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Five more questions with Kansas Poet Laureate Eric McHenry
The Lawrence Public Library has been a steadfast supporter of local writing talent, so much so that we’re curating a local author section. Given this, and April being National Poetry Month, it felt synergistic to check in with Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas. In 2015, we asked McHenry five questions, and with the release of his new collection,"Odd Evening," we felt like it was time to ask him five more.
Q: Does the lyrical nature of your work stem from the work of poets you admire, or do you have previous experience as a musician?
A: I agree with [Walter Pater] who said that poetry aspires to the condition of song. I love music and wish I could make it, but I’ve never been gifted in that way. It may be that my desire to sing and my inability to do so are among the things that drew me to poetry. They may have drawn me to metrical and end-rhymed poetry, specifically. It’s certainly true that, when I’m writing, I’m often consciously trying to make something as good as a poem or song I’ve admired, whether it’s W.H. Auden’s “Woods” or Donald Fagen’s “The Goodbye Look.”
Q: One of the many appreciated qualities of your poetry is the regional touchstones that you’ve crafted throughout each collection. In "Odd Evening," there’s “The Gil Carter Correspondence,” an elegy regarding Topekan Gil Carter’s famed longest home run during his time in the minor leagues. Is this an element that you strive for in your work or a natural instinct?
A: I write about what I remember most vividly, and about what’s around me, and about what obsesses me, and I think I’m more attracted to the familiar than to the exotic. I write about Topeka because I grew up there and I’m there a lot and I know it well and my dreams often take place there, even when I’m living somewhere else. In the case of “The Gil Carter Correspondence,” I got really interested in the idea that this man living quietly in East Topeka had hit the longest home run in history and that very few people knew that — the shot unheard ‘round the world.
Q: As with "Potscrubber Lullabies," "Odd Evening" offers poems that contain a number of references to pop-culture, modern technology, as well as word play. These devices, imbued with sardonic wit, recall poets Donald Hall or Jane Kenyon; who are some of the poets that you’re currently inspired by?
A: I don’t go out of my way to put pop-culture references in my poems, and I worry a little about doing it because they can date the poems so quickly. But, like Topeka, they’re what’s around me. Irony and humor and wordplay, too, but they keep happening in my poems. Irony sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s not the same thing as sarcasm; it’s much more resonant. Sarcasm is saying one thing and meaning the opposite. Whereas William Empson said “an irony to be worth anything must be at least somewhat true in both senses.” Poets I’ve been inspired by recently: Robert Francis, a great and undervalued poet. And my publisher, Waywiser, has just brought out a book by Austin Allen, "Pleasures of the Game," that I think is masterful. Jane Kenyon was one of my earliest influences, and I still treasure her work. When my wife and I lived in New Hampshire, I found the cemetery, and [Kenyon's] headstone, using only information from Donald Hall’s poems.
Q: As you near the end of your time as Kansas Poet Laureate, how has this been experience for you?
A: It’s been a highlight of my life. I get so much satisfaction out of sharing poetry with my fellow Kansans, and they’re so eager to hear it and discuss it. And I’ve learned as much from my audiences as they’ve learned from me, if not more. They’re always full of insights. So I feel grateful and lucky, and a little envious of whoever gets to do it next.
Q: A decade has passed since "Potscrubber Lullabies," and your latest work carries a very temporal quality about it. How would you describe where you are as a poet now as opposed to then?
A: Having kids and watching them grow ages you and tenderizes you. When "Potscrubber Lullabies" was published, I had one tiny kid and another on the way. Now Sage is almost 11, and we were talking tonight about college visits with Evan. In 2009 we moved from Seattle back to Topeka (and then to Lawrence). I never dreamed I’d go home again, and of course you can’t go home again, and all of this made its way into the new book. Which is already more than a year old, but I plan to go on calling it “the new book” until 2026.
-Ilka Iwanczuk is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.