‘I Don’t Know What I Just Wrote’; New ‘Short Talks’ Features Poet Matt Henriksen
Matt McGowan: This is Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast or the University of Arkansas. My name is Matt McGowan, and I’m a science writer here at the University. Today I’m talking to Matt Henriksen. Henriksen is a poet, teacher and alumnus of the University of Arkansas. He currently teaches English and writing at Hass Hall Academy in Springdale. For the past several years, Henriksen has also served as creative writing director for On the Row, a program of the Prison Story Project, in which he and others helped incarcerated men tell their stories through writing. Henriksen has published two books, Ordinary Son in 2010, and Absence of Knowing in 2016. Welcome, Matt, and thank you for being here.
Matt Henriksen: Great. Thanks for having me.
MM: So you finished your MFA here in 2004. You went to New York taught for a few years, and then you came back to Northwest Arkansas. And at some point after you returned, you got involved with the Prison Story Project. Can you tell us how that happened?
MH: Yeah, so I started working with Kathy McGregor at the Prison Story Project. My friend Katie Nichol, who’s a poet, who’s now moved on to Minneapolis, was their lead teacher, and I helped them make some chapbooks. At the time, I was binding books by hand and I helped them put together some of the women’s writing for a performance and we put it in these chapbooks, and Kathy decided that I just needed to go down there…
MM: Where was down there?
MH: Into the prison with the women. It was all women going down there, but she also had in mind to start working with men, and we don’t have a local men’s prison. We ended up going down to Pine Bluff. This was my first trip. And we took the stories that the woman had told us in the prison here in Fayetteville and performed it for an audience of over 200 men in Randall L. Williams Correctional Center in Pine Bluff. And a lot of the stories that these women were telling us were about abuse. And were about, you know, the relationships that they had, some dysfunctional… you know, just like everybody’s relationship with their fathers and their husbands and boyfriends and sons. And we were finding out that a lot of them were incarcerated, but that they were also often perpetrators of the drug use and violence that got these women into trouble in the first place. And these were the places they would be paroling out to, so we took the stories to the men, not knowing what was going to happen. And, you know, if they were going to laugh at it, or deny it, or ignore it, but what happened was they just kind of cracked open and shared their own stories. And of course, a lot of them had stories of abuse, too. And they also were really sorry, you know. So we took their stories back to the women and had a sort of dialogue going back and forth. And so that was the first thing I did with the project, was kind of working with the men at Randall Williams.
MM: Tell me a little bit more about your work with the Prison Story Project, subsequent to that experience and working with the death row inmates.
MH: Yeah, so that was actually part of the story. We were working with these men, and the warden from Varner, which is in Grady, Arkansas, which is a maximum facility prison but has within it Arkansas’s only Supermax, which is where 20-plus men are housed on Arkansas’s death row, and we got to work with 10 men for six months. We got to work with them in person. They had to be in separate cages. So we were put down a hallway where they were rolled up in cages with the visitation booths on the opposite side. We were kind of in the loading hallway, and we would walk up and down this very narrow corridor and teach our lessons and have them… And they would read their writing. They could hear each other. They couldn’t see each other, except for the guys that were next to them. And then we augmented the six visits that we did that way with correspondence that became weekly, if not more.
MM: So, how did the Prison Story Project change how you teach creative writing?
MH: Yeah. So in my very first visits, I was a guest, the woman’s prison, and I just kind of took notes to prepare myself for like, how to go down there and not be a tourist and how to go down there and not be, you know, a voyeur, or a guy telling them what to do just like anyone else, like, how do I do this? I knew the people. I was working with the right sort of sticky notes. And I was writing things down like, I’m lucky to be here. Honor the circle of people that I’m sitting in. I never asked them to give me anything that they’re not ready to give. And as they’re writing these things down, I’m like, why don’t I do this? My classroom, because my classroom was, here’s your assignment, I’ll help you. But that sort of challenging mentality that maybe I had when I was a grad student at the U of A was my model for successful teaching. And from the very beginning in the prison, I saw that there was another way to conduct my relationship with my students, because I certainly never saw myself as being… I never saw my students as being my subordinates, you know, I believe in like, equal learning, an exchange of ideas, back and forth. But as I started using our prompts and our generative workshop model, I started using that now in my high school classes, so as opposed to this is how you write a poem, let me show you how to fashion a piece of art in language. What’s the story you have to tell? Because there is no difference between looking an incarcerated person in the eye and asking them to tell their stories in their own words, and anybody else in the world, right? Everybody has their story. And everybody has a reason to let that story out. And certainly have a different audience, high school classroom and you have a certain degree of investment. The prisoners are going to be more invested, you know, the ones that everybody who comes to our program volunteers, right, and they really want something, and they really appreciate our presence and high school students, there’s a back and forth, you know, and also I’m their everyday teacher, I’m essentially also their prison guard. And so the the environment isn’t always the same, but largely the results of the writing has been so much better.
