This week, my friends, I have a special treat for you. One of our newer members, Matthew Henningsen, who writes at Matthew Henningsen's The Literary Doc, is a world traveler, as well as a poet. I had asked him if I might interview him, so we can get to know him better, and it turns out he leads the most interesting life, and has traveled the world. Be prepared for adventure, some great poems, and some really beautiful photos.
Sherry: Matthew, as you are a new poet in our community, it is a delight to have this opportunity to get to know you better. I couldn’t find many clues on your site, so we have a wide focus for our conversation! Why don’t we start with where you live, and anything you'd like to share, to give us a sense of your life?
Matthew: For the past 7 or more years, I’ve been what you could call a wandering poet and scholar. By this, I mean I’ve been in graduate school, and have spent my summers traveling the world, and writing.
Originally from Denver, Colorado, I moved for 2 years out to Massachusetts to earn my M.A., and then over to Wisconsin to earn my Ph.D. in English, which I just received in May. I was then fortunate enough to make my way back home, and find a professor job at the University of Colorado, Boulder. All of this helps explain my site name a bit more, “The Literary Doc.” It’s a pun on my profession, and the fact that the page itself is full of literary documents!
Sherry: You are on a marvelous journey, Matthew. Is there anything, looking back, that you think influenced your becoming a poet?
Matthew: A huge, pivotal moment in my life happened during my undergraduate days at the University of Denver. I fell in love with literature and with writing because of one professor, William Zaranka. He was just an awesome guy, full of joy and passion for what he did. He especially had that rare ability to touch everyone around him with his love for learning and for writing. And so… I was drawn to him, and he took me under his wing, and set me on my path. Now I’m the professor he once was!
Together we wrote poetry and he helped me hone my craft, and I published my first poems under his tutelage. I can honestly say that without his help, and the love for learning he instilled in me, I wouldn’t have ended up where I have.
Sherry: 'When the student is ready, the teacher appears', as Siddhartha is supposed to have said, and he sounds like an amazing mentor. When did you pen your first poem? And why a poem rather than prose?
Matthew: I tinkered around with poetry from a relatively early age. I think I was 15 or so.
During this time, I also started writing prose, which I occasionally keep at to this day. But I’ve increasingly turned completely towards poetry lately. A poem, I feel, can give you more than prose, mainly because of the inherent mystery of a poem. Prose you tend to get what you pay for, whereas poetry leaves the door open, and can pack a harder punch. One good, short poem can be as powerful as a 200 page book.
Sherry: You are so right. What do you love about poetry?
Matthew: As a lot of my poems somewhat reveal, because of all of their allusions, I love poetry because of its deep, rich tradition. All of those great poets of the past, and their unique ways of writing and constructing their pieces. In my own humble way, I always try to learn from and continually channel these past poems, and so see them both as helpful guides, and as jumping off points for my own attempts at creation. Poetry gives us the chance to keep the past alive.
'Poetry gives us the chance
to keep the past alive.'
Sherry: I love that idea, Matthew! I am very intrigued by your series of poems about J. Humbert Riddle. Tell us about this series, how it began, and what plans you have for developing this theme. Any plans to write a book-length series of poems about this character?
Matthew: J. Humbert Riddle is a character that I’ve had a lot of fun with over the past 6 months or so. His name is a mash-up of 2 literary characters I’ve always been fascinated by: T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert of Lolita. He’s also the product of poems that I’ve written and rewritten, and ultimately retitled, probably 5 or more different times. So, Riddle is the odd offspring of the poetic tradition and a mad series of visions and revisions.
Also, I do plan on continuing Riddle’s odd saga, and am getting very interested in piecing together his narrative in a book form. But how would you end this??? I’m not sure if Riddle even exists in the literal sense of the word, so maybe he’ll just fade away or vanish suddenly? I guess I’ll just see where it all goes. Do you have any ideas? I would love to hear them.
