This interview with Marie Howe, American poet and teacher, is the first of a series of three different interviews with American poets. Note some poems by Marie from her new book “The Kingdom of Ordinary Time,” are included in the Addendum to the interview—by permission of the poet, and of W.W. Norton publisher. The new book can be bought through the internet at this address. To contact the poet with an interest in a speaking engagement, go here. To write the poet, do so in care of her agent for speaking engagements whose email is here. Marie writes poetry of religious and spiritual kind, and other works most lovely and engaged in what one critic called the metaphysical. There is a lot of love in her work.
1. Marie I am so glad you’ve agreed to an interview. Let me indulge myself by a quote from another interview you gave, for it offers a lovely poem you wrote mentioning Jesus Christ:
Marie: Sure, let me see. It’s funny; Jesus shows up in this book a lot. There’s a poem here called “The Star Market” that I’d love to read.
A lot of what is throughout this book is that Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” — What does that mean, the kingdom of heaven is within each of us? And if the kingdom of heaven is within us, who governs there? Really? How do we govern ourselves? That’s another poem called “Government,” but maybe I’ll just read this poem called “The Star Market.”
“The people Jesus loved were shopping at The Star Market yesterday. /An old lead-colored man standing next to me at the checkout. /Breathed so heavily I had to step back a few steps. //Even after his bags were packed he still stood, Breathing hard and /hawking into his hand. The feeble, the lame, I could hardly look at them: /Shuffling through the aisles, they smelled of decay, As if The Star Market //had declared a day off for the able-bodied, And I had wandered in /with the rest of them, sour milk, bad meat, /looking for cereal and spring water. //Jesus must have been a saint, I said to myself, Looking for my lost car/ in the parking lot later, Stumbling among the people. Who would have/ been lowered into rooms by ropes, Who would have crept //out of caves, Or crawled from the corners of public baths. On their hands /and knees begging for mercy. //If I touch only the hem of his garment, One woman thought, I will be healed /Could I bear the look on his face when he wheels around?”
In a well liked online magazine of interviews with artists and such, Marie had this to say and though it is apparent in the interview of this writer’s that starts below that Marie Howe has developed themes in her work, and in the maturity of her thought as a poet in that interview, the “Bomb” interview enriches this article:
VR An interesting shift in the structures between The Good Thiefand What The Living Do is that you drop the voices of Biblical mythology and let actual people, the actual people of Marie Howe’s life, enter the poems. Brothers, friends, lovers, grade school kids. It is a very brave leap to include all the names. The actual people are all that is needed for a mythology. MH I love the characters in the Old and New Testaments, they were the stories of my childhood. I was one of those girls who read The Lives of the Saints in the bathtub‚ and through those stories I tried to figure out how to live. Abraham’s decision, Noah’s task, Moses’s stutter and exasperation, all helped me feel less embarrassed to be human—as did Mary Magdalene’s passionate love, Peter’s impulsiveness, and Jesus’s anger. I’m still in love with both Martha and Mary. They’re the only two who show up in the new book—and why wouldn’t they? Martha, the active: Mary, the contemplative. The wrestling aspects of a woman writer.
… MH I think time is a lie. John used to say to me, “Maria, it’s not linear, it’s circular.” I think I know what he meant. What the Christians call “The Fullness of Time.” It feels truer to me. That sense that time past and time future are present in now and always have been.
The poems I love most, and learn from are the poems that are written from that place: Rilke, Hopkins, Herbert, Jane Kenyon’s poems, Brenda Hillman, Jean Valentine—but there are so many.
It’s been eight years since The Good Thief was published, and for some time I felt ashamed that it was taking me so long to finish, to write the second book. Now I know that whatever had me in its mouth has its own time and terms.
“This interview, Marie Howe by Victoria Redel,” was commissioned by and first published in BOMB magazine, Issue #61, Fall 1997 pp. 66070 Copyright Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors, All rights reserved. The BOMB Digital Archive can be viewed at www.bombsite.com .
