"I scarcely dared to look/ to see what it was I was":
Matthew Hittinger & Christopher Hennessy

Christopher Hennessy is the author of the debut collection of poems, Love-In-Idleness (Brooklyn Arts Press), which was a finalist for this year's Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. He has also published Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets (University of Michigan Press). Hennessy earned an MFA from Emerson College and currently is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst. He was included in Ploughshares' special "Emerging Writers" edition, and his poetry, interviews, and book reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Verse, Cimarron Review, The Writer's Chronicle, The Bloomsbury Review, Court Green, OCHO, Crab Orchard Review, Natural Bridge, Wisconsin Review, Brooklyn Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. Hennessy is a longtime associate editor for The Gay & Lesbian Review-Worldwide. His writing has been anthologized in Divining Divas: 100 Gay Poets on the Women Who Inspire Them, A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems, and other books. (
Matthew Hittinger is the author of Skin Shift (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012) and the chapbooks Platos de Sal (Seven Kitchens Press, 2009), Narcissus Resists (GOSS183/ MiPOesias, 2009), and Pear Slip (Spire Press, 2007) winner of the Spire 2006 Chapbook Award. Matthew received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan where he won a Hopwood Award for Poetry and The Helen S. and John Wagner Prize. The recipient of the Kay Deeter Award from the journal Fine Madness, two Sundress Best of the Net nominations, and nine Pushcart Prize nominations, his work has appeared in many journals and the anthologies Best New Poets 2005, Villanelles, Divining Divas: 100 Gay Poets on the Women Who Inspire Them, A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems, and The Rumpus Original Poetry Anthology. Matthew lives and works in New York City. (

Matthew Hittinger: I'm excited to have this chat with you!  I'll jump right in: the opening poem of Love-In-Idleness, "Christopher Looks" is, to quote your note at the back of the book, "a collage using the Google results from a search of the term "[The poet's first name] looks like..."  I heart self-generated prompts that provide a structure to a nonce form.  Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for this prompt?  Do you often generate poems in this way?
Christopher Hennessy: I've been looking forward to this. As I think I've told you, I'm jealous of your proximity to so many other writers in New York City. (Perhaps we'll talk about 'community' later on?).

In terms of my poem "Christopher Looks," I think my friend Eric might have suggested the Google collage idea, and I think someone suggested it to him. It was sent from heaven in any case (from whomever, I wish I could give proper credit). I immediately knew I wanted to use it for a very particular purpose—to use someone else's language, in this case the wonderfully surprising words and logic of the internet, to build a kind of de-constructed self-portrait of the name "Christopher."  And though I was trying to render the persona of a name, I found myself, very organically, shuffling different aspects of my identity into different juxtapositions—for example, my small stature (I'm 5'5") with the wackiness of "a garden gnome in crisis." As is probably clear by now, I wanted it to be a pretty simple experiment: what happens when we turn our sense of self (perhaps even the idea of identity) into the subject of play, of puzzle-making, of randomness. Since my whole manuscript plays with 'identity' it seemed like the appropriate poem to begin the book.

This makes me want to ask about your poem "Orange Colored Sky," which sits in a similar position to "Christopher Looks," as a "prologue" or "preface" poem that comes before the sequenced sections both our books use. The speaker is recalling his love for Wonder Woman, as a boy, and how she was a kind of avatar for the power of fantasy, imagination. He wants "a light to fill / me, envelop me" the way it did Diana Prince when she transformed into Wonder Woman. (There's probably no more central theme than transformation in the book!)  It seems to be a pretty autobiographically inspired poem; however, much of the book is written in outright persona poems or by taking on other voices. Can you talk about how you hoped autobiography and 'the other' would interact in your book?
MH: I love a good "preface" poem when they are doing the work they need to do to be in such a prominent position: setting the stakes, setting a tone, sometimes acting as an ars poetica for what's to come.  "Orange Colored Sky" originally concluded that fourth section where the poems are more personal and autobiographical, where I'm "in my own skin" after inhabiting the skins of so many others up to that point.  I decided to move it first for a number of reasons: it's one of my favorite poems; I think its content and tone make it a bit more "accessible" (hate to use that word) for someone picking up the book and just reading the first poem to see if they want to continue; and I felt it grounded the "I" that's closest to me right up front so the reader knows about my obsession and desire to transform from an early age, which I hope provides an anchor and context as they start to rappel into the caverns of my imagination in that first section.

