In 2010, Ali Liebegott took a road trip by train. Destination: the Emily Dickinson house. Along the way, she interviewed poets—Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, CAConrad, and many more. We’ll be reposting the series to celebrate the release of Liebegott’s fourth book, The Summer of Dead Birds.
I first met Marie Howe when she was my instructor at Sarah Lawrence College. The time that I was a student intersected with her reading frequently from her collection What the Living Do, poems that chronicle her brother’s death from AIDS. I remember being at her readings and crying. I interviewed Marie Howe in her West Village Apartment in October of 2010. She is the author of The Good Thief, What the Living Do, and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. In 2012 she was named the Poet Laureate of New York State. – Ali Liebegott
I. WAITRESSING, WAITRESSING. WAITRESSING, WAITRESSING.
THE BELIEVER: You have a chance to make out with Rilke or Emily Dickinson.
MARIE HOWE: Emily. No question.
MH: Rilke made out with too many girls.
BLVR: So the journey starts in San Francisco and ends at Emily Dickinson’s house.
MH: I’ve never been there. I’ve seen it from the outside. It’s crazy. I was going to bring my class last year and it was closed to renovate. I just can’t seem to get inside the house. Although I’m told that Sue’s house next door is actually better to go into because it has not been changed.
BLVR: Do you remember the first time you ever read an Emily Dickinson poem?
MH: You know what’s so funny? I was just thinking about this because someone just asked me what was the first poem you wrote? And I remember writing a poem when I was very young, I think I was seven, and it seems absolutely modeled on Emily Dickinson. It was about my soul: “I have a little house to clean, it’s not so very small.” Isn’t that Dickinsonian?
BLVR: Wow. Yeah.
MH: [Continues reciting poem.] “But you don’t need a mop or broom you just need grace that’s all.” I swear it’s totally influenced by Emily. The nouns were capitalized. The turn of mind was pure Emily Dickinson to me. I know I either had been read to or seen some of her poems when I was very young and she struck me as being completely accurate about everything. She was inside experience.
BLVR: You went to graduate school for writing?
MH: I did.
BLVR: So when did you know, “I’m a writer in the world and now I’m going to shape my whole life to do this.”
MH: I never knew that and I still don’t. Because writing is very difficult for me and it happens very slowly. I throw out 98% of what I write. When I was twenty-five I worked for a little newspaper back home. I thought that was being a writer. I wrote very impressionistic feature articles that people were always cutting. This was way back in the day. We used old typewriters that didn’t even have corrector tape in them. K-lunk. K-lunk. I pretended I knew how to type. I didn’t. It was a great thing but I thought I can’t keep doing this. I don’t want to keep writing things that nobody reads and gets thrown away the next day. So I thought I’ll never be a writer, what should I do? For a couple hard years. Waitressing, waitressing. Waitressing, waitressing. And then I suddenly realized I love to talk. I love to listen. I love to read books. I love to be in charge. I hate to be in an office nine to five and it was like a boing! lightbulb experience. “Oh!” I’ll be a teacher. And I got certified and I begun to teach seventh grade at a Catholic School in Rochester, New York. And then I moved to Cambridge with my boyfriend and I began to teach writing north of Boston but all I wanted to do was have them read poems and I would sit in the tiny, tiny book room with all the old anthologies in there, dusty. I remember the seat I was in. I remember what I could see around me. And I read this poem and like Emily says, “the top of my head came off” and my whole body just chilled and I thought, “this is what I want.”
BLVR: What was the poem?
MH: I hardly remember the title of it. It ends with the child, the child that will lead us. My father was dying. I went home to take care of him with other people in my family. I saw him die. And when he died I looked at my father’s face and I looked around the room and thought wow—nobody’s really watching us live. No one really cares what we do. Life is finite. I mean the way I really got through my childhood was through profound dissociations so I felt like everything was a movie and that had been slowly going away over the years. And that moment when my father died and I looked around and I realized we’re lucky if we have two or three people around for real. And I determined in that moment I would only do what I wanted to do and I didn’t even know what that was, really.
So I was reading the once and future king. Living in Groton, Massachusetts. I’d left the guy I was living with. I was living in this freezing cold room with a stove that didn’t heat or anything reading the Once and Future King and Merlin told Arthur, When you’re sad the best thing you can do is learn something. So I went to my friend Dave Cawley and said I need to learn something where can I go? What can I do? And he said, “Oh—you should apply for this thing at Dartmouth a friend of mine got last year. It’s this fellowship for teachers. It’s called the humanities institute and you go up there and study all summer. And I did. And I got it and I went.
