Peter Burghardt interviews Matthew Henriksen

Matthew Henriksen is the author of Ordinary Sun (Black Ocean, 2011) and the chapbooks Another Word (DoubleCross Press, 2009) and Is Holy (horse less press, 2006). Some recent poems appear in Fence, Realpoetik, Raleigh Quarterly, Alice Blue Review, Sink Review, and Two Weeks. He co-edits Typo, an online poetry journal, and formerly published Cannibal Books, a book arts poetry press. He lives and teaches in the Ozark Mountains.

Peter Burghardt is a current MFA candidate at St. Mary’s College where he studies poetry and edits Mary: A Journal of New Writing. He lives in Oakland, California where he also works for Omnidawn Publishing as their Bookstore Outreach Manager.

Peter Burghardt: Matthew, your imprint, Cannibal Books, seems to take a lot of care in preparing the corporeal aesthetics of the journals it releases. How do you see the importance of book art craft relating to the poetics you promote on the page? What do you consider the responsibilities of a small publisher to be?

Matthew Henriksen: My wife, Katy (my partner in Cannibal) and I have stopped making Cannibal Books, in part because the birth of our daughter, in part because I work three jobs and she works one and freelances to pay the bills. Also, after we left Brooklyn three years ago the momentum faded. We didn’t have an immediate audience. I still edit Typo, an online poetry magazine that pre-dated Cannibal. Selecting poems for both venues taught me what poetry exists out there in rawer forms. I learned what types of poems attract attention and retain attention. Editing has taught me that poetry must first strike the medulla oblongata and then rise up into the frontal lobes (though of course poets like Alice Notley and C.D. Wright do both simultaneously, but their genius exceeds my potential and so their poems are objects of worship rather than models for my work). The aesthetics of Cannibal and Typo both emerge from a collaborative process with a co-editor (Katy and in the case of Typo Adam Clay), with the emphasis entirely on presenting the work, unvarnished and unhipsterized, in a palatable format. We like raw work that stands on its craft, a contradiction embodied by Cannibal’s rough and elegant look. I think people see with both venues that we love the work we publish and that our purpose resides entirely in putting out good work where people can find it. But I don’t feel responsible for that, or anything, as an editor. I put out the work I like and have attracted poets mainly because they like what I have done. If they don’t, I don’t care.

PB: Do you think that your work as an editor and publisher has impacted your own poetic practice? If so, in what ways?

MH: I found out about all sorts of poets by editing and by running The Burning Chair Readings in Brooklyn. I doubt I would know about Joseph Bradshaw or Ryan Flaherty (two of my favorite poets, their amazing books are on top of the pile on my desk) if I hadn’t done Cannibal and Typo. I would not know about Jane Gregory or Bronwen Tate or Keith Newton or Jared White. And as an editor and readings curator I got to know all these people, drink with them and play chess and share cabs on the BQE well past bedtime. Editing and curating transformed me as a person, since I put my whole person into it, and I came out entirely different. Of course, the poems are different. But I don’t know how. I chisel more. I try to not be full of shit and I try to be interesting. I learned from the new New York School poets, John Coletti and Arlo Quint especially, who write a purer poetry than you find in all but a few classrooms or in all but the most visionary magazines. I sought what was out there and sucked up whatever I could, but I’m not sure about the steps to any process.

PB: In your most recent book, Ordinary Sun, I noticed that many of the poems are organized into titled sections, or in some cases comprise small units of a larger poem. I was wondering, do you compose your work serially with the larger composition in mind, or do you start with fragments that are later organized into a more cohesive project?

MH: I had a larger plan in mind for an extended sequence, but once I generated the poems and started shaping them I started to focus on the poems individually. The poem is more important than the book. The sections of smaller poems emerged naturally, and since I seem to bounce between writing shorter and longer poems, dividing the book into distinct units seemed necessary. Each section stands apart from the others as far as style and concerns, but they all come from a center. Bronwen Tate claimed the center pointed to an unstated trauma, which might be true, but I’m not sure what that trauma is—maybe the trauma of trying to accept the horror of the human endeavor cast against the awful beauty of the sensory world. So, the answer to your question I think is no: I was just writing.

PB: Besides editing Typo and promoting the recent release of Ordinary Sun, do you have any other projects you’re working on or at the moment?

MH: Teaching six classes a semester and working at a bookshop and tending to my twenty-month old daughter and occasionally hanging out with my wife keeps me pretty busy. Like most poets, I’m looking for a steady job, on top of everything else. I am writing: I have a manuscript that’s basically complete, though I plan to sit on it and revise and try to write new poems to displace the old. I’ve cut back on editing other than Typo, which is going strong, and curating readings and festivals for the present. Katy and I are finishing up the last few Cannibal Books: Tom Andes, Dot Devota, Timothy Van Dyke, Sara Mumolo, and Ben Mazer—but that is painfully slow—and I have some secret stuff in the works: people who know me know I cannot help but stir up projects.

PB: Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to enter the world of small press publishing? How can one manage such an endeavor with the demands of generating new creative work and holding down (something akin to) a day job?

MH: I’m not sure if you’re asking about entering small press publishing as a publisher or as a writer. I don’t know how one holds down a day job and operates a small press. One or the other always suffered because of my dedication to the other. That’s why when we had our baby we had to kill the press. As for my own work, I can’t imagine anything preventing me from writing—not three day jobs, a baby, and a magazine to edit. I have not been able to write daily for many months, but everything I do contributes to the creation of new poems: teaching, taking baby to the park, reading Inger Christiansen while waiting for an appointment, or eating tacos. To answer part of the question, I’d suggest to anyone interested in publishing in small presses to read as many as possible, to buy as many or more books than the day job can support, and find readings even if they require one to drive from Albuquerque to Tucson. Get immersed in it. As for the main part of the question, someone who worries about balancing a job and writing poems should forget about writing and focus on earning a living. Life is hard enough without indulging a fleeting interest in an art widely rejected and often maligned by contemporary America. Of course, this might sound harsh, and maybe I’m the wrong person to ask about balance. I simply don’t understand why anyone would embark on the dangerously and gloriously futile endeavor of poetry but only put one foot into the canoe while trying to walk like a normal person but with only one foot on the shore.

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