Rafael Otto: The Significance of Place

Spring '11 TOC

Barbara Henning is the author of three novels, Thirty Miles to Rosebud, You, Me and the Insects, and Black Lace. Her books of poetry include Cities and Memory, My Autobiography, Detective Sentences, Love Makes Thinking Dark, and Smoking in the Twilight Bar, as well as numerous chapbooks and a series of photo-poem pamphlets. Barbara is a native Detroiter who lives in New York City, teaching for Long Island University and Naropa University.


Tucson. A humid, monsoon breeze stirs the palm trees. The southern horizon is densely packed with purple clouds and streaks of rain. Thunderheads reach into the atmosphere, crowned with glowing white curls lit by the afternoon sun. To the north, the sky over the mountains is open and blue. I'm anticipating the low rumble of thunder, a sun shower, or a rainbow while I consider the significance of place in Henning's work.

Henning's most recent book, Cities and Memory, is a collection of prose poetry and short stories infused with resonant details from daily life. Her style crosses the border from poetry to narrative and back again, and takes us on a journey through the past while continually grounding us in the immediate now. The cities featured in the collection—Tucson, New York, Mysore, India and Detroit—are potently rendered through vivid details of experience and consciousness.

Cities and Memory is a vital addition to Henning's body of work from the past twenty-two years. From Smoking in the Twilight Bar, her first collection of poetry set in Detroit, to her most recent novel, Thirty Miles to Rosebud, featuring a cross-country trip that begins in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and ends in Tucson, Henning gives us poetry and fiction that seek truth, explore memory, and examine the ongoing flux of life against the inevitable press of time.

When I contacted Henning about discussing her work, she was in New York City, missing the mountains, the air, and the blue Tucson sky. When we finally spoke on the phone, she was in Marquette, Michigan. A Detroit native, she has spent most of the last twenty years in New York City and Tucson, influencing the Tucson literary landscape with her New York School style of poetics.

Rafael Otto: Let's start with this idea of place. When I think about your books, I think Detroit, New York, India, Tucson. Could you tell me about how place affects your work?

Barbara Henning: Wherever I find myself, I am part of that environment, and influenced by and speaking with and through it. And each place has a completely different sensory quality and the dialogue is different, too. For example Tucson—for me, after living in New York City for so many years—had a calming quality. There is a humbleness there, too, and an easy going exchange that takes place between strangers. Even though Tucson can be stark and brutal because of the desert and the heat, the wide-open space and the stillness made it easier for me to be quiet. And that quietness affected the way I thought and wrote for the four years I was living there. My writing of course picked up desert details, but also that quietness. And I was also luckily in dialogue with a group of Tucson writers and literary collaborators. Here in Marquette, Michigan, I am a temporary visitor, a frequent visitor though, and even though I am near Lake Superior and thinking of Lorine Niedecker's Lake Superior poems, I have not shed my New York City nervous system so I find myself driving around looking for cafes where I can sit and write. Very few and limited hours. And the sensory details are different—the ore dock, the harbor, sky, forests, and that dark blue lake. Mostly, I am a collector of words, details, sound and ideas—a collage artist. Even when working on a novel, that's how I put things together. It may not seem like it when it's finished, but that's the process. And place is part of the collage, maybe the glue.

Rafael: In classes with you in the past, I've had the sense that you encourage writers to avoid making metaphor a primary poetic technique in their writing. I'd like to get your thoughts on the use of metaphor in poetry and its role in your work.

Barbara: I've been very influenced by William Carlos Williams, the imagists and the objectivists. Williams has a piece called "The Descent of Winter" in his book Imaginations. Here he talks about working to get to "the thing itself" rather than using metaphor and making poetry too academic. He insists that poets write about their time and place, from their place, right where they are. But the thing itself he talks about is also "the word itself" as the material of the poem, of the place, and of the person.

