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Santa Fe Graduate Student Spotlight: Kelsey Hennegen

April 22, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis

Santa Fe Graduate Student Kelsey Hennegen
Kelsey Hennegen (SFGI20)

Kelsey Hennegen (SFGI20) is completing her Master of Arts in Liberal Arts degree this spring. She is one of two graduate students this year to undertake the master’s essay; hers is entitled “The Sickness unto Life: Learning the Convalescent’s LifeAffirmation in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science.” In this interview she talks about bereavement, poetry, and finishing her graduate degree online due to COVID-19.

Last year Kelsey Hennegen was listening to a podcast which described how the newborn infants of the Lace-Weaver spider devour their mother within days of their birth. “If that’s not a poem waiting to be written, I don’t know what is,” Hennegen remembers thinking. In the resulting poem, “Forgive Me, Mother” she grapples with the early deaths of her own parents:

     . . . the loss of you looms

                    larger than your living

          ever did. Ever could.

At that time Hennegen was entering her late 20s and attempting to live with, but not become paralyzed by, the acute sensations of bereavement and grief at the loss of her parents. She found herself wrestling with the absence of adult relationships and confronting questions about the type of woman she wanted to be and life she wanted to live.

Hennegen discovered that writing poetry helped her better understand and process the trauma she’d experienced, and eventually it provided a new path in life.

“Forgive Me, Mother” was published in December 2019 by Whitefish Review. More honors quickly followed that first publication: Hennegen won first place in Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest for writers and artists below the age of 30, for a collection of five poems she submitted. Then she learned she had been nominated by Whitefish Review for the Pushcart Prize, which features the best work in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction published in small presses during the prior year.

Hennegen’s path to poetry was circuitous. She had been working in tech for seven years—in Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and Boston—and her life was tumultuous. At the recommendation of a friend’s mother she read Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, and though it was her first attempt at philosophy, it took hold of her. She decided to take a philosophy class at Harvard University Extension School. Unfortunately, it was cancelled, and since she’d already paid her tuition, she signed up for a poetry class instead.

She had never really written poetry before and found the prospect formidable and daunting. But in the quirky way life sometimes works, Hennegen unexpectedly found a wonderful mentor and friend in her professor. In class she read a lot of poetry, wrote her own poetry, and workshopped with classmates.

Around this time she also learned about the graduate program at St. John’s College. She decided to apply, but felt ill-equipped. “When I applied,” says Hennegen, “I didn’t have a writing sample or academic recommendation letters, and my undergraduate transcript reflected the upheaval in my personal life.” Her transcript included many withdrawals; the venture seemed “sort of inconceivable and bold and crazy.” But as she reflects on her trajectory and all she’s gained at St. John’s, she says, “It’s just proven to be so sort of formative and foundational to the person I am.”

Hennegen deliberately balances her Program readings with plenty of contemporary poetry and female voices. She enjoys the fact that she can read Aristotle and Adrienne Rich or Dostoevsky and Sylvia Plath in the same day and find a “delightful, dynamic dialogue among these texts.” She feels that everything she reads at St. John’s deepens her contemplative capacity, and challenges her ideas and perspectives. 

St. John’s has become Hennegen’s home in a variety of ways, and the sudden necessity to shut down the campus due to the coronavirus has been a tremendous blow—as it has been for many students. Adding to her disappointment is the fact that she’s among the dozens of students who will no longer have in-person orals or the traditional celebration that concludes them, not to mention a commencement ceremony in person next month. Yet she remains hopeful, seeing the myriad ways the community is working hard to maintain ties and rise to the challenge of making the Program work online. Hennegen hopes Johnnies may find in the situation an invitation to “be a little slower and flirt with a little more boredom, perhaps,” and that we may all be inspired to be more deliberate about how we spend our time and what brings our day meaning.

“Forgive Me, Mother” is reprinted in full below, courtesy of Kelsey Hennegen.

 

Forgive Me, Mother

What a funny thing to feel

                        your body creating another.

I can’t imagine you

                        would’ve called it sacrifice

that suggests a struggle,

                        resistance. I think you gave

willingly and without

                        thought. Your hormones,

muscle, skin, and self.

                        Everything you had,

I needed. I took.

 

The Lace-Weaver lays a clutch

                        of eggs. Her spiderlings

hatch and feed and molt

                        but they, greedy and naïve

in their need, can’t see

                        their very presence is a demand.

Knowing, she thrums

                        on her web. It’s all instinct when

they swarm. Her body’s

                        devoured within the hour.

 

Does motherhood mean

                        some form of erasure?

I must’ve commanded

                        your identity, changed you

to someone defined

                        in relation to me. I meant to

learn from you, grace

                        and forgiveness, how to pay

my taxes, how to poach

                        an egg. I meant to ask you

about this messy burden

                        of becoming, but now

the loss of you looms

                        larger than your living

ever did. Ever could.

 

- Kelsey Hennegen