Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1948, Barbara Henning has lived in New York City since 1983 except for a year in Mysore, India and a few years in Tucson. She has published three novels, seven collections of poetry and several limited art/poetry pamphlets. In the 1990s, Barbara edited Long News in the Short Century: A Journal of Writing and Art. As a long-time yoga practitioner, she brings this knowledge and discipline to her writing and her teaching at Naropa University, writers.com and Long Island University in Brooklyn, where she is Professor Emerita. (biography as printed on A Swift Passage)
With a new book, A Swift Passage, and a busy teaching schedule we were lucky enough to secure a short interview with Barbara Henning.
1. You introduce in A Swift Passage the idea of “sequential quilting”; would you please explain how this idea came about?
Well I began with a small collection of short-shorts, some narrative, and they were initially related to each other simply because they evolved out of my experience, thinking and living during a single period of time. I liked my initial stories, almost too much; they worked too well, were too tight, and I wanted the poems to know/speak differently. I decided to interrupt the prose by extracting words from one piece and then weaving them into the next story-poem in the sequence and to continue this pattern throughout the sequence. The process reminded me of quilting. When I was a girl my mother taught me how to make a quilt by cutting out little circles of cloth from scraps of old discarded clothing. Then I would sew around the edges of the circle, pull the thread to make a smaller circle inside a circle, then we would sew them together, making a pattern with the designs and colors, a pattern that would repeat and transform as we added to it. With my poems, I was dropping the words into the middle of another narrative, disrupting the logic and twisting the direction slightly. So there was a pattern evolving, a pattern of words and a pattern of interruptions. This is sounding more and more complicated. Actually, for me it was an enjoyable process, watching the poem or story emerge.
2. Were there any results of this method which stood out or surprised you?
Shane I remember being frequently surprised, but once I work the words into the prose, they disappear into the flow of consciousness and another level of revising. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific in response to this question.
3. Has exploration and experimentation always been a part of your writing and writing process?
Well, I have always enjoyed spontaneous writing and later re-writing; and re-writing is experimental in that in the process we change language, thought and knowledge. To experiment is to discover something new. In the late 80’s, I started researching and collaging text into poems and soon after experimenting with OULIPO constraints. I also have worked on some collaborations with the artist Miranda Maher; Miranda is a conceptual artist and I learned quite a lot from her projects and approach to working with ideas and material. My book, My Autobiography started with Miranda asking me if I would clip the corners off of 999 of my books and then write a line about each book. Instead I found a way to extract a line from each book, along with a procedure for finding the next line in the next book. It was a long process but so much fun and I ended up writing 72 sonnets with a long index, and only a few of those lines came originally from my mind. Miranda and I also edited a journal that lived for five issues, Long News in the Short Century. We worked together finding art and writing
A similar project was used for “The Dinner,” a novella of 18 one page chapters, included in A Swift Passage. When preparing to write The Dinner, I went to a group of books I had acquired in the previous year or so, and I extracted phrases from each book (with a particular process) and then allowed these phrases to help me invent the story.
4. There felt a theme of recollection in this collection; from the recording of events in real-time to blatant moments of peering backwards—both in the poetry and the short stories. And in ‘May 22, 2011’ you write the line: “Do I remember or do I remember remembering?” Is the recollection, and this idea of remembering, a result of introspection or is there something else at play?
Introspection–examining one’s way of thinking. Yes, I suppose I record what I’m thinking, and sometimes my thinking takes off in a different direction by some rhythm or idea; then when I rewrite or work with the text I am examining one way of thinking. This could be a part of the voice that emerges in the poems. I value those moments when I am not tugged along by my thought but instead a witness to it. Perhaps introspection is a step away from deep meditation. To be aware of what you are thinking and/or writing.