Inletting: An Interview with Hastings Hensel
DANIEL CROSS TURNER: Maybe we can begin with a couple of general questions about your work. Your language is straightforward, nothing fancy, hard-edged, but without seeming spare or sparse.
HASTINGS HENSEL: I appreciate the description “hard-edged” because my first drafts are usually anything but. Each draft I imagine as a kind of tightening, or to keep with the metaphor, a sharpening. I don’t want to overwork the analogy (cliché?) of poetry to artisanship or craft, but there is a similar concentration in the process. The sharpening usually involves trying to hone the phrasing, to make the language more concentrated but still sonically sharp (or, I should say, flat, when needed).
In terms of language being straightforward, I’m happy for that description, too. The critic Brian Phillips, in an essay that has been influential on me, “Poetry and the Problem of Taste,” remarks that the “central fault line in the poetry culture today” runs between those who value accessibility and those who value difficulty. (One could possibly say that, at least in American poetry, this is the inheritance of Whitman and Dickinson.) I’m not so sure one can’t have it both ways. I think of my small readership as being comprised of people who actively read contemporary poetry and people who are coming to contemporary poetry for the first time. I think I’m trying to find the right words in the right order for those two audiences—straightforward and yet not sparse, as you say.
TURNER: How would you describe your overall approach to form in your poems?
HENSEL: I studied at Johns Hopkins for my M.F.A. and Sewanee for my B.A. in English, perhaps two of the last places in America that not only teach received forms—sonnets, villanelles, terza rima, blank verse, etc.—but champion them. Yet I like to think of those years as a kind of apprenticeship in which I learned the forms so that I could break away in ways I saw fit. As I tell my students, go back and look at Picasso’s figurative drawings. The man knew how to draw before he moved onto cubism. Of course, I’m no Picasso (nor was meant to be), nor is my poetry abstract, but many of the poems in Winter Inlet are faux sonnets (fourteen lines with a turn, but not rhymed) and others make use of off rhyme more so than perfect rhyme. The skeleton of received form is often there.
Really what I’m more interested in is what I call “deep forms.” What is this poem, whether or not it is a villanelle or free verse or loosely iambic or what have you? Is it an elegy? An ode? A curse? A narrative? A lyric? Or better yet: how am I combining these deep forms—is the poem, for example, an elegiac narrative? A lyric in praise?
TURNER: What about your use of particular techniques in Winter Inlet, such as internal (slant) rhymes, direct address, puns, immediately repeated or crossed-over/chiasmatic phrasings, stark alliterations (with echoes of Hopkins), and hardcore caesurae worthy of Anglo-Saxon verse of yore?
HENSEL: I suppose I’m constantly thinking metaphorically, so forgive me for using another analogy. But all of those techniques you’ve mentioned are, as I see it, the parts of the machine. Tinkering with them, and understanding their relationship to each other and to the poem’s deep form/content, only makes the machine run the way I’d like it to run.
But perhaps that’s too Marxist—poem as machine. I certainly wasn’t thinking Marx when I first read Beowulf, The Wanderer, Milton, Hopkins, early Lowell—the poets and poems with all those Anglo-Saxon stresses. I just liked the way they sounded.
Technically, however, I like the tensions that arise when these techniques play off one another. The way, for instance, a medial caesura can suddenly jam an enjambed line, and then burst forth with something like a spondee, then maybe get distorted by chiasmus. To look this microscopically at a poem is to see how much language is, indeed, alive—perhaps more organic than mechanical.
TURNER: You’ve spent most of your life in the South. You were born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, you went to Sewanee in Tennessee for undergrad, to Johns Hopkins in Maryland, and are now back teaching in your native state. How has the South impacted your poetry? Would you call yourself a “Southern writer”?
HENSEL: I feel like there are two standard responses to this question. One: “No, I think of myself as a writer. I’m from the South, yes, so I guess if you put the two together, that makes me a Southern writer.” Two: “Yes, I believe in Eudora Welty’s maxim that to understand one place is to understand all places. I write about what I know. I know the South. I am a Southern writer.” I’ve heard writers like Richard Ford and Charles Wright respond—much more eloquently than my example, of course—with the first answer. Ron Rash, though, comes to mind as a writer who answers with the second. Count me in the second camp.
