L.I. Henley was born and raised in the Mojave Desert town of Joshua Tree, California. She is the author of two chapbooks, Desert with a Cabin View, and The Finding(Orange Monkey Publishing). Her second full-length collection, Starshine Road, won the 2017 Perugia Press Prize. She is the recipient of The Academy of American Poets University Award, The Duckabush Prize in Poetry chosen by Lia Purpura, and two prizes through The Poet’s Billow. She edits the online literary and art journal, Aperçus.Visit her at lihenley.com and check out her blog where she chronicles life with multiple autoimmune diseases. Read poems by L.I. Henley.
The Poet’s Billow: Can you tell us about how you first came to poetry? How did you start writing? Or, as Yeats would phrase it, what first hurt you into poetry?
L.I. Henley: I have to start with prose because that’s all I wrote with any seriousness until I was twenty-four. I can say with certainty that I started writing stories as soon as I learned to read and print words, and that I wrote out of a general and vague awareness of injustice. I was a fairly intense child! I’m still not really sure where that awareness of injustice came from—perhaps it came from not having any siblings, which made me acutely aware of adult behaviors. Most of my early stories were deeply invested in my own emerging concept of morality. The protagonists were often a sister-brother team intent on uncovering a truth elaborately obfuscated by adults. Once I realized that no “other” was coming to assist me, my stories were usually about very brave orphans who had to go it alone; any disentangling of problems would be done like Houdini in his own straightjacket except without the gasping crowds below. In that quiet before the tempest of social media, I was the prime witness of my own life. And I was also the embedded observer of the daily reel in my two houses. I look back with fondness now for the gravity that I tried to achieve in my writing at that ripe age.
A steady practice of prose continued, though with much more levity, until I was twenty-four, which is about the age when the frontal lobe (which houses the personality) becomes fully developed. When I say that I woke up from a five-year slumber a few days before my twenty-fourth birthday, and was startled and vexed to find that I was in an unhappy, ridiculously mismatched marriage, this can be read literally. But let me jump back again, briefly, to a related confession.
I admit to not having read much actual contemporary poetry until I studied under surrealist poet James Cushing at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo a few months before my “great awakening.” But like a wildfire, I only needed a match. Serendipitously, one of the books that James assigned was the book that gave me permission to be a poet—Likely by Tennessee-born Lisa Coffman. I saw a poet from a small, rural town, writing about her real life and the real people that she knew. I saw a woman getting personal, telling the truth about her many selves (this concept of the self as multitudinous was first given to me by James and I still find it revelatory).
I was terrified, at first, of the intimacy of poetry. I’d have to really examine my feelings, my choices, all the little steps that took me to where I was in my unhappy existence, and that process would lead to upheaval. Having witnessed this once shrouded knowledge, I was either going to have to make big changes or kill my spirit and engage in some hardcore cognitive dissonance. Poetry was a knife tip pressed to my back—I could go forward with all of my might or fall back hard with that same intensity. I could not live a fully aware life without writing poetry, and I could not maintain my false narrative while writing poetry. Where I previously thought truth lived was only a false bottom. Though prose got me to the theater, poetry took me backstage and showed me all the corridors.
I still have a cache of unpublished short stories and unfinished novels, which I’m sure I’ll return to, but I find such expedient access to genuineness through poetry that anytime I want to write a longer piece or character study, I choose to create poems that are interrelated and/or serial persona poems, such as my soon to be published novella-in-verse, Whole Night Through, and my two chapbooks, The Finding and Desert with a Cabin View.
Like all things I end up loving with my whole being, my relationship with poetry was born from my initial resistance to it.
PB: One of the poems that really struck me in your new collection is the poem about the shoe tree. I’m curious to understand the experience of writing it.
