I read this poetry chapbook in one sitting. I didn’t mean to read it that fast. I wanted to read a few poems to get a feel for what the chapbook is about and the writing style of Ben Heins. After I read the collection, I needed to do something normal because I was so blown away by the poems (which if you follow me at all, you know I’m not easily impressed with poetry).  I figured I should eat something because eating is normal. I made a chicken potpie. I don’t remember eating it. I kept walking around the room muttering curse words because this collection was so damn good.

I needed to find out more about this poet and the collection. Hence, the interview below:

 

Wittle: What poets and/or books are your reading now?

Heins: My main man for the past few months has been Andrew Hudgins. He taught me to dig deeper into the philosophy behind the metaphors of the poems I’m writing – to fully explore every aspect of an image or thought – and it’s made for longer, more intense poetry. But lately, I’ve returned to Mark Doty. He is truly a master at pulling at his readers’ heartstrings using the grit and spit of reality. These kinds of poets keep me up at night. They scare me. And really, I want to read poetry that leaves me in awe – because that’s where the true learning happens.

Wittle: As you were writing the poems in the collection, what was influencing you the most? It could be what you were reading, learning, hearing, it doesn’t matter. I’m curious what outside noise seeped into your poems.

Heins: The funny thing is that these fourteen poems were culled from four years of writing, so this is literally my best-of collection for my beginning years. In retrospect, the biggest inspiration across those four years was the ever-changing landscape of personal relationships and the looming potential – or reality – of losing these wonderful people. Coping with these changes, of course, was never easy, and always left more questions than answers. So I suppose that’s the noise I needed: questions. And it’s not like the poems answered much. But they were close – they were the only tangible things I could hold in the storm.

Wittle: Also, I’m curious about the poems placement in the collection. How did you settle on this particular progression?

Heins: The manuscript itself went through about four full drafts. At one time, there were twenty-eight poems in it. As I kept reading and learning to simplify my work, I started heading in a new direction with my writing. This, then, made me go back to the manuscript with a chainsaw and leave only the poems I thought were truly exceptional.

Ordering the “Greatest Hits” section was a dance of sorts. I wanted to weave the characters in at just the right times. For example, Dave appears in the first poem briefly and then gets his own piece toward the end. Len bookends the section, but in the middle are two different “fathers”: a grandfather and a paternal father. I also wanted to have “Untied” back up against “Jessica: The Distance” because they both deal with women and intimacy – but I had to avoid the creepy implications, of course.

I wanted the “B-Sides” section to end with a bonus track to stick with the music theme of the manuscript, but the other three poems all have an A-side in the “Greatest Hits” section. “A Hallmark Writer” echoes “Where Len Lies” because it touches on the pitfalls of the publishing process; “The Cloudrunner” is for my mother, and “Pilot Light” is about my father. There’s a snarkiness in “Exit” being the B-side of “Haiku for Allentown” in that they both involve cars. Of course, they’re all very different poems. This was just my way of wrapping everything in a neat package. What can I say? I’m a nerd. I wanted this manuscript to be as true to the title as possible.

Wittle: Explain what you mean by the poems being, “Mixed by”?

Heins: In sticking to the title and the idea of making the manuscript like an album, I wanted to further authenticate everything by adding “song” credits. Everyone who helped me edit these poems received a credit as a “mixer.” Again, I’m a nerd.

Wittle: Dr. Len Roberts played a large role in your creative development. Speak about how this relationship came about and what you feel you have gained the most from the relationship?

Heins: I first met Len in his poetry workshop at Northampton Community College. After the class ended, we stayed in contact at least once a month, either in person or via email, until his death in 2007. This may sound like a very traditional mentorship, but in reality, Len taught me not only about poetry, but also about life, peace, kindness, and so many other essential traits that have shaped me as a person. Learning about poetry, actually, was second to me learning to be the best person I can be – and that’s Len for you. He was just a dynamite individual.

With poetry, though, Len taught me to be completely honest with myself. Sometimes it is difficult to cut through my own B.S. and truly get to the root of the poem. Sometimes I’m afraid to offend people with my honesty – especially in the poems you’ll read in this book. But those are the dark places that a poet must go to find absolution. A poem is equally for the poet as it is for the audience, and if they are both moved through that art, the poem is successful. Len also taught me the glory of free verse and how poetry does not need to be cryptic or alienating. Really, he laid the groundwork, and from there, I continue to grow.

