Present: An Interview with Marie Howe

Throughout her writing Marie Howe gives voice and power to the details that make moments in life memorable, and she asks us to do the same in our own lives. Sitting on the porch of the Katherine Anne Porter House in Kyle, Texas, Marie Howe spoke with Joshua Hines about connection through writing and tradition, being present in the world, and the importance of authenticity in writing.

Marie Howe is the author of four collections of poetry: Magdalene: PoemsThe Kingdom of Ordinary TimeWhat the Living Do; and The Good Thief. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, Harvard Review, The Partisan Review, AGNI, Ploughshares, and many others.

Hines: When sitting here at the Katherine Anne Porter house, there is a sense of tradition, of us in connection to the past. It’s the same way with writing, especially with our mentors. I know that you have had some wonderful mentors over your career who really impacted you and your work. I was wondering if you could speak on them.

Howe: Well gosh, let me think. Of course, my first mentors were all dead. I mean, reading poetry. I remember: first I worked for a newspaper, and then I taught seventh grade, eighth grade, and then I taught high school in my twenties, and I used to sit in the bookroom and read the old anthologies that would end around the 1950s. So, there would be a couple of poems by a woman, maybe, but I’d read poems. I was just looking for something, for that thing, that language for what this all is. Emily Dickinson. Walt Whitman. I remember putting up huge lines of Walt Whitman around my seventh grade classroom. John Donne. Gerard Manley Hopkins. And then, my God, I was living in this place outside of Rochester [New York], about an hour away, called Mount Morris, this town that didn’t even have a light in it. But it had Angie’s Lunch—a diner—and I worked at the diner when I was going to school to get certified to teach. I lived above the diner. I was so miserable and so lonely there, so I went to the library and pulled out a book, and I didn’t know what it was, but for some reason I pulled it out and it was Rilke’s prose. You know, Journal of My Other Self. And I came back to this apartment over this diner—in the middle of nowhere in western New York—and read these sentences of someone who I felt knew me. Oh, I remember that so well sitting here with you. It seems miraculous.

Hines: You mention Walt Whitman. One of my favorite poems of his is “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and its sense of us all being together in a place.

Howe: Yeah. He said what I’m talking about before—‘It’s happening.’ And we’re like, ‘Yes, it’s happening!’ I mean, he’s speaking right to us, saying it’s happening, right? It’s a beautiful thing; poetry transcends time and space, and we meet in that intersection of eternity and time.

Hines: It’s interesting that poetry, especially your poetry and your specificity of details, is about the small things, being present and living in the individual moments. In an interview with Krista Tippett, you talked about the exercise you have your students do where you have them look at objects in their lives.

Howe: Well, just notice what they notice. A lot of it is just notice what you notice. If you have to notice ten things a week, then you begin to notice what you notice. Like Rilke said, the spring times have need of you, the violin playing in the upstairs window needed you to hear it. You know? A star needed you to see it. There is a way that we’re blocked from seeing what’s around us by— what does Rilke say? Weren’t you always looking for the beloved? Well, we’re always looking for what isn’t there instead of what is there. That’s our plight as humans it seems, doesn’t it? To look for what isn’t there instead of what is.

Hines: In that idea of seeing things that are there, that we don’t pay attention to or see, I think of your poem “The Teacher”—those last lines of the poem: “but that the room itself, whatever room we might be standing in, / assumed an astonishing clarity: / and the things in the room: a table, a cup, a meowing cat.”

Howe: Well, the teacher in this book is kind of a Jesus figure, right? But he’s—could be a he, could be a she—seems to me when you’re in the presence of people who are really present, you find yourself becoming more present as well. When I imagine him, and I think he was an extraordinary man no matter what else he was, but he saw people and noticed people who most others didn’t want to look at—everybody who most people didn’t want to look at when they walked by: the afflicted, the ones who were obviously afflicted. He knew, as most true enlightened people do, that most all of us are afflicted.

Hines: But is that what being in the present is—to see the afflicted, to notice?

