Contributor Spotlight: Dianna MacKinnon Henning

“All Winter I Remained With the Dead,” “How Many Times Mayakovsky,” and “Black-capped Chickadees” by Dianna MacKinnon Henning appeared in Issue 19 and can be read here.


We’d love to hear more about these three poems.

For “How Many Times Mayakovsky,” I have been fascinated by the Russian poets for some time. I am interested in how repression by a government can create such force in the voice of a writer. In this poem, I needed to use restraint because the emotion behind it was so all-consuming. Perhaps the poem was also instruction to myself regarding my own emotions which sometimes feel overwhelming. I think poems instruct us and myths are hard to live by. One can see in the life of Mayakovsky that he was heading for his own destruction.

“Black-capped Chickadees” came about by watching the birds gather on our mock-orange bush. They seemed to show up when I was lightly watering as if they knew I’d sprinkle them. In researching chickadees, I read that they erase their memories after three months or so to make room for new memories. I was quite struck by the inventiveness of such erasure.

The hardest one to write was “All Winter I Remained With the Dead.” I wrote it in the dead of winter and the winters are so harsh and cold and long here in Lassen County, CA. The seasons inform the poem. It seemed a poem driven by intuition and perhaps illustrates that questions don’t always get an answer. I like to allow myself room to wander and wonder in a poem. There is no resolution here. It’s a meditation on aging. Winter is death.

Recommend a book for us which was published within the last decade. 

“All the Light You Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr.

If you could have a drink with any living author, who would it be? Why?

If I could have a drink with a living author it would be with Tim O’Brien who wrote the most spectacular (what I call a dramatic monologue) at the back of his book “The Things They Carried” where he says, “And then it becomes 1990.”

That stunning last paragraph of his book takes my breath away, how he skims the surface of his own history as he touches down upon the ice. Perhaps all writers skim the surface of their lives, working to chisel through ice to get to a rich sediment.

But I’d also like to have a drink with Anna Akhmatova who has touched me with her courage in the face of horrendous adversity. I would like to whisper lines of her poems to strangers in the market place who would then remember them so that her poems could not be destroyed by those who consider poets enemies of the state.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on editing, re-shaping my manuscript “The Step Into House.” The next series I want to work on concerns the rooms we die in.

“Black-capped Chickadees” came about by watching the birds gather on our mock-orange bush. They seemed to show up when I was lightly watering as if they knew I’d sprinkle them. In researching chickadees, I read that they erase their memories after three months or so to make room for new memories. I was quite struck by the inventiveness of such erasure.

Our thanks to Dianna for taking the time to answer a few questions and share her work. Read Dianna’s poems, “All Winter I Remained With the Dead,” “How Many Times Mayakovsky,” and “Black-capped Chickadees,” here:


Dianna holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Published in, in part: Naugatuck River Review, Lullwater Review, The Red Rock Review, The Kentucky Review, The Main Street Rag, California Quarterly, and Poetry International. Henning taught poetry through California Poets in the Schools. She received several CAC grants and taught through the William James Association’s Prison Arts Program at Folsom Prison as well as at other CA prisons. She was nominated by Blue Fifth Review in Dec. 2015 for a Pushcart. Henning’s third poetry chapbook, Cathedral of the Hand, published in 2016 by Finishing Line Press.

Recent Publications 2019:“Black-capped Chickadees,” & “How many Times Mayakovsky?” & “To Ask a Question Does Not Mean You Get an Answer,” Sequestrum;  “Picking the Bay Laurel With My Daughter,” & “Who” The Kerf, College of the Redwoods;“The Leaf Cat,” “Rhubarb Season,” New American Writing, 2019    

Work out in: Sukoon, Winter 2018, The Way to My Heart Anthology, 2017, Blue Fifth Review, The Moth, Ireland, Trag, a Serbian Journal, The Good Works Review, 2018 and 22 wagons by Danijela TrajkovićIstok Akademia, an anthology of contemporary Anglophone poetry. 

Nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Blue Fifth Review. 

Website photo of Oregon’s “Painted Hills” by Kris Henning.

