Interview: L.I. Henley

Lauren HenleyL.I. Henley was born and raised in Joshua Tree, CA. Her work has appeared in A River and Sound Review, River Styx, RHINO Magazine, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and other places. Her poems are the recipients of the Duckabush Prize in Poetry, the Academy of American Poets University Award, and the Orange Monkey Publishing Prize in Poetry. Her full-length manuscript, now titled Eyelets Under Sun, was a semi-finalist for Crab Orchard Review and a finalist for the Patricia Bibby First Book Award in 2013. She is author of two chapbooks, Desert with a Cabin View (Orange Monkey Press, 2013) and The Finding (forthcoming). She is co-founder and editor of Aperçus Quarterly, an online literary and art journal. She loves to interview writers and artists, read oodles of poetry, and hike with her husband and two dogs.

TCJWW: First, tell me about yourself. How long have you been writing? What got you interested in poetry?

Henley: Growing up as the only child of divorced parents in the Mojave desert village of Joshua Tree and its neighboring town of Landers, I had a lot of time to myself. I read a lot of books and plays and I wrote a lot of stories, mostly just to entertain myself, but also to work out some of the emotional issues that came with splitting my time between two deserts and two parents who were very different from each other. From a young age, writing stories helped me to rectify the opposing worlds I was traveling between.

I’m not sure if there was one person or one thing that got me interested in writing poetry—but, if I did have to choose one seminal piece that made me want to write better poetry, it was definitely Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which was part of the reading list for an AP Humanities course I took my junior year of high school. I felt, at the time, that even though I didn’t fully understand Prufrock’s preoccupations, I could feel his loneliness and disappointments. Without giving my younger self too much credit, I do think that I was attracted to poetry for its ability to convey complex emotions.

TCJWW: What was it like writing Desert With A Cabin View? Tell me about the experience of writing the book.

Henley: Oh, it was wonderful! My husband and I had four deeply satisfying and creatively charged months living in a cabin that my dad and step-mother owned at the time. The cabin itself was quite small, but the large bay windows looked out on Joshua Tree National Park. Returning to my place of origin as a happy adult was a priceless experience. I had just started to recover from an entire year of extreme illness, and Jonathan and I had just gotten married, so it was a time of rebirth and a renewal of creative energy. We woke up early, usually at sunrise and spent the first three or four hours of the day reading and writing. It was one of those times that might never be replicated—beautiful and brief and surrounded by life: King snakes, coral snakes, rattlers, flesh-necrotizing yellow-sac spiders, chuckwallas, and scorpions abounded. Oh, and the electrical storms that would go on and on in a mostly clear night sky. How could I not be pressed to the page every day? I had many pots boiling at one time—many serial poems came about, and Desert with a Cabin View was one of them.

TCJWW: I love how the title of the book, Desert With A Cabin View, gives readers an immediate image of the desert looking in and observing the speaker. Both the cabin and the desert are presented as characters in the book. I feel like many other poets present the poet as gazing upon nature. You beautifully flipped that into nature gazing at the poet. How did you come up with that image?

Henley: The narrator of Desert with a Cabin View, as you might have guessed, is a persona who isn’t exactly me but knows a lot about me. She is lonely; she believes at times that nature is interested in her daily life, the way most people believe there is a higher power keeping tabs on them. It’s a rather self-aggrandizing stance. However, this narrator is not receiving approval from nature, but, rather, judgment and mockery. The irony is that she has chosen to believe that nature is actively watching her only to disapprove of her life and make her feel guilty. Arguably she is more content when she is the observer and most distressed when she feels she is being observed—which I think most people can relate to.

I think I have always been given to personifying nature. As a kid, I wanted someone or something to talk to and be heard by. The bent, barnacled, hairy Joshua Trees are a real sight—something out of Dr. Seuss. They made for interesting conversation companions.

TCJWW: Each poem is titled by a number. Why did you choose to order your poems numerically rather than give them “word” titles? How did you choose which order to put them in?

Henley: I see Desert with a Cabin View as one long poem in twenty-one parts. It is my hope that the collection could also be read backwards or started from any place in the book and still form a somewhat cohesive storyline. The enumerated sections allow me to jump around in time and change the narrator’s tone.

