Sunday Jul 14

HenningSara Sara Henning is the author of the full-length collection of poetry A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013), as well as the chapbooks Garden Effigies (Dancing Girl Press, forthcoming) and To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, the Greensboro Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Green Mountains Review. Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for the South Dakota Review.


Sara Henning interview with Meg Tuite

WOW! These three stories, “Marilyn,” “My Grandfather’s Photographs,” and “April Pastoral With Lapsed Engine and Love From Minnesota,” are powerful scenes, mesmerizing language and a combination that blasts these into the ‘unforgettable’ territory. Can you tell me what the inspiration was for these stories? And are they going to be part of a collection?

Thank you for your kind words, Meg! I’m happy to talk a bit about these stories, which are part of my dissertation project—currently titled What Women Won’t Tell You—a hybrid meditation on alcoholism, closeting, multi-generational abuse, and dementia. One of these stories, “Marilyn,” makes a cameo in my forthcoming Dancing Girl Press chapbook, due out in spring of next year.  

I started writing the project shortly after my grandfather died from complications from Korsakoff’s Dementia in 2011. Growing up without my father, my grandfather became the center of my world: all of my mannerisms and bookishness came from spending summer vacations at his knee, reading the Wall Street Journal, daydreaming through lesson after lesson about the stock market, and watching him mix flawless Beefeater martinis in glasses chilled in the freezer. Of course, there were drunken rages, disrupted holidays, and the way my mother, in the manner of many adult children of alcoholics, countered his behavior with forcefulness or ambivalence. His death, under its circumstances, almost ruined me. Later, his legacy and lineage became all that I could write about for a long time.

Therefore, I feel comfortable saying that “Marilyn” and “My Grandfather’s Photographs” are meditations based to varying degrees on my mother and my grandfather.

On quite a different note, “April Pastoral . . .” was written after driving through southern Minnesota frozen prairie last spring on my way home from a reading in St. Paul. I was thinking about flatness—perhaps feeling slightly agoraphobic, the landscape so different than the north Georgia forest where I was raised—and all I could think about was how the ocean, like prairie, is deceptively flat—I mean, think of Willa Cather’s descriptions of the Great Plains. Then there was this moment vacillating between the red light of the wind turbines and the sun razing a darkening sky where I thought of William Tecumseh Sherman, the way he spared Savannah—my hometown before my mother and I moved back to where her parents were—out of friendship with onetime U.S. Senator Joshua Hill, while the rest of Georgia burned. I thought of what it would have been like had he burned it—Savannah, I mean—how the town would have flamed around an ocean tranquilly reflecting firelight. I thought of the sunset in front of me, how the landscape, still covered in late April frost, was absorbing and reflecting light, and how this entire process must be informed, yet nonplussed, by the threat of a dangerous and overwhelming beauty.

Here are some quotes from these three beauties:

“Once my mother locked me with her in the bathroom, swallowed a whole bottle of Quaaludes. When my grandmother usurped the lock with a paper clip, she found me on the plush carpet next to her, pretending to dream.”

“And then a hole, not the renegade daughter who, after years of extradition, still supernovas for no one.”

“I still believe she, which she, will wake up thinking, anything can be clutched into darkness.”

“Journals, plunging to the carpet like the fifty sheep that flung their bodies from a cliff in Turkey last year.”

“To find a journal is one thing—a moment of graphite, pencil’s cruel liaison with paper. A moment of leather warming in my mother’s hand.”

“I’m a Southern girl, a sea girl, girl comfortable with beach scarp and berm crest, a heart-level capitulation with longshore trough.”

There’s no question I’ll be buying your collection of poetry and your chapbook!
Was poetry your first love as a genre?

