An Interview With Poet Brian Henry

Nick Twemlow

In 1995 Brian Henry joined forces with Andrew Zawacki to resurrect Verse magazine. In 2000 he elicited the help of Matthew Zapruder and co-founded Verse Press. Along the way Henry, an assistant professor of English and director of the creative writing program at the University of Georgia, established a broad international reputation, both for his editorial and critical efforts, and for his sizable creative output.

Henry's debut collection of poems, Astronaut, was published in the U.K. by Arc Publications in 2000, and in the United States by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2002. That same year, Arc published Graft, his second book of poems, which New Issues Press will publish in the U.S. later this year. Henry's cross-genre collection, American Incident, which Publishers' Weekly noted "offers versatility, up-to-the-minute references, and edgy verbal fireworks framed by a remarkable range of forms," was also published in 2002 as part of the Salt Modern Poets series by Salt Publishing, an independent publisher with offices in Perth, Australia, and Cambridge, England. Forthcoming this year from the University of Michigan Press is On James Tate, a collection of essays edited by Henry.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Henry about distinctions of genre in American Incident.

Brian Henry: I wouldn't assign a single genre to American Incident, but since Salt is a poetry publisher and I publish mostly poetry, the book has been deemed a poetry book. I've seen this happen with other writers-Anne Carson and Thalia Field, for example-who mix genres within a single volume. Really-and I'm speaking also as a publisher of poetry-I think it has more to do with marketing and distribution—where it'll go in a bookstore-than with authorial intention.

One of my primary goals in the book is to examine genre, test the possibilities and limits of genre, so I included a performance text, fiction, prose poetry, essays in verse, and parodies in addition to pieces that are clearly supposed to be "poems." There's a lot of free verse, traditional forms, hybrid forms in the book, too. For several years, I was writing in a number of modes-not just poems-and I wanted to bring them all together in one book. I'm interested in developing a range-of concerns as well as of styles and strategies.

P&W: Given your role as an editor of Verse, both the magazine and press, as well as your studies in Europe and Australia, would you discuss some of the similar/dissimilar characteristics of each region's contemporary poetry? I'm thinking of formal devices, the use of irony and tone in relation to the political, and how, if at all, these poetries respond to each other.

BH: I'm wary of making generalizations about poetries from other countries, whether or not I've been there or lived there. I try to learn about other poetries, but also to keep in mind that I inevitably will have a distorted or incomplete view of them because I'm an American poet. It's impossible to start from scratch and get everything as a visitor. There are always holes, impasses, misunderstandings. Even in other English-language countries like Australia, there are traditions and cultural norms and local histories that affect the poetry, and it would require enormous sensitivity and commitment-in terms of time and energy-to truly understand a country's poetry enough to draw connections in a large-scale fashion. All of this is obvious-of course every country has its own tradition! But I think too many self-appointed experts on non-U.S. poetries ignore this or are content with an American-centered, and therefore distorted, view.

That said, your mention of the political in relation to poetry brings up a long-standing issue with a recently intensified relevance. Poets in democratic countries have to contend with irrelevance-political and social irrelevance. ... We can say whatever we want, but no one cares what we say. I think this has changed recently, however, with the neo-fascism of the Bush "presidency" and its not-so-subtle attempts to undermine civil liberties.

Freedom of speech has become an issue again, and American poets are clashing with their government because they strongly disagree with some (or many) of its policies and aren't finding alternative voices, or even meaningful debate, in the media. This has made poets more relevant, maybe even more hopeful about the possibilities of language to make things happen.

Look at Amiri Baraka and Tom Paulin [the Irish poet who allegedly made strong remarks concerning Israel during an interview with A-Ahram Weekly, an English-language newspaper in Cairo, last April; his scheduled reading at Harvard in November was cancelled]. However you feel about their beliefs and way of expressing their beliefs, you can't ignore the fact that they're poets, a supposedly marginalized subculture. Look at how Laura Bush called off the poetry event at the White House because it wasn't going to be apolitical. Someone tipped her off about Sam Hamill's gathering of anti-war poems from nearly 2,000 poets, and since this administration wants its poetry to fall in line, that wasn't acceptable. I must say, I was really inspired by Hamill's efforts and impressed by the responses-especially Rita Dove's-to the cancellation of the event.

P&W: You mentioned that with American Incident, a primary goal was to "test the possibilities and limits of genre." Is there a political component to this test?

