Home > Around Town > Riding the rainbow: a conversation with poet Steve Hann
Riding the rainbow: a conversation with poet Steve Hann
By EA Poorman
Fort Wayne Reader
Growing up in the Midwest there's a certain clangy, curmudgeonly bite that is born in you. It starts at birth and develops as hat sizes and waistlines get bigger. It's in your bones and and flows through your veins. In most upbringings the child is taught to fight these snarky urges. They go to church two or three times a week and those pings of sarcasm and dark humor are exorcised out. In the summer we double up on those homespun anti-intellectual flogging sessions by sending children to vacation bible school.
But despite all of these attempts to remove the natural urge to view life through skewed lenses, there are some that make it out of the Midwest with that point-of-view intact. Some are guys and gals that clock in and out of a 9 to 5 six days a week, while others may take your order at the local diner. A good portion of these souls are what you'd consider artists. Musicians, painters, writers, and maybe even teachers.
One such fellow is local poet and high school teacher Steve Henn. Henn has been writing poetry for many years, being published several times in different magazines, as well as self-publishing several collections of his writing. He's even releases an album of his poetry on vinyl. I recently talked to Steve about all of that and more.
EA Poorman: So where did you grow up?
Steve Henn: My family came to Warsaw in 1978, just after the book burnings, during the blizzard of 78. I was 2. I haven’t lived anywhere else for longer than a year before coming back.
EA Poorman: What kind of kid were you growing up?
Steve Henn: I was an anxious kid. In 4th grade I think, due to an insult over the type of books I liked to read, I was convinced my friends hated me and I stayed home from school for about two weeks, essentially making myself physically ill with worry. In middle school I stopped doing much reading because I thought I wouldn’t fit in socially as a reader. I didn’t fit in socially anyway. At the end of freshman year my dad died and that changed me quite a bit. I was angry. My tendency towards anxiety and depression – even the anxiety I felt in elementary school – I think comes from my dad, who had his own issues of that sort. I didn’t self-identify as having mental health issues until much later. Sorry, weird tangent.
EA Poorman: No, I quite like the weird tangents. I'm curious though, with the anxiety and feeling socially awkward, did that affect you as a student?
Steve Henn: I did well in high school. Editor of the school newspaper 2 years in a row. I wrote a lot for the school paper, and we put out 16 issues a year – junior, senior year, I’d often have 3 or 4 articles in an issue. That helped me quite a bit with later writing tasks. I learned to edit quickly and I learned to get things down quickly, under pressure. Deadline pressure has a way of helping me focus. It’s one of the only pressures I do well under.
EA Poorman: Did you ever go through any rebellious phases?
Steve Henn: I guess I had the usual quasi-rebel, shitty attitude in school though. I could be a dick, without reserve. Still am, sometimes.
EA Poorman: So when did you get serious about writing?
Steve Henn: I tried submitting a poem to Ranger Rick magazine in elementary school. It got rejected, and then my mom told my Aunt about it, and my Aunt read it and praised me for it, and I found that quite embarrassing. I didn’t write poems again until high school. I backed my way into poetry as a primary genre. I just kept writing poems. Poems were easier to generate than stories and there seemed to be more to them than journalistic work. The early ones were awful and I threw them all out when I was 19 or 20, but I think very few writers start out writing really well. That takes time.
EA Poorman: Were there any specific books that had an impact on you?
Steve Henn: One book that had a big impact in high school was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, the first book of poetry I bought with my own money. It was improvisational and weird. Then Jack Musgrave (former Warsaw Community High School teacher) loaned me Richard Brautigan’s The Pill vs. The Spring Hill Mine Disaster a year or two later, that was weird and hilarious. Another big writer of that time was Kurt Vonnegut. I’m very drawn to the moral and the metaphysical worlds of Vonnegut and I think he writes a laugh line – a punch line – like no other fiction writer. I still think he’s the best artist of any kind Indiana has ever produced.
EA Poorman: When did poetry become it for you? When did you realize that would be your artistic outlet as opposed to writing novels or going into journalism?
Steve Henn: There’s one particular instance where I turned a corner in poetry, during the one semester I spent at University of Missouri where I went thinking I’d become a rock star of a journalist and I left because the anxiety and depression/bipolarism issues spiked by the end of the term. But early in that fall term of 1994, I took some poems I’d written to the 9th Street Deli Open Mic in Columbia – Columbia is set up just like Bloomington – there’s campus, and when you go off campus to the west, the main drag of shops and music venues and etc is right there. Anyway, I had this poem called “Nothing Else To Do” – I don’t even have a copy of it anymore, I don’t think. I’d have to look. It was a satire of the “Woodstock 94” culture and the growing music festival scene – the marketing of hippiedom, sponsored by Pepsi. That was the first one I read of several. When I finished the crowd exploded in shouts and applause – they erupted. It took me by surprise. I don’t know that I’ve felt a rush like that while reading since, but it completely hooked me, and I also learned that if I wrote to be funny people would pay attention. I continued going to the open mic – it kind of fizzled out late in the term, but it was a great experience for learning to write things people would shut up and pay attention to. Ever since, my most successful poems seem to be ones that are written to grab an audience, to entertain and surprise them. And another thing I think it taught me was that social commentary done in a satirical or humorous way entertains listeners/readers.
