Sara Henning is the author of two volumes of poetry, most recently View from True North (Southern Illinois University Press, 2018), which won the 2017 Crab Orchard Poetry Open Prize. It has been short listed by Jacar Press for the 2018 Julie Suk Award and for the 2019 High Plains Book Award. She was awarded the 2015 Crazyhorse Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, the 2019 Poetry Society of America’s George Bogin Memorial Award, and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in poetry to the 2019 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Henning teaches writing at Stephen F. Austin State University, where she also serves as poetry editor for Stephen F. Austin State University Press. Please visit her at her electronic home: https://www.sarahenningpoet.com.
Bryan Lopez: View from True North is the first poetry collection I have read that is described as “part autoethnography.” I searched for a definition online and found that the term refers to a form of research in which authors use self-reflection and writing to connect their autobiographical story to wider meanings in the cultural, social and/or political realms. This aspect became more apparent as I progressed through the collection, each poem utilizing cultural and social meanings of abuse, repression and shame. When you were writing the poems in View from True North, was there any difficulty maintaining the autoethnography aspect of the collection? Were there any moments where you felt that the poems were too autobiographical for them to be connected to the wider meanings?
Sara Henning: When I was writing these poems, I didn’t approach my family of origin like a sociocultural analysis, but more from the position of Keats’s notion of negative capability, where one is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I understood that my grandfather, paterfamilias of my matrilineal family, as a violent, alcohol-addicted man, was also a man living with shame regarding his closeted homosexuality. I suppose I was seeking to understand how I could hate him for being unkind to my mother, love him with the fierceness of a father, and feel for his inability to express himself while growing up in a culture of repression. I wanted to write poems that addressed my own familial affliction, while understanding that there were many others who were similarly afflicted. In other words, my family was not unique, and while my grandfather may have been prone to violence and addiction, there may have been important causal lineages between these matters of being and a life of silence. If I could address this as a cultural condition rather than an individual affliction, then I felt that I could shed some light and do some good for the world.
This is what, I think, second-wave feminists meant when they said that the personal is political: who we are is very largely co-opted or created in reaction to our sociocultural position. In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” French philosopher Louis Althusser defines ideology as “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” He said that we as individuals are interpellated insofar as we are direct products of our individual cultural moment. I suppose following Althusser and the second-wave feminists is how I avoided feeling like these poems were simply autobiographical or too confessional: I was trying to tell a story that was larger than my own.
BL: It is interesting to hear that your poems are more as a way to “do some good for the world.” It allows me to understand more of what an autoethnography is and how its definition is applied. Also, your mention of Keats’s notion of negative capability, along with your detailed application of it in crafting the collection, brought Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home to mind.
In her graphic memoir, Bechdel wrote and illustrated scenes that depicted certain themes and elements, such as repression and abuse, as things that can be experienced by anybody in the world. In other words, she presents Fun Home as part autoethnography.
I think from this aspect, there exists a question regarding how authors choose to communicate their stories and connect to readers. Fun Home and your poetry collection share similar themes and characters, especially with their concerns with a closeted family member struggling to express themselves. Bechdel’s choice of writing her memoir in the style of a graphic novel provides readers with visuals and text, which may help them not only understand the narrative but also the wider meanings regarding those themes. What were the aesthetic details of poetry that made you choose this type of writing over others? Was it more of a preference or rather that the collection’s content demanded that it be expressed through poetry?
SH: Oh, I’m so glad that you brought up Bechdel’s Fun Home, as this graphic memoir was a very important text for me as I applied the critical scaffolding necessary for my dissertation’s critical introduction. You see, View from True North was my dissertation at the University of South Dakota. I was (and remain) impressed by the way that Bechdel deployed her rhetorical situation using a collusion of visual and written terms.
I’ve been a poet since my pre-adolescent journal rantings about crushes, cats, and boy bands, so I guess it felt natural to me to try to translate the goals of my collection. Also, I think there is something uncanny about poetry’s ability to unite the rational and the emotional brain—head and heart—to translate those two levels of tension with narrative and figurative leaps. For instance, in my crown of sonnets, “The Things of the World Go On Without Us,” the sonnet structure, like the speaker’s heart, undergoes a process of deconstruction and resurrection in narrative and material terms: the sonnets are actually being taken apart in terms of line delineation and white space, and then they are put back together. In this way, you can see other ways in which the emotional and the narrative collude and break down in sonnet sequences like “The End of the Unified Field,” where the deployment of the line literally mirrors the scattering of the grandfather’s ashes in the winter wind. So I guess in this way, despite my immediate preference to turn to poetry to translate the world, it did feel like “the collection’s content demanded that it be expressed through poetry.”