    As to how I hoped autobiography and "the other" would interact: I'll be honest, it's hard for me to write about myself.  I've often entertained fantasies of writing a book where the personal pronoun "I" just doesn't appear.  I find it much easier to write about what I see and about how my brain thinks, modes of writing where the "I" is implicit in the "eye" doing the documenting and thinking on the page.  When I do feel drawn to write something from the perspective of a speaking "I", I often turn to the dramatic monologue as the vehicle to get that emotion out on the page.  The mask of another voice, shifting into another's skin, allows me to express things that I'm not comfortable expressing when writing as "me".  It's also an act of imagination I quite like—to stretch past the borders of my identity and imagine and inhabit the lives of others.

    I should note, though, that even when the poems are not in my own voice, they all began with a grain of truth (be it an emotion or feeling or experience of my own) that I hope brings their voice and character to life.  It's my entry point into the other's psyche.  Once they're alive on the page, they often start having experiences and emotions of their own, and at that point my job is to get out of the way and just watch and listen and feel and try to get the words they're telling me right.  It's a very empathic process.

    I was drawn to "Carriers", the poem that opens the second section of your book, for this reason as the I imagines himself as a bird (carrier pigeon?) and recounts a story of when he almost dropped a letter: "In panic, / I dropped the whole word" when distracted by a naked young man singing hymns below.  These lines really brought the speaker to life for me: "My ecstasy was in imagining / what it must feel like to swallow / a word fallen from the sky."  And the poems that follow in that section, such as "The Lover's Story" about Emperor Ai, or "Icarus on the Moon" or "A Split Secret" the story of Sebastian's secret lover.  Can you talk a bit about your turn to these stories after the very autobiographical poems about your family and the farm of the first section?  I found that second section almost like a bridge to the love poems of the last section.
CH: Before I answer your question I want to say how a lot of what you said about imagination and the self really resonates with me. I would add, and you basically said this, that even when I'm writing what might appear to be autobiographical poems, as a poet I'm far more interested in rendering onto the page a sense of an emotional authenticity that can be, and this might make some people uncomfortable, completely divorced from 'the facts'.

At any rate, I'm really gratified to hear those poems worked as bridge; it's definitely one of the functions I wanted that section to have. Those poems were a blast to write because I was able to inhabit different personae often (the persona in "Carriers" I intend as a kind of angel/muse but it could just as easily be a divine carrier pigeon!). But what I really wanted to do was to take these old stories, these timeworn myths, and inflect them with gay desire. The poems you mention all do this, and perhaps that's why they stand out for you. I wrote the poems at a time when I wanted to learn as much about the rich gay literary tradition as possible, so perhaps in some ways I was writing the history-I-wanted-to-inherit. It's funny, but you do something similar, I think. I use Icarus and you have those powerful and difficult Narcissus poems. But you do this wonderful melding of myth and the modern, like the opening of the poem "Cybersex":

Team Narcissus bought a domain named Web chat, web cams
in homage to his nightly one-man show.
With no director to yell cut, a web village
jerked and stroked to a lone Narc who
watched himself watch himself on his own
computer screen..
It's definitely a very different project, I think, but it seems telling that we both use these Greek boy myths. I am reminded of Reginald Shepherd telling me (on the topic of Greek boy myths) that, "At least in the way that I treat these figures, there is a dialectic of desire and identification, especially because so many of these beautiful boys were also victims, and really victims of their own beauty. So they embody this power but also this subjection to their own power, to the consequences of their own power, their own beauty. It's theirs but it's not theirs at all."

Since we're on a kick noting similarities in our work, I just have to point out we both use, in some way, Bishop's "In the Waiting Room."  That's striking to me. Did you think our two books would share these various elements? Is this an anecdotal case to be made  for  a "gay sensibility"?
MH: I'm totally with you on privileging emotional authenticity and the truth a poem creates over "the facts".  I remember back in college when Philip Levine came and we were discussing the opening poem to The Simple Truth, the imagined meeting of Hart Crane and Lorca.  Someone asked Levine if they really did meet, and my memory's faulty, but I think he said something along the lines of we're not totally sure, but if they did, they probably said hello, looked each other up and down and then turned their attentions back to the sailors around them. But in the end it doesn't matter if they actually met, if those are "the facts"— their imagined meeting has a truth to it that is far more important. And that Bishop poem is so pivotal, that moment of recognition: are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
And I would venture to guess we've similarly interpreted that moment in terms of queer identity and that's what we're responding to, engaging Bishop in a conversation as we recount our own moments of claiming our "I".

