An Interview with Lauren Henley
Kelly Boyker: You are one of the founding editors of Aperçus Quarterly. Tell me the journal's origin story.
Lauren Henley: Aperçus was born on the grimy, littered, glass-strewn sidewalks of Arcata, California the summer after I completed my first year in the MFA program at Pacific University. My husband, Jonathan, and I were taking one of our long, long walks. We got on the subject of food, which led to a conversation about online poetry journals (naturally). We reasoned that we like our poetry journals the same way we like our food—the best ingredients possible…the fewest ingredients possible…served with a keen eye for presentation. So of course this walk took us to the plaza for some local Humboldt Fog Chevre and tart green apples.
We talked about the fact that a lot of literary magazines—even and maybe especially the popular ones—have very busy and cluttered homepages. In addition, many of these magazines have more poetry, essays, interviews, and short stories than one could realistically have the opportunity to read. So then one of us said something like, "Well, let's make an online literary magazine with issues that are as small, simple, and beautiful as this Humboldt Fog." And the rest is history.
KB: What type of writing does Aperçus Quarterly seek to encourage, support and showcase? Are there any particular writing styles or genres that you are particularly drawn to as an editor?
LH: Mostly, we just want poetry from serious writers. What do I mean by serious? Let me put it this way, if you can live the rest of your life without writing another poem again and still be sane, you may not be a serious writer. We are open to all styles, forms, and subjects. Please no light verse.
KB: What is your secret to obtaining such gorgeous and poignant art for each issue? Do you solicit artists or do they come to you?
LH: For us, the key to finding such amazing visual art is one part luck, one part looking. And if you ask me on a different day, I might not include luck as an ingredient because I am not a superstitious person. We tend to look locally. With the exception of Skot Olsen, who lives in Portland, and Dr. Ernest Williamson III, who lives in South Carolina, all of the artists in Aperçus live in California.
If I can give any advice to other editors when it comes to finding great art for a literary journal, it would simply be to look where you are standing. Every city has artists. So many people are surprised when I tell them that there are hundreds of artists living in my small hometown of Joshua Tree and the surrounding areas. When we were living in my father's cabin near the Joshua Tree national park , we went to local art shows, which is how we met the amazing surrealist painter, Snake Jagger, and the mixed-media artist Christopher Cichocki. When we lived on the central coast, we came across the work of watercolor artist Jo-Neal Boic and acrylic artist Lori Wolf Grias; both had work on display at our favorite San Luis Obispo restaurant. We also just happen to be friends with some pretty amazing artists such as Daniel Dove and Audrey Green. We are also friends with poets who are friends with artists, which is how we found the wild and titillating art of Mark Bryan. These are all really cool, really switched-on people by the way. And I didn't have to go to New York or Los Angeles to find them.
KB: I have been a huge fan of your poetry for years now. The Finding poems, the apocalypse poems, the poems I just found over at Ghost Town: "The Future of the Pill" and "Good", to name just a few. One of the many elements I find so compelling in your work is that each poem is itself a perfectly told (or sometimes intentionally imperfect) story unto itself. What can you tell me about your storytelling?
LH: Well, for me, plot should always be secondary to characterization. Before a poem or series of poems comes to be, I usually start to hear a certain kind of voice that expresses a quirky way of being in the world. Maybe the voice is an amalgamation of myself and someone I've met—for example, a poem called "Open Letter From a Concerned Citizen." The narrator is me, but she is also the landlady we shared a wall with in Arcata, California. This landlady is very dear to us and we consider her family, I should say. Anyways, she has lived in Arcata a long, long time and though Jonathan and I moved from Arcata several years ago, she still sends me letters with updates about crime levels, clear-cutting in the forest, how the drought affects local wildlife, etc. She is like the all-seeing-eye of Arcata, and being that she is a well-informed and empathetic human, she is almost always reflecting on the problems of her town. I could sort of hear my voice and her voice combining in my head for days and days before I started writing the poem. I suppose my form of storytelling is a kind of psychological hitchhiking…I try to go for a ride with people that interest me and let them drive me around for a while. Where we go is not so much as important as really listening to the driver and looking out his or her windshield.
KB: How do you feel about poetry in the age of social media?
