An Interview with Dennis Hinrichsen
-by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “On Purgatorio I”
responds to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. The epigraph, “Go with this man, see that you gird his waist
/ with a smooth reed; take care to bathe his face…” particularly informs the moment when the speaker’s
daughter “turned to me to wash my face and hair as only a child can.”
Can you tell us how this poem
reflects on the Purgatorio?
Dennis Hinrichsen: When I drafted this poem, I was living in
the Boston area working as a technical writer for a large engineering firm. My then wife and I had just had our first
and only child. At work, I edited all kinds of documents dealing essentially with the making of light, as well as dealing
with the waste products of that process. On the train rides in, I read Dante. So as I stood above the blueprints
of power plants—which seemed to me cathedrals of light—with engineers guiding me through the runs of piping, the
equipment, what happened here to the water, what a turbine was, etc., I couldn’t help but make all sorts of connections
to Dante’s journey toward Paradise, Virgil as guide, the filth and waste associated with the process, the massive scale
of it, the overwhelming light at the end. And so I made big plans to write many poems. In the end, I wrote a handful.
On Purgatorio I was one of them. I think what struck me about that passage in Dante was how unbelievably human and tender
the moment is, and how small against the enormity of the 34 cantos of the Inferno. The only other moment that does a
like thing for me is from Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” Anyway, my daughter may have been two or
so, I was taking a bath, she came in and scrubbed my back. I was thinking about Dante, the power plants; I was also
trying to work my way toward writing about a car accident I was in when I was in high school where four people died.
That pivot in the Inferno, Canto 34, toward Purgatory played a role as well—I fell in a like manner out of the car.
Anyway, I pushed the power plants aside, and let this other material collide. I drafted the poem and then worked on
it off and on for quite a while.
AMK: This is a prose poem, which, in some ways, is a form
without form. I’m wondering why you chose this form in this instance.
think the form chose me in the end. The poem at the onset was drafted in triads for obvious reasons. But they
didn’t work—I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the hybrid nature of the poem. The poem is
more narrative, more prosaic in its middle stages; more lyric in the opening. After awhile I gave up trying to find
a line or stanza identity for it and just typed it up as prose. I let it sit for a long time—years. Every
now and then I would go back to it—slowly I came to realize that the paragraph was the right shape for it. There
was something unadorned about the speaker’s voice, at least to me; it seemed more guileless or free of rhetoric, flat
in a way, than other poems I was writing at the time. Ideas and music that would not fit into lines. Thus I was
changed, thus it was finished. Very slow Zen.
AMK: Is writing a poem in response to another
work a form/structure in and of itself?
DH: Yes, I’d say so. What I respond
to when I read is the formal aspect of the work, even if the poem’s main thrust is emotion. The endless fascination
is not with channeling one’s autobiography or emotional life, but rather with finding a way to massage, shape, alter,
ultimately transform that material into art.
AMK: What advantages are there to writing under the
direct influence of others and how/why did you find yourself proceeding in this manner?
Many years ago I came across the phrase—“sphere of influence”—it may have been in an article or review
by David Shapiro in APR. The gist I took from that phrase is that we are always writing under the influence of others—reading
goes hand-in-hand with writing—and that we are always responding to this direct influence. It doesn’t always
reveal itself as in my poem. But it’s always there. At least it is for me. I read John Cage’s
Silences and have two or three projects. I read a poem that does something intriguing and I’m off trying to steal
AMK: I love the way “On Purgatorio I” moves from the description of what I believe
is a church lit by the sunset, to the moment with your daughter, and then to, again what I believe, is a car accident you
were in as a child.
First: I’m wondering why it is that this poem is so clearly situated within a narrative
landscape and, yet, that landscape remains elusive.
DH: I’m not sure this was a conscious
plan—at the time I was writing the poem I was interested in moving associatively in my work (still am I suspect).
I like poems that made quick leaps, huge leaps. I liked the tension between that improvisational impulse and the grounding
nature of the narrative scene. A jazz model as I understood it. I was listening to a lot of jazz at the time.
So it all made sense in that the melody line of the poem is clear—the idea of mercy to the washing to the memory of
the car accident. It really doesn’t matter where the first image is grounded—it can float because the second
moment is grounded, no mystery there. Then the poem can open up again. I admired poems (and other art) that did
this—it’s how I understood the idea that writing is an act of discovery.
Second: How did you come to the leaping nature of “On Purgatorio I,” which uses the ellipses and italics as mechanisms
or markers of time shifts in the poem?
DH: The leaping nature of the poem was a matter of
how my mind worked then—I was always looking for ways to push the poem, finding interesting things to connect to the
narrative line. The revising is just trying to find ways to manage all that. In this case it was how to connect
three separate moments. The ellipses and italics seemed like clear ways to suggest the passage of time (and to isolate
the first moment) and then to allow the speaker’s inner thoughts to shape the last moment.
