Interview with Gretchen E. Henderson

“A Quest of Questions” with Gretchen E. Henderson

by Joe Ponepinto

Much of Gretchen E. Henderson’s writing, whether fiction, poetry or nonfiction, is GretchenHenderson speaking-1concerned with art. Her books and essays are among the few that successfully marry writing and its cousins—painting, sculpture, music and others—communicating an understanding of each discipline that emanates from an elemental, seemingly organic beginning, but which is in fact the product of years of cross-genre studies that include residencies at artists’ colonies and periods of teaching at colleges and universities around the country. She holds degrees from Princeton University (BA), Columbia University (MFA), and the University of Missouri (PhD), as well as a Preparatory Certificate in Voice from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Henderson has been published in many of the most prestigious literary journals in the country. She has published four books, the latest of which, The House Enters the Street (Starcherone Books) was the runner-up for the AWP Award Series in the Novel. Other titles include On Marvellous Things Heard (Green Lantern Press), and a poetry chapbook on cartographic history, Wreckage: By Land & By Sea (Dancing Girl Press).

galerieHer first novel, Galerie de Difformité (&NOW Books), which was the winner of the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Prize, and a Nobbie Best Book of 2011, illustrates her ongoing interest in an aspect of art that typically escapes the public—the art world’s infatuation with the non-beautiful, as well as the beautiful. I phrase it this way because, as is evident from this work and its accompanying web site (difformite.wordpress.com), the interest lies not in (as some would say) ugliness, but in difference, particularly in deformed or deconstructed forms. Henderson, who is referred to as “The Undertaker” of the web site, encourages visitors to partake in efforts to continue the deformations while questioning our relationship with deformity.

houseentersthestreet2This interest in art and the deformed also appears throughout The House Enters the Street, her second novel, a compendium of chapters, stories, music and theater, connected somewhat ethereally on a central character who suffered the loss of several fingers in a fire, and had them replaced with toes. Far from dwelling on this potential grotesquerie, however, the book, like Henderson’s other works, draws beauty from deformity and difference.

Henderson is a native of San Francisco. She is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at MIT and metaLAB Fellow at Harvard. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and their shepherd mutt.

This interview was conducted via several email exchanges over a period of two months.

JP: There is a note in the Acknowledgments in The House Enters the Street that says the novel might have been abandoned had it not been selected as runner-up in the 2005 AWP Award Series in the Novel. Why did you consider giving up on such a spectacular work?

onmarvellousthingsheard-coverGH: You’re too kind. There are many reasons to abandon a manuscript, logistical or otherwise, if the project is a “productive failure.” To abandon a project isn’t necessarily giving up, rather moving on to apply what has been learned to something else. Many writers never publish their first novel, so it becomes part of a larger process, rather than product. (In traditions like sand paintings and mandalas, ephemerality is built into the very form—or a literary analogy might be Penelope’s nightly unweaving of her shroud.) The House Enters the Street was my first novel (written) but ended up my third book (published). I couldn’t have written the “first” books, Galerie de Difformité and On Marvellous Things Heard, without having written The House Enters the Street. Along the way, the manuscript taught me many things about writing, as it received a number of recognitions but many more rejections, often very nice while boiling down its lack of marketability. Readers tended to gravitate toward the novel’s parts rather than its whole, thinking I should stick with this or that storyline, or character or style, rather than embrace their totality. As I tried to rewrite along narrative-minded preferences, the novel’s life slowly died. The enterprise rested not only on the integrity of each part but the networks that wove them together, as if the novel were an echochamber holding a beating heart. After a few years of re-writing, I went back to the draft that had resonated for me (the one to which you referred, which had been the runner-up for the AWP Award) and made minimal changes and sent it to a few last presses, including Starcherone Books. It seemed a small wonder that the novel finally was published, even though I still think of The House Enters the Street as a “productive failure.” (Then again, I usually find productive failures more interesting than successes.) Little encouragements, like the nod from AWP and other contests, or publications of excerpts in literary journals, or the random person coming up after a reading to connect—can be all that’s needed for a writer to believe that she should keep writing. Life has too many other options and priorities. Many of the writers in my M.F.A. program seemed to want to be writers from in utero, but I came to writing later and via a detouring path, certainly not destined, more of a detour. It was a happy accident, to be sure, but I don’t flatter myself to think that anyone is itching to read my work. Geographic moves mean I throw away a lot—partly because papers breed quickly in small spaces. Even if some things get tossed or lost, it’s important to make room for whatever the future might bring. Process matters more to me than product.

