Brian Henry’s Lessness is a book that eats itself, a catalog of wounds both festering and healing—though when they do heal, they heal to be torn open again. In Lessness, like most of Henry’s books, narrative is a more emergent than artificial construct; it loops toward linear sound and sense only to fly back out to its apogee. It is not so much form as action-form, form-as-action, an appearance of stasis which is really movement—the smudged line one finds when scrutinizing that all-too-easy binary drawn between content and its formal vehicles. The standard presentation of left-justified text serves as some conventional touchstone, a drone note against which more organic and untethered employments of white space weave their synesthetic phrases. White space, as Henry proves, is more than a necessary canvas on which poetry, in a very strict sense, is assembled: it is as crucial a tool of language as the black marks that make words or fail to make words, and, like those black marks, it posseses its own syntax and semantics. And though these apparatuses are foreign, Henry is unafraid to step into that unmapped field of meaning (which may be barren or mine-laden), though he’s likewise doubtful of the instruments he uses to measure it. “There are rooms that know you, rooms you know / & can name, rooms that rise & stutter / into view if you stare long enough,” he notes in “Rooms,” rendering even man-made structures prone to dissolution back into the very same psychological and supernatural underworlds—of both human and non-human memory—they were erected to override, or at least resist.
The falsity of the notion of construction as a positive, as something permanent, is what seems to be at stake in Lessness—and in its place we receive the idea that the only real motion is cyclical motion, that the planet’s sphericality leads nowhere, that laws of nature and wear ultimately vivisect all that they forge. Experiments are toppled, ways to look at “aging & what it does to the ways / we move through the world.” Solids turn to liquids, liquids to mists, mists to solids again. But his is an emotional topography as well as a physical cosmology. In “Elegies for Failure” (is a mourning of failure a celebration of success, or are we mourning the fact that we, or something known to us, has failed?), it is words themselves that “disappeared almost / as soon as / they move through”; despite this, anecdotes are continually hinged to Henry’s account, as though the impetus to tack meaning onto this waterfall of time on which we must make speech is an unshakeable habit. The severity of the problems facing retainment, in which the failure of poetry to remember and itself be a lasting monument is certainly encompassed, is further bound up in the fact that so much of Lessness cannibalizes itself. At first, the interjections of pen and marker seem sadistic: “—in both cases I felt [blacked out] / destroyed,” reads a part of the third section of “Elegies for Failure.” The mild shock of the unusual—seeing “unfinished” text, which to conventional sensibilities might indicate any corrective mark or signification beyond which the alphabet and majority-rules punctuation permit—gives way to a darker understanding: that this is not just a devouring of the self by the self. That this is not just a caving-in to the forces that weather statues back to sand, but an embodiment of creation itself, a making-present of the violence of a poem’s birth. (And, by extension, its meaning’s birth.)
Poems in Lessness aren’t just blacked out, but crossed out, too: these redactions give access to the text that once was formally included, and which is now formally excluded, from the text. In such pieces, Henry demonstrates that introductions and removals are not themselves wholly opposed. Introducing new scaffolds to reach meaning means introducing chaos and installing something in the place of something else that could have stood there; on the other hand, removing a ladder to meaning by erasing it or never building it doesn’t destroy its potential to mean, but only makes its target harder to reach. And it introduces a quantity of white space in its place—which, as I noted above, can warp and facilitate language’s delivery of its goods. This white space is all the more unnerving for the ghostliness that infects it: moving through Lessness, as with Henry’s more narrative sequence Quarantine, one feels the palpability of the missing, as much a sensible thing as anything else. And when buildings—whether they be made of concrete or of words—are rended, these spots of missing-ness glow with a particular brightness. These poems enact their ruination: through jagged enjambments, through torn-in-half stanzas, through the crackling of the glass ceiling of convention. And the self hardly escapes such abrasion: “& the skin slips itself from the body / sunk at last & at last a ghost,” Henry writes in “Skin & Stain.” What it does, though, is arrive at that unlocatable location, the vertice where making flips into unmaking—where we find the “room the sun never touched” (“Rooms”), the place where “the I / was lost” (“Acid/Arena”), where there is “no skin / only scar” (“Summer’s Marsh”). What’s most cutting, perhaps, is the ability of these poems to so closely fuse an aesthetic surface with a semantic concept in such a way that the two become impossible to tell apart: they’re a set of facing mirrors between which one steps, bits of quartz that let light through but not people. But, like quartz, they also hold shadows: of cities, of the human form, of structures that were. And just as a fractured rock records its own breakage, so the poems in Lessness are as much small monuments to the undercurrent of destruction in poetic creation as to the solid ground poetry tills for itself.
