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Interview: Marie Howe, 2010 Fall

In Capital Letters: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process?  The most surprising?  The most challenging?

Writing is a sweet agony. Some writers write with fluency and ease—that has not been my experience. I have to sit down and be still—and stay there—and then write badly and in all the wrong directions for a long time. Until, at last, my will is exhausted and the poem can write itself without me in the way. This surprises every single time. So much joy occurs then, it is worth all the "wasted" time. And it is then that one gets to disappear, in service of the poem—all attention, everything one knows or has learned comes into play to be of service to what is coming forth—that is the joy.

ICL: What was the first piece of writing you ever wrote, and when?

I wrote a poem when I was very young—maybe 7—influenced by Emily Dickinson I think—about my soul.  I can remember the first lines "I have a little house to clean—it's not so very small"  (Isn’t that dialectical?) Cleaning the soul was a constant concern in those days! I wrote for my big family—for my father first—books of poems I'd give him for Christmas. And Christmas plays I'd force my brothers and sisters to participate in—little shepherds with washcloths and rubber bands around their heads, then, in the 60's, angels with machine guns. My family members were essential—they provided necessity and audience and actors all at the same time. I can never thank them enough.

ICL: How do your poems come to you?  For example, is it by an image, character, line, phrase or an idea?

Well, you know you walk around the world with a cluster of concerns that want to be clarified, or worked out, or transformed. A cluster of bewilderments; and all the time, washing the dishes, walking to the market these concerns are trying to find a way to become—to become what hasn't happened yet.

Robert Frost says a poem begins with "a lump in the throat, a homesickness. "  This longing for a place one has never been—but can almost intuit—the poem is a way. It can begin with a line, an image, a rhythm—I couldn't say.  I bump my head against the wall (the will) until something gives way and then something starts to happen. But it isn't conscious -- the unconscious makes the poem.

But the unconscious is informed by reading. Reading other poets enriches my life—that's first.  And reading other poets and prose writers I absorb technical possibilities—strategies—into my own rather limited store and in time come to use them too.

ICL: A recent review of The Kingdom of Ordinary Time states that you “find the flash point of illumination in the chaos of grief and murky memory.” What personal experiences do you think have molded you into the poet that you are today?

My entire life. Every minute. And all the days I don't remember.

ICL: You edited the anthology In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic with Michael Klein. What have you taken from that experience?

Editing was difficult.  Michael was much better at it than I.  It was excruciating to have to choose from so many essays that were written out of life stopping grief. At that time writers were bearing witness to what wasn't being discussed in the greater culture. My own brother died from AIDS (without wanting us to tell anyone he was HIV positive) and dear friends died. The experience of those years helped me to understand that each of us is going to die, and that we live in a culture that doesn't want us to mention that. I'd always been drawn to writing that emerged from necessity—from that time I wanted to write to all people, to people who might not even read poetry—in clear accessible poems.

ICL: What encouragement would you give to poets, in MFA programs like the one you attended at Columbia University, who are still discovering themselves and their art?

Read. Read poets who were writing a long time ago—and from as many cultures as you can. Of course you'll be reading your contemporaries that's a given—but read the poets they love, and the poets those poets love—trace back and read.

And get out and look at the world, look into the faces of the people you see on the bus, on the street—what poems do they need to hear?

Look at the other arts—visual arts, films, music—all the other arts enrich our lives—and our work as artists. Spend money going to plays, attend events you think you can't afford—it's your community.

Try to write what only you can write—something has need of you to speak for it.  Only you. What is it you are meant to write?  And stay with it—turn everything off and keep your seat—just when you're about to give up, something is about to happen.