Six Questions: An Interview with John Hennessy

John Hennessy, a New Jersey native studied at Princeton University on a Cane scholarship and received graduates degrees from The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Arkansas. He currently lives in Amherst, MA and teaches at the University of Massachusetts. He is the author of two poetry collections, Coney Island Pilgrims and Bridge and Tunnel. His work appears in many journals and anthologies including Best American Poetry 2013, The Believer, The New Republic, etc. Hennessy also is a contributing editor to Fulcrum and he is the editor for The Common, a new print magazine based at Amherst College.

Responses to Eden Wright’s and Teddy Fuller’s questions

Eden Wright and Teddy Fuller: Was there ever a certain teacher that you had in high school/college that influenced your decision to be a writer?

John Hennessy: There were at least three teachers in high school who may have influenced decisions around any decision I made to be a writer. (I’m not certain it’s something we decide, at all—what we do decide is how we’ll spend our time and energy generating work and getting it to readers.)  Mrs. Catalano, my ninth-grade gym teacher, knew I was interested in going to Princeton University. (I was reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s clearer to me now, though, that any poor or working class kid who has read Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise might have thought twice about going to that school in the Reagan era.) One day she brought me a newspaper article about Joyce Carol Oates, who was teaching at Princeton then; I was so compelled by Ms. Oates and her work that I renewed my efforts to go there—and ended up having her as the advisor of my senior thesis.

Geraldine Horowitz, my English teacher in 10th and 11th  grades, rarely spoke to me directly about my work but somehow always managed to convey her confidence in it. She also paid for me to see Othello on Broadway (James Earl Jones in the title role, Christopher Plummer as Iago) when I couldn’t afford a ticket for the school trip, insisting it would be absurd if I missed it. She fortified my resolve to be forthcoming about writing, even though it didn’t exactly make one popular there and then.

Finally, Sister A. M. M. (we’ll keep her anonymous; I never made the transition from public school to Catholic high school easily), my AP English teacher, asked to see some of my poems and gave them back the next day shaking her head. “Clean up your dirty poetry,” she said. To have made a reader respond so viscerally to my work—I’ve enjoyed that for years! Makes me feel like I’ve lived through many eras.

EW and TF: Why is it about New Jersey that has made it such a big influence on your writing?

JH: Why New Jersey? My New Jersey stood as and remains a great cognate, microcosm, analog, serving suggestion, for the larger world. Even though my enormous, and enormously talkative (and the Sicilians were very warm, tremendously affectionate), American family had recently come from Ireland and Sicily, and I grew up with great-grandparents on one side who spoke little English, on the other English with a brogue, my vision of those old places was somehow a more fantastic version of industrial New Jersey: Factories, refineries, wetlands, warehouses, condo complexes, old brick buildings, triple-decker houses, playgrounds, vast parks and rivers, and verging on all of that, the ocean.

My own children have been to visit their families in the Philippines and Sicily, spent many summers in Greece and the UK, traveled to Portugal and Mexico. They’ve even done hard time on the Jersey Shore and, on balance, a preppy part of Maine. They know that there’s much they don’t know about the world. But for twenty years, New Jersey was all I knew, and I was unaware of that.

Outside of that world was New York, the real city, where I was headed at the first opportunity. As it turned out, I chose to stay in New Jersey, albeit a far-fetched and maybe only a nominal part of it, when given the chance to leave. Princeton taught me I was very different, very specific, intellectual in the most inelegant manner, well read but naïve. I even learned I had an accent. Spoke a dialect. I worked on it.

Why New Jersey? I miss it. I don’t fully understand it. So keep returning to it. The same may be said for my family there.

(I have a poem that addresses this at an oblique angle, “Church of Unrest,” which I can send you if you’d like.)

EW and TF: How did your family influence your writing, specifically what drove you to write about your mother in “Green Man, Blue Pill”?

JH: My beloved mother’s catchphrase is “It’s hard.” It was going to find its way into a poem sooner or later.

The term “Green Man” usually refers to a foliate head or a face made of leaves, a sculpture most commonly found in medieval Christian cathedrals. No one knows for certain what these sculptures are or what they signify, but some claim they descend from various pagan figures of fertility or nature spirits—the horned god of the woods, the lover of a forest-dwelling goddess.  The figure in cathedrals may be a symbol of rebirth representing the cycle of renewed growth each spring—a mirror to the spiritual cycle marked by the Christian celebration of Easter, Christ’s death and resurrection.

“Green Man” is a recent name—it comes from Lady Raglan’s 1939 article in Folklore magazine—but the carved heads have appeared all over the world and for several millennia: in representations of the god Okeanos in Anatolia, the Roman Sylvanus, Celtic Cernunnos, the Hindu monster Kirtimukha, and even the Islamic tutor of the Prophets, Al-Khidr or Hizir, a Sufi figure whose name means “the Green One” or “Green Forever.”

There is a more extensive answer to this question online in the Huffington Post interview I did shortly after Coney Island Pilgrims was published, and you are welcome to use it, if it’s helpful:

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?

EW and TF: Who or what is the Green Man supposed to represent?

JH: 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.

Even a few years later, I am not done with the Green Man. Or maybe he’s not done with me.

EW and TF: Who is your favorite living poet? Why?

JH: Fortunately, I have many favorite living poets. As an editor and avid reader of contemporary poetry, I could even say that there are days when that changes hourly—finish a particularly moving poem and I want to find more by that poet, the just-read poem fills my consciousness to the extent that other poems are excluded for a while. Lawrence Joseph would have to be high on my list, for the moral courage and class-consciousness that inform his poems—they’re as revolutionary for their content as they are for Joseph’s always surprising word choices and vast array of allusions/cultural references. The first book by Jamaican poet Safiya Sinclair, Cannibal, published in September, is something I read regularly these days before reviewing submissions to The Common, the magazine I work for; her poems are urgent, necessary, full of images that raise the expectations I bring to my subsequent reading. Her challenge and calling to account the long history of colonialism in the Caribbean and, by extension, the rest of the world, inspires. Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval is another book I’ve read and re-read regularly over the last ten months. Ditto House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson and Providential by Colin Channer; they are two more poets from Jamaica presently living, teaching, and writing in the United States. Denise Duhamel writes with a comic edge that opens one up and fills that space simultaneously. Don Share—also the editor of Poetry magazine—writes a kind of comic elegy that I’ve not seen from other contemporary poets; see especially his collection Squandermania. Major Jackson’s fourth collection, Roll Deep, fulfills the promise of his first three books—his poems are humane, intimate, and suggest a strong sense of place, no matter the setting he chooses.

I’m also aware that I may not have yet read my favorite living poet—and I’m looking forward to encountering her work.

EW and TF: Do you believe that poetry should be more popular with younger people?

JH: I believe poetry should be more popular with people of every age, not just the young. But I’m optimistic about the access young people have to poetry—they’re growing up in an era when the lyrical standards are high in much popular music, especially in hip-hop. There’s a new anthology of poets inspired by hip-hop called The BreakBeat Poets that I’ve been teaching from lately; doubtlessly there are poems included that will appeal to many, many young readers. And plenty of us older readers, too. I teach the book first because it is work I believe in—I would never pander to my students; I’d be lost if I tried—they’d see right through it. Second, many of the poets included are young, and these are the first voices of my students’ generation to emerge. It’s important for our students to know and reckon with their peers.

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