Kill the Teacher, Spare the Poet: A Conversation with John Hennessy

The poet John Hennessy shares a name with a millionaire college president, who was not long ago profiled in the, and a cognac everyone knows, but not everyone drinks. His name positions his work in a cruel sort of fame and obscurity.
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The poet John Hennessy shares a name with a millionaire college president, who was not long ago profiled in the New Yorker, and a cognac everyone knows, but not everyone drinks. His name positions his work in a cruel sort of fame and obscurity. In New York, after a reading for the Best American Poetry 2013 series, in which his work is anthologized, a fan came forward and asked him to spell his last name. An odd attempt at an ice breaker.

"It's easy," he said. "Like the drink."

He's perhaps the perfect portrait of the present-day poet. He's too smart, decorated with degrees, printed in sterling publications, a popular professor, and not yet well enough known. He is the author of two acclaimed collections, Bridge and Tunnel and, more recently, Coney Island Pilgrims.

Hennessy was raised in Rahway, New Jersey between the drifting tides of the Arthur Kill and the "single gleaming green" that was the Merck chemical plant. When people talk about his poetry, New Jersey is always in close proximity. He's quick to admit its influence, and if he weren't, one might only look upon his work and see "the sun half an hour high over Merck, the morning divided by smokestack" to know one's footing.

His work is most immediately identified by its rhythm (music) and its penchant for myth-making. It resists sentimentality, preferring elaborate set pieces and folkloric stories. Working with a clown bag of ancient myths and pagan rituals, and the structural constraint of a loose meter, he paints portraits of everyday bridge and tunnel existence. It feels odd to call him a romantic, but his empathetic eye for the everyman elevates our industrial outliers to figures of great tragedy and comedy. See, for example, his poem, "Mike Devlin."

Mike Devlin

The dairy light, he called it, in any weather

when he delivered--fog eddies from Arthur Kill,

sun half an hour high over Merck, the morning

divided by smokestack. Temper's teacup, a man's

no more than a punter's error, he liked to say.

He hummed "Ave Maria" through the baritone

kazoo of tracheotomy, circus shadow

of his church choir tenor; for kids, he buzzed

the Yankee Doodle like electric razor

or flexed his arm and blackened ship tattoos

dropped anchor under a war wound's purple chop.

After the dairy cut his route, he became our oldest

paper-boy. Sack slung around his shoulder

and cradled like a headless cello, we saw him

more often, his walk an economic waltz.

Warm afternoons, he propped a shoe-shine box

beneath the awnings of Truppa's deli, bullied tips

from all his customers. He slipped his gauze,

pulled the patch off his blow-hole, neck-smoked

a hot-boxed Camel to win the hardest cases.

The night Mike died, men emptied out of Pete's:

Knights, Vets, Legionnaires, Sons of Italy. They parked

a phonograph on the fire-escape and played

his seventy-eights. Crackling Irish tenors

rose along rusted, ivy-covered slats, zigzag

ladder and window grills, to sing us to sleep.

Later bottles dropped, a pipe burst, the record player

smashed in the alley. Beat-cops broke it up

before morning twilight, his old delivery hour.

Hennessy lives in Amherst, Massachusetts now. Five colleges and thousands of students, some stressed and some stoned; the shedding trees and the green rolling hills; the Oxbow and the Connecticut River, "the valley," as the locals call it; all have replaced the "beat cops" and the Rahway State Prison, where Ruben "Hurricane" Carter was wrongfully incarcerated. Here, amongst cafe poets and newly minted sycophants, a few hundred miles from Merck's big, dull smoke stacks, and Arthur Kill's shimmering ebb, he returns to New Jersey.

"I envy the ability to leave," he writes, "I'm always coming back."

John Hennessy was once my teacher. Now he is a friend. This conversation took place over email and telephone between May and November 2013.

Green Man, Blue Pill

Her first assumption: life's hard, so Mom runs trails

through Amherst's woods. She sidesteps mud puddles,

clears mosquito larvae swimming there.

They've got a right too, she says. Trim, spare

in words and body, she wears Bettie Page-

bangs, yoga pants and sunburst tops, her age

irrelevant. She trots around burdock root, cuts

the tap to grind for toothache, back spasms, dandruff,

abrupt as mushrooms sprouting in her wake,

or lichen spreading across the rocks she mistakes

for hunting cats at first. Even they've come back,

big cats sauntering past stopped trains, blown tracks,

retracing dead routes across the northern plains.