BL: I’d like to talk now about a few questions I have towards some of the poems in the collection, starting with one about “First Murmuration.”
It’s the only poem without designation to a section, and I thought it a great introductory poem that makes use of imagery to allude to the dark themes that the collection will explore. The repetition of “When I say a son broken open” brings tension to the poem as the reader starts to guess, with each iteration’s imagery, what reality is the poem alluding to. By the end, it becomes clear that the poem is alluding to abuse. After reading the poem multiple times, I felt that the tone was melancholic.How difficult was it to balance its tone, as to not overwhelm the reader, while maintaining its allusion to one of the dark themes of the collection?
SH: Sure, let’s talk about the collection’s proem (the poem that precedes the collection), “First Murmuration.” Proems are as difficult to choose as they are to write, I think, and some poets avoid incorporating a proem for fear that it will fail to direct the reader into the collection in an effective/productive way. On the other hand, other poets choose to include a proem because they want to have a poem suggest an overarching idea/image/theme from the very beginning, so that a reader can watch it be deployed throughout the book.
I tried to be very careful and strategic in (a) choosing to use a proem instead of just starting with section I, and (b) choosing which poem to carry this very heavy rhetorical goal. While I’m glad that you found the choice an effective one, you’re right: it is a poem that introduces some darker themes that are developed through the book’s narrative arc. I wanted to introduce the trope of the starling/murmuration, for that trope speaks to legacies of inherited abuse, but I wanted to introduce it in a way that did not feel heavy-handed. I believe I achieved that by relying on figurative leaps that border on surreal imagery.
For instance, the abused boy (which could be the grandfather abusing his son, or the grandfather abused by a father, or anyone who suffers at the hands of a legacy of abuse) is NOT ACTUALLY becoming a starling, and feathers are NOT ACTUALLY coming out of his skin. The surreal imagery describes that version of dissociation that often occurs in abusive households, but by building the associative leap, the reader is simultaneously reading the textured connotations that scaffold the poem’s literal content: a boy is being abused in some way by his father, he is dissociating, and his method of disassociation culminates in both mental salve and scar. Because this poem is the first poem, the reader is left with a visual mark that is both beautiful and profane: the beauty of a boy transcending and the dearth of his pain. I believe this poem is redeemed from this split between the beautiful and the profane, as a reader can focus on lush imagery when moments overwhelm.
The abuse narrative (multi-layered and intergenerational) unfolds in an intricate balance over the next 60 pages, but that trope of the starling is brought up several times in different iterations. In some way, I had hoped that the starling image would provide some useful transitional and thematic sinew as the reader makes his/her/their way through a narrative that can be dark at times.
BL: Your last sentence about your hope that “the starling image would provide some useful transitional and thematic sinew” brought to my mind “These Are Not Nice Birds” and “Truths Only Starlings Will Speak.” I think each of these poems use the starling image differently in their thematic and transitional approach.
In “These Are Not Nice Birds,” starlings are first presented as horrific birds (“The starlings ravaging the dish / meant for ferals are darkinfested, / their rasping calls hexing the air”). When the speaker begins to talk about what comes to mind while discovering a disembodied wing, the starling image then transitions to become one of invasion and danger, indicated by the noting of the bird’s status as an invasive species and its role in the crash of a Lockheed Electra in 1960. The speaker ultimately sees part of herself as that disembodied wing, as she invaded a marriage and would prove dangerous to its matrimony if the affair was discovered. This then transitions to shame.
In “Truths Only Starlings Will Speak,” however, the starling image is one of consistent sympathy. It begins with a starling rutting its wings. The speaker notes that she was foolish to believe that the bird was dying rather than sunning. The descriptions of the starling’s movements are based on observation, which illustrates the starling as more “normal” than in the previous poem. The starling image then transitions to a sympathetic meaning as the speaker recalls the time she searched the melanoma on her partner’s biopsy scar. The speaker relates her lover’s body to a starling, in the sense that both entities may experience something so breathtaking and beautiful before their untimely demise.