LH: Philosopher Marshal McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." I believe this is true. Therefore, if someone, even a really lovely and talented someone with good intentions, posts his or her poem(s) on Facebook, Twitter, or some other social media platform, that person is essentially tossing their work into a soup of selfies, food pics, and Justin Bieber memes. Personally, that is not where I want my poetry to live. Now, posting a link to an online magazine is different than posting or inserting one's actual poems into a status update. I don't place online journals in the social media category, primarily because any online journal worth its salt utilizes an editorial selection process of its own terms. Also, online journals (at least from what I've seen) typically do not have open comment boxes where degenerates can post heinous insults. Can you imagine? "OMG, I can't believe this jackass wrote a fucking sestina. What is he, a fucking troubadour? What an asshat."
To conclude, "publishing" a poem on Facebook—a poem that you actually labored over, cared for, and raised to maturity—is similar to a chef creating a new delicacy for his brasserie, topping the plate with saffron, and then throwing it at the first patron who walks through the door. "Do you like it? Do you like it? Please like it."
KB: Your book, The Finding, was recently published through Orange Monkey Publishing. I understand that the poems are about a town called Arcata. Please describe the creation of The Finding. How many years did you work on the series? What was your process?
LH: As I mentioned earlier, my poems and stories usually start when a certain kind of peculiar voice or attitude takes shape in my head. The narrator that speaks in The Finding is not me—rather, she is someone who happens to know a lot about my fears and obsessions. I was interested in how this voice would say things about Arcata that weren't based on fact, but were said in such a convincing way that others might believe her. "You owe reality nothing," writes Richard Hugo in The Triggering Town, "and the truth about your feelings everything." Arcata was for me a triggering town.
Though we did go out on some spectacular adventures along the ragged, tree-lined cliffs that jutted over the steel-grey ocean, my husband and I were also indoors a great deal because of the rain. I felt like I could only catch glimpses of the actual town and its inhabitants. Though the glimpses were blurry around the edges, I could tell that Arcatans were mostly uneasy, mostly searching. A lot of homeless veterans, newly freed men bussed in from central California prisons, and young transients looking for life different from whatever life they left. A lot of skinny dogs and cats living on the streets with their young masters. And of course, professors and chiropractors and bank tellers, too. Everyone was sort of searching and pacing when not running under an eave to keep dry.
I suppose, looking back, I wanted to explore how the ways in which a person views his or her environment can be analogous to how that person feels about him or herself. Sometimes I think that The Finding and my first chapbook Desert with a Cabin View are critiques of the way we humans (myself included) tend to externalize our problems. But I am free to change my mind about that.
KB: In your comments in FRiGG your wrote: "Arcata started out as someone's good idea. Ideas are like children; we create them and we want the best for them, but they do what they want to do". What did Arcata do that it wanted to do? In the writing of Arcata did it become an animal with its own volition?
LH: I can't be exactly sure what I was trying to express in this comment, being that I wrote it over five years ago (and I can barely remember what happened yesterday). Perhaps the "someone" in this statement is me: Arcata was my "good idea" and my child and she went on and did things I didn't expect. Or, I was lamenting over the way that towns can disappoint us once we get to know them. Probably the latter now that I really think about it. Arcata was once a lumber town before the logging bust in 1955, and before that, it was a re-provisioning center for the Klamath gold mines. Dig a little deeper into the town's history and you will find the indigenous Wiyot people who lived peacefully in Humboldt Bay. They were among the last natives in California to come into contact with whites. In 1860, a group of white miners, ranchers, and farmers slaughtered 80-200 women, children, infants, and elders with hatchets, knives, and guns. This incredibly violent and tragic history somehow didn't alter Arcata's reputation for being an uber groovy and peaceful locale.
KB: You seem to write primarily persona poems. How do you feel about persona poems? What is your take on confessional poems?
LH: To put it plainly, in a country where people still can't wrap their minds around same sex marriage and racial equality, and where people shoot each other over inherent differences and gross misunderstandings, it is the poet's job to inhabit as many perspectives as possible, including those that may seem to us shortsighted, irrational, confused, or otherwise flawed. Inhabiting first starts with deep listening and deep listening starts with setting aside one's own evaluative judgments. I believe that there are a few poets who have done that really well: Ai is one of them.
A few more thoughts on persona poems:
Persona poems can tap into a collective conscious and thereby speak the minds of hundreds, maybe even thousands of people.
