Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Sara Henning
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: In your piece “During the Tornado, I’m Thinking of Stars,” how much of the vocabulary was already familiar to you (for example, “the plane’s thermoplastic wall”), and how much was borne out of research?
Sara Henning: Quite a bit of the pastoral and astrological terms are indigenous to my vocabulary, as I am a proud Leo, avid stargazer, and nature enthusiast, though I had to research jet anatomy, especially the engineering mechanisms behind flying. I also had to brush up on tornado anatomy, though I am very acquainted with them. I grew up along the Georgia coast, so tornado weather is as familiar to me as a high heat index. Still, it was important to me to make sure that I correctly represented a tornado’s meteorological and geophysical processes—scientific accuracy in poems is sacred to me. It is my belief that one must understand the intricacies behind the subjects one is attempting to render, and should be able to defend his or her position with research. Effective research often leads to effective writing, and I am not the first to say this. For me, research often provides me the necessary caveats to reach, either directly or tangentially, transcendent moments in my writing. Open-mindedness, research, and innovation are my favorite muses.
RR: The intimacy in the first two stanzas, which pairs destruction and a kind of ominous mystique, creates a powerful impact on the reader. Was it difficult to introduce different images into the poem and have them all coalesce together?
SH: Whenever I am writing, a space always seems to manifest that if left unrecovered or mistreated, has the capacity to sabotage the poem on an existential level. These places—I like to think of them as pulse points, or mouths to the poem’s vulnerable frame—are perhaps suture points to the braided lyrical narratives that tend to compose my body of work. Both a love poem and an anti-pastoral poem, the poem’s form and function were always fighting toward disparate ends. I am drawn to thinking of it (in an ex post facto way) to Kevin Prufer’s Braided Narrative exercise in Wingbeats II: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, which is an absolutely fantastic collection of exercises to use in a creative writing class, if anyone is looking for engaging texts focused on supportive invention with engaging models. The exercise, much like Nicole Walker’s “Of Artifacts and MRIs, or Stuck on the Web with You” (published the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Dinty Moore, a remarkable text which I am using in my creative writing classroom this semester), encourages students to pick two very different stories and try to braid them together in a way that finds resonance. Much like Prufer’s choice to weave together a memory of a girl in a hotel gift shop in Arizona and a memory of his father dying in Cleveland, Ohio, or Walker’s choice to pair her conflicted position over eating meat with her daughter’s MRI, the memory of being almost torn from the sky by the twin tornadoes that devastated Pilger, Nebraska in June 2014 and the intense missing inscribed by the speaker and her lover’s dislocation was a challenge to maintain without the comparative junctions feeling arbitrary, indelicate, or gratuitous. My hope was that I could write about two different invocations of a trauma in a way that felt both susceptible and revelatory. I am happy with how the balance in this piece turned out.
RR: The pairing of (seemingly) vulnerable speakers with clear and piercing language and imagery drew us to your work. Did you find that balance difficult to strike?
SH: Thank you for your generous words. I think that this equilibrium requires a deft hand to neither throw the poem into the realm of sentimentality or into coldly technical ambivalence. In poems that risk sentimentality, I often find that pairing them with technical subject matter or crisp language is one way to provide a counterargument to emotional reverence, or perhaps this is the way that I justify the move into tenderness to myself. I see the speaker’s near-death experience in the plane is punctuated by her desire for the lapsed lover, a character who returns through flashback at the poem’s finish. His catalytic relationship with the speaker—invoking a precarious Eros that threatens to shatter her into ecstasy—is left intentionally unresolved. The flashback, predicated on comfort, is sinew between two events that have no closure for the speaker. How muddy and how vacuous! Perhaps only a turn to language can deflect and resuscitate both speaker and reader out of such a state of terror and longing.
RR: When writing, do you draw the majority of your ideas from personal experience and memories, or are they more often constructed from imagination?
SH: I draw my work from a myriad of sources and experiences, though this poem is almost entirely conjured from autobiography. On June 16, 2014, rare twin tornadoes killed a child and injured nineteen individuals in northeastern Nebraska (the locus of the damage happening in the small town of Pilger). On that day, I was flying from Louisville, Kentucky, where I grade AP Literature exams every summer, back to Sioux Falls, South Dakota (I currently live and study in Vermillion, South Dakota, about an hour south of there). My plane was caught in the storm and severely injured by crosswinds. Luckily, the pilot was able to recover control of our damaged plane and proceeded to land us in a small airport in Lincoln, Nebraska for the night. While we were in the air, the turbulence caused injuries to luggage and minimally to passengers (I escaped physically unscathed, though I had to use the sick bag), but it was the collective fear that permeated the plane that refuses to let go of me: people were praying, holding hands, and fear soon transitioned to desperation. I don’t think I would have had the bravado to write this poem if I didn’t have direct experience with the event in question. Doing so without context would make me fear that my poem would objectify or reappropriate the experience to self-seeking ends. My hope was to commemorate the devastation happening in northeastern Nebraska through my own brush with death, which in comparison to many who suffered in this incident, is trifling. At the moment, though I have had to travel widely since the event, I have not been able to bring myself to fly.
RR: You began college as a Genetics major on a pre-med track. How did that coursework inform your writing?
SH: The modes by which I encounter the world and by association, my writing, are deeply influenced by my interest and dedication to science and more importantly, to the human body. I have always been drawn to the organic and physiological mechanisms by which we, as beings, confront the world and enact our desires. How heritage—from discrete inheritance and Mendel’s Laws to how we manifest our genetic codes through chromosomal recombination—influences environmental context from climate to cultural hegemony, how natural selection and evolution cull and cede us to newfangled forms of embodiment and awareness—these principles thrill me with “diagnosable” methods by which I can reduce negative capability to a lineage of probabilities. This linearity was my initial pull to the study of science, though I exchanged linearity for liminality when I gave myself to poetry. In my writing, fact and awe exchange masks and war against each other, an act less situated in combat than lovemaking, which is one way my scientific background directly influences my approach to craft.
Many of my poems are also situated in scientific discovery—the poem that serves as the address for this interview, for instance—though much of my work broaches topics that span etymology, animal physiology, astrophysics, even neurochemistry. I find science to be relevant and revelatory for poetry, and saying so invites me into a lineage rather than a counter-narrative. Some of my favorite poets are writing about science in invigorating ways, including Leslie Adrienne Miller’s The Resurrection Trade, my mentor Lee Ann Roripaugh’s scintillating Dandarians, Dorianne Laux’s Facts About the Moon, Kimiko Hahn’s Toxic Flora—the list continues. My predilection for science led me into poetry, rather than vice versa, and merging my two worlds on paper has led to me to much joy and much discovery.
“During the Tornado, I’m Thinking of Stars” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 2.1.
Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013), as well as two chapbooks, Garden Effigies (Dancing Girl Press, forthcoming) and To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Connotation Press, Crab Orchard Review, Greensboro Review, and RHINO, and anthologies such as Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (2013). She holds an MFA from George Mason University, and she is currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Assistant Managing Editor for the South Dakota Review.