She's run through hot flashes, frost in her mane,

sidled around men and let them lap, her claws

retracted, still sharp, made long by menopause.

She sees herself in trillium blooming near

the brook, cracked robin's eggs, fronds growing clear

of jack-pine roots. Once, she'd have brought the fire,

a bladder full of kerosene and sparking wires,

but now she's grown more careful near her man.

Love pats, tongue prompts, powders--with help the plan

includes a morning hour--clary sage, wild

green oats, deer velvet, rose maroc, a vial

of blue pills--what hasn't this old May Queen

already fed her Corn King, Jack-in-the-Green?

And he needs his run, too. Thick-limbed, slow-pulsed,

his sap eases through branch and leaf, the hulk

of late middle-age, and nothing polite is left

to sacrifice. He plods--he stumps--he hefts

his trunk along. He seems half worms and wood chips

and wears the holly crown around his hips

these days. Life's hard, my mother likes to say,

still hard. Me, I like to remember them in flagrante,

woods blazing, dodder's twining orange vines

trimming their legs, white flowers, burning tines.

I want to start with the Green Man poems -- I see them as something very new for you and your work. The Green Man has a curious history in both the UK and around the world, but there seems to be a general agreement that the figure symbolizes rebirth. Of course, they seem to randomly populate history in sculptures, music, folklore and even in a Kingsley Amis novel of the same name. You certainly honor its strange history, but instead of rebirth, your Green Man (in all of the poems) brings on decay, ruminations of another time and a sort of willingness to be effaced in hopes of providing some sort of feeling of love, of connection. How did the Green Man first come to you? What about this figure and myth? And how did it lead you to these quiet, intimate poems?

It seems appropriate to begin with the Green Man here, because the figure runs like a vine throughout this book. You're right, also, in your description of how he comes across in these poems, although you startled me at first -- I hadn't realized how limited or focused my presentation was.

Best laid plans: I wanted to present the Green Man in all of his aspects -- trickster, creator, life-force, nurturer, destroyer, a Dionysian figure, even, ranging from the celebratory to the retributive -- and wrote a variety of poems about him. But the ones that made the cut for the collection are as you describe them, that is, focused on decay and a willingness to be effaced, to pass on, in order for a connection. This has to do with my ideas about parenthood and stewardship. We have to take care of the next generation and then move out of their way, take care of the planet and leave it for the next generation.

This isn't to suggest that each generation has a built-in obsolescence, but sometimes it feels that way. We're absorbed back into the cycles -- literally back into the earth and genetically into subsequent generations, and figuratively we carry on through our various influences, through the way we nurture our literal and figurative descendants as well as in our failures to do so. And I suppose at times I'm investigating that tension between taking care and letting go.

You mention the excellent Kingsley Amis novel, which I just re-read for the fifth or sixth time. That's one way I became interested in the figure of the Green Man -- through his various representations, from the architectural/sculptural to the literary. There's also a beautiful story by Jeanette Winterson, and of course Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even a decent poem by Mark Jarman, among the many, many representations of the Green Man. Interestingly, each of these writers seems to focus on a single aspect of the GM -- from the violent/Dionysian aspects of the Amis book to the trickster who pranks King Arthur's court and Sir Gawain.

But I'd been aware of the figure for years before I felt any kind of "connection." When it happened, though, it wasn't subtle. I saw the Green Man everywhere. It felt great, too, a real manic period, despite the fact that things were going very poorly in the rest of my life. The poems were coming from somewhere, though, and the ones you mention came pretty quickly. That part of the book took the least time to compose and less to revise.

There was a certain aspect of youth in B&T, not explicitly, rather from our looking point. At many times -- "Mike Devlin," "Dog-Star Freddy" "Cusp" -- the view seems to be looking up, recalling these memories, but as if they are still frozen in youth, from when the narrator first set eyes on them. The collection feels youthful in a lot of ways. It's excited, energetic, even its intellectual aspects have a vitality to them. In other words, while there is certainly an aspect of memory, of time passed, the book still feels placed in that time, in the life and culture of B&T, I suspect that's why it's titled so.