But I also hope I’m sensitive enough, in perhaps the spirit of Quentin Compson, to recognize that identifying with the South isn’t always as advantageous as it’s sometimes cracked up to be. Of course we want to champion the South as a region of great storytellers, of particulars in a world becoming ever more generalized, of a regretful history that can be mined by the artist. But the South is also a place rife with anti-intellectualism, as well as creative and political conservatism—thus, a place sometimes bewildered by poets and poetry. Many of my friends and family, for example, do not read poetry, nor do they really want to take the time to read it. “Write a novel and make some money,” they say, thinking of the commercial success (and accessibility) of Pat Conroy or The Help or To Kill A Mockingbird or even Rash, Faulkner, Penn Warren. I keep writing poetry, though.
Yet an important point: I don’t necessarily think one could characterize the voice in all of my poems as being distinctly Southern, in the way they might characterize my accent when I speak. I was listening to The New Yorker’s podcast the other day, and editor David Remnick said something that has stuck with me—a writer’s voice is always different on the page than in conversation. In some ways, I hope there’s a tension between the Southern things I write about and perhaps a kind of non-Southern voice often found in the poems—and that out of this tension arises poetry that delivers more than regionalism.
Finally, many of the writers I most admire aren’t always Southern, but they do seem to share affinities—nearly ineffable—with Southern writers; I’m thinking here primarily of Marquez, Heaney, Shakespeare, Frost, Walcott, Bishop, the Australian poet Glyn Maxwell. I always tell my students that a life well-read should be balanced with a life well-lived. I think the Southern writer who lives in the South, but who reads writers from outside the South—and we could well be talking about any region here—may find a universal voice out of that tension, that dialectic.
TURNER: There’s a cadre of contemporary Southern writers, including a number of poets, who are engaged in what has been termed “Grit Lit” or “rough South” literature, drawing attention away from the less genteel, romanticized vision of the South and towards the region’s darker strains, in terms of violence, financial hardship, emotional or psychological distress, racial and gendered conflict, environmental pressures, etc. Do you write “rough South” poetry?
HENSEL: At times, yes. I certainly like to read poems and fiction in the genre. But I don’t sit down to any poem and think, “You know, I need to work with an idea”—for instance, working for or against a vision of the South. I begin with some kind of image that haunts me, and I think any writer worth his or her salt, Southern or not, is drawn to images of “darker strains.” Usually I begin describing the image, and out of the description something else begins to take shape—the real poem, as Richard Hugo said, is triggered. And usually the real poem, like the real impulse behind an action, is one dealing with the tough stuff you mention.
TURNER: Andrew Hudgins has offered the following praise for your work: “I did not know that the Carolina coast needed its defining poet until I read Hastings Hensel’s Winter Inlet and realized it already has one.” What is it about this particular place—the human and nonhuman environments of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina—that can draw out so many poems from your imagination—forty-seven poems’ worth in your first full book?
HENSEL: Right before I left Johns Hopkins to move to the South Carolina coast and teach at Coastal Carolina University, I stopped by Dave Smith’s office to say goodbye. I remember him saying that, even though I was “moving to the marsh,” I would always write about the marsh from my memory. Smith himself, by the way, is a great writer of marsh and coastal poems (in my opinion, the best), but if he was talking about the marsh from my childhood—from a week’s vacation every year—he was wrong. I have very much written about my experience over the past six years living in Murrells Inlet. If he meant that all poems, when one sits down to write them, come out of memory, then of course he was right.
But I often amuse myself with this thought experiment: If I had, say, moved to Wyoming, what kind of book would I have written? I think I would have written Wyoming poems (perhaps Summer Ranch?). I like place-based writing in general more than I like any particular regionalization.
Either way, the point is this: I decided pretty early on here that I would to try to immerse myself in the local (and dare I say authentic?) Murrells Inlet culture of fishermen, shrimpers, oystermen, crabbers, etc.—a cue I took in part from Dave Smith’s profoundly moving essay “An Honest Tub”—and I was fortunate enough to become best friends with an old salt, a fishing captain nicknamed Jolly Roger. It all sounds sort of cliché when it comes out that way, but the truth is that Captain Jolly learned me in the particulars of the coastal inlet life, and as a poet—that is, as a person who is constantly thinking metaphorically—I try to transform those particulars into metaphors, into poems.
