10 Questions for DeWitt Henry
- By Edward Clifford
“Curses are different from cusses or swears, though they often merge. A curse calls down evil on someone, circumstance, or thing: “God damn you/it!” A swear is an insult, comparing someone or thing to an animal in regard to stupidity, loveless sex, and lack of spirit or reason, or to a body part or product (usually from the reproductive or excretory systems); or to a socially despised, feared, or “different” group (in race, nationality, class, gender, hygiene, and/or sexual preferences and acts).”—from “On Cursing,” Spring 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue1)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My most ambitious early fiction was a novella, Lord of Autumn, which appeared in Ploughshares, and was included in my recent collection: Falling: Six Stories. It concerns the decline of a ranching father, who is disappointed in his son, and owes much to Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." Under the title of “Everything A Season” an earlier draft had been serialized in the Amherst Literary Magazine (which I edited) and had served as my “creative” thesis at Amherst College. Then after Amherst, taking leave from a scholarly Harvard PhD program, I worked with Richard Yates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and while Yates panned one of my first published short stories, "Philandering" (the story and Yates's comments are on my website), he did encourage the novel I'd started about workers in my father’s candy factory, a novel that would take thirteen years to complete and another thirteen to publish: The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts, which won the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel in 2001.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
American realists, such as Yates, Tim O’Brien, and James Alan McPherson, and the 19th century Russians and Continental masters they followed, from Tolstoy to Flaubert. Also forty years of rereading and teaching Shakespeare, the American Short Story, and Contemporary Memoir, as well as editing Ploughshares and anthologies, such as Sorrow’s Company. After my factory novel, I turned from fiction to writing memoir and personal essays about my family background, and the foreground of my midlife struggles as a writer, husband, and parent. I published Safe Suicide, then Sweet Dreams: A Family History, and Visions of a Wayne Childhood. A fourth memoir, Endings and Beginnings, remains unpublished, but finishes the story. Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time was a deep inspiration, as were other memoirs he inspired, such as Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.
Once I retired from teaching and could write full time, I surprised myself by writing short, lyrical essays, such as “On Weather” and “On Cursing” (MR was an early supporter!). I had my mind’s life in mind, and what I thought of as Shakespeare’s abstract themes and topics, which drew on Montaigne’s essays. My poet friend, John Skoyles, encouraged me to build these towards a book, and to think of them as poems: associational, witty, playing with ideas and words, riffing like jazz or assembling fragments (and quotes) like collage. Inspiration, again, ranged from Hamlet’s broodings to Stephen Dedalus’s stream of consciousness. After two years, I had 21 such essays, and the collection, Sweet Marjoram: Notes and Essays, will appear from Plume Editions/Mad Hat Press later this year. The topics, key words, and concepts I explore emerge from our culture as well as my personal life: time, voice, blood, touch, empathy, and so on. The most rewarding words open into fields of meaning. Some carry collective wisdom. Some invoke new research and discoveries. Some reveal outmoded agendas and biases, or promise new ones. The adventure is in how, rather than in what, to think.
What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve been a literary editor, publisher, arts administrator and advocate. And I’ve been a teacher for love and livelihood at Emerson College. I’m also a freelance critic, championing work and writers ignored by the mainstream. Most recently I’ve been exploring the universe of online publishing, and have reviewed nearly 100 literary sites for The Woven Tale Press, an online literary and arts monthly. I also volunteer as a contributing prose editor for Solstice.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be a printer, actually, and began writing to have something to print. I began with rubber type, and graduated to lead type and platen presses, and then to offset printing and computers.
What inspired you to write this piece?
The normalization and denaturing of our language for insult and outrage. The prevalence of profanity in the media and public discourse. Our anger and its failure of imagination.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
The Philadelphia suburb, Wayne, where I grew up, overlayed by the Boston suburb, Watertown, where I’ve lived since marriage and grad school.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Up early with a fresh mind before email and social media can distract me. Break for physical workout, running or gym, in early afternoon, and for family in the evening. But mainly I am listening out and once I’m onto something I pursue it 24/7.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My wife, daughter, and kindred, trusted friends.
What are you working on currently?
Revisions of two books: Endings and Beginnings and a novel. And more essays.
What are you reading right now?
Two essay collections, both about “translation” of identities (Objects of Affection by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough) and re-location (Voices, Places by David Mason).
DeWITT HENRY was the founding editor of Ploughshares. He has published a novel, two memoirs, a story collection, and several anthologies. He is a professor emeritus at Emerson College, and is a contributing editor to Woven Tale Press and Science magazine. Plume Editions will publish a collection of his lyrical essays later this year.