JP: You also call this a “modulating manuscript.” What do you mean by that?

GH: The House Enters the Street unfolds along lines of modulation, in a musical sense, akin to composition through key signatures. Each storyline in the novel aligns with a different note from the diatonic scale—in other words, simply, what children learn to play or sing as do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do. Rather than use those modern syllables, I adopted the original Latin phrases (“UT queant laxis REsonare fibris, MIra gestorum FAmuli tuorum, SOLve polluti LAbii reatum, Sancte Iohannes”). There’s a strangeness akin to incantation, yet a practical logic. If you look at the image of the Guidonian hand tipped-in to the published book, you can see that the syllables (ut, re, mi, etc.) were written on knuckles and palms of hands to teach medieval choristers to sing, a method of sight-singing. (The translation that I include in the novel is loose, since my intention isn’t to have it read literally, just like you can’t use this novel as notation to perform music—although anyone is more than welcome to try!). Jumping forward a few centuries, thinking in terms of narrative architecture: in modulation, you can start in one key and find leading tones and chord progressions that trend toward other keys. Each almost has a different timber and character. It’s wild for the ear to hear; while listening, something shifts that resonates through the body, even if barely noticeable. Aural tensions veer toward resolution, which can be composed to lead back to the “home” key. (An ancient notion of the Music of the Spheres claimed that tuning instruments could tune larger planetary motions, even the infinitesimal movements of our souls, as if all coordinated.) Musical composition is inherently interdisciplinary, tied to mathematics and physics, through acoustics. The whole universe starts to open up from there. It’s a tantalizing rabbithole for a writer to chase down, landing in often-mysterious lands that force a kind of focus through a range of looking glasses. Many angles of music appeal as models for literature, even loosely appropriated (a process that I describe in On Marvellous Things Heard). As the early stories in The House Enters the Street seemed to modulate in and out of one another, the structure suggested itself. Resonances also emerged through shared terminology: between the “house” of the novel’s title and the “home” key toward which its storylines trend, filled with “keys” (both musical signatures, as well as openers of locks), along with “temperaments” that refer to tuning systems and characteristics of characters. The House Enters the Street attempts to run the gamut (in the musical sense).

JP: I am interested in the genesis of The House Enters the Street. As is noted, the title comes from the painting by Umberto Boccioni. But was this the spark that set off the chapters and plotlines that became the novel, or did Boccioni’s work seem to encapsulate what you were already working on at the time?

GH: Boccioni’s painting wasn’t the catalyst, but it was an organizing element from very early stages. If memory serves, I learned of the painting in late 2000, in my first semester of graduate school. Something clicked, since I had been searching for a structure to house my differing story-starts that seemed to connect at their edges and through echoes, building that echochamber. The artifice of linearity didn’t make sense to me, given personal experiences that had forced me to literally reimagine my life. Graduate school at that point was a detour. I could only write a little each day and relied on voice-activated software, which indirectly reminded of the oral origins of literature. The malleability and plasticity of language made more sense than anything fixed. As I learned adaptive strategies of living and moving, I couldn’t help but see alternatives to other categories, like genres, wanting to blow open anything reductive. I spent a lot of time walking in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reflecting on forms, implied narratives and spatial poetics, artistic appropriations of music, paradoxes like movement in stillness, and noise in silence. The Boccioni painting wasn’t there—in fact, I didn’t see it in person for almost 4 years, when it came to the Guggenheim—inspired instead by a reproduction in a library book. Early drafts of The House Enters the Street included a lot of images, given questions that I had about interconnections between textual, visual, and oral literacies. Much of the feedback that I got was to strip out the images and make the language do the work, to keep the novel in a genre box. I didn’t keep the novel packaged, but did strip out most of the images. The House Enters the Street ended up keeping many of the original stories, at least echoes of them, while other storylines modulated out, while I searched for a set of characters and cadences that interwove as a web. (A storyline about codebreaking in World War II went by the wayside… so did a storyline set in colonial East Africa… a faux opera… etc.) The “Intermission” (which reimagines the fable of Stone Soup as a play) was written originally as a short story. The end, or “Coda,” of the novel as it currently stands was one of the earliest pieces. Each storyline had its own spark, its own voice, not written in order, as I considered a range of overall structures, from string theory to nested matryoshka dolls, groping my way into different narrative and poetic senses of sound, space, time—asking not “Why?” but rather “Why not?”