Wittle: In the poem, “Ben Is” the narrator looks at himself through the lens of the 21 century and realizes he is not part of this world. Or maybe better stated, he does not want to be part of this world. The line, “I was all of my years at once” is fantastic. Could you discuss what sparked this poem into existence?

 

Heins: This poem was primarily inspired by Tony Hoagland’s “A Color of the Sky” – a poem that, I feel, manages to capture the entire landscape of life in a single page. “Ben Is” is certainly about the friction of living in the 21st Century and attempting to stay true to oneself. The poem is dedicated to Len because he had an ancient heart – a very giving, kind heart – and I feel that in me. Putting that heart in a world where interpersonal communication has devolved into text messages and Facebook status updates creates great conflict. I still don’t have a Facebook page. I refuse to get one. I still play with G.I. Joes and engage in fierce games of tag with my nieces and nephews, because in reality, a person is the product of all the years they have lived. Suppressing the child inside is the equivalent of soul-killing. And in the 21st Century, it is now more difficult than ever to exercise imagination and pure personal freedom.

 

Wittle: In “Jessica: The Distance” you have two lives running parallel. Jessica at 15 and the narrator at 21 and the narrator wants Jessica to use his life as “a guide”.  This poem is gut-wrenchingly good.  How did you come to the point of knowing that was how the poem should be read?

Heins: Ultimately, I wrote this poem out of fear. My niece was headed down a troubling life path, and I helped her turn around and start on a more positive road. The poem’s form, then, mirrored that journey. When she was lost in the wrong crowd, there was a massive disconnect between us, and it felt as though she could not be reached. But when she pulled through, I realized that I inspired her to redirect her life just as much as she inspired me, years earlier, to part ways with a similar crowd.

Wittle: “Read This Fast” sounds like a modern day take on Ginsberg’s “Howl”.  This poem looks at the deterioration of Grandpa and the family’s response. In this poem you capture the liquidation of the brain and the family’s inability to catch up.  How did this poem start? Was it a single thought or a rolling rapid of them?

Heins: The poem was forged in frustration – and really, that’s the theme. I couldn’t fully understand what was happening to my grandfather, and therefore, when I went to organize my words into neat little lines, the entire poem collapsed. I had to let it rip. I had to let my anger come out in full force because otherwise, I was being dishonest. In reality, “Read This Fast” had to be written with no boundaries, no censorship. This was a rollercoaster of words when it finally came forth, and when I finished writing the first draft I was mentally exhausted. It took a long time for me to read it without crying – and I suppose that speaks to the poem’s heart more than anything else.

Wittle: “Exit” is another favorite of mine. You give such a visual of the car given over the elements and nature. Your word choice is crisp and concrete. How many drafts did it take you to get this poem to that point?

Heins: Four. At first, I made this a personal poem, and its original title was “I’m Lucky to Have You.” It’s laughable now, because the final product is very distant and ominous, and it’s infinitely more effective. But in 2009, when I first wrote this, I thought it would be a snapshot of the aftermath of a really bad car wreck, with the last line being the title. Keeping it, instead, as an overturned car left in the woods leaves much more to the imagination.

Wittle: Which one of these poems in this chapbook was the most difficult for you to allow to be published and why?

Heins: If I had to pick a single poem, I couldn’t. At least six poems in the “Greatest Hits” section are extremely close to home, and to be honest, it scares me to think people in my family have read those poems. A handful of my family members don’t even know the book is out. I’m sure they will figure it out eventually, but I’m afraid they will not understand that these poems had to be this way for art’s sake. My niece is now almost as old as I was when I wrote “Jessica: The Distance,” and she gets it. She appreciates the poem because it was true to our lives. But on the other hand, I would never dream of showing “Read This Fast” to my 90-year-old grandparents. I preach honesty in art, but artists must also be honest with themselves. When someone is creating art involving real people, and showing that art to the characters directly involved, they must be prepared for any and all consequences. How’s that for honesty?

 

I want to thank Ben Heins for not only allowing me to pick his brain with these questions, but for being so open and honest in his work and this interview. To order the book, go to http://www.vagabondagepress.com/bookpreviews/benheinsgreatesthits.html.

Ben Heins

Greatest Hits + B-Sides

Vagabondage Press  2012 (http://vagabondagebookscom.ipage.com/bookstore/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=3&products_id=52)

Review by

MaryAnn L. Miller

In Ben Heins Greatest Hits+ B-Sides, Ben Heins describes in his poem “A Hallmark Writer,” “—the raw, unmoving movement of a heart.” There is a sensation of one’s heart stopping that recurs throughout this collection of wrenching songs from the throat of a young poet lamenting the losses of his mentor, his friend, a lover, his father’s presence, his niece’s innocence, and the dementia of a beloved grandfather.

