25th Trillium Award

The Gutter Series: Between Projects, Poetry Edition with Brian Henderson

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In celebration of National Poetry Month, Open Book is launching a new series — The Gutter Series: Between Books, Poetry Edition. (The gutter, as any good book geek knows, refers to the inner margins of two facing pages — literally, the in-between.)

Writing a book is a lengthy process and even the most prolific authors need time to work. We rarely have a chance to chat with writers who haven't published in the current season, and we're curious about life between launches.

Brian Henderson has published ten collections of poetry, most recently Sharawadji (Brick Books, 2011) and Nerve Language (Pedlar Press, 2007), which was nominated for the Governor General's Award. He talks to Open Book about a pre-alphabetic alphabet, a 3 a.m. load of dishes on the night of his first launch and the deep time that exists between poem and manuscript.

Open Book:

Where do you look for new project ideas? What is one of the most surprising places you've found inspiration?

Brian Henderson:

I rarely write by project, rather I?m an inveterate scribbler. By writing I sometimes find myself in the middle of a unique, strange or otherwise intriguing space that opens out the writing and so I keep going. Rather like a reader of Who May?s ?Gold of Time? in Kawamata?s Chiaki?s Death Sentences: ?I am going around behind the shadow of the withholding light.?

With Nerve Language, which might be seen as a project-driven book, it was being immersed in the Schreber memoirs while writing that drew the writing across a border. Maybe it was that Schreber?s intricate schizoid world was actually something my own use of language recognized. Just a little craziness there maybe.

One of my own favourites is still The Alphamiricon that Underwhich Editions published back in the day. It?s a box of 26 square cards, one for each of the letters of the alphabet on which appear images created from Lettraset. My wife at the time was a designer so there were sheets of this stuff in all kinds of fonts lying around — and I wasn?t writing — only my thesis, which had taken me to some pretty interesting places: notions of Adamic language, Kabbala, Renaissance memory wheels, mandalas and such. So I started doodling and lo and behold this pre-alphabetic alphabet started to appear.

What turned out to be Sharawadji were resonances across a couple of writing strands. One centred on the death of my mother, another around other absent worlds present in this one — otherworlds of here, so to speak, not just memory, but also science-fiction came to play a role, (especially as in the films La Jetée and Tarkovksy?s Stalker), as eventually did the vocabulary of chemical toxins.


Do you celebrate when your books come out? How did you celebrate the first time?


Absolutely! The first book was Paracelsus published by Tim and Elke at Porcupine?s Quill. We threw a big house party for everybody we knew. For some reason I remember doing dishes at three in the morning!


Do you tend to overlap projects or wait until what you're working on is finished to start something new?


Often, once a manuscript is more or less complete — none of them are ever finished — I?m flung out from that galaxy, drifting through deep space, the occasional meteor or meteorite flashing by with its tail of detritus, and there may or may not be another galaxy toward which I?m drifting. So I usually just follow the meteors. Sometimes they crash into the next book; sometimes they just crash, or speed into further reaches of space.

Or rather than these light years between poem and manuscript, I think of this little writing cosmos as a cloud chamber in which the poem is a virtual event, exploring possibilities. One day there may be worlds.


Do you have a day job? If so, do you find it helping or hindering your writing? How do you balance writing with other professional pursuits?


A day job is a necessity for most poets I?m afraid. But I?m lucky: mine is in publishing, so there are lots of interesting challenges, I meet lots of interesting people, I engage with lots of wonderful ideas and I publish lots of interesting books. Some of these ideas and books and people introduce new spaces for my writing. And since so much of my writing comes out of reading, this arrangement sometimes works very well. It?s really all about the possibilities attention provides, so I try to bring a writer?s level of attention to all I do.


What would your ideal writing environment look like?


A Borgesian library! One probably situated on the Amalfi coast! Although I really enjoy our wonderfully private backyard garden.


What's up next for you?


I?ve just sent a manuscript off, so of course, I?m still writing it. It?s called Or and takes the whole idea of the virtual to heart. It?s actually coming out of some of Brian Masumi?s writings, specifically Parables for the Virtual in which he states, for instance, ?There is no ?raw? experience. Every experience takes place in the already taken place?.Every experience is a portentous déjà vu at a hinge.? The poems in this manuscript want to be this ?déjà vu at a hinge.? As a result they play even more with time but in a different way than Sharawdji, and hence are pre- and/or post-narrative, playing a bit with tropes from the spy novel and other genre stuff along the way, and subject themselves to alternate versions of themselves, sometimes making their own particle traces. Whisper dream trace.

Brian Henderson is the author of ten collections of poetry. His most recent book is Sharawadji, published by Brick Books (2011). His 2007 collection, Nerve Language (Pedlar Press) 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 online at brianhenderson.net

Buy these books at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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