Interview with Ben Heins

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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.

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Review of “Greatest Hits + B-Sides” by Ben Heins

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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.