Dennis Hinrichsen’s most recent works are Skin Music, co-winner of the 2014 Michael Waters Poetry Prize from Southern Indiana Review Press [forthcoming autumn 2015], and Electrocution, A Partial History, winner of the Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Prize from Map Literary: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art [forthcoming spring 2015]. His previous books include Rip-tooth (2010 Tampa Poetry Prize) and Kurosawa’s Dog (2008 FIELD Poetry Prize). An earlier work, Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, received the 1999 Akron Poetry Prize. New poems of his can be found in The Adroit Journal, Memorious, Michigan Quarterly and Radar as well as a number of recent anthologies including Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, New Poetry From the Midwest 2014 and Clash by Night (an anthology inspired by The Clash’s London Calling).
Geosi Gyasi: Could we begin with your poem, “Repairwork”. How did you come to write it?
Dennis Hinrichsen: “Repairwork” was one of those happy accidents that came out of my work on another poem, “Replica, Shroud of Turin.” A few years back, a full-size replica of the Shroud of Turin was on tour with a number of other crucifixion exhibits here in Lansing so how could I resist. A room full of faux sacred objects. A kind of Xerox of Christ, and a bunch of interesting questions about holiness and replication. So I dragged my family there, my parents who were visiting, and that was our outing for the day. It did not disappoint. The shroud was beautifully displayed and guarded by two gentlemen from the Knights of Columbus, complete with pot bellies and fur hats, sashes, swords. They reminded me of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton from The Honeymooners. But they were serious in their work and when one of them offered a brief history of the shroud, I listened. The fire, the repair. The OJ trial was happening or had just happened so I was intrigued by blood evidence and imagined a sewing circle of nuns who might have pricked their fingers and marred the cloth with their secular blood as they repaired a holiness.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you begin a poem?
Dennis Hinrichsen: Sometimes I court a poem as I’ve just described. This one intrigued me from the beginning so it was easy to follow through. More often though poems begin with a whisper of something. An idea, an image, a piece of language, a formal question. Sometimes poems come from a response to whatever I’m reading. Or as off-shoots to poems I’m currently working on. I always have a list of 5-10 poem ideas that I’m thinking out. I generally have 2-3 poems in some stages of drafting. They key is that invitation: something in the idea needs to intrigue me and lure me on. And then I’m hooked.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it often difficult beginning a poem?
Dennis Hinrichsen: Sometimes not hard at all. Once I have that critical mass–the materials–I abandon myself to them and just riff through a pretty messy and expansive draft. Then I start fine-tuning. I try to move from the incandescence of those first moves to something more laser-like in the finished piece where that tension between content and form hums like a tuned guitar string.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you write “Lion and Gin” out of a personal experience?
Dennis Hinrichsen: Yes, my father died not unexpectedly. He knew it was coming, he had it all planned, the obit was already written, the cremation already set up, the plot paid for, the service pushed to a later to-be-determined date. So there was nothing for the living to do. It was strange. He was dead and headed toward the oven in an eye-blink and we were home in a state of shock more or less. So my brother and I went back and had them bring the body out so we could metabolize it all, and rub his hair, and pat his chest, and crack a few jokes. I had read earlier, or read later I can’t recall, a poem about phase shifts so that was the seed idea–that move from solid to gas or vapor. So that got me to the ice in the close and the drinking. And then the opening just occurred to me as a way to add a level of grandeur to the poem as contrast–why not a lion?–what a boy might think of his father–so the portrait had a flawed tension to it.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you often end a poem?
Dennis Hinrichsen: I wait for an audible click when I read the poem out loud. One of my teachers, Marvin Bell, says somewhere, “At heart, poetic beauty is tautological: it defines its terms and then it exhausts them.” So that click occurs when I read the poem out loud and recognize that there is nothing left for me to do but move on to the next poem. Find new stuff, work to new exhaustion.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a poem you’re writing is not going well?
Dennis Hinrichsen: When I don’t hear that click, when I stumble when I read the poem aloud, when I’m not surprised by my choices, or excited about the direction of the poem. When that happens, I stop. Move onto something else. Come back later and start at another spot. Keep pushing forward. Drafting. Revising.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you know the most difficult poem you’ve ever written?
Dennis Hinrichsen: The new poems are harder and harder to write, therefore really interesting and challenging. I’ve been writing for a long time so there are subjects that I just don’t want to address any more because I’ve been there, done that, so finding new subjects can be tricky. I’m also not interested in writing poems that allow me to get by on my default skill sets. So I try to find things that I can’t possibly write and then rely on my process.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of published work?
Dennis Hinrichsen: Yes, very well. It was actually three poems that were faculty-selected and published in the school magazine. That was the start.
Geosi Gyasi: You received a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Iowa in 1977. Could you tell us some of your memories when you were a student at Iowa?
Dennis Hinrichsen: Ah, 1977. Nearly 40 years ago. What stands out is the intensity, the amazing brilliance of the other students, and that much of what I learned there still resonates in huge ways.
Geosi Gyasi: Which writers have most influenced your writing?
Dennis Hinrichsen: I consider myself immensely blessed that I came of age as a writer just as that great generation of writers born in 1926 were writing those amazing mid-career books that moved them from a formal tradition to free verse. So I was reared on The Book of Nightmares and Body Rags, Not This Pig and They Feed They Lion, Shall We Gather at the River, The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, The Moving Target and The Lice. An amazing starter kit. And then the poetry in translation that followed. Neruda, Vallejo, Parra, et al. And then finally back to William Carlos Williams. The source code is in there somewhere.
