An Interview with Marie Howe

An interview with poet Marie Howe (b. 1950), by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in the Little Patuxent Review, in 2013.

Marie Howe listens. From when she was a child growing up in a clangorous household of eleven, through years of the sing-song circularity of Catholic Mass, to the rise and fall of quiet conversations by a sickbed, Howe hears and remembers.

Robert Frost called it “the abstract sound of sense” – the ebb and flow of speech from behind a door that conveys the tone, the musicality of speech. Frost said, “an ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse.”

Howe has a good ear and an appetite for these sounds. The Boston Globe writes that she produces “poetry of intimacy, witness, honesty, and relation.”

Born in 1950, Howe was the oldest daughter in a large, left-leaning Catholic family. Starting as a journalist in Rochester, then as a high school teacher outside Boston, Howe believed in the power of words. But it wasn’t until she was 29 that she began writing poetry.

Now she’s the Poet Laureate of New York, with three books of poetry published, including The Good Thief, which Margaret Atwood chose as winner of the 1987 Open Competition of the National Poetry Series. Her best-known book, What the Living Do, remembers her brother, who died from complications from AIDS. And her 2008 collection, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, focuses on a season in Christianity when Jesus was not performing miracles, the time we all live in of running errands and nursing the sick and spending time at the playground.

A teacher in the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, Howe has won honors from National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships.

Stanley Kunitz, who was teaching in the MFA program at the Columbia University School of the Arts when she was studying there, was her mentor and she admired the transparency of his poetry.

Her poems lay bare her childhood, the tribe that was her family, her father’s alcoholism and abuse, the forts under the pool table in the basement. With clear eyes, she watches her wise, beloved brother die and writes about it. Her poetry talks about Jesus and Mary and Mary Magdalene as if they were neighbors – the books they might read, the laundry they might be doing, the market where they might pick up their cereal. Those Biblical figures, and the lives of the saints, were a huge part of her upbringing, Howe says.

Some of her recent work details life as the single mother of her daughter Inan, whom she adopted from China in 2003. Howe tells her daughter, sitting in the bathtub, stories about Moses, and helps her down the slide at the playground. The everyday becomes the transformative, the sacred, in many of Howe’s poems.

Stanley Kunitz wrote, “Marie Howe's poetry is luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life. Her long, deep-breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and spirit, in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.”

Howe spoke with me from her home in New York’s West Village, on a cold, blowsy March afternoon.


Susan Thornton Hobby: Your family figures so largely in your poetry. Could you talk about your upbringing, your siblings, your parents?

Howe: Everybody always writes about their family, whether they’re writing about their family or not. It’s our first world. … I grew up in a very large family – a tribal world. There were eleven of us living in the house. It was a Catholic family, so it was also imbued with those old stories, very much infused with and informed by the stories of the Old Testament and the New Testament.

And because I’m a person who grew up in the twentieth century, it was also a time of great social upheaval and change. So all that was a great part of my first twenty-five years, living with all those people, living in an Irish Catholic tribe and the world was cracking up. There were race riots downtown and the Vietnam War was seething and breaking everyone’s hearts and the Catholic Church was changing. I grew up with liberation theology and was very influenced by the Catholic Left, Dorothy Day, the Berrigan brothers.

STH: You talk about those old stories in your poetry, the Biblical figures and the lives of the saints. Can you talk about your background in Catholicism and your relationship to religious figures over the years? You write about Mary with her finger in her book and Jesus and the feeble shoppers at the Star Market.

MH: Some people grow up with the Greek myths. Some people grow up with other kinds of archetypical characters. For me, these characters were archetypes, profound archetypes that resonated in my soul. But also, they seemed like us, particular people, stumbling through life as bewildered as most of us are. I love that combination of archetypical and utterly human.

It just always held a lot of richness for me. It captured my imagination and they felt very real to me. I was just looking at Gaugin’s painting, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” Those three questions are so important. All those people in the stories wanted to know the answers to those questions.

STH: How did you make the transition from writing journalism in Rochester and teaching English to being a poet?

MH: I was writing, probably like you, from when I was young. But I didn’t know that door was there. I wrote for a while for newspapers, which was great, but it was also difficult. I was too impressionistic a writer, I couldn’t spell – it was before the spell-check thing – and I thought, well, I’ll be a teacher. And I still am. But I taught seventh and eighth grades and then moved to Massachusetts into a high school. It was a school fifty miles northwest of Boston, in rural Massachusetts. But all I wanted to teach was poetry, just read Shakespeare and teach poetry. So that’s pretty much what I did.

But then, a number of things happened in my life. My father died, and I broke up a long-time relationship, and I wanted to go learn something. I got a fellowship up in Dartmouth College for the summer – it was for high school teachers. While we were there, we had to take classes, and a poetry workshop was being offered, and I went to sit in on it, just for the first day. I ended up staying.

What I found out was, because I taught at a badly equipped high school – they had anthologies that ended by around 1950, maybe ’60 and they were mostly men (writers). And this was 1980, and people began handing me books that were written by women, just beginning to be published by women, contemporary poets. I couldn’t believe it. I was so moved. And I started to write.