LH: Here is an example of my love for writing serial poems. As there are many selves within a self, there are many truths. At its core, this particular collection of poems asks a few fundamental ontological questions about an object (i.e. this tree in Amboy strewn with shoes). “It is tempting / to want / a book of trees / so as to try & find you in it. / How would you be listed? / What category?” Each attempt to categorize the tree brings unpredicted consequences, more doubt, more questions, and the interrogation turns out to really be about the human self and the nature of being. Now, when I was writing this series, I was not thinking about “the how.” I had (have) real questions about existence, and this odd, hard to define, hard to believe, tree of shoes I’ve seen multiple times since childhood lent itself as the subject of my inquiry. From there, I could move into the personas (all of which are facets of the poet, I believe) and express anxieties felt by a much larger collective consciousness: “What do you feel about us—our skills, mistakes, strength? / Judge by how hard we throw.” In the end, the bubbling up of collective guilt ultimately summons the tree as judge and jury: tell us if we are damned or if we can still make good. I think if I have to summarize the experience of writing it, I would say that it was one of the easier poems I’ve written, in that I didn’t have to do much decision making, that it came to me in a flood, fast and all at once. Also, please forgive me for quoting my own work!
PB: The junk piles in the poem seem to take on a few metaphorical meanings when they are juxtaposed with relationships—the family or a husband—and when they are contrasted with the messy, strange, but also beautiful look of the shoe tree. We get views of the junk piles from different points of view—from the kitchen table, from inside the pile—you even say that seeing the junk pile is a “problem of perspective,” I don’t think this is just a problem of just seeing the junk but also how to interpret the junk or the pile. I guess my question here is, in what ways are the junk piles important for you to write about, how did you come to use junk as a way to talk about love, perspective, and freeing yourself? And in what way does the shoe tree counter or feed some of those same issues?’
LH: Junk is a part of my imaginative landscape, and I use it synonymously with the word “treasure.” Both of my childhood homes were absolutely brimming with objects of the past—glass insulators from abandoned telephone poles, antique glassware, railroad ties, all varieties of colorful ephemera. The desert in general attracts such eclectic trappings. Every yard of every desert house I’ve lived in was a field of exotic landmines—shards of goblets and bottles, masonry nails, rusted wire, marbles, half-buried toy soldiers, rare coins, crystals, bottle caps, arrowheads. Go out on almost any dirt road in Landers or Joshua Tree, and you’ll find abandoned couches or a pile of tires or part of a car that’s been shot up. These items are the artifacts of all kinds of stories—some of them violent, some of them humdrum and workaday and fitting for the kinds of people who live here.
The pile in Starshine Road stands for many things, most of which I’m not conscious of, but one of them is indeed longing. The narrator’s fascination with the strange composition of re-claimed objects
is almost—almost—erotic. The narrator can’t explain why she loves it, why she could stare at it all day, its odd and gangly parts. She wants to see the rusted heap from every direction, even from inside the pile itself. The junk is dangerous, its jagged edges are uncaring; it resists while the narrator persists. Longing. Love deferred. Unrequited attention. But the narrator seems to enjoy that pursuit.
Growing up isolated, I often convinced myself that the natural and material worlds loved me back. This belief that my surroundings embraced me was the closest thing I had to a religion, and when you compare it to other beliefs, it’s not that strange. Why can’t the cottonwood tree or the junk pile in my backyard love me and want good things for me if I say it does?
The shoe tree, too, is indifferent to the wants and fears of the travelers who visit. The tree is just a tree. Enough people agreed to try to make it something else. I think the shoe tree is a similar totem for the speaker as the junk pile—it’s a strange totem that absorbs the impact of her questions, fears, and curiosity about the nature of existence. It might even think about her.
Last night I was reflecting on the shoe tree, and I surprised myself with the revelation that each of the twelve sections of the poem might actually be visitations. In other words, maybe the tree is visiting the speaker and not the other way around. Could be!
PB: We noted some violence in your poems in relation to men and authority figures. How do you see poetry in relation to that, and what is poetry’s role in commenting on domestic violence and the portrayal of police (or other repressive state agencies) in poetry?
LH: I know this phrase is used a lot, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t potent and right—I have always been driven to “speak truth to power,” even as a child. This made life more difficult for me and has cost me jobs and friendships and memberships. Any meaningful poem speaks truth to power. Growing up as the child of a police officer, I had a backstage pass to a world most people don’t. I have to write about what I saw and what I continue to see.
PB: Like my own poetry, your poems have an attraction toward place and landscape. Residing in California’s Mojave Desert, you live and write from such a unique place. Are you inspired by any other landscapes? Are there any that feel foreign to you? Honestly, your home is very foreign to me—the beauty is slow and subtle and dry compared to the dramatic mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest that find their way into my own poems. Are you moved to write about any other places the way you are to write about Joshua Tree and its surrounding desert?