You know, poetry has always been my first love, though my love affair with fiction (specifically flash fiction) is fervent and becoming not so secretive. My MFA from George Mason University is in the study and craft of poetry, and it has been within the last year that I found myself craving syuzhet, my usual dedication to lineation or pulsing prose poem feeling more like a pea coat drawn too tightly over décolletage. Not that this is anything new, of course. I enjoy hybrid forms very much—Kimiko Hahn, Anne Carson, my own beloved mentor, Lee Ann Roripaugh—is it a coincidence these are women poets breaking boundaries and into themselves? I joke, but not entirely—for I steal away to worship at the poetic altars of Robert Hass and Charles Wright regularly. Was reading Wright’s Negative Blue in college the first time I really became aware of fabula palpitating over lines and crash-landing into anterior notions of space? I believe this is so, but I come to all great things later than I should.

Brief prose as exhibition of fabula also pierces me—I’m thinking specifically of Lydia Davis and Franz Kafka, but there are too many others to name. I presented on a pedagogy panel at AWP 2014 titled Brief, Sudden, Flash, and Very Short Prose, and the panel occurred during a time when I was exploring my fervor for flash in the classroom, drawing many examples from the Rose Metal Press Field Guides—what beauties! I have long joked that I am a genre-bender and that my goal all along was to manifest a very rousing (arousing?) literary androgyny.  

You are truly exquisite. I’m actually using Rose Metal Press Guide to Flash Fiction as part of my curriculum and have been for a while. I have read all of them and love that press!
Who or what were the most important influences in your work?

I keep my little black book of loves—the ones that stay in my existential awareness long after our last encounter. D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, James Baldwin, Charles Wright, Robert Hass, Anne Carson, Jeanette Winterson, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva are usual suspects. Also, I have been known to sleep with Li-Young Lee and Mark Doty’s work slipped under my pillow.  

I also get mentally turned on by science. I started college as a Genetics major wanting to take an MD-PhD in the study of Virology, and later, after switching my exclusive focus to English (I was a double major), getting an MFA, and completing the rest of my expired science pre-requisites—receiving dueling acceptances to nursing school and my current PhD program in Literature within the same year. I attribute my obsession with the human body to the body’s ornate physiology—what I’ll call its functional negative capability. When I look at the human body, I feel like I am Leonardo DaVinci drawing his Vitruvian Man, crossing out any evidence of the golden ratio, and adding wings. Do I have to mention that I am also a closet art history buff? Seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre three summers ago was worth battling the horde of people trying to selfie bomb Facebook. In fact, I have been admiring Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery and Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Object and Intimacy almost obsessively—essays that blur the boundaries of revelatory criticism and scintillating literary monograph.

I thought I’d read everything that Winterson wrote, but now have another one to add, thanks to you.
What is your definition of CNF as compared with fiction? I am always interested to find out what writers who delve as deep as you do feel about it. I find it can be an extremely gray area, because one family member can be in the same room, on the same couch and remember everything differently. It’s fascinating.

It is fascinating! I am going to preface my answer to this very important question with one stipulation: many people dedicate their lives to the study of CNF and are ensconced on a daily basis with questions of truth, and I am not one of them. As a poet who does not claim fiction or CNF as her predominant genre, and has only two graduate-level fiction classes in her arsenal of formal prose study, I have come to understand the practice of CNF as a practice of arriving at truth, getting as close to truth as one can get. Fiction, to me, dwells in the realm of half-truth, associative truth, the truth of a conundrum dwelling among varying notions of fabrication. I have always considered fiction to be the life of the mind navigating the truth beyond the real. I call the stories appearing here “fiction” because the truth that informs them bevels on a gradient, sliding between the familial, the personal, and the cultural.

And you bring up a salient point: because of the gradient-nature of truth, there is a lot of “gray area” that depends on perspective. I am not going to claim that I have anything approaching perfect recall or that I am immune to bias or emotion—to do so would be engaging in rhetorical faux pas. It would be flawed to view the voices in the stories as anything but one variation of truth—the truth that bears witness to a blissfully democratizing pain.

That has to be the best answer I’ve ever received from that question. WOW! YES, I say, YES!
How much time to you put in as the managing editor of The South Dakota Review each week? And you are also a doctoral student? Do you feel that these two separate duties as editor and student enhance your writing or take away from it?

