Interview with Brian Henry

COUNTERPATH PRESS: Could you talk about the structure of the book, about how the two longer pieces that comprise the book took shape?

BRIAN HENRY: The book consists of two series: “More Dangerous Than Dying” and “The Stripping Point.” The origins of “More Dangerous Than Dying” go back to a period when I assigned myself the task of writing a poem every day for about three months. The poems that resulted were connected through their protagonists—a couple whose relationship was new but already dying—and the setting (they worked at a paper mill). After moving, I noticed they had gotten interspersed with my notebooks, where I collect quotes from things I’ve been reading. I decided to meld the two, to open up the rather obsessive focus on the couple (or, more specifically, on one half of the couple) and let in more voices. So the arc of the dying romance is broken up, complicated, hopefully enriched by other voices.

“The Stripping Point” dates back to 1998, when I was living in Australia. I set out to write a hypertext series, a group of 6-liners that could be read in any order. The original 13 sections, originally called “Olfactory” (oddly enough, because of the same paper mill), appeared online at in 2000. Later, I extended the series while also stripping it. So the 13 6-line sections become 12 5-line sections, and so on, down to couplets. I did this because I wanted the original series to replicate itself while also losing itself, and I wanted its various components to break off and recombine. Basically, I tried to simulate a degenerative hypertext reading process on the page. Ideally, the entire poem would exist online and could be read, and stripped, in any order.

CP: Where did you come up with the title for “More Dangerous Than Dying”?

BH: From those same notebooks. The phrase was spoken by my daughter, who was three at the time: I told her something was really dangerous, and she said, “More dangerous than dying?” I originally had grouped the poems under the title “Prelapsarian,” but a poem from my first book, Astronaut, is called “Prelapsarian” and has nothing to do with this series, so I thought I should give it a different title. I guess one could say that falling in love is “more dangerous than dying,” but really, I wanted the title to reflect the spirit of the piece’s new form, and also the serendipity of the individual poems’ finding themselves in a pile of papers where other voices had been floating around.

CP: Why the paper mill?

BH: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and a paper mill south of the city off I-95 made a strong impression on me when I was a kid: the image and the smell, which hit you in the car well before you could see it. After high school, I worked for a company that made machines that made cigarettes. Because it was a manufacturing company, most of the premises were devoted to machinery, the stock room, heat treating, inspections, etc. And then there were the offices (sales, purchasing, accounting, etc.). And then there were the officers of the company. Now, most of these people—even some of the executives—had started off on what was called the blue-collar side, and even though the offices had a different dress code and atmosphere, it wasn’t like a corporate office. Few of these people had gone to college or identified with corporate culture. I worked in various places—I started in the stock room and ended up in human resources—and was enthralled by the mix, by the emphasis on walls and cubicles (almost no one had walls), by the 10-cent cups of coffee, by the conversations around the water cooler and photocopier, by the social events, the machinery, the designated parking spaces (officers in the front, everyone else in the back), the company’s history, and so on. I wanted to write about this environment without doing so directly, so I transposed the environment to that paper mill. I wasn’t trying to make any big environmental statements, though perhaps I should have, especially since I ended up publishing this in a book.

CP: “The Stripping Point” seems less narratively oriented than “More Dangerous Than Dying.”

BH: Definitely. “The Stripping Point” began, really, as a kind of love song. There is no attempt at narrative, except through repetition, no attempt at resolution.

CP: Thus, “the song asserts itself / Impossible arias foundering on the shore.”

BH: Exactly. I wanted the piece to function like music, to be both serious and ridiculous, love-struck and cynical. Love and lust can make fools of us, and I wanted to tap into that, too, with the bad (and sometimes simply wrong) puns, over-the-top wordplay, and nonsense and non sequiturs established through the fragmentation and repetition. Formally, “The Stripping Point” builds on the pantoum—specifically, the use of repetition and context to simultaneously advance and erode (or at least distract) a line of thinking.

CP: Sometimes there’s a seriousness, a political point—for example, “Beachfront propriety so up this season”—that seems to go beyond what you’re talking about.

BH: Yes, that’s true. The daily always has a way of creeping in.