This month, I corresponded with Henry through email about a variety of topics: Lessness, the peculiarities of translation, decimating the very text one aims to create, poetic technique, the American literary consciousness, and his forthcoming book of poetry, Brother No One. A longtime editor and current professor at the University of Richmond, Henry’s criticism appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of The Kenyon Review. You can find our conversation below—itself, as Henry might say, “an open thing / that begins as remains & ends as no thing”—along with two unpublished poems from Brother No One.
The Kenyon Review: I’ve noticed that many of your books, especially Lessness, use a lot of white space—employing both absence and subtraction as poetic method. Is there a rationale that governs how you navigate the page and how you incorporate “blankness” (for lack of a better term) in your work?
Brian Henry: There is a rationale, but it depends on the poem at hand. One of the poems in Lessness, “Subterra,” was longer and more conventional for six or seven years until, during the ongoing revision process, I decided to erase most of the text. Because I left the remaining words and phrases in their original places (in order to acknowledge what was removed), the poem necessarily uses a lot of white space and has a more dynamic visual presence than before. In the first “Inertia” poem in Lessness, I originally wrote a poem in two columns, then cut most of the right-hand column, introducing space between the end of the left-hand column and the beginning of what remained of the right-hand column. In “Wreckage” and “Elegies for Failure,” though, the white space is generally reflective of how I wrote the poem. Sometimes it’s the result of an inner argument within the poem, or an attempt to break a line without quite breaking it, or an effort to create a different kind of music, and sometimes it’s the result of collage and the process of composition. In other books (such as Graft and Brother No One), I generally use white space as a kind of punctuation—to pace the poem horizontally and vertically—but in “Sometimes” in Wings Without Birds, it’s used mostly for musical effect, which seemed appropriate because Andrew Bird is lurking behind that poem. In the end, though, I remain a fan of the left margin, and I always seem to return there, eventually.
KR: Lines are blacked out or crossed out in various pieces from Lessness, too, features mimetic of the external world’s decay. Did you intend for these pieces to be modified in such a way when you first wrote them? I’m curious, also, about your choice to pursue such a physical approach to revision, and what it might mean for authors to erase their own creations.
BH: I made these modifications later, sometimes much later after the initial composition. I’m an obsessive reviser, and because some of the poems in Lessness had been around for a while (the book appeared in 2011, and the oldest poem in the book was written in 1995), I revised them dozens of times. So with “Scar,” for example, I had a 7-line poem (which was originally longer) that did what I wanted it to do, but during one of the revisions I decided to cut six of the lines, leaving only the last line of the poem. I was working on the page, so I simply crossed through the lines with my pen. Later, when I was implementing revisions on the computer, I felt that the poem didn’t quite work as a regular one-liner and decided to keep the residue—the evidence—of the editing process on the page. The poem, then, could be read as three poems: the original seven lines, the one remaining line, or the six lines that were crossed out. Fortunately, all of this (which could be little more than gimmickry) worked with the poem’s subject matter, so it seemed justified beyond the level of technique.
I did the same thing to the first “Inertia,” even after cutting most of the right-hand column, and in “Jesus/Stick” and “Wreckage” and throughout “Elegies for Failure.” “Elegies for Failure” also incorporates redactions, which go further than the cross-outs in rendering the redacted text illegible, inaccessible. The impetus for these thick black bars was to leave evidence of the self-censorship that went into the work. When the manuscript was coming together and I started viewing it as a potential book, I realized that some things—names, details, places—had to go. I recognized the cowardice of that impulse and figured I at least could make it clear that the work had been altered rather than quietly deleting the bits that I wanted to get rid of. I also wanted to pay homage to Bob Brown’s Gems, his Prohibition-era redactions that transformed innocuous Victorian poesie into naughty verse.
