The Healing Power of Writing

Michael Henson’s poems and essays state the only law of Love

By Saad Ghosn, Contributing Writer

Michael Henson sits next to Jesus, a stone sculpture by Alan Sauer. Photo by Saad Ghosn

“Everyday when I come home from school my dog Sparkles comes to greet me” is what 8 year old Michael Henson wrote in 3rd grade as an assignment for a complex sentence. It impressed his teacher who praised him and asked him to copy it on the board. This boosted his self confidence and made him realize the power of writing; it indirectly cemented his fate as a writer.

Henson, a local well published poet and writer, was raised in a small town surrounded by people from Appalachian, Midwestern and African American origin, all speaking different dialects of English. He also experienced the language mix at home, his mother, an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts and a teacher, speaking “proper” English; his grandparents, from the South, a dialect. Henson, a small, non-athletic, and lonely kid, was as well an avid reader, trying to validate himself through various experiences from the literature. His love for words grew quickly and early; he did not start writing seriously, however, until after college.

In high school and college Henson leaned more towards journalism and served as student reporter and editor of the students’ newspapers. He graduated with a Masters of Art in English from the University of Chicago, taught for a while in Adams County, and has worked mostly as either counselor or community organizer for Talbert House and the Urban Appalachian Council. He works now with homeless alcoholics through the Paths to Recovery program and teaches part-time at Xavier University and the School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

As a country boy transplanted into a big city, Henson, from the start, connected deeply with the Cincinnati Appalachian community.

“They were like me; like my people, my grand parents, neighbors,” he says. “I could identify with their story; I felt I could tell it.”

This was the trigger for his first novel, Ransack, published in 1980. It was a story of Appalachian migrants, their experiences, their dealings with various social issues, poverty, housing, jobs, bruised identity, drugs. Ransack has since been translated into Russian and taught in some English classes. A second book, A Small Room With Trouble on My Mind, dealt with similar issues.

Henson is now working on a collection of stories related to the impact of the addictive drug Oxy-Contin on Appalachian people. The drug has permeated the community, destroying many lives, but also bringing people together.

“I am very concerned about addiction and poverty,” he says. “As a counselor one is trained to work with alcoholics but not with poor people. Poverty and chemical dependency, however, affect each other very much. This is rarely addressed; I want to raise awareness about it”

In addition to fiction, Henson writes poetry, also essays for a regular column in Streetvibes.

He found his voice in poetry when his close friend grassroots activist buddy gray was murdered. Henson, deeply affected, was literally unable to speak. He started instead jotting down his feelings in poems that constituted later his book Crow Call. The poems were about buddy, his mission, a vision of the city, poverty and exploitation, destruction of the environment, homelessness, various street scenes. Crows kept intruding into them, symbols of migration and displacement. In Prostitute at Walnut and Liberty, a poem from the book, Henson says regarding the main character: “but I know/she has a golden brain/and a rapid heart…/and her history which was utterly cruel/have brought her to this corner…” thus shedding a sensitive light on the reason for her fate. Henson in fact is very concerned by the various societal ills he encounters; he addresses them in his writings.

“Because of my life experiences, I became early on aware of class, how some people get privileges and some don’t,” he says. “I was small and shy and took a lot of beatings, just because people could. I often felt humiliated; but I was able to turn my bitterness into compassion; it made me a different person. I can understand what it is to be humbled, beat down, discriminated against, why an African American or a poor feels that way.”

A Teaching, poem by Michael Henson

His concern for others also started at home, Henson raised by liberal parents, socially conscious, strong voices against racism and for communal inclusiveness.

His poem They All Asked About You, with which he usually starts his public readings, is an empowerment song for the common individual in an ideal world of human connectedness. A Teaching, restates the importance of love and forgiveness for a better happier world, essential values taught by the great spiritual teachers: “There is no law/but that of love./That takes courage/and we often fail./Because we fail/forgiveness is basic as bread.”

For the past 3 years Henson has also been writing regular essays for Streetvibes. They emerge from his work experiences, based on issues he faces, individuals he meets. They are often stories that reexamine, in an individualized context, problems marring our society; they deal with homelessness, alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, inequality, injustice… Biblical themes occasionally find their way into them, thus reinforcing their universal appeal.

“I do not have a solution for world peace or for economic crises,” he says. “I am good, however, at telling the story, and stories are healing. If we share and understand each others’ stories we can connect even when different.”

Even though a social and political activist, Henson wants his literature distinct from political propaganda.

“I try to keep the artist separate from the activist,” he says. “If I get a political thought or message I write it down as a letter to the editor. As a writer, my first allegiance is to the truth I can capture. The poem, or the story, happens at a different deeper level.” He is, however, also quick to acknowledge that with profound vision and whole humanity, content is often bound to be political.

Henson likes to read his poetry in public; he wants to be heard, and spiritually connect, communicate, bond with his audience.

“I write because I have things inside me that I need to let out and share,” he says. “I write because I want peace, because I want the world to change, because the world refuses to change, because there is so much suffering because the world will not change. Everything I write is a story of grief.”