Creating Quarantine/Constructing “Contagion”:

Reflections on an Interview with Brian Henry

by Tamara Madison



Scholars and master teachers of various studies alike often speak of the “discipline” imperative for the mastery of a skill and/or art form.  Writers encourage student writers to write daily, learn technique and traditions, read the classics and the canon, and again “discipline” themselves to hone their craft.  When questions arrive about writer’s block, the answer often and quickly is to write one’s way through it maintaining that discipline through trial on to triumph.  But what of the discipline that becomes a safety net or box or invisible cave that we hide within that imprisons the writer and new expressions that wish to break through?  What if writer’s block is really writer’s gestation, something new stewing in the pot, growing in the womb of imagination growing in a safe, warm, dark place until it is time to be birthed?  In this instance, the writer truly must trust himself to step outside of his own box and comfort zone, push past the very rules and discipline that “made” him and launch himself into the wilderness.  What then?  An experimental mess furthering confusion and blockage or new work and pioneering poetry?


These questions were inspired by a recent informal Q&A with poet Brian Henry discussing his book Quarantine.   Quarantine is a curious book-length poem of a man dying of the plague reflecting on his life and the moments leading up to his death with his dead wife and son lying beside him in a field:

            Quarantine / 19

I feel nothing lying here I feel little
here the sores on my legs
on my neck have not been drained
the pain almost glorious so familiar
in its presence during the night
but now there is a softness
to the feeling a body is washing
away falling into the grass beneath it
and that body was mine and no one
is here to carry it no one will hold the body


Originally published by Ahsahta Press New Series in 2006, Quarantine was recently internationally published and released by Arc Publications, October 2009, in the UK.  Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the book has been described as “a compulsively readable dramatic monologue.” According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Henry…takes his speaker’s voice to a gritty extreme.”


Michael Glover (Publisher’s Weekly) further describes the reader’s journey of the book as “feeling our way through a chilling fog, unaware of our destination, unsure even of the ground beneath our feet.”  What is not so evident from the book, however, is the gritty extreme and chilling fog that the poet travels personally and courageously to write the book. 


During the Q&A recently at New England College where Henry teaches as an MFA instructor, the poet spoke intimately about the process of writing the book.  Henry is known by his students and colleagues as a “writer’s writer.”  He has the discipline of writing daily and is a task master when it comes to revision, revision, revision.  He is a true craftsman with a wealth of knowledge of other poets and their poetry from around the world.  His “lectures” and presentations, however, are often hip and witty and delightfully humorous provoking students and colleagues alike. 


The voice of Quarantine is first personal exploring psychological and sexual extremes.  I asked him jokingly during the lecture, “Would you say that you were possessed while writing the book?”  His response caught me off guard.  For a few seconds, there was that spooky silence like dead airspace on the radio, and then Henry solemnly pensively replied, “No, I was depressed.”   Here the journey of Quarantine’s painful process begins.  “I had been writing for nine years daily as a discipline,” he began.  “Then all of a sudden, I couldn’t write for months.”  He proceeded to describe how he was most influenced during this period by Tomaz Salamun’s A Ballad for Metka Krasouvec and was listening continuously for months to the music of Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over The Sea.”  The album has titles like “The Fool,” “Ghost,” and “In the Aeroplane Over The Sea”—all of which can be associated with Quarantine and its haunting tale of death and disease.    Henry described how painful it was to not be able to write at all and then talked about how one morning he simply woke up with an aerial view, an image of seeing bodies beside the river.  It was Thanksgiving weekend, two months after 9-11, but Henry’s depression had settled in well before that.  He states that Quarantine was written in those three days and never before and never since has he written a collection of poetry in this way.  Henry described the writing of the “Quarantine” section of the book as incessant.  It simply began as a relief.  “I was simply happy that I could write anything at that point,” he stated.  “But I didn’t realize that I was writing a book initially.”   Henry stated that he did not think of these dictations as a body of work really until section nine of the series.  He continued to write in a way that was very uncharacteristic of his discipline.  The entire first section of poetry in Quarantine is without punctuation.  And yes, he admittedly, “loves punctuation.”  “We tend to associate punctuation with rules,” he confirms.  Henry plays by those rules skillfully and manipulates them perhaps even more skillfully.  But for Quarantine, he does not manipulate or break but steps completely beyond those rules into new territory.  Enjambment and line break become the only traffic signs in the first part of Quarantine’s roadway. 


Henry was completely entrenched in the work. Like recording a live witness or suspect to the extent of doubting the speaker and the truth of his testimony,   “[t]hat was when I developed the prose pieces to sort of counterbalance my distrust of the narrator,” he stated.  The short prose excerpts are dispersed throughout the first section as a neutral voice of clarity juxtaposed to the maddening voice of the speaker possibly suffering hallucinations as a result of his illness.  Henry describes the first section of the book as “intuitively intentional” and how he awoke at two in the morning realizing the first section was completed with 40 sections, quarante. 


He then set about “constructing “Contagion” versus creating “Quarantine”’, the second half of the book.  Intellectually more driven from the other side of the brain, ‘Contagion’ is a sharp contrast to ‘Quarantine’. It is  hyper-punctuated with sharp corners, deliberately marching steps and consistent end-stopped lines:

              Contagion / 40

In that field on the earth at dawn.
Does not care about the bodies there.
And my wife my son and I were growing.
Even though the moon had not moved.
And tracking the sun coming over the trees.
Where I could not be dead could not be.
Breathing as I was the air above.
Watching my wife and son without.
Instead of where I found myself.
Where death is not an is.
As if the thinking could bring me.
Beside my wife and son who seemed.
Beneath my back where I lay.
By the time the sun touched the grass


“Contagion”’ without variation repeats the lines of “Quarantine” backwards like the inevitable decomposition of a corpse.  Henry admits that he purposely set about “hacking into the narrator’s voice, driven by its untrustworthiness.”  Like a mad scientist, the poet ripped at his own creation.  Can a writer do any greater than this to push his own limits, step out of his own box and pioneer new territory?


And what of the quarantine the poet suffered?  Arguably in this process, there are three quarantines. Depression in whatever form, be it clinical and/or personal and/or creative is painfully isolating, an abyss into which many become lost without support and sometimes hands-on navigation with which to work their way out of it.  Working outside of his own work ethic and discipline to write so “intuitively” without the cracking whip of revision was another quarantine or isolation that the poet allowed himself to explore.  Finally, the dramatic shift to the left brain, the scientific, analytical, mechanical build-and-destroy mechanism was where again the poet obsessively quarantined himself, trusting himself to hack away at his creation and re-create it confidently all over again.


This poetry, this process is beyond therapy and poetics.  It is a work, a process, a journey to be studied with notes well taken to add to the save file.  Each writer must traverse his own matrix or die lost within it.  Here lies that “New Age”/Chopra/Universal/70’s Hippie Throw Back principle of “trusting in the process.”  Often writers discuss and argue process as poetics rather than personal.  Henry takes a rare moment to encourage.  “I guess the moral of the story is,” he begins “never stop to second guess what you are doing/creating until you are done.”  These words spoken by a lazy writer/poet would be empty fluff, but spoken by a task and craft master like Henry, they ring like scripture.