There is a violent aspect to editing and revision, especially when it’s done on the page and not on the computer screen, and I wanted to call attention to that throughout Lessness. All writers who revise their work erase or delete or mark out things they’ve written, but usually there is no trace of those actions in the finished product.
KR: Lessness seems to address, via its self-destructive forms and its subject matter, permutations of the idea of nonexistence and its paradoxes: lessness being another thing, a presence of its own that can displace as well as destroy. In your mind, what role does silence take in poetry—in sound, in visual presentation, in craft? How do a page’s contents communicate with the un-represented, the materials or facts or textures of the world that are not privileged by inclusion?
BH: I’ve noticed (or maybe it was pointed out to me) that I have used the word “less” in a lot of poems—not just in this book, but from my first book on—so I must have an unconscious affinity for subtraction and what it signifies. I also am drawn to inequalities (“less than,” or “less ___ than ___”). But “lessness” gives lack a form; it becomes.
For me, silence is both a precursor to and a presence in every poem, and every poem returns to silence. During composition, the poet has to manage silence—between words, at the ends of lines, between lines, between stanzas—and also overcome silence long enough for the poem to do something. It’s so easy to stop writing, to let the poem slip back into silence prematurely. When I was talking about white space earlier, I was also thinking about silence—the visual manifestation of silence on the page. Once a page is no longer blank, once we scratch a word or even a letter on it, that word or letter is surrounded not only by white space (the visual), but by silence.
Throughout Lessness, more than any of my other books, I try to illuminate how what remains (what’s included) interacts with what’s been excised (crossed out, redacted). So even when a poem seems “normal” or complete, the reader might question what has been removed, and how, because of the wreckage surrounding it.
KR: The collection is, as a consequence, hyper-aware of materiality, language’s as well as its own. Do you think that written language, despite being the vehicle for poetry, ever gets in poetry’s way? Can what’s “contained in” poetry ever be separated from the physical object of written language, or are the two irrevocably fused?
BH: There have been a few times when I’ve started a poem because of a sound pattern in my head—a series of sounds unattached to language, not the sounds of language or even music—and I wanted to write a poem from and around those sounds. It never really works, because the words never seem to capture or convey the sounds I thought I heard. And there have been times, while writing, that I can “hear” what the poem needs but cannot locate the word for it. So, yes, despite being my primary medium, words can get in a poem’s way.
KR: You’ve translated Woods and Chalices by Tomaž Šalamun and The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger. How has working as a translator altered your sensibilities as a poet—via eyes, ears, or tongue?
BH: Translating Šalamun essentially rewired my brain for a while. You can see some of the evidence in Lessness, but it’s especially evident in Brother No One. Šalamun’s poetry, even when it seems contained (in a 14-liner or in tercets, say), is so violent and explosive and unpredictable, translating it, following his mind line by line, deciphering his uses of languages other than Slovenian (Italian, Croatian, Spanish, French, etc.), tracking him as he ranges across world history, literature, and geography as well as his own personal past, staying with his rapid shifts of location, thought, image, and tone, surfacing with impossible utterances that knocked me out and that I knew had never been made before in English—all of this changed how my mind worked in poetry for a couple of years. I also suspect that it rendered me unable to write critical prose for that same period. My brain, when engaged with poetry, simply stopped working rationally for a time. While reading other poems, when I loved a poem, my “critical” response at that time would be to write a poem, not prose.
Šalamun places more emphasis on—and pays more attention to—the beginnings of lines than to the endings of lines. This is the opposite of how I write, because I privilege line endings (and line breaks and enjambment) over their beginnings. But I wanted to honor his style and his intentions, so I had to reorient my perspective on lines and line breaks in order to translate his poems properly. Now I pay more attention to the beginnings of lines than I used to (though I still privilege the endings).
Translating Šteger’s The Book of Things stretched me in other ways. Šteger’s poems could be tricky, but they were more orderly and philosophical than Šalamun’s. Still, there were definite layers and allusions and puns to try to reproduce. I wanted the English versions to be as faithful as possible to the original while also succeeding as poems in English. While translating The Book of Things, I imagined that every poem had its ideal, platonic English form, and that with enough effort and ingenuity I could reach it.
