Brian Henry is the author of Doppelgänger, Lessness, Wings Without Birds, In the Unlikely Event of a Water, The Stripping Point, Quarantine, Graft, Astronaut, and American Incident, and the translator of Tomaž Salamun's Woods and Chalices and Aleš Šteger's The Book of Things. His translation of The Book of Things won the 2011 Best Translated Book Award from the University of Rochester. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he serves as editor for Verse, and teaches English and Creative Writing at the University of Richmond.

Brian Henry

posted Feb 7, 2012

Brian Henry is a busy man. His first collection, Astronaut, appeared in 2000, and since then he's not only published seven more volumes of poetry, he's also made a name as an editor, teacher, and translator. He spoke recently with our Audrey Walls about his latest collection, Lessness, and about his excursus into erasure poetry, his shaky command of Slovenian, and much more.


Publishers Weekly’s review of Lessness notes that “there is virtually no subject or object left intact” in your poetry, while the opening poem warns us that “land always breaks along well-defined measures.” How does this process of destruction (or de-construction) reevaluate what we read as a “whole” poem?

While trying to figure out what a poem is or can be, I frequently try to fracture, or dismantle, or at least mar the well-wrought urn. Although I’ve written tidy, self-contained poems, something about tidiness, the illusion of completion, the manipulations and distortions required for coherence have always struck me as suspect (including in my own poems). At the same time, I’m not particularly interested in composing just noise. I guess that most of my books ask the reader to reevaluate what a “whole” poem is, since I’ve written a few book-length poems (sequences and series), sometimes give multiple poems in the same book the same title, finish in one poem what was started in another poem, etc. Lessness probably foregrounds this process more than my other books do.

You mentioned that the struck-out and blackened lines in Lessness are “a residue from the editing process.” Does this stem from the voice of the self-censoring poet, or is it an editorial censor that filters the text for the reader, or both?

We often censor ourselves, either while writing or revising, and I thought I'd try [with the strike-throughs and black bars in Lessness] being more direct about it by making the self-censoring evident.

I wanted to do two things with the strike-throughs and black bars in Lessness: leave tangible evidence of the editing process (while creating multiple versions of a single poem) and “censor”/censor the work. We often censor ourselves, either while writing or revising, and I thought I’d try being more direct about it by making the self-censoring evident. I chose the black bars because they’re so effective and also are reminiscent of official redactions.

Similarly, the blacked-out lines in certain poems are reminiscent of erasure works, such as Tom Philips’s “A Humument” or Mary Ruefle’s “A Little White Shadow,” but are not erasure poems in their truest sense. How much influence, if any at all, did works like these have on how you approached the graphically altered poems in Lessness?

I started those pieces in Lessness back in 2002, before I’d read any erasure works other than Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os. A year or two later, I encountered “A Humument,” Stephen Ratcliffe’s [where late the sweet] Birds Sang, Jen Bervin’s Nets, and, most relevant to what I was doing, Bob Brown’s Gems—a prohibition-era work that censors proper Victorian poems into salaciousness. Later erasure and treatment projects, such as Ruefle’s book, Travis MacDonald’s The O Mission Repo, and Janet Holmes’ The Ms of My Kin, helped me clarify and situate what I was doing. But in 2001, the year before I started those pieces, I worked on a translation of Blanchot’s L’Attente l’Oubli (Awaiting Oblivion) that selecting only parts of the text. I basically was performing an erasure of Blanchot’s text while translating it. I eventually abandoned the project, but I expect that something about the process stayed with me as I returned to my own work.

We’re intrigued by way your poems take shape on the page, especially in works like “Subterra,” and the last section of the book, “Wreckage.” Do you visualize the poem’s shape as you write it, or do you write first, then shape the text later?

“Subterra” is probably the closest thing in Lessness to a “true” erasure. The original poem, which I wrote in 1998, was much longer, or at least fuller, than what you see in the book. And it was left-justified. Over the years, while revising it, I kept paring it back, and finally decided that in the first, third, and fourth sections, I really wanted to keep only certain phrases, none of the integument. So I erased the rest of the poem but kept the phrases in their original position in the poem, as Johnson did in RADI OS. The result, visually, is hopefully more dynamic than what I originally had written. “Wreckage” is more traditional, in that most of the visual displacement is due to step-down lines and double or triple spacing. Because part of “Wreckage” focuses on the viewer/viewee relationship, I sometimes approached the page more visually, almost as a canvas. In “Wreckage,” all of the work was composed as it appears in the book. That’s how I usually work, though sometimes a poem finds its form on the page during the revision process rather than during composition.

