Gretchen E. Henderson

by Kendra Schynert, former Fourteen Hills PR Editor

Gretchen E. Henderson’s work crosses genres  with remarkable ease and fluidity. Her piece, "Red Shift," was featured in Fourteen Hills 14.2.

She has been featured in numerous journals including The Iowa Review, ElevenEleven,The Kenyon Review, and Denver Quarterly. Her novel, Gallerie De Difformitè, exists both in printed form and as a continuing collaborative deformation which can be found at http://difformite.wordpress.com/. She is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at MIT and metaLAB Fellow at Harvard. Gretchen lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and their shepherd mutt. 

Fourteen Hills: I’ve been reading your Galerie de Difformité and was impressed by the variance and complexity. What gap do you think a publication like that fills? How has it surprised you? Has it accomplished what you envisioned? Has it surpassed your expectations?

Gretchen Henderson: Thanks for your kind words and thoughtful questions. Galerie de Difformité does not fill a gap so much as gesture to gaps, which any reader can help fill. It’s a mash-up and re-mix of multiple genres, subjects, histories, and voices that unfold through the form of a choose-your-own-adventure art catalogue: a “baggy monster” of a novel (as Henry James once described that genre). Shape-shifting in different hands, its monstrosity becomes chameleon-like in the eyes of any beholder. I have been investigating the book as a kind of narrated body and poetics of space, whose dimensions question how we read and represent not only books but also bodies in the world around us. Although the project began in 2004, it’s only in beginning stages and has barely begun to accomplish what I envisioned. It’s networked through a number of disciplines that might be unpacked and extended. The novel has surprised me, suggesting a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, as it unfolds in time through collaborative participation in its deformation. It’s an experiment in slow reading, writing and unwriting, among other things, with influences ranging from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to Grover’s The Monster at the End of this Book to John Cage’s As SLow aS Possible (a performance occurring over 600 years).

FH: Difformité makes constant revision and transformation possible, making it a living publication. Was this your initial goal? Would you say you approach all your work with similar expectations?

Henderson: I consider this book to be living, absolutely. Part of the appeal of the choose-your-own-adventure format is that readers must activate or neglect the book through any number of options. The collaborative dimension keeps the book growing (or dying) like a living organism. Depending on what choices are made, the book talks back through cautionary exclamations and other gestures that draw attention to our inherited strategies of reading and varied literacies: textual and visual and otherwise, linearly turning pages, writing in margins, following or breaking “rules.” Since the Galerie de Difformité deforms in varied media, I hope that it subtly reflects the changing nature of the book: a mutable medium, not merely an inert artifact on its deathbed, a technology and art that performs the dynamic potential of its form. Each of my books holds a different set of expectations, tuned to each project’s internal logic, finding its own balance between content and form. My other novel, The House Enters the Street, structures interwoven stories around musical modulation; my book of nonfiction, On Marvellous Things Heard, questions its voice through accumulating micro-essays about literary appropriations of music and silence; my poetry chapbook, Wreckage: By Land & By Sea, weds itself to cartographic history. Different as these projects are, metamorphosis seems to be a recurring theme.

FH: What influences are in Difformité? What authors/artists influence your work in general?

Henderson: The influences on Difformité are wide and deep. On page 247, the novel’s Appendix is “removed by appendectomy” (in keeping with the analogy of the book as a kind of body) with a QR code that leads online to a 28-page document of endnotes (called “buttnotes,” also in keeping with the analogy of the book as a kind of body). Therein lies a trail that starts to answer your question about influences, with much more between the lines.

FH: What are you reading right now?

Henderson: I’m immersed in a range of research for my next book, Ugliness: A Cultural History (Reaktion Books), and readings for classes that I’m teaching at MIT on “Creative Writing and Visual Culture: Writing in the Museum” and “(un)Writing the Book,” plus gathering readings for a week-long workshop that I’ll be teaching this summer at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop (with the book artist, Ellen Sheffield) called “The Literary Hybrid.” My current stack of books hovers around varied criticisms and catalogues of somatic engagements, museums and curatorial strategies, bodies in art, acoustics, translations of sound and silence, book history, artists’ books and e-books. This past year, I’ve also been doing a lot of re-reading through proofing, including the transfer of work between print into digital forms, reflecting on what’s lost and found in that translation.

FH: What do you wish you were reading right now?

Henderson: So much! My wish list is long. We live in such a vibrant period with an amazing array of books across literature, and beyond, with publishing projects that are asking us to rethink what writing is, where it came from, where it’s going. These questions arise again and again in history, so our moment isn’t unique, resonating with other periods that generate questions about the present and future. It’s really inspiring to witness so many engagements with writing and reading, from print to virtual forms, and in-betweens. Journals like Fourteen Hills play an important role in creating a space for writing that engages these questions and takes risks, also encouraging conversations around hybrid and cross-genre work.

FH: What writing trends excite you? Why? Are there any trends you feel have been exhausted or poorly realized? If so, why?