With both poets, I wanted to maintain their distinct music. I often view a poem as a scaffolding of sound, and I wanted my translations to erect a similar scaffolding—not identical, which would be impossible, but as close in effect and duration as possible. Fortunately, I’d written close to a thousand of my own poems before translating anyone else’s, so I had a lot of direct experience to draw from. It was usually an intuitive process rather than a mechanical one.
I also have found that translating Slovenian poetry has expanded my own lexicon as a poet. And I’ve learned a lot about Slovenian history, mythology, geography, and culture. I’m with my friend Ilya Kaminsky when he says, “We learn something new about the English language each time we confront another syntax, another grammar, another musical way of organizing silences in a mouth. By translating, we learn how the limits of our English-speaking minds can be stretched to accommodate the foreign.”
KR: More on translation—in two separate talks you conducted for The Verse Book of Interviews, Šalamun said that he believes “in almost literal translations: just strictly translate the meaning and then things will come out,” whereas Martín Espada said that “in matters of literary translation, I realized that the poet can be his own worst enemy, because the natural tendency is to insist on the most literal possible translation of your own work.” Where does translation fall, for you, on the scale of literalness to non-literalness?
BH: It depends on the poet I’m translating. Although I’ve translated some dead poets (Neruda, Trakl, Rilke), I only publish my translations of living poets. This is because, for me, translation is an act of friendship in and through the word. I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting a translation into the world if I hadn’t “given” it to the author and received the author’s response. There’s a mutual exchange involved. And there’s also a practical issue: I often have questions, or multiple possibilities for a word or phrase, and it’s immensely helpful to be able to run them by the author.
There’s a crucial difference for me between writing poems and translating poems. Many of my own poems remain with me for weeks, months, even years before venturing out; some are never seen by anyone else. My poems are guaranteed only one reader: me. But my translations are guaranteed to have two readers. There is always an exchange.
My view of translation as an act of friendship might explain why I have approached translating Šalamun and Šteger differently, rather than applying my personal practice and/or theory of translation to both poets. If my own approach chafed the author, I modified my approach or, if I felt strongly about it, argued my case. As a friendship does not mean imposing oneself on another, translation does not mean imposing oneself on a text.
With Šalamun, he did want absolutely literal translations—no interpretations or embellishments. For him, the essence of a Šalamun poem—the personality, the sensibility, the wildness, the community established by the proliferation of names, the vis-art aesthetic—will come through regardless. And it usually does. But I would make subtle changes, not to alter the meaning, but for the sake of sound in English. Because I was working with the original, I always knew that these changes weren’t steering the poem away from the literal meaning of the poem, but were restoring some of the resonance of the original that a purely literal translation often lacks.
That said, if a poem is highly musical in its original language, a strictly literal translation might convey the general meaning, but it often won’t be a poem in the target language. It becomes an artifact, an exercise. The flip side of that would be to use a source text to create one’s own poem, which could be creatively productive but isn’t truly a translation, at least not in the conventional sense. I like creative translation, especially of works that already have been translated conventionally, but I try to keep Eliot Weinberger’s advice in mind: “a bad translation is the insistent voice of the translator.”
KR: Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said several years ago that American readers “don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” Do your experiences with translating poetry, or with writing in general, lead you to agree? How do you feel about the relationship between translation and American poetry milieu?
BH: Well, there’s that never-changing figure of 3%: only 3% of books published in the U.S. are translated from other languages. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it still seems pathetically low. The French publish three times as many books in translation as Americans do. The Germans four to five times as many. The Italians eight times as many.
I like to think that I recognized the importance of translated works before I started translating, mainly because I started editing Verse in 1995 and didn’t start translating until 2006, and Verse published a lot of poetry in translation as well as English-language poetry outside the Anglo-American tradition. Still, it’d be delusional to claim that I had a real grasp on poetry from around the world. It’s hard enough to maintain a general sense of English-language poetry in the U.S. And we’re not even talking about fiction, which is a much bigger realm. I do think American culture would change for the better if more translated books were published in the U.S. In an essay about the history of Jacket, the Australian poet John Tranter notes that the U.S.’s “insularity is widespread, casual and profound.” He’s right. And he’s not really talking about “the average American”; he’s including writers, editors, and academics. We seem to assume that we are the center of the literary universe. It offends us when the Nobel Prize goes to someone that we (the literati and intelligentsia) haven’t heard of. The American media (or the sliver of the media that covers literature) immediately assumes that the writer is obscure worldwide and possibly not deserving of the prize, or we assume there are provincial or political reasons for that person receiving the prize.