Coney Island Pilgrims on the other hand, even in its title -- "Pilgrims" -- marks a more aged retrospect. We our returning to this time and moment, but we are now wholly different. Our poems feel more weathered, they are less excitable, more careful, more ruminative. "Oakland" feels like a self-soothing chant, "Valet Angelus" is a love-song to fatherhood, the Green Man poems to marriage, sex, and relationships in general, "Beast.." to child development.

You are a father now, and I suppose that makes part of your life no longer about you. How has fatherhood and age in general informed your poetry?

I wish I had a hypotenuse to the shortest answer, something like this: maybe those "youthful" poems were directed more by anger, which remains fresh. You mention, for example, "Dog-Star Freddy," which is about the neighborhood child molester, but even that poem was done with a weird helping of humor, keeping it uncomfortable. Maybe the newer poems draw more on anxiety. Is anxiety more mature than anger? More refined? In any case, hopefully my humor comes through even in these new poems.

As for fatherhood -- it has been a boon, the best thing that's happened in my life. Not that it's without complications, though, and in this book I've also focused on how odd it is being both a father and a son simultaneously. It makes Father's Day tricky. And you always have the opportunity of screwing up with two different generations. See especially, "Xanax/Theseus and the Minotaur." The form is what interests me there -- to some extent, it grows out of that circumstance or subject matter. Even "Afterlife (Dream Song Entombed)," which is inspired formally by Philip Nikolayev's spectacular "immured sonnets," works this ground, with its inherent contradictions.

As for aging, mid-life, etc., I hope I haven't slowed down or lost any of that energy in the poems, at least. I know none of my urges or appetites has diminished, and hopefully that comes across. In this regard, I hope I'm speaking for others my age -- and letting you younger folks know what you have to, um, look forward to.

What poets have most influenced your work? Who did you read first that had direct impact, and who if anyone made you want to be a poet?

Aside from some of the usual, mostly modernist suspects (Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, Tristan Tzara, Wallace Stevens, H.D., Robert Walser, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, James Merrill, Lawrence Joseph, and Philip Nikolayev, whom I've mentioned), I grew up obsessed with a poet they taught us in French classes, Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). Apollinaire seemed to me to be sui generis, not part of any particular movement, yet he's the link between the high modernists writing between the wars and what came before them. (He was also an art critic, credited with "discovering" Picasso.) Like the Futurists, he loved speed and its vehicles, especially cars and planes, and like the Dadaists he saw that technology was going to be used for more efficient killing. The plane becomes a bomber, the car a tank. (See, for example, his shape poem, "The Little Car.") His long poem, "Zone," which by the way was nearly perfectly translated by Samuel Beckett, has probably been my single favorite poem since I was a teenager, for 30 years, and there are still periods where I find myself unwittingly trying to rewrite it.

These days I've been teaching Anglophone poets from South Africa (Kelwyn Sole, Makhosazana Xaba, Gabeba Baderoon, Robert Berold, Katherine Kilalea, and others) and India (especially Jeet Thayil and Arun Kolatkar), as well as many poets closer to home (Daniel Hall, Katia Kapovich's English poems, Major Jackson, Jacquelyn Pope, Ben Mazer, Don Share, and I'm always excited by Tom Sleigh).

I like to read within these spheres; whether or not I write within them, you can see for yourself.

Still, if I could write within the spheres created by others, among my contemporaries I'd choose Susan Kinsolving, Denise Duhamel, Harryette Mullen, and Susan Wheeler -- I'd be stoked and as close to satisfied as one gets. While these are four very different poets, they are all radically intelligent, deeply witty, and often funny -- even when deadly serious.

How does fiction -- reading and teaching it -- inform your poetry?

I studied fiction for years -- with Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Stone, Jerome Charyn, Elaine Showalter, right through graduate school. Narrative appeals to me, especially narratives that open out, break down, explode: from Job to Ovid to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Mrs. Dalloway to Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner and Open City by Teju Cole.

When a poem just about contains that energy, then I'm satisfied as a reader -- and as a poet.

Does your kind of "madman" paganism, as you say in your Fulcrum essay, keep you away from religion? How do you think you treat religion in your poetry, and does your predilection for myth liven religion up for you or does it have the opposite effect?

I don't see any contradiction between the madman pagan energies, practices, sensations, or whatever, and monotheistic religion.