All language is metaphoric, every word is layered with historical meaning. There is no need to try to be metaphoric. Just by talking, we are using language metaphorically. What I find interesting is writing that brings us as close as possible to the material of language itself, the word itself. I enjoy the sound of the words, the sounds that come out of everyday living, as well as experimenting with language rather than working with a formula that uses metaphor as a container or a poetic climax for a poem. I encourage students to write in the language of theirthoughts, experience, reading, milieu (and experiment with it, open it up, be in dialogue with others). Some of us have a language and culture that is more metaphorically layered (for whatever historical reason); look at Harryette Mullen's writing, for example—the writing is metaphorically rich in a very ordinary way without intentionally shaping itself around a metaphor. That is the thing itself—the language she uses in her experiments and poems.

Rafael: What is your process like when you are working?

Barbara: I'll describe what I'm working on right now. Usually, I keep a journal and take lots of notes. I observe, pay attention to surrounding details, look for haiku-yoga moments and record anything that strikes me. I will often leave alternative space in my journal so that I can go back and write more and do research, also. I'm not necessarily looking for an idea for a poem, but just gathering details, like a painter might gather paints and supplies before the work begins. I also integrate notes from what I'm reading or hearing into my journal. In the last few years I've become more interested in narrative, but narrative that is not working strictly as realism. I recently started working on a collection of twelve stories, starting first with details and little events in my journals. When the oil spill occurred, I started researching the effects of the spill on the ocean. When I came up here to the UP, 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 spills, the pelicans, and the water. I liked my initial stories, almost too much; they worked too well, were too tight, and I wanted to go in a different direction, to push the poem so it would know/speak differently. I tried breaking up the narrative by taking out words and inserting others to see what would happen. I also used some details from a dream I had on a flight from Las Vegas and other details about the oil spill. 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 a lot of details and made links between them and worked and re-worked those ideas and words.

Rafael: It sounds like you are in a constant state of awareness about how your environment affects your poetics.

Barbara: Well, I'm trying, wherever I am, I'm usually taking notes. We're all in the world and related to each other. Place is wide-open. I like to bring what is far closer to what is near. And to discover the relationship between near and far. Our lives are affected by events on the other side of the globe and what we do affects them, too. That's why I try to include details from far and near. Our "place" now is very large. And yet as we move from one locale to another, everything changes. Being in Michigan is very different from New York. So much happens in New York. You might walk outside to the bodega and see someone carrying a body bag out to a truck. Life on the streets is very intense. But in places like the Upper Peninsula, or even Tucson, the environment is much quieter. Today, I read an article about water, and then drove into town, saw my sister's boyfriend pass me without noticing me or my orange car, met a man on foot looking for his lost dog, talked to you on the telephone in my car, and then went out to a Chinese restaurant with my sister and the food was terrible. If I wrote all of that down in detail and if I researched all the connections, I'd discover that a lot was happening, a lot of language to work with. Even though nothing was as shocking as seeing a body bag carried down the street, I might in fact discover body bags.

Rafael: Many of the stories in Cities and Memory have a nontraditional, fractured narrative, and yet there is this sense that they are all connected. Could you talk about this?

Barbara: Most of the time, I write poems in a series. Some poets, like Jack Spicer, describe their writing process as dictation, getting beyond the interfering ego so the poem will speak itself. For me, the poem comes out of collected thoughts and material as I work on a series. Dictation takes place as I assemble and revise. Cities and Memory includes "An Arc Falling into the Bougainvillea," which I began while reading Robert Duncan with my poetry group in Tucson. I was having ecstatic experiences while reading Duncan, who is an ecstatic and spiritual writer, and I was collecting details of those experiences. I'm sure I also included details from a long time ago, and from what I was reading and absorbing from news articles and other books, too. I always discover relationships as I go along. For whatever reason, I start collecting and then I stop collecting and my work begins to take shape from that material. Sometimes it seems as if I'm always working on the same project, and it just continues, a series of poems and stories.