Still, some non-English poets have filtered into and changed American poetry. They seem to come in waves, perhaps because of who translated them, who published their books, where they lived at the time…
KR: W.S. di Piero, in a 1996 interview with John Rodden in Translation Review, said that working as a translator informed his poetry by providing a “quest for recognitions.” What I took this to mean was that translating allowed him to discover shared elements (meanings, patterns, insights) between writers of different languages. I wanted to ask if your experience as a translator is comparable, or if translation ever proves dissonant: are there times when you find a particular work hard to reconcile with English, or difficult due to other constraints?
BH: I wonder if di Piero was translating poets he did not know personally, or at least was talking about translating poets he didn’t know personally. Because almost all of my translations are of poets who are my friends, I go into the translation with a sense of how the poet speaks, eats, walks, moves through space, how they are as physical beings in the world, which affects how their poems operate. I want my translations to capture that as much as the linguistic and thematic correspondences. There’s also a practical reason for this: at some point, the poets are going to read the poems in English, and the translation needs to fit in their mouths, around their tongues, so that when they read the poems, the poems come from their bodies, not from the page in front of them.
There are definitely times when it seems impossible to carry over something from Slovenian into English. Usually they’re puns, neologisms, aphorisms, or incredibly deft allusions that need to be unpacked (and thus become attenuated) in English. Šalamun is continually throttling the Slovenian language, producing syntactical monstrosities. Translating these results in similarly impossible constructions in English. But this expands the language. Just as Šalamun’s linguistic violence changes Slovenian, an English translation of this kind of work can expand English.
KR: Susan Sontag said that to interpret is “to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’” Is there a difference, in your mind, between imagination and interpretation, or between translating languages and translating lived experience into language?
BH: Interpretation is a constant risk in translation. Because the translator has to understand, in some sense, the work that she or he is translating, a certain amount of interpretation is inevitable. But if interpretation spills over into the translation, it can “impoverish” the work by weighing it down, normalizing it, paraphrasing it, explaining it, taming it.
KR: Matthew Zapruder, in his essay “Show Your Work!,” wrote that the “hegemony of content over form in the mind of the critic is at the very heart of the uselessness of mainstream poetry criticism in America…” And in a blog post titled “Criticism’s Crisis” for The Best American Poetry, you said something similar: “Still, I’ve never understood why any poetry critics focus primarily on subject matter. … If someone is writing mostly about content, then s/he is probably not writing about poetry.” If this inclination toward content is something we’re still dealing with today, what consequences do you think it’s had for poetry?
BH: I can’t say for sure, but I think it rewards repetition (finding a subject and staying with it too long, past the point of authenticity to the point of self-parody) and over-determination (approaching a book of poems as if it were an academic project with a thesis). If I specifically want to read about something, if my primary goal is to gather information, I’ll read nonfiction or journalism. If I want to see how another human being perceives, moves through, and reimagines the world and the language that we share, I’ll look to poetry.
KR: I wanted, also, to move that question out of the context of criticism and into the practice of poetry—when you’re writing, is “form” an active consideration for you? Is “content”? Do you dodge one to focus on the other, or is the phenomenology of the experience something else entirely?
BH: I’ve written so many poems that the form now tends to be organic rather than pre-determined or conscious enough to be called “an active consideration” during composition. For me, this is as true for a sonnet as for a poem in free verse or a prose poem or a pantoum or a hemistich. I do consciously focus on form when I’m creating a new form or writing with constraints, but that’s an exception to my usual process. I tend to let the language—and the thinking and seeing and feeling pushing that language—dictate the content; I don’t sit down and say “I’m going to write a poem about the bubonic plague” or “Today’s a good day to write a poem about my son.” This might explain why the subject matter of my poems has varied so much. Yes, my poems have subject matter, but I do not approach the subject matter as if I were writing a paper. I try to allow the language to lead me to the content rather than beginning with content and finding language to convey it.
KR: Having spent many years as a reviewer, has pursuing criticism had any tangible effect on your poetry?
