Posted By jatyler - 5th August 2011
Ordinary Sun is not a standard poetry collection but reads more like nine short narratives told in poetic language, each one showcasing Matthew Henriksen’s wonderful talent for words and Black Ocean’s proclivity for finding the best manuscripts and producing them in beautiful ways.
If we start here, with this notion of narrative-based v. typical poetry collections, we are reminded of Zachary Schomburg’s Scary, No Scary and other brilliant contemporary poets who are using connected poems to tell loosely bound narratives. Can you talk to us a little about how Ordinary Sun works to share its stories?
If a poet writes from a center, especially a young poet, the poems will end up telling a story of perception. As I wrote the poems that became Ordinary Sun, I found myself increasingly introducing literal experience into my poems. I’d aurally half-compose a poem while walking from the subway stop to my apartment in Brooklyn, or I would come in from doing yard work in Arkansas and start writing from that exhausted state of thoughtfulness that only partially resides in language. The images that appear when a poet writes half-consciously, or conscious primarily of sound, will accumulate and tell a story in reverse. As the mind gets deeper into the material, the words discover connections between the things that make up the poem’s sensory aspect. The poet may find that center, which I unapologetically relate to the self, and the story of that discovery intertwines with the small bits of gleaned from linear narratives, fragmentary in the way memory and dreams appear as fragments. The fragmentary, unbound narrative you identify has popped up in many books by young poets. Now that the modernists and avant-garde movements have made it possible for poets to write pure lyrics, we watch the narrative creep back in naturally.
Another less typical feature of Ordinary Sun is its strong use of periods, short phrases definitely ended with punctuation. For instance, the many short distinct phrases of ‘Copse’, like ‘I don’t know what to judge.’ or ‘What I cannot find in the morning is most myself.’ How intentional is this rhythmic stunting, and how difficult is it for you to gain a balance between the flowing, easy moments and these curt instances?
I pay more attention to the musical flow of language than any other aspect of my poems. If I don’t hear the meaning in the rhythm, the poem has not arrived. More than any other music, I listen to older jazz, especially John Coletrane and Art Blakey, and more and more Charlie Parker. You wind up the sentences and phrases into a tight rhythm and then cut them loose, or you build a fluid progression and then cut into a rapid succession of staccato. A poet can deliver a language like an injection by handling the rhythm deftly. I have studied meter closely but apply it intuitively more often than mechanically. No, I don’t see anything difficult in organizing the music in a poem: I find most of my joy in working a poem over until it reveals its sounds.
In terms of language, Ordinary Sun contains pieces that stride in heavy vocabulary, like in ‘The Talk’:
There’s a numinous ring that’s been bled clean
and found allergenic, the mainstream disaster of our era,
a doorway to the peephole into the girl’s locker room
where the fortitude’s innocence meets the laundry of indulgence.
His sister screams. So the boy dreams azure is blue is sky
and nightfall not a verbosity of electrocution
and later others, like ‘Corolla in the Midden’ that hinge on conversational slang:
I’d scare the hell out of one, with purpose
and joy. Fear sweet as a fuck
in summer, at a park in the wee hours,
can turn us back to innocence,
bumbling through the real day
while soaring on our wounds.
Is it tough to maintain this difference in voice, or is this an aspect of these series being written at different moments in time?
“The Talk” is the earliest poem and “Corolla in the Midden” the latest poem in Ordinary Sun, so it’s more of a transformation than an act of balance. I liked how the different voice beat against each other as I plotted the book in sections, and I think that diversity promotes a non-linear approach to the narrative. We could list many poets who ably construct such narratives, but I learned best from William Heyen, particularly in his books Long Island Light: A Memoir, Crazyhorse and Stillness, The Chestnut Rain, and Lord Dragonfly. Each book finds a definitive, unspoken center that the poems revolve around, though each poem freely explores its own construct. The sections in Ordinary Sun represent different personal eras, over seven years, but the book focuses on the aspects of myself and my experiences that have not changed. Also, many of the poets who know me personally can attest to my shifts in personality and voice. Being, especially being that projects language as a device for self-identification, requires constant reformation and experimentation.