BH: Well, writing poetry itself is a political act, even if very few people notice it or care. The fact of caring about language enough not to abuse it is political, as is the pursuit of such a materially unrewarding vocation. But poetry has some sort of mystique or cachet that is easily co-opted and capitalized on. So to reject the notion of genre is to reject that cachet and the (admittedly meager) rewards that come with it. A poet laureate, in general, has to write things that are readily identified as poems. To test genre is also to test marketing categories, though of course that act of testing can itself become marketable.

P&W: In a review of Louise Glück's The Seven Ages [in Contemporary Poetry Review] you wrote that Glück "has forgotten how to imagine, or even re-imagine, her life. Instead, she looks upon her past and assumes it's of interest solely because she is Louise Glück. Only poets accustomed to thinking of themselves as Poets would try to get away with this." A number of recent first books take as a main subject the author's relationship to/place within a world defined by poetry with a capital P. Gabriel Gudding's A Defense of Poetry and Tina Brown Celona's The Real Moon of Poetry and Other Poems come to mind. Is there a difference between these and other recent books by younger poets, and what you're arguing is happening with Glück?

BH: Gudding and Celona are having fun, whereas Glück is not. I admire some of Glück's work, and even wrote positive, relatively lengthy reviews of the two books before The Seven Ages; but when I read that book, I felt like she was spinning her wheels in the mud of subjectivity and self-regard. Personally, I think it's kind of pathetic to want to be a capital P poet-a Poet. That desire feeds the stereotype of the Poet as navel-gazer, solipsist, narcissist, etc. But it's a difficult line to define, much less walk, because of huge differences in perspectives. What I find objectionable is profound or sincere to someone else. Or, to turn my own argument on myself, what I do in my work could easily strike someone as narcissistic or otherwise pointless. But I hope that being aware of the risks of preciousness or of taking oneself too seriously allows me to avoid them, if not always then most of the time.

Self-consciousness is often a savvy writer's way of trying to be honest (I'm thinking especially of contemporary fiction writers like David Foster Wallace who have moralistic goals along with a distrust of moralism, which leads to a hyper-self-consciousness as well as persistent attempts at honesty). It's not like Glück started writing poetry because she wanted to examine the role of the poet, or Poet, in society; she wanted to examine herself. Fair enough, but how far can one poet ride that tactic before readers tire of it?

Many emerging poets ... distrust the hierarchies of the poetry world and address that world itself in their writing. Mark Wallace, Anselm Berrigan, Lee Ann Brown, Heather Fuller, and Jennifer Moxley come to mind. Mentioning them reminds me of Wallace's piece—a self-interview, I think—on what he calls Postlanguage poetry, which he defines in relation to Language poetry. In some ways, Language poetry arose out of a similar distrust, and I think Language poetry has been hugely influential—far more influential than its supposed arch-rival, the New Formalism-as a model of behavior for younger poets. Without the same context-historical impetus, geography, individuals-younger poets just can't become Language poets; it doesn't come down to aesthetic decisions. But a lot of these poets have adopted some of the original Language poets as unofficial mentors, so their work reflects the style, political beliefs, and/or content of one or more Language poets. Some Language poets have complained that their work should not be boiled down to the level of style or aesthetics, which is true, but no one can control how their work affects others. Admittedly, no one wants to see their work diluted to the point that it is read, and used, in ways antithetical to the original impulse, but that has always happened. See the recent aestheticization of Paul Celan.

Now that the impetus for Language poetry is so far in the past, younger poets have to find their own ways into the work, and some avenues will be truer to the original spirit than others. One benefit of all this is the community that developed around Language poetry. A lot of younger poets have created their own communities rather than wait to be offered a ticket to Parnassus by an elder; they start a magazine or reading series or small press and thereby reject the "acceptable" avenues toward publication (i.e., winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets or some other first-book prize judged by an older poet, too often a former professor of the winner). In that and other ways, Language poetry has been an inspiring model.

The worst younger poets are those consciously trying to write like-or be-a Louise Glück (or a Jorie Graham, a Rita Dove, a Philip Levine, or practically any another recent winner of A Very Big Prize) in the hope of securing the laurels that poets like Glück have received. A lot of younger poets do this unconsciously-they play into the game because they don't know anything outside the game-and end up failing because the poetry establishment cannot handle so many aspirants. The key, I think, is to take another route altogether, create your own community, and forget about pedigrees and prizes. If the mainstream shifts to accommodate you-as it has done to accommodate so many non-mainstream communities of writers-then you at least arrived there on your own terms.