It might be true that a persona poem allows a poet to hide a little. However, we humans have many selves and the persona we choose is often just one of our selves coming out to play.
Writing a persona poem is like having a lucid dream: You are in control of some of the moves you make, but at any point you could turn into a Viking, a prisoner, your neighbor, or a dolphin, and forget yourself almost completely.
Confessional poems and persona poems can be one in the same. I confess some of my darkest, strangest, boldest, and most deeply hidden thoughts and feelings through persona poems because I can say, "Oh, this person isn't me." It's like when a superhero wears a thin black mask around his or her eyes and suddenly civilians enter into an agreement in which they pretend not to know who the superhero is. But everyone does know—and the superhero goes around doing things he or she wouldn't do without the little mask.
LH: Do you have any more books or chapbooks on the way or projects in the making?
Yes, I do. I have two full-length manuscripts in the queue—Eyelets Under Sun (formerly Poem for Joshua Tree) and THESE FRIENDS THESE ROOMS. Eyelets Under Sun is almost entirely made up of persona poems and includes three sets of serial poems. I am currently working on a new manuscript that is entirely persona poems and will function as a novel in verse. The subject matter is pretty dark—the narrative is very loosely based on an amalgamation of actual events that took place in desert city of Twenty Nine Palms, which is home to one of our nation's largest military training areas in regards to land mass. In addition, Jonathan and I have some exciting things happening with Aperçus Quarterly that we will update y'all on very soon.
KB: Tell me about one lesser-known poet whom you'd like more people to know about.
LH: Well, I hate to call anyone lesser-known, but I know what you mean. I definitely think more people should know about Tim Krcmarik. He is a Lieutenant in the Austin, Texas Fire Department and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He's funny as hell, smart as hell, and writes like hell. He is a featured poet in our journal.
KB: Tell me about one poet who has greatly influenced you as a writer and thinker.
LH: Ai, Lia Purpura, Bukowski, Stafford, Neruda, Merwin, Kevin Clark, Lisa Coffman, Larry Levis, and Peter Sears. I know you asked me for one and I blatantly disobeyed. But the list started with about thirty people, so you know, I tried.
KB: Tell me something true about yourself/your history that influenced you as a writer.
Okay, I can do that. I have three autoimmune diseases and was basically incapacitated from 2010 into the better part of 2012. I spent thousands and thousands on tests and specialists. I have Celiac disease, Endometriosis, and Hashimoto's. My doctors have all told me to expect more autoimmune diseases, but I am very committed to a diet and exercise plan that is keeping me feeling well. I still deal with chronic pain though. It was insightful to see that when a person doesn't have a "visible" ailment, others don't believe the person is ill. That was a bitter pill to swallow. It took my family a while to come around, and, unfortunately, some immediate family members don't even remember that I was ever suffering to begin with.
I wrote more during that physically incapacitated time than any other because I was forced to be still, to examine suffering, to really inspect my fingers and toes and all the other small parts I'd once taken for granted. I had the realization that the isolation of the desert is similar to the isolation of illness: you have to really look around you and see what is there. Overturn the dusty, grey rock and you might find it's actually an agate with crystals inside. Some days I felt acutely aware of the glimmers in my life, such as when I'd have enough strength to walk to the mail box or make a sandwich. Other days I felt like I was a slack-jawed puppet in the Theatre of the Absurd. Most of the poems in THESE FRIENDS THESE ROOMS were written during this two-year span and I hope that my reverence for both the absurd and the precious comes through in poems such as WHAT ARE YOU MOST AFRAID OF?
WHAT ARE YOU MOST AFRAID OF?
Well I saw my ovaries once on a screen
there was a procedure & I saw them
first right then left
they were as separate from me
they swam & stung & never slept
A crowd of reporters & medical students
came into the room
Young rowdy interns put tubes in my veins
They ate their lunches over my head
some ketchup fell on my sternum
some breadcrumbs fell on my neck
a pickle slid into my armpit
then screams down the hall & everyone left
There I was naked on a metal plank
& here's the thing I walk around now fully clothed
still feeling naked on a metal plank
In the market at the bank family reunions
waiting tables changing diapers
always naked on a metal plank
Now listen I am not a child
You can tell me straight—
will I come out of this?
This poem was published in Badlands Literary Journal.