by Ryan Nowlin
Poet and teacher Barbara Henning moved from Detroit to New York City in the eighties, and has been a vibrant part of the writing community surrounding The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. I was grateful to get to ask her a few questions over a period of a few weeks in early December.
Boog City: The magnetic infrastructure of the East Village has always attracted many talented poets and writers to places like the St. Marks Poetry Project. How can these communities of poetic practice be kept alive in a time of social distancing, due to the Covid pandemic? And further, how can a younger generation of poets find the outlets they would need in order to fully develop their talent?
Barbara Henning: When I started writing poetry seriously, I was an undergraduate at Wayne State University, and I lived in the Cass Corridor neighborhood in Detroit where there was lots of artistic activity. I was surrounded by community and the influence of an industrial city with poets, artists, and musicians collaborating and all very attuned to the politics of the day. I was lucky. When I came to New York City in 1984, I had to search for community. I found it at the Poetry Project. For many years, I lived around the corner from St. Mark’s, and it felt like my poetry church. In past years, most of the readers there were local to New York City, and it was inspiring.
Lots of young poets around the country, however, don’t live near a vibrant poetry community like the ones we have in New York City. For many of them, this new era of zoom poetry readings is bringing them closer to the possibility of poetic community. On the other hand, many of us, young and old, are longing to be in actual contact with poets and poems in the air between us. Now we are a bit tentative about the air between us. What to do? On one hand, poetry is interior and on the other hand it is communal. This time at home, for many of us alone for months on end, could be a time for exploring interior spaces. I’m sure lots of poets are reveling in this. Others, maybe not. Sometimes, I am, but sometimes I’m not.
But what is the young poet to do, you ask—write poetry, attend zoom poetry readings, take online classes with poets you love, and get together on the internet with others and start a webzine or a reading series. Read poetry. Write reviews of other poets. There’s a wonderful talk by Diane di Prima, “By Any Means Necessary;” I believe she gave the talk at Naropa. I recommend it. She describes how the beat poets worked together excitedly in the ’50s. It’s an inspiring talk that has been anthologized, so easy to locate. (https://dcr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent/uuid:31430bf8-3c73-4d1d-8c7a-c01715d2e257?dl=true)
Following Diane di Prima’s example is very inspiring, particularly since the erasure of agency usually associated with “getting your work out there” is counteracted/balanced by self-determination and community outreach. Having a direct sense of one’s audience is as important as the solitary practice of writing poetry. I also like di Prima’s epigrammatic sentence, “The requirements of our life is the form of our art.” To what degree is a poetics an outgrowth of those things which define and/or give definition to our lives, whether that be parenting, working/teaching, or the “requirements” that living with a disability or illness may impose?
Diane is talking about how a poet should take advantage of the situation, the requirements of her life, to do whatever possible, to get her writing in the world. A poetics is a different thing, how one uses and thinks about language, what makes a poem a poem, that kind of thing. Yes, I think our poetics are definitely affected by our situations. Parenting is very demanding, but many of us have raised children and stayed writers. Either you have some kind of endowment or you live with less consumption. You need time to write. And of course, your poetics evolves out of life experience and situations. If you are around a lot of other poets, then you may be more steeped in conversation and new ideas about poetry; and in this way your poetics may evolve and change through dialogue.
A writer who has a lot of responsibilities and financial debt may not have as much time for writing and starting magazines with other writers, but what Diane is suggesting is let your art fit the possibilities in your life. Collaborate with others. I’d add, if you want to be a poet, do what you can so that your living requirements don’t overtake the possibility of writing. At the same time, I’m very tentative when suggesting to poetry students that they scale back their work plans. Some poets come from very economically challenged situations and we all need to have basic security in order to write.
Agreed. Meeting those survival needs also means that we will often times have other work roles to play in our lives. For example, like you, I must teach alongside writing. The prose poems you wrote for Digigram also seem to foster ways of thinking about the urban condition which among other things include “presentation immediacy,” a term I am borrowing from Alfred North Whitehead. He is referring to pure sense perception unmediated by interpretation which may or may not be “the real thing.” Charles Olson took Whitehead’s idea and translated it into one perception following another. Does this concept apply in any way to your writing in Digigram?
