A few months ago, poet Christopher Hennessy posted a short article on his blog Outside the Lines about his life-changing first encounter with Contemporary American Poetry (the anthology edited by A. Poulin) as a sophomore in college. Hey, when I was a sophomore in college, that same book changed me too!
So, we’re both named Christopher and we like the same books– clearly I’d love Hennessy’s poetry.
Anyway, in the past couple weeks he’s had a poem featured on Poetry Daily and his debut collection Love-In-Idleness has been named as a finalist for the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. I thought it’d be a good time to ask Christopher a few questions; he was kind enough to answer them.
Your poems are concerned with naming things. You’re working to uncover some of the forces at play behind words. Why is that important for you as a writer, and for readers?
CH: I’m so glad that aspect of the work comes across. It’s important for me as a writer because I’m sort of a noun whore. (Remember School House Rocks? They had one that was about nouns—“A noun is a special kind of word. It’s any name you’ve ever heard.”) I love the juiciness of nouns, the music and layered-ness of their naming.
That’s part of the reason why I end my poem “Carriers” (about a muse/angel who drops words from the sky) with two nouns, peach and maelstrom, falling into the throat of a beautiful young man. I was trying to foreground the power of how when we name things, we call forth music, image, and sense. I wanted those two words to call up fuzz and fury –and beauty– in the same moment. But then I also have a poem called “Christopher Looks” that uses my own name to play with the idea that our names are actually malleable containers, can be ciphers, can be warped reflections. The poem collages together the results of a Google search using the phrases “Christopher looks like.”
For a reader, I think names mean so much to us that we’re predisposed to want to unearth them from their contexts or, conversely, to mire them in mud. I hope readers who love nouns and naming the juice of language will love my book.
You’re also pretty focused on the body and (excuse the term)– embodiment. You mentioned “Carriers” (which was recently featured on Poetry Daily); in that poem, language and eroticism combine when a boy actually swallows a word. How do you make a body real in a poem?
CH: I’m so gratified “Carriers” keeps coming up! (It’s actually also included in A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry.) Yes, I’m a bit obsessed with the body. I actually catalogue it (specifically its injuries and ailments and other problems) in a poem about the Midwestern body in particular. And I’m always, I find, lingering over hips, especially. Perhaps because they’re male hips, and I like to think about how the hips are such a female-gendered body part and yet the male hips are beautiful in their own way. And speaking of nouns—“hips!” What a word. I always think of rose hips.
I think you make a body real in a poem, and this might sound counter-intuitive, by connecting it to an image or sense that will pull the reader away from the familiar—the body is perhaps the thing most familiar because we inhabit it every second of every day—and into the unimagined. It’s a tall order, and I don’t always do it. But I try! It’s what I was trying to do when I wrote of the breastbone’s “aching well” in my poem about Jacob and the Angel. And when we think “body” we sometimes think only of limbs, appendages, those things we fetishize, simply desire, (breasts, legs, hips, the ass, muscles) or express our desire with (for men, the penis), etc. But don’t forget that the body is also what’s within it, it’s fluids, it humors, if you will. And I try to do the same thing in this regard. It’s what’s behind the lines “…Blood in the cum/ is the scarlet ribbon / in an egg’s albumen, / a mistake of embryonic petals / coiled at its center.”
I should also say the worst thing—the killing-est thing—can be to have even the slightest fear of the body, of revealing it, of wanting it. One of the true formative moments for me as a poet, and also a Rubicon moment, was when my mentor at Emerson brought me into his office to read a poem. There was an image in the poem of a beautiful man, running on the beach, I think, wearing only a pair of tiny hot-pink shorts. (I’ve been trying to find that poem ever since; I wonder now if it even existed or if I’ve created it because I needed it.)
My mentor had me read the poem and told me I needed to stop fearing the male body, that I needed to write the poems that I wanted to write. I had been so fearful of the body (the body on which I’d been gazing at for years) that I was writing these terribly muffled poems of coded desire. They were really stifled poems, and thus not good.
Are you sick of being asked, “How do you know when a poem is finished?” I’ll ask anyway. How do you know when you’ve finished revising a poem? How do you know when a word is adding its bit of magic or just getting in the way?