Rafael: I know that the New York School of poetics was, and still is, an important influence for you. Could you discuss that influence and when it began?

Barbara: I came to New York in 1983 and in '85 I met Lewis Warsh, and we became good friends. I started going to the Poetry Project at St. Mark's, reading and meeting many poets—Maureen Owen, Bernadette Mayer, John Godfrey, Bill Kushner, Kim Lyons, Allen Ginsberg, oh so many inspiring poets. Eventually my relationship with the place and the poets affected my poetics. I became more experimental. New York school poets work with collage, with everyday events, with experiments, intimate voice, and all of this resonated with me. Ultimately, though, I haven't followed a straight line. Besides the New York School, I've also been influenced by the beats, the language project, Detroit jazz and blues artists, theorists and philosophers—many different groups.

Rafael: When did you begin writing narrative poems?

Barbara: I don't really write narrative poems. I use narrative but I am lyrical and intellectual, too. I guess my writing has often had a narrative element to it even when I was trying to avoid narrative. For a while there was a lot of anti-narrative pressure on experimental poets, and it is easy to fall into a narrative trap of just retelling our cultural myths without examining them. But I like stories. My father was a storyteller and he loved to tell jokes. Neither of my parents were college educated, but my mother took me to the library frequently and my great grandfather gave me a set of Dickens, which I read all the time. My mother died when I was young, and reading Dickens and others helped me understand life and get through quote Hard Times. So maybe that's why I'm drawn to narrative.

Rafael: If reading stories has helped you understand life, is that also true of the writing process?

Barbara: When a poem comes very easily, I'm sometimes a little suspicious of the logic and the direction. I want to see things differently when I'm writing, learn something new, not just express the same thing over and over again. Although, there are times when you're right on and the poem just arrives. But it's also great to dwell in the language for a while, with questions and experiments.

Rafael: Could you tell me something you've discovered through your writing?

Barbara: For a long time I was writing out of loss. Having lost my mother when I was a child, for a while I had a melancholic slant on life. And I'd work on these gaps with writing. Then when my ex-husband and dear friend, Allen Saperstein, died, I started practicing yoga, and I finally discovered how to make writing an ongoing practice, just like yoga. There is a spiritual quality to practicing in such a way. If the practice is a part of you and you make a commitment to it, then you just do it all the time. Anything can be like that—the way you eat, how you arrange your table or your home, how you interact with others. Your approach to almost anything can bring peace and clarity to your life. So when I really started to deepen my yoga practice, I realized that there was a relationship between yoga and poetics.

Rafael: Did your writing change immediately with the start of your yoga practice?

Barbara: Some things did change, but my writing is always changing. I guess the loss of Allen, combined with the yoga practice—and the perspective of the New York School fit right in with my yoga practice, too. The New York School is sometimes characterized by a kind of joyfulness in the present, even with loss, an ecstasy of loss. I remember a few days before Allen died, going into the city to read at St. Mark's. I felt rapture, the loss, the friends, the church, the joy of life. St. Mark's Poetry Project is a very special place in the world.

Rafael: Can you expand on the idea of living in the present while simultaneously working often with the past, with memory, in your work?

Barbara: You can be in the present, remembering, that is part of how our consciousness works. And you can be a witness of your own remembering. If you were in a meditative trance, you wouldn't be writing anything. A thought would come in and then it would go out. If you fixate on the thought then you get stuck in thinking. Remembering is interesting because you can remember and get melancholic about what you've lost, which is a natural part of our thinking and being, but you can keep moving. If you are writing fiction or poetic prose with narratives embedded, well your memory is not frozen, it is in the process of becoming something else.

Rafael: We can hold a tremendous number of experiences in our consciousness at one time.

Barbara: Everything I write is part of my consciousness, so when I edit and add and read and revise, I'm changing my consciousness as I go along.