For me, there’s just this incredible, cyclical, Whitmanic nature to coastal life—everything chasing everything else, often in plain view, or just below the (literal and figurative) surface. I’m far from the first person, of course, to feel this way; I think of Lowell, Ammons, Bishop, Roethke, Clampitt, Dave Smith, the list goes on and on.
TURNER: Your epigraph for Winter Inlet is drawn from Roethke:
We passed the ice of pain,
And came to a dark ravine,
And there we sang with the sea:
The wide, the bleak abyss
Shifted with our slow kiss.
The permeabilities, the vulnerabilities, of the coastline and its nearness to the outward sea—that wide and bleak and endless abyss—are echoed through your poems of the South Carolina coastal plain. But the abyss is measured, especially in the physical and psychic space of the inlet. You imagine the inlet as a place where “Still all is tidal,” where continuously there is “Coming in, going out” (“Late Spring Inlet Arrangement”). Yes, the inlet waters are subject to the great tidal pull and shift of the larger ocean, but the inlet, in your terms, is crossable, passable; the inlet becomes a place of shoring, for the time being, the shoreless deep. Coinages are the stuff of lit crit scholars, but I’d like to proffer “inletting” to describe this movement in your poetry. “Inletting” as a means of letting in, of acknowledging the strong currents of the outer dark, but also of arranging and rearranging these fluidities to abide. “Arrangement” recurs throughout the titles of Winter Inlet: “Winter Inlet Arrangement,” “Late Spring Inlet Arrangement,” “Snag Arrangement,” “Next Summer Inlet Arrangement,” “Deep Woods Dream Arrangement,” and “Imaginary Arrangement Without Squirrels.” And as Roethke’s lines suggest, two arrangements shored against our ruin are love and song. Throughout the volume, we sing in our chains like the sea. They’re not always pretty songs, but what of the inlet, the shore, the sea? These things can be pretty ugly, as your poems well attend. In “Porch-Ceiling Blue,” the volume’s beautiful closing poem, love for the other—always something of an illusion, like the porch ceiling painted to look sky-blue—can “make the end seem endless.”
HENSEL: I’m grateful for the coinage and for the invaluable insight. What a joy to have your poems read this way. And speaking of joy, the Roethke epigraph comes from the first stanza of his poem “The Moment,” which is about conception and which ends in a line I might otherwise find a little hokey: “We end in joy.” But I’ve come to think of the structure of the book as a movement towards what you’re talking about—a kind of redemption, perhaps a movement towards joy through the process of arranging and rearranging the fluidity of experience.
I tell all my students, in my hyperbolic fashion, that “All Poems Are About Death.” We have a good laugh, and inevitably one student will ask, “What about haiku? It’s just two images of nature stacked on top of each other. That’s not about death. How can you tell me that’s about death?”
And I have to begin my argument with Stevens’ great (repeated) line from “Sunday Morning”: “Death is the mother of beauty.” I think that, when a poet renders an image beautifully, we can’t help but feel a kind of loss that such beauty isn’t permanent, that all things march towards the grave, etc. etc. And we begin, naturally, to question if that moment of (passing) recognition was indeed an illusion.
Of course, this is as much a Romantic idea as it is Modern. I’m grateful for my first poetry teacher, Paul Ragan—who is still my very close friend—for teaching me Keats next to Stevens, Rothko next to Beethoven, and Faulkner perhaps above all. When I showed him the manuscript of Winter Inlet, I was grateful for his understanding of the poems, which is in line with what you’re saying. He said I had a “dark sensibility which nevertheless embraces the possibilities of living, to borrow a phrase from Faulkner.” Really the only way I want to respond to your inquiry is how I responded to his: Hell yes. I’ll take it.
TURNER: These commitments, to relationships, to art, are not light—chains, indeed—but are crucial, and are most often forged in blood marriage with the nonhuman ecology, where human arrangement weighs against “the ecstasy of wreckage” (“Men-of-War”).
