Henrietta Goodman is the author of three books of poetry: All That Held Us (John Ciardi Prize, BkMk Press, 2018), Hungry Moon (Colorado State University, 2013), and Take What You Want (Beatrice Hawley Award, Alice James Books, 2007). Her poems and essays have recently been published in New England Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, Field, Guernica, 32 Poems, and other journals. She teaches at the University of Montana.
Karin Schalm: Henrietta, your new book, All That Held Us, came out this year as the winner of the John Ciardi Prize. Congrats, by the way. It’s an absolutely beautiful book—a poetic memoir of linked sonnets. How did you get started on such a strange and serious project?
Henrietta Goodman: Thank you! I started by accident. I had written formal poetry before, but I had never thought of myself as a formalist. A friend gave me an assignment to write a poem in terza rima, so I did, and that got me started thinking about other forms I had never tried. I had written a few English sonnets, but never an Italian sonnet, so I tried that—and the subject I chose (my mother’s fear of water and the absence of men throughout my childhood and adolescence) was something I had never written about. So, the experiment with a form that was new to me corresponded with my realization that I was interested in exploring that subject beyond just one poem. So I wrote another sonnet, and then another, and then I felt that I should either stop, because the poems were so different from the other poems I was working on at the time, or I should keep going and see what happened…which is what I did.
KS: What did you learn about yourself (and language) from writing these personal but highly structured poems? Did you find words through the demands of form that startled you? If so, did these words persuade you to tell stories in new ways that you might not have expected?
HG: I didn’t want the form, especially the rhyme, to draw attention to itself, so I tried, for the most part, to rhyme words that wouldn’t stand out as being unusual. I did learn a word, though, in the process of writing the poems, that ends one of the poems in the last section: escapology. It means the art of escape, Houdini-style. In the poem, it refers literally to escaping from a large spiked frame called the Table of Death, used in stage magic, but I came to think of it as referring to the process of extricating myself from the damaging aspects of my family history, and to think of the book itself as an act of escapology.
KS: As readers we understand there’s a difference between the speaker of a poem and the writer, but how does this play out when poems are actually based on the poet’s life? This book travels through the speaker’s childhood to adulthood. How do you, the poet, see yourself in regards to this speaker? I’m thinking about the scene where the speaker (who is just a child) is sexually and violently abused by a doctor. It’s such a painful moment, mostly because of the mother’s lack of response to her child’s screams. Have the formal constraints of the sonnet helped you tell this story?
HG: Thank you for asking this question. The two poems you’re talking about are near the end of the sequence and function as a flashback into a traumatic event from the speaker’s childhood. And the speaker is me, since the book is intended as a memoir-in-sonnets. I’ve made no attempt to separate myself from the speaker in this case, except to note that the poet and speaker are always different, in that the poem is a deliberately crafted piece of art with a voice that is not the same as the poet’s everyday voice, whether the poem is autobiographical or not.
I had never thought of writing about the incident, though I had certainly thought about its impact on me over the years and had learned to call it what it was—rape. When I thought of including it in the book, so much of which deals with my relationship with my mother and my attempts to understand some aspects of her past and her nature, I was drawn to the idea of writing about such a shocking physical violation in sonnet form. Form, of course, and poetry in general, is one of the ways we have of imposing order on chaos—of putting experience to use. We can’t control what is done to us, often, but we can control what we do with what is done to us.
As I was working on the two poems, I thought also of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room,” which describes the speaker’s experience, as a child, of waiting for her aunt in a dentist’s waiting room and hearing her aunt make a small sound (“an oh! of pain”). This experience contributes to the speaker’s sudden self-awareness and awareness of the distinctions and connections between self and other. I wanted, somehow, to allude to Bishop’s poem in my own poems, since my poems detail a coming-of-age experience also, but in a situation that inverts Bishop’s—I am the child in the exam room, while my mother is in the waiting room. I’m sure part of my goal was to write something that couldn’t be dismissed as self-indulgent or “therapeutic”—the accomplishment of writing about the experience in Italian sonnet form, combined with alluding to a significant figure in my poetic heritage, made me feel more confident in writing about an incredibly personal experience.
But, ultimately, I’m not sure that I did allude to Bishop’s poem, because the word I chose to end one of my two poems on this subject is “inscrutable,” a word that appears not in “In the Waiting Room,” but in another well-known poem of Bishop’s, “Sestina,” which ends “and the child draws another inscrutable house.” I hope, though, that at least a few readers will hear an echo of Bishop in my poem.
KS: I love Bishop and hear echoes of her in your work. Who are some of your other poetic influences?
HG: I love this question! Two of my earliest and most important influences are named in the book: the poet Anne Sexton and Paul Westerberg, the singer/songwriter for the band The Replacements (my favorite, ever, from age thirteen to now). Sexton appears in the poem that begins section three of the book, when I mention getting “all Sextoned up,” and Paul Westerberg appears in section two as the music I’m listening to in my room as a teenager.
Fairy tales have long been an influence on my poetry also (since college, when I took a literary theory course that used fairy tales as the vehicle for various approaches to interpretation and analysis), and one of my sonnets references the story of Bluebeard, who systematically married women and then murdered them. And, in another of the poems, I refer to Milton’s Satan as “my twelfth grade English crush.” In this book I was looking back at some of the literary figures and concepts that were important to me as I was beginning my life as a poet, many of which I’m grateful to have encountered in Mrs. Johnston’s twelfth grade AP English class.
KS: I’ve been a big fan of your work over the years. Your first two collections, although personal in content, don’t read like memoirs. Nor do they make the same formal demands as All That Held Us. Given that your work is changing, where do you plan to go from here? Have you decided if you will continue with form or go back to free verse?
HG: After writing 48 sonnets, it was difficult to stop. I realized I was thinking in iambic meter. I asked my friend, the poet Ryan Scariano, to give me some assignments that would force me to go back to free verse, where I had initially felt much more comfortable, but which now felt foreign. We exchanged poems by email for quite a few months, and then he suggested that we collaborate on a project—an alphabet of animal acrostic poems, or two alphabets, one from each of us. I realized that I had never written an acrostic and that the project was appealingly strange—and I was really drawn to the idea of doing something that sounded a bit ridiculous (like a children’s book but for adult readers of serious poetry, or like 48 linked Italian sonnets that were also a memoir) and doing it well. Plus, I like Ryan a lot as a poet and as a person, and I like animals, so I definitely wanted to do it.
We started the project about a year ago, and Ryan is finished with his alphabet, but I still have 6 or 7 more poems to write. The acrostic form has been a delightful challenge—I’m not good at very short poems, so I’m constantly fighting against the length constraint (when the word is done the poem is done, so my lines tend to be very long). And, I also have to attend to the integrity of the line and the placement of the line break in a way that free verse doesn’t require. We intend to publish the manuscript as a book that invites the reader to participate—like, here’s Ryan’s acrostic about a robin, and here’s my acrostic about a raccoon, and now, you, reader, have a blank lined page on which to write your own acrostic about a rabbit or a rattlesnake or a reindeer or whatever you like.
I don’t think I’ll ever really give up form after this. Even if I’m writing in free verse, I like the idea of devising some “rules,” if for no other reason than to break them.