Rafael: It makes me question the line between reality and fiction...

Barbara: It's always reality and it's always fiction, right? I have a poem I'm writing now and it's about going to meet my grandson when he's three weeks old. But when I started editing, I added some details about the oil spill, except the oil spill occurred long after he was born. So I created a fiction by bringing the pelican babies affected by the oil spill into my story. Here I have something close to me and somewhat ordinary, and another species far away, and they are related because they are part of the same consciousness and part of our shared world. And I think that we lose sight of the fact that both are conscious, living beings.

Rafael: You are constantly making those links between seemingly disparate things.

Barbara: Often I will find a line that I like and work it into another line that has no apparent connection. I like brushing one thing up against another and seeing where it goes. It's hard work because we're not necessarily accustomed to finding those relationships. But the reader gets the idea, I think, once the piece is complete. Lately, I've started using words that are the wrong words, but might sound like they fit, as a way to interrupt the narrative, to bring awareness to the language. In Cities and Memory, the piece called "Twirling, the Spirit Flies Off Like A Falcon" is an example of where I started that process. I also frequently take words from one poem and place them into the next poem and then discover how that changes everything.

Rafael: Could you talk about the experience of working on a novel like Thirty Miles to Rosebud versus a poetic prose collection like Cities and Memory, both of which you worked on over several years?

Barbara: Cities and Memory is a series of short projects, and Thirty Miles to Rosebud is a long story that started with a character in a place, with a mystery and a problem to be solved. Writing this novel was not as experimental for me as writing poetry, although I did weave a lot of my poems into that novel. I was reading Joyce's Epiphanies and thinking about how he used them later in his fiction. That inspired me to collage a lot of sections into Rosebud. But still there is an emphasis on character and the movement of thought and narrative, and less time to dwell on the language of a line or a sentence. I liked writing the novel and at times I didn't like writing it. Mostly, I prefer to work in the world of poetry.

Rafael: But you are always experimenting, and this is apparent with your recent novella, "The Dinner," soon to be published in Talisman, Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.

Barbara: A number of years ago I wrote a long poem called, "My Autobiography." It was later published by United Artists as a book. I collected 999 phrases from 999 books and wove them into seventy some sonnets. I thought I would continue that project and so I collected two hundred or so more lines. But when I started to write the sonnets, I realized, I wanted to do something different, to write fiction and the first line came from a book by Kobo Abe: "Concerned about the whereabouts of my wife." And so I invented a story starting with that line. In this line there is a problem, a mystery and two characters. I wrote eighteen, two to three page chapters. Every time I encountered another line, I had to invent something else. I loved writing "The Dinner." I think the process was a true combination of poetry and fiction. It was fun and wonderful to lose track of autobiography.

Rafael: "To lose track of autobiography," can you elaborate on that?

Barbara: I think when you have had an eventful dramatic life, you have a lot of material to write about. But it's great to let what has actually happened, what you have seen and known, just recede into the background. Of course it informs the writing. I enjoyed the process of inventing. With every word or phrase, I had to find a way to twist the narrative line of the story. I had to imagine new possibilities, manipulating the language in a way that still maintained the integrity of the story and the narrative.

Rafael: When reading your work, there is a sense of restlessness and movement. Do you think that is accurate?

Barbara: Hum, restless. Yes, I hate being trapped in one place. Spiritually, I'm the type who wants to climb a mountain rather than go into a cave. Or maybe I'd just like to circle the mountain and then go on to another. I've moved many times and traveled as much as I could, while also parenting two children. And I'm sure this is reflected in my writing with shifting place, collage, disruption. I realized when I came back to New York last year that this is as close to home as I will ever get. New York is my home. Still, I was just telling my sister about my apartment in New York and how I don't see myself staying here very long. I can't afford it! But I also think that you can stay in the same place and still be restless. I'm sure that comes through in my work, but I also think there are moments of stillness in the writing.