JP: It seems your writing tends, as you said, less towards the narrative and more towards what might be called an interdisciplinary approach, referencing music, art, language and other areas. Is this an outgrowth of previous fields of study and/or a personal interest in various areas of knowledge? How important is it for a writer to synthesize knowledge across different disciplines?

GH: My writing is a quest of questions, where questions beget more questions. Rilke encouraged: “Love the questions themselves…Live the questions.” The more I learn, the less I know. The point is to remain open, curious, questioning. Knowledge isn’t fixed but in flux, since the world changes, and we change with it and through one another. Edges of our knowledge shift; margins become center; then, those edges change. My writing ends up being interdisciplinary not for its own sake but because our world is inherently interconnected. Intersections, parallels, networks, and constellations emerge between fields, unexpectedly, if we take time to notice. My books try to set up expectations then blur those boundaries, calling attention to strategies of reading: not only what but also how and why and the rest. When boundaries blur, tensions manifest and possibilities arise. Like John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” My process is to pick something and find where it’s hitched, to tease out different paths, leading away and back toward (a thing or idea or sound or character or what have you), suggesting some larger shape, some interwoven web, in which we are only a small part.

Every writer should seek their own set of questions and synthesize their own knowledge—whatever “knowledge” might mean. As one example, back in college, I taught fulltime for a summer at a nonprofit school that provided education and social services to single mothers on welfare. My students ranged in age from 18 to 39, with a 33-year-old grandmother, each carrying her own story, differently and deeply marked by poverty, domestic violence, and other experiences that “educated” them—no less than I had been educated, yielding radically different knowledges. One student aptly wrote, “I have a Ph.D. in ghetto life.” Many types of knowledge aren’t valued by categories of “disciplines.” If I synthesize knowledge in any way, it’s always through some kind of ignorance. I think it was Grace Paley who said: “Don’t write what you know. Write what you don’t know about what you know.”

My interest in knowledge is as much about synthesis as dismantling—not to leave knowledge in pieces, but rather to highlight the overall puzzle and encourage alternative re-collections, opening up possibilities. Questioning underscores “histories” (literally, like the “essay” derives from a kind of questioning: to assay, to test). History is constructed, a fiction to some degree—aiming at truth, to be sure, but changing as new evidence is unearthed, as different people and perspectives weigh in on versions of inherited stories and systems of knowledge. Mapmaking is another kind of storytelling (like a Mercator projection, where Greenland appears about the same size of Africa), causing us sometimes to mistake distorted representations for truth. Who gets to tell stories, and what stories get told? How do we find ways to co-feature multiple representations, with indirect narration emerging between lines, through juxtapositions, in echoes and edges? Can our writings set up atmospheres to interpret, more than literal or linear readings? Displacements can disorient to orient, re-turn or re-tune a reader. Something may seem lost, at first—but if we take time to notice more: what gets found?

JP: You mentioned that you came to writing later in life, through some detours. How would you say this influences your craft? Do you feel you have a different aesthetic than writers whose only career has been writing? Is it a case of the journey mattering more than the destination?