MM: You mentioned generative, the word generative, and that model. Can you elaborate on what that is, the generative workshop model?
MH: Generative workshop is basically the idea that you don’t come into a workshop to get work fixed. You come into a workshop to create. And it gets down into how the creative process works and what are the possibilities of poetry? And how can you adopt a method or even some sort of content, you know, much more in the inspiration sort of mode, which is very against what I learned. And it definitely speaks more… it speaks to the younger writers. The Writers in the School model was certainly a generative workshop model. Right? We weren’t critiquing the work, in the Prison Story Project, we don’t critique, we don’t edit the work. We don’t ask them to change anything. We just… we just kind of embrace the fact that they’ve created it, but you also see it like… you know, we have a local group called the Open Mouth Reading Series, and they host workshops. They bring in poets from all across the country. And most of those writers follow a generative workshop model where you’re practicing, right, you may be a practicing writer, you may have rules of work, but what matters is transforming your own process. So it can work with anybody, fourth graders, it can work with incarcerated people, it can work with guys on death row, create something new. But it also works with people who are improving their craft, gifted writers who maybe don’t want that sort of deep critique, or maybe who are writing from issues of identity, like from race or, you know, sexuality or transgender perspectives. And those things don’t need to be critiqued in a way… the new critic, reader-response model slashes what it doesn’t understand. So it’s, I think it’s a beautiful strategy for trying to add to the conversation.
MM: Sure. You mentioned one time, when we talked before that it didn’t involve rhyming, because rhyming made the poet think in a certain way, I guess not liberating or constrictive that way, if that’s the right word. You talked about getting the ideas flowing, and I was really interested in that. What can you say about that?
MH: Yeah, So, I mean, there’s different… the generative workshop model… there’s all sorts of different ways you can do it, and what we have and what we do, some of it’s a lot like the old WITS program, like when we go to the schools, we tell the kids not to rhyme because they think that’s what poetry is, and that’s constricting. We also tell them that they should try to use details, that they should try to use concrete language, they should try to describe imagery, you want to show me how you feel, do it in concrete… And so that’s, that’s kind of the generative part of what we do at the foundation, is teaching them specificity and concrete. And we also make sure that they know it’s okay to be weird. You know?
MM: What do you mean?
MH: So, and this happens… this happens with the little kids, but this happens in the prison too. They’re like, I don’t know what I just wrote. Right? And they’re… they’re cutting it off. Well, everything I’m writing has to make sense. Well, sometimes you write something, and it makes sense later. Or sometimes you write something that doesn’t make sense, because you’re exploring something in your… in the dark corners of your brain. You’re going back through your history, and you’re leaping from association to association, and then you land on something and all of a sudden, it’s like, oh, that’s why, because my life didn’t make sense, because that experience didn’t make sense, because I hadn’t thought of something like that before. And so, you know, everything… all the rules that, the quote rules that we give our writers are suggestions for them to liberate themselves, and sometimes they rhyme, you know, and sometimes they write abstract expression, and a lot of it’s not weird.
MM: Suggestions to liberate themselves. I like that a lot. I think mainly that speaks to something else I wanted to ask you. This idea of what’s underneath the surface. When we talked before, you said that when you sit down to write poetry, you try to tap into words that are “underneath the surface.” Is that what you mean?
MH: It is. And it’s just like working with, say those guys on death row who more than any of the other incarcerated people we’ve worked with have been resistant and had early on wanted to say what they had to say and what had been on their mind. Imagine spending two decades of your life 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, and somebody gives you a pen and a paper and a microphone. You’ve got a lot to say. And we didn’t want to do that with them because that’s not what we do. We wanted them to look a little bit where they had… working with incarcerated people and seen how they get so much out of not that first story but looking for that deeper story reminded me of what I’ve always tried to do as a writer but also showed me that like that conscious part of my brain as a “published poet” who would, you know, books and all that, that’s not what matters. It’s what I haven’t found yet. When my friend and mentor C.D. Wright responded to me when I told her via email about my first book being taken, she said in a very quick grammatical sentence, “That’s great – what’s next?” with a dash connecting those two clauses. And for me it has been like a really good thing to remember, like every time I finish a project, whether it be creative or be something with the Prison Story Project, and you can, you can embrace that accomplishment, but what an artist is doing is always looking for the next thing. And I think that’s what makes the work we get from our writers in the Prison Story Project so beautiful, is for a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve gone down there.
MM: Matt Henriksen, thank you for being here with us today. I really appreciate your time and look forward to talking to you more in the future.
MH: It was great to be here.
MM: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by local musician Ben Harris. For more information and additional podcasts, visit researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.