Episode 1: Mary Henn | University of Missouri-Kansas City
Mary Henn of the University of Missouri-Kansas City talks about gender, trauma, writing as healing, and whether writing can and should be political.

Mary Henn joins Jared to talk about gender, trauma, writing as healing, and whether writing can and should be political. Henn reads an excerpt from her award-winning creative nonfiction piece "Assemblies," which is forthcoming in Hayden's Ferry Review.

Mary Henn is an emerging poet and nonfiction writer. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Missouri State University and was recently awarded an Intro Journals Award from the AWP. Currently, she is an MFA candidate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she teaches English.

Transcript

Jared McCormack
Welcome to MFA Writers, the podcast where we talk to creative writing MFA students about their program, their process, and a piece they're working on. I'm your host, Jared McCormack. Today, in the first-ever episode of MFA Writers, I'm excited to be talking to Mary Henn, a third-year MFA candidate from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Mary is a poet, she's an essayist, and she is the most recent winner of AWP's Intro Journals Award for her essay "Assemblies" which will soon be appearing in Hayden's Ferry Review. Mary, thanks for joining us.

Mary Henn
Thank you for having me.

Jared McCormack
So we'll get to the award and the MFA program in a bit, but it would feel strange not to mention that it's been a pretty eventful couple of weeks in America. We're recording this interview on June 8, and I know you attended the Black Lives Matter protests at City Hall this past weekend with a few of your fellow MFA students. So I was curious whether you consider your writing to be political. And if you think writing in general has a role to play in protest and in politics?

Mary Henn
Yeah, I think so. I don't know if I consider my own writing overly political, necessarily. I write a lot about gender issues, and a lot about trauma. I don't myself write about racism, specifically, as a white woman. But I think it's important, especially in the times that we're in to highlight different voices and different issues, different narratives, right?

Jared McCormack
Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I mean, for me, I think writing is inherently political. I mean, it's impossible not to have a political aspect to it, but the really good writing I think is subversively political, like those things kind of happen naturally, they show up. Like, I've read a lot of your work. And you know, you mentioned trauma, a lot of your pieces are about addiction, and I definitely consider it to have political aspects in it. I can't help when reading it to think that there's some commentary happening under the surface about how we treat people and how we treat people on the margins.

Mary Henn
Yeah, and I think a lot of political issues are intersectional right. So, writing about addiction, for instance, is also writing about socioeconomics and trauma and sometimes gender. So there's a lot of overlap I think in those themes and those issues.

Jared McCormack
You talk about gender and addiction, and also family comes up a lot in your work. So, where do you think those themes come from for you? Like, why are those the things that draw you in the most or inspire you the most?

Mary Henn
I think that's what I know. And I've noticed too, that a lot of writers, their first book, or first collection of poems, or essays, or whatever it is, they often write about family. And that seems to be a starting place for a lot of writers. And as far as the other things go, I think that's just what I grew up around. That was my experience for the majority of my life. So it's natural to write about it.

Jared McCormack
Yeah. Yeah, I think that makes sense. I mean, most of the debut collections that I read, even works of fiction, have this sense when you're reading it that this is an experience, at least partially an experience that the author went through. And that's why it's, I don't want to say easier, but like maybe necessary, in those first pieces.

Mary Henn
Yeah, to get it out.

Jared McCormack
Yeah, I mean, I don't know about you, but I consider writing as a form of therapy in a way. It's partially about developing and creating a product that people might, hopefully, want to read, but it's also a way to kind of work through things that I'm dealing with.

Mary Henn
I find that too, I think writing helps to, it helps to make art out of something that's happened, some experience that's happened, that maybe wouldn't be considered useful or productive or beautiful otherwise.

Jared McCormack
So do you remember the first time that you wrote a story or a poem? Is there like a moment from when you were younger when you maybe realized the power in writing a story or writing a poem?

Mary Henn
You know, I don't remember the moment, like a specific moment in which I sat down and wrote something and appreciated, you know, the power of writing or the act of writing, like I do now. But I do remember reading and moments growing up, or even as a young adult, moments, specific moments, where I read something that changed the way I thought about language and writing and communication.

Jared McCormack
So you studied creative writing as an undergrad. Do you remember when you decided to go that route?

Mary Henn
Yes, I do. So I had no idea what I was doing as an undergraduate student, and didn't really have a lot of guidance. And I was in a speech class, a freshman speech class with Dr. Nora Cox at Missouri State University, and she was a great, I mean, she is a great teacher. But she played Nicki Finney's acceptance speech for the National Book Award. Nicky Finney won the National Book Award for her collection of poems Head Off & Split in 2011. And we watched that speech in class and that was huge for me. I think that was the first very clear moment where I wanted to do something like that to be able to communicate like that and write like that.

