Traveling Poets Find Comfy Spot

By Roger Barrett

If you’ve been to a poetry reading at Nightbird Books, or bought a book of poetry at the Dickson Street Bookshop then you’ve probably met Matthew Henriksen. Matt and Katy Henriksen started the Burning Chair Readings to bring touring poets to Fayetteville.

Their readings have also presented readings from UA Fayetteville and Fort Smith students.

April is National Poetry Month, and on April 26 and 27, Matt has organized a massive reading to celebrate a new issue of his poetry chapbook “Cannibal.”

I asked Matt some questions about poetry and the readings …

Q: When did you start reading poetry and how has it affected you?

A: In junior high I was habitually late for class and had many lunchtime detentions. The school gave us the option of spending detention in the library, which I accepted. I got bored with the magazines and started looking at the poetry.

I already liked Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, and I got into his poetry first. Then I found William Blake, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. I liked poems that seemed to contain the entire universe in a single head, or so I thought. Maybe the poems allowed me to believe that I could dwell in the universe’s vastness through my own mind. With poetry, I have never been bored.

Since those detentions, I have been able to sit in the permanent detention hall of adulthood and manage to enjoy myself.

Q: Is there a specific poem that caused you to begin writing?

A: I hear people talk about the one poem or writer that made them poets. I can’t say it’s true for me. In seventh grade, I fell in love with Edgar Allen Poe’s “Alone” and read it the way some kids put a single punk song on repeat. But I can’t say that one poem made me want to be a poet.

Recently I heard someone answer “When did you decide to become a writer?” with “When do most people decide to stop writing?” I think that applies to this question.

I continually find new poems that make me write.

The last two books by Alice Notley, Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling, and the poems in Andrea Baker’s forthcoming Each Thing Unblurred Is Broken are full of such examples of poems that redefine poetry’s possibilities for me and push me to innovate in my own work, but it’s more a matter of being energized by most of what I read.

For me, poetry begins and ends as emotional utterance, so reading poetry is like going out into nature and being stunned beyond speech. There is so much to read, and so much worth rereading.

I agree with Jorge Luis Borges’ assertion that heaven must be a sort of library.

Q: Why do you write poetry and how has that changed through the years?

A: Why do I breathe? I can’t stop for very long unless I kill myself. Writing poetry is not even like eating, because sometimes I have to remind myself or force myself to eat. I enjoy eating, but breathing is pleasant, necessary, and automatic. I recently went nine months without writing a poem, and it was the darkest time of my life. I would equate it to spending nine months away from my daughter. Unendurable.

How has my breathing changed through the years?

I am more aware of its pleasantness and am increasingly grateful for the gift. I recognize both breathing and writing.

Q: Who is your favorite poet?

A: William Blake.

Q: Is there a poet you regularly suggest to new readers? Who do you suggest to students?

A: When people who haven’t read poetry ask for suggestions at the Dickson Street Bookshop I look at their clothes. Then I tell most of them to try Rainer Maria Rilke. If you haven’t read much poetry and do not like Rilke you might as well not bother with poetry at all. But if the person is wearing arty clothes or looks like last night was spent sleeping in a ditch I suggest Arthur Rimbaud. If you dress like a slob and go to punk shows and eat falafel Rimbaud will most likely get you excited about language (the John Ashbery translation of Illuminations is ideal).

For my students, I try to give suggestions that will forward the student’s progress and give them pleasure.

For example, a few years ago I introduced a student to Mary Oliver, though I absolutely despise Oliver’s poetry. But Oliver’s poetry has become integral with the student’s life.

A few poets I love that students tend to like include Alice Notley, Frank Stanford, Fanny Howe, Jack Spicer, Mina Loy, and H.D.

Q: Let’s talk about the readings on April 26 and 27. Who’s reading and what’s happening?

A: We are celebrating the release of two Fayetteville-based hand-bound poetry journals that draw from and reach an audience beyond Arkansas, though we both publish quite a few Arkansas poets.

C. Violet Eaton edits Bestoned and released their first issue a few months ago.
I founded Cannibal with Katy Henriksen when we lived in Brooklyn and published five issues before taking a hiatus after our daughter was born.

We are back now with a sixth issue.

The magazines both gravitate toward experimental work, sometimes wildly experimental work, though I would like to add that the poetry is often image-driven and musical.

I don’t want people to think it’s going to be conceptual or obtuse. Even someone unfamiliar with poetry could plop down and just listen to the sounds and let the words work their magic.

We have 21 poets reading over two days.

Eight of the readers currently live or live part-time in Northwest Arkansas, and the other 13 come from all over the country. We have two headliners, though they would both eschew the title.

Anselm Berrigan has lived his whole life in New York City, formerly directed the poetry project, has many books on some of my favorite presses. Graham Foust teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Denver University and has published some of my favorite books of the last decade.

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