#80: Michael Henry
New York native Michael Henry shuffled off from Buffalo, got an MFA at Emerson College and eventually ended up in Denver, where he and partner Andrea Dupree founded Lighthouse Writers Workshop in 1997, promising the community a beacon of literary arts where authors at all levels and of all ages could find camaraderie while working on their craft. A writer himself, Henry tells his own story so well that we let him, via the 100CC questionnaire, on the eve of Lighthouse’s annual Lit Fest.
Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why?
Michael Henry: Dang, that’s a tough one. As far as writers go, I’d probably love to be in a salon with Elizabeth Bishop and Walt Whitman. Both wrote such beautiful and American poetry. Maybe Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo, too, but they’re both so smart that I’d be terribly intimidated. Oh, and as far as memoirists go, I’d have to say Frank Conroy, who wrote a beautiful coming-of-age story, Stop-Time, perhaps my all-time favorite book.
And since I’m a big fan of visual art — I lead creative-writing sessions at the Denver Art Museum — I’d love to somehow work with Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg. Their work always lingers in my mind long after I’ve stopped gazing at it, whether in person, or in a book or online.
Oh, and Elvis Presley. I’d like to work with him somehow, in some fashion. Maybe we could write some songs together, though I’ve never really written a song before.
Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?
I’m particularly fascinated by Claudia Rankine, who wrote this amazing book, Citizen. It’s a series of short prose poems, almost mini-essays, on the nature of what it’s like to be African-American and therefore either invisible or a target. It’s a book that haunts me.
I’m pretty open-minded, so nothing really comes to mind. I suppose journals or markets that pretend to be legitimate publishers or purveyors of art, but really they’re out to make a buck. A place that publishes your poems — along with thousands of others — and in order to get a copy of the book, please send in $25.99, that sort of thing. Creating art and self-expression is tough enough, but then to get taken of advantage of —that kinda bugs me.
What's your day job?
I’m executive director at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, one of the largest literary arts centers in the country. We celebrate the craft of writing through workshops for all levels of writer, and we put on all kinds of literary events and collaborations, as well as outreach for kids and adults. We do our best to advocate for the necessity and power of literature — telling and hearing one another’s stories — because we believe that literature makes for a more enlightened and compassionate society. (End of speech.)
A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?
This is an exciting, if fiction-making, question.
I’d give a bunch of of money to Lighthouse for its endowment, so that it can stay around in perpetuity. I’d set up writing fellowships for fifty Colorado writers, so they can focus exclusively on their craft. I’d give books away — good books, interesting books — going door-to-door, maybe.
I’d probably also work on my own writing, maybe at a tiny house/cabin in the woods somewhere. I’d read and teach a lot more than I do now, and maybe buy a couple of new mountain bikes. And a trailer-hitch rack, so I don’t keep garaging my bike when it’s attached to my beat-up roof rack. I hate it when I do that. But I can’t seem to not do that. Once every few years.
Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
The beauty of the landscape and the weather, to be sure. I grew up in western New York, where it’s relatively flat and you don’t see the sun for weeks at a time in the winter, so this place seems like Eden. Plus, the people here — most everyone is so kind. "Earnest" is the word that comes to mind. And creatively, it still feels like a small city, so as an artist and advocate I feel like I can actually make a positive impact on the local culture. Heck, anyone can, for that matter. (Please see exhibit A: all those incredible people on the 100CC list.)
What makes me want to leave? Traffic, of course. If only we had a great subway system. Suburban sprawl kind of freaks me out, too. All these amazing open areas getting filled in with condos, all stacked together in a zigzag pattern. But maybe that’s only scary-looking, seeing as the perspective around here is so vast. You can’t help but see all that sprawl; back east, mostly you only see trees.
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
Oh, man, they do so much already. I guess the one big thing: make sure to vote yes for the SCFD sales tax renewal! It’s a tiny amount — just one penny for every ten dollars spent in the metro area. And it raises over $50 million each year for arts organizations like Lighthouse. That allows us to do so much more than we could on our own.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
I’m a huge fan of Garrett Ammon at Wonderbound. We’ve collaborated a few times on full-length narrative ballets. I wrote poems, dramatic monologues, basically, and he created the characters and choreographed the story itself, and he’s flat-out brilliant. His work gets into your soul and lifts you up. He manufactures beauty; that’s the only way I can put it.
I’m also inspired by Molina Speaks and his partner, Sheree Brown, and the work they do as spoken-word artists and incubators of creativity. They’re just so smart and talented.
As far as writers go, I’m really looking forward to David Wroblewski’s new book, a kind of prequel to the best-selling Story of Edgar Sawtelle. He’s an incredible writer.
And the poet Teow Lim Goh’s first book, Islanders, just came out from Conundrum Press, which is local and awesome. I’ve heard her read and really love her sense of moment and history.
Sorry, that was supposed to be only one person, wasn’t it?
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
Personally? Polishing up some essays I’ve been messing around with and figuring out what do with a memoir that I wrote a while back. I’m also casually working on a new book of poetry.
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Also, Lighthouse has embarked on a new project called Write Denver, where we’re getting the community writing, and then we’re taking that work, collecting it and transforming it into public visual art. I’m so grateful to the Denver Foundation and Bonfils-Stanton Foundation for supporting this idea. So you might be walking down Colfax and on the streetlamps you pass there will be a series of posters with a continuing story that you can read as you walk to work. Or there might be a fake parking sign with a poem on it that you notice when you park your car downtown, or a short-short story illuminated on the side of a building at night. The idea is to build a sense of understanding, and even compassion, for other citizens by learning their story, their truth. It’s a kind of unexpected reading experience that connects us.
Who do you think will get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
The beauty of living in this (relatively) new city is that anything can happen. People are genuinely interested in working together. Through Write Denver, for example, we’re working with local artists to create the literary art that you’ll encounter without even looking for it. So be careful — literature might creep up where you least expect it.
Lit Fest 2016 begins June 3 and runs through June 17 at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, with a full slate of classes, readings, salons and panels with a stellar roster of local and national authors, as well as a book fair and a couple of parties bookending the fest. Learn more about Lit Fest and year-round programs at Lighthouse and register at Lighthouse Writers Workshop online.