The collection is an extended metaphor for an album of single releases written like rock anthems full of anguish, resignation, and finally hope. The baby on the cover holding a 78 vinyl disc almost as big as he is becomes the man in the last poem “What Billy Joel Taught Me” imparting the wisdom gained from attending a concert with “someone…memorable” and experiencing transcendence: “Sing every word you know, and every word you don’t.”

Heins sings.  He wails. In the first poem of the collection “Ben Is” Heins growls and shouts and spurts truncated text talk trying to explain to his mentor, Len Roberts how, “things have changed since you’ve been gone.” One has the distinct sense that Heins is also trying to explain things to himself in this review of life without his treasured friend.  The last two lines settle the anguish into perspective “…just as I reached for you, the oak trees were mere toothpicks in the cosmos.”

“Jessica: The Distance” expresses the intertwined kinship Heins has with his niece who is also experiencing being young in America and surviving. The juxtaposition of Jessica’s imagined sexual adventures with Heins’s similar experiences is on the page as side-by-side poems that might be read separately or straight across like a hemistich or half-line form. The straight across reading blends their lives into a “Sacred distance, you cannot divide, that which was carved out of air, and burned to blood long ago.” The truth of genetic connection is expressed so poignantly as this very physical poem leaps back and forth through family heritage.

The cadence, the repetition, the futility of “Read this Fast” is like a one-person call-and-response as Heins rails against his grandfather’s dementia. He shouts out but the answer he gets is an expansion of his grief coming back at him. We learn about his grandfather’s memories through Heins’s exasperation at the stranger-making condition that has invaded his family. We have the sense that there is no language strong enough for the horror of this loss.

And Heins does use powerful language. In “Twenty-One Guns” a “post-hurricane…” phrase: “…like all we had to do was clean up, and it would be over; like the grass never leaned on the concrete sidewalks, a good lump building in its throat.” Again, from “A Hallmark Writer,”

“The same guy who shopped his poetry chapbook, written in long, curse-ridden lines, for seven years, and was rejected, rejected like an Alaskan hunter, who wanted flame to sprout on a frozen lake.” From “The Cloudrunner (for my mother)” “No thoughts of darkness; no memory of despair—I am forever free. I will run on this air forever because it taught me how to breathe.”

In order to sing, one must know how to breathe. The poet sings, however, you may find yourself holding your breath as you read Ben Heins Greatest Hits.

MaryAnn L. Miller, (maryannlmiller@gmail.com), MFA is the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Miller’s debut book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books.

Wittle: For me, I have this poem I call “The Diana” poem that seriously haunts me. I’ve been trying to work on it for two years and I can’t hit on the right way to access the poem. Have you found yourself in a similar situation? How did you overcome it?

Heins: I’ve had three poems, specifically, that fell into this “limbo” phase you describe. My “Dianas” have been painstakingly difficult to polish off, and to this day, I still avoid reading them at all costs. However, they are three of my best poems. To pull these poems out of limbo, I had to use a different trick with each piece. One was about my father, and after over a dozen revisions, re-writes, and the like, I’d given up. My father and I have had a very strange, distant relationship these past six years, and the words simply weren’t there. But one day, him and I sat down at a family gathering and lost ourselves in good memories we shared together before those six years hit. Hours later, I was at home, and I started writing. I opened the many old drafts of my “dad poem” and reused the imagery that struck me most. Reconnecting with the actual subject of a piece helps stir the pot, but saving all of those killer images from earlier drafts adds necessary spice.

Another one of the three dealt with an experience that was completely imagined. So, naturally, the reason it remained in limbo was because my imagination wouldn’t let loose the way I hoped it would. Oddly enough, the thing that saved the poem was form – specifically, a terzanelle. It took hours to write, but once it came out, I felt the strongest sense of relief and accomplishment.

Really, Kenny Rogers said it best: you got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Save everything, and if something still calls to you, give it space and try shaking it up – it’s worth pursuing.

Miller: Oddly enough, in light of my last answer, I write around it by making a story about it and how I feel about writing it. I try to keep the original inspiration for the poem out of it and let it change itself. Sometimes a list of lines rawly written and then rearranged helps.

