No One Does Anything Alone: Poetry & Friendship, in Conversation with Marie Howe

Back to Issue 15

Back in March, poet Marie Howe was invited to Yale Divinity School to give the 2023 Lana Schwebel Memorial Lecture in Religion and Literature. In addition to reading new work and poems from her published collections, Marie was generous enough to sit down prior to the event for an interview with LETTERS Journal Managing Editor Alexandra Marie Green, Poetry Editor Luke Scott Stringer, and Visual Arts Editor Lily-Katherine Jurskis.

The following interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

30 March 2023, New Haven, CT

Alexandra Marie Green: One question we’ve had in preparing for your visit is that of voice. When did the sound of language, in the poetic sense, come alive for you? I guess, when did poetry find you or when did you find poetry?

Marie Howe: I used to write for my family. I’d write these goofy Christmas plays. My parents and our grandparents would come over Christmas Eve. They were silly: little kids with washcloths on their heads as shepherds, that sort of stuff. Everyone had to be in them.

But otherwise, growing up, I didn’t know you could be a poet. I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I went to work for a little suburban newspaper after college, and I wrote feature stories. But I didn’t like the idea that you had to be in the office all the time: summer came, you still had to go to work! Eventually I went back to school to get certified to teach high school, and I taught for years.

But when I was 29 years old, my father died, and I left a relationship I’d been in for a long time. I was living in Groton, Massachusetts, still teaching at a very poor public school another half an hour away to the north. I was living in the front room of an old house with a wood stove, and it was so cold. I had been reading The Once and Future King, the novel by T.H. White. About King Arthur. And in it, Merlin says to young Arthur, who was really sad, “Arthur, if you’re sad, learn something.”

I called up my colleague who ran the English department, and said, “Dave, I have to learn something.” He said, “Oh, you should apply for this fellowship to Dartmouth College for teachers. You can go for the summer and take classes.” And I did.

I was going to take the philosophy class but I thought, “I’ll just sit in on this writing workshop to check it out.” The first day everybody went around, gave introductions. The woman who ran the workshop said, “My name is Karen Pelz, and I am writing my spiritual autobiography.” And I just blurted out, “Who are you to do that?!” And she said, “I’m a lyric poet.” [laughter] I said, “I want to do that!” And she said, “Then stay.” [More laughter.] And I did. And that changed everything.

Luke Scott Stringer: Especially for us as an editorial team—many of our submitters and readers, and all of us, we’re all younger or otherwise emerging writers. What was your writing life like in the build up to the publication of your first collection, The Good Thief?

MH: I had read and loved poetry— I’d even gone to some poetry readings in my hometown. But I didn’t know you could be alive and write. So I began to learn how. I took another workshop in Boston, then I applied to graduate schools, and I went to Columbia.

I mean it was 1980. So, you have to understand, there were fewer women writing. Sharon Olds was about to shoulder through the door. There was Emily [Dickinson], and a few other wonderful people. Audre [Lorde]. There were people, but nothing like it is now. Nothing like what came pouring through.

When I started, we were taught no women poets at Columbia, except Mona Van Duyn and Elizabeth Bishop. So my friend and I decided to hold a reading group for the women in the program who might want to read women poets. We put up a little note on the bulletin board and said, you know, “Women Poets’ Reading Group, Marie’s House, Tuesday night, seven o’clock.” People actually vandalized the note, said it was for lesbian poets, that sort of thing. But we wanted to just see what happened. So many women came, there was nowhere to sit. People were on the windowsills, people were on the floors.

We spent the whole first meeting asking, “Can you be a woman poet and not kill yourself? Not become an addict or an alcoholic? Can you have a child? Can you be married? To anyone: man, woman, anyone?” And we couldn’t think of examples. We had a book that was an anthology of women, and we went through and we couldn’t find anybody. Muriel Rukeyser did.Adrienne Rich, of course. She’d just come out with Diving Into the Wreck, you know, and The Dream of a Common Language. She had children. But we were just trying to count on one hand, how to live and be a writer and a woman. That’s what it was like then. It got a lot better. For everybody.

There are many, many, many more people writing now. Sooner or later, if you really care, your book will be published. It will. Don’t you worry about it. The important thing is to keep doing the very best you can. And, have people check it out. Have everybody read it, help you. No one does anything alone. That’s the most important thing I have to say. No one does anything alone.