Howe: Well, I think it allows us to notice a lot. Like to look at these nuts here on this table: if we were a squirrel this would be gold, because they’re beautiful and the color of the wood of a tree. I mean, the world is so magnificent. Jane Kenyon has this beautiful poem where she says, “The juncture of twig and branch, / scarred with lichen, is a gate / we might enter, singing.” I feel like we’re surrounded by gates and portals that are portals into—I don’t know—into more life. Maybe that’s what this group of nuts on the table is.

Hines: With that idea of gates and your poem “The Gate” in your second collection—it was interesting to read through your collections and see how you shift subjects in a way that you’re able to talk about something new. Others might stick to a singular subject throughout their works, unable to write about something new. I am curious about what you feel allows you to switch subjects that way.

Howe: Well, it takes a long time for me to write a book. You may have noticed—about nine or ten years—so at the end of that time something is done. There are people who are fluent, much more fluent than I, poets I greatly admire who write more books, so their work may appear more connected, but because I seem to produce so little, when I’m done with something, I am done. And then it feels like a whole new thing has to begin. It feels important that there be a new direction afterward. Someone who I greatly admire is Louise Glück, whose every book is very different from the last. It’s still Louise Glück, no question, but it’s the way she goes into subject matter. And there are poets who I completely adore like [Emily] Dickinson, whose form never changed; she just didn’t need to.

Hines: With those poets in mind—do you find yourself in conversation with any other poets, current or past?

Howe: Yes, absolutely. I feel the poets who have shaped me. Before I was a writer, before I knew I was allowed to write poetry, Robert Frost had a huge imprint on my psyche. I love Robert Frost. I love his dread, his love of the physical world, and his sense of people walking around and talking—back when people walked around and talked. It was a great influence on me. And the narrative poem—when someone tells a story through action and not through rhetoric or summation, you know where things happen through time and with consequence, and then the poem ends. Frost was amazing with what he could do. Dickinson and [Walt] Whitman—absolutely Whitman—and John Donne. All of the metaphysical poets. Herbert and Hopkins, how they let themselves write poems that were prayers, gorgeous prayers of someone deeply in doubt—dialectical prayers, if you will. And then my contemporaries—I mean, Mark Doty. I was just texting with Mark; we’re great friends, and I’m always writing in response to his poems. Nick Flynn, another dear friend. Tony Hoagland, another dear friend. Tony pulled “What the Living Do” out of me. Tony Hoagland is responsible for that book. He pulled it out of me. Week after week he called me up and said, “Just send me whatever you’ve got on your desk.” Another week would go by, “Just send me whatever, time for you to get this book together.” Probably two or three months would go by that way and then he’d send them back, “yes, yes, no, no, yes, no, yes, no, yes, more.” A huge influence in terms of his bravery in trying to enter into subject matter that is uncomfortable. Jane Kenyon, another huge influence, because Jane really allowed the world to be what [T. S.] Eliot called “the objective correlative.” It wasn’t metaphoric, it just was.

Hines: With all of those influences there’s that sense of tradition and connection—going back to Whitman and everything being present at once—and especially with Tony Hoagland’s influence on your own work.

Howe: Well, it’s just being in conversation with people. Really in conversation. I mean, Stanley— when I met Stanley he was seventy-five. I knew him until he was one hundred and one. I mean, it was a friendship of twenty-six years. It was a huge friendship in my life. Stanley had this uncanny ability and anyone who ever brought a poem to him knew it. You would show him your poem, and you’d sit there for ten minutes while he read, reread, and reread your poem quietly to himself, and then he’d put it in front of you and just point to the place that nobody else would notice. But you knew deep in yourself that there was a little bit of a lie there. He’d do that and I’d go, “Damn.” Integrity. Integrity. Never get lazy. Integrity. Accuracy. Integrity. Don’t ever do anything that doesn’t have integrity. That was Stanley’s influence. Integrity. Authenticity as close as you can get it, as close as you can get it and never fudge it. Never blur it. Don’t try and make it pretty. Integrity: that’s the word.