Mathew Henderson grew up in Tracadie, Prince Edward Island. After he graduated high school, Henderson worked summers in the oil fields of Saskatchewan and Alberta. His experiences there provided inspiration for his first book of poetry, The Lease. In 2013, it was shortlisted for both the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and the Gerald Lampert Award. Henderson earned an MFA from the University of Guelph and he now teaches at Humber College.
Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
During school, I really just read the poems that my teachers gave to us. I remember reading Alden Nowlan’s “Warren Pryor” in a middle school anthology and when my grade seven teacher, Brenda Foley, started showing us the word play and metaphor and the little things that made the poem work, I felt like I was being let in on a secret.
By the time I hit high school, most of the poems they gave us were actually popular songs from the ’70s and ’80s. At some point, a teacher or textbook designer thought that kids weren’t going to pay attention to poetry unless it was presented to them as “current” and “relatable”, but they never really updated the curriculum, so we were reading “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel and some Sting lyrics and using those songs to connect us to John Donne and other poets. I love a bit of Simon and Garfunkel, but I was in school in the ’90s and S&G songs didn’t really help to make poetry relatable. Rather, my high school reconnection with poetry came when I read William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” — an experience I think I share with millions of repressed teenage boys around the world.
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I started writing poetry in elementary school, and the first poem I remember writing was in grade six math. It was about dragons and dragon riders and began, “A long time ago in a faraway land / man and dragon went hand in hand.” I’ll spare you the rest, but, as you might guess, my sixth grade self was certain that only a pure heart could defeat the demon hordes.
It wasn’t until much later that I came to think of myself as a poet, probably between my MFA and when my book The Lease was published. Even now, I have days where I feel like less or more of a poet than others. What I have learned, though, is that the degree to which you consider yourself a proper “poet” doesn’t need to have any bearing on how often or how well you write poetry.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
The word “job” feels very capitalist, and while poetry certainly falls within the realm of capitalism, as most things do, I don’t find it helpful to think of poetry in this way. My perhaps arbitrarily preferred term is “work,” and I think that while the work of poetry might shift and vary between poems and poets, one commonality is the need to not look away. Whatever the subject, public or private, I believe my work as a poet is to refuse the urge to make things more beautiful or ugly than they are, it’s my work to show the thing as I experience it and to do that with whatever lies or truths I can.
What inspired you to write “Badlands”?
For a while, when I signed books, I’d write a joking one sentence “translation” of a poem. About “Badlands” I’d write, “Your father’s a pretty normal guy, but what if he wasn’t?” And while this is a simplification, it touches on the basic inspiration behind the poem. The speaker in this poem is troubled or intrigued by the difference he perceives between his own character and his father’s, and most of the poem is an imagining of the father as this kind of mythic figure, moving through the prairie performing rituals and being all mystical in one manner or another. Of course, as you get older, you hopefully realize that your parents are whole people with complexities and internal worlds you’ll never be privy to, and I was fascinated by the very old conflict between how well you can know your parents, and how unknowable they really are.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
Karen Solie’s Pigeon is very important to me, and “Tractor” has always been my favourite poem from that book. I read “Tractor” as I was obsessing over the poems that would become my first book, and I saw in Karen’s work the other side of my own experience.