by J. Hubner
Photo by Joni Earl
Sometimes the most interesting minds are hiding in plain sight. Maybe it’s some guy at work in the break room quietly reading A Confederacy Of Dunces while FOX News blasts in the background. Maybe that guy at the local Starbucks making you a peppermint mocha has a Masters in Psychology and has written nine unpublished novels but fell on hard times. Or possibly that woman in your kitchen that wakes you up in the mornings to go to school who’s currently making your dinner. Maybe she used to travel the world and was passionate about the dada movement and had dreams of being an artist and living in a mud hut off the grid before you showed up. Or maybe that teacher of yours. The one you have for 5th period that quotes Vonnegut and you see reading George Saunders short stories at his desk before class. Maybe he’s a gifted poet that writes about life’s ironies and tragedies in a humanistic way.
Well that last one might just be Mr. Steve Henn. Henn’s a Midwestern poet who teaches high school English by day, raises four smart kids, and when time allows writes poems about life(yours and his, and everyone else’s that’s ever felt both the swelling sting and innate beauty of living.) Henn has been published in the past(check out his works at http://www.therealstevehenn.com) and he recently released his newest collection called Indiana Noble Sad Man Of The Year through Wolfson Press.
Steve and I sat down and talked about the new book, his inspiration, and a particularly nasty bout of Vertigo.
J. Hubner: You recently released onto the world your newest collection of poetry called ‘Indiana Noble Sad Man Of The Year’. How did this one come together? Is this your first book with Wolfson Press?
Steve Henn: I was invited by an editor at Wolfson to submit a manuscript, although it was made clear that an offer to look at a manuscript was not a guarantee of acceptance – that would be up to the Wolfson editorial board. Thankfully, they took it, and from there there was a lot more work involved with Joe Chaney as the lead editor for my book, Sky Santiago as the designer, and several others involved in the process as well. This is my first book with Wolfson – my first full book not on the NYQBooks label. Wolfson Press is a university press at IUSB. I’m very happy with the care and attention all parties involved gave to the book – at times the process felt laborious, but the end product is worth the effort.
J. Hubner: Are the poems in this collection all fairly recent pieces? Or are there some that date back before your second book ‘And God Said: Let The Be Evolution!’?
Steve Henn: The poems are mostly 2013-2015 poems. One of the oldest ones in the book is “Poem for the Girl Next Door” which was written a few weeks before Lydia (my ex-wife, mother of my children) died [in August 2013]. I don’t think there’s much, if anything, in the book that predates that poem.
J. Hubner: When you go into putting poems together for a book, is there a common theme between the writing? You seem to use your own life, both when you were younger and now, as origin points for your poems. But is there a concept to the book?
Steve Henn: This one was very much influenced by the era of my life in which I was writing – after Lydia died, as I was acclimating myself to the pressures and challenges of full time single fatherhood. I found myself looking back to my own childhood, and also found I wanted to catalog experiences with my children – I wanted to think about what Lydia had chosen to leave behind. There’s not a distinct intention to form a certain theme or concept to the book, but the finished product suggests that family and fatherhood were big ideas I was ruminating over in many of the book’s poems.
J. Hubner: Where did the title of the book come from?
Steve Henn: The title of the book comes from one of the early poems (I think it appears 3rd) called “What Facebook Knows.” The “Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year” award is a facetious award I grant myself for my status as single dad, in that poem.
J. Hubner: Besides your writing, the book was illustrated by your children Franny, Lucy, Oren, and Zaya. Were they aware they’d be illustrating ‘Indiana Noble Sad Man Of The Year’? Was it the plan from the beginning to make it a family affair?
