Interview with Award-Winning Poet Henrietta Goodman

Award-winning poet Henrietta Goodman discusses her "Gretel" poems and how her two sons have influenced her poetry!  Your book of poetry, Take What You Want, won the 2006 Beatrice Hawley Award.  How has that honor affected your career?

Henrietta Goodman:  Winning the Beatrice Hawley Award and having my book published validated the work I had been doing for more than fifteen years, both inwardly and outwardly. It didn’t result in immediate large career developments, but it led to my being asked to do some readings and craft lectures (and interviews like this one), and it gave me the confidence I needed to re-direct my long-term path. This fall, I began the PhD program in English/Creative Writing at Texas Tech University, a program I learned of when Jacqueline Kolosov-Wenthe, a poetry professor at TTU, reviewed my book for Iron Horse Literary Review. Moving to Lubbock, TX after living in Missoula, MT for my entire adult life was very difficult, but it’s wonderful to be back in school and to be able to devote myself to poetry more fully than ever before. I may seem to be doing things backward by publishing the book and then returning to school, but I don’t think I would have had the courage to leave my job in Missoula and uproot my family if my book hadn’t been published.  Have any other poets influenced your own poetry?

Henrietta:  I read the Confessional poets in high school and college, and they left indelible impressions on me in terms of what the subject matter of poetry could be and how to transmute one’s own experiences into poetry without too much self-indulgence or subjectivity. I believe that if a poet writes from personal experience, then his/her task is to scrutinize the self, rather than excuse the self. I derived this perspective from the influence of poems like Anne Sexton’s “The Abortion,” and I try in my own work to be at least as analytical toward myself as I am toward the other people who populate my poems.  

Other influences, of course, have been my teachers, particularly Mark Levine, who taught at the University of Montana in the early 1990s, when I was earning the MFA. In a way, Mark’s teaching extended the lessons I had already begun to learn from Confessional poetry, in that he insisted I rid my poems of sentimentality and self-conscious prettiness. And then when I did so, he said something like, “Henrietta, you can’t keep writing these poems in which a strange, detached woman meets a strange, detached man and strange things happen forever,” meaning that now that I had learned to strip my poems of excess emotion and flowery language, I had to figure out how to put genuine feeling and authentic (rather than contrived) strangeness in them.  You have two sons; does motherhood affect your poetry?

Henrietta:  I have two wonderful sons, one ten and one five, and they have affected my poetry in ways I never could have imagined. Before my older son was born, I insisted that becoming a mother wouldn’t change anything, and I felt disillusioned, of course, when I realized that caring for a baby took a lot of time and energy I had previously devoted to reading and writing. But it also took a lot of time and energy that I had previously wasted, and this was one of the most important lessons that motherhood taught me: I didn’t have unlimited time.

In my poems, I’ve tried to explore some of my ambivalence toward motherhood. I think many people have complicated feelings about becoming parents that they hesitate to express out of fear of what people will think. It’s very, very strange to let another person inhabit you for nine months and then leave your body in an incredibly painful way and start requiring things of you. As miraculous as becoming a parent is, it is also sometimes terrifying and miserable.

I’m so grateful to my children for providing me with fresh ways of thinking about language. When my younger son was two, we were driving home one night and I said “look, the moon is full!” and he said emphatically “no, hungry moon.” One of my most recent poems, titled “Hungry Moon,” begins with this scene. My poem “After Birth” derived from an evening when my older son, who was seven at the time, asked “what’s a placenta?” I never could have written these poems without my children.  In Take What You Want, you have several “Gretel” poems.  What does Gretel represent to you?

Henrietta:  I began writing the Gretel poems at a time when I had chosen to divorce my first husband. He had been a close friend, but I was naïve enough to mistake this friendship for romantic passion, and we were both unhappy in our marriage. When I fell in love with someone else, fully and passionately and joyously for the first time in my life, I felt very guilty. My older son was only a year old, and from the outside we looked like a perfect family. I received a lot of criticism from people who thought I had done something horrible by leaving my husband, and I thought so too, except that I was also deliriously happy. I began the Gretel poems as a way of trying to address the feeling that what we were doing was somehow both illicit and innocent.

In spring of 2002, I moved to southwestern Oregon to attend the Marjorie Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency. This residency allowed me to live in a cabin on a very remote, very beautiful piece of property on the Rogue River for four months. My older son, who was three, spent half the time with me, and this was both idyllic and terrifying, since I worried a lot about what I would do if one of us got attacked by a mountain lion, or got appendicitis, or, or, or. No other experience, aside from becoming a mother, has ever had such life-changing impact on me. The poems “Gretel Alone” and “Gretel and the Bat” came from the Boyden residency. I identified with Gretel, and yet when I considered my location—a little cabin in the woods—I was in the role of the witch. And so the lines between child and adult, between good and bad, between vulnerability and threat, began to blur, and this was a good thing, both for the poems and for my understanding of who and what I was.   Many of your poems feature beautiful outdoor images.  “The sun moves behind brown clouds in a sky full of crows and yellow leaves, the smell of rotting fruit” from “Bear #1”, and tree bark “in wine-colored strips that peel back as if burst from within” from “Madrones” are two that come to mind,.  How does nature inspire your poetry?

Henrietta:  In writing poetry, it’s sometimes tempting to make assertions, to philosophize, but poetry has to reach its conclusions through concrete, precise images and the discovery of likeness or unlikeness that metaphor can bring. I love the otherness, the amorality of nature. Metaphor can link the human and the natural worlds, but it can also illustrate the vast gap that sometimes exists between the two (and which always feels that it shouldn’t exist, since we are after all part of nature). To say I love nature would be to oversimplify. I love the precise image, no matter what it’s of. To me, imagery in poetry has tremendous seductive power. I strive for this power in my own work and appreciate it in the work of others. This love of image is complicated, though, in that image is never pure outward observation. You can’t have an image without an eye to see it. So maybe it’s just another way of loving the self, or of prioritizing the human over the natural world, or of trying to even things out a little, since the natural world rules the human one, whether we want to admit it or not.  What advice do you have for aspiring poets?

Henrietta:  You have to be self-motivated and patient. If you’re easily discouraged, you won’t write. If you aren’t internally motivated, you’ll write only when you’re a student and your grade depends on it. I waited a long time to publish Take What You Want, and I started to believe that my book might never be published. I kept on trying because I wanted to be able to feel that I had done my best, that I hadn’t given up. Not giving up meant more to me than publishing, and that’s why the book was published. 

Henrietta Goodman has received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Montana Arts Council and the Marjorie Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency. Her poems have appeared in Mid-American Review, North Carolina Literary Review, Hubbub, Northwest Review, and other journals. Originally from North Carolina, she currently teaches at the Writing Center at the University of Montana.

To purchase Take What You Want, click here.