HENSEL: The reason I chose to title the book Winter Inlet is because I think of the inlet in winter as both a distinct time and a distinct place, in which the human and the nonhuman are indeed connected in subconscious ways. Murrells Inlet is a tourist destination; the winter is the dead season. The fish move out with the tourists, the waterlines draw down, you can see this place more clearly, as during a low tide when all isn’t flooded, anonymous.
It isn’t necessarily a place for the casual vacationer—the spring-breaker, the beachgoing tourist—but personally I love it when the skies are gray, the shores quiet, the feeling a little bleak. I think here of someone like David Foster Wallace, who found himself unhappy in places, such as on a cruise ship, where others were happy; and I think of Walker Percy, whose characters, such as Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman, find themselves thrilled in moments of catastrophe, such as during a hurricane.
Things move slowly in the winter inlet, if at all. So, then, to be a subject in this world of objects—that is, to be arranging and rearranging experience in the mind, connecting the human and the nonhuman through the tissue of metaphor, and then to put it all, later by memory, into a poem—that is, in some ways, when I feel most alive.
TURNER: The opening poem, “On the Far Shore” offers a model for so many of the rest of the works in Winter Inlet. What appears merely descriptive, vernacular, takes on symbolic, if not allegorical, import in a way that’s so thoroughgoing and so profound it’s almost Melvillian. I’m thinking of poems like “Spigot,” “Filet,” “Widowmaker,” “Snag Arrangement,” “Theory of the Loon,” “The Rope in the Motor,” “Jump-Start,” “Uprooted Roots,” and so on. They’re so clearly about one thing, and so clearly about something beyond. As in the sharply equivocating lines from “The Old Man’s Dull Knives”:
having motored out
in thick cypress
to a fish shack
before dust and sawdust
had settled over these tools
all as dull
as a story like this was
is to me
when I have taken the filet
the serrated one
with a compass on the bottom
and tried to hone them
back into the things they once were
HENSEL: Well, I’m not afraid to tell people that I stole the idea of “On the Far Shore” from Marquez’s short story “The Handsomest Downed Man in the World”—the idea that distance lends perspective (really misperception) and that the transition between perspectives becomes metaphor. In the story, the children on a beach think they see a ship, then a whale, and then as it washes closer, they realize they see a drowned man.
I love that little figure—which is really about the fragility of perception and/or the powers of the imagination—but I think one of the trappings to these image-driven arrangement poems—these still-lifes—is that they can become too stagnant, and thus appear more like symbols or allegories than figures. The poet Wyatt Prunty, my great teacher at Sewanee, always talked about figures, rather than symbols—how a poet in today’s age needed to look more for processes that find their likeness in other processes. I think the poems in which I incorporate objects into a process—the sharpening of knives, for instance—better achieve the “something beyond” than perhaps the arrangement poems.
TURNER: Waters, in particular, form a major motif in your poems. The dark currents of the Waccamaw River as well as the shoreline and the inlet. Could you comment on the significance of waters in your work? The motif of waters creates a surface-depth dynamic in your poems. And there also seems to be a deep connection between these ecological fluidities, and the currents and countercurrents of poetic rhythm across Winter Inlet.
HENSEL: As you know, the Waccamaw Neck, where we live, is a unique strip of land—a thin stretch between the Atlantic Ocean and the Waccamaw River. So there’s water, water everywhere. And unlike a lake or a pond, there’s dramatic fluctuation. Even compared to a river, which constantly moves but constantly looks similar (Richard Wilbur captures this nicely in his line “moving and staying like white water”), the waters around here offer so many different perspectives.
Of course, the risk is that water—particularly oceans—can be the muse for many bad poems, and much cliché. But these different perspectives also give the language so many unique words—honestly, some really great English words, such as spindrift, breaker-foam, slough, half-slack tide, mudflat, and so on and so on.
I also think any poet constantly wants to explore binary tensions, and down here water offers so many—high tide and low tide, shoreline and waterline, saltwater and freshwater, surface and depth, in far and out deep, out far and in deep, current and countercurrent. Poetry, of course, contains all those things, too. The colloquial phrase I love that captures both so perfectly is “reading the water.”