I'm Judeo/Christian, Roman Catholic, by upbringing and I haven't broken with it. I thought I'd become a Unitarian or Quaker when I was a late teenager, but then I visited a mass rock in Ireland in my early twenties. A mass rock served as an altar when Catholicism was illegal in Ireland, during the long period of British occupation. (By the way, have you ever studied the penal laws the British imposed upon the Irish? They'll surprise you.) I was so moved by this site that I decided that if I were going to be formally associated with any church, it would have to remain the Roman Catholic church. So many generations of ancestors already had -- why break with them?

But my understanding of that RC Christianity is universalist. Many paths to the same truth.

To be clear: I abhor any sexism, homophobia, and fear of sexuality, and I don't accept it in any form from my church or from its members. I've often been infuriated, a dissenter, but Pope Francis has made me optimistic about change within the church.

On the other hand, even if Pope Francis can't make sweeping changes, you don't want to leave the church to the unloving, compassionless nutters to run -- you have to fight them. If you leave it and let them win, it's bad for everyone.

The myths, since you ask, are different stories for understanding the same truths, I reckon. When I was younger, I "felt" or experienced Pan and Dionysos. At an older age it was the Green Man. I'm partial to Saint Rita, too. (She "helped" me with my first book.) Saint Dymphna. The Book of Job is one of my favorite texts period.

Does a poet work sort of as a mystic, a religious figure? Seamus Heaney's recent passing brings this to mind. The poet as a voice for a time/culture/ religion etc.. Do you feel any of that responsibility when writing, or is it a separate affair, and does poetry's present state/place have anything do with that?

A poet's responsibility is to do something inventive -- musical, percussive, pleasing, even puzzling -- with language. As for the poet's "role" in the culture -- good question. In the U.S., I'm sure there are as many good roles as there are good poets.

My role as I see it is based on my interests: I'm obsessed with mythological/religious archetypes and tropes, and with syncretism in particular. (The way religious figures and practices are transmitted over time, absorbed by one religious tradition from another -- specifically, for me, the way so-called pagan figures recur within monotheistic traditions.) So of course this comes out in my poems.

But I'm also devoted to the memory and sites of my upbringing in the factory belt around New York, industrial New Jersey and on the Jersey Shore, the lives of my neighbors, friends, and family there as bridge-and-tunnel outsiders, immigrants from all over, and those neighborhoods with their eclectic mix of races/ethnicities we grew up in.

Of course I can muster envy for poets of the distant past, those who played more active roles in their culture, whether as something close to shaman or as ancient fireside entertainers, scop, troubadour, medieval TV anchor...

Or even in the not-so-distant past: Anyone who ever saw Joseph Brodsky read to a crowd of Russians knows what I'm talking about.

You ask specifically about Seamus Heaney, and he's another example of the poet as an important cultural figure. You and I can imagine the fervor he created throughout Ireland; even his readings and lectures here in the U.S. were like going to church -- with none of the baggage of childhood, of ever having been forced to attend.

Now that you're a teacher -- have been for a while -- do you notice it having any impact on your writing? Has it made writing harder, easier? I especially like this question posed to Robert Lowell in 1963 by Frederick Seidel, so I'm going to pose it you as well: "Do you think the academic life is liable to block up the writer-professor's sensitivity to his own intuitions?"

I love this question from Seidel, a controversial figure but a poet whose work I admire. And he's posing it to one of my favorite poets, one whose books I teach and go back to over and over. Still, look at the context of that question: I wonder how much financial hardship these two fellows faced?

As far as I'm concerned, I'd have to be a real jackass to complain about academic life blocking up my 'sensitivity to my own intuitions.' I've had some rough times, been broke growing up and as an adult, and really, that's the worst "block": obsessing over how you'll feed yourself, pay the bills, answering dunning calls.

My job -- and look around us, we're lucky to have jobs, very lucky -- is to spend time reading and discussing literature, books I choose, with intelligent, usually energetic young people, people who often come to class with a great sense of humor. It sounds ideal to me.

I could make other claims, that I'm spared a lot of bullshit, preserved in some way, that I'm an "outsider" at my own institution and in academia in general, but that's not what you're asking. I spend a lot of time and energy on my students and I'm grateful for them. Period.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on new poems, following three strands: one religion/myth and technology, another pairs disparate lexicons (medical texts on the common cold with the knots of BDSM, for example), and the third is more personal and backward glancing, poems from time spent living in Dublin and Amsterdam. Hopefully these three strands will come together down the road. Coney Island Pilgrims came out quickly, though -- I was still adding poems to it last spring, so I'm really just starting out with new work.

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