By Erica Boniface, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Staff
Some artists hold paintbrushes to create their masterpieces. Others perform on stages in front of an audience. Some beautifully conduct music for the symphony. And some use a computer keyboard or paper and pen to compose their creations. Art comes in many forms, and for 2017 Livingston Fellow, Michael Henry, his is expressed on paper through literature and writing.
Michael currently serves as Executive Director of Lighthouse Writers Workshop, where he also teaches poetry, memoir and essay workshops. Since he co-founded the organization in 1997, it has grown to nearly 100 instructors who provide the Denver and Mountain communities with expertise and guidance in the pursuit of writing and self-expression. He’s also published two full-length collections of poetry, No Stranger Than My Own and Active Gods with Conundrum Press.
His work is magnificent and we wanted to get to know him more – who is Michael Henry aside from his professional accomplishments? Which author would he like to meet, dead or alive, if he could? He answers five questions and even shares the details of his high school yearbook quote with us.
Get to know Livingston Fellow Michael Henry now:
BSF: As one of the newest Fellows in the Program, you are just getting started on your planned activities. What aspect of your professional development plan are you most eager to begin? And, how do you hope that activity will strengthen your leadership?
MH: First, I have plans to take a trip to visit several literary—and other arts—centers, to see what they’re up to, how they work, what sorts of community engagement they’re working on. I’m eager to learn more about how other arts centers are addressing larger societal issues, and what roles the creative arts might play. Plus, I really enjoy making connections, learning from others, and sharing ideas and best practices. I hope to capture what I learn, perhaps in an essay or series.
The other things I’m excited about—and a little nervous, too—is my plan to mountain bike the entire Colorado Trail. I guess this is my “stretch goal” and relates to a desire to challenge myself, to find some solitude, and to see how I can endure something that’s incredibly difficult (see answer #3 for more on that). The idea is to ride about half the trail this summer, and the rest next summer. All totaled, it’s about 500 miles. I’m trying to get ready, training as much as I can, but there’s never enough time. And there’s a voice inside my head that’s telling me I’m totally crazy to even be thinking about such a thing. We’ll see how it goes.
BSF: Lighthouse Writers Workshop is the largest literary arts organization in Colorado’s Mountain West – with over 100 instructors who provide expertise and guidance in writing and self-expression. What has been one of the most profound stories you’ve come across over the years?
MH: There are hundreds of stories—people with successful non-writing careers who always wanted to write, who find Lighthouse and take classes and then find success, publishing books and winning awards. Others who merely want to explore language, and who write beautiful, lasting work. And those who’ve experienced deep trauma, who use writing to find their way out of their grief and pain, making art from their story.
In particular I’m deeply moved by a young woman who was a regular in our young writer’s program—when she started, she had a difficult time expressing herself, and often had trouble paying attention. She struggled in school socially and academically, and at times it seemed like she might drop out. But she kept taking workshops, and kept writing. During her senior year, in the workshops she began to produce some incredible writing. She eventually graduated. I just ran into her the other day, and she’s about to graduate from college as a creative writing and psychology double-major. She said that writing helped her lift herself out of her troubles. I couldn’t be more proud of her.
BSF: What’s one motivational quote you live by?
MH: I’m not sure I have one that I live by, honestly. But I can share—with some embarrassment—that my senior yearbook quote was from Seneca: “A man struggling against adversity is a spectacle for the gods.” (Yes, I was a bit of a high-minded youth.) I suppose I chose that quote because I was just beginning to understand that there’s honor in working hard and never giving up. The ability to endure is a quality I deeply admire in people.
BSF: Tell us: What inspires you most with writing and literary arts?
MH: Most of us can read and most of us can write, so the materials and the basics are familiar, which means that everyone has the ability to explore the art form. And most every person naturally thinks in story; it’s our most basic form of communication. On a deeper level, I believe that literature makes us more understanding of others by allowing us into other peoples’ minds and lives, thereby giving us a way to gain wisdom without necessarily having to have direct experience. We get to live vicariously through the writing. As writers, we are allowed to speak our truth, to wrestle with the complexities of our lives, and then we get to share that truth with others—a process that I believe is integral to building a healthy, compassionate democracy.
BSF: If you could sit down with one author, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
MH: There are so many! Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Saul Bellow. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a sit down, but a cocktail party. That would be better, I think, for obvious reasons. I love all those writers because, at one time or another, they spoke to me—they taught me how to live, they taught me how to learn, they taught me to be amazed by the everyday, by the small moments, which we should always cherish, no matter how busy and flustered we are.