Spotlight on The HENRY Review
Two of the three HENRY Review editors, Shayne Barr and Katherine Bernard. Photo by HENRY cinematographer, Edison Koo.
The HENRY Review describes itself as a literary video symposium. However, the content they are producing could be defined as much more. In a year’s time, the volunteer-driven website has turned an inspirational author reading into an archive of powerful literature and accelerated its reach through the accessibility of the World Wide Web.
The website was launched by three young adults---writers and journalists themselves---who believe in the collaboration of literature, video, and technology. They promise to “bring the salon to you” by featuring contemporary writers in their own environments as they read their work in digestible three-minute segments. The website also features authors as they read other works which have inspired them. Sam Kashner headlines their latest segment. Kashner was one of the first student’s in Jack Kerouac’s School of Disembodied Poetics, and was mentored by beat poet Gregory Corso. In the five-minute clip, Kashner reads Corso’s Marriage while wearing the poet’s overcoat.
There is something beautiful about the work presented by HENRY and the voices of the writers they send forth into the Internet's stratosphere. We called HENRY editor, Shayne Barr, to get the scoop on the budding project and discussed the intersection of literature and technology, and how they work together.
NEA: How did the HENRY Review get its legs?
BARR: In the spring of 2011, Katherine Bernard, who is a HENRY co-editor, and I went to go hear a Gary Lutz reading. Gary Lutz had been one of our favorite authors for many years but we had never heard him in person. He writes very dark, dark texts and we thought that a sort of fraught reading would be accompanying what we had interpreted as very bleak prose. We were a little bit taken aback when he would laugh periodically. He was sort of punctuating these paragraphs with giggles and that kind of performance provoked us to re-evaluate these stories we thought we had known so well. In re-assessing them, re-reading them, we were able to discern this kind of rumbling of humor that was underlying all of this surface, emotional devastation. It was an event that we talked about amongst ourselves fairly often as being very impactful. About a year later we were sitting around with Jerone Hsu who serves as co-founder and co-editor, and we were discussing casually how we could contribute to the literary community through the non-for-profit think-tank that Jerone launched called Prime Produce. Over the course of the discussion, the experience Katherine and I had came up, and very organically we determined we could render accessible those types of transformative experiences to everybody, irrespective of where they live in the nation, whether or not they live in a cultural capital. We could allow people from all over to see readings in person by simply taping them and putting them online. And that was really the genesis of HENRY.
NEA: Tell me about John Berryman and the naming of the HENRY Review?
BARR: An author named Saul Bellow is my favorite writer. James Atlas wrote a really dense and excellent biography of Bellow, and Atlas dwells on Bellow's friendship with John Berryman when they were teaching together in Minnesota. Out of my own interest, I googled Berryman and my first encounter with him was a recording of him reading the first "Dream Song," and I was captivated by his voice. That was my first impression of Berryman and then I went and got his text. I watched more YouTube videos of Berryman and he's such a charismatic reader. He communicates with such verve that I thought he would be a great symbol for the standard that we hope to achieve: we hope to produce content that is as riveting and as moving as that which Berryman produced when he articulated his own work.
NEA: What is the process for determining who and what HENRY will feature?
BARR: All of the content on HENRY was shot specifically for our platform.
We seek authors whose work we find personally moving or powerful, whose work seems to demonstrate real ingenuity in making impacts on literary culture, whether stylistically or ideologically. We ask that our subject selects a passage that is three-minutes long. That is also critical to the HENRY process. Some of these authors have produced thousands of pages of work, and requesting that they isolate a three minute passage or excerpt---that they crystallize the best of what they do---it's remarkable. That distillation contributes to the power of these readings once we tape them.
NEA: The selection of the three-minute segment is determined by the author then?
BARR: Correct. it is much more meaningful if the author selects the passage that they most want to communicate to the world, rather than us imposing a passage upon them. If they are not themselves the authors being read, we ask that they select works that have in some way informed or contributed to their creative process, or possibly inspired them to become writers in the first place. It’s incredibly moving to delve into these working writers and the genesis of their passion for literature.
NEA: Why does video work?
BARR: Video readings can certainly texture a fan's experience of a reading. You get to see the gesticulations, you get to see the facial contortions and all of that secondary data that can really inform an understanding of the work and lend a lot of insight. An important component of HENRY is the setting, the context. Being able to see an author in their work space, at their desk, in their living room, I think can be very informative in terms of how one interprets the prose.
Video is an ideal format for a reading because it sort of demystifies these literary figures that might otherwise be perceived by as inhabiting Olympian remove. It is very humanizing in terms of seeingthe Christine Schutt on her couch, casually. This type of humanization really emphasizes that everyone is qualified to both produce and consume literature and that's very important.
NEA: HENRY is based in the world of literature but also very much within the realm of technology. How does this relationship work?
BARR: I don't consider technology and literature to be opposing energies. They are complementary forces. The book itself was a technological feat and the mechanical advances of the printing press obviously facilitated the proliferation of the written word. I think the Internet is a continuation of this very positive trajectory. It makes literature almost constantly available. It is an indestructible format and it's essentially free. The Internet enables readers and writers to sort of maintain their preferred mediums. A model like crowd-funding, which is ancient but I think works most efficiently online, can really empower creators and consumers of literature to perpetuate different kinds of text, or to experiment with an entirely new format independently of traditional publishing houses and those sort of systems.
NEA: What are the next steps for the HENRY Review?
BARR: It’s been a year, and a fully volunteer endeavor, which I think is a pretty phenomenal feat. In the immediate sense we just want to make our content stronger and stronger. We are hoping to produce videos that not only convey the work, but also convey the personality and the character of the subject.
NEA: You and the other founders of the HENRY Review are part of the Millennial Generation. Is HENRY seeking to attract that population? What do you think the future holds for the younger demographic of literature consumers?
BARR: I feel that the literary community is as vibrant as it has ever been, and I think the robust MFA culture is a testament to that. There are more MFA programs producing more invested readers and devoted writers every year. The literary communities might be concentrated in a large cities, but I think they are certainly alive and well. I think we lose perspective on the popularity of literature. Rather than shrinking, I think this fan base of literature is in fact growing and I hope that HENRY can continue to contribute to that growth.