I love how you described the project of taking timeworn myths and inflecting them with gay desire.  That is the heart of Skin Shift's engagement with metamorphosis myths.  Reclaiming stories like the Narcissus myth and the Biblical David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi stories, recasting characters, adding queer desire in the "Bufeo Colorado" poem; I basically wanted to write and correct and update and reclaim a queer mythology, writing us back into history, while seeing which myths still resonate in our times.  The impulse to do this seems like a shared sensibility, and yet our characters and stories differ.  That's compelling to me, that even with a similar project the individual stories we respond to will still vary from gay poet to gay poet.  There are shared tropes in the canon like St. Sebastian and of course Narcissus, but I think both of us took on some stories that aren't as well known, or at least gave them a different spin.

Since we hit on gay sensibility, shall we continue down that road?  We were chatting off-line about an excerpt from an interview Tim Dlugos conducted with Joe Brainard:

TD: Do you consider yourself a "gay artist"? Is there such a thing as "gay art" outside of subject matter? Is there a "gay sensibility" that infuses your work or infuses the work of poets you know?
JB: Does a gay sensibility exist?

TD: Does it exist in your work, and does it exist at all?
JB: I think it does in mine, but I think it's sort of closing out. I think that kids are coming up now...I don't think it's that important to most kids now. I mean it's not that much of an issue, while at one point, in my life, it was an issue.

TD: You mean personal?
JB: Yeah. Isn't that what you mean?

TD: Well, is it a matter of subject, or what's it a matter of?
JB: It's a matter of being aware of it, I think, but that doesn't answer your question. Sometimes it's a subject matter, obviously; with a drawing of two guys fucking it's obviously subject matter.  But I think it's more than that.  Most artists are very straight, I mean straight in their seriousness and in what they're trying to do.  I think I'm a lot more sensual, I mean I'm a lot more ga-ga than that—but on purpose.  No, not on purpose.

TD: Sort of a ludic quality, playful?
JB: Yes. (Pause).  I'm not really sure that has anything to do with being gay, though, 'cause I think my work is very sensual, very lush and all that, but I'm not sure that has to do with being gay.  If I was straight it might be that way too.  I don't know.
What are your thoughts on this question?  On Brainard's response?  I know for me it's more than subject matter, but I was curious about how he started to separate those who take a serious, "straight" approach from those like himself who take a more sensual, playful approach (side note: interesting he used the term ga-ga back then and now we live, for good or for bad, in a Lady Gaga world).
CH: I think we (by which I mean gay writers) desperately want there to be such a thing as a gay sensibility or gay aesthetic because it means we're not crazy, that these connections we keep seeing and feeling and using are really there, mean something, and mean that we're linked in some special way. But many of us also desperately flee from this idea because we fear it means our work won't be universal. (Edmund White is always good for being provocative when it comes to this question; when asked about a reviewer who claimed White's idea that there was such a thing as a gay sensibility was a "a betrayal of every humane idea of literature, White responded, "I'm so bored and offended by that objection. They wouldn't dare criticize a black or Jewish writer in the same way.")

The thing we must remember is that we're not claiming, or at least I'm not claiming, that we were, to quote GaGa, simply born that way, that we come out of the womb writing gay poems about hot gay sex. A gay sensibility is something that's been built (blame Whitman for starting it, but if we look hard enough we probably can find it begins earlier even).  Now that's not to say there isn't something that does link us as gay people, something that in fact leads us to a path of introspection that allows for the coming out process and self-acceptance that we now understand as key stages of (contemporary) gay identity formation. But that enters into biology and genetics, something I'm fascinated by but can't speak to. I think it might be more helpful to think in more specific terms: how does feeling alien in our desires/ bodies or experiencing the isolation of difference, how do these kinds of psychic trauma affect the development of the imagination. And to be sure, it's not all about trauma. Being gay can be a gift. And even the difficulties of being gay can be a gift. I love this moment from an email interview I did with Frank Bidart:  "To grow up gay in America is to know early that one's existence is fundamentally antithetical to the fictions desperately asserted by institutions that imagine their authority proceeds from God or nature. To know early that one's existence is fundamentally antithetical, period. That's a good start for a writer."

As for Brainard's response, I should say that I love these moments. And this is just one brief moment in a much larger conversation that's been going on in public since at least Gay Liberation (see the wonderful Gay Sunshine interviews.) Brainard's comment makes me want to argue that we can find a  gay sensibility in a straight writer, too. And why not? The imagination may be gendered, but I think it's flexible enough to take on anything it's drawn to. Think about camp, for example. Camp can be found in anyone. But it is probably most often linked to a gay aesthetic. But aren't there gay writers who don't have a camp bone in their body and straight writers who have a flair for camp. For writers, there are no rules when it comes to who gets to play with what toys. Or there shouldn't be!