Henderson: Trends don’t excite me, per se, because much of what claims to be “new” already came before and is being rediscovered in our era of the postmodern, postconceptual, posthumanist mash-up and re-mix. Not that I don’t love much of this stuff (and write it, too). But I’m interested in works that move beyond gimmick and gadget, commercial packages, media splash and intellectual acrobatics, into something that heats up our hearts and that explores diverse sensory engagements and embodiments. Often this doesn’t take place at the center but margins (which is always a problematic categorization, because one person’s margin is another’s center). Etymologically and ecologically, the fabrics of our languages offer thresholds because they help to reorient us through disorientation. The other night I attended a lecture by the linguist, K. David Harrison, who travels the world to engage the last speakers of endangered languages. He talked about how in Tuva (a country also known for its extraordinary throat-singing), native speakers locate the past in front of their bodies, with the future at their backs, since it can’t be seen or known yet. That makes so much sense! Learning alternate ways of navigating the world is vital to question our inherited narrative and poetic strategies, to open up our imaginations and practices. (An example in Spanish that I love is the question ¿Cómo amaneciste? that translates “How did you dawn?” rather than “How did you sleep?” placing an emphasis on wakefulness). I’m not a linguist but love language, and it seems vital to encourage linguistic diversity so we don’t place ourselves at the center of our practices. Jim Ferris describes this in terms of “crip poetry,” which carries the potential for “a transformation in consciousness, not only the consciousness of the poet and the reader, but the potential to transform the world, to make the world in which we live roomier … to make more space in the imagination, and so in the culture, for the wide and startling variety of rich and fulfilling ways that real people live and love, work and play in this world.” It cultivates a kind of sustainability.

FH: How would you characterize your relationship with parentheses and avant-garde use of punctuation?

Henderson: Part of my interest arises from engaging the page as a notated space, like music. It’s an invitation for performance, but not the performance itself, and can be performed using the notation as a guide for literal or improvised reading. Aesthetically, there’s a rich tradition of typographic and related play in avant-garde literature and music. White space is an important consideration, like Stéphane Mallarmé described it “as a surrounding silence.” Each of my books sets up their own relationships with varied forms, deploying rhythmic and thematic logics in different ways. Back in college, I taught for a summer at a nonprofit organization called The Family School (dedicated to providing education and social services to single mothers on welfare), and one of my colleagues who had taught there for years said simply to students: “To effectively break language, you first must learn how to effectively make it.” That has stayed with me over the years. Language has all kinds of possibilities that can be calibrated and tuned, if we attend to their potential as sound states, visual or rhythmic fields, synesthetic fusions, and more, embedded in words that make up our world.

FH: Do you have a consistent writing routine? If so, run us through it.

Henderson: My writing routine isn’t consistent, rather evolving. No fountain pens, or favorite journals, or writing marathons. Creative writing seems to be tied to creative living; since life is always changing, it’s a matter of staying flexible and adapting to new conditions. At this point, I prefer to write in mornings, where at an earlier point in life I was a night owl. I’m not a sprinter and take a lot of breaks, working slowly. One consistency among shifting habits is my use of assistive technologies, currently Fingerworks (whose touch technology became the basis for iPads and iPhones) and before that Dragon NaturallySpeaking (whose voice-recognition was very poor when I started using it back in 2000, yielding discoveries, albeit frustratingly). “Writing” is thus broadly defined for me—not precious or static, but moving and changing. Walking has been an important part of my writing, if metaphysically, a space for ruminating while moving. I’m interested in moving further into intra-textual terrains of text. Years ago, I had entirely different habits, which is why I come back to the concept of “creative living” as integral to “creative writing.”

FH: Do have a favorite piece of unpublished work? What about published?

Henderson: I’m intrigued by the tradition of unfinished symphonies and also love archives, where many one-of-a-kind ephemera sit neglected, the fodder of footnotes. If you’re asking about a piece of my own, I guess that I learned a lot about writing through one of my early stories called “Las Vueltas” (first published in The Iowa Review, also part of my novel, The House Enters the Street).

FH: If you could resurrect one dead author from anywhere in history to critique your work who would it be and why? If you could steal one fictional character and play with them in your own work totally scot-free, who would it be? Why? If you could collaborate with any visual artist living or dead who would it be? Why?

Henderson: This little treasure box of a question yields more questions. My answers would change daily. One wish begets another, like for the critique: John Cage, Clarice Lispector, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Gloria Anzaldúa, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Laurence Sterne, Aristotle, Anon (in the sense of anonymous writers across history), so many more. Each for different reasons. As for stealing a fictional character, I did that with Dante’s Beatrice and have been toying with other options. There are so many artists who I’d love to collaborate with, I don’t even know where to begin!

FH: What do you do to take a break from writing?

Henderson: Hanging out with my husband and friends, walking our dog, hiking, tai chi, swimming, singing, engaging with other arts, collaborating, teaching, visiting museums, getting lost and finding my way back to wherever “here” is at the time.

FH: What is an unWriter? Any advice for aspiring unWriters? Any reading lists to go with that advice?

Henderson: There are lots of artistic analogies to unwriting through unmaking—like unweaving, as Penelope did in The Odyssey. Different traditions of weavers left an imperfection in their weavings, and I’m interested in how this process can be experienced through text. You don’t really understand something unless you understand its making, forward and back. As I write in The House Enters the Street, “Progress to you is unlearning as much as learning, unknotting what has been tied, so your story unravels (the meaning of dénouement, after all)." We’re habituated to certain strategies of reading, writing, living—and by unmaking our activities, we’re able to explore more of their potential. Unwriting the book becomes a way to do this, physically and metaphysically dismantling the book to put it back together again, in re-imagined forms.

Read Gretchen E. Henderson's work in Fourteen Hills 14.2

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