Luke Rolfes: Poet Sara Henning is out with a new book from Southern Illinois University Press called Burn. In this collection, broken into three distinct sections, Henning explores everything from the pandemic to domestic trauma to John McClain’s role in the movie Die Hard. These poems are often immersive, lyrical, and narrative, and I find myself thinking about them long after putting down the book.
Thanks for discussing your work with us, Sara!  I always ask everybody to walk me through the genesis of their project. Can you give us a sense of how Burn came into existence? Were you writing poems specifically for this project, or did the poems you were writing fit together naturally?
Sara Henning: Thanks so much, Luke! You framed Burn in such a generous and emotionally honest way. I’ve become convinced that collections of poetry are often approached using two organizational strategies (I often shy away from polarities, but this one seems to be true from my working knowledge) which fit any poet’s approach to crafting art. It can be, as you note, a confluence of poems written over a period which fit together naturally. Alternatively, one can write poems toward a project conceived of through research and intention, addressing important narrative movement or themes with each new poem. For a time, I thought that poets leaned one way or another. I know I have been most comfortable as a project poet, but that’s because I often need a frame of reference to write (I have a hard time with Keats’s negative capability, clearly). Now, I realize that is narrow thinking on my park. I am becoming more convinced that poets can shapeshift between modes which best work for them and their craft-level goals. We are always learning, evolving, and finding our best ways forward. None of us are (or should be) one trick ponies, and I take this as a challenge to myself to constantly reconstruct the ways in which I develop my poems and my craft.
Burn came into existence after I wrote Terra Incognita, an elegy for my mother which Ohio University Press published as a Hollis Summers Prize winner in 2022. In that collection, I explored my mother’s lost journey with colon cancer and how grief framed the way in which I saw the world for many years to come. As an only child to a single parent, her death shook my world in ways I could have never imagined. My mother was my heart, my internal compass, and I lived to make her proud of me. When she passed away, I tail spun into an early midlife crisis in which I had to reimagine my relationship to the world to survive.
Burn is a sequel to Terra Incognita, a collection ultimately less about grief than the other side of grief, finding joy again in an often-difficult world. Burn began with a curious (and often alarming) side-effect I experienced in the wake of my mother’s loss. Time stopped making sense to me. Days and weeks would bleed into hours, and hours had the ability to redefine the boundaries of a day. Sometimes, to live through a string of hours felt like a lifetime. I found comfort in the “block universe” theory, a theory controversial to physicists which argues that time is only a construction humankind has leaned upon to make sense of reality. That the past, present, and future exist at once. As I age through different life circumstances, the notion of the past, present, and future eliding makes a lot of sense to me. I constantly seem to live in the past and future, even as I am washing dishes or feeding my cats. In Burn, which became a book project exploring the science and metaphysics of time as it related to my journey with grief, I wrote poems which both explored life in the wake of my mother’s death and presented snapshots from my childhood and early teen years. These moments could have been lost had I not written them down. I realized that if time is a human construction, our life is a living anthology of moments we use to stitch together our realities. Every moment, every experience, is important. To write through life helps us all to live on.
LR: Many of the poems in this book are narrative, and often linear. Can you talk a bit about the importance of story/narrative in your work.
SH:  I can certainly try! The poet Allison Joseph has referenced my work as memoir-in-poems. She’s right, of course: the poetry which most moves me has a strong relationship to narrative—grounding features which allow the emotional heart of a poem to emerge. I love the narrative work in B.H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe, Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Year of the Snake and Dandarians, Dorianne Laux, Terrance Hayes (“The Same City” in Hip Logic always makes me cry), Mary Oliver (“The Summer Day” made me start writing poetry, and it is why I continue to write poetry), the late Jon Tribble (I am particularly taken by “Fathers”), Larry Levis (especially the poem “Winter Stars”)—this is only a very narrow cross-section of poets for whom narrative is the stronghold which allows any poem’s magic to shine. Because I write about issues which I consider of great necessity to our social moment in Burn—grief, yes, but also sexual assault, family legacy, the joys and difficulties of intimate relationships, cancer, and acts of God, among other matters—it is important for me to center my readers in the story first. James Joyce wrote, “in the particular is contained the universal,” and I try to practice this in my craft.