LH: Yes. I am inspired by other landscapes, especially ones that I spend extended amounts of time getting to know. Jonathan and I lived for two years in Arcata, California, which is in Humboldt County, about 270 miles south of the Oregon border. Arcata is surrounded by old growth temperate rainforest, which we had the pleasure of meandering through on a daily basis, weather permitting. The rain was a constant presence and became a sort of antagonist in our lives. This is where I wrote the poems that eventually became The Finding. Many landscapes feel foreign to me either because I haven’t lived in them (cities) or because I lived in them for many years and found no characteristics that moved me (suburban areas). I recognize fully that the “not finding” in suburban areas is a lack of imagination on my part. For me to want to write about a place, it’s got to be at least a little weird, at least a little dirty, at least a little dangerous, and there’s got to be the possibility of getting good and lost.
PB: How do you see the relationship–and maybe the word I want is “responsibility”–of a poet toward her home place as opposed to a place she might not know so intimately? Do you feel a sense of responsibility when depicting your region?
LH: I feel a responsibility to the work only. My allegiance is not to representing any place in a way that is fair or exact and certainly not in a way that mythologizes. Much bad writing comes from such attempts. I don’t write about the desert because I love it (even though I do love it), but because I know it.
PB: You write, “Where I previously thought truth lived was only a false bottom. “—I find this fascinating. Could you elaborate more on what you mean by “truth lived” being, well, not the ultimate truth?
LH: Sure. I think I just realized that with poetry I had to be willing to explore my own distances, get out of a comfort zone that was only “comfortable” because I told myself it was. I had to be able to open the doors that I was once content to leave locked forever. I had to be devoted to the pursuit rather than to the “right ending.” The poet, upon opening one door and seeing there are infinite doors ahead, says, “Yes! This is exactly what I want to do with my time—open doors that lead to more doors.” With poetry we realize that there is no capital T truth other than what tiny fragments are brought forth from the murk through the arduous acts of observing, digging, unlocking, overturning, and attempting to express the things that are the most difficult. Because we (poets) are not beholden to creating and maintaining plot, we are free to grapple with, in my opinion, more thought-provoking (flummoxing, teeth-gnashing) things. I’ll finish my answer by saying that my favorite novels and short stories are lyrical, fabulist, and achieve what poetry achieves but over the course of a couple hundred pages. Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, Tracks by Louise Erdrich, and the novels of Toni Morrison readily come to mind.
PB: It seems like writing fiction became somewhat isolating for you. You start with a sister-brother team and then end up in a straightjacket, a witness of your own life. Did poetry somehow make you feel more connected to others as you came to be more connected to your own self?
LH: I’ve had a complex though mostly amiable relationship with isolation my entire life, having been raised in two very rural desert towns, one of which had a population of less than 3,000. I don’t think that writing fiction made me feel isolated. So, let me just say that there are at least two types of isolation—the kind we feel even though we are surrounded by people and then actual, physical, geographic isolation. The first is felt probably when we are either not with the kinds of people that switch us on to connection (you know, people who bring out our higher selves and teach us some new dance moves) or when there is some void within us that can’t be filled by other people. The first kind of isolation is the geographic kind—where are you located in regards to other people? And as you know, you can feel connected to everyone and everything with not a soul to speak to, or you can genuinely feel lonely. What a range! But no, I don’t think that the act of writing fiction made me feel isolated—I think any artistic endeavor creates connectivity even if the act of it temporarily takes us away from other people. Fiction was simply my first love and first loves always end in heartbreak and upheaval and a leading to something more fulfilling. But I can say that in a certain way poetry made me feel more connected to others simply because it helped me to get to know myself, knowing myself in turn brought clarity in regards to the kinds of people I wanted in my life; thus I was able to more fully love the people I chose.
I also want so say that it’s not that I think that writing fiction can’t bring about revelations, it’s just that I had some serious self-discovery to do in my early twenties, and poetry was the art form that I needed to commit myself to at that pivotal time in my becoming.
PB: You say that you woke from a slumber right before you turned 24—do you have an idea of what it was that woke you up? Was it something literary, or was it more personal?