You pinpointed John Kinsella’s “Graphology” as an important poem, and in fact dedicated Lessness to Kinsella. There seems to be a great deal of kinship between the poems in Lessness and “Graphology.” How have you come to understand Kinsella’s work, and how has it influenced your own?

Lessness begins where “Graphology” ended. (Kinsella continued writing “Graphology” poems after I read his first “Graphology” chapbook in 1998.) I was in Australia when I wrote the first piece in Lessness, and the Australian landscape and the history of Australian-European agriculture and settlement inform that poem. I also wanted to use the poem to establish the physical and mental landscape of Lessness: stark (yet beautiful in its own way), exhausted, and menacing. Although Kinsella is a highly versatile poet, I see a few threads that run through most of his poetry: an obsessive concern with the interactions between humans and the physical world, with the way humans treat each other, and with the disruptive possibilities of language. Kinsella’s linguistic and formal innovations and his ethical positions impressed me when I started to write the poems in Lessness, and continued to do so when I finished the book ten years later.

It’s a well-known fact that you’ve worked extensively in translating the works of other poets, such as that of Slovenian poets Tomaž Šalamun and Aleš Šteger. Does working in translation change your own writing process? What advice would you give a writer who aspires to translate written works?

Translating Šalamun was literally mind-altering. I felt like I was re-wiring my brain while translating him, mainly because of the mix of outrageous statements and juxtapositions and linguisitic barbarities and impossibilities. By bringing his poems into English, I was often doing violence to normative English; but before doing that, I had to figure out how the original poem was doing the same thing to Slovenian. Translating Šteger helped me realize there were even more ways of constructing poems. And because Šteger’s poems are more “traditional” than Šalamun’s and employed more familiar devices (such as puns and allusions), I had to stretch to be as faithful to the meaning and context of the original as possible while making a successful poem in English. Working with both poets also expanded my sense of the line, what it can do. More recently, translating Šteger’s prose book Berlin had me wading deep into sentences, and ultimately broadened my view of how sentences can operate. I don’t think I’d ever paid so much attention to syntax as when translating Šteger’s prose.

I wish more people would translate, though I know how hard it is to feel like one's doing a decent job of it.

I wish more people would translate, though I know how hard it is to feel like one’s doing a decent job of it. I first tried translating in graduate school. I started with a Neruda poem from Residienca en la Tierra . I felt like I got the poem 80% of the way there, but that I would never adequately finish it. I’d studied Latin and French as well as Spanish, so I thought I should be able to do this thing, and ultimately blamed my failure on my own inadequacies. Ten years later, working with Šalamun in a language that I barely knew, I realized that the crucial element I was missing with my Neruda translation was access to the poet. Having the poet there makes a huge difference. It’s also a wonderful way to pursue friendship through the word.

In an interview with Poets & Writers in 2003, you stated that many younger poets have opted to “create their own communities rather than wait to be offered a ticket to Parnassus by an elder.” How do you see this re-structuring of literary communities now, especially in regard to the proliferation of digital literary outlets? And for those young-would-be poets, do you have any words of wisdom where they might be able to find some cheap tickets to Parnassus online (Expedia? Travelocity?)?

I think it (i.e., younger poets creating their own communities) is happening more now than then. The contest structure, though larger than ever, holds less weight than ever. Winning something like the Yale Younger or Walt Whitman used to guarantee a certain cachet, visibility, number of reviews, and often made the difference in job applications, second books, the usual trappings of a “career.” But I don’t think that’s the case anymore. The explosion of small presses has tilted the field, and there are so many excellent online venues for poetry (and poetry criticism) that poets can generate substantial interest in their work without publishing in a single print magazine. I think it seems more likely now that an emerging poet whose work is being read and talked about and reviewed will have been published by a relatively new independent press than by an established contest. Presses like Black Ocean, Octopus Books, Action Books, and Ugly Duckling operate outside the contest system, are run by younger poets, and consistently put out books that attract more attention than prize-winning books that would have soaked up most of the interest 10-20 years ago. Clearly, there are still kings and queens of poetry who want to tap the princes and princesses, put their fingerprints on the generation after them. And that feudal process still works, to a certain extent. But it seems far less pervasive, and easier than ever to ignore.