Sherry: Ha! I actually love the idea of a mysterious ending that leaves the reader wondering. I suspect that, as this theme continues, at some point J. Humbert will take over and begin leading you where he wants to go.
When did you begin blogging? How has blogging impacted your writing?
Matthew: I’m very new to blogging, and am still trying to figure the whole thing out. I think I only really got into it this last September. But, that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it. Blogging has, most importantly, got me writing again, and spurs me to be as active as I can. This is what I truly love about it. It keeps me active. It’s so easy to wallow and procrastinate when you don’t have a community of readers you want to write for each week. So, thank you, everyone, for reinvigorating my love of writing!
Sherry: Well said. That is what blogging did for me as well, got me writing again. It keeps me productive. Are there three poems, written by you, that you would like to include here? And might you tell us something about how each poem came to be, and its meaning for you?
Matthew: I selected three poems that are some of my personal favorites, mainly because I think they revolve around certain fundamental themes that always seem to crop up in my writing. Nostalgia, memory, time, lost time, history, tradition, and the unknown and unknowable. The first is…
The Cambodian Jungle
Boxes and Batteries
On a bus in a deep Asian jungle,
Full of rain and wet,
I thought of a time when I
Held my memories in my hand,
Squeezing them and squeezing them…
I thought of a box with a lid
Cracked open, a gap where we see
Time walked in parks, hands held in
The fading light of a distant day. Hollow
Trees on campus greens, places where
Gold was hidden. Moments so
Fragile, like plates thrown into
The air, suspended.
People I wave at, smiling.
I knew them once.
Yes - a kiss hurled by the hand,
Like a football toss in a game. Looks
Before lights dim, glimpses and
Memories trapped, sealed in a box I
Hold under my arms on days when views
From cars mingle with my mind, and
I’m taken from jungles to dry moments when
People waved, and I waved back.
Sherry: I feel the nostalgia, especially in "People I wave at, smiling. I knew them once."
Matthew: This poem is actually an older poem that I’ve slowly worked and reworked over the years. It stems from a memory I have of driving to the Cambodia border from Thailand in a giant bus, and lurching along the road. For me, it always brings back this time, and the sad but sweet thought that this moment has slipped away, and is both lost and stored somewhere. A similar expression of these ideas appears in this next poem, another personal favorite…
An Egyptian Hunt
… Je me souviens…
I am more convinced… more
Prone to stop in my walks,
Staring at lone blades
Of grass. I
I will scratch
My mind and toss
Time to canopic jars. Yes,
Canopic jars I
Pick up and rearrange,
Pick up and rearrange, placing
Some behind chairs I
No longer sit in, down
Hallways I am too afraid
To walk down…
Just past that door
I used to push open
Into our rose garden.
Some I put in purses.
Hide in the soft felt lining
Of fur coats for
For safety. But,
The jars, no matter
How secretive how
Wild, pass and
Vague secrets of lost time.
Moments by ponds -
Past seconds measured out
With spoons on mornings
Too early for rising -
The dawn crisp.
I would like to take
My canopic jars and plunge them
Under a tepid pool
Of pale water.
I would work at them
With rough hands, twisting
And twisting… the clock
Breaking from the water
I push up
From my tub. Then,
The top is popped. I
Squat to the floor
And listen, expecting
The jars only hold so much.
I think they are full
Of mystery, of some
Sacred second trapped
Forever, like little worlds
Of water and snow
Picked up on long forgotten
I shake and I shake.
I turn the jars over
And pound them harshly
Against the floor.
Jars of sunshine
And snow, of
Days ticking beyond
That precise pounding
Out of time. Days
Of moments. Days
In the rain during an afternoon
Walk in Ayutthaya –
They are the smell
Of nights before rains.
They are the sounds
Of midnight thunder.
The hush before a storm.
I hold them close, these
Canopic jars… the paths
I take and took.
