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Take Five: Barbara Henning on Memory, Doubts, Speculation & Inspiration

Barbara Henning’s six-week workshop at Poets House, Memory as Renewal: Dedications, Portraits & Elegies, begins Saturday, April 13. We asked her a few questions about her class and her own creative process.


1) What inspired you to want to teach a writing workshop on Memory as Renewal: Dedications, Portraits & Elegies?

I have been thinking about the ways that poets concentrate on others, and I thought it would be interesting to explore this question with a group, by reading poems and inventing possible assignments together. An example: I have been reading Brenda Hillman’s new book, Extra Hidden Life, among the Days, and while reading her poems dedicated to her father, I realized how I wanted to work with a long project on my mother: I will concentrate on the places she lived and worked by visiting them and writing. I also love the way Brenda includes the language of philosophy and politics in a more personal way. I think it can be inspiring to read poems by others (and novels and stories and…) and use that experience to invent new directions.


2) How does your own writing process, past and/or present, relate to this topic?

I have written poems dedicated to other poets, friends, and families, and I want to share my knowledge and poems, as well as learning more by reading others. I have used many methods for writing poems—I usually start with writing in my journal, working with memory, doubts, speculation. Then research. In my project I’m writing on my mother, I went back to Detroit newspapers (microfiche in the Detroit Library) on her birthday and other important dates in her life, and I excerpted material about women. I will collage some of that material into the poems that I write. In this class, we will explore different ways of accessing memory, researching, and forms for presentation.


3) What is a poem (or two) you admire that captures some of the spirit of this class? 

I admire so many poems, and I have made a large collection of poems from poets from various schools. Since I am out of town and on the road now, I can’t access them, but I am going to include in the class some poems by the late Bill Berkson. And here is one, excerpted below, that is on the Jacket magazine website, dedicated to Jim Gustafson, called “Last Words.”

“That’s the way it goes.”

“More light, please.”

“Whose side are you on anyway?”

“Goodnight, sweet Prince.”

What I like about this poem is the way Bill collaged together what seems like actual language by Jim Gustafson. That’s one method that can be used.


4) Who has been your favorite teacher—in the classroom or on the page or otherwise—and why?

So so many, most at this point in my life from my reading: William Carlos Williams (for his focus on the American idiom and his early experimentation); Virginia Woolf (for her stream of consciousness and for the women characters); Diane di Prima (for her Beat Buddhist sensibility, rhythms, riffs, and politics); Bernadette Mayer (for her humor, experimentation, and writing out of daily life); Maureen Owen (for her painterly collage poems)…gosh, I could go on and on…that’s just off the top of my head today as I sit in this cafe in Denver.


5) When you’re not writing and teaching poetry, what feeds your creativity/helps you stay sane?

Yoga, family, friends, cooking, eating chocolate, and taking walks under the sky.

Barbara Henning is a poet and a fiction writer. She has published three novels and numerous books of poetry, including her most recent, A Day Like Today (Negative Capability Press, 2015). Her novel, Just Like That, was released from Spuyten Duyvil in 2018. Barbara has taught workshops for Poets House, The Poetry Project, The Poetry Center (Tucson), and many other organizations. She has also been on the faculty at Naropa University and at Long Island University in Brooklyn.

Posted In: Interviews