LR: When generating these pieces, did you tend to start with a story/scene as a jumping off point? Or perhaps image? Form?
SH: Fascinating! When I was writing these poems (and when I write poems more generally), I tend to start with a general idea (“I want to write a poem about X, referencing Y or Z”), then I ask myself: how can I ground it in specific detail? How can I invite the reader to experience the setting? To paraphrase Heather Sellers, how can I best activate the mind’s eye? Often, to answer these questions is to start telling a story which demonstrates it. And sometimes, I just want to tell a story that is important to me. An example of this is “Ghost Story,” which tells the story of the cold case murder of my former babysitter Laurie in Savannah in the 1980’s. I am haunted by her death, its lack of resolution. I wanted to honor her by commemorating her life in words.
LR: I’ve been thinking about epigraphs lately. Several of your poems feature epigraphs. As well, there is an epigraph at the beginning of each section (and the book as a whole). Were the epigraphs difficult to pick out? Easy? Could you speak briefly on “the epigraph” as a craft element? How does a writer know when, where, and what to use?
SH: Luke, that’s such a smart question. I love thinking about the epigraph as a craft element because it truly is. For me, a frequent user of the epigraph, I find it to be a way to both honor the words of another and to frame the way those words may serve as an entry point into a poem. Often, an epigraph allows me to “write into” a conversation started by another writer, or to pay homage to work which may have ignited my ideas for my own work. I believe that writing is a spectrum, a conversation, that we are always entering across the boundary of space and time. There are few new subjects—birth, death, anger, betrayal, love, war, joy, grief, just to name a few. How we approach these universal topics allows our art to evolve and find resonance. The epigraph is a catalytic tool which invites conversation and deliciously complicates my own work with the flavor of another’s words, a paratextual move which I find, when used the right way, to be transformational.
However, I do think one can use epigraphs too much (I am guilty of that!), at which point I think the notes section of a book can do wonders for framing a poem amidst its larger contextual threads.  
LR: Many of the pieces in this book play with form in some way—some are recognizable (like pantoum or sestina), others seem a form of your own invention. Can you talk a bit about why formal poetry was the best vehicle for this content? And, more broadly, the importance of form in your poetry.
SH: I would be glad to, Luke. I understood the mechanics of form from studying them during my MFA program—scansion, syllabic inflection, English feet, the ways in which sound and rhythm can help articulate a poem’s themes. However, I started writing more regularly in form as a reaction to grief—first, when my grandfather died (he was more like a father to me), then my mother. This may seem like a strange reaction, but I wanted to tell stories which felt vacuous and emotionally consuming, and I didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t start. So, I turned to form as a way to give the stories a frame in which to exist. In poems like “Cairns at School House Beach,” a poem in which I come to terms with the realities of my infertility, I turned to the Golden Shovel form to not only give me the frame I previously mentioned, but to consider the work of Brooks in that poem (for those unfamiliar, the Golden Shovel is a form conceptualized by poet Terrance Hayes in which the end word of each line of a poem must, when sequentially read, be a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. The defining poem used is “We Real Cool,” which my poem uses, as well). In my poem, a couple’s struggle with infertility may seem very dissimilar to the pool players in “We Real Cool,” but both poems concern life and death. In Brooks’ poem, young men live for the thrill of feeling alive as they ride the edges of death. In my poem, a speaker lives for the thrill of motherhood before learning her familial legacy stops when she dies. There are subtle reflections which I hoped made the choice of form appropriate, though I remain committed to refusing to appropriate anyone else’s experience or equate the privileged circumstances of my life as a white woman to those of another. In that spirit, I’ll provide another example. In “Meditation at Panda Express,” a sestina I wrote during a time that my husband and I were having a rough patch in our marriage, the form helped me to create a universe in which the parking lot at Panda Express served as a space for the speaker to realize her deepest wants: not American fast food Orange Chicken (which is, in fact, delicious, but ridiculous), but to pick up the phone to call her dead mother for advice. The sestina is traditionally a French form in which repetition (six words framing the end of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoi) enables a poet to tell a story within the confines of that repetition. Like the villanelle, it lends itself to obsessive topics, and this poem is certainly obsessive. Ultimately, this poem becomes a speaker’s need to not only be seen in her marriage, but to be cherished by a mother who can no longer comfort her.
