Last fall, three-time Pushcart nominated poet Matthew E. Henry performed a poetry reading in the Barrington Cinema as a part of the Princemere Writers Series. Led by English Professor Mark Stevick, the Series invites renowned and emerging writers to Gordon College to share their art and engage with Creative Writing students. Henry also visited with Stevick’s Literary Journal class to discuss writing, editing, publishing, and teaching.
Matthew E. Henry, a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College, is known for winning the Editor’s Choice Award in Relief Journal. He has also been published across multiple literary journals, including Ploughshares, 3Elements, and Shenandoah.
Henry has published two collections of poetry. The first, Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020), focuses on the experience of working as a black teacher at a predominantly white high school. Henry shared one of his most shocking pieces, “an open letter to the school resource officer who almost shot me in my class,” which recounts his experience being misidentified as an intruder in his own classroom.
His second collection, a chapbook titled Dust and Ashes (Californios Press, 2020), explores the Memento Mori tradition, which explores the implications of death on the way we live. Henry also centralizes issues of faith, and how his faith interacts with lived experience. One example of this is his poem “…and who is my neighbor?” which draws parallels between the parable of the good Samaritan and American racism. He does so by comparing the passing priest and Levite to Christians on social media posting that “#BlueLivesMatter” or “#AllLivesMatter.”
Henry is currently working on a third collection, The Colored Page, which will feature several “sonnets,” which adhere to the 14-line structure, but challenge traditional meter and rhyme as well as theme. Each sonnet poses serious questions about God and faith, beginning with a theological proposition such as “maybe Jesus was having an off day,” “[Say Jonah was right and grace is wasted],” or the more adventurous “[Say prayer is sex with God.]”
Although Henry visited as a poet, he shared that the title was not a familiar experience for him. While he does consider himself a poet, he primarily considers himself a teacher. He is not afraid to challenge the canon and teach books that challenge both his students and society. He affectionately refers to all of his students as “his kids” and understands the importance of supporting students beyond traditional classroom learning. Some of Henry’s poetry, such as “lady Macbeth” and “a confession from occupied territory,” feature stories about helping students through the most difficult, even traumatic, experiences of their lives.
As well as teaching in his own classroom, Henry also serves as the Editor in Chief of The Weight Journal, a literary journal which exclusively publishes work written by teens. The journal prides itself on giving close attention to every submission and involving writers in the editorial process, thereby helping young writers improve their pieces alongside the editorial staff. What began as an experiment for Henry’s own students has developed into an international phenomenon. Nearly half the Weight Journal’s submissions are received from outside of the US.
Henry spoke highly of his experience in Seattle Pacific’s MFA program, which focuses on integrating the spiritual into writing. When asked about his balancing life as a teacher and as a poet, he joked “Do you believe in sleep?” But in seriousness, he encouraged young writers in the classroom that like any other relationship, “If your relationship with writing is important, you make time for it.” He encouraged the class to “carry a pen!” and “learn to write on paper!” stressing the importance of being able to write the moment inspiration strikes.
In addition to an MFA in poetry and a PhD in Education, Henry also has a Masters in Theology. This has a strong influence on his writing. In his words, “Everything is spiritual. Period.” Yet Henry also holds a resistance against “overly didactic” religious poetry. He prefers to focus on spiritual themes which are too often left out of the sermon. His poems explore the most difficult questions of life and faith through the lens of everyday experience. Many of his religious themes draw from the Old Testament, such as Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Psalm 88. Henry said, “there is singing and screaming in the Bible, and both are good options.” His poetry, he said, often chooses screaming.
Henry will be returning to Gordon College in Spring of 2022 as a speaker for the second annual Five Ponds Creative Writing Festival.