BH: It’s hard to say. I published around 100 book reviews and essays between 1996 and 2004, from my early twenties to my early thirties. It’s safe to say that most of the books that I reviewed left virtually no impression on me as a poet, especially when I was working on assignment and with a deadline. But the process did require me to read a lot, to read widely, and read stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have read, at least not closely. And I didn’t review just American poetry, which was beneficial to my work in that it helped me put American poetry, and my poetry, in a somewhat larger perspective. From the beginning, I was reviewing English, Irish, Scottish, and Australian poetry, plus poetry in translation, as well as American poetry.
There are some reviews and essays that had a real effect on my work, though, especially when the piece was my idea and not an assignment from an editor. (This also meant that I usually had the necessary time to think through the work.) When writing these pieces (on poets like Hayden Carruth, Charles Wright, James Tate, John Tranter, Jorie Graham, John Kinsella, and Graham Foust), I learned a lot about the line, form, style, improvisation, omission, conciseness, and the legacies that poets leave to each other.
KR: Has working with Verse magazine, Verse Books, and as an editor of anthologies changed your thoughts on poetic process—or on the often-termed “greater conversation” of literature, especially with regard to the collection of interviews?
BH: I started editing Verse in March 1995, when I was 22. The first thing I did was read every back issue of the magazine, about 3000 poems, most of them from Europe. I probably learned more about poetry—about the possibilities of poetry—from doing that than from anything else. Clearly the magazine is an attempt to initiate a larger conversation about poetry. The magazine always has been devoted to work in translation and to criticism as well as to English-language poetry outside the Anglo-American, because we feel that American poetry is expanded by exposure to other poetries and is illuminated and strengthened by incisive criticism.
Matthew Zapruder and I started Verse Press in 2000, but I stepped down in 2003, so I edited books for only a few years. Still, one of the books that we published—Peter Richards’ Oubliette—had a particularly profound effect on how I viewed poetry and poetic process. I had published some of Peter’s poems in Verse, and when I was living in Australia for a year, he sent me a copy of his manuscript. I was going on a trip, to tropical north Queensland, and I brought his manuscript with me. I lived with those poems for a couple of weeks, spent every evening re-reading them and moving them around, and emerged with what basically became the book. I’d never spent that much time working on a collection of someone else’s poems before. I already loved Peter’s poems, but I learned so much, as a poet and reader of poetry, from that experience.
The book of interviews is essentially a collection of interviews that had appeared in Verse over the previous 10 years, plus a handful of interviews commissioned specifically for the book. From its beginnings in Oxford in 1984, Verse was committed to interviews with poets—a wide range of poets from many different countries, some with only one book, some with more than 20. My co-editor Andrew Zawacki and I conducted a lot of these interviews ourselves, and though I doubt that the interviews affected how we write poems, they certainly reminded us that literature does participate in a larger conversation. I also liked how some poets in the book contradicted each other. We weren’t trying to put together a book that reflected our views, but a book that featured a range of poets, from different countries, who had interesting things to say.
KR: In an interview with Poets & Writers from 2003, you spoke of the Language poets as a model for community-making, especially in light of a larger distrust of the poetry world’s hierarchies. “The key, I think, is to take another route altogether, create your own community, and forget about pedigrees and prizes,” you said. “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.” Looking back to Astronaut’s publication in 2000, do you see your own career as having this sort of trajectory? If so, was it a conscious choice—and if not, has this notion still affected you?
BH: My first book is unusual in that it appeared in England and was translated into Slovenian and published in Slovenia two years before it appeared in the United States. The first editor to accept a book of mine was Australian, and the second was Slovenian. As I say this, it sounds like this was all part of a big plan to bypass the usual processes and venues, but really it was happenstance. Astronaut was twice a finalist for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and it was a finalist for some other contests and came “close” at a few presses. So I essentially had very little control over how and when the book actually appeared. But I am glad things worked out the way they did, because I was able to develop a relationship with a wonderful British press (Arc Publications) and to encounter translation early on as the translated party. Still, I saw—and continue to see—book prizes as a way toward publication, not as a meaningful measure of a book’s worth. Astronaut was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in England; the book has the same merits and flaws whether or not it won the prize (it didn’t) or whether it was even shortlisted. Those kinds of prizes are generally irrelevant to the work.
