by Jim Feast
Before Barbara Henning moved to New York City in 1984, she already had a reputation in Detroit as a poet. Her first reading in NYC was at St. Marks Poetry Project, and her first collection, Smoking in the Twilight Bar, was published by Lewis Warsh (United Artists Books, 1988). Recently, United Artists also published Digigram ($16), which like Smoking in the Twilight Bar is a collection of prose poems, but that’s where the similarity ends. The poems in Smoking are slow paced, almost like tiny films of Detroiters in the 1960s and 70s, while the poems in Digigram are fast paced, more interior, a mind reporting on multi-faceted layers of life.
Henning has also written six other collections of poetry and five novels, as well as interviewing and reviewing many poets. She’s also an editor and has taught for Naropa University and for Long Island University in Brooklyn, where she is now Professor Emerita. After raising two children as a single mother, she left the East Village and lived and travelled widely in New Mexico, Arizona, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and in Mysore, India, where she practiced yoga and studied with Shankaranarayana Jois while writing her novel You Me & the Insects (Spuyten Duyvil, 2005). I met Henning in 2015 at a reading for one of Lewis Warsh’s classes, having previously known her only through her writings, and am pleased to discuss Digigram with her in the following interview.
Jim Feast: Your Digigram poems are made up of bits and pieces woven together: thoughts, incidents, descriptions of city streets, snatches of the daily news, and, significantly, encounters with random people. The inclusion of these encounters suggests one purpose of the book is to take the temper of the time.
Barbara Henning: I live in NYC and I like talking with and observing strangers. Because I’m concerned about social justice, I’m interested in people who are ignored, on the sidelines, passed by, left out. While I was writing this book—as with A Day Like Today (Negative Capability Press, 2015)—I kept a daily journal where I recorded incidents of all types, as well as moments of serenity in the midst of our sometimes-chaotic NYC life—at least the life that we used to have before Covid, before we became afraid of each other. We live in neighborhoods affected by those who are nearby and far off and in this global world, we affect others often without even realizing it. If something happens on the other side of the world, reverberations and variations occur here, too. I’m trying to be inclusive in these poems of the near and the far. In both A Day Like Today and in Digigram, I think I’m also celebrating the dissonance and harmony of our daily NYC lives and I’m trying to see and understand my life in the greater context.
JF: Anthropologist James Scott’s writing makes clear that those who seem to be completely without power have ways to resist and maintain their dignity through solidarity, collective ritual, and spiritual practice. Much in your book records similar strategies used by those in less advantaged positions. Would it be correct to say you are highlighting these moments, underlining how people are coping with the current reactionary political climate?
BH: I care deeply about what is going on and so it will show up in my poems, stories, observations, and in the collaged material I select. I have practiced yoga for 25 years, lived in India, and the individual and collective responsibility is part of yogic philosophy. What we do and how we talk affects those who are around us. One of the yoga sutras that has been extremely helpful to me is “When you are thinking negatively, think the opposite.” Of course, you have to determine what the word “negative” means. It doesn’t mean you can’t be critical or make judgments. It means that you can flip the thoughts that are destructive to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around you, see more clearly, and thereby take thoughtful action. This is something I try to practice; of course, I am a stumbling human being like everyone else, but I try. This thinking exercise has become a way of making sense of my world; you might see this in the poems. I might in fact be working on my mind by writing my poems.
For many years I have experimented with material that I recorded in my journals. In Digigram, I selected words, then went to The Times archive for the days in question and searched for the same words in other contexts. These collaged phrases, usually just a few words, interrupt my ordinary way of thinking and bring in a wider context. Since 2016 when I started these poems, the country, the whole world has been in shock. The global and local news is on the lips of everyone and this affects the way we collectively think, talk, and even sleep. And so, when I was sitting on the subway taking notes, it all worked together—my experience, their experience, the wider context. We are a community. I think of these poems as digital thumb prints of the city and the times (of course, filtered through my consciousness).
