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Searching for the Unfinished Self: An Interview with Dennis Hinrichsen

by Z.G. Tomaszewski

Z.G. Tomaszewski: For beginners, who are you? Where do you hail from and what sort of things, casual and profound, are you interested in?

Dennis Hinrichsen: I think I’m still trying to answer that first question. We build such elaborate fictions on such flimsy ground and are in such constant flux, that equation always seems unfinished. Neruda in his poem “We Are Many” offers perhaps the best answer when he says “he shall speak, not of self, but of geography.” Or context. Or the many tribes we all belong to. 

Currently, I hail from Lansing, Michigan, with stops in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Boston. 

As for casual things, I have some reading-related guilty pleasures that include noir, cyberpunk, and sci-fi. I also have far too many guitars for my marginal skill set. My focus lately has been on writing poems. I’m still fascinated by that and how to maintain a garage band energy and ethos even though I’ve been writing a long time.

ZGT: Tell me about your most recent project, Skin Music. What is this book all about? How did you come to orient it?

DH: My books take shape organically—I generally follow my interests and let one poem suggest another until I have an arc that hangs together. Do this for a year or two and you can’t help but have a pile of poems that connect in some way. The work then is to find the right order for those poems. This, often, can take a long time as you shuffle, reshuffle, deal again, drop poems out, put them back in, find a gap in the arc that requires a new poem. 

So Skin Music arose out of a couple of years of writing in just this manner. The key was finding the right title for the book and then seeing both "skin" and "music" as the baseline motifs that I hope keep the whole thing afloat.

As for what it’s about, I think it’s about placing self in a variety of landscapes (e.g., drowning in a river, witnessing a flood-ravaged neighborhood, visiting my mother in the nursing home, playing cards with a WW II Marine who has Parkinson’s) and then asking, “What is the upshot?” and then working through that to some provisional understanding, or bite of insight and consciousness. And to do it all with sharp visuals and music.

ZGT: What were some discoveries you made in the process of writing and arranging the manuscript?

DH: I’ve been writing a long time so most of the discoveries were made in the act of writing and finding things through that process. My mantra since the beginning comes from Marvin Bell and is simply: abandon yourself to the materials at hand. So the model has always been a jazz model, improvisation, and a journey to discover something new. That hasn’t changed in 40 years. 

What has changed is how I think about the materials. In this book I started thinking along creative non-fiction lines which opened up ideas I wouldn’t normally approach with a poem. It also offered up some prose/lyric hybrid-ish moments with a few of the poems that gave me another texture.

As for arranging the poems, it’s a question of pacing. There were some three to five-page poems in the manuscript so placing them correctly was an issue. And then handling the back and forth movement among couplets and triplets and un-stanza-ed poems. There is a reading rhythm to be found. There is upper limit on how long each section can be. And so on. 

I go through many drafts. I print out the poems and tape them head-to-tail and then hang them on my wall so I can see the book unfold all at once. And then I start moving things around until things are locked down.

ZGT: Are there any particular poets or poems that have transformed how you write?

DH: Geoff Dyer in his nonfiction book, Zona, argues that we are most open to artistic influences from late teens to early twenties and that those influences never wane. For him, it was the sci-fi film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. 

So too in my case, as I built an aesthetic bias and framework for writing poetry during the early seventies when I first started writing. So my source code includes all those writers who were moving from formal verse to free verse during that time and publishing amazing books: Phil Levine, James Wright, Richard Hugo, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin. The essays of Marvin Bell were central. William Carlos Williams was central. John Cage also entered during these years and has always maintained his position as the wild card in the deck. Jazz was central too for ideas about improvisation, so Miles Davis, Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner et al. were all important. Cinema was central as well—all those auteurs from the sixties and seventies. I’ve been influenced by a great many other things over the years but they have mostly been refinements and embellishments to what I already had.

ZGT: What, ultimately, are you trying to say as a writer, as a human?

DH: I don’t think I have anything to say as a writer, but I sure am interested in finding things to say through a process that results in poems. It’s a form of play for me, or scratching at the cave wall trying to get the shape of the bison just right. I just try to be open and follow where my interests, my reading, my thinking, my experience, take me.

ZGT: So, what's next?

DH: More poems. A slight shift in focus. Still too early to say much about them. But I’m still hard at it.

Z.G. Tomaszewski, born in 1989, lives in Grand Rapids where he works maintenance at an old Masonic Temple and is a founding member and events coordinator of Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters and co-director of Lamp Light Music Festival. His debut book, All Things Dusk, was the winner of the International Poetry Prize of 2014, chosen by Li-Young Lee and published by Hong Kong University Press, and his chapbook Mineral Whisper, composed while living in Ireland, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. New writing is forthcoming from RHINO, Green Mountains Review, and Inverness Almanac, among others.