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Poets of the Dark: Interview with R. Leigh Hennig


R. Leigh Hennig is an author, editor, and poet living amongst the memories of witches and other dark things in coastal New England. His work has appeared in anthologies that have been finalists for the Bram Stoker Award, and that have won the Saturday Visitor Award for works inspired by Poe (so named after the prize won by Poe himself). Find him at https://semioticstandard.com, Twitter, or Mastodon.

What sparked your interest in horror poetry? Was there a particular event or work that inspired you to delve into the darker side of poetry?

I never really understood poetry. I struggled with it for years, both as a reader and as a writer, until I heard someone—I think it was Anselm Berrigan—describe it this way: Poetry is a machine you put people through. And then it just clicked. That was the moment where it fell into place for me, and unlike prose (with which my relationship has always been a slow, iterative kind of process), the transition from confused frustration to comfortable acceptance was immediate. That’s not to say that poetry is easy for me (is it for anyone?), but like realizing what a chisel is meant for, I could at least begin to work with this new tool in ways I couldn’t before. 

Can you describe your creative process when writing horror poetry? Do you have any rituals or techniques that help you tap into your darkest fears and bring them to life on the page?

My poetic creative process is similar to how I approach prose: I concentrate on painful or troublesome memories, and then I begin to mine for ore. I almost always work from a specific trauma from my past. My ideal reader is someone who can look at something I’ve written and natively understand what I’m trying to invoke because some part of them has lived that experience. Everyone knows for example what spoiled laundry left in the washing machine for too long smells like, but it’s the reader that gets flashbacks to when their mother passed out on the couch from another overdose and didn’t switch the laundry for two days…whatever it takes to invoke that connection, that’s what I’m trying to do. I start from those painful memories, then I work backward. Accordingly, my work frequently deals with things such as poverty, abuse, addiction, and abandonment.

How do you balance the need to be evocative and disturbing with the constraints of poetic structure and form? Are there any particular strategies you use to create tension and build suspense in your horror poems?

I don’t know how other poets develop the structures their works take, but for me, form is secondary. I think of the place I want to get to when I’m done with a piece, then I do whatever it takes to get there. What things look like when I’m finished—the structure presented on the page—is just a byproduct of the process. 

Who are some of your favorite horror poetry inspirations? Are there any authors or poets whose work you admire and draw inspiration from when crafting your own dark verse?

Obviously not a horror poet, but I’m immensely inspired by Bashō. The meditative quality of his work, the way he isolates an emotion and an image, it’s just sublime. He was like a surgeon. And then there are more contemporary poets that do some radical stuff that I really appreciate, like Caroline Bergvall. It took me a long time to really understand her work, but when I did, it was liberating, like I understood finally that I’d been given permission.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring horror poets who want to explore the genre? Are there any particular challenges or pitfalls they should be aware of, and how can they overcome them to create truly terrifying poetry?

Ah man, it all comes back to that machine I talked about earlier, you know? If prose is a conversation, then poetry is a violent interrogation. It’s thinking of what you want to look like once you’ve come through the other end of the machine and saying, ‘Right, cut the bullshit, how do I do this to you? How do I do this to myself?’ So maybe don’t think so much about rules, formality, practicality. I’m not saying these things aren’t helpful or important. Structures like 5-7-5 serve a purpose, absolutely, but maybe think of them more like tools in service of the product, instead of the doctrine they’re traditionally considered and taught as. If you’ve done it right, then we exit that machine together, each of us rearranged in our own way. 

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