My career, such as it is, has purposely been complicated by my attempts not to repeat myself from book to book. I don’t believe in milking a book for all it’s worth, or in developing a “brand” and delivering it again and again, or in surveying the field to see what niche I can fill. When I write a poem, I put it in a folder on my computer, “assigning” it to a possible future book based on the style and concerns of the poem. I usually end up working on two, sometimes three books at once, and my books generally take a long time to complete (except for the sui generis ones like Quarantine and Doppelgänger, which had their own time frames because of their unusually focused modes of composition). Although the books have appeared in quick succession, the poems in Wings Without Birds, Lessness, and Brother No One cover ten to twelve years each, not two or three.
KR: Relatedly, have there been other “alternative” communities (communities positioned outside of, or against, the poetic mainstream) that you’ve found worthwhile? What are the dangers and benefits of poetic community?
BH: Tomaž Šalamun used to call the cluster of poets affiliated with Verse and the early years of Verse Press the “Verse tribe”—poets like Andrew Zawacki, Matthew Zapruder, Peter Richards, Joshua Beckman, and Matthew Rohrer. And Šalamun was like our crazy, beloved uncle. But that was fairly short-lived, as Verse Press became Wave Books and people moved around and fell in and out of contact. I’ve been involved, briefly, with other poetry communities, but nothing that affected my work as much as the Verse poets did, mainly because of life circumstances.
There are obvious benefits of being part of a poetic community: friendship, aesthetic kinship, collaboration, publishing opportunities, etc. I suppose the risks would be insularity, provincialism, entitlement, boosterism, reinforcement of delusions.
KR: You also spoke with Poets & Writers about the political underpinnings of your cross-genre book, American Incident. You said that “writing poetry itself is a political act,” and warned of both the endorsement and rejection of genre as attitudes with marketable potential, i.e. as attitudes capable of being manipulated via commodification. How do you negotiate genre or even style in your own works—seeing that many of them move into and out of narrative and otherwise disavow allegiance to any singular classification—given the politics of each?
BH: It might make more sense to approach that question first as a reader. Although I love many books that are immediately recognizable as novels or books of poetry or short stories, I have been more consistently and immediately intrigued (and sometimes productively aggravated) by books that evade generic classification and thus the usual machines of commodification (though of course the genrelessness of a book can become a marketing tool). Books like Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, David Markson’s Reader’s Block, Jenny Boully’s The Body, John Kinsella’s Genre, Tim Roberts’ Drizzle Pocket, Lisa Robertson’s Debbie, Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait, and Tom Phillips’ A Humument all changed and expanded my sense of possibilities of what writing could do while seeming consummate and inevitable. Still, there can be only so many of these kinds of books, and most of the books that I read are fairly easy to categorize.
My own writing works this way. Most of what I write can be classified as poetry. Sometimes, when certain forces converge, I manage to work outside genre for a while. But I’ve found that I often cannot sustain that, so I have a handful of unfinished books that defy genre.
I still believe that how one approaches language—whether in a poem or a work of fiction or an unclassifiable text or new genre—has political implications separate from content.
KR: Jack Spicer, in a 1958 letter to Robin Blaser, wrote that there “really is no single poem,” that “trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us—not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem.” What do you think of Spicer’s view? Does this conception of a continuous poetic practice seem right?
BH: I mostly agree with Spicer. I do not believe in the perfect poem, despite my dedication to revision, and I value process as much as I value product. If someone writes poems regularly for 20, 30, 40 years, that longevity necessarily complicates the idea of the “single poem” because many of the poems will speak to, or depend on, each other somehow. In such a life, no poem is an isolato. I’ve been writing poems consistently for 20 years, and despite my efforts not to repeat myself or retread familiar ground, I do find echoes. And I consciously scatter certain kinds of poems across books so they can speak to each other and so that the imaginary reader in my head might notice and feel a bit of frisson, as I have when I’ve noticed other writers do similar things across books.
