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Poet with Morris roots called “American Master” in New York Times

MORRIS, Minn. – When poet Tom Hennen was growing up near Morris in the 1940s, the big rivalry wasn’t town versus gown – it was town versus country.

“It got to be quite a rivalry,” said Hennen.  “Nothing against the town of Morris, but my roots are in the country around Morris.”

Hennen has channeled his lifelong love of nature and the wide open spaces of the prairie into his poetry.

After publishing with small presses – including the Prairie Gate Press at the University of Minnesota, Morris – for most of his career, his most recent book, Darkness Sticks to Everything, was distributed nationally and recognized with a glowing review in The New York Times.

Growing up as a country boy

Hennen was born in Morris in 1942 and spent most of his childhood as a country kid living on several rented farms south and west of town with his parents, four brothers and three sisters.

“Nothing against the town of Morris, but my roots are in the country around Morris,” said Hennen.

As a teenager, Hennen loved to read – just not what he was assigned in school. The family didn’t have a television, so when he wasn’t working on the farm or hunting and fishing, Hennen turned to books.

Hennen credits high school English teacher Dave Wilson for turning his reading tastes from “junk” to the good stuff from authors like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos.

“I read a lot when I was at home, my favorite thing to do was work on the farm,” said Hennen. “I loved hunting and fishing – that’s about the only thing I thought about when I was a teenager.”

But Hennen didn’t get started writing until later, after a friend suggested he give writing poetry a try.

“I wrote a ton of really bad stuff,” said Hennen. “It was quite a while before I kept anything. … But I realized early on there’s no money in writing poetry.”

Finding a career in the outdoors

After moving around Minnesota and Ohio, Hennen and his then-wife returned to the Morris area to raise a family. After a particularly rough winter with a young baby, the family moved into town “for a spell” and stayed while children Colleen and Matthew were students at Morris Area High School.

To pay the bills and get needed time out in the country, Hennen took a job working for John Scharf with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“It was similar to farm work – I drove tractor, built fences and planted a lot of trees,” said Hennen. “I really liked the job because I was outside every day. … That was a godsend to me.”

Later in his career, Hennen took some courses in forestry that helped him get a job at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota until he retired in 1999.

Letterpresses and printing

In his spare time – and in the winter months when work in the outdoors was scarce – Hennen worked as a letterpress and offset printer operator

In the 1970s, Hennen helped found the Minnesota Writer’s Publishing House, a cooperative organized by poet Robert Bly that started publishing poetry by Minnesota poets in 1973.

Poets contributed money to build a press that Hennen operated out of basement to print the first four or five books, including his first chapbook, The Heron With No Business Sense, in 1974.

Bly was a big influence on Hennen and his poetry.  

“I’d bring him a poem down to him – and I didn’t write real long poems – if I had an eight-line poem I’d be lucky if he left two lines in it,” said Hennen.”He had this manner to make feel like those were fairly decent lines so you always felt really good even if you only had two lines when you went home.”

Hennen has gone on to publish six books of poetry, mostly supported and published thanks to the mentorship of other Minnesota poets. Hennen also credits Minnesota poet Bill Holm for support and influence on his work.

His next two books, The Hole in the Landscape is Real (1976) and Selected Poems 1963-1983 (1983) were published by Jim Gremmels and the Prairie Gate Press at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

Others have been published by Westerheim Press in Minneota, Dacotach Territory poetry journal at Moorhead State University, and Black Hat Press out of Goodhue.

“I’ve always had people who are really nice to me,” said Hennen.  

“An American master”

Hennen’s most recent book, Darkness Sticks to Everything, is his first book since 1997 and his first nationally published volume of poetry. Poet and novelist Jim Harrison was instrumental in getting the volume to the publisher, Copper Canyon Press, and wrote an introduction for the book.

“I’d been thinking for quite a while of wanting to get a lot of the older poems together with some new things into a book – that’s what happened and Jim had a great deal to do with that,” said Hennen.

Like his previous works, Darkness Sticks to Everything, finds much of its imagery in nature and uses the natural world to comment on life in general

“I’m not trying to just describe how pretty a flower looks, I’m trying to put some meaning into it and using nature because we’re part of nature and nature’s part of us,” said Hennen.

After publishing quietly for years, Darkness Sticks to Everything marks another major first – a positive review in New York Times. In the piece, editor Dana Jennings noted that “Hennen’s work, until now, has been like a fine fishing hole only the locals knew about.”

“It’s hard to believe that this American master – and I don’t use those words lightly – has been hidden right under our noses for decades,” Jennings continued. “But despite his recognition, Mr. Hennen, like any practical word-farmer, has simply gone about his calling with humility and gratitude in a culture whose primary crop has become fame.”

Hennen, who doesn’t have a computer, found out about the review from his daughter, Colleen, who got a heads up from one of the publicists from Copper Canyon Press. The night the review was posted online, Hennen was watching his grandchildren. Colleen arrived home and read the review to him.

“I’m honored by his review and honored that the Times put it in there,” said Hennen.

Hennen said he doesn’t have any immediate plans for a next book, just writing as usual and plugging away – “I have a lot of things I want to write, but I haven’t thought about if there will be a book or not.”