CH: That’s a question I was just talking to a student about. Let’s break it down. First, every line must be self-sustaining, memorable. Every one. It should begin in a place that’s the only possible place to begin. You should have tried to extend the ending past the point of reason. You either produce an extended ending that’s shit or you discover the true ending of the poem. Either way I think you know immediately. Other than that, it’s all guesswork, of course!
What is your greatest difficulty as a writer and how do you deal with it?
CH: Can I be coy and just quote Keats? “….Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…”
Yankees Vs. Red Sox; Beatles Vs. Stones; Hennessy Vs. _________________?
CH: I love the balls this questions has! Okay, I’ll say “Hennessy vs. Cherry Garcia Ben & Jerry’s Fro-Yo.” I hope that doesn’t make too much sense.
The subtitle of your blog Outside the Lines is “a place for writers to consider how identity shapes creativity.” So, a small question… how does identity shape creativity, or visa versa? If you had to pigeonhole your identity and creative voice, how have they shaped one another? How does any of this relate to the title of your first collection– Love-In-Idleness?
CH: This is the question that prompted me to enroll in a Ph.D. program. So perhaps I’ll have an answer for you in two years when I complete my dissertation. Until then, I’ll just give you this often-offered-up anecdote. When a critic named Jeff Weinstein was asked if he thought there was a gay sensibility and if it affected culture, this was his one-sentence response: “No, there’s no such thing as a gay sensibility and yes, it does affect culture.”
[The most recently I’ve seen this, as I say, often-mentioned anecdote, was from Christopher Bram in an interview in Salon.com. (Thomas Rogers from Salon, call me!) Bram recently published Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America.]
I realize citing that response is a cop out, but all I can say in my defense is to point people to browse the blog and they will surely get a sense of some of the ways this question can begin to be thought through.
As for Love-In-Idleness, the book’s narrative and lyric identities are my own: gay, Midwesterner, country mouse who’s now a city mouse, son, partner, and storyteller. Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if the more interesting poems, however, are those that are not part one of my more stable or comfortable identities—hypersexual being, trickster, nature lover, asshole, magician. These are not who I am. But perhaps they are who I want to be. Maybe that’s where our best poetry happens. In that space of self-making, wish-making—in the conflict of the self and the self-one-desires.
I feel obliged (sadly) to note I’m skirting the whole issue of the identity as a theoretically useful concept. For decades now to talk about ‘identity’ has been to risk appearing naïve. I think we’ll see a growing desire, even among academics, to find ways to argue for the return of identity.
What were some of the unexpected considerations you had to make when putting together your first collection?
CH: I discovered many of my poems hadn’t found their endings. And that turned out to be a great joy—to find those two or three lines that suddenly appeared and made me realize a whole different poem was just waiting to be found.
If the last surviving anthology had one of your poems in it, which one would you pick as proof that you were here? (and why?)
CH: This question has balls, too! Or rather implicates the answerer’s hubris.
What the hell. I’d pick my poem “The Cicada, And Other Lessons.” It ends with this stanza:
The cicada sleeps
underground for 17 years
to avoid the mantis and wasp.
But when it emerges, it sings.
There is no shame in that life.
Why? Because there aren’t many things in life that I believe in the truly simple way that belief should really be. But the message of that stanza is one of them. And the fact that it’s part of a father-son poem, I think, matters too.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting to write poems, or who says “I wanna be a poet when I grow up?”
CH: Drown yourself in literature, in words, in nouns. And swallow them, peach and maelstrom. Swallow them whole! It will hurt at first. But from pain comes pleasure. And hopefully art!
Might I end by quoting Hart Crane: “Thou canst read nothing except through appetite…”
Take that how you may!
Christopher Hennessy is the author of Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets (University of Michigan Press). He earned an MFA from Emerson College and currently is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He was included in Ploughshares’ special “Emerging Writers” edition, and his poetry, interviews, and book reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Verse, Cimarron Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Bloomsbury Review, Court Green, OCHO, Crab Orchard Review, Natural Bridge,Wisconsin Review, Brooklyn Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. Hennessy is a longtime associate editor for The Gay & Lesbian Review-Worldwide.