Jon Curley: Can you envision what kinds of poems, whether structurally or thematically, you might consider writing beyond the realm of your past practice? Are there elements of poems outside your usual patterns and activities you might try to integrate into your work?
Barbara Henning: In the late ’80’s, I started inventing various constraints and approaches for writing poetry, rather than writing out of straight autobiography. Since then, each approach is different from the last one, and I assume my process will continue to change in the future. I like to experiment, and when one experiments, it means trying something new.
I’m interested in the role of the narrative in poetry and fiction, because it is one of the central ways we make sense of our lives. However, since I don’t want the story to write me, I often interrupt progressions with various experiments to try to expose or transform the thought pattern and perhaps see something new. This goal affects my writing process and the thematic content of a piece, too. The process might be complex, but my aim is to write accessible and meaningful stories and poems for the reader.
Usually I start with a handwritten journal, which is where I record observations, pay attention to surrounding details, look for haiku moments and record anything that interests me: ideas, images, questions, emotions, quotes, etc. I will often leave space in my journal so that I can go back, write more and do research. When a journal is complete, it becomes the seed for a new project.
Some poets, like Jack Spicer, describe their writing process as dictation, getting beyond the interfering ego, so the poem or story will speak itself. For me, the poem comes out of collected thoughts and material. Dictation, per se, takes place after I invent a constraint or an intervention and as I assemble and revise.
The following is an example of how this process worked when I was writing “Twelve Green Rooms,” a series of prose poems and stories. I started with a collection of 12 stories, culled from details and events in my journals. When the Gulf oil disaster occurred, I started researching the effects of the spill on the ocean. I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the time, writing and rewriting these stories. My sister had stacks of National Geographic in her house, so I spent a lot of time looking through them for language and ideas about oil, pelicans and water. I liked my initial stories, although almost too much; they worked too well, were too tight; I wanted the poems to know/speak differently. I tried breaking up the narratives by taking out words and inserting others to see what would happen. I also collaged text in from other sources. At one point, I found myself thinking about the Mahabharata and gambling. Then I started to see a connection between the oil spill and gambling—putting the oil rigs in the water was a gamble—and I also started thinking about how water is considered sacred by some cultures. So I collected details, linked them and worked and re-worked the ideas and words. I also remember making a “W” on each poem and extracting the words along the letter and working them into other poems, in sequence with particular patterns. This poem is published online.
My current project involves writing over 150 story-poems, using material from my journals. In 2012, I wrote entries on a 4 x 6 journal, one page per night; no more, no less. Then I extracted the text that seemed compelling and poetic to me and wrote a long series of poems. Next, I started taking from four to 10 words from each poem and I researched these words using The New York Times Archives, searching for phrases and sentences from the same time period to collage into the poems. I am in the middle of working on this project now. Usually the language of the Times is transformed and re-owned. This very involved process requires a lot of time, but with some of the poems I am enjoying the repetition of the words and the linking of ideas, emotions and events. Also, by interrupting my prose, I force myself to see the material and ideas differently; I learn something by writing, and the poems may become more interesting to the reader. I think I will be working on this project for at least another six months, and then I will start thinking about a new project with a new approach.
Barbara Henning is the author of seven collections of poetry and three novels. Her most recent books are a collection of poetry and prose, Cities & Memory; a novel, Thirty Miles from Rosebud; and a chapbook, A Slow Curve (Monkey Puzzle). A Swift Passage is forthcoming from Quale Press. She is also the author/editor of a book of interviews, Looking Up Harryette Mullen and The Selected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins. Henning grew up in Detroit and has lived in New York City since 1983. She teaches at Naropa University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, where she is Professor Emerita.