Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Brian Henderson

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Brian Henderson

Brian Henderson talks to Open Book about the conundrum within the work of Jorge Luis Borges, the abundance of initials in science fiction writers' names and poetry that is "otherwise" — that wants to inch to the edge of the cliff, maybe even jump off. Sharawadji, Henderson's latest book of poetry that has just been released with Brick Books, takes on such a dare.

Find out the meaning behind the title Sharawadji — or make up your own — at Brian Henderson's book launch on Tuesday, June 14th at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. Visit our Events page for details.

Brian Henderson will read with Brick Books authors Karen Enns, Julia McCarthy and Adam Dickinson as part of the Niagara Literary Arts Festival in St. Catharines at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 19th. Find out more here.

Hear Brian Henderson read "Animal Light" from Sharawadji in the podcast below. Readings of other poems from this collection please can be found on Audioboo (with special thanks to Brick Books and Julie Wilson).

Listen!

Open Book:

Tell us about your new collection of poetry, Sharawadji.

Brian Henderson:

The book is a kind of exercise in transubstantiation; souls move through it, but also other spirit things such as toxins, birds, longings, fleetings, dream detritus, loved ones. The speaking voice may be possessed, but maybe only occasionally self-possessed. Not an even-tempered book. It took off from me.

OB:

What does sharawadji mean, and how does the sense of this word inform the poems in this collection?

BH:

I meant it originally not to mean, to be just outside the commodification, if not the economy of meaning, an abracadabra word, pure evocation and something alien. I thought of it as a kind of “What the hell kind of language is this” title. Unsettled. An amplitude variation drift in stochastic resonance. Or not. A small reading lamp implanted in the forehead like a third eye, a dance craze from the 45th century. OK, enough of that, but there’s much in the book that wants to just go to that cliff and look over. At the launch on June 14th at Ben McNally’s there’ll be a Sharawadji Balderdash, so folks who want to can help build the cliff.

And, oh ya, there are in fact some meanings to the word; I didn’t just make it up!

OB:

The poems in the first and last sections of the book began as responses to the disorienting work of the painter Jacek Yerka, but (as you explain in your notes) they quickly took directions of their own. How did these poems assert their intentions to drift from the initial inspiration? Do you still consider them to be ekphrastic poems?

BH:

I found the effects of the paintings and even some of their objects had began interchanging and sliding into each other’s canvases, and I started to think of them all as being aspects of the same world, a very proleptic and rather post-apocalyptic, certainly post-Chernobyl, post-peak oil world where even evolution had come round again to invent what had already been invented but differently.

The science fiction tropes in these works started to really take hold of me, and so I started to go with those rather than representing a representing of a possible representing. I read quite a lot of sci-fi in my teens, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark , Philip K. Dick — why do all these guys have middle initials? — and others. And my son and step-son had got themselves lodged in some of the newer worlds and introduced me to a few others, of which I especially liked Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. So as I was flying along these lines, painterly aspects remained as haunted objects and the poems became gravity wells bending time around them.

OB:

Both of these sections begin with epigraphs by Jorge Luis Borges. What is it about Borges's work that inspires your poetry?

BH:

In a word, I think it’s the conundrum. The completely plausible magic of the impossible. Of course it’s also his play with time and his playful stance with regard to philosophical idealism where there is only perception. No perceiver or thing perceived.

OB:

You are the author of ten books of poetry. How did the experience of writing Sharawadji compare to the writing of previous books, Nerve Language in particular? Do you consciously try to attempt different challenges with each book of poetry?

BH:

Actually I found that Sharawadji took off right after Nerve Language and continued many of the preoccupations of that work. That book released me into a writing place I hadn’t been; it really opened me up, opened my eyes and ears. I think it opened my heart in ways I wasn’t used to on the page. And it was listening to Schreber’s language, the predicament of his language in his memoirs and his reaching-after and running-away-from that it’s a trace of. Not to mention insistence. The insistence of representation and the fight against it; against its constraints on thought, on identity and, in Schreber’s case, on freedom, on his ability to live his life as imagined.

At the heart of Sharawadji is a series where the bending of time that occurs in the rest of the book takes the form of memory, and I commemorate my mother and ask what family might be beyond the representation of it. How might she continue without my interfering while still writing and trying to honour her and my relation with her?

So Sharawadji wanted to keep on going, pushing that out-of-the-corner-of-the-eyeness, heading into the no man’s land between representation and abstraction, heading to the cliff.

OB:

What do you do when you are trying to avoid writing?

BH:

I’m actually never really trying to avoid writing; I’m always scribbling. A line here, an image there, a note under there. But there are lots of times when these things just are things and sit in my notebook and don’t start moving. Then, I’m reading, or my wife and I are in the garden, or on our bikes, or we head down to Shannonville with the track-ready old GSR and see if I have any reflexes left at all.

OB:

What poets would you say have had the greatest influence on your work?

BH:

I have to say that it was Layton’s work that first lit me up when I was in high school. I wanted to be a musician and spent some time in a band or two, but it was poetry where I felt things go expansive. MacEwan was very important early on too, as was Mandel. Steve McCaffery and bpnichol opened completely new doors, as might be expected. So at first I was pretty home grown.

Dylan Thomas, then Schwitters and the Dadas, Rilke and Celan, Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred anthology, Michael Palmer, Nicole Brossard. But Galway Kinnell too, and Charles Wright. Last couple of years I’ve really been exploring the work of Friederike Mayröcker. She lets language loose in very exciting ways I find. More opening doors.

OB:

What are you working on now?

BH:

Working title: An Octave Before the Visible. Sort of pre-representation. Pre-narrative, but where narrative and referential attractors are felt. Sensation events that might characterize emergent and self-organizing systems happening in far-from-equilibrium conditions. So a little chaos theory driven. “Dissipative structures,” to take a phrase from Prigogine, that throw off possible-narratives, or possible-nodes of awareness. These poems are a little “otherwise”.


Brian Henderson is the author of ten collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Nerve Language (Pedlar Press, 2007), was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. He holds a PhD in Canadian Literature, has worked in many facets of Canadian publishing, and is currently the director of Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Visit him at his website, brianhenderson.net.

For more information about Sharawadji please visit the Brick Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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