An Interview with Laura Henriksen, Author of Laura’s Desires

“What do you want?” is a difficult question to answer. Laura’s Desires—by Laura Henriksen, out today from Nightboat—makes a rigorous attempt. What comes forth is an appropriately playful, phantasmagoric set of poems about our individual and collective desires, what makes and unmakes them, where they lead us.

It’s all intimate and honest and incredibly hot. In our conversation below we discuss desire, its contents and discontents, as well as doubt and Nan Goldin and tennis—the latter of which Laura is decidedly against.

—Dante Silva

Dante Silva: I’m curious about the expansive, rigorous citational practice here—the flirtation of criticism and a lived, sustained poetic practice. How did you come to your sources, and to the insistent, “diamond-studded” project that is Laura’s Desires?

Laura Henriksen: I really appreciate this question, which I think gets to the twin concerns of Laura’s Desires—certainty and doubt. I think these lifelong fixations, the desire for certainty, the persistence of doubt, and the ensuing need to be hospitable to doubtfulness, has compelled me to search omnidirectionally for guides. And then of course I’ve found them everywhere, constantly, guides for believing, guides for doubting, guides for disrupting false binaries (including the binary between faith and skepticism, or the binary between criticism and poetry), all of whom are then also necessarily guides for living and for writing. There are so few things I feel certain about, and then of those few things I feel profoundly, unshakably, at times even abrasively certain. I mean, probably I’m just certain about what I love (love) and about what I hate (oppression). Even inside that certainty, there are so many more questions, and Laura’s Desires represents a sustained effort. . . not to answer those questions, but to sit in their tension and relief and feel around and think about it.

Dante Silva: I’m similarly curious about your affinities, to borrow from Brian Dillon, particularly in your meditation on the dreamscape. The connections are at once abstract and incredibly (!) attentive. “Dreaming Of You” and Oscar Wilde and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3—what do we see when we place these objects together? What should we look towards?

Laura Henriksen: For me, the pleasure in placing objects together is sort of dichotomous. It’s got a mixtape quality, in that putting songs together helps you see the songs in a new way, for sure, but this effort might tell you a lot more about the mixtape maker and what they might be after. But more than that, I think, I’m interested in the clarity that can come from collaging, a technique that demonstrates how these objects of inquiry already existed side-by-side before being literally placed together, they’ve been refracting off each other all along, and now you’re just looking at this particular angle of light and seeing what it might illuminate. And then I think that illumination goes back to how all secrets are revealed in a mixtape—what I think it illuminates, in the dream poem for example, is just what I was already thinking about anyway, which is to say desire and control and release.

Dante Silva: I love how you write sex, and then write about writing about sex. This has always been difficult for me—any sexual encounter is so ethically and emotionally fraught. How do you write about sex? Does ‘sex’ even exist as a distinct category in your work? 

Laura Henriksen: I really feel you, writing about sex is hard for me too, and frankly I think it should be hard. I remember reading once about sex as a form of mutual aid, which I found sort of personally unsexy as an assertion, even as I also recognized it as true. Every sexual encounter is absolutely ethically and emotionally fraught, as you rightly observe, is a big responsibility, and so writing about it must also be ethically and emotionally fraught and a big responsibility. For me, one of the reasons why sex is so important is that it’s an opportunity to experience vulnerability, and even fear, from a place of trust and courage and accountability. Writing about sex makes a similar offering. I appreciate too your question about sex writing as a distinct category. I am really interested in resisting the siloing of sex from regular life, and thus the siloing of sex writing from regular writing, and instead understanding that it’s all part of the day, it’s all part of the poem. Even with that knowledge though, I can’t deny that for me there is something exceptional about it too. I remember when Morgan and I were first talking about open relationship stuff, he wondered something like, you have friends you play tennis with, you have friends you go to readings with—would it be possible to have friends you have sex with? Of course we know that’s totally possible for lots of people, but we were wondering about us. And I was like I love that and respect that and am honestly jealous of that from a political and social perspective, but for me sex is not very much like playing tennis or going to a reading. Sadly, I don’t even like playing tennis.

Dante Silva: I also loved, sorry to gush again, your description of Bette Gordon meeting Kathy Acker as “intimate, exhilarating, and uncomfortable.” Could you say more about your own encounter(s) with Gordon, Acker, Christine, and others involved with Variety? Where have they led you, now?

Laura Henriksen: Thank you! I really loved learning about Bette Gordon and Kathy Acker’s first meeting. It’s such a particular experience, meeting someone you already know (either/both because you know their work or/and because you know the same people), sometimes it’s so easeful and sometimes it’s so awkward, and how can you possibly know until you’re there which way it will be. I think vibe-wise, I feel most connected to Bette Gordon (or really, to my fantasy of her), but I think personally the most intense encounter I’ve had through the writing of this book has been with Nan Goldin. I had photographer’s aspirations as a young person and was of course very familiar with her work, but revisiting her photos and writing while doing research for “Laura’s Desires” (the poem), reading more about her process and priorities, the whole experience challenged me in ways I had not anticipated, and pushed the poem in ways I’m really grateful for. I felt compelled to ask myself different, harder questions about honesty and disclosure and agency and memory because of Nan Goldin. I’m definitely still asking those questions.

Dante Silva: “I think sometimes / it’s best not to overthink the things / that make you feel alive, not to worry / so much if there is something wrong / with the objects of your devotions, but / instead to see what it might mean to / follow them without apology or fear.”  

What is excluded in a more rational, disciplined approach to desire? What can we learn from our desires, if I can ask such a straightforward question? 

Laura Henriksen: Hell yeah you can, or I mean, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do too! You know, I didn’t exactly want to write about porn, I wanted to write about horror. One sort of obvious thing about horror as a genre is that it offers this direct evidence of what people are afraid of at different cultural moments (gender, shifting geopolitical power structures, debt, etc), and also how that fear is processed. But instead, I found myself writing about porn, which, considering the proximity of fear and desire, is not so surprising. I think our desires can be an even more fun and productive way to show us what we’re afraid of, and also how to get beyond those fears, which often involves inhabiting them. I’m thinking about how Christine has two posters in the movie she seems to particularly like — not just the one for Laura’s Desires, but another for a movie called Beyond Shame. And I think also that learning from our desires by seriously investing in our desires asks us to understand their fundamental waywardness and instability, that it’s never so much about one particular object or person or activity, but instead about something much more active and shifting and contextual. I find this a much more helpful way to think about myself, too, and my relationships, and my language, not as static realities, but as unfolding mysteries with the potential to be totally transformative and super sexy.