JF: Poems such as “In A City Like This” in A Day Like Today seem quite close to those in Digigram; yet, as you mention in a note, Digigram was particularly inspired by the writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Could you talk more about her and discuss how your encounter with her changed your poetry in this volume?
BH: What makes Digigram very different from A Day Like Today is that the political and economic worlds in which we live changed radically almost overnight. At the time Trump was elected, it felt like everything crashed at once. The entries I was making in my journal reflected this; I couldn’t write the same. I was shocked and angry. The news changed, too. At the same time, I was reading Body Sweats, a collection of poems and art by the Dada Baroness, Else von Freytag-Loringhoven. She is outrageous, raging against public taste and modesty, taking to task any possible pretension, living her life as art, ecstatic, celebrating improvisation and madness as a preface to poetry. She was one of the most published women poets in The Little Review, and then after she died, she was pretty much forgotten, a poem published here and there. I was very happy to find this collection by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo. The poems that I was really drawn to are the prose poems and her crazy use of dashes. It’s like her mind speaks notes, fragments of thought that stream along, full of emotion.
I picked up on the speed of the poems and her use of dashes, but because I used a lot of dashes does not mean I dashed them off. First, I’d write a poem in lines and work on collaging, and then I’d translate it into a fast-thinking digigram. The improvisational moments came first in the journal and then with the translation; it was like the poem was suddenly speaking to me.
Years ago, I read an essay by Mikhail Bahktin called “Speech Genres.” He was writing about how language is passed from one to another through small phrases; he, of course, didn’t describe it this way but that’s how I remember it. Bahktin’s ideas about literature and language became a part of my poetics; he saw the novel as a chorus of voices, and even though he didn’t see the same possibility for poetry, a poem can definitely be that, too. After I wrote these poems, I realized that I was probably also influenced by Alice Notley’s epic poem, The Descent of Alette. Notley used quotation marks to stop the reader from reading so fast, to highlight speech genres, to bring the language forward. Her poem is a long narrative and Alette defeats the tyrant. Digigram is not a fictional narrative; it is a collection of fast-moving, autobiographical poems.
JF: In a work you are doing about your mother’s life, you combine extracts from letters, photos, reconstructed dialogue, newspaper clippings and other historical material. Can we see this prose book as taking collage techniques developed in the poems for use on a more complex canvas?
BH: While writing my last two books of poetry, I was also working on a hybrid-biography of my mother’s life, Book of Ferne. Like most of my poetry (but not necessarily my novels), with this project, I worked with various methods of collection and disruption. I collaged larger pieces of text, fictionalized stories and memories as well as photographs and news clippings. When I began the project, I had only the photographs and memories of an eleven-year-old girl. To understand the historical period, I went to the archives of a newspaper that was popular with the working class, The Detroit Times, a Hearst newspaper, in existence almost the same span as Ferne’s life. Mostly, I read issues that were published on her birthdays and other important days in her life, selecting clippings that were important to women and families. So, yes, to answer your question, I used very similar methods, but with images and on a larger scale. Now I have to find a publisher and it’s nothing like anything I’ve ever written before, 280 pages, half images.
JF: In “Now and Again,” you mention Walter Benjamin. When, just now, you talked of “the whole world . . . in shock” over the current political situation in the U.S., it made me think of some of Benjamin’s reflections. In his book Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption, critic Richard Wolin says that during the Nazi rise to power, “Whether or not autonomous art could be salvaged seemed to Benjamin an entirely otiose, scholastic question. All prevalent tendencies pointed, in his view, to such art’s imminent demise and the incorporation of its dying vestiges into the fascist program of self-glorification.” Certainly, we are not in the position Benjamin wrote from in 1936, but if you look to the horizon, do you see a similar marginalization and erasure of non-mainstream writing? If not, what are the prospects of alternative writing?
