Brian Henry

In what ways might you consider yourself an American poet?

Mostly the obvious ones: I was born in the U.S., I was educated in public schools and universities in the U.S., and with the exception of a year in Australia, I've always lived and worked in the U.S. And I'm a poet. On a less superficial level, I work in / with American English, often write about / in / through American landscapes (primarily Georgia, New Hampshire, and Virginia), and pay too much attention to American politics and culture. Still, though I realize it's foolish to pretend otherwise, I've never considered myself primarily "an American poet" because my early influences were as likely to be Scottish, Irish, Australian, English, French, Greek, Slovenian, Russian, etc. as American.

Do you believe there is anything specifically American about American poetry past and present?

The more positive angle would be to say that American poetry absorbs American cultures, landscapes, traditions, art, literature, etc., becoming its own kind of melting pot. Another angle would be to say that American poetry, like most other American institutions, is imperialist—cultural imperialism becoming poetic imperialism. My own view falls somewhere in the middle and tends to shift depending on currents in publishing. One of the most vibrant aspects of American poetry, which is also a quality that would lead some to deny its Americanness, is the numerous languages that move into / around the poetry. That spongy quality seems American to me (though of course this happens in other countries' poetries, too).

When you consider your own "tradition," do you think of American poets, non-American poets?

Definitely both. Non-American poets like Pablo Neruda, Medbh McGuckian, Tomaz Salamun, Yannis Ritsos, Paul Celan, Edvard Kocbek, Inger Christensen, John Forbes, Pam Brown, John Kinsella, Edmond Jabes, Paul Muldoon, and John Burnside have been as crucial to me as my favorite American poets. I also would add that fiction writers like William Faulkner, James Joyce, David Foster Wallace, and Cormac McCarthy have been as influential as my favorite poets. Ditto with some musicians and artists. The tradition lurking behind my book Quarantine, for example, is Tomaz Salamun (A Ballad for Metka Krasovec) and Neutral Milk Hotel (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea)—the book wouldn't have happened without both of those works.

Which historic poets do you consider most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics?

The obvious ones, of course: Whitman and Dickinson. And I'd add Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. And Robert Frost, Hart Crane, Charles Olson, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O'Hara, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Schuyler, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Ronald Johnson, John Ashbery, and Hayden Carruth.

Is there something formally distinctive about American poetry?

It's increasingly in prose.

What role do geographical factors play in your work?

I've always needed some kind of physical location for my poems, even if it's an invented one. Certain bodies of water (in Virginia, Scotland, Ireland, and Australia) were central to the "Bystander" sequence in Astronaut, and I think that kind of geographic specificity became important to me around that time—I realized that my visual and aural imaginations worked best when set somewhere specific. The landscapes of New Hampshire and Australia govern most of Graft, which partly depends on the extreme differences in climate. There's quite a bit of Georgia and Virginia in my new book Wings Without Birds, and I'm currently working on a book centered mostly in New Hampshire. I used to be more attracted to speech, especially overheard speech, than to geography, but now it's the other way around.




Continue browsing Q & A: American Poetry