Ordinary Sun also contains an overarching use of religious imagery and language – references to Abraham and Isaac, sun v. Son, etc. – for example this from ‘Beulah’s Rest’:
Gnat caught in the breath of a dismantled catechism
on a cracked pew in a cathedral by the sea,
restore with your nothing wings
the way to where I left my shoes.
How much of this religious pull is a constant in your work, or is it something solely used for the purposes of Ordinary Sun?
The “cathedral by the sea” plays off the opening line from a sonnet Wallace Stevens wrote at Harvard for his professor, George Santayana: “Cathedrals are not built along the sea.” Stevens’ poems contain a small religion for me, as do the poems of Alice Notley, H.D., William Blake, George Oppen, Kate Greenstreet, and Andrea Baker. Whereas Stevens responded directly, I don’t intend to say anything about religion. All experience is religious, so if a poet simply talks about experiences, we go to church in the poem. I grew up Lutheran and read the Bible closely, cover to cover, and came out without any bitterness about Christianity as a concept. It’s the practice of religion that angers me. The exclusivity and presumptuousness seems to defy the pervasiveness of grace in ordinary experiences. I know this sounds odd, crazy, or egotistical, but I consider myself spiritually complete, although I could never explain why or how. Certainly, I won’t attribute that sense of completeness to religion. I want to go on and live, swimming in rivers and singing into canyons whenever I get a chance, as well as going to work and washing dishes. All of that is holy. The poems written after Ordinary Sun seem to have dropped the religious language, not purposefully on my part, toward a more socially-conscious attention, but ultimately I don’t see any abstention from my interest in grace and holiness that asserts a more noticeable presence in Ordinary Sun.
And if we could stray from the content of Ordinary Sun for one last question, can you share with us some of your experience publishing with Black Ocean, a little about the ways that this particular manuscript evolved from selection to publication?
I had put the better part of a decade into shaping Ordinary Sun without trying to publish it, though I intended to have the book published. I could only think of a handful of presses that would turn the book into an artifact but also would not destroy the book with wonton edits. I wasn’t sure any such presses would want my book and thought about self-publishing on Cannibal Books, now defunct, which at the time was still going strong. I didn’t consider Black Ocean an option, though I loved their output. Although I loved the effort and understanding publisher Janaka Stucky put into every Black Ocean book, I leaned against sending to them because I saw a large aesthetic gap between what they had published and my work. I didn’t think they’d be interested. Their 2009 publication of Aase Berg’s With Deer changed that. Aase is one of my favorite living poets. Also, I read poetry editor Carrie Olivia Adams’ Intervening Absence, from Ahsahta Press, which convinced me of the wider breadth of their aesthetic. I love Janaka’s poems, too, but all Janaka and Carrie have in common with each other’s work and with the poets they publish attests to a luminous intensity, a venture into language that promises no rewards or return. Once I recognized that enormous vision at work between them, I sent my manuscript to their open reading and hoped. I actually felt strongly they might take interest, a unusual sentiment for me to pin on my work, and when I found out they were publishing my book along with Brandon Shimoda’s (another religion for me), they affirmed my suspicions about their lovely daring and brilliance. With Ordinary Sun, Carrie and Janaka didn’t edit wantonly, only sympathetically and wisely, and they slightly reordered the book to more subtly reveal the narrative. Self-publishing or working the contest circuit would have been a mistake in my case, as Black Ocean embodies everything I believe about poetry publishing.
Ordinary Sun bounds in language and leaps in styles, but still remains tight in its overall aesthetic. Nine separate chains of poems tell nine ripe stories, but the book overall tells us something more – Henriksen’s need to push language and Black Ocean’s commitment to the same, of the ways narrative and poetry can mix to create something malleable and glowing.