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…