HomepageEnglish and Creative WritingKatie Henson: Poet, Author, Professor, Role Model

Katie Henson: Poet, Author, Professor, Role Model

When working with students to develop a sense of their own interests, Henson encourages them to “let go of this idea that writing has to look or sound a certain way in order to be considered real writing.”

So, what does it take to write an effective poem? Dr. Katie Henson says, “I don’t know, man. I hope somebody tells me sometime.” Henson is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ursinus College and is a published poet and author. Henson is a role model for students, not only because of her many accomplishments but also because of her down-to-earth and realistic attitude toward the processes of producing written works. She shares her personal challenges in creative writing, demonstrating an understanding of what students are experiencing in their own creative writing journeys.

Remembering her past experiences with writing, Henson thinks that she first started believing that writing mattered because her father was in prison when she was younger, and he wrote to her every week. Those letters were a thread of connection between Henson and her father, and they gave her a sense that “something better was coming.” Henson believes that “writing comes with it the imperative that we imagine how things could be.” She finds it to be very important in her writing to think not just about the world as it is, but the possibilities for the world in the future.

When writing creative works, Henson sometimes gets an “earworm,” such as a little line or an image in her head. This image then reminds her of what she thinks about vulnerability or about the body. She is writing a lot about motherhood now, so she is thinking about how motherhood changes bodies and the landscape of the body, exploring the ways in which people think about their bodies. Henson starts with an image and then writes to figure out where it is going, saying, “I think of an image as a tunnel that I can sort of burrow into, and I don’t know where it’s going to go.” Henson believes that the best poems that she has written have started with a sense of where something could lead her, but she says, “I’m pretty open to the idea that I don’t know what the end is going to look like.”

One of Henson’s research interests is the poetry of social movements. She loves how poetry has always been used as an intervention and a disruption of the world order, or of culturally received narratives. She explains that “whether it’s Oscar Wilde writing ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol” with his newfound perspective of having been recently incarcerated for being gay, Gwendolyn Brooks writing about the lynching of Emmett Till in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi…” and “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” or Muriel Rukeyser responding to a corporate cover-up of a construction disaster in The Book of the Dead, poets respond to the world.” Henson is interested in how language can alter and transform readers’ perceptions of the present and of what the world can be. One of her favorite poets is Muriel Rukeyser. In The Book of the Dead, Rukeyser wrote about The Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster of 1931 near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. The company leading the construction project in West Virginia tried to cover up the disaster and many workers died. In Henson’s words, it was a “disaster that was worsened by corporate malfeasance, sort of a tale as old as time in America.” Henson explains that Rukeyser’s text had a big impact on her, saying, “I think Muriel Rukeyser was sort of my model for how poetry can intervene into political moments, how poetry can tell the story of political moments, and of course every moment is political.” Rukeyser introduced to Henson the idea that poetry could be a way that art comments on the present day and helps people to understand it. She aspires to this in her own work, stating, “I don’t think I’ve done it yet, but I think about it a lot as one of the options for what poetry can do.”

Henson’s writing abilities do not stop at writing poetry. She is currently writing a mystery novel titled The Fox Stain. It is set in small-town Illinois and the plot revolves around a woman confronting her small town and the prejudices that are there. It is also a coming-of-age narrative, as the main character works to discover who she wants to be. Writing fiction is different than writing poetry for Henson because with poetry she has internalized many voices telling her what she should and should not do. She says, “[Fiction] is not my primary training as a creative writer so it’s a little bit more fun for me because I can be like, ‘I can just do whatever I want!’ (which isn’t quite true, but…).” The title, The Fox Stain, is taken from a Robert Lowell poem called “Skunk Hour.” Henson explains, “Robert Lowell writes all this interesting poetry about sort of the dangers of the American aristocracy and what happens if money takes over a town and how it can sort of rot the town.” She started thinking about these ideas when writing this small-town book.

Henson mentions that one of the challenges that she faces, and that she sees her students face as well, is not having the courage of conviction in her own voice. She explains that this is difficult, especially when teaching young creative writers. She works to get students to “try new things so that they can, in the process of trying those new things, discover what sort of subject matter interests them, what their voice might sound like.” But, according to Henson, none of these things are fixed, and creative writers must continue trying to figure these things out. Henson says, “Then what’s really hard is that, especially for young people, you sit down, and you think, ‘Well, I’m never going to be T.S. Eliot. T.S. Eliot already exists. So, what can I offer?’” Henson remembers reading Gwendolyn Brooks for the first time, and her reaction was, “Oh no! Oh no, she’s so good!” Even now, when Henson reads Toni Morrison, she feels like she is in the presence of genius, and she explains, “It can be hard, especially if you want to get better, to be crushed by the weight of what’s already happened or what’s been written or what’s already been said.” Henson thinks that it is a big challenge, one that she still faces herself, to overcome “that little voice in your head that tells you that you better not even start, or you better not try because you’re never going to be as good as whomever it is that you’re currently obsessed with.”

Trying to work with students to develop a sense of their own interests, Henson encourages them to “let go of this idea that writing has to look or sound a certain way in order to be considered real writing.” Her approach to teaching creative writing revolves around helping students to develop a growth mindset. This mindset includes an understanding that creative writers are not actually trying to produce a perfect product on their first try. Henson explains that students need to try many different things to figure out how to do them, what their interests are, and where they can go from there with all of the skills that they have developed in the process. In order to do that, Henson states, “You have to fail. You have to write things that stink.” So, she tries to create an environment where it is okay to fail, actually encouraging students to fail and encouraging them to try new things. She wants to build trust in the classroom that makes students feel safe to step out of their comfort zones, saying, “I work really hard to create an environment where students feel like not only their successes but also their so-called failures will be rewarded and will be seen and celebrated.”

“I don’t really view teaching as something where I go in and I have all of the expertise and then I give it to somebody. I very much view it as a relationship and the needs of the class really dictate how I think of my job as a teacher,” says Henson. In her classes, Henson’s students often notice things in poems and in short stories that she has not noticed before. Therefore, she is open to creating a “collaborative relationship” with her students, one that also benefits her, helping her to have a new relationship with the texts that she has loved for many years. Henson loves these relationships because they change every semester, saying, “New groups of students see new things, and they’re always, whether they know it or not, teaching me how to teach them.”

Providing a realistic perspective on the processes of creative writing, creative writers can relate to Henson, and this makes her an even better role model. Henson makes it clear that she is still on her own creative writing journey, and she uses her experiences to develop valuable connections with students.

English and Creative Writing Home