Steve Henn: I encountered a book of poems by the excellent young poet Franny Choi called Floating, Brilliant, Gone. The book included some illustrations that linked up with the poems they illustrated somehow. We had originally discussed including some of Lydia’s artwork in the book – some of her paintings, which are amazing, are still hanging at the Blue Pearl in Pierceton – but the feel of the art didn’t seem to fit the feel of the poems quite right. So I suggested bringing in a bunch of drawings by the kids and seeing if any of that worked. It was really the book designer, Sky Santiago, who is responsible for the ingenious pairings of poems and illustrations in this book – page after page, there’s some element or another in the drawings that seem to sort of comment on or compliment the poem it’s lined up with. I really think that aspect of the design – the selecting of drawings to compliment the poems – was so excellently handled by Sky. I’m glad the kids had a hand in the book too – the book is dedicated to the kids. I suppose I wanted the book, in part, to codify how much I appreciate having them in my life – without my kids I’m certain I’d be a great big mess and be making all sorts of stupid choices. Or would have, at least, if they’d not placed a necessary and providential burden of responsibility on me.
J. Hubner: Now you’re also doing a few readings to promote the release of the book. How has the feedback been so far?
Steve Henn: It’s been fun to do readings. Probably the best one so far has been in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, at the University of Pitt-Greensburg campus. I read to a roomful of Lori Jakiela’s energetic and talented senior creative writing students. We spent about an hour together and it was worth the 14 hours or so round trip. For a bunch of creative writers, poets, etc., the kids seemed abnormally sunny, well adjusted, and supportive of each other. A real good group.
J. Hubner: Reading your piece ‘On The Presidential Election Of 2016’ I could totally relate to the panic you had in those moments, thinking you were dying. I had some bouts of anxiety for the first time in my life back in 2014. That feeling of helplessness and the feeling of the world closing in on you is a terrible one. I can only imagine that first bout vertigo is a similar feeling. Have you had any more bouts since the day before the election?
Steve Henn: Cool, that’s on my blog then, the existential humorist on tumblr – which I’ve neglected since that post. It seems maybe sort of ridiculous, maudlin looking back on it but as it was happening I was truly worried my heart was failing. Suddenly being super aware of all one’s physical sensations is a strange place to be for a writer used to spending so much time exclusively between his ears. I have had ongoing vertigo issues since – nothing as catastrophic or as alarming as that particular day mentioned on the blog, but less alarming versions of vertigo occur often enough now that it’s the new normal for me. Hooray for growing older.
J. Hubner: I loved your poem “Requiem”. Beautiful ruminations of your childhood and memories of your father. I particularly love the line “I wanna travel down the telephone cord from the kitchen to the living room where my mother sat in her chair telling her mother a little too loudly how the kids were doing in school.” It’s a scene I can recall in my own childhood. Do you still take to rights out of the neighborhood and go visit your dad at Oakwood?
Steve Henn: No, I actually never visited my dad beyond attempting to a handful of times in the month or two following his death way back in 1991. I felt foolish standing there trying to talk to a plaque in the ground. I never felt like he was really there. I generally don’t experience his presence as any sort of awareness or sensation at the gravesite or elsewhere, but I do remember certain scenes and situations from time to time. I used to get very sad or sometimes angry thinking about the end of his life and his death but anymore, mostly, I’m happy that there are scenes that stuck, that I recall, and that generally remind me that he was an honest man doing the best he could. I don’t feel comfortable at his grave. I’d rather imagine him sitting in his big black recliner cracking up while reading essays by Andy Rooney.
J. Hubner: If there’s some sort of life learnt wisdom you’d like to bestow upon your children, what would it be?
Steve Henn: I suppose the only wisdom I can claim about life is knowing what most of the poets are trying to tell us, which is that it has an end. It has an end, and as the poet and essayist Thomas Lynch reminds us in The Undertaking, it’s a good idea to maintain an awareness of that. Understanding that we will die encourages us to live with care and attention and kindness, and, if we haven’t been, to understand and accept that we’ve only got so long to get better at this before we’re done.
Steve will be reading at Voyageur Book Shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Friday July 21st with Wisconsin writer Troy Schoultz. There is also talk of a book release in South Bend where it will be a kid-friendly event, though this is still in the works. If it happens, it will happen in May. Check out www.therealstevehenn.com often for event dates. Indiana Noble Sad Man Of The Year is available now at Amazon.com or contact Steve through his website. Steve will also have ‘Sad Man’ tour t-shirts available through his website as well. Grab one while you can.