Jared McCormack
How old were you at that time?

Mary Henn
I was a freshman in college, so I just turned 18.

Jared McCormack
Yeah. And so at that point, were you already majoring in creative writing, or were you still trying to figure it out?

Mary Henn
I wasn't majoring. I was undeclared. I didn't have a major. But after that, after that speech class, I enrolled in a poetry class. And that's sort of when I started writing.

Jared McCormack
You went straight from Missouri State then into the MFA program at UMKC. What was it that made you want to pursue an MFA degree?

Mary Henn
Yeah, so I did my undergrad, my bachelor's degree, at Missouri State in creative writing, and after graduation they offered a graduate teaching assistantship to me at Missouri State. So I did an MA there for two years. And after that I didn't really have any set plans. So one of my professors at the time had encouraged me to apply to MFA programs. So that's what I did.

Jared McCormack
And was there a specific reason you chose UMKC? Or did it have to do with being close to where you grew up?

Mary Henn
Yeah, so the first MFA program that I was accepted into was in Northern Michigan University. And so I had planned, after I received that call, my plan was to pack up and move to Michigan. And then I had spoken to someone who was in the MFA program at Northern Michigan at that time, and after talking with her, I decided that maybe that program wasn't the best fit for me. And then a little bit later, I did receive an offer from UMKC. I had applied to UMKC because I grew up in Kansas City. And I decided at that time, it would be the best move for me, you know, financially to move back to Kansas City, because I had, you know, somewhat of a support system here. So, I moved back to Kansas City, started the MFA program, and I'm really glad that things worked out that way because it turned out that 2019 was a pretty hectic year for my family. So I was grateful to be back in the city.

Jared McCormack
So you talked about the financial part a little bit. UMKC's MFA program is a three year partially-funded program, which means some students receive assistantships and fellowships that cover tuition and provide a stipend while other students have to pay for the program. You're funded as a teaching assistant. Was that a big factor in your decision?

Mary Henn
Absolutely. I did not have the means to attend an MFA program that wasn't fully funded. And I realize that UMKC technically is partially funded, but as you said, with the assistantship, it is for me.

Jared McCormack
Right, you get the funding. So how has teaching been there? Have you found it difficult to balance the teaching with the writing?

Mary Henn
Teaching has been a good experience for me, overall. I taught two years at Missouri State during the MA and I've been teaching at UMKC now for, it's been just about two years here as well. I don't know, at the risk of sounding totally cheesy, I feel like I've learned just as much from my students, probably more from my students, than they've learned from me. I feel like having tolecture and stand in front of a group of people, adults, is nerve racking and I think eventually, it sort of builds your confidence once you get used to it. So I think I communicate better. I think I interact with others better. Yeah, I like teaching but it does. It does distract from writing sometimes.

Jared McCormack
And UMKC being an urban university, the student body is really diverse and really interesting. What's your experience been with like with the students, the undergrads?

Mary Henn
Yeah. So it's interesting that you say that because the intro-level Discourse classes that we teach as GTAs are often very diverse. And it's been shown through data that those classes, because there are three levels, right, 100, 200, 300, as you move up toward 300, those classes, those classrooms, become statistically less diverse. And there are a lot of things I think we could say about that. But I do love teaching 100 and even 200 because you do see you have different voices, different perspectives. People from different parts of the world.

Jared McCormack
I think in general for anyone who is attending an MFA program, if they're going to have a teaching assistantship, they're probably going to be teaching an intro-level composition course, which is essentially, what Discourse is at UMKC. Yeah, and I know for me, there's so many interesting stories, like so many interesting experiences that these young people are bringing to the classroom that I really enjoyed teaching as well. Outside of being close to home, what has your experience been like in the program? I know you started off in poetry and you've started writing a bit more nonfiction these days. What influenced that decision and what has that experience been like for you?

Mary Henn
Yeah, so I took my first nonfiction class ever, I hadn't taken any workshops outside of the genre of poetry before. At Missouri State, I had only studied poetry. So I took nonfiction with Dr. Christie Hodgen in the Fall of 2019 and I was really nervous going into it because I didn't think that I could do it. I remember talking to friends in the program who are nonfiction writers and just being like I, I can't do that it's gonna be a mess.

Jared McCormack
But you were writing prose poetry anyway, right? So I guess there's some crossover there.

Mary Henn
Yeah, and that's the thing that I realized is that most of my poetry maybe isn't actually poetry. I mean, it's all nonfiction. All of my poetry is nonfiction. There are just linebreaks and it's condensed and so I found that writing nonfiction was actually more of an enjoyable process for me because I had room to take up a page and tell the whole story. There aren't any real differences between what I write for poetry and what I write for nonfiction, I think.

