Listen some dusk to the varied thrush keening its single long, cool note. This is what the thrush has waited for all day: the busy light leaving, shadows slipping home from their exile. For the spacious silence that hears it, answers. Lean bliss you might have thought despair -- Listen then to your own, that other loneliness that is our vast capacity. I thought it longed for filling. It longs to sing -- The Listening, by Donna Henderson, from the forthcoming Send Word
Maupin poet and psychotherapist Donna Henderson, LCSW, didn’t start out with poetry and the written language of the heart on her mind. She barely knew what creative path she wanted to follow.
But she had some guideposts.
Once, when she was trying to decide whether or not to buy a piano, unsure of her readiness to commit to learning to play, she consulted her mother.
“Oh, honey, get the piano” her mother said. “Creativity is the most important thing!”
Creativity was always her mother’s fallback position. She might at times get crabby with young Donna or other kids in their Portland neighborhood, about any number of infractions, Henderson said, “but we always had an art table and we could always leave the stuff out on it.”
Art was in the air at the Henderson household; it was life. From her earliest memories, she used whatever medium came to hand — oils, pastels, anything for graphic media — it didn’t matter. When everybody in her family wrote, she wrote. She sold her first article to Seventeen magazine when she was 17 years old.
“I always assumed art was what I’d do with my life,” she said.
After graduating from Portland’s Lincoln High School, Henderson looked forward to majoring in art in college, she said, because up to that point she was largely self-taught. Her world of art was about play and exploration. Her first college-level art class, however, introduced an aspect of art she’d never encountered: judgment.
That stopped her cold. She set down her brushes, pastel sticks, and pencils and turned to writing poetry.
Outside of assigned readings in school, she hadn’t read much poetry as a child, Henderson said, and what she had read meant little at the time. “We were taught to read a poem as though it was a riddle with a hidden meaning. Approached that way, I just couldn’t connect.”
As a sophomore at Western Oregon University, she enrolled in a “Craft of Poetry” class and discovered the English language had more meaning than she’d ever felt. Poetry became a way of connecting with direct experience.
In writing her first poem, Water Ballet, Henderson was surprised and moved to discover how the poem’s language actually deepened her perception of the encounter it described. She liked the poem, a lot. The effect on her confidence was like a magical experience. Figuring she’d broken through her poetic ice, she began writing, Henderson said, “and it was just crap! I knew I’d written something that was a poem, but I had no idea how to do it again!”
She began to learn how to listen for the language of poetry. “I’m still learning.”
These days, Henderson and her husband, Rich Sutliff, live in a small house in Oregon’s high desert overlooking the comings and goings on the Deschutes River. She’s the author of the collections Transparent Woman and The Eddy Fence, both finalists for the Oregon Book Award in poetry, as well as the chapbook Gazpacho, which includes watercolors by her sister, Darcy Henderson. She has a new poetry collection coming out later this summer, titled Send Word. I talked with Henderson about poetry, psychotherapy, and writing on the river. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
In your day job, you work as a psychotherapist. How does that and being poet work together?
Henderson: While poetry is commonly thought of as being about “self-expression” and the objective of therapy as being “self-improvement,” I actually understand both poetry and psychotherapy to be about “discovery.” And that requires becoming deeply curious about our experience of humanness — our wounds, longings, losses, regrets, and hopes — and bearing witness to those in language. I’m actually not interested in writing poems in which I know what I want to express, because I already know where they’re going. I’m more interested in writing to discover what I don’t yet know.
In a similar way, psychotherapy begins with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and why we are that way. But therapy is about stepping off from there into what is unknown and unseen. So much of how we understand ourselves at the surface level is actually made of our strategies for coping with pain. As a result, our pain is managed and protected, but not really seen, so it can’t be tended and mended and/or, in some way, transformed. To see and be seen: That’s what both poetry and psychotherapy do.
That implies trust. Is it innate or does it need to be developed?
One thing people need in therapy, I believe, is to find and hold that part of themselves that will not abandon them when another part gets scared. Part of the job of psychotherapy is to create an opportunity for people to experience compassion for their pain, shame, and fear, and in the process, find and bring that to themselves. I think the capacity for compassion is innate in pretty much all of us. Trust is maybe more of a decision to take the risk to allow someone else — a therapist, for instance — to see us at our most vulnerable. And it is through the risk of vulnerability that we become available to compassion.
Does psychotherapy sometimes trigger a poem in you?
In an indirect, yet powerful way, I learn so much about myself during therapy. These conversations can be incredibly vulnerable and intimate. The kind of trust that lets people go to the place of vulnerability and invite me into it means that often, by way of someone else’s discovery about themselves, it holds up a mirror to something in me. And I’ll take that with me, usually as a question to my poetry. And then it’ll go where it’ll go with me.
What I’m hearing is that when you’re talking with someone, you’re also getting yourself reflected back at you, and some of those reflections end up in your poetry, as long as it’s not anything personal about the subject.
I appreciate you putting it that way. I’m very scrupulous about not bringing other people’s stories into my poetry, even in a disguised way. Everybody’s story is sacred and belongs to them. But there are reflections that come up which have a life in me and those do come forward. It’s one of those gifts and blessings that make the work so meaningful to me. It feels like what people speak about from their own hearts, a very vulnerable place — it’s like my own heart gets opened in all these little places. And that increases my compassion, not an abstract compassion, but it comes from really “getting it” about some experience that’s not mine.
It helps you pull together your own hidden pieces and put them in a different form. How does that show up in your poetry?
I think it happens in a non-trackable way. It’s like it goes underground and then comes up miles away somewhere else. It’s hard to track what happens between here and there. Part of the process is to not have the state of mind to hold the idea and force some kind of meaning into it. To instead just trust that it’ll return to the surface… and then eventually it does. It might be in some distant time and place. I really don’t know how it happens.
How does living so close to the Deschutes River fit into your creative process?
I’m never happier than when I’m floating on a river. It’s a flow of experience. It’s not a thing to make or pick or get right, it’s a flow of mystery.
The river invites me to step into that flow and write from the inside out: to look for language that is accurate to the visceral experience of being in that flow, as opposed to describing it from the safe, but distanced, vantage point on the shore.
I’m so grateful for the dialog of poetry and psychotherapy. In some mysterious way, being able to do therapy with pain and heartbreak, I need to have someplace to go with language. Because I do, I can do the kind of therapy that I do at a level I can sustain. I have a number of therapist colleagues who are also artists, and though I can’t speak for them, I know that I can do the deep work with others because of my practice of poetry. There’s a flow and form to each — poetry and psychotherapy — that feeds and informs the other, like currents mingling.
Every lifetime includes everything from effervescent moments of joy to the many losses that don’t get resolved. What’s needed is to find a way to see and honor or give voice to and to carry these, like the river does. Everything that falls in the river becomes part of it, and it works with the geography it finds itself in, shaping and being shaped by it. Psychotherapy is a way to explore and integrate what “falls into” a life and to be part of the act of shaping — to be a witnessing, creative participant in our own ongoing making.