I can’t speak to Whitehead, but Olson’s essays and talks have always been important to me. I wrote the poems in Digigram, first in lines and then I heard a voice in my head, and I started translating them, one fast phrase/thought after another into what I was calling a digigram; a phrase could be any kind of perception, sensory or ideas or memories; perhaps that’s what Olson had in mind. When Trump suddenly came on the public stage, I felt a panic and my whole system of thought amped up and so with the dashes the form of the poem merged with the content. I hadn’t thought about these poems in terms of Olson’s projective verse before, probably because it was so much a part of my writing by then that I didn’t even think about it. I’ve always aimed away from representation, away from the poem that is pointedly “about” something and instead toward letting the poems emerge from mind and event.
The build-up of the cumulative short phrases in Digigram is probably a merging of my personal tendency toward speed, the panic of the time and my own shortness of breath, a health issue I’ve been struggling with for many years. “Go with the push of the line,” Olson wrote and the line in each of these poems goes on, dash—thought—dash—thought—dash, from the beginning to the end.
Ryan: Digigram will be the last book by United Artist Books, due to the unfortunate passing of its founder the poet and publisher, Lewis Warsh. Could you address the significance of your relationship with Lewis and the legacy of United Artists Books?
Barbara: In January 2020, Lewis called to tell me that he had cancer and he wouldn’t be able to teach his classes; he was going to retire; he was very concerned about his students. I took over his grad course and we talked to each other on the phone almost every week. I tried to encourage him to stay optimistic and to laugh as much as possible. I thought he would have a better chance of surviving that way. Even though he was ill, he still wanted to publish Digigram. It became a project that we talked about all year long, as well as talking about the students and the poetry world and everything else. Just a few weeks before he went into hospice, we were discussing the possibility of working together on another book for another poet, but that never came to fruition because Lewis quickly declined.
Losing Lewis is definitely a major loss for me. In ‘85 we met, became lovers and then segued into a very meaningful friendship. Over the years we worked on many projects together, including editing Long News: In the Short Century. For years we talked on the phone and wrote emails back and forth, about our love life, families, writing projects, adventures, etc. The legacy of United Artists Books? He published something like 50 books, many of them first books for poets, a wonderful array of mostly, but not entirely, New York City writers. Lewis had a way of supporting and inspiring his students and he did the same thing with the poets he published. A super-mentor-friend-poet. A mahaguru.
Ryan: Could you give me a sense of the significance of the cover image to the book, and how does it correspond to your Digigram “River God?”
Barbara: I moved to NYC in January of 1984. My children were staying in Detroit with their father, Allen Saperstein, while I was trying to find an apartment and a job. This photo was taken when I returned for a visit. I suppose it represents a turning point in our lives. Allen and I had taken the children to The Detroit Institute of Arts and they were playing out front on a bronze sculpture, “Le Fleuve La Garonne.” Allen snapped the photo. I’ve always loved that photo. You can see the happiness of the children and the delight of the photographer. In my poem I was remembering that moment of bliss and happiness and connecting it with the present (which has already become the past) as I watched my daughter with her boys. But behind it, outside of the picture frame, was Detroit with many sections of the city abandoned and with a very high crime rate. It used to be called Murder City. I had some poems once in a magazine called Murder City Review. As much as I loved Detroit back then and still do (its industrial-union-energy), in the early eighties, close friends and I had suffered from random violence. I wanted to live in a city where I could walk down the street without always looking over my shoulder.
BARBARA HENNING (https://barbarahenning.com/) is the author of five novels and seven collections of poetry, recently Digigram (United Artists) and a novel, Just Like That (Spuyten Duyvil). Forthcoming is Prompt Book: Experiments for Writing Poetry and Fiction from Spuyten Duyvil. Henning was the editor and publisher of Long News Magazine and Books, as well as the editor of Looking Up Harryette Mullen (Belladonna) and The Collected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins (BlazeVOX [books]). Born in Detroit, she currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches for Long Island University and https://writers.com/.