Jared McCormack
Subjectwise?

Mary Henn
Yeah, subjectwise and also stylistically, I think that, as you mentioned, so many of my poems are prose poems that are derivative of my own experiences, and my nonfiction tends to be lyrical. So, if you start to compare a prose poem to a lyric essay, they're sort of indistinguishable by definition, by their definitions or lack thereof. So actually, for me, it's all the same. And the way that I label it is different. And the fact that I have more, I feel like I have more space more room to write in nonfiction.

Jared McCormack
Right. Well, UMKC's program is somewhat unique in that they have classes in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting and playwriting, and it actually has an interdisciplinary component to it. So you're encouraged to take those classes outside of your emphasis. Do you think you would have taken a nonfiction course if you'd been in a different program? Or would you have just stuck with poetry?

Mary Henn
I don't think I would have. I hadn't taken one. I didn't take a nonfiction class at Missouri State. And that was an option. Those were available to me. I wish I would have now. I saw it as a requirement and I needed to take a workshop in a genre outside of poetry and so I did that. But I think that actually my nonfiction is a lot better than my poetry for whatever reason, so I'm glad I did it.

Jared McCormack
I've read both and they're both really good. So maybe you're being a little hard on yourself, but let's talk about this award. It was recently announced that you are one of the 2020 winners of AWP's Intro Journals Award for your essay "Assemblies," which will soon be published in Hayden's Ferry Review. Did you write this essay in that nonfiction class with Dr. Hodgen?

Mary Henn
I did. And so that essay, "Assemblies," started as a flash nonfiction piece. So the first chunk of text was a response to Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth and did not intend for it to be any longer than 500 words. And then later in the workshop, we were required to write a longer essay and I used that first section that I had written previously as a starting point and went from there.

Mary Henn
[Mary reads from "Assemblies."]

Jared McCormack
I have to say, you said earlier that you don't consider your writing political, but I can't help but hear that and also in my head hear a commentary on how we treat women and young girls, and how we train them to think about their own bodies.

Mary Henn
And this piece specifically deals with, as you mentioned, of course, gender, sex, religion, and abuse in different forms. I don't normally write about religion in this way, either. But yeah, I think that this piece maybe is political in those ways.

Jared McCormack
Yeah. But not overtly. It's not like in your face. You're not. It's not like we're reading a story that says, you know, it's a manual on how to talk to women. It's just illuminating this experience, showing it to people so that they can come to those conclusions on their own, which is what I mean when I say subversive, and I do think that your writing is subversively political. Like later in the same piece, there was a line this stood out to me. There's a guest speaker who comes to the school and she's talking about sex education, but you say "She's not demonstrating how to roll a condom onto a banana. Instead, she is here to say no man wants to be with a girl who has given her gift away. Because once a girl has lost her virginity, she has lost value." Which for me, I mean, in a lot of ways that's a political statement about how we talk about sex in this country and the damage that silence can have on young people who are trying to figure it out on their own.

Mary Henn
Right. And especially, I mean, having attended Catholic school, sex education wasn't a thing. Teaching abstinence was their method for dealing with teenagers I think, but I do think that speaks to larger issues of not only how we treat women generally, but how religion, Catholicism, Christianity has, you know, embedded certain, often harmful beliefs.

Jared McCormack
And it seeps into public policy, right? You know, I was raised Catholic as well. I didn't go to Catholic school, but even in the public school, I don't remember having extensive sex education in which people just talked about it, right? It was always talked around. And especially in those Catholic settings, it wasn't talked about at all. It was just something you don't do. And so then you internalize shame, which I think is one thing that you're exploring in this essay, which is really good. And I'm super excited for it to be published in Hayden's Ferry Review. And am I right that this is the first thing that you've ever submitted? Did I hear that?

Mary Henn
Yeah, it is the first piece of nonfiction that I've ever submitted. And actually, if it were up to me, I wouldn't have submitted it at all.

Jared McCormack
Why?

Mary Henn
I don't know. Seriously, during the workshop with Dr. Hodgen, we had to write two large essays. So I wrote one about my brother. And then the second essay that I wrote for that class was "Assemblies." And I wouldn't say that the process was rushed for me, but I did write it with a little bit of pressure timewise, which maybe was a good thing after all, but I submitted it to the workshop. People had sort of mixed feelings about it, and I did not, I did not like it.

Jared McCormack
Well, I think there's probably a lesson here for anyone who is intimidated about submitting their work or maybe self-conscious about it. Because it's a great essay and Dr. Hodgen submitted it for you or she suggested you submit it? How did the AWP Intro Journal Prize work exactly?