This is the third year that I have the pleasuring of serving the South Dakota Review in a managerial role, and my fourth year working on the journal. As you mention, I am also a fourth-year doctoral student studying for comprehensive exams and dissertating.

My experience of editorship is that of crests and troughs rather than a fixed continuity. Sometimes, when I am laying out an issue of the journal, I am in the office for hours and hours on end. When we are between issues and I am spending my time liaisoning with my Editor-in-Chief, overseeing the work of my Circulations Manager, general readers, and interns, my hours are more varied. During the annual AWP conference, the journal becomes my singular focus.  

Though it has required a significant time commitment over the years, I believe that experiencing editorship has changed my relationship with writing, and the world of writing, in a substantial way. Being able to watch work move from the slush pile, through genre editors, through production and onto the page is like watching a birth of sorts, and it has made me empathetic, and ultimately patient, when working with editors handling my work. I now prepare a submission in a way that I would appreciate it being prepared for me, and I have the opportunity to witness the scope of the literary scene—what is being written, what is being accepted, and by whom—which is very helpful when I am sending my own work out into the world.

What I have mentioned thus far hopefully reflects the merit of choosing to serve as an editor, but more importantly, I feel like as writers, we have a duty to give back to the community. I do not run a reading series, nor do I run a book or chapbook press—activities that I hope to engage in when I am no longer in school. I have viewed my work for the journal these years as my way to serve the writing community, and I consider it to be a sacred act.

I know a lot of writers that are struggling and weighing the worth of getting an MFA versus the cost and time, especially when these writers have already published collections and have been published in many literary journals. What would you say to one of them if they asked you about your experience and how you see it?

Many have written about the institutionalization of creative writing, have damned it as a corporate entity, a harbor of reverse-bohemianism, or a catalyst for its ever-dwindling readership. There are legitimate arguments. Getting an MFA does not insure publication, and post-MFA life can be a desolate string of perilous employment and ennui if not kept in check. If someone is publishing without an MFA, then he or she is producing quality work and successfully navigating the often gale-riven waters of the literary market. Surely, these skill-sets can be gleaned outside of ivory tower, and there are a number of notable writers currently publishing in this vain whose work I admire very much.

For me, and I suspect there are others sharing my opinion, working on an MFA felt like receiving a passport to the literary world. I developed an understanding of the tripartite role of the writer that is so hard to bevel between: (a) the act of writing, (b) the handling of the administrative role of circulating work among journals and prizes, and (c) the promotion of work by networking, giving readings, and attending conferences. I was graced with the chance to work with amazing poets, such as Eric Pankey and Susan Tichy, who nurtured me during a time when I was struggling to find my literary identity. I was given the opportunity to study literature in ways more rigorous than my previous scholastic experience.

I think that earning an MFA can be very valuable, if one is willing to understand the process for what it is: an opportunity and not a guarantee; a studio experience that carves out hallowed time for the development and practice of writing skills; and a terminal degree currently challenged by the advent of the creative doctorate, a not-so-recent development that has wide-reaching implications for those expecting to thrive on the academic job market on any practical level.

Thank you for that indepth answer. I believe that will help many writers who are still hovering over the crossroad of whether to make that commitment or not.
Who are you reading at this time?

I just finished Jake Adam York’s Abide, which is one of the best collections of poetry I have read in a long time. I am also almost finished with Pam Houston’s brilliant, funny and heartbreaking Contents May Have Shifted. I am staring longingly at Rae Armentrout’s Just Saying, and I have a hot date with Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text in the very near future.

Do you have a website where people can go to read what you’ve published and to buy your collections?

I do! Here is my electronic home, where links to my books, interviews, events, and literary news abound.

Thank you so much, Sara, for sending Connotation Press, some of your pure brilliance!
Very exciting work.

The need for thanks is all mine, Meg—for the invigorating conversation, for your support, and for your willingness to give my stories a home in your beautiful journal!


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