LS: My hunch is that many of your readers would not think of you as a poet of place. But I just wonder if that’s because there isn’t the imagination to think of Provincetown as being one of those grounding, orienting places for your work. And the queer community there. How do you think of Provincetown as a place that informs your work?

MH: Provincetown is a big part of my life. I’ve been going since I was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center from 1982 to 1983. Ever since, every summer. I teach there. That community means the world to me. Have you spent a lot of time there?

LS: I’ve been to the AIDS memorial in Provincetown, have you been to see it? I ask because it has a line from “Without Music” incorporated in the memorial, part of a cento with lines from other poets. I was curious about the collaboration involved in creating that piece.

MH: Lauren Ewing is the artist who made that piece, isn’t it amazing? That stone? And the water?

LS: Like a piece of ocean in stone. It’s beautiful.

MH: Provincetown is a striking place. 50 miles out into the ocean. The first time I went there I was terrified. I thought, “Where am I going? This long, skinny road… I don’t know that I want to be out here…” And it was tough in the beginning, when I was a fellow. It was really a difficult time for the place, the height of the early AIDS epidemic. But Stanley Kunitz started the Fine Arts Work Center with other artists, and he lived there in the summer. And queer culture is so generous; it was still so open and free. It’s a wonderful place, not a lot of strong boundaries, full of possibility.

AG: I have a question about the relationship between your second and third collections: The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, and the way that it picks up in the aftermath of What The Living Do, in the time after John’s passing. You pivot to ordinary time. It’s like there is this realization that time continues even after a traumatic event. Do you see them that way, as being connected to each other?

MH: Well, in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, I adopted my daughter. I adopted my daughter when I was 52 years old. I was married. And then my marriage broke up. And people died. My friend Jason died, my friend Elise. A lot more people died. But that was the biggest change.

She was three years old. She came from China. Her adoption had kept getting delayed. But she was revolutionary. She became a figure in the poems because she’s so herself. It changed my whole life, adopting her and her growing up. Now she’s 23. I used the word earlier today, journeying:  you keep going, and things keep happening, and you keep happening, and life keeps flourishing and changing. Dear, essential friends died. And my essential daughter grew.

AG: While I was reading through your poems, I kept noticing this relationship between writing and watching. In your poem, “What the Woman Said”, you have these lines, “I want to tell you everything I know about being alive but I / missed a lot of living that way—” And in “For Three Days” where you recount that experience of preemptively writing your brother’s elegy while driving to see him, and the gratitude and shame associated with that act. I guess I’m wondering at some of these tensions you seem to make apparent in your poetry—where poetry is this gift of teaching you to watch, but also how watching can become a way of not inhabiting life. How do you tease out the distinction between watching that helps you inhabit life versus watching that distances you from life?

MH: I don’t see them as separate. I don’t see writing as stepping away from life. I see it as a way of participating in life. I see a little, of course, of what you mean. There’s a way the imagination can be a coping mechanism. But it’s also a way of being. And it’s that way for me. I think Linda Gregg said something like this, that writing is like being alive twice. You can happen again, and again.

LS: If I can keep us on this question: there’s that line from “The Landing” in Magdalene, with the Magdalene character, and she’s feeling tension between being on the outside, looking in at her life, and being inside it, experiencing and living. “To love—I had to be there. / I had to be there to be loved.” With that character, it remains unclear what it is that keeps her from being inside her life. If it’s a dissociative disorder, or a drug addiction, or something else that removes us from feeling the paper between our fingers. In this conversation with you, it seems like writing can be that thing for some people, but for you, writing is not the thing that takes you away from feeling the paper between your fingers.

MH: No. For me, it’s a way to remember. Not only to feel it, but to remember feeling it. Yes, every time you remember something, you’re not right here, right now. But I feel as if what we’re talking about is reverie. I mean, when do things happen? [laughter] We could talk at length about this: what is time, the fullness of time? I’m interested in the fullness of time.

Was John always going to die? All of us, we’re always going to die. We know this. So we’re always knowing, we’re always stepping into our own absence, even as we’re present. These tensions speak of a larger tension. Being here, and then not being here—really!— whatever that means. I think all humans know we’re going to die, and just knowing that we’re going to die, that we’re alive and we’re going to die is the problem. Not the problem, maybe, but the situation we’re in. That we know it.