LR: Let’s look at some specific poems. A piece I was drawn to from section one is a narrative poem called “Good Kissing.” In it, the speaker recalls being young and watching an aunt receive an aggressive, deep kiss from her boyfriend. Later, we learn, the aunt becomes pregnant, and the boyfriend disappears. “He was the hole her daughter would learn to call father.” I was intrigued by the release of information in this piece. It functions, more or less, like a small story that utilizes subtext to paint a larger picture. Can you talk a bit about this piece? Was it ever a longer narrative, or was it always sort of like a vignette?
SH: I love your insights about this poem, Luke! This was a difficult poem to write, as I wanted it to accomplish several things. When I was in elementary school, my mother often had me spend summers with my aunt, a schoolteacher, to help me to achieve competency in subjects which I consistently underperformed (such as penmanship—I am left-handed—and math). My aunt lived with her boyfriend at the time, and he was a leather-jacket-wearing rebel with whom she so desperately wanted to settle down and make a family. In this poem, I wanted to tell a difficult story—one day, out of the blue, he walked into the kitchen and as you said, kissed her aggressively—that was difficult for me due to my personal circumstances. My father died when I was young and my mother never found a steady partner after that, so I was unaccustomed to seeing any kissing at all. It was strange, defamiliarizing experience, and it scared me. I realize that beyond the boundaries of the incident, there was a larger conversation going on about patriarchy, origin stories, and my family’s relationship to faith (spoiler alert: there was a lot of Jesus). This poem must have been revised 50-100 times (and almost as many times abandoned as it was being written) because I felt the topics to be too conflicting (confusing?) to exist in one poem. The women of my family placed a lot of faith in men, in their ability to create home and the rules of home. Though Robert, a pseudonym, is an outlier to my family’s standards of dating, mating, and relating, he is an emotionally honest character—he was never going to form a nuclear family with my aunt, and when the situation of her pregnancy presented itself, he did what a lot of irresponsible people do and ran. In some ways, this is a vignette which probably should have been a short story, but I am glad it stayed a poem.
LR: The middle section contains a beautiful, multi-sectioned poem called “A Brief History of Fire.” I was drawn to the word/image echoes throughout this piece. Most noticeably, the last line of each section is repeated (or riffed upon) as the first line of the next. As well, certain images and phrases pop up multiple times, such as the idea of “sweet blood.” How did you come up with the concept for this piece. What spurred you to break into disparate yet connected sections?
SH: Thank you, Luke, for your very kind words about “A Brief History of Fire.” This is one of those poems which continues to astonish me, one of those poems I look back at and think, what in the world made me think I had the business to write a sprawling intergenerational, interfamilial poetic sequence which begins with an episode of Chicago Fire? I think, if anything, I was too stubborn to give up on it, because the moment I reference in Chicago Fire (which is an excellent nighttime soap, I must say, particularly if you have as much of a crush on Taylor Kinney as I do) is one which left me shook: in the episode, Captain Matt Casey is trapped in a warehouse fire, and it looks like he’s going to go down with the building. His wife, Gabby Dawson, a first responder on the scene, is talking to him through the CB radio. He’s saying goodbye to her, and she refuses to hear it. She wants him to fight. He eventually escapes (spoiler alert), but my father, a firefighter who lost his life in the line of duty, did not. I wanted to write a sonnet redoublé (mine is a very loose, unrhymed one that only completes thirteen of fifteen sonnets) which explored two different origin stories—mine through my mother and father’s complicated relationship, and my husband’s. I wanted to both examine and unite these stories through the trope of burning: How did my parent’s relationship—a complicated love-triangle troubled by drug addiction and betrayal—end with my father’s literal death by fire? And how did my husband’s origins—a cheating father, an angry and possessive mother, his body holding both illness and this familial crisis—manage to survive such emotional flame? This is probably the most complicated—and most vulnerable—poem I have ever written.   