TCJWW: In “6,” you personify dirt. What does dirt mean in this poem? Similarly in “2,” why does the speaker feel a need to clean what will just get dirty again (also in “7”)?

Henley: Anyone who lives in the desert knows what a pest dirt and dust are. The speaker’s inclination to clean may come across as odd and futile behavior until readers think about the nature of keeping house. Anyone who keeps their house or their car or their office space tidy does so knowing that within days or maybe hours, things will be dirty again. And yet, what do most of us continue to do? We clean away the dust and dirt that our bodies will one day return to.

TCJWW: Many of the poems (“1,” “10,” “13,” and “18”) deal with babies, pregnancy, or maternity. Tell me what the significance is of motherhood in these poems and what that means to the whole book.

Henley: Frankly, like a lot of women, I have been conflicted about motherhood since puberty. At twenty-six (that was five years ago—I’m almost thirty-one now) I started to show serious signs of endometriosis. This disease goes hand-in-hand with Celiac and Hashimoto’s Autoimmune Thyroiditis, which I also have. All three cause infertility while at the same time making you feel pregnant—bloating, back pain, intestinal pain, cramping, nausea, achy joints, fuzzy brain. Oh, boy! The narrator of DWACV is also conflicted about motherhood. In the first poem, which is a meditation of sorts, the narrator’s thoughts are interrupted by neighbors (or the mirage of neighbors, I’m not sure if they are really there) appearing outside her window. They are “holding their babies/ waving / trying to get [her] attention.” The neighbors represent a lifestyle she can’t really relate to; they are trying to get her attention, but they don’t fully receive it, engrossed in her own imagination as she is.

The image of the “morning dove” (intentionally spelled this way) is another repeated image. There was a mourning dove who had made a nest in the awning of the porch where we lived in Joshua Tree. She had apparently been creating generations of doves in that nest for several years—either it was the same dove or it was a shared nest. I saw her every morning when I went outside to write. One morning, towards the completion of DWACV, two of her babies fell out of the nest. We tried putting them back in the nest with gloved hands. They kept falling out and the mother got spooked. Within minutes, dark clouds had gathered and started dumping rain. We kept trying to get the babies back in the nest as the porch was starting to flood. Eventually we had to go back inside and hours later we found they both had drowned. The mother abandoned the nest and we never saw her again. It was heartbreaking. Every time we saw the empty nest, we felt the full weight of our failure; we had meddled with nature and done more harm than good. What drove us to think that we could interact with nature and be heroes? It was then I realized that I was not sharing a space with nature—I was invading nature’s space.

TCJWW: What are you up to now? Are you working on anything new?

Henley: Briefly, for the past five years, I have been working on two different full-length manuscripts, The Sleeping Cliffs and Eyelets Under Sun—the latter has been sent out again to various small presses. Eyelets Under Sun contains many serial poems, similar in theme and style to DWACV. To be more specific, the manuscript contains a ten-page poem about the infamous “shoe tree” in Amboy, CA, as well as a six page poem told from the point of view of a dog that lives with his homeless master.

I am also working on a collaboration with my husband and fellow co-editor of Aperçus Quarterly, poet Jonathan Maule. The collaboration chronicles my three-year struggle with multiple autoimmune diseases and is unique in that it offers both of our perspectives. I’m sure this sounds odd, but most of the poems are actually pretty funny. I suppose that means we have had enough distance from the really rough parts of what we went through. Jonathan is a truly gifted poet—and we have very different styles—so its invigorating to collaborate with him.

I’d like to end by giving a shout-out of gratitude to Orange Monkey Press for believing in Desert with a Cabin View, which is now being taught in a graduate poetry workshop at CSUSB. I am also excited to announce that Orange Monkey will soon be publishing my second chapbook, The Finding. There are so many excellent, fresh, beautiful books of poetry coming out of Orange Monkey—The Art of the Nipple by Michelle Bonzcek and Sis Fuss by Nikia Chaney are two of my favorites so far. OM is a small California press doing big things. Check them out at http://orangemonkeypublishing.net

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