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Poets on Craft: Steve Henn and Al Maginnes

For this eightieth post in our Poets on Craft series, we have Steve Henn and Al Maginnes.

Poets on Craft is a cyberspace for contemporary poets to share their thoughts and ideas on the process of poetry and for students to discover new ways of approaching the writing of poetry. In the face of a pandemic that is both viral and political, it is a resource for strength and creativity, friendship and beauty, love and rejuvenation. It is thus a celebration of the beautiful and eclectic minds of contemporary poets.

The format is as follows. I emailed poets these questions: “Generally speaking, how do you build a poem? How do you start a poem? How do you move from one line to the next? How do you know when to end a poem?”

With the exception of length requirement, poets are free to respond in whatever manner they find appropriate to their styles and concerns.

Access to Poets on Craft is democratic. Generally speaking, anyone can have free access to these posts. With that said, please consider supporting our poets by clicking on the links in their bios and purchasing their work.

This series is intended for educational purposes only.

Headshot of poet and teacher Steve Henn. Steve has a trimmed beard; wears glasses; hair tied back. He has on a black jacket, with collar shirt underneath.

Steve Henn teaches high school English in northern Indiana. He wrote American Male (2022) and Guilty Prayer (2021) both from Main Street Rag, and Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year (Wolfson, 2017). He’s proud of the children of himself and late American artist Lydia Henn. He roots for the Fighting Irish, played high school soccer, and gives poetry readings in all kinds of places, from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee to Long Beach, travel conditions and money conditions and time permitting. Find more at therealstevehenn.com

It’s not usually fashionable to admit to regularly relying on inspiration as a source of new work, but that was, in fact, what I often did in the years that added up to my first handful of chapbooks and first two full collections from NYQ Books. I would be looking and listening for inspiration all the time. A line might pop into my head, or a more abstract notion of subject matter, or I overhear some snippet of conversation that sets me off and running – and when I followed those kinds of leads I often got an initial draft down very quickly.

What I learned to do from there is to rewrite, by hand, the whole thing beginning to end, typically 3-6 times. Words and phrasing would change with every draft, sometimes a poem might even go in a surprising new direction. What I’d have at draft 5 would look, usually, considerably different from what I started with. In this way, I learned to let my subconscious do much of the work of revising and rewriting. I trust those parts of my brain, the parts that aren’t necessarily doing the full conscious daily thinking, to do things with the poems that I couldn’t predict or manage if I was especially deliberate about the process. So that approach was the main way that I wrote poems for a number of years, up to and including those first two books.

Many of the poems in Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year were the product of a different process. In May, June, and July of 2015 I spent many mornings getting up at 7 or 8 a.m., while the kids slept, and walking the one and a half miles to the Winona Lake Village, a little community of shops on a lake with a  publicly-used woods a little further on. My walking from home to Winona, around Winona, and back home might add up to 5 or 6 miles, punctuated by several stops of 20 minutes or so to write. 

I’d have my notebook, and several books I was reading. I might check Facebook or Twitter on my phone – any of that input might spark a poem, reading or social media or even looking around. The walking was a key ingredient. I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with ADHD, but clearly it was an ADHD-friendly method – all those stimuli available, and I would root around in my books, on my phone, in my notebook and play around on the page.

That’s where some of the seeds were planted for early work. I don’t know that I have a definitive or satisfying answer for “when do you know a poem is done” or any of those sorts of questions. I am a believer in writing a lot, and in following one’s intuition when rewriting. I am not well-skilled at making particular technical moves in poems because I’ve decided this poem needs this move in this place. But I’ve picked up a lot of moves, I think, by imitating a lot of other writers. 

I think Dorianne Laux once said she writes poems as a response to poems she’s reading – that’s been helpful. Reading a lot of other people’s work has developed my sense of what poems might do. Sometimes I try to loosely inhabit another poet’s style and my mangling of their approach results in happy accidents. “Seven Wonders,” for example, is an attempt to do a Larry Levis-like poem. 

Other poems in Guilty Prayer, which was published in January 2021, draw on the style of Frank Ohara. I think it’s important to read a lot of poems from a lot of different people and places and to let anything that is going to infect your style as a poet. Sometimes I don’t even mimic style, but the subject matter of a poem by Poet X or Poet Y will prompt thinking about some experience I’ve had – and so the realization that I have a story something like the story of their poem is the entryway into a new piece of writing.

Headshot of poet and professor Al Maginnes. Al has white mustache and white hair on the side. He wears a gray shirt and is looking at the camera. Behind him is a grayish wall.

Al Maginnes is the author of four chapbooks and nine full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Beasts That Vanish (Blue Horse, 2021) and Sleeping Through the Graveyard Shift (Redhawk Publications, 2020). He is currently putting together a volume of new and selected poems. His poems and reviews appear widely. He lives with his family in Raleigh, North Carolina and teaches at Louisburg College.

A poem can start from a lot of things. Sometimes it can be an idea. More often it’s an image or just a phrase that bothers me enough. I carry a small notebook in my back pocket where I write down stray lines for poems, phone numbers, recipes etc. If I write something down in the middle of the day, I might look at it a day or two later and write it in my notebook to see if it still resonates and what else is suggested by that line. As the poem begins to open up, I’ll just follow and see where it goes. Usually the first impetus for the poem is just a launch pad. I tend to juxtapose unlike things in my poems, usually without much transition. Richard Hugo says that if you’ve pulled the reader in, he or she will make those transitions with you. I find that if I set out with an agenda—say, I’m going to write a poem about how bad racism is—the poem tends to be not as good as it would be if I just trust my imagination. 

Early on in the poem a certain rhythm suggests itself to me and I find that this poem wants to be in short lines or long lines. Perhaps this poem wants a more formal cadence, like blank verse or a seven syllable line. Some of my most important early teachers were formalists and from them I got in the habit of counting the syllables in every line. I also try never to end a line on an article or a conjunction, like “and” or “but.” I spent a lot of time early on trying to learn proper enjambment and my study with Miller Williams made me hyper sensitive to the line break, so I spend time on those after the poem is drafted, even after it’s published sometimes.

Yeats talked about the end of a poem being like the click when a box is shut. Others have advocated for a more open ended approach to ending the poem. A few years ago I became aware of certain tendencies I had to drive the poem home with a big finish, a resonating last line or two that bespeaks a certainty I don’t have about most things. Recently I’ve tried to find other ways to end the poem. Sometimes I will share a poem with a friend or two and he or she will point out that the poem ends seven or eight lines before I think it ends. Often, after careful scrutiny, I’ll have to admit they’re right. Each poem is different and each poem presents its own set of demands. And so the ending of a poem is a different process each time. I think the small discoveries we make in writing each poem tease us into thinking we might master this thing one day and bring us back over and over.


(Featured image by Alexis Rhone Fancher)


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