Rafael: Definitely. And that brings me back to the comment you made about Tucson, about the calmness you encountered while living here.

Barbara: That space in the desert, the sky, the mountains, going outside and always having that vivid blue sky. I think it is much more difficult to be happy in New York. You have to work at it. Maybe it is something to do with the light. There is something exciting about New York, but even when the sky is blue you don't see much of it because of the buildings. Walking down the street is like walking down a corridor, a corridor of activity, sometimes with sensory overload, sometimes a delight, but all the while affecting your mind and the movement of thought. It requires work.

Rafael: Tucson offers a different kind of intensity with one hundred and seven degree heat. Yet that kind of intensity can be very still and quiet.

Barbara: This is something I find really interesting—When I was in Tucson, I was very aware of the land and the historical past of where I was—the gold miners, Native American struggles, the war with Mexico. That's why I wrote the essay, "The Content of History Will Be Poetry," which I presented at the Chax conference on Charles Olson. I wrote the piece because I could feel the history of the place so intensely (and I was also inspired by Olson). But New York seems more concerned with present struggles. I don't feel an ancient connection to the land here. I wish I did. In Tucson, the mountains are ever-present, and there are fewer people in close proximity in a very wide-open landscape. That inspires a different kind of writing—which is why a writer must write from the environment they are in. Someone in Tucson once told me that he was a New York School poet, and I told him that it was impossible because he lived in Tucson! Ken Mikolowski wrote a poem called "Homage to Frank O'Hara: Why I Am Not a New York Poet." And then the poem, just one word: "Detroit."

Rafael: And yet the New York School has influenced poetry in Tucson, which could lead to the Tucson school of poetics.

Barbara: Yes, that relaxed friendly poetic voice, detailing ordinary events and exchanges, can be translated into any place, can't it? But translation is always various. . . . In Tucson there already seem to be many schools of poetry. And new ones are emerging. I just went to Philadelphia and read for the New Philadelphia Poets. This happens all the time, the poetic community is constantly evolving.

Rafael: Thank you, Barb, for a wonderful conversation.

Barbara: My pleasure.

After the interview, I head to the park for a walk as the sun is beginning to set. Streaks of crimson and orange bleed across the sky, like watercolors soaking into the pulpy fibers of soft-pressed paper. The storms to the south are gone, and as I cross a white chalk line in the grass, the edge of a soccer field, I notice a single cloud above me. It is placed directly over Mt. Lemmon and is shaped like an elephant, its head and trunk pointing west, ears opened wide. The ears appear too small for an African elephant. Maybe this one is Indian. At the other end of the field is a row of Afghan pine trees. When I reach them I know I'll see translucent, golden-brown cicada shells clinging to the trunks.

In the center of the soccer field, it seems as though the suppressing heat of the one hundred and seven degree day suspends all movement. I can feel the dry heat move to the back of my throat and into my lungs. At the corner of the park I see a cluster of cactuses, prickly pears, chollas, and one large saguaro with thick, waxen, water-filled arms that curve up into the sky.

A quote from William Carlos Williams comes to me in pieces, "The good poetry is where the vividness comes up 'true' like in prose but better." And then, "The bastardy of the simile. There is no need to explain or compare. Make it and it is a poem."

Henning recently published "The Dinner," her novella written in eighteen short chapters. In her acknowledgments, she says the story was "inspired by a list of words and passages taken from some of my reading during the past five years, from approximately two hundred books." As she worked with the story, she explains that phrases used in the text were transformed and ultimately disappeared.

The saguaro is at least one hundred and fifty years old, having survived monsoons and drought, war and urban sprawl. It began as a small black seed at the time of the American Civil War. I imagine the seed in the ground, covered gradually by desert dust and soil, waiting for water, ready to disintegrate and take its shape in the world. And Williams again, "There are no sagas—only trees now, animals, engines. There's that."

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Not Enough Night
Not Enough Night
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