Welcome to your Tuesday of gratitude. It was a Tuesday that I first saw Fanny Howe read her awe-inspiring poems at the Blacksmith House Poetry Series run by Andrea Cohen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many of you know I'm that fool who will cry at a good poetry reading, so yes, I sat in the darkened audience listening and weeping for two reasons: 1. I had been dreaming of the chance to meet Fanny and see her read since, several years before, encountering her book of essays, The Wedding Dress, a book that led to me reading everything she had ever published. 2. The poems she read were perfectly strange, completely heart rending, and just that damn good!
Fanny Howe is the author of thirty books of poetry and prose, including The Lyrics, What Did I Do Wrong? and The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vacation. She is a recipient of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, an award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation.
I finally got the chance to read Fanny's most recent book of poetry, Come and See, in early November and found that I had yet to fall out of love with her writing. I couldn't pass up this chance to share with you some of the questions I had about the book, about family, and about her life as a poet. With thanks to Fanny Howe for treating me like a son and inviting me into her home the year I lived in Boston feeling quite lost, and in memory of the novelist Ilona Karmel, this is Tuesday with Fanny Howe:
Jericho: Fanny, I want to begin with a couple of questions that don’t rise from your work as much as they do your work’s reputation and your reaction to that reputation. Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman refers to you as a “religious writer” and an “experimental writer.” These are terms I heard applied to you and your work long before I finally got the chance to read any of it or to meet you. How might you define such terms separate from yourself? In what ways do you think of yourself as a religious writer, a religious person, an experimental writer? Do you think of these as a choice or a matter of personality? How much is either title a misnomer?
Fanny: Jericho, the term “experimental” for poetry may have begun with experimental drugs, or with the infiltration of the sciences into popular culture. But like most words it probably has a hidden meaning to do with marketability and job security. That is, an experimental poet would be someone who is taking a chance on being obscure and unemployable. In any case, it is probably the case that all poets write in hopes of discovering something they didn’t know before, something that only the words, let loose, can reveal. In the fifties, sixties, and seventies, every day was an experiment in survival for poets. Now the term means “inaccessible by ordinary means”, marginal.
Being called religious is embarrassing. It suggests a certainty that is far from true. The path one follows is always a question of words and birth. One either understands math, or doesn’t; abstract logic or not. The world is not made of just one type or the other. The vocabulary of theology, philosophy and the sciences are quite separate from each other. But the architecture of each depends on revealed structures and a very particular vocabulary. To be religious is to follow a ritual that is pointed towards revelation. Theoretical physics also meditates on the limits of time, intersections with eternity, and the flight of truth. The family you were born into both historically and genetically, will probably largely determine which method of thinking you choose. The most important thing is to be open to surprise.
Jericho: As a poet who does participate in religion to some extent, do you ever feel disregarded by readers and other poets because of it? Do you sometimes think that the poetry community is anti-evangelical and anti-fundamentalist to the point of not taking seriously poets who believe in God?
Fanny: Being Catholic is of course different from being Christian, but apart from that distinction (!) I am pretty sure that my interest in religious texts and mystical narratives was not a goad to secular readers or critics. You are right to point that out. Strangely, it is now that certain continental philosophers and some critics have begun to study and see the genius in these early writers/seers and how their thoughts apply to the world as we have it. Simone Weil was on that path. But it may well be too late for me to be read in relation to of that tradition. I think my work fell down a time-slot, yes, not because I studied those thoughts, but because I took a chance at believing them. I hoped they were right. I hoped there was a meaning to being, beyond what we all know. I made the mistake of saying so in a time of absolutely justifiable skepticism.
Jericho: Can you discuss being a part of a literary family and how that may make your experience of being a writer different from others'? What is it like to be a prominent poet who is the sister of a prominent poet (Susan Howe)? What is it like to be a prominent poet who is the mother and mother-in-law of prominent novelists (Danzy Senna and Percival Everett)? Have you ever even considered the odds of that? If so, how did that happen--I mean what vitamins were the Howes getting in the morning before school that I can start giving my own kids when I have them?
Fanny: We had a very powerful mother who was a writer of fiction and drama, which she also displayed in daily life at the breakfast and dinner table. She had not fulfilled her own promise as a young very gifted person, but she panicked and married instead, and then poured her hopes into her firstborn child as so many parents do. We grew up with books all around us but also abundant nature. For both my sister Susan and me, the unforeseen way we ended up in the same territory has been hard for us both. We maintain our sisterliness but rarely talk about our work to each other. My son-in-law Percival and I never read reviews of our work, or Google ourselves, or want to know anything about what's threatening us. I don't know why he is like that, but I am because of my anxiety about being second best.
Jericho: This may seem an odd question to readers who haven’t yet had the chance to read your latest book, but I have to ask, how has becoming a grandmother changed your social and political views of our country and our world? Do you find that emerging younger poets in the 21st century share these concerns?