“Message to Be Spoken into the Left Ear of God” is a poem packed with wonderful metaphors: “refraction making
me seem…a macrocephalic,” “branches scarring the dome of sky like the cracks in her skull,” the entire
8th and 9th stanzas, “cicadas…40,000 ticking Geigers,” and “I…once like a sea- / horse in
my mother’s womb,” to name a few.
The metaphor is one of the most natural tendencies of language and,
of course, of poetry in particular. But I don’t think the metaphors of “Message” are simply there
for the sake of being there; rather, they seem to forward an otherwise internalized, metaphysical discussion regarding the
difference between the conceived self and the actual self. Like looking in a mirror or listening to your voice on an
answering machine and for the first time realizing that the self you think of and the self you actually are not always
Without asking you to explain what this poem is “about,” are we on the right track here?
DH: I think so. The poem came out of an exercise I did with my lyric writing class. The
idea was holding your breath for some reason. Can’t remember where it came from. My take on the exercise
was to have this kid under water in the bath tub holding his breath and looking at the world through the water, seeing and
remembering things—and then muttering those things into God’s left ear (Lucifer’s side). So there
is a disconnect between the conceived self and actual self in the poem, leading to a rebirth, or in this case, the kid bursting
from water gasping for breath.
AMK: Do these metaphors act as a narrative element in the poem,
moving it forward, associatively linking images to moments in the life of the speaker?
Yes, the images tell a story about my early childhood. A memory scan that plays off the idea of drowning more or less.
I was horsing around here, trying to get a bunch of guitar players to get beyond all those bad songs they were writing about
their girlfriends or getting drunk.
AMK: “Message” reminds me a lot of Carolyn Forché’s
poetry…I think it’s, first, the honest voice that permeates the images. There’s a sense of a personality
behind this poem that doesn’t declare “What you’ve heard is true” (Forché, “The Colonel”)
but that tells the story in such a way that the reader feels that there is much that is left unsaid. I’m thinking
of scaffolding, how as a building is being constructed, it must be scaffolded in order for the workers to do their work.
But, once the building is finished, the scaffolding is removed.
Is this a good model for the way you “construct”
DH: I suspect it is in some respects. I work with the idea of the scaffolding
in my head—it’s often never in the poem—often much to the dismay of the members of my writing group.
So the poem rises along some other architectural principle with the scaffolding ghosting the scene. I like the idea
of something being unsaid—there’s something for the reader to discover. I’m okay with a little dissonance
or distortion, accessibility with a Dickinson slant. I’m okay with doing some work as a reader.
Speaking of elements of poetry, both of these poems (and, in fact, all of the poems of "Message to Be Spoken into the
Left Ear of God") are narratives docked in an incredibly imagistic, imaginative, and musical universe.
this the sign of a dedicated and principled approach to poetry or does music, imagination, narrative, and image come naturally
to you when you sit down to compose a poem?
DH: I’m not sure. When I look back,
it seems a matter of practice—finding ways to be interesting on the page. I wrote differently early—more
flat, less textured. As I continued writing, I got better at texture, at ramping up things in a way that interested
me (and hopefully others). Keat’s “Ode to a Nightengale” was the model there. I was always trying
to out-Keats Keats (with a heavy dose of Williams in there) in a way. It seems natural now. Almost too second
nature so that recently I’ve been trying to compress and find resonance in shorter poems. Poems that flatten some
of that music, some of those leaps, and cleave closer to the subject.
AMK: Being still fairly
new to poetry, drafting what I think of as a good poem roughly follows the seven stages of grief: First, there’s the
shocking realization that what I’ve written is nowhere near as good as I at first thought. Then come the stages
of denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and, if I’m lucky, hope.
Obviously, it’s not
all that bad, but this seems fairly universal for students of poetry. Seeing that you’ve published five collections
of poetry and publish regularly in well known journals…does this get any easier?
I’d say it does. It’s practice—keep at it long enough—keep pushing at the edges long enough—and
you get better. You make better choices about what to write about. The poems you put in a drawer for later are
better. The poems you keep are better. The learning curve is forever, but you can make progress pretty quickly
and find an audience for your work. I’m trying to learn how to play guitar right now—this is hard.
Much harder than learning how to write ever was. The learning curve is quite staggering, and humbling.
What are the dangers of this sort of success?
DH: I wish I had experienced some of the dangers.
What looks like success from the outside is something else in the inner precincts. It’s just work, keeping at
it, in a context that routinely takes me away from the work. At times it seems like someone else—someone less
busy—is writing the poems. The danger, or course, in the end, is not growing. Not trying new things.
Not trying to write poems you can’t possibly write. And, of course, thinking you can make a living from it.
Need to find something else to do to make the rent.
AMK: What are you working on these days?
DH: I have a new manuscript currently in a close-but-no-cigar orbit at a number of contests.
A mix of poems about the American Southwest, my father’s death. It has a kind of clarification via chaos core
to it. It’s called Kurosawa’s Dog.
AMK: Thank you.
My pleasure. Thanks so much for asking me to participate. I appreciate it.