I think the other question hovering before us is one of influence, speaking of Brainard and Dlugos actually. Do you want to talk about the ghosts (gay or otherwise) who haunt your poems?
MH: Thank you for that eloquent walk through an area in which I consider you an expert (it was a bit of a loaded question for you, but I wanted to hear your thoughts)!  Sometimes I wonder when people talk about "muses" whether what they really mean is their imagination.  I hate the idea of the muse for all its historical baggage with straight male artists and objectified women, and have never been compelled to simply "queer" it to be male for a male artist.  But thinking about a gendered imagination leads me down that path to Jung, anima and animus, and all sorts of archetypical tropes, a path I think I'll stay clear of for now (it leads to a murky forest).

As for the ghosts that haunt my poems, there are so many.  And they seem to change from book to book.  In Skin Shift, I definitely took cues from Anne Carson's work, namely Autobiography of Red for the reimagined story of Geryon and Men in the Off Hours for how she weaves poems and essays together, which inspired me to include that poetic meditation on Kafka's "Metamorphosis" in the middle of the book.  Alice Fulton is another huge influence, in particular her fractal poetics and the reimagining of Daphne and Apollo in Sensual Math.  Elizabeth Bishop is someone I return to often for her restraint and powers of observation; H.D. for her mysticism and occult vision (Trilogy is a huge influence).  "Platos de Sal" I wrote immediately after reading James Merrill's Changing Light at Sandover.  The ghost of T. S. Eliot's "Saint Narcissus" haunts "Narcissus Resists".  Basically there's always someone I'm in conversation with when I'm writing; right now I'm immersed in Joe Brainard and bpNichol as models for a poetry comics project I've started working on.

And you?  What lineage(s) do you claim from the big family tree of Poetry?  And what's next for you? Are the poems you're working on now a continuation of Love-In-Idleness, a departure?
CH: Wow, that's quite the family tree for a book. And I'm intrigued that Merrill prompted "Platos de Sal." The very specific (and heartbreaking) story that poem I have to ask, were you channeling someone?
MH: Well, I had wanted to re-write the David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi stories for some time, and the voice just entered my head after finishing Sandover, so I listened and went with it and the story took shape.  David is my middle name, so whatever voice I was channeling entered there.  I jokingly call that poem my "short story in verse".  The poem winks at Merrill's technical prowess in Sandover, especially in how to indicate different speakers, which I chose to do structurally via the syllabic counts for Juan's letters, etc.
CH: My influences are probably a little more expected: Theodore Roethke (the greenhouse poems) and James Wright, and Bishop for the same reasons you cite, and then maybe folks like James L. White. I have a conflicted relationship to this question because I often feel like I haven't found a voice that's significantly disentangled from my most early influences, and I sort of believe that until that happens, I won't be able to see clearly who my influences truly are. I don't know if that makes sense—or if it's anything more than a defense mechanism, a knee-jerk desire to avoid really claiming an influence. Why do I fear that, I wonder?
MH: Anxiety of influence?  I wonder if we work through an influence and synthesize it and then  move on from it, if the poet's individual voice is a combination of all the voices they've read plus their own take on and relationship with handling language.  And how we absorb influences—does Bishop filtered through my voice sound the same filtered through your voice or any other poet who claims her?
CH: I wonder if we can answer by going back to Bishop herself: "I scarcely dared to look / to see what it was I was." Of course, I'm partly being coy here, but I think something in those lines is reverberating here....that we 'daring' it requires to come to know—to filter?—self through the outside world. Maybe that's art. A one kind of art. What's next for me? I'm currently trying to write a kind of book-length project that looks at belonging—what it means to want to belong, what it means when we don't feel like we belong, and all the issues that arise with that. To give you an idea of one of the directions some of the poems have been going, I've been writing in the voice of this boy I knew throughout grade, middle and high school. He was perhaps the most socially isolated of us all, and even though I was his friend, I never wanted to be because I feared the association. The secret guilt of that was really horrible. So, I'm trying to explore that space of isolation and the desperate desire to be part of something you're not. I hope I'm honoring him and not appropriating him. So far, it's been a very difficult project but rewarding. And I've got to say, I love the thought of a "project" rather than individual poems. Do you want to say more about what you're working on? And do you feel there are real advantages to working on "projects." Your long poems feel like they were really planned and conceived as such.
MH: They were, though I have to admit I wrote "Platos de Sal" in one sitting.  "Narcissus Resists" took a bit more time to figure out its structure.  It started as a single poem that grew into three of the sonnets.  When I discovered the corona form, I had that "a-ha" moment about what to do with those three lonely sonnets and set to work fleshing out the rest of the sequence.  The "Metamorphosis of Narcissus" parts were a late addition, and a completely separate poem that I spliced in at the end.  I think I was still reordering the sonnets up until it was published as a chapbook.