EA Poorman: So no musical aspirations?
Steve Henn: I always assumed I couldn’t play an instrument when I was in high school. I have no idea why. I’m self taught on drums now – my band Objects in Motion is playing the Downtown in Warsaw on Saturday April 18. Nick Huffer on guitar and Steph Tuura on vocals and me on drums. But I didn’t pick that up until about 23 or so, when I used to write lyrics for some friends in a band and go to their practices in Bloomington.
EA Poorman: Objects In Motion, how did that come together?
Steve Henn: We've been playing since last spring, roughly. We're about half covers, half originals. We've recorded a demo at Barry Eppley's(Eppley Recording Studios, Warsaw, IN) but we haven't done anything with it. We'd like to get something released on a label at some point. I enjoy it and take it seriously, but I'm better at writing than music and I don't expect that to change. Steph and Nick are awesome to play with though. They both play integral roles. Wouldn't be the same without ‘em.
EA Poorman: Back to writing, who were some of your influences and inspirations? Were your parents artistically-inclined?
Steve Henn: My mom was a Catholic Elementary school teacher and my dad was an accountant. They read a lot and encouraged me to read – my mom especially, taking me to the library constantly. I do remember watching dad read a book by the 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney and laughing his ass off – that was an interesting notion. That a book could make you laugh hysterically.
Other than that, I had a lot of art-oriented friends in high school. The term hipster wasn’t in wide usage then – if it was used, it wasn’t the pejorative it often is now – but I had friends in bands, friends who wrote and did art – it was helpful to know others who did it. Probably my biggest personal influence is Oren Wagner, also a Warsaw kid, who was two years younger than me and is my writing-pal of the longest duration. Jack Musgrave, the locally famous English teacher who kids thought of as unusual because he wasn’t rah-rah about sports, he’d rather encourage the artistic kids – was a good influence, and I felt like I learned the most about writing in high school – was finally ready to start learning, was finally picking up on some things that I’d been missing – when I took Ann Robinson’s senior honors class.
Another important influence when I was at IUSB was the poet Don Winter, who’s a fantastic writer. A writer interested in working class experience. I thought I might give up on writing altogether, but took a poetry writing class he was taking for graduate credit. He had published widely at that point, especially in the small press – and he told me I had a little something extra. Brought a bunch of small press mags around and suggested I submit. I thought he was the smartest guy in the room when we talked about fiction or poetry, and that vote of confidence from Don meant a great deal to me. Later, Don, Oren and I conceived and ran a small press magazine called Fight These Bastards. The title was from a Bukowksi quote and Don insisted on it, but I didn’t object. Oren wanted to call it Teeth Eat Young Adults. He meant it. At the time I thought that was criminally stupid, but now it sounds kind of cool, actually.
EA Poorman: How would you describe your writing style?
Steve Henn: I draw inspiration from everyday life, from my own experience, from the larger American culture, from local culture, from a phrase I hear or a line that sticks that I know I can use as a starting point. It comes and goes. The way to get more ideas is to stay tuned in. To pay attention to what I’m thinking about and noticing. And to what’s there to notice.
A lot of the poems are humorous, but not all. I messed around with essays-as-blog-posts. I’m not sure I like those as much, but they’re still out there. The sense of humor is just there. It’s found its way into the writing and it’s not leaving, which is fine, because I like those poems. I’m one of my favorite poets. I suppose that sounds totally egotistical, but it’s the truth. I write stuff that I would want to read.
EA Poorman: You seem to write from a more grounded perspective. More matter-of-fact. You don't come across as the bard type.
Steve Henn: Well, I think our stereotypes of poets are stereotypes of poseurs. We tend to think of self-proclaimed “poets” as people in love with the idea of being an artist, who never actually produce anything. I think if you read a lot of poets and look into a variety of the work that’s out there from various avenues, you’d find that we’re not so stuffy as the uninitiated seem to think. I think poetry also tends to be taken not-seriously because it really doesn’t make money. You don’t do it for the primary purpose of marketing it and making a buck. I thought I was going to be a big famous poet, especially when I started getting stuff in small magazines, but you get over that eventually by growing up and getting gradually less stupid about life.
EA Poorman: Besides being a writer, you're also an educator. What do you teach?
Steve Henn: I teach senior honors English – AP English, and IU English – which is IU freshman composition and IU literary interpretation.
EA Poorman: Does teaching affect you as a writer?
