Eric McHenry is the immediate past Poet Laureate of Kansas. From Topeka, Kansas, McHenry attended Beloit College and then earned a MA in creative writing from Boston University. His work has been featured in The Harvard Review, Slate, Poetry Northwest, The New York Times Book Review and Salon. He lives in Lawrence and teaches at Washburn University of Topeka. McHenry will offer a poetry workshop at our 2017 writers conference.
I’m always curious about how someone starts out on a creative path in life. What do you think your first motives were for writing poetry?
I’ve often said that I think my interest in poetry is a natural extension of my lifelong interest in talking. It’s language creatively arranged that’s always obsessed me. I come from a family of verbal people who are also good at other things. Words are the only thing that ever came naturally to me, so I’m probably a poet because of genetics and a poverty of alternatives. As for motives, it’s always been reading great poems and thinking, “I’d love to make something as good as that.”
I notice that many of your poems have a clear sense of place and that history is a prominent element. Do you see poetry as having any particular social function?
I’m always wary about making big claims for what poetry does or can do, because it works its magic so slyly and indirectly and gradually. I do think it’s one way of making sense of the world, and an irreplaceable way. People can ignore poetry for much of their lives, but at times of crisis and upheaval, it seems to be poetry (rather than film or dance or sculpture) that they reach for.
You’ve been described as a formalist. Do you agree with this description? What would you say is the importance of formalism in poetry?
I think all poetry is formal in one way or another. I do like to write in traditional or received English forms, or my versions of them — using meter and rhyme — not because I think poetry needs to be written that way but because the poems I most wish I’d written were written that way. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being fascinated by the fact that syllables have different stress values, and can therefore be arranged to give language a beat. And I like the mnemonic properties of meter and rhyme, too. I want to write poems that people remember and recite. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m happy to spend my life trying.
In Odd Evening, the poems “New Year’s Letter to All the Friends I’ve Estranged by Not Writing” and “First Responder” both end with the response to a question being both no and yes. What would you say is important about the both yes and no response in relation to your poetry?
Thank you for pointing that out to me! I hadn’t thought of those two poems as especially related, but of course they are. I think poetry is one of the few places where we’re permitted, and maybe even encouraged, to be equivocal. And I think that makes it truer to human experience than a lot of communication, because ambivalence is much more common than firm, definite feeling, I think. Auden said, “Poetry is the clear expression of mixed feelings.” In the case of those two poems, I think “New Year’s Letter” is about (among other things) owning up to one’s deceptions and self-deceptions; I think of it as concluding not with a “yes and no,” but with a no that the speaker then immediately acknowledges is a lie. In the case of “First Responder,” it’s the speaker’s self-protective fear that he’s owning up to. He’s found a man collapsed on the curb and wants to help, but he’s too cautious to get close to him. It’s only when the 911 dispatcher asks if the man is unresponsive and the speaker can’t answer that he realizes he’s acting with more concern for himself than for the man. His silence is a troubling yes and no.
Which writers have influenced you the most?
W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Philip Larkin, William Stafford, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Kenyon, Richard Wilbur, and Zula Bennington Greene (“Peggy of the Flint Hills”). Also, Jim Henson and the Monty Python writers.
You’re offering a session at our Writer’s Conference. What topic do you think is the most crucial to cover during your session? Do you have any advice for young poets?
Most crucial topic for writers: getting out of your own way! Advice for young poets: Read everything. If you don’t like what you’re reading, read something else. But keep reading. If you manage to write a good poem without having first read a lot of poetry, it was almost certainly an accident. Read!
How can readers find out more about you?
Read my books!