I've pretty much always worked via sequences and projects.  I love doing the research that comes with a project, I love compiling information and those a-ha moments of noticing patterns and synergies.  That's how I generate poems.  Once I know what my project is—usually an obsession and investigation of an idea (metamorphosis in Skin Shift) or an object (the pear in Pear Slip) or a place (NYC in Impossible Gotham)— I sketch out the architecture of it (structurally what it will look like, what poetic forms I want to use or challenge myself to master) and then write the poems that need to be there.  It's rare that I write a "one- off" poem that isn't part of some bigger project.  Not everyone can work that way, but the advantage for me is an organizational one.  While writing Skin Shift I kept a spreadsheet where I sketched out as many types of transformation I could think of, a taxonomy of sorts, which helped me make sure I was covering the ground I wanted to cover.

Speaking of covering ground, we've covered quite a bit, Christopher!  One area you mentioned early on was community and my living in NYC, which we have yet to talk about.  I think one of the first things I recognized upon moving to New York was that there are many many poetry scenes here: some overlap, some don't.  I choose to orbit most and stay away from some and occasionally touch down to say hi.  I'm too much of a loner to ever feel comfortable identifying with any particular group.  My NY family is predominantly non-poetry; I prefer collaborating with artists in other disciplines and hanging out with people who have no ties to PoBiz.

I will say that social media and the internet have helped me discover and find poets I now call friends that I may not have found otherwise.  It's how I became aware of your work, through your blog and your important book of interviews with gay writers, Outside the Lines (when are we getting a volume 2!?).  What are your thoughts on community?  What's it like in Boston?  You have some great resources, like Grub Street.
CH: Thanks for giving my interview book a shout out! I'm hard at work on a second volume. To be completed soon, I hope! Talk about community: I never feel like I belong so much as when I sit with a master (and fellow gay) poet for a few hours.

I think a big part of how I feel about being a poet has to do with the fact that I'm a Ph.D. candidate (in English Literature, not creative writing) who commutes to his school two hours both ways, three days a week (or more.) I'm left feeling distanced from any sense of community currently.

You mentioned Grub Street, a great organization here in Boston with a team of talented writers offering workshops of all kinds. I do love teaching once and a while for Grub Street (it's an amazing place, and I often have students who inspire me), but I don't have time to really become much of a community member there, either. I suppose what I'm basically bemoaning is something we all feel—there's hardly enough time to write, let alone go to readings, start groups, be part of organizations, etc. I think this is why I think maybe every three or four years I become so starved I try to find my way back into a workshop or teach my own. (I took one in Provincetown that was amazing). It feels weird to be back in a workshop, but I'm not embarrassed to admit I need that poet-to-poet (human-to-human!) contact. I like to remember what it means to read a poem aloud in a room of people who will gasp when you want them to, and laugh maybe where you don't expect them to. Everything doesn't have to be some form of career advancement! Oh dear, how did I get to pontificating? Well, you might as well get in on the fun. Please, Matthew, pontificate on something so I don't feel so alone.  Where do you fit in this mix? What feeds you?
MH: Well, sometimes I feel like a bit of a unicorn because I don't teach, but that was a conscious decision I made to keep the creative side of my brain free, and to allow the organized, analytic side to run wild at the day job.  I do miss having my summers off and the pleasure of watching the devoted students grow over the course of a semester, but I don't miss grading or commenting on student work at all.  I never really enjoyed workshops, but I do love classes focused on craft or on collaboration, like the "Poetry [&] Comics" class I took last year.  But most of the classes I take are not in the writing world, but in the art world, at places like MoMA.  I have an art history background and the visual arts are a huge passion of mine, and often present in my work: ekphrasis, calligrammes, and now working toward figuring out the poem-as-comic-strip.  It all feels like a natural convergence of what really is a life-long love of writing and drawing.  I wanted to be an illustrator as a kid, then a painter as a teen, and I wound up a poet.  I feel like I'm returning to my roots as I pick up a sketch pad and pencil again.  I say all this because I think it's important for a poet to have other interests and obsessions than poetry, to keep them sane and grounded, to allow them to remain interested and open to the surprises of the world and to continue to write interesting work.  If there's one thing I value in a poet, it's the ability to evolve.  Some poets write the same poem over and over again their entire career, book after book.  That bores me.  It's the poets who are constantly pushing the limits of form, challenging what is possible with language and how words sing on the page that excite me, that keep me hooked and coming back for more.

I think that's the note on which I'd like to end.  Any parting words for our readers?
CH: None for them, but six words for you: Thank you. This was a pleasure.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761