Recent Reviews of “Cathedral:

“Within this “Cathedral” Dianna has gathered particular poems –one senses a journey back through many treasured memories – like mosaic pieces, rare and precious stones — bright and dark — and formed them into a tale of loved ones whether family or friends, and created a story, one poem spilling ever so subtly into the next, each a chapter. These “stones” have captured and retained sunlight and rain, dark and light and through it all is woven her special enduring spirit – one that puts her love and warmth into every deeply felt experience. One theme dominates – a celebration of the feminine at every age, from child to mother to grandmother; her words and images of the everyday and day to day are imbued with her singular vision as she makes this journey, one she truly seems to understand she has made alone while being open to all life has to offer, whether from friends, family, children or secret moments observed in nature. However painful life can be, she always finds solace and strength in the natural world. I envision Dianna the poet as the embodiment of the Irish shanachie, the storyteller who gathers up all the tribal stories and passes them on with an open heart. The book ends with the Native American story about an inchworm that can measure a mountain because it persists and goes on and on . . . this is Dianna’s story. It can be nothing other. “Tutokanula” is the perfect coda. Dianna often speaks of “weavings” and through this collection she’s woven a perfectly pitched Musica universalis.” -Judith Hartberg

This intimate collection of poems, many of which have been published in well-known literary journals, is aptly titled. “Cathedral of the Hand” is a kind of temple, and in it are relics that reflect the human condition across a range of experiences. And there are hands here, hands of all kinds. There are hands that cup, hands that smell of the sea, hands that become a bird’s nest to help a trapped bird and in doing so, become something like a basilica. In the near-invocation “The Butcher’s Apprentice,” we see mastery finding its way into each finger. There are also many houses in these poems, houses real and dreamed that seem to take on human qualities. Throughout, the poems are lean, pared down to an essence. Strong images catch the eye (and often your breath), and the rhythmic play of words becomes a comfort. The poems in “Cathedral of the Hand” welcome you in and then they make you want to linger, to savor the beauty and wisdom found there. -Jane P. Hart

Cathedral of the Hand, a new collection of poems, Henning’s third book of poems, reveals her love of nature and her Vermont origins. These are hard won poems that have steeped long in the heart.

Book cover photo by photographer Jody Wright.


Cathedral of the Hand, can be purchased here:

Here is a peek at what other writers say about the book.

Blurbs for Cathedral of the Hand:

“Some work feels as if it were made from music. Dianna Henning’s Cathedral of the Hand flows onto the page as a kind of lingual energy. The tone throughout is about perception, and so subtle is the word choice and placement, we almost miss the formal freedom that makes it work so well. With a simple and beautiful technique Henning uses water as metaphor for all that’s moving, changing, and renewed. In her process is a true song of all that’s possible in the life of an artist. These poems stay with us as a testament to technical assurance and a confidence that modesty in language is the most lasting and enduring form of poetry.”

Grace Cavalieri, producer/host

“The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress”

 “Dianna Henning’s latest book reminds me of why I was always happy to receive her poems for my journal Visions International and was proud to publish her previous book Broken Bone Tongue a few years ago. She continues to impress with the same high quality. Among the vast volumes of verse this Cathedral of the Hand stands out above all but a few of the others.”

Bradley R. Strahan, Editor & Publisher of Visions International

“No object or landscape goes unnoticed in this reverent collection of poems. Dianna Henning evokes—and invokes—nature as a means of spanning distance across relationships, across time. Henning doesn’t shy away from the physical details of an apprentice butcher or a trapped bird, or a dry creek “skeletal with rocks.” Cathedral of the Hand explores hunger and the natural world—human and animal—through the poet’s keen sense of mystery and her focus on the self as well as self-in-the-world, “that spot of bird, / singular in its journey.”

Lynn Pedersen, Author of “Tiktaalik, Adieu”

Review by Bob Stanley, Co-Director, University Reading and Writing Center

Sacramento State University

     One reason I read poetry, and I suspect many of us do, is that the best poems reveal the character of a poet – another human being – in a profound way. We can come to know someone we’ve never met in person through poetry. When we read a new book by Gary Snyder, say, or Jane Hirshfield, we’re touched by individual poems, but through the calculus of the collection, we see them in their world, whether it be their reality, their dreams, or something in between. By reading poetry we find new friends. In this time of quarantine, I’ve found poems ever more nourishing in this way.