GH: My own detours fundamentally influenced my aesthetic, but writers whose careers have been only writing write differently from each other; I can’t generalize about starting earlier or later as some differentiating reason. Everyone finds whatever path. Those who start earlier may be more professionally savvy, but I’m not sure how that affects their aesthetic. Since I never set out to be a writer, my end goal wasn’t a byline, rather about words at work in this world. What led me to words might have manifested differently under other circumstances, or for someone else, into paint on canvas, or a musical composition, or another artistic medium, or something not even qualified as art but carrying that sensibility. (Here, I’m reminded of Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.”) I think of words and books as malleable mediums, as artistic genres, rather than commercial values or markers of fame. In my classes and workshops, I encourage students to engage with many processes and topics outside of writing, to displace themselves, so their stories, poems, and essays don’t end up myopic and centered around the self, but rather open up to the larger world—evoking reflection, surprise, questioning, engagement, and play. I hope that they learn something about living through writing, regardless of whether they become writers. I keep exploring different possibilities in pedagogy to intervene in the traditional workshop model. My new workshops at MIT have been devoted to “(un)Writing the Book” and “Writing in the Museum,” using the “book” and “museum”—broadly defined—as metaphors for thinking about how we hold, classify, and share personal and cultural stories. Rather than inert artifacts, we can interrogate and activate their logics by reimagining them, shifting our role as writer (as curator or bookmaker, for instance), conjoining content with form in different cultural contexts. If students chase questions, it may be a messier process but also more productive and provocative. Whether or not this leads toward a life of writing, what matters is how we cultivate creative thinking. We are a storytelling species. People tell and translate stories through different mediums, disciplines, and beyond.

JP: The character Avra in House lost the fingers of one hand in a fire and had them replaced with two of her toes. This brings to mind your previous book, Galerie de Difformité, and its companion web site. Such frequent reference to deformity might cause some to see an obsession in your work, but I suspect there is another reason involved, one that attempts to find beauty in supposedly ugly things. Is either assessment accurate?

GH: Again, it’s a quest of questions. All artists, writers, thinkers, etc. work with form in some way—and my attention to deforming is to set up a displacement between the two—one is focused more on product, the other more on process—to call attention to the fact that forms are always changing as we engage with different mediums, times and places, and other circumstances. “Deformity” is fraught with sociocultural baggage: from Aristotle, who said that women were “deformed” males, to Samuel Johnson who defined “deformity” and “ugliness” synonymously in his famed first Dictionary, and many more examples, tightly entwined with issues of gender, race, class, disability, and more. The complexity of “deformity” often is framed reductively, and this has led me into a kind of experiment in appropriation and aesthetics. Language is alive and deforming, evidenced in etymologic histories in the Oxford English Dictionary, so I’m interested in whether it’s possible to change the meaning of a word through sustained aesthetic engagement. It’s not about turning beauty into ugliness, or ugliness into beauty—which would merely reverse binary constructions—but rather complicating concepts by invoking and implicating our roles in the making of meanings.

wreckageNot long ago I attended a lecture by the linguist, K. David Harrison, who travels the world to engage the last speakers of endangered languages. He talked about how in Tuva (a country also known for its extraordinary throat-singing), native speakers locate the past in front of their bodies, with the future at their backs. The future is conceived behind, since it can’t be seen or known yet. That makes so much sense! Learning alternate ways of navigating the world is vital to question our inherited narrative and poetic strategies, to open up our imaginations and practices. (An example in Spanish that I love is the question ¿Cómo amaneciste? that translates “How did you dawn?” rather than “How did you sleep?” placing an emphasis on wakefulness.) I’m not a linguist but love language, and it seems vital to encourage linguistic diversity so we don’t place ourselves at the center of our practices. It cultivates a kind of sustainability. Albeit very different, my sustained attention to “deformity” entails this sensibility. (You mentioned the project’s current website, which really falls short of reflecting this process—I’m hoping to redesign the website to better reflect the varied engagements and overall concept of the project.) Beyond Galerie de Difformité, each of my books is tuned to each project’s logic, seeking different balances between content and form. My other novel, The House Enters the Street, structures interwoven stories around musical modulation. My volume of nonfiction, On Marvellous Things Heard, vocalizes silence through counterpointed micro-essays about literary appropriations of music. My poetry chapbook, Wreckage: By Land & By Sea, maps itself through cartographic history. Deformity emerges differently in each project, which I hope suggests metamorphosis at work.

