(pleasant) necessity and (demanding) pleasure: An Interview with Lene Henningsen

By Simmons B. Buntin

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About Danish Poet Lene Henningsen

henningsen_photoDanish poet and lyric dramatist Lene Henningsen was born in 1967. She studied piano and also “random university studies: art, literature, philosophy, psychology.” She was a student at Forfatterskolen (Writers’ School) in Copenhagen from 1990 to 1992. Her first book of poetry, Jeg siger dig (I say you, I tell you) was published in 1991. She has since published six books of poetry, a book of lyric dramas, thoughts on poetry and, recently, a book of reflections and notes: Bølgen tegner præcist (The wave draws accurately). Henningsen has received “a few prizes and scholarships, participated in a few poetry festivals.” With two children aged nine and six, she lives, writes, and works in Copenhagen.


Terrain.org: When did you begin seriously writing poetry, and when and where were you first published?

Lene Henningsen: I was about 20 years old when I began writing for real. As a teenager I played the piano just as seriously, wishing to become a pianist, but the search of “my own” music or language became too strong, along with an increased knowledge of myself: My psychological constitution was more comfortable with a poet’s existence!

Terrain.org: Is there a strong sense of cohesion among Danish poets, or Scandinavian poets?

Lene Henningsen: There probably is. Mutual inspiration and tradition speaks for it. I don’t like to generalize, though. When Danish poetry is said to be anti-passionate, pro-humorous—and Swedish the exact opposite—I shake my head. We have it all, as a possibility, poetry is by its very nature beyond limits, but something turns out to be more popular within a the context of a certain environment, something turns out stranger, more foreign.

Personally, I have never been regarded as a “true” Danish poet. Of course! My sources of inspiration are global. I believe that my seriousness is the same. And yet my working material is the Danish language. And I live in Denmark. That makes my poems Danish. Maybe it is as simple as that?

Terrain.org: What are your favorite Danish or Scandinavian literary journals, and why? Are there many publishing opportunities for Scandinavian poets locally, or abroad?

Lene Henningsen: For a decade, in the 90s actually, I liked the quarterly magazine Den Blå Port (The Blue Gate). A blend of critics, new texts, features, translations, always with surprises. For the time being it has become more quiet. I also appreciate the magazine STANDart, mostly reviews written by younger literary enthusiasts and other critics. But: We really miss a proper literary journal, on a regular basis.

Terrain.org: Do you read much English poetry (British, Irish, or American)? If so, how does Danish (or Scandinavian) poetry differ overall? Is it the “quality of transparency” that Fire & Ice: Nine Poets from Scandinavia and the North editor Gordon Walmsley describes, or something else (or something more)?

Lene Henningsen: I would like to know what is going on right now in English poetry, in a wider scale. Is it fighting for a space to exist in, like here? My reading is random.

Transparency? Maybe. In Fire & Ice you are confronted with a lot of deeply concentrated experiences put into words, not “stories,” “tales,” “memory lanes” or “political speeches.” (A more English approach?). These abrupt and flickering forms are characteristic, at least for this group of poets.


Only now is the city we walk into
A clenched fist transformed
Only now is the street changed into a harbour
A windy song, the coughing of a demi-god
Only now is the cry flailing
Us through, long since a ship
Only now is it under full sail
The space filled with flames of nothingness
Only now does the night borrow hope from the night
Veering towards the wind, allowing us to live
Only now do we fold together that we have decided
The breadth of all things is deeper than the sea
Mix a cough of sweetest malts
With the sound: a heart long since under way

From Fire & Ice, translated by Gordon Walmsley, reprinted with permission of Salmon Poetry and Lene Henningsen.

Terrain.org: Writing in Danish and reading English, what was the process to have Gordon Walmsley translate your poems for Fire & Ice? Did this publication in English increase your interest in translating more of your work?

Lene Henningsen: Gordon is a very careful and congenial translator. He seems to create poems that live on their own, in another environment, but with all vital organs intact! With translators like him I wouldn’t mind at all to expand my translation area!

Terrain.org: Your poetry in Fire & Ice is of two minds: “thoughts on poetry…” and “poems.” Do you believe the poet thinks and writes more about her craft than other artists? What is it about poetry—about the inspirations of poetry—that lends itself to this dual approach? Perhaps it is: “How to fathom/enlighten/explain / what is seen” as one of your “thoughts on poetry…” concludes. And also the unseen?

Lene Henningsen: I have met painters, composers, etc., who also felt the urge to write about their art. For me it was necessary at a certain moment in my life. To ask myself: Why this writing? Why this way of writing? Why this believing in a constant meeting and flow between Life and Poem?

The thoughts on poetry made it more clear, and lit up some new ways ahead.

Another view: I guess that poets have an almost constant discussion of language, words, writing going on in their heads. Sometimes it leads to thoughts—on the paper.

Terrain.org: “Underground,” one of your poems in the collection, translates the landscape both in form and in verse: “You have no knowledge of the sea? / Evil flotsam resembling lost streets / At night / Lanterns suggesting an arena fully-rigged.” How does the Danish landscape, or the urban landscape of Copenhagen more directly, define your poetry? Does your poetry in turn help define the landscape?

Lene Henningsen: Nature and city. Lost nature in city. Dreamed nature in city. Lost city in nature. Dreamed city. How to analyse it? If we need different kinds of landscapes, and need to correspond with them, then they will search their own complex dialogues, I think, and become inner landscapes too.

It would be lovely, if poetry had the power to define landscapes, places, countries—in a Danish context, poets have to be modest and say: Perhaps, in a discrete, an almost invisible way, we do!

Terrain.org: In 1995 you worked with Hasse Poulson to set your poetry to music, in Sortner Du Sky (Blacken You Cloud). There are some poets who believe that, with poetry’s intrinsic rhythm based solely on language, poetry written first cannot effectively be set to music. Your experience may suggest otherwise. How did your recordings turn out, and how has the experience changed your thoughts on poetry and music, together and separately?

Fire and Ice poetry anthology, containing the poetry of Lene HenningsenLene Henningsen: Actually I didn’t know about the project of Hasse Poulsen and “Klakki” before I got the CD and listened to it. Some of the music I liked more, some of it less. But I found that the words turned into atmosphere, interpretation. If the musician gets really close to the poet’s universe, the result can be surprisingly meaningful, I believe.

On the other hand, my experience tells me that if a poet has a strong sense for music, right down to the single “notes” of language, then musicians or composers may find it difficult to get a foothold in the poems; the music is already there. Due to the musical background mentioned above, the major part of my poetry is music too.

Terrain.org: In addition to poetry you also write lyric drama. What is the difference, both in form and for the audience? Which do you prefer? How does one affect the other?

Lene Henningsen: Another kind of music. Haunting figures and personalities, asking for their lines! My lyric dramas, the two published ones at least, have not been performed yet. Maybe they will never reach any other stage than the reader’s mind. That is all right with me. But I hope to write some more dramas for the stage some day. It is really thrilling me.

I cannot say that I prefer one or the other genre. Poetry is a way of breathing. Theatre is a way of “playing with the gods” (creating spaces and universes for persons, creatures). So, we are talking about (pleasant) necessity and (demanding) pleasure, I guess!

Terrain.org: What’s next for Lene Henningsen?

Lene Henningsen: My next book will probably combine poetry and drama, in some concentrated monologues.



Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry. Other work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.

Header photo of bridge, oresundsbron, between Denmark and Sweden courtesy Shutterstock.


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