"I think my voice. . .comes partly at least from things I’ve been told not to do in poetry. I feel like forever, throughout my life as a poet, I’m the type of person who if you tell me not to do something I will find a way to do it. But I’ll want to do it well so I can prove that the person who told me not to do it was wrong." --Henrietta Goodman
The following highlights are from a conversation with Henrietta Goodman about her award-winning collection of poems, All That Held Us. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: Where does your voice come from?
Henrietta Goodman: I think my voice, if we’re talking about the voice of my poems—the way my speaker speaks—comes partly at least from things I’ve been told not to do in poetry. I feel like forever, throughout my life as a poet, I’m the type of person who if you tell me not to do something I will find a way to do it. But I’ll want to do it well so I can prove that the person who told me not to do it was wrong. I don’t want to do it and fail because that would just mean I should take advice better.
A lot of things like, using adjectives for example. . . particularly when I was in the MFA a long time ago adjectives were out of fashion—for good reason—because if you have the most precise noun and verb than you more likely don’t need an adjective. On the other hand, something that was really fun, particularly in the book, has been putting them back it and realizing that’s a voice issue as much as it is an issue of precision of language. So I can be precise in my language and I can choose to layer some adjectives.
Voice voice, like speaking voice, came from North Carolina.
What’s funny to me is that my other first question for you was “How are you rebellious in your poetry?”
Oh. We covered that.
And I think you just answered that.
Oh well. . . there is another thing, though, that I think I—I don’t know if it’s being rebellious—but it is something that I try to do. I was in a coffee shop downtown a few days ago, and the girl working, she rang me up and I paid and was waiting for my coffee and she said, “Are you a poet?”
And I said “Yeah, I am actually.”
And she said, “Do you have a poem about a placenta?”
And I said, “I do! How do you know that?”
She had been in Robert Stubblefield’s “Montana Writers Live” class when I came and spoke to them a few years ago. And I thought it was awesome that she remembered that poem because I do think that— when I wrote that poem—I was very aware that it was either going to be easy to publish or difficult to publish because it’s about—I don’t know if it’s even a body part—a temporary and disposable body part—which is part of what the poem was exploring. I really love it when poets are able to write about things that we would think of as being absolutely outside the realm of poetry. There’s a poem by Bill (William) Wenthe about having a colonoscopy. There’s a poem by Charles Bukowski about going to the hospital to have his boils on his face lanced. And so I’ve always really been drawn to those topics that people might say, like this young woman at the coffee shop said, “Oh, this really made me think about things I could write about in a different way.” And I thought, “Perfect. That’s great. That’s exactly what I wanted.” That might be being rebellious too.
There is something I find in your presence and in your work that is both shy and very bold, like petticoats and motorcycle boots, or like “innocence and guilt.” Where does the contrast come from in you?
I love that question because it’s something that I think about a lot, and maybe it’s present in the poems. It’s certainly present in me as a person partly because the people that I grew up with were fairly socially awkward and isolated. When I say [I grew up in] a household with no men, this was not just a household with no men living in the house. This was. . . my mother never went on a single date throughout my entire life. She had no male friends. I mean we had neighbors, of course, that we would see when we were out walking around the neighborhood. My aunt had never married, my grandfather (my grandmother’s husband) had died before I was born. So there were literally no relationships, whether those were friendships or romantic relationships, that I really observed and could use as models for how I would comport myself, or what I didn’t want to be like. Really very few relationships at all to observe other than those taking place right in my household. So I was very, very, very shy as a child. I was afraid of boys and men. Not afraid of being hurt by them, but just afraid of them because they were the other. I mean, they are the other, in some ways, but for me even more so because I simply was never around them. I was terribly shy. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become much less so. In fact a few years ago I took one of those quizzes online to determine whether one is an introvert or an extrovert, and I was very, very proud of the fact that according to this quiz I’m 51% extrovert. And I do feel that I am.
I wonder a lot about nature vs. nurture, not just for me but for everyone. I think we all wonder about it. I still am quite shy in a lot of situations but I also am very proud of myself for developing the social skills that I think a lot of children develop without having to think about it because it’s being modeled for them. I went to school, it’s not like I was completely isolated, but I was also very inwardly focused and so as an adult I think I had to consciously observe and imitate those social behaviors that maybe others have just internalized without having to think about it.
So I think I’m there. I think I’ve done it and I’m conscious of it and quite proud of it.
About the Book:
In this memoir-based sequence of linked Italian sonnets, a young woman considers and rejects the expectations of her repressive and eccentric all-female Southern family, navigating the myths and truths of home, sexuality, and love that shape adult identity.
About the Author:
Henrietta Goodman is the author of All That Held Us, published in 2018 as winner of the John Ciardi Prize from BkMk Press at the University of Missouri. Her first book, Take What You Want, won the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books and was published in 2007; her second book, Hungry Moon, was published in 2013 by the Mountain West Poetry Series at Colorado State University. She has received grants and residencies from the Montana Arts Council, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, Fishtrap, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Her poems and essays have recently been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and published in New England Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, Field, Guernica, Massachusetts Review, 32 Poems, and other journals. She lives in Missoula and teaches at the University of Montana and at Texas Tech