The routes to towns
I got stuck in…
Sherry: How beautifully you write! You take me there, make me feel the misty rememberings. Sigh.
Matthew: I love this poem. It always makes me smile when I read it, I think because it brings back so many fond, almost forgotten memories, especially in Thailand, where Ayutthaya is. I also selected this poem because I do like writing long poems, and the ability length affords to create a type of story and narrative that can twist and turn around bends and breaks. On another note, this poem was actually started in Egypt (hence the name) while I was heading off to explore the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. I wrote it from the car I had rented, looking out at the Nile. But I did finish it later, and only bits of the original survive.
Sherry: Yes. These poems are imbued with the memory of your travels. The reader follows in your footsteps, experiencing, if only for the duration of the poem, the remembered places.
Matthew: Finally, to switch things around, I love this last poem, and it talks about different things and themes, and is shorter…
4 Stanzas for Dominique
Dominique it is
Madness – pure, unadulterated
Looking, yes you looking
Out at us viewers, unknown?
Hair, your hair bouncing
In curls, your hair. A touch
Soft of cigarettes between
Lips, pink and pursed together.
Dominique… more… I
Words failing words
Like plates crumbling on floors
That collapse as you walk, float
Across so graceful -
Always so graceful, Dominique.
I, then, hoard away, lock
On rainy days under arms
Looks stored beneath floor boards -
Or, on snowy days, on mountains
Where cars park, waiting, waiting while
Your image, Dominique, is all
Askew, pounding on quiet window
Panes. I look, I do, Dominique,
This last poem was actually inspired by Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, The Conformist. The “Dominique” is Dominique Sanda, the film’s main actress. I really like how oddly this film looks, and the interesting angles of it all. I tried to capture something like that in this piece.
Sherry: And you succeeded! I see her pouting lips, and want to know more about the closing "But....."
The one clue I found, browsing your site, is your love of travel, which flows through your poems so beautifully. You have been to some amazing places. Which was the most awe-inspiring for you, and why?
Matthew: My great love is definitely travel, and is a huge source of inspiration for my writing. I’ve been fortunate to really travel the world so far, and have been to such places as Machu Picchu in Peru, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, all throughout Europe, and around Asia, especially Thailand and Vietnam.
But, my absolute favorite place was Easter Island, that far-flung island way out in the South Pacific. This is the most remote, isolated place I’ve ever been, which probably added to its allure and charm. I loved being so far removed from everything and everyone. It was just me, the ocean, and those marvelous, mysterious statues that dot the island.
Sherry: You are a fortunate traveler! I can only imagine what it must feel like to be among the ancient standing stones. Wow. Is there a country you have not yet seen that you long to visit? Top of your Bucket List?
Matthew: I have 5 big places I still really want to see. This summer I’m going to Australia, mainly to see Sydney, and Uluru in the Outback. I also must at some point see the Holy Land and Petra, Russia, India, and China. For now, those places top my Bucket List.
Sherry: And we shall talk with you again, after you've seen them! Smiles. What other activities do you enjoy when you aren’t writing?
Matthew: If it’s not obvious by now, definitely travel, even just local travel around Colorado. Seeing new places and people are a continual source of enlightenment and inspiration. I also love spending time with my family.
I have a travel blog that I've kept, of my voyages around the world, at bravenewworlder.
I have a travel blog that I've kept, of my voyages around the world, at bravenewworlder.
Sherry: It is so worth checking out, kids - a wealth of wonderful photos! Is there anything you’d like to say to Poets United?
Matthew: Thank you so much for reading, and for your comments! I greatly appreciate this, since it truly helps me become a better writer.
Sherry: Thank you, Matthew, for letting us get a better sense of who you are, a fellow traveler on the planet. We are happy you found Poets United, and look forward to reading many more of your poems, and to following the further adventures of J. Humbert Riddle.
Wasn't this an interesting visit, my friends? Each pilgrim poet's story is so unique. Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!