LH: As I mentioned, the part of the brain that controls personality and decision-making isn’t fully developed until around twenty-four years old, a factoid I share with my young students every semester. The me that made some important life-altering decisions at twenty had faded away by the time I was transferring into a four-year university at age twenty-three / twenty-four. A confluence of biology, entering a place of higher learning, finally moving to a more cosmopolitan area (compared to the desert!), taking classes within my major, meeting exciting, published poets/ professors—all of this went into the mix of smelling salts that woke up the sleepwalker. Oh, and one of my professors, poet Kevin Clark, whom I took as many classes from as the college would allow, taught the poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I mean, if that poem doesn’t shake you up, close the casket lid.
PH: It is striking to me how much more intimate writing poetry was for you than writing fiction. Have you ever tried writing nonfiction? It seems the cross between the two.
LH: Yes, I’ve got a nonfiction project that is in its early stages. It’s multi-pronged: blog, personal essays, and eventually a research-based book. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I spent over two years in diagnosis limbo, and what’s more, during that time I was unable to walk more than a few steps at a time without extreme fatigue, couldn’t stand for longer than a few minutes without pain and weakness, and I had a whole range of confusing and terrifying symptoms. I’ve got several autoimmune diseases, which have affected my life in a variety of ways since I was young, and I’m also a disciplined weightlifter now. So, I’m using this variety of modes to explore pain, specifically my own, and the stigma of women’s pain. My first couple of posts go up April 18th on my website, lihenley.com. I want to help other women, specifically younger women, who might be struggling with how to voice their pain to others. I also want to reach men, because they suffer too, and they make up part of a woman’s support network, and also stand as vanguard to wellness (i.e. they make up over 60% of all healthcare practitioners).
PB: Although I am a poet most of the books I read are nonfiction. What types of writing or writers are you drawn to?
LH: I get excited anytime I find a writer who does it all—poetry, fiction, nonfiction—and then I read everything I can find by that person, obsessively, before I can move on to someone else. Currently I’m reading everything by Maggie Nelson. My good friend Jennifer K. Sweeney turned me on to Nelson, starting with Bluets (poetry), then Jane: A Murder (hybrid), The Argonauts (nonfiction/ memoir), and The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (criticism/ theory). I’m drawn to hybridity, probably because of my start in fiction and my desire to always have some kind narrative arc in my work, and because secretly I’m incredibly indecisive right up until the point where I make my choice (and then I tend to be utterly devoted to the thing I choose). C.D. Wright’s One Big Self, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billie the Kid, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being—these are some of my favorites. When it comes to poetry, I like obsession. I like a poet who will write fifty variations on the same subject, traveling around it to get different angles, asking not only how the subject changes based on where the narrator stands, but how does the narrator herself change. Who am I when I look at this bit of rose quartz when it has sunlight passing through it? Who am I when it’s on the ground? Examples are King Baby by Lia Purpura, The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone by Nancy K. Pearson, and of course Bluets, which begins, “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.”
PB: What are you currently working on?
LH: Well, in the wake of Starshine Road being published, I’ve also been awarded publication for a newer manuscript called Whole Night Through—some of those poems are on the Poet’s Billow. WNT is due out in October of 2019 through What Books Press of Santa Monica. I’ve been writing a new manuscript (I only seem to write in manuscripts, in projects) that has as a title placeholder on my desktop, “Skeleture of Night.” The poems stem from my isolated experiences in Landers, California. It’s really far out there in regards to the leaps I make and the content, too. For example, there is an 8-part poem about a woman in the desert who becomes obsessed with the hope that a pilot will crash-land near her home. She invents these elaborate reasons as to why he hasn’t arrived yet and imagines that all of the strange things that blow into her yard are actually gifts from the pilot, and not rubbish from the landfill down the road. There is a poem about the Integratron (Google it, it’s an alien-designed dome near where I grew up) and a poem told in the voice of a goat head thorn. I’m having fun with it. And as I mentioned previously, I’m working on my blog, which is called “Calling Clouds By Their Names,” and essays about my journey with endometriosis, Celiac, and Hashimoto’s. Outside of that, I’m always working on the most important project, which is my self—what I eat, how I think, how I treat others, how I can better serve my students…all the stuff that is less about what I want to do, and more about how I want to be in the world.