AG: A common thread through your collections is this real grappling with God and the question of suffering—questions of theodicy, in light of death and dying. Do you find your formal choices give you tools for getting deeper into those concerns? What do the long lines give you that a different form wouldn’t? I ask because I’ve been writing about Paul Celan, so I’ve been trying to live in his brain for a year now. Writing in German obviously is affecting his poetics, but I’m becoming so convinced by his stammering rhythm, where he writes about loss and grief in these blunt, short lines.

MH: I love the long line because it’s the way I want it to be said. I feel that poetry is like music: you follow instructions. I’m very sentence based too. I feel as if the sentence gives you the instructions for how to read. You know, “Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. / And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous…” For me, I think the line is accumulative. The way Whitman’s lines are. I’m not saying I’m like Whitman at all—Whitman saw into reality, I think. But what he has is this accumulating line. How things happen, it accumulates. In my work, I became comfortable with that accumulating syntactical line, and with sentences that break over.

AG: That fluency with accumulation, which I think is so evident in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, it shifts in Magdalene somewhat. You leave bigger spaces between each line. There are those short sections in italics. To have developed that voice so clearly, and then for Magdalene, for her to break with that a bit—what necessitated that break for that collection?

MH: It seemed really important that there was much more space. She’s reluctant to speak. It’s always dangerous for a woman to speak. For anybody outside the margins of patriarchy to speak.

There also needed to be more of a sense of silence. The voice needed to feel more intimate, that she’s leaning in, saying, “Was he my husband, my lover, my teacher? / One book will say one thing. Another book another.” I knew that there would need to be much more space between the lines. And I knew that those italicized sections were things she thought, but would never, ever write.

In many ways I learned that from Brenda Hillman. In one of her books, she has these little fragments that exist at the bottom of her pages, all these words. She said she saw it as if she were cooking a roast—there are the drippings at the bottom. Odd things, like “They were wrong about the root canal.” These extra things that didn’t end up in the poem but were going on at the same time, going on around it.

And Emily Dickinson, of course. Have you ever seen her actual tracts? She has these corrections, these other possibilities. For example, “Because I could not stop for death— / he kindly stopped for me—….” Imagine next to “kindly”, she might have a little cross or symbol, and corresponding at the bottom of the page, she’ll have one or two other words that could be in place of “kindly.”

LS: A map of possibilities. 

MH: A map of possibilities. Maybe “he calmly stopped for me”, or “gallantly.” That would be wrong! [laughs] But the other words remain there. In her actual, handwritten things, they stay there as possibilities. It’s a little different from the italics in Magdalene, but I was thinking of those things that she would have thought and wanted to remember, but would never say.

LS: Throughout your collections, you have always engaged Biblical stories, characters, settings. Those poems feel reminiscent of Ignatian contemplation, where you’re imagining a scene from the Biblical story, and putting yourself there. And maybe this ties back to your comment about the fullness of time earlier—what happens for you when you conceive of poems in this way? There are ways it feels like the poems ask the question, “How and when did this story happen? Is it still happening? If so, can we access it?” It also seems like that move to inhabit the Biblical text in this way is something that’s become more predominant in your more recent books.

MH: I do think these stories are always happening. There’s a prodigal on his way home right now. There’s a father right now who thinks he has to sacrifice his son, for some reason or another. This is always happening.

These stories, to me, are the central myths of my imagination. I grew up with them. And I never believed in rudimentary, literal readings. That always just seemed totally insufficient, whatever I was told. Especially for these women who had no voice at all. But every character was fascinating, and so so rich. I think of my poems like Midrash, psychoanalyzing the text and moving into it.

You know, Louise Glück grows up with the Greek myths, so they’re all through her work. For somebody else, it would be different. I used to be embarrassed. Jane Kenyon helped me become less embarrassed. Her poems. I loved her as a person, and I love her poems. She was unashamed of her spirituality. I would carry her books with me wherever I went. They were like talismans to me.

Auden also. Do you know Auden’s Christmas oratorio? Everybody talks. The star talks. The shepherds talk. Herod’s speeches are pages long. He sounds like one of our politicians right now. [laughs] And because it’s Auden and he’s a genius, everybody speaks in different meters. Everybody, everybody has a voice, and is working through their own faith crisis. For the Time Being. It’s beautiful, very modern. It’s a really great thing to do, to get together and read with your friends. Do it around Christmas: read For the Time Being with a group of friends.

AG: Something I’ve really appreciated about our conversation today is that, oftentimes, I feel like the question asked poets is, “What poets are you reading?” And with you I feel like the question to ask is, “What friends have you spent your time around?” You’re so upfront about being influenced and welcoming that influence from your friends.