Steve Henn: I don’t really share or bring up my personal writing work to my classes, but I do find teaching essential to my writing work. I tend to write more during the school year, even though I have less time. I’m really fortunate to be around the brightest student writers in the school – when their brains get humming, get cooking, mine does too. The best thing teaching does for me personally is keep me mentally sharp.
EA Poorman: Was teaching something you always knew you wanted to do?
Steve Henn: No, I didn’t know I’d pursue teaching until I got an English degree at IUSB – and discovered I’d have to do something for a living besides go to class and deliver pizza. I really think I went into teaching because I felt like I would be the most comfortable there – that I could eventually master whatever anxiety I knew I would feel to begin any “real world” job. I knew I liked classrooms, could function well in classrooms, so I stuck with that. I’m happy with that choice.
EA Pooman: Being an educator in Indiana has proven at times to be a painful and thankless job thanks to actions in the state's capital. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for teachers?
Steve Henn: Indiana is completely screwed educationally at the moment. Legislators are bought and paid for by testing companies. They’re pushing a testing agenda. They don’t have the best interest of kids or teachers or the system in mind – it’s the same old push toward privatization they think will Solve All Problems because free markets are magic. Presto change-o, make profit the motivator and we’ll have great schools. Bullsh*t.
I keep teaching in spite of the educational climate in Indiana. I think we have all kinds of amazing stuff going on our in local Warsaw schools – I love the education my kids are getting here. Love their teachers. There are teachers doing great things at the school I teach in. But that’s in spite of, not because of, the bozos in the state capital. You know, teachers are heroes when they save someone in a school shooting, and they’re villains whenever they want to get paid or want good conditions to work in. Mitch Daniels called teachers a “privileged elite” in a speech. Because he wanted to bust up the power of unions with a right to work law. What a sad, stupid joke that is.
EA Poorman: Tell me about the vinyl release you put out, 'I Am On Mental Health Pills'.
Steve Henn: I decided I was going to release that one myself through Superiority Complex Press, which is my label name for anything self-published. The idea to do vinyl occurred to me as my marriage was splitting up. I had gotten into record collecting pretty well within a few years after that, and just decided to pull the trigger, put the money into it. The covers are all hand-painted- mostly by my kids, but some by friends, and some by friends’ kids. Barry Eppley recorded it in his “Sugar Van Buren studios.” Barry’s an awesome audio producer. I thought I might strike a chord and make some sales among vinyl enthusiasts, but of 200 records pressed I’ve probably got 160, 170 left. I would’ve made less but it was like $50 more to double the run, a fraction of the overall cost. Oh, Greg at Allegra Printing printed the stickers that are used for the covers, for the album label. And Dante Augustus Scarlatti – that’s the musical pseudonym of the guy who designed the stickers, same guy who’s putting out the lathe print on his Auris Apothecary indie label. And I was dating a woman at the time who designed the A and B side labels, which is a track list per each side and the image of a bottle of pills spilling out.
EA Poorman: Tell me about the lathe print on the Auris Apothecary label.
Steve Henn: The young man who runs the Auris Apothecary label is a former student. Smart, smart dude. Very driven – seems to have a bunch of projects going constantly. And he’s got this lathe-cutting machine that can cut audio tracks into plastic discs one at a time, and they can be played on a record player, but only a finite number of times until they’re ruined. It’s 3 poems, it’s called Cancel the Apocalypse, and it’ll be released inside a booklet with a color cover, with the 3 poems printed. The audio is decidedly lo-fi, but that’s part of the charm of the project. It’s a homemade recording with a zine-style booklet. D.I.Y. He’s making 50 of them. I’m into it; I think it’s a really cool thing to do.
He’s got a decidedly countercultural approach to the Indiana zeitgeist. His most recent personal release was called Ameritheism, for example. So we looked for stuff I’d done that had an edgier feel to it – a sharper satirical tone. We found some.
EA Poorman: What's next for Steve Henn?
Steve Henn: The poems had been slower going for a while, but they’re starting to pick up again – I’m paying attention to poem ideas more often, stumbling upon them more often. So right now I’m just trying to stack up bunches of poems and see if something can be made of a collection of them at some point. I’ve done my biggest submission of stuff to various online and print magazines in probably 5 or 6 years over the course of the end of winter – I’ve probably sent 12 or so submissions out, including a couple of weekly contests I lost twice, but one poem got picked up so far at Chiron Review, and there are still 8 or 9 subs still out there.
I don’t know that I have an ultimate goal. Keep producing poems. Keep developing as a writer. There’s no particular end-goal I have in mind though. I don’t get a whole lot of recognition, and I sort of chased after it awhile with the website, trying to get noticed online. Then I figured out that I just Feel Better In Life when I’m writing, so I keep it up. I’m not looking for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I’m just hoping to keep riding the rainbow.
Check out Steve's writing at therealstevehenn.com and grab a copy of his album 'I Am On Mental Health Pills' on vinyl, or in digital form. And if you're in Warsaw on Saturday April 18th, check out Steve's band Objects In Motion at the Downtown.