JP: I hesitate to ask (and you don’t have to answer), but is Avra’s story autobiographical at all? There are hints in your previous answers…

GH: Avra and I are so vibrantly different; I don’t even know where to begin… I am from San Francisco, and have used voice-activated software, but most of the rest doesn’t add up. The residue of any writer’s life marks details or margins, but reading pieces biographically becomes a forced game of connect-some-dots, which misses the larger picture of possibilities. Anyone is welcome to read however they like, of course, but biography ends up a reductive graft. This is one reason why, in Galerie de Difformité, I deliberately named one of my characters Gretchen Henderson. I wanted to perform (mis)representation, to tease out and blur distinctions between inherited expectations, binaries, and more. Swiping author(ity) is a postmodern device, the “end of the author” and such, but also needles a certain “reality hunger” that marks our moment. A number of people have confused Galerie de Difformité as nonfiction, which I could never have imagined! One professor who taught the novel mentioned that a student got passionate about the issue, saying: “I don’t care if the author says it’s fiction—this is true.” Her comment delighted me, because doesn’t fiction succeed when it creates something that touches a reader as truth? I’m not saying the book is a success, but since the novel is structured as a choose-your-own-adventure, you hopefully can find your own truth. At least, if you go searching.

JP: Although you clearly don’t write with specific success or goals in mind, what does the future hold for your writing? Are there any projects in work that we may see in the next couple of years?

GH: Projects are always germinating and cross-pollinating, so any number of seeds may sprout, decay, or blossom into a hybrid surprise. My next book project is a work of criticism, Ugliness: A Cultural History (for Reaktion Books): a fairly capacious and slippery topic presumably crossing most periods, places, disciplines. It’s been a fascinating book to think about and write, conceptually and culturally time-traveling. Beyond that, I continue to explore the next incarnation of the Galerie de Difformité, as the “book” deforms in varied realms: materially and digitally, creatively and critically. One tentacle of that octopus is pedagogy, and I continue to collaborate with professors at different universities on deforming the project, using it as a kind of interdisciplinary intervention. (Among other classes next year, there will be a senior seminar called “Galerie de Difformité: British Literature Seminar,” taught by Dr. Chris Gabbard at the University of North Florida.) I also am starting a new interview series for the literary journal, Ploughshares, engaging people who are involved in “books” (broadly defined, beyond writers: librarians, cataloguers, curators, book artists, printers, scholars of the page/alphabet/book, e-book designers, publishers, etc.) to answer the same set of questions, so their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book in this day and age. The idea is to give writers, etc. ideas about how to activate the book as a site of artistic practice and gain more grounding in the broader context of the book and its history and potential. Generally, I am interested in “(un)Writing the Book” (the topic of the course that I’m currently teaching at MIT, with a related workshop this summer on “The Literary Hybrid” at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, co-taught with the book artist Ellen Sheffield) and will continue to seek ways to invigorate that process and pose questions, like: How do we (un)read, (un)write, (un)make meanings—not only individually but also communally? Where lies author(ity), (dis)embodiment, and (in)accessibility in that process? Collaborations with visual artists, musicians, and more will continue to direct my future compass. A number of those prospects are already in the works. I’m at a bit of a crossroads, with a literal sea change (Atlantic to Pacific), so there are a number of ships that might sail by reconfiguring stars.  Updates will be available here: http://bookunbound.wordpress.com/.

Links to Gretchen E. Henderson’s Books and More…

The House Enters the Street

On Marvellous Things Heard

Wreckage: By Land & By Sea

Galerie de Difformité, and its accompanying web site: difformite.wordpress.com

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