TURNER: You mentioned earlier that you studied with Dave Smith at Hopkins. You also count among your poetic forebears Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey, who is buried a few miles from here in the hauntingly lovely All Saints graveyard on Pawleys Island. What elements from these poets’ work influence your own?
Hensel: I think these poets are great at writing compressed narrative poems. They can tell a story, but the language is intense, pressurized. Perhaps most importantly, I learned from these poets an important point about narrative poetry—it’s closer to fiction than nonfiction, and it’s often better to stay true to the poem, more so than any actual experience the poet might have had.
And these poets really know how to manipulate time. In a poem like Dickey’s “Hunting Civil War relics at Nimblewill Creek,” the speaker is metal-detecting and all of a sudden—just like that, boom—he’s in the Civil War, and then back out again. Warren and Smith do this all the time. I think when I was first writing poems, I felt the need to set up the transition into the past or back into the future, but those poets taught me to take the leap immediately.
TURNER: Your poems always linger at least somewise on a narrative plane; they always bear some trace of a storyline.
HENSEL: I’m glad you think so. The entire second section is rather straightforward narrative poetry, without question. Many of the arrangement poems in the first and third sections, however, I thought of as kinds of still life, in the manner of a Murrells Inlet Matisse (well…I wish.) But I think one can argue that all poetry is narrative, even what we consider to be traditional lyric, for when you place words together, you imply the passage of time, which is story. And, of course, the oldest poetry is narrative poetry—Homer, Virgil, etc. But I also think my narrative impulse comes out of my love of fiction and the fact that I read more fiction these days than I do poetry. And that, yes, like so many of us in the South, I come from a family of great storytellers.
TURNER: You’ve written a number of articles for magazines—for example, going on assignment as a reporter embedded among a band of Confederate re-enactors, or recording the difficulties of local shrimpers harvesting the Carolina coast amid competition from international markets. How do you relate poetry and prose? What are the unique demands of each genre you work in?
HENSEL: I’m glad you asked this question. I understood early on that poetry wasn’t lucrative, nor even accessible as a genre of writing for some of my friends and family, many of whom would often ask, “Where can I read your writing?” And I thought of the magazine writing as a kind of hobby—a chance to go out and experience the world, write something more public (or readable or accessible or what have you), and make a little extra money for the bills. But in each magazine piece I wanted to inject as much of a poetic voice as I could—or at least as much as my editor would allow. What I ended up realizing, I think, is that my work in nonfiction has influenced my poetry, too. On a pure content level, it often gives me something to write about, or at least provides me an image for a poem. Stylistically, though, I think the nonfiction work has taught me to be aware of audience and to strive for a “rich accessibility” in my poems.
TURNER: Finally, a question that I ask each poet I interview as a way to end things with an unending question. What is the future of poetry?
HENSEL: I’m more comfortable with the historian’s perspective, more so than the futurologist’s. That is, I see things more clearly in the rearview.
I’ve read more than a few poet-critics—Tony Hoagland comes first to mind—who assess the “Poem of Our Moment” as being deliberately vague, awkward, anti-narrative, cerebral, disjoined in terms of idiom, diction, image. In sum, the kind of poem I normally don’t want to read, but also no different in these ways than, say, “The Waste Land.” I’ve read about crowd-sourced poems and Twitter poems, and I’ve recently seen an uptick in collaborative collections. I can’t make much of this, but I’m not conservative in the sense I want poetry to return to some Golden Age, either. That’s an illusion.
A good contemporary poem, for me, doesn’t need to include contemporary cultural references in order to be relevant. I do, however, like how poetry today is more inclusive of a range and diversity of idiom, but I still want poetry to demand concentration, even meditation, somehow without sacrificing accessibility (but, oh, how tired I’m growing of that word already!). But yes, I like how the experience of reading or listening to a poem demands concentration in an age when so much doesn’t.
Certainly the readership is shrinking, and perhaps that, in and of itself, demands reinterpretation as to what a poem is or can be. But I don’t think poetry, as a whole, is going anywhere. Poetry, as Auden writes, will survive because it doesn’t make anything happen but is a way of happening. As long as people continue to experience loss, there will be poetry, which is always elegy.