LR: One of my favorites from part three of this book was “A Brief History of Skin,” in which the speaker is having a mole biopsied from her shoulder, and it re-earths old trauma from a mother’s cancer diagnosis. The poem asks the universe to rewind time, and the poem takes us through a narrative in reverse. Through the book (and in this poem in particular), I noticed that you approached the past and memory in unique ways. Can you talk a bit about accessing the past/history in poetry, and how one can sometimes take circuitous routes to get there?  
SH: Thank you, Luke. First, this poem wouldn’t have existed without two poems—most directly “Reverse: A Lynching,” by the phenomenal poet Ansel Elkins, and “Reverse Suicide,” a hauntingly beautiful poem by Matt Rasmussen. In every way, as you note, this poem is a reversal, rewinding time through the very specific lens of my mother’s cancer journey. In cancer communities, the term “new normal” is often used to understand the way cancer shakes a person’s life and relationship to family. The “new normal” is not only a way of experiencing life, but one which has the potential to affect one’s retrospective perception of personal history. My life was indelibly marked by my mother’s lost fight with cancer, so much so our family’s “new normal” has become, whether I like it or not, imprinted on me. In a larger way, though, it can be difficult for us poets to write about the past without either (a) dwelling in the realm of nostalgia or (b) figuring out how to move between moments of our lives without getting ourselves (and our readers) lost. The reversal form is a great way to trace personal narrative backwards while accounting for the tangents and circuitous moments which lead us to the present moment. Life is messy and beautiful and tragic and epiphanic. I believe all these moments deserve to be rendered on the page.
LR: Just some grab-bag questions: Were there “tough cuts” made when completing this project? Was there a poem in here that was the most difficult to write? On the flip side, did one come easier than the rest?
SH: Luke, I love a good grab-bag! When I think about writing and revising Burn into its final form, I think less about things I had to cut than trying to revise/write/frame poems which accurately reflect the moments which make the speaker who she is. I wanted, above all, for this book to practice radical emotional honesty. This is easier said than done. As such, revision felt labyrinthine at times, even brutal. And certainly, in pursuit of emotional honesty, there were some hard truths in this collection I had to confront, deeply troubling topics such as sexual assault and other violence against women. Writing about my babysitter Laurie in “Ghost Story” (I mentioned this earlier) was extremely hard, because while yes, her murder remains a cold case, I still view Savannah, Georgia through her story, which was my home for several years. Savannah is a beautiful place, but so many ugly and terrible things happened there, especially before its renaissance (largely the result of John Berendt’s success with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). It is a haunted city. However, I’d love to address a poem which came out of me almost whole, and that is the poem the book is named after. “Burn” celebrates how our bodies and souls carry us through the world. I am so happy this book ends in joy.
LR: Finally, what’s next for you and your work? Any new projects on the horizon?
SH: Absolutely! I’m writing a book about Vincent van Gogh. It is still in the early stages, but I’m so excited!
LR: Thanks so much for taking the time to discuss Burn with us, Sara! Check out the links below for more info!
Social Media:
Instagram: @sarahenningpoet
Links to Buy Books:
“The Fire in Which We Burn” (Poetry Off the Shelf Podcast, Helena de Groot, Poetry Foundation):
“On Grief: A Conversation with Sara Henning” (with Corinne Segal, Poetry Foundation):
“Conversations with Contributors: Sara Henning” (with Bryan Lopez, the Adroit Journal):
“Once, I Prayed in the Water” (Poetry Society of America):
“Drunk Again, He Pushes Her” (Verse Daily): 

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