            Dianna Henning’s Cathedral of the Hand (Finishing Line Press, 2016) performs this welcome trick for me. Through these poems I come to know someone who finds transformation in her surroundings – the high, arid beauty of remote Lassen County, California. Henning’s poems peer into the ponds, fields, and sky of a rural life to reveal who she is, what she loves, how her mind works. And while the subject matter shifts from natural to human relationships, from childhood to adulthood, the same wise voice, deep and insistent, rings. There’s a connection with nature that suffuses the book. “Before rising into the foliage of my life, I was honey. (“Clover”)

          Henning’s language – sensory and unflinching – grabs the reader right away. The first few poems remind me of H.D.’s poems – short, clear images that speak for themselves. In “What She Tells Them,” a poem about Jane Kenyon, the poet attests

She speaks of the sea,

of depths beyond belief,

of shrouded bones,

and words diaphanous as air,

of star-catchers in their bright tunics.

Words are connected to nature, “diaphanous as air” here, and the poet strives to connect again and again. In her closing poem “At the Center,” the poet tells us

“I want to become the air the fox breathes.” Rather than longing for the past, there is longing for connection. The short poems convey this longing, this connection through concrete image and action.  The poem “Once,” begins with a nugget of memory,

We scudded smooth-bellied stones across the lake,

counted their skips and starts to see who won.

Time passes, skips away quickly in the middle stanzas of this poem as the two characters grow old, but the stone returns at the end, concrete and symbolic at once.

But memory is a dicey thing

a stone that sinks

to settle where it can’t easily be seen.

           Reading Henning’s transformative poems reminds me why I write, what it is I’m trying to do when I write; she sharpens my ear, my pen. With a little of the Zen of Gary Snyder, and the sense of wonder conveyed in Mary Oliver’s poems, Henning witnesses animals in their element: a buck deer passing by during a drought year, dogs barking under the moon, a trapped hummingbird freed by her husband. Each piece reveals a moment, and each moment fits into the whole. She chronicles a chorus of crows that fill the background of a human funeral with their chatter. She writes about hands – the hands of an older woman that “are slipping into mine,” and “the hand that touches the things of this world/and transform them” from the title poem “Cathedral of the Hand. There’s humor here, and hints of uncertainty:

What the hand would do for world peace

Is seldom mentioned

in the larger colony of hands.

but ultimately reverence and wonder:

The hand could be an angel if it tried.

See how the fingers open like wings.

So many of her lines ring like bells, her clean, clear diction is the work of a master.

But it’s a modest voice, a voice that always includes what Jane Hirshfield says a poem needs: emotion, intellect, and physicality. Henning doesn’t write a lot about poetry per se, but she clearly understands that a craft requires both work and alchemy in “Needing Bread.”

There’s no way to explain

the mastery of bread-making.

It requires one straighten the spine,

push down what’s risen.

            At the end, we feel we’ve walked alongside this poet; we’ve smelled the lilacs in a dry country, been included in her journey of heart and mind. I’ve only driven through the town of Janesville once; some might call it a remote corner of California. This collection of poems reminds me that I love remote places like this, places of reflection. Reading Cathedral of the Hand makes me want to go there, to breathe it for myself, and if she had time, I’d like to drop in on the poet and have a cup of tea. For now, in this time of separation from others. I’m glad I have her poems. They create a small transformation; they bring us together.

Dianna’s young adult novel Seasoning the Blade is available here:

Seasoning the Blade

Dianna’s poem “Chairbed” published in Clackamas Literary Review.

CHAIRBED (Excerpt)

Such ecstasy when the chairs met
face to face and you tucked pillows in,
spread out your blessing blanket,
climbed aboard your life.

From the doorway the hickory straight-backs
looked like school chums
about to knock fists,
but shyly held back.

Beyond the window screen,
summer’s careening birds,
rustle of rabbits and partridge
in Vermont’s abundant ferns.

Hickory was perfect wood for other worlds,
until the Elders argued chairs
are nothing more than seats,
and took apart what you’d carefully        made.

The Broken Bone Tongue, Black Buzzard Press, Dianna MacKinnon Henning


The Broken Bone Tongue by Dianna MacKinnon Henning

Black Buzzard Press, 2009 ISBN: 978-0-938872-42-9 Reviewed by Anasin Beth Conner for Hawaii Pacific Review › … › English Department

“Dianna Henning’s collection of poetry, The Broken Bone Tongue, journeys to the marrow of human emotion and experience, contemplating grief and loss, personal discovery, love and family, and the beauty and mystery of the natural world.  Henning’s poignant imagery breathes life into her writing, while her honesty exposes the bare bones of the wisdom hidden within.  She beckons us to step into a world that is as intimidating as it is awe-inspiring, as fragile as it is resilient.  Henning’s world, as depicted in her poetry, is both melancholic and nostalgic, reminding us that the human condition is one of duality, touched by sorrow and hope.