And then others followed: Charles Wright in huge ways, Jack Gilbert, Linda Gregg, Jorie Graham’s early work, Linda Gregerson’s The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, Sharon Olds.
I have to add film here too. I spent long hours going to movies [instead of doing my math homework] as an undergrad so all those great auteurs are there: Godard, Truffaut, Bresson, Antonioni, Buñuel, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky et al. American noir as well.
The composer/writer John Cage adds that part of me that is experimental. He visited campus when I was an undergraduate and I was able to volunteer with hundreds of others in the performance of Mureau. It was a pretty heady experience being inside the composition and occasionally standing next to him singing/making noise/channeling Thoreau as we moved around the auditorium. His approach/influence is always there in my process.
Geosi Gyasi: You had a 10-year stint as a technical writer in Boston. Could you define the label, “technical writer”?
Dennis Hinrichsen: I more or less functioned as the intermediary between brilliant engineers and a readable text. I was lucky in that I was not tethered to writing computer manuals. I worked initially for the Department of Transportation and then for an engineering firm so the content was much more interesting. I would read Dante on the Red Line and then write about these massive efforts to bring light to the world. It was also intriguing to write outside the permissions and protection of the academy. In fact, as a poet in that environment I had to cuss a lot and talk tough and keep that part of me on the down low. Otherwise I would have been doubly damned–gay on one hand in a macho world and incapable of understanding technical stuff on the other. But I’m grateful for it. It steeled me in ways that continued when I taught at a community college. You get pretty clear as to what drives your writing when permissions and support are at a minimum.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you talk about the inspiration behind your 2009 collection, Kurosawa’s Dog?
Dennis Hinrichsen: The death of my father was the focal point of that book. He was a smoker, had developed emphysema, so he had some pretty clear markers as to the endgame. I had always been interested in his life. He was first generation American, born on farm house table in Iowa, ultimately disinherited given his status as second son. He then ran away and joined the Navy by lying about his age, and then ended up working in the city for the same company for the rest of his life. So I was always intrigued by that arc, the city/rural tensions, his small victories, the angers and regrets. There was a lost childhood in there that brought up Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat, there was the mad man/three martini lunch persona, there was the death of a salesman. So a lot of things to explore.
Geosi Gyasi: What sets your poems apart from other writers?
Dennis Hinrichsen: I’m not sure anyone can answer that question about their own work. I try always to push vision and music, work line and stanza, syntax, cut narrative with speed. I try constantly to surprise myself, as Frost instructs, and the reader by paying attention to the cinematic rush of the work. I like edges and crashing things together. I’m not the only one doing these things.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you want readers to like your works?
Dennis Hinrichsen: I imagine all writers want readers to like their work. But that’s a tricky question. We all operate at some particular wavelength from absolute clarity on first read to impenetrable levels of opacity and density and everything in between. That’s the beauty of poetry. Readers too come with a variety of expectations and skill sets. That’s the rub. Some work requires more than readers are willing or able to give. Poetry is a compressed, nuanced, textured art form in a world of tweets and FB posts. What to do? I go back to an idea I read or heard from William Stafford: you write the poems you need to write, offer them to the world, and then wait to hear back.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you satisfied as a writer?
Dennis Hinrichsen: Overall, yes. I’m writing the poems I want to write, I’ve had great good fortune. There is so much left to discover.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most interesting aspect of writing?
Dennis Hinrichsen: The breaking through, the surprise, the moment when the poem settles into place. The joy of making something that informs it all.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you show your manuscripts to friends before they’re sent out to publishers?
Dennis Hinrichsen: I show individual poems to friends and work through drafts based on their feedback, but not the manuscripts. That is a process I do solo.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?
Dennis Hinrichsen: I never feel like not writing. I am always thinking about poems, seeking new ideas, thinking about interesting formal constraints. There are times, however, when I choose to not write. The idea hasn’t reached critical mass, so I let it stew, collect more material until a pressure builds and I can go to the blank page with some ideas and energy. But there is always something to work on, a new idea, or a poem still in draft stage. On one level it’s my work, my blue collar work, so I just keep at it.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your plans for the future?
Dennis Hinrichsen: I have two books, a chapbook and a full length book, coming out in 2015, so I’m at work on a new book as yet untitled. Hope to have it done by summer’s end.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you spend some time talking about your most recent works, Skin Music and Electrocution, A Partial History?
Dennis Hinrichsen: Skin Music, due out Fall 2015 from Southern Indiana Review Press, co-won the Michael Waters Poetry Award so thanks to Michael and everyone at SIR Press. Not sure what to say. It pushes my work forward by allowing a CNF impulse to influence some of the content and form choices. So there is an annotated film script in book, a memoir of sorts, a couple of prose/lyric hybrids. It’s kind of a midwest river town book with appearances from Paul Celan and John Cage, Jimmy Cagney, Caravaggio, Bucephalus, and St. Catherine of Siena among others.
Electrocution, A Partial History, due out earlier in Spring 2015, won the Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Prize from MAP: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art so thanks to the editors there. The chapbook contains mostly newer poems that continue that CNF/lyric hybrid impulse that opened up content for me and re-booted how I thought about formal choices. This all coincided with my leaving teaching and having ample amounts of time to explore and play. I feel like a kid again with a new toy in a new space and the poems are the result of that energy my delight generates.