Brian Henderson is a poet based in Ontario. His poem “The Incommensurate /” was the runner-up for the Vallum Award for Poetry 2017. With the deadline for this year’s Vallum Award for Poetry quickly approaching, we caught up with Brian to discuss his process and the role of poetry in today’s world. 

You were the second-prize winner of the Vallum Award for Poetry 2017 for your poem “The Incommensurate /.” How did you feel when you found out the news?

BH 2017

I was surprised more than anything, and then of course delighted. What are the odds? I’d never submitted to a journal’s prize before, maybe since there are now so many of them. What would winning mean? What does winning anything mean? Who cares for more than a few minutes? Well, here I am with a small smile on my face.

I submitted for 2 reasons: I respect Vallum (you know, having appeared once before in your pages;) and especially what you folks are up to with your outreach program — and I noticed that Nicole Brossard was to be the judge, a poet for whom I have the greatest respect and who has a an eye for, and a great ability with, the glitches of language.

Tell me a little bit about “The Incommensurate /.” What ideas or thoughts generated the poem? What was your process of writing it?

There’s a fletching or two of Zeno’s arrow in the piece, a fletching of non-arrival in how language always approaches but never arrives, or the celebration of that as a continuous unfolding happening which is its own arrival. We are quite desperate to know and to have answers such that we miss what we don’t already have in mind. We run on assumptions. I’m interested in what’s on the tip of the tongue (speaking of the glitches of language), the surprise of the vanishing point. How much of our identity is a vanishing point! And it’s looking back at us–which is a weird experience for sure.

These variations of who we might be is echoed in the lines concerning love and the house — to which I’ve added another phrase (for the book coming out from Brick next year) such that it now reads:

Let’s assume love is the name of the 10000 year old spear point found in 1970 not far from where I live with my wife in a house built for someone else in 1997 on glacial outwash that tried on the disguise of a farm in 1854

And here time starts to become the driver of performance. And it is not necessarily sequential. Here meaning is innate in every thing. And so who’s place is it, really?

Every few years the old argument that “poetry is dead” will resurface, but despite the claims that poetry is irrelevant, people continue to read it and write it. What do you think is the role of poetry in the contemporary world? 

Wow. OK, a big question. To which I have no real answer. Well, there’s Auden, isn’t there? And then there’s the gigantic production of poetry — hundreds of books a year in Canada alone. But I’d have to say that there is no one role. I myself have a penchant for ostranenie, that term of Viktor Schklovsky’s championing a poetry that attempts to unsettle. And on the other hand I’m drawn to an art of meditation and of trance which unsettles by quite different means. OK, so maybe that’s it. Bewilderment. A poetry on the other side of telling, a poetry to dehabituate, to get us beside ourselves in some fashion, where words might open the sleeves of their hearts so that we might be able to see some possible ways forward for some real transformation. I say some, some — I’m so entrenched. It’s something I personally have to work on every day. We can’t fall into despair. But maybe occasionally, in exasperation, we might have some fun with cynicism. Ha. Ha ha ha.

And finally, what are you reading right now? Which poets or works have been exciting to you recently?


So reading. Yes. Lots of reading. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (Really? Yep, really –well OK not reading exactly, but exploring — and what reading is not?); The Handbook of Contemporary Animism; What A Plant Knows; Pieces of Light.

Oh yeah, and poetry: Loved exploring Quantum Typography and Broken Light by Gary Barwin. Exciting visual poetry that opens Kabbalahistic synapses. And from the UK, another prolific poet: Rupert Loydell, especially Love Songs for an Echo and The Man Who Has Everything, who is “well situated to sabotage understanding” with masterfully collaged work. Finally, and surprisingly after all this time I’m only now discovering Yves Bonnefoy. I’ve just got The Anchor’s Long Chain translated by Beverley Bie Brahic.

Brian Henderson is a GG finalist and the author of 11 books of poetry including The Alphamiricon, a deck of visual poem cards now online. His latest is [OR] from Talonbooks. Unidentified Poetic Object is forthcoming from Brick in 2019. He is a co-editor of the Laurier Poetry Series.

You can read Brian’s poem “The Incommensurate /,” which was the runner-up for the Vallum Award for Poetry 2017, in Vallum Issue 15:1 “Memory and Loss.” 

Don’t forget to submit to the Vallum Award for Poetry 2018!
First place receive $750 and publication in the upcoming issue of Vallum. 
Our judge this year is Griffin Poetry Prize winner Liz Howard
Deadline: July 15th 2018 
For more information and to enter online today, visit our website