MH: Well, I’m lucky to have friends who are poets! My husband was not, but he was still a good reader. I’m old friends with Spencer [Reece], who reads my work, Mark Doty, Nick Flynn, Pádraig Ó Tuama. Before then, Lucie Brock-Broido, Jason Shinder, Sophie Cabot Black. Friends I went to school with, or people I’ve met and we’ve stayed in touch. It’s a community.

Way back when I was living in Cambridge, [Massachusetts,] and I was just beginning to write and publish, there was a group of us who lived in the same building. It was rent-stabilized and we were all writing our first books. We started this thing, a sort of shameless salon, where you could say, “I don’t get it.” I would say, “I don’t get Wallace Stevens,” and my friend Steven Cramer would say, “I do. Come over on Thursday for tea, and we’ll read Wallace Stevens.” I remember my friend Lucie Brock-Broido said, “Ugh, Emily Dickinson, I don’t get it,” and I was the one who said, “Lu, you will love Emily Dickinson. Just come over, this weekend, we’ll read her.” I was reading these poems with her, and she had a book, but what she was really doing was looking at the Master Letters in the back of the book, and going, “What are these?” And then she went on to write her own book, The Master Letters.

Lily-Katherine Jurskis: Those are my favorite of Emily’s, the Master Letters. So mysterious and weird. How constructed they are.

MH: Lucie does the same thing in her collection. Now, everybody wants to turn Emily into something or someone they can understand.

LS: I am wondering if you could talk about one of your sequences from The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, “Poems from the Life of Mary.” It’s one of my favorite sections.

MH: I loved writing those. I just loved writing them. Because it was her before anything happened, really. Just her as a young woman. I loved her. And that she had those intimations.

LS: Like in one of the opening poems, “Once or Twice or Three Times, I Saw Something.” The invisible life of the field coming up, “the soul-body / of the field.” So breathtaking. And then arriving at “Annunciation”—how did the sequence come together?

MH: I wanted to write it because I love her. I don’t know who she is, but I love her. At the time, I had this form, these little sonnets that didn’t rhyme, which was working great for me. So I thought I’d just stay small. Go in very small, to small moments. Then I showed them to Stanley [Kunitz] and he said, “Now you have to write a poem about the Annunciation!” And I said, “I can’t!” And indeed, I wrote several that didn’t work, that I just threw out. But still that was great—to write, to try, to know that I couldn’t do it. And then, that one came. I felt it really was a gift. I wish and long for that experience again, because it was contained, you know. But it was also unfathomable.

LS: In the poem, too. That poem is so much about that act of reaching for the unfathomable, and how the uncontainable can show up, contained like that. It’s so beautiful that the experience of writing the poem somehow appears in what the poem is.

MH: I It’s an Annunciation. Every poem is. That’s a beautiful thing for you to say, because I think it’s true. I mean, these are not words I use. I don’t use words like “faith,” but I do feel like there’s definitely a mystery, a force, beyond all of us. “Force” is not the right word, but whatever is is, is always here. The artists I love, so many of them had access to that is—painters, writers, musicians.

LS: Do you know the Galway Kinnell poem, “Prayer”? “Whatever happens. Whatever / what is is is what / I want. Only that. But that.” You just said three is’s in a row.

MH: I I love that poem. I’ve got a great story, actually. I know this beautiful writer, who had a serious illness, an injury. He’s fine now, but he was immobilized for a long, long time. When he couldn’t move, he had all these poems tattooed all over him. One of them is Galway’s poem, “Whatever happens. Whatever / what is is is what / I want. Only that. But that.” He has this tattooed, and we’re in Provincetown. Galway’s there. At the Fine Arts Works Center. I’m walking with him. And this writer says, “Galway!” And he takes off his shirt and shows him the poem, and Galway says, “You forgot one of the is’s.”

LS: Oh no.

MH: I know.

AG: The three is’s are so important!

MH: I know. And Galway just sort of blurted it out. He was the most thoughtful person—I’m sure, given another minute, he wouldn’t have said anything. But the three is’s are so important.

AG: Do you have any of those lines in your own poetry where you think, that was well done. Lines like that amazing “is is is” moment?

MH: I don’t think well done, but I know what you’re saying. Whenever it’s—what’s the saying?—whenever the spirit picks you up and drops you, throws you down. The way you feel, “I’m glad I was there for that.” That’s what I mean. Picked up, and glad to be dropped back down. What a great feeling. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.