Fanny: I began the book with a grandmother looking out the window in a city somewhere with her grandson beside her. She was me, but not. She was the observer of many terrible events who didn’t want the child to go down and join into the crowds below. She represented the eyes of God (as we imagine God) and one who gives everything away except the child.
Poetry is a way of life that corresponds to this woman’s life. Observing, preserving. Non-violent, but immovable. Poets of all ages are like this, and I am thrilled by the number of them.
There are many, many superb, brilliant, thoughtful, solitary young poets now, and there is multi-leveled spoken poetry, hip hop and performance of all kinds. So it is all in process, as you know. It is always a huge surprise to read a stack of manuscripts by new young poets in a contest and I hate having to choose one or two among them, they are all so moving. I feel connected to them by their visionary quality, their desires, their hope which is sometimes realistic and sometimes religious but always under threat. I think there should be a Secret Order of Poets and a kind of pact made to remain under the radar, and stand all for each other and the future. The erotic changes form, only because it has to, and turns into an adoration of the natural world, especially as you are preparing to melt back in the stars.
Jericho: Come and See is your 15th book of poetry. What goals did you have for yourself as a poet that you hadn’t before had or reached when writing these poems? The title poem examines the intentions of Ilona Karmel as a novelist. What do you have in common with Karmel as an artist? Where might the two of you disagree?
Fanny: Ilona Karmel was a novelist of a certain time, and place. Europe during the 20th century. She believed very much in the ethical momentum underlying plot, character, gesture, environment, historical and natural, and the way they interact and reveal a truth that evades all the participants. Every action must be inevitable in relation to the characters’ characters. She was a great and exacting teacher at MIT, and to her friends. Come and See was written after she died while I was adapting her poetry from Polish and so it was saturated in thoughts about the Western world in the twentieth century; it was especially haunted by the extermination camps. The title was taken from a movie by the Russian film director Elem Klimov.
Ilona was a very good and tough reader of my novels, and I often felt ashamed before her intellect and judgment. Our personal histories were utterly different, but we knew how to love. It was her dedication as a person to people in trouble and her generosity to others that was the most important influence. She would never put one written word ahead of an action. She was very serious about the situation we are in.
The poems in Come and See seem confusing to some people because the rhetoric swings from high to low. Grand statements, little details. References to obscure Russians and 20th century ideologies. For much of my life, I was an ideologue, and I still see the world imperiled by errors in thinking. But in my poetry the basic purpose (intellectually) is the same as always: to capture a thought on the fly, to pin it down to the place where it emerged, and to study it from several dimensions, feel it and let it go. My purpose is to document days of being-here at as many levels I can. Only once in a blue moon, do I catch the thought that is to me most beautiful and just, a hint of something beyond, a paradox.
Jericho: Your writing always appears to me a library of artistic influences—paintings, novels, music—etched into sheer lyricism. I often wonder what you haven’t read or seen. Will you tell me what the ability to travel has meant to your work? Come and See is a book largely influenced by film and technology. How did this come about? Have you made films of your own? How does filmmaking relate to your writing poems?
Fanny: Four little tiny films of mine are up on vimeo. These were made with the help of others and so they required a bit of stability. Actually my travels have been very limited, by time and money, and the moving is more of a back-and-forth than onwards-and-out that I have done. Boston-New York-California-England-Ireland. But you are right in the sense that restlessness has changed my habits. Changes of address within the same cities, etcetera. Likewise I am a re-reader more than an omni-reader. All my serious travel has taken place in a movie theater. A movie a day, you could almost say, kept the doctor away. The layout of film and the editing process (now so utterly changed) became the way I dealt with things in the world, you could say, in frames, juxtaposed images, thoughts, many of them contradictory, but tangential, a series or a parade. You can flip the book open anywhere and see a complete pattern. But each page is also bound to the other by an indivisible weave. This is film to me, and a book of poetry.
Jericho: Tell me what has brought you to live for a time in Washington, DC. Has this change in location had an effect on your writing? What is your relationship to teaching in light of your preferred itinerant way of life?
Fanny: Carolyn Forche brought me to Washington to teach with her in the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. It was an amazingly helpful invitation because I was living on social security and a small benefits package from UC. But more than that, it gave me life, students, new books to study and a new city.
And I am enamored of Washington, its ghostly 17th century aura, its idealism written in stone. Teaching now is very different from teaching when I was a young single mother, or middle aged and alone. I am not wishing for anything new for myself anymore, except to stay responsive to my family and students. But I do wish that there could be a 20-year moratorium on progress in technology and industry and we could turn around and fix all that we have ruined, using all that we know, which is probably enough, before we take another step.
More about Fanny Howe
Jericho Brown worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before receiving his PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. The recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Krakow Poetry Seminar in Poland, Brown is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including, The American Poetry Review, The Believer, jubilat, Oxford American, Ploughshares, A Public Space, and 100 Best African American Poems. His first book, PLEASE (New Issues), won the American Book Award.