A bridge between worlds

A tribute to poet and mentor John Hennessy

(Photo Credit: Anton Kisselgoff)

If you’re in the market for a button up shirt with a psychedelic print, ask John Hennessy where he got his.

If you’re in the mood for a poem that breaks lines like the clear pop of a handgun slide, read John Hennessy’s latest.

If you’re in need of honest pencil scribbles atop your twice-revised draft, submit — only hard copies, please — to John Hennessy.


Down a long and dimly-lit hallway in Bartlett Hall, the crumbling home of the English Department on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, and past an ever-growing line of students visiting during late-afternoon office hours, John Hennessy leans back in his office chair.

When a cool breeze slithers in through the cracks in the wall around his large, naked window, he can’t help but smirk at the newly-constructed Commonwealth Honors College dormitories, his office neighbors. His briefcase sits atop his desk, where stacks of student work, with feedback signed ‘JH,’ tower.

Though the room is quite bare, apart from the collections on the bookshelf behind him and flyers advertising poetry readings throughout the Five College Consortium, it is certainly not empty.

The lively JH, with his cross-disciplinary perspective and never-ending enthusiasm, fills each corner of his eight-by-eight foot home.
(Photo Credit: Judith Gibson-Okunieff/The Massachusetts Daily Collegian)

The professor of both fiction and poetry began his career in Amherst in 2003. In addition to his full class schedule, he has penned two collections of poems, published in journals and anthologies including The Huffington Post, Harvard Review Online, and The Believer, and edited at FULCRUM: an annual of poetry and aesthetics and The Common, a print and digital literary magazine based out of the Frost Library at Amherst College.

Throughout this professional journey, JH has been awarded the Transatlantic Review Award in Fiction from the Henfield Foundation, the 2007–2008 Resident Fellowship in Poetry at the Amy Clampitt House, and the 2012 Elizabeth Matchett Stover Memorial Award for Poetry.

But this man of many accolades is a far cry from the one perched atop the office chair at the end of that Bartlett hallway.

Instead, it is the modest and wide-eyed listener I have come to know in poetry and fiction workshops who once leaned forward to better hear my thoroughly-imagined, complex plan for an undergraduate thesis one fall afternoon.

My explanation came in rambling waves and I occasionally backtracked to explain a theme here and emphasize another there. My thesis — or project, as we would come to call it, given its experimental nature — had originated nearly two years before in a seminar with the venerable Nicholas McBride of the Journalism Department. After much deliberating with Nick, in his office alive with artwork and smooth jazz, I decided I would create a journalistic collection of poetry inspired by the trials of black and Irish populations in the United States. It was a history wrought with much tragedy and altered by choice, I told JH, that had a great impact on race relations and cultural divides in this country.

(Photo Credit: Kathryn Bowler)

He did not just wave off my request for a advisor, citing his many commitments and full calendar. He did not hastily and carelessly type his signature onto the electronic academic contract.

He did listen. He did ask thoughtful, genuine questions. And, when he decided that the project would be a fruitful endeavor in his quest to learn more, he did sign on.

Every Wednesday afternoon for the entirety of that semester and the next, I arrived at Bartlett hoping to beat the crowd who sought missed assignments, constructive feedback, and life advice from JH. I often did, to the dismay of the crowd then gathering outside the door (clutching cups of hot library coffee).

JH would parachute me down to a jailhouse in Pennsylvania, where inmates of all colors defied their guards with solidarity; to Chattanooga, where the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, sought liberation through music; to a dismal Ireland where, on streets that reeked of sewerage, families beat their mattresses to scatter the flies.

With each long chat, we explored themes that have and continue to define our history. And with each poem, of varied meter, uses of the blank page, settings, you name it- we developed a perspective on storytelling that made way for innovation and adaptation true to each unique event, place, or character.

I’ll carry that perspective with me to each new story, to each source with their own story to tell.

Like his office, contained within the crumbling walls of a time gone by and perpetually flooded with radiant students of a different era, JH is woven with threads from two worlds: old-school discipline and commitment to truth paired with a natural instinct to explore and make change.

It is fitting to borrow the title of one of his poetry collections, Bridge and Tunnel, to describe him. JH doesn’t just take the direct route; he goes above, below, and around on a journey of new discovery.

If you’re a bridge, or tunnel, between worlds, I’m lucky to call you JH.

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