Mary Henn
Right, so I received an email notifying me that I had been nominated for the AWP Intro Journals Award in Nonfiction. And I was surprised because I wasn't. I'm still not like on the nonfiction track. So I thought it was a mistake initially. And so I went to Dr. Hodgen and I said, "Hey, I got this weird email telling me to submit a piece of nonfiction for an AWP prize." And I was like, "Was that a mistake?" And she said, "No, no, it's not a mistake. I think your writing is good. I would like you to submit." She wanted me, I think, to submit the first essay that I wrote for her class, which is a better essay. But I have a lot of stake in that essay. And it just wasn't ready to go out yet. I think this one was a little bit closer. So "Assemblies" when I submitted it to the workshop was over 3000 words. I cut out major parts of it. Now it's about 2300 words and I submitted it thinking that, I mean, really knowing that it wasn't going to get any recognition. And then it did, and I was very shocked.

Jared McCormack
Well, so you know, we have two examples here. One is being in the MFA program, taking a class where you had this deadline in which you had to produce an essay for class, turned out to be this essay, which you didn't think was good, but that your professor encouraged you to submit, it ended up winning a pretty big prize. And it's going to be published now. So, you think the MFA program has helped you to progress as a writer in forcing you to produce and to submit where maybe you wouldn't have otherwise?

Mary Henn
In this way, with "Assemblies," yes. In other ways, not so much.

Jared McCormack
So can that also be a negative? I mean, we talked earlier about how writing can be, you know, obviously is producing a product that you hope gets published, but it also can be a form of self-exploration. Do you ever find that you lose some of that self-exploration or therapy that you would normally get from writing because you're forced to produce a product for class?

Mary Henn
That's a tough question. I think maybe with this piece there was a little bit of luck involved. I mean, I started writing it in November of 2019, submitted it either that month or in December, and then was told that it had won the award and was being published in March, which seems to me like a pretty fast process start to finish. And I will say that I have been writing poems for many years now, and I don't submit work for publication very often, but I have submitted poetry before and have not had a success. So this wasn't like the first thing I'd ever written and sent out and it was published. You know, but I think with this piece I was forced because the process was so fast. I was forced to, so, I wrote the essay, it went through workshop, and then I decided to edit it for submission to the prize. And knowing that I had to have it submitted by a certain date, I cut big chunks of it, which I normally wouldn't do. I think I would cling to those and like a poem or like a different essay, I would be afraid to make huge cuts and huge edits like that, but because of time, anything that stood out as just not fitting in the piece, I tried to just cut completely.

Jared McCormack
In my experience in the MFA program, one of the biggest things I've learned, I'm just finishing up my first year, but one of the biggest things I learned this year was revision and being able to recognize the parts that even though you really might like a paragraph, and you really want to cling to it, it might not belong in that particular story and learning where to take those things out. So you're going into your third year in the MFA program, which means your thesis. Do you plan on doing a mix of poetry and nonfiction for your thesis? Or are you going to stick fully to nonfiction?

Mary Henn
I don't know if I'm allowed to only write nonfiction. I'll have to check on that. But at the very least, I plan to write a thesis that is a hybrid of lyric essays, nonfiction and poetry, prose poems specifically.

Jared McCormack
Are you excited? Nervous?

Mary Henn
I have mixed feelings about the thesis. It won't be the first creative thesis that I've written. I did a poetry thesis for my MA which was not good. It was very rushed. I did not know what I was doing at all. I was avoiding writing about certain things. I was just kind of all over the place. And I think, you know, going into a thesis this year, three years later. I think I want it to be. Yeah, I want it to be more personal. I want it to be something that I'm proud of, something that I plan on, hopefully, sending out and, you know, getting published maybe.

Jared McCormack
One thing that really amazes me and I really respect about nonfiction writers is the ability to put themselves out there. I mean, like me, as a fiction writer, I can write about an experience I've had and cloak it in the title of fiction and I have the option to hide behind that, in a sense, but with nonfiction, you really have to put yourself out there. And I could see how even over the course of a few years how you could really change and really grow to the point of feeling comfortable doing that.

Mary Henn
Yeah, and I'm definitely in a different place now than I was three years ago as a writer, as a person, as a sister, as a daughter. So, you know, I also feel like so much has happened in three years that the content will look completely different.

Jared McCormack
Well, you mentioned that the hope is that it gets published. And I hope that for you as well, because, like I said, I've read a lot of your work, and I think it's all good, even the poetry. And so I look forward to reading your thesis. Good luck writing it and thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Mary Henn
Thank you.

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