Henning starts this collection with an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods” that reflects the dual essence of our mission here on earth.  “To live in this world / [we are] to love what is mortal / to hold it /. . .and, when the time comes to let it go.” Henning’s title poem follows, beginning with an awareness of duality in writing: “There were things she could say/and things she couldn’t say . . .”  Although the language that begins the poem vacillates,  leaving the reader to grapple with their own contradictions, the poem’s conclusion is profoundly decisive.  When the writer attempts to retrieve the “things she couldn’t say,” she discovers that “only bones survived, their marrow dry.” This first section on bones and tongues concludes with “For the God of All Bones,” a poem reflective of Henning’s gift for transformation.  What begins as a dog chasing a cat in the pre-dawn hours of morning becomes a boy chasing down his busted toy helicopter.  Henning’s true magic is her skill of drawing the profound from the simple, transforming an innocent, childhood moment into memorable, unexpected insight.  The reader becomes the boy, “breath backed up / because you never realized / how going after one thing / brought about something completely different.”  One delves into Henning’s poetry expectant of a particular tone or message, only to discover that it evolves into something completely new and unforeseen, and all the more spectacular.  As caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies, Henning’s poems take flight in their transformations.  In “Fleshing the Tongue” the reader is told that by reading a poet’s work out loud, he becomes the poet.  Thus, the poem dares the reader not only to witness the metamorphosis, but also to participate in it.

In the section that follows, Henning explores the spiritual connection between human beings and animals. “Animal Mission” speaks of a tragic change from a time of harmony and accord between humankind, nature, and animals to our current state where our own superiority compels us to forget the sacredness of this bond:

This division split our spirits, and the animals cried for their people.  A fracture grew among nations. At night the animals pined for us to enter their lives, but we’d forgotten the wholeness of the world, and for this the animals continue to weep.

By the poem’s end, the reader is left grieving for the union human beings once had with Mother Nature and her children. The sacrifice mankind made when they segregated themselves from the world believing they were superior, cannot be denied.

This sense of oneness with the world extends not only to animals and other human beings, but also to all of nature, including potatoes, “whose richness even earthworms recognize.”  In “Forking for Potatoes” Henning asks, “Do you cherish potatoes for their sweet white meat, or the way they extend themselves with magic wands?” Henning encourages the reader to pay attention to the depth of life, to recognize that not one element of nature is dispensable.  In “The Holiness of Potatoes” Henning confesses:

There have been potatoes I’ve sometimes favored more than people.  Because of their faithful journey in the dark, their absolute adherence to mystery.

Potatoes perceive the depth of life. Unlike human beings who measure and calculate every step, potatoes need no confirmation or direction for growth.  They fare better in the dark.

Other inanimate objects come alive through their interactions with people and the world.  They often possess animistic qualities.  In “The Adirondack Chairs Are a Couple Facing East,” two chairs live, breathe, and love through the wear and tear of weather and age. This suggests that marriage is born of love and wonder, two sentiments sustained and reinforced when a couple commits to surviving both happiness and hardship together, sharing their feelings as if they were two Adirondack chairs who “side by side. . .wed silence with resilience.” For Henning, “There’s nothing more lovely or more lonely. . .”

Henning’s more personal pieces are her strongest. “Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking” forces the reader to confront his or her own fear of death and loss by exposing the chasm of loneliness and irrational hope that often follows the passing of a loved one:

You cannot recall what hour he was whisked away in a kaleidoscope of sirens, the house suddenly grown so large you no longer fit comfortably inside.  Didn’t even the doorbell wither to a barely audible sound, and didn’t you think it him ringing, his house key again locked in the car?

The longest piece in The Broken Bone Tongue is a three-part poem of heart-wrenching transparency titled “A Journey to the Father on the Gurney.”  The reader accompanies Henning as she dodges holiday revelers, a disgruntled dog, and unknowing pedestrians, to rush to her father’s bedside in his dying moments.  As she nears the hospital, she recalls a time when childhood mischief was punished by her drunken father’s hand on her face, his arms weighting her down on a cold block of ice.  The reader experiences Henning’s apprehension as she enters her father’s hospital room.  While the nurse sees a dying man in peaceful repose, Henning sees no peace for either of them. Her father, even as he takes his last breaths, is a man still troubled by regrets of the past, and her future is still that of a bruised ice-child with a wounded spirit, condemned to a lifetime of unfulfilled hopes.  The poem ends without redemption, leaving the reader to reflect on the solemn responsibilities of parenthood and the command a parent has over a child’s self-esteem and destiny, for better or worse.

