sonnets are the same as when he wrote them.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"Refuse to engage in meaningless babble." My college prof, the poet Karl Elder, said this a few times. Poets talk a lot of shit. In fact, most of them aren't actually poets. They just talk about how they're poets, and their poems are out to prove it. It took me a while to see that some very impressive contraptions getting passed off as poems were actually vessels of 100% bullshit.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write when I feel like writing and I stop when I have to, when I'm tired, or on rare occasions when I feel like basking in the glow of having written something nice.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read William Blake (obsessively) or I paint (badly). Sometimes I read Hegel, passages at random, because for whatever reason the structure of his thinking and expression speaks to me. But I don't care about his ideas. If I get into a deep hole where I want to write but can't, I read Emily Dickinson. Reading her doesn't help get me out of the rut at all. In fact, I get more entrenched. But it's always better to read her than to write my own poems, and after all, we might as well be happy. I've never understood people who get frustrated when they aren't writing. The world is a truly gorgeous place. There are trees, birds, children laughing, and Emily Dickinson poems, not to mention kimchi soup, sex, and coffee. When I feel stalled, it's when I look at social injustice, which is everywhere, and incongruant with what most poetry is after. So it's not a problem, not to write. Writing and not writing are both luxuries.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
William Blake, Lao Tzu, and Novalis are the writers I take the most solace in. I guess I read their books the way some read scriptures, though I'm a true disbeliever in all things. I feel that way about Emily Dickinson, as well, but she's also the best writer that's ever lived. She has all the spiritual vitality of the other three but she writes poetry that's pure art. I never forget that she's a poet when she's writing. I don't turn to her for a model, really. I just don't think anyone else can do it like that. Alice Notley is similar for me. But I get to see her work as it emerges. I feel like I'm participating in it more because she's writing now, and her vigor and velocity carry over with me when I write. The way she moves through language at that pace, but still working selectively, still meditating, and the way she seems to see immediately through all the nonsense to the line that is poetry--while I can't use her as a technical model because she's so far beyond me, I can embrace that spirit and try to tap into a little of my own. I do study Celan closely. I try to get his syntax in my head (I read all the translations and the German, though I don't know much German). The way he approaches emotional experience through sound and syntax strikes me as something I can try to replicate with my own idioms. Clark Coolidge and John Weiners do this form me as well. Those are the three poets I most consciously try to study and incorporate into my technique. Of course, I'm failing to write like any of them, but that's not the point. I find very specific elements in their poems that help me move my own work forward. I also have a handful of contemporaries in mind--among them Andrea Baker, Kate Greenstreet, Elizabeth Robinson, Susana Gardner, Brandon Shimoda, Dot Devota, Laura Solomon, Lily Brown--who work in the lyric and have ears that I feel are tuned to frequencies similar to my own, and who keep the bullshit and noise out of their poems. I do check myself against their work. I like a lot of poets out there, but most of their work has less and less to do with my own. I see a lot of the poets I've most closely identified with turning away from the larger poetry scene and just writing in their cabins or their tiny apartments, like Theodore Enslin or Larry Eigner. You really don't need more than four or five poets for your community, as long as you have a good shelf of books.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I wish I'd gotten into physics. Or truck driving. Those are serious answers and my feelings have been the same since high school.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Sara Nicholson's What the Lyric Is / Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse
19 - What are you currently working on?
I'm teaching my six-year-old to read with fluency.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;