2. My question to start is this…What in the Bible that has a poetic sense captures your own attention as a poet? And I know there is so much in the Bible that holds a poetic sense for you and many people. Just tell us what you’re thinking these days.
There’s the rhythm, there’s the musicality of the Old Testament. What I love of both the Old and New Testaments are the stories. The stories are depicted as all action, without explanation. And in that way, they are like poems. I love the silence surrounding the action of the stories: Cain and Able, the Binding of Isaac, the flood: all those stories move me very much–in the way they’re told…as stories about humans in particular. I love in Job when the voice from the whirlwind comes out. What could be more gorgeous than the words of the whirlwind? There are astonishing questions asked of Job. It may be one of the most beautiful things I’ve read.
I am not interested in rating the stories.
3. Stanley Kunitz was one of your favorite and most influential teachers, if not the most influential you’ve said. Here is a quote he offered about your work: Stanley Kunitz for the Lavan Younger Poets Prize in 1988. Kunitz said, “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.”
Please tell us what it means for you to have an influential teacher who moves you, and as I understand it was something of a mentor. Tell us what it means to you, “mentoring” and more significantly, what it is to have or have had a mentor?
That is a word I did not associate with Stanley. Other people use that word. Stanley was my friend. I was 33 years old when I met him, and we were friends for 25 years. What I love…what Stanley had…was as a great influence on me…as friends do. He would look at my poems yes of course . But What he did indelibly was to live in the world. Stanley was a man who was fully alive, all the time. And attentive to the moment he was living in. This was 1983.
It means exactly what it says, to be awake to the moment you’re in and the moment of living. It was a great pleasure to be with…to travel with him, and be with him and he would get great delight in cheese and crackers…he enjoyed everything so much. He loved stories and everything so much. He didn’t live to be 101 (and not)…he didn’t say how good things used to be.
4. Here is another of those, What do you think of that kind of questions. First some context for the question: In 2009 the Boston Review said this of your work:
Several of Howe’s poems are explicitly religious, but if the Gospels loom large in them, they are never simplistic or pious: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, / Jesus said. . . . The kingdom of heaven / is within you. . . . That’s the good news / and the bad news, isn’t it?” Howe’s poems manage to be both complex and accessible; they provide pleasure and provoke: “What would we be willing to give up to equalize the wealth in the world?” The Kingdom of Ordinary Time confirms Howe’s position as one of the finer, most serious-minded poets of her generation.
Is that a kind of off-putting remark? What I am getting at is how does one react to these remarks of your importance: “…most serious-minded poets of her generation…” How can someone react to such kudos, and importantly for our readers, does this kind of thing help you or turn your head, or help you along the way? Since we say we’re glad to have you for your wonderful poetry, we hope remarks of praise are helpful.
I don’t read reviews of my own books. I don’t want to…it’s not my business as a poet to know what others think. I’d rather live life and write the next poem. It has nothing to do with my work. I think poetry is a vocation, not a career.
5. When we spoke originally, and I am so glad to make your acquaintance as you know, we talked about young people. Will you talk a little bit to young people, high schoolers and below, about writing poetry. What can they look for to gain or gather a poetic sense, even if they never write a word—but let us hope they will.
Poetry is the deepest song of the human soul. It’s our original art, and it helps us with our life. We need to hear the voices. We need to write as we please and as we can. The truth of what it is to be alive and on this earth.
6. Tell us a little bit about the school where you teach, and something of your students. For instance, what are they most interested in these days? Is there something that catches their imagination, or inspires them? Do they think anything of your religious expression in your work?
There are unprecedented numbers of young people coming into tables to write and speak about poetry. It’s wonderful, and I think that…the numbers are unprecedented. Every kind of poetry is interesting; their excited about outloud, on paper writing about metric and line.
7. Those are the questions I have for you. If there is anything not covered, or you want to say something more, please do.
I wanted the poems to speak to people who might think they don’t understand poetry. I feel that many of them were intentionally estranged from poetry in high school and college. I wanted to write in a voice that is ordinary for us. I want people to believe that more–more poetry belongs to them. They really don’t need a teacher. There is nothing they need to do but know that what they do is bring to the poem themselves. That most people can bring themselves to a poem. They don’t need to feel afraid of them or feel that they can’t read it.