I had to learn to sit alone in a room. There are a lot of things one has to learn, as you know, some of the most basic things were hard to learn, to keep my seat. Not to get up and go do something else when the tension grew.

STH: That brings us to Stanley Kunitz. He always said he wanted to write transparently. You’ve said you want to write transparent poems that show true pictures without obscuring anything. Why do you strive for that and how do you strive for that?

MH: I do want to write poems that are accessible to everyone, but not simple. When you look into a room, and there’s someone sitting in a sickbed, and maybe there’s someone beside them, and maybe someone else is standing by a window. And maybe they’re talking.

You can look into that room, and it’s accessible, but it’s not simple. Because every moment of life is more complex than anything we could ever say. Therefore, the transparent surface means a lot to me, but the room is complex. I have no idea how to do it. I write so many poems I throw out. For me, it’s not easy. Someone [Thomas Mann] said, “a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I have to write a lot in order for something to happen.

STH: Your second collection, What the Living Do, approaches death, something that you’ve described as a frightening door, and the idea of living beyond the death of a beloved person. How do you approach that difficult, frightening topic?

MH: I have no idea what death is. But I didn’t write about death, I wrote about my brother as he was living. And that’s really a huge difference. It’s really about his life, and living on, in a way.

STH: Your descriptions of your childhood with all those kids, with the forts and the basketball and the village in the basement were so evocative and really made me think of my childhood.

MH: Good. I’m glad to hear that. But you have to remember, in any big family, there were nine kids and I was the oldest girl, the second oldest of all those kids. I told it from the point of view from the oldest sister. It would be a very different story if it were written from one of the youngest ones.

STH: You’re at a different point of view now, with your daughter. I love the poem about hurrying, where you hurry with your daughter from errand to errand. In such a busy world, why should we make time for poetry, for art?

MH: I think the question is, why do we make time for anything else? How do we allow ourselves to get so distracted? Because we live in a corporate culture that’s telling us we have to move, move, move and buy, buy, buy. It’s just totally capitalism-driven. We have to make a living, yes, we have to put food on our table and clothe our children and ourselves, and take care of the sick. We have to do meaningful work if we can find it.

But it seems to me that the greatest things in the world are songs and stories and pictures. The things that people do. It’s not greater than the birds or the mountains or dogs or snow, but these important things are getting lost in the rush for more. More nothing, right? It’s all virtual. Many things are changing. It’s a radical world. It will take so long to understand what’s happened, and what’s happening.

I wish we had Marshall McLuhan here now. He was a guy in the ’60s – a literature teacher, who wrote The Medium is the Message. He said that television is not just a moving picture, it’s a paradigm changer. A car is not just a fast horse. The medium is the message. It’s about the technology itself and what it does to us. He’s the guy who coined the term “global village,” which led to the whole idea of a world wide net.

Besides our sense of disorientation, of fragmentation, I don’t think we can comprehend the depth and vastness of the change in the quality of our lives. Even 100 years ago, people were writing by gas lamps. And dark was dark. Just to be in a place in the developed world, where there’s really no more darkness, is an extraordinary thing.

STH: In your works, I hear the Catholic Mass – the rise and fall, the half-speaking, half-singing voice. Am I right?

MH: I don’t know, if that’s what you hear, how can you be wrong?

I grew up singing Latin Masses -- with that beautiful music. Those are many of the rhythms I grew up with, and the incremental, circular nature of those songs. I do not attend Mass any more. I’m not a practicing Catholic at all. But the sound, as Frost would call it, “the sound of sense,” the way the stories were told and letters were read, it was terrific in many ways.

STH: You call some of your poems songs. How musical do you think your poetry is?

MH: I don’t know how musical it is, but it’s very much meant to be spoken. I like the way people talk. And I like the cadence of conversation back and forth, very much, so I think the lines have that music of everyday speech. That’s what I would hope. The way somebody goes, “I don’t believe it,” and somebody goes, “Yeah,” and I go, “No,” – it’s just great.

STH: I have a 14-year-old daughter, and I love to eavesdrop when I’m driving her and her friends around. Sometimes they even chorus. They all say at one time, “I know, right?”

MH: (Laughing) Yes. Robert Frost said it best. It doesn’t matter what we say, it’s the music of what we say that moves people. I don’t mean poets, I mean just talkers. The rise and fall of the voice says more about the content than the actual words, I think. Teens and poets are very sensitive about that.

STH: Your last book came out in 2008, are you writing now?

MH: I am. It’s slow for me always.

STH: Do you have a sense of what the poems are moving toward?

MH: I’ve written and published just a few of them. The ones I’ve published are in the voice of Mary Magdalene. But she sounds as if she might live in the twenty-first century. So there seems to be a lot of poems in her voice. But they may fall by the wayside. The way I work is I seem to just write for years, and just stop and look through everything and see what I’ve got. But it’s not very organized until that day.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2013. All rights reserved.