KR: You’ve said before that you don’t see yourself “as primarily ‘an American poet’”; how do you think poetry, including your own, has addressed or failed to address major shifts brought on by modernity—internationalism, globalization, and digitalization, to pick a few? I see these concerns (and a cartographical preoccupation with boundaries and ownership in general) in your work; your poem “Map / Less” from Lessness declares, “Walllessness should not be considered a harm / or lack…”
BH: That’s a difficult question. I have tried to take on some larger issues—the ones you mention and, more recently in Brother No One, surveillance and what that does to our language and perception—but it would be lunatic of me to pretend that I could write a poem or book that would counter the effects of modernity. Still, it would be unthinkable for me not to try to reach people, individually, in an attempt to invite them to view the world and our shared language differently, if only temporarily.
KR: How do you situate your forthcoming collection Brother No One with respect to your previous books? One poem takes its title from Augustine’s Confessions, just as “Err Far” from Lessness does (and the collection’s name comes from Beckett)—why this book, twice, and what does such borrowing constitute for you?
BH: Written during the Bush years, Brother No One is my most overtly political book since American Incident. And it’s probably my ickiest and most abject, in that the various kinds of eros that have appeared in some of my other books (like Graft, Quarantine, and The Stripping Point) have been entirely subsumed by the decay that runs throughout Lessness. Formally, the book is governed by the sonnet, but the form becomes perverted through the course of the book.
Augustine might seem relevant here, though the truth is that I have a list of perhaps a dozen titles from his Confessions (others include “Tongue Strings,” “Time’s Holiday,” “Safest Human,” “Phantom Cross,” and “Dead Syllable”), and I let the poems go in the books where I think they belong. I’d bet that my next two books will have poems with titles from Augustine, too, but the poems themselves will be very different from each other. “Err Far” is a three-line poem (almost a fragment), while “Devil’s Snare” in Brother No One is 20 lines long and ends with Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. “Safest Human” is 52 lines long. I suppose one could trace each of the poems back to Augustine, but not in a way that necessarily requires the poems to appear in the same book.
My borrowings are pulled from my journals, where I write early drafts of most of my poems and also write down phrases and lines from my readings. Most often, these become titles. I’ve done this since I started writing, and most of my books include poems with borrowed titles from writers like Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, Charles Tomlinson, James Schuyler, Ann Lauterbach, and Medbh McGuckian. At one point, in 1995, I wrote a bunch of poems with titles from Frank Black songs, and I wrote a pantoum where the title and every line were from Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius (I later pitched them all). I also have poems in Wings Without Birds with titles from a Starbuck’s poster and from the Little Bear animated series, so it’s not only literary borrowing. Still, when I talk about poems calling to each other across books and time, I also think that happens with other writers. I don’t know any poet whose work doesn’t communicate somehow with work by other writers.
The Beckett references are something of a red herring. Lessness shares a title with a Samuel Beckett story, but is not named after it. (The title comes from the word “walllessness” in “Map / Less.”) The title of Brother No One comes from Beckett, but not Samuel Beckett. The original quote was “My brother’s name is No One.” I was drawn to this non-existent brother who nevertheless had a name, who is present only through his name. Though spoken by a four-year-old, it struck me as profound and worth exploring.
Two unpublished poems from Brian Henry’s Brother No One, forthcoming soon from Salt Publishing:
Arkitekt [Through a Glass Darkly]
Whose pain will clarify the coastline
or some other moving thing?
A common despair, as easily caught as a cold,
answers nothing, as all must suspend
what’s inside for what depends.
The rain is its own loving
gesture. Empty. A horn answers
the lighthouse’s call in a tongue feared by birds.
That ship will not founder here.
& where is the god in this? in the wall,
the wallpaper’s tear, the nets pulled in
at sunrise, the derelict boat leaning into
the water? Climb below, pull the ladder down,
& suffer your way toward.
The road here is uneven.
Seamshelf down the midpoint.
Macadam, or is it, this, tarmac?
Orchestrating flight for the earth-
driven transient impermeable membrane.
The nonporous surface above
unrights the angles, the span.
I no longer build up, but out.
The vertical has no hold here.
In tune to the crawlspace,
to the mold pixillating
the rafters, each copper pipe
a chord reflecting its element.
The adhesive strip meant for mice
snagged the five-lined skink,
now rotting at the threshold.
Faith, I remember, got stuck in the doorway
after kissing her young husband
goodbye, after feeding him
to the devil outside.
All images from Lessness used with permission of Ahsahta Press.