Pollack: I have several poem ideas that I just can’t seem to get down in a successful poem.  I’ve heard other poets use a jazz trope to describe this: I don’t have “the chops” to write that poem.  Obviously, I haven’t remedied this inability, but I assume that if I keep writing poems my skills, my “chops” will develop, and I’ll find my way to the language and form necessary to realize those unrequited poems.

Todd: Why not see an unfinished poem as a step toward a poem that will be realized?  Writing is a process. I am always writing what I can’t figure out how to write yet. If I’m not writing ahead of myself, how can a poem be a discovery, or as Denise Levertov proposed in her poem “Overland to the Islands,” “. . . every step an arrival”? But if the poem is too far beyond my ken, then I have the experience you’re having. I can feel something that I can’t access. If that feeling lingers, sometimes I’ll go in search of a painting or a piece of music that may carry me closer to the tone or color that I can’t reach in the poem. Other times, fresh air is needed, as Kenneth Koch reminded us in his foresightful poem. Then I’ll go for a walk in the city or a ramble in the woods to clear the thicket of tangled images and wrong turns through which I’ve lost my way to the poem. But often, the poem is unsolvable and unresolvable, and I put it away. I may revisit it intermittently or forget it for months or years or forever. It’s dormant and I’m dormant to it unless it pushes up when I am more ready to understand it. For the most part, poems that get put away for more than a few months are not survivors but they lead to poems that do take life.

 

Wittle: What advice have you been given with regards to writing and publishing you would like to pass on to another writer?

Heins: The best bits of writing advice I can give would be to learn the ropes in poetry, read the authors that move you most, and finally, let it rip. If you ever feel comfortable in your voice, or you feel like you’ve mastered some aspect of poetry, take a left and do something new.

For publishing, you should first seek other poets that can help you refine your work. Then, purchase Poet’s Market. Take an afternoon and a highlighter and pick publications in that book that you think would enjoy reading your work. Submit relentlessly and never fear rejection. As you build publication credits, consider creating a manuscript, and then shop that until a publisher picks it up. Always do readings when time allows. Rinse, repeat.

But the fact is, all poets have different processes. The one thing no one told me when I was starting out was that a poet must learn his or her own process and embrace it. If one of your friends writes every single day at 8 a.m., facing southeast, and does yoga afterward don’t think that you have to follow suit.

Also, it is important for the poet to accept the fact that his or her process may change over time. The poet must stay in touch with the self, or else the act of creation will be unnatural.

Miller: Read other people’s work, take a publishing class if you can, e-publishing in particular.

Go to events to get to know the range of the publishing world near you and begin to make connections. It surprises me to discover what a small world it is.

Pollack: I heard George Saunders advise, in effect, to trust the market.  I vehemently disagreed at the time because the literary market seems so fickle.  However, in the process of putting together Spit Back a Boy, I noticed that I went from receiving rejections, to polite rejections, to encouraging rejections, to encouragement until I was named a finalist for a contest and then won the Cave Canem Prize.  At each rejection or encouragement, I went back to the desk and revised the manuscript and made the poems stronger.  The market was telling me that the collection wasn’t ready.  That said, I’m still not sure I entirely trust what seems the bias and capriciousness of the market, but perhaps I just don’t understand it.

Todd: My mentors have given simple advice on writing that I pass along to my students.

Keep at it. Daily, if possible. At the same time each day, if possible. If you show up to write every day, the writing will show up too and you’ll be there to receive it.

Read deeply: slow down, even read aloud the work of writers you admire.

Read shallowly: skim what interests you, graze whatever the subject or form or footnote catches your attention for the sweet nugget you didn’t know you needed until you read it.

Draft or revise a few poems at a time. Allow them to trigger each other. When one bores you or stumps you, turn to another.

Writing a poem is practicing an art. Publishing is practicing a career. Each has its value. It’s best not to confuse them.

 

I would just like to thank the four poets for allowing me to pick their brains about my questions. I admire all your work and am truly grateful you could take the time to do this for me. All the best-MM

Poet’s Bios:

Ben Heins is the author of the electronic chapbook, Greatest Hits & B-Sides, by Vagabondage Press (www.vagabondagepress.com), set to be released this spring.”

MaryAnn L. Miller, MFA is the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Miller’s debut book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books.

Iain Haley Pollock’s first collection of poetry, Spit Back a Boy (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Prize.  Previously, his work had appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Callaloo.  Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches English at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and poetry at the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College.

J. C. Todd’s most recent volume of poems is What Space This Body. Poems have appeared in The Paris Review and other journals. She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA Program at Rosemont College. Awards include a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and two Leeway Awards.

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