The Broken Bone Tongue reminds the reader that to see the world is one thing, to experience it is quite another.  To really live, human beings must acknowledge the life that breathes and moves around them, must recognize the transcendent qualities of nature here on earth. In a world united, where all creatures are born of the same energy, it is easy to imagine, as Henning does in “Retrospect” that a bowl of potatoes could equal a vase with long stem roses. If one views the world with less expectancy, open to mystery and surprise, as one should view Dianna Henning’s poems, then perhaps the gift of transformation can extend to all of us: humans, animals, and even potatoes.”

New publications: Wine, Cheese & Chocolate, Manzanita Writers Press; California Quarterly, Volume 40; Psychological Perspectives, volume 57; The Clackamas ReviewCanary, an on-line environmental review; The Main Street Rag, volume 20 and The Kerf, College of the Redwoods.  Dianna’s poem “Between Young and Old Time” published by Aesthetica in their Annual in England as a finalist–an international creative-writing anthology with over three thousand submissions.


Dianna was born and raised in Vermont. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Published in, in part: The Kentucky Review, The Main Street Rag, Crazyhorse, The Lullwater Review, California Quarterly, Poetry International, Fugue, The Tule Review, The Asheville Poetry Review, Clackamas Literary Review, South Dakota Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review and The Seattle Review. Twice nominated for a Pushcart. Won fellowships to Bread Loaf and Dublin Writers’ Center. Finalist in Aesthetica’s Creative Writing Award in the UK, published in their Annual 2014.

Dianna taught for California Poets in the Schools, and through the William James Association’s Prison Arts Project. She has been a recipient of several California Arts Council grants which allowed her to teach at the Stockton Youth Authority, Stockton CA and at Diamond View School in Susanville CA. Her new book “Cathedral of the Hand,” is due out through Finishing Line Press in February 2016. Dianna participated in a ’08 California Council for the Humanities Stories Grant and taught creative writing to Native Americans at the Susanville CA Rancheria—Maidu, Pit River and Paiute—developing their stories & poems which resulted in an anthology of Lassen County writers:Small Moments in Time.

Dianna lives in Lassen County on six acres with her husband Kam and her malamute Sakari. She facilitates The Thompson Peak Writers’ Workshop in Lassen County.

Henning was selected by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission’s Poet Laureate Committee for “All Poets on Deck”—a project to pay homage to first-wave area poets and to encourage literary awareness. Henning has published in, to name a few: Seattle Review; Fugue; Lullwater Review; The Louisville Review; Blueline Anthology; Asheville Poetry Review; Poetry International; Ginosko (on-line); Poetry Now; South Dakota Review; Crazyhorse; Poetry Now; The Montserrat Review; Psychological Perspectives; Pembroke Magazine; Poems & Plays; Blue Fifth Review (on-line) and in Hawai’i Pacific Review’s “Best of the Decade 1992-2007. She is anthologized in Leaves by Night, Flowers by Day, the Iowa Source 2006 Poetry Contest. She is also anthologized in several other magazines and literary reviews. Her poem “Unearthing the Good” won first place in the Radiant Hen Publishing’s contest 2009 entitled “Growing in Vermont.”

Endorsement:Dianna Henning writes with an authentic voice, one that is insightful, achingly beautiful and at times terrifying in its ability to cut past surfaces and look unflinchingly at life in all its complexity. Dianna Henning is much more than an award-winning poet, however. She is the long-time facilitator for the Thompson Peak Writer’s Workshop and has served as a mentor for countless young writers in the community. She is an outstanding teacher and her work with inmates has inspired many who felt they had lost hope. Dianna Henning has a generous spirit. She is always encouraging and is truly happy for the success of others. This heart and generosity comes through in her writing as well as her interactions with others.” Writer, Jordan Clary, 6/27/2013

Endorsement: “Dianna Henning is an elegiac poet whose work grows, each year, with lyric intensity. Her images are outstanding and imaginative. I simply love her work—the compression of each poem.”    -Manjula Leggett, Vermont, 2012

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