While the purpose of the starling provides “transitional and thematic sinew,” understood in both poems, the image appears to be inconsistent in its representation. Do you think this inconsistency impacts or benefits a reader’s understanding of the trope of the starling?
SH: I had hoped that the starling would be a dynamic trope in the collection, capable of inhabiting multiple and conflicting interpretive zones: a beautiful scourge, the wounded and the inflictor, the sainted and the damned. Yes, these two poems inhabit the inconsistency (and likely frustration) in representation, a notion not inconsistent when trauma has occurred. In “These Are Not Nice Birds,” the starling is both horrific bottom-feeder and literary darling, a scourge who feasts on cat food and a species displaced from its natural habitat by Schieffelin as an act of literary beauty (and transgression). The speaker sees herself projected, yes, in the wounded starling, a bird killed in the fierce act of survival (feeding on something not its own). The reader realizes that as a species, the starling only has survived due to breeding mercilessly and causing damage with its urges, a notion reflected in the poem’s theme of infidelity. What is underneath the starling (and the figurative leap drawn between speaker and starling) is the “heave and flood” systematic of the speaker’s simultaneous desire and shame. Unlike the starling, led by necessity vs. choice (an idea co-opted in Annie Dillard’s essay “Living Like Weasels”), the speaker falls whim a limbo of instinct, a liminal sphere.
The starling remains a dynamic trope in “Truths Only Starlings Will Speak,” in that the speaker sees herself as “fool enough” to be lured by a starling—its trickster nature caught somewhere between pleasure and death. The speaker sees her lover stuck in this liminal sphere between attraction and death drive.
Both poems lead us to a bird that inhabits multiple connotations—horrific scourge, trickster, Shakespearean beauty—but at the end of it all, we are lead to the thrashing embodiment of a wound. The starlings in this collection are always, at their core, a wound embodied, trauma incognito. Like trauma, the starling is difficult to understand, is often intertextual, subliminal, dangerous. It is always lurking under the surface, ready to strike.
BL: Your answers have been so detailed and are a joy to read! In your biography on the Poets & Writers website, it is stated that you also have another collection, A Sweeter Water, and two chapbooks published. In my Literary Publishing class, we discussed small presses and how they are viewed as more viable places for new authors to have their works published. Given that you have experience with small presses, how was the process of publishing View from True North different or similar to your other works?
SH: Oh, this interview exchange has been a lot of fun. Thanks again for your level of critical engagement with the work and for your perceptive questions.
Winning a poetry contest of national significance and going through the publication cycle at a major university press, as I did with View from True North, was a very different experience for me than working with a small, independent press, as I did with my first book and chapbooks.
Working with any press requires an author to be proactive, responsible, and very involved in the process. While it is wonderful to work with an entire editorial and marketing team rather than a smaller number of individuals who may be stretched for time and resources, one may find the more intimate experience of working with a smaller institution very rewarding. I believe that a potential author should consider choosing a press based on several factors: (1) does one appreciate/support the aesthetic the press has adopted, and (2) has one read a great number of titles from the press in question, finding one’s work is perhaps in conversation with the published texts in productive ways? If so, that is the press one should submit to, whether it be through a contest cycle, proposal inquiry, or open reading period. I felt that my work was in conversation with a number of other Southern Illinois University Press poets, such as Jake Adam York, Amy Fleury, Bruce Bond, Tarfia Faizullah, Oliver de la Paz, Jon Pineda, and Lisa Fay Coutley.
Press work is a labor of love, but I found that working with a press that has a number of institutional resources created opportunities for me one may not receive when working with a smaller press with more limited resources, particularly if it is not as well-known as say, Milkweed or Tupelo. For instance, I enjoyed having a marketing assistant and an editorial assistant assigned to me, and I enjoyed a larger number of review copies and marketing materials generated for me when my book came out. Nonetheless, I also recognize the privilege of being a co-winner of the 2017 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition, as writers can spend years playing the contest cycle lottery and spending loads of money on submission fees. Smaller presses also sometimes publish titles that may be excluded from other very competitive contest cycles, so one may find work willing to take risks in exciting ways. I can say that I enjoyed developing editorial relationships with every one of my publishers, so I was very lucky in that regard.
It is true that small presses are viable places for new works to have their works published, and I also believe that to be a well-rounded literary citizen, one should try to get involved in editorial work at all levels, as it is not only a great education for one interested in publishing one’s own work, but more importantly, it helps to bring to life poetry for the greater community.