BH: In our culture, writing can become commercialized, less radical, less truthful, even within an experimental framework that is no longer experimental; sometimes it’s more about careerism. Even with the left, we can move toward rigidity and start setting up expectations that limit artistic expression, similar to what happened with social realism. I think it’s cyclical though; I don’t see the future demise of non-mainstream art; visual and word artists keep changing and evolving new forms and presentation as the culture shifts.
Years back when I was involved in reading more theory and critical writing, I read many of Benjamin’s essays. I mention Benjamin in two poems in Digigram, in reference to his miniatures in Berlin Childhood. These pieces by Benjamin are personal and lyrical, and yet for the most part he avoids an emotional or nostalgic view. Instead, he brings us into the child’s awareness of places and people in Berlin in a world that had already disappeared. At the time he was writing, Hitler’s party was coming into power and Benjamin was in exile from his home. One of the miniatures he had eliminated from his collection, “The Moon,” is, to me, the most beautiful of all: the moon suddenly expands in an apocalypse taking the past with it. I think he may have eliminated this miniature because of the emotion expressed. I was drawn to it for that same reason; this book became part of the landscape of my daily life while writing Digigram.
JF: While most of the poems describe “our sometimes-chaotic NYC life,” in some poems you go back literally or in memories to Detroit; yet you write of it as, “my place, my childhood—never to return.” In talking of the past in conversation, Lewis Warsh remarked that it seems to promise more than it delivers. While Digigram acts to preserve the present moment, it seems also, particularly in pieces about Detroit, that there is doubt about whether this is really possible.
BH: The poem “Room to Run” is about a dream, blending into memories, and memories are part of the present. They are how we write history, but in poems and other literary works, memories take on added resonance, getting us closer to the lived experience. But the replay, as Lewis says, can never get quite close enough. Here I am an eighteen-year-old who just ran away from home, a working-class suburb of Detroit, now living in the city and taking the bus to downtown for work. Jefferson Avenue and most of Detroit at the time was a vibrant city still full of shops. In 1967, after the racial violence and subsequent white flight, the city changed dramatically. I left for New York City in 1984. When I return now, it’s hard to recognize that world. It’s gone. But it was there, and I lived through that time. It’s important to understand where you’ve been.
JF: To continue on this point, Benjamin argues fascism can only prosper by negating the past. As he wrote, “Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.” This claim is for a liberated, equalitarian society, which is in touch with nature. Would you say your work can be construed as supporting this tendency, fighting to preserve the special heritage of positive impulses?
BH: Yes, even if we can’t actually reach the goal of a “liberated, equalitarian society, in touch with nature,” it is part of my aim as a writer, citizen, teacher, mother, neighbor to work toward it. When we give that up, I think we are in trouble. A lot of us realize now that we had been taking for granted some progressive advances we had made, and we weren’t aware that a fascist undercurrent was in fact rising. Instead of functioning in a framework of gloom, anger and constant frustration, I hope my poems and writing reflect my own struggle to stay with the positive in my interactions with friends and strangers.
JF: The poems play with a speaker who is at times a narrator observing and at others intervening to help the have-nots; at still others, she joins the have-nots, as when she is forced to give up her apartment due to a rent rise. Do you see this variation of roles as significant for the book?
BH: I’m not thinking about this as I write. I’m just writing about my day in NYC. I’ve experienced struggle. I wasn’t born with a golden spoon. I grew up in a working-class family at times very hard up for cash, left home at 18, worked my entire life, was a single parent for many years, put myself through college, helped my children, and just recently at 71 paid off my student loan. I don’t own an apartment or a house and as an older person, I still worry about the future. However: I’ve never been homeless, I have two children, a very small retirement account from LIU, and I’ve always felt confident that I could find work. I see people around me in NYC who have given up, perhaps with dire childhood experiences and a lack of hope for the future. I talk to students with major problems in their lives, some who were abused, some who are caring for parents, grandparents and large families. All these people are everywhere in my life (and probably in your life too), and so they appear in my poems.