Notes from Sara Lawrence
Marie Howe is the author of, most recently, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time(March 2008, WW Norton), What The Living Do (1998, WW Norton) as well asThe Good Thief (1987, Persea Books), selected by Margaret Atwood for the National Poetry Series. She is the editor, with Michael Klein, of In the Company of My Solitude: American Writingfrom the AIDS Pandemic. She has received numerous awards including the Mary Ingram Bunting fellowship from Radcliffe College and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and the Guggenheim. She is a member of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College.
This is a reading/writing course. We will spend time every week reading poems that have already been published, so that we can see how they were made: music, syntax, line, sound, and image. We might spend time generating new work in class through exercises and experiments. And we will spend time looking closely at one another’s work, encouraging one another to take risks and to move even closer to the sources of our poems. Each writer in the class will meet with another class member once a week in a “poetry date.” Each writer will be responsible for reading the assigned work and for bringing to class one written offering each week. We will work hard, learn a great deal about poetry and about our own poems, and have a wonderful time.
Open to any interested student.
What is that book we always see—in the paintings—in her lap?
Her finger keeping the place of who she was when she looked up?
When I look up: my mother is dead, and my own daughter is calling,
From the bathtub, Mom come in and watch me—come in here right now!
No Going Back might be the name of that Angel—no more reverie.
Let it ber done to me, Mary finally said, and that
Was the last time, for a long time, that she spoke about the past.
We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
And the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry hurry,
As she runs along two or three steps behind me
Her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.
Where do I want to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry—
You walk ahead of me. You be the mother.
And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
Back at me, laughting. Hurry up now darling, she says,
Hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.
A Thurrsday—no—a Friday someone said.
What year was it?
Just after the previous age ended, it began.
And although the scientists still studied the heavens
And the stars blazed—if the evening wasn’t cloudy—
What happened did not occur in public view.
Some said it simply didn’t happen, although others insisted they knew
All about it
And made many intricate plans.
The Snow Storm
I walked down towards the river, and the deer had left tracks
Deep as half my arm, that ended in a perfect hoof
And the shump shump sound my boots made walking made the silence loud.
And when I turned back towards the great house
I walked beside the deer tracks again.
And when I came near the feeder: little tracks of the birds on the surface
Of the snow I’d broken through.
Put your finger her, and see my hands, then bring your hand and put it in my side.
I put my hand down into the deer track
And touched bottom of an invisible hoof.
Then my finger in the little mark of the jay.
Someone or something is leaning close to me now
trying to tell me the one true story of my life:
low as a bass drum, beaten over and over:
It’s beginning summer,
and the man I love has forgotten my smell
the cries I made when he touched me, and my laughter
when he picked me up
and carried me, still laughing, and laid me down,
among the scattered daffodils on the dining room table.
And Jane is dead,
and I want to go where she went,
where my brother went,
and whoever it is that whispered to me
when I was a child in my father’s bed is come back now:
and I can’t stop hearing
This is the way it is,
the way it always was and will be—
beaten over and over—panicking in street comers,
or crouched in the back of taxicabs,
afraid I’ll cry out in jammed traffic, and no one will know me
or know where to bring me
There it is, I almost remember,
It runs along this one like a brook beside a train.
The sparrow knows it, the grass rises with it.
The wind moves through the highest tree branches without
seeming to hurt them.
Who was I when I used to call your name?
[Reprinted from What the Living Do (W. W. Norton & Company, 1999)]
Once or Twice or Three Times, I Saw Something
Once ot twice or three times, I saw something
Rise from the dust in the yard, like the soul
Of the dust, or from the field, he soul-body
Of the field—rise and hover like a veil in the sun
Billowing—as if I could see the wind itself.
I thought I did it—squinting—but I didn’t.
As if the edges of things blurred—so what was in
Bled out, breathed up and mingled, bush and cow
And dust and well: breathed a field I walked through
Waist high, as through high grass or water, my fingers