I was going to take philosophy classes. But there was this poetry workshop and I thought I would just sit in on the first day. I wasn’t going to stay because I didn’t know how to write poems and I couldn’t write stories. And we all went around the room and everyone said why they were there and I said, “I’m not staying I’m just sitting in.” And then when it came to the teacher she said, “Well my name is Karen Pelz and I’m writing my spiritual autobiography.” I just blurted out, “Who are you to do such a thing?” Because I’d grown up with lives of the saints, right, reading in the bathtub. And she said, I’m a lyric poet. And I said, I wanna do that. And she said, then stay. And I did.
BLVR: It’s so crazy because there’s just these moments.
MH: Fumbling along the wall in the dark for some kind of door. Fumbling, fumbling, fumbling and then poof one opens and someone says, “Come on in.” And I’m like, “What?” I said to Karen at the end of the summer, I’m about to turn thirty. You have to tell me the truth. Do I have any talent at all? And should I continue to do this and she said, “Oh yeah. You should go get an MFA.” I said, “What’s an MFA?” She said, “It’s this graduate program where you read poetry and you study poetry and instead of a thesis you write a book.” I was like, are you kidding me? I couldn’t even believe such a thing existed.I went back to Concord, Mass. where I was now living and every day I would walk to the old North Bridge and visit Thoreau’s Grave and Emerson’s grave. I was so lonely, lonely, lonely. And I learned how to sit still. And how to sit in a chair and bang on a typewriter. You know. You have to learn how to sit still. I didn’t know how to do that. It took me a long time. I applied to graduate schools and I went. It was a miracle.
II. THE SENSE OF NECESSITY
BLVR: So when I interviewed Rae Armantrout one of the things that I talked to her about was when she got diagnosed with this rare cancer and then didn’t end up dying. And how it was a miracle. And I talked to her a little bit about God. I sort of have this old-fashioned attitude toward poetry—like when I read the Duino Elegies I was like—okay yes, this is what poems should be. I have this old-fashioned idea that poems should be digging for truth and existential connection and stuff like that so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit—because your new book has a lot of religious mentionings but that doesn’t always translate into spiritual connection and stuff like that. So I just wanted to know as a writer if you want to talk about how those two things fit together.
MH: Well it goes back to the story of Karen Pelz saying, “I’m writing my spiritual autobiography.” To me, the poets I love are the metaphysical poets. They’re trying to understand what we can’t see—what we can’t sense with the five senses. And I just read someone—was it Blake?—who said the mind was the sixth sense. And that you have to cultivate a beautiful mind because it’s a lens through which the world enters us. But I loved Donne. I loved him sexy and I loved him sacred. He’s the funniest guy on earth. I love George Herbert. I loved Auden. I loved Eliot. I loved Emily Dickinson. I love all these people who are trying to address the ineffable and the workings of their own consciousness. What I’m really interested in and the nature of reality and what we’ll call—there’s no word for it—the “isness” inside everything. That “isness” manifests sometimes in the clinking of cutlery in the kitchen. The sound of a dishwasher stopping. Or it manifests in whatever that machine is down the street, whirring. But it’s also in silence and stories and songs and finally the unsayable—it’s back to your Rilke—what we can only, almost, almost apprehend. And what we have no way of saying. That is very interesting to me. That what we can almost “apprehend” sometimes. Seems to be the realism thing.
BLVR: If you’re sitting down to write and you put five books down there to gather strength, who is that?
MH: It used to be Rilke. I used to read his prose like his letters on Cezanne. It was like a kind of tuning fork. I sort of came into alignment with that. For years it was different women. Jean Valentine and Jane Cooper and Brenda Hillman and Jorie Graham and Grace Paley. And I always go back to those people. I always go back to Dickinson and Whitman and Frost. I just read a poem by Brenda Shaughnessy last week that was so magnificent.
BLVR: I went to high school with her.
MH: You did? Did you know each other? Did you like each other?
BLVR: We were in a creative writing class together. Isn’t that crazy?
MH: It’s really weird that poets come out of any high school in America. Or this country. We’re like oil drops floating around the water. But then someone like Brenda comes along who brings her whole self—her whole passionate, “I’m going to die one day soul”. I find some of the game theory that’s going on in poetry right now very empty.
BLVR: Are you talking about certain kinds of language poetry?
MH: I guess that’s what a lot of it’s called but I have wonderful students who come in and they give me this piece of paper with all these words on it and I don’t know how to navigate through it and I say, “What are you doing here?” And they say, “Well, I am making all the words come from d’s to f”. I find that sometimes there’s so much attention paid to the racetrack, if you will, that what’s running through it is lifeless. And of course, I love poetry that’s written from necessity. That’s written because it had to be said. I’m old school in that way.
BLVR: So am I.
MH: And I don’t care who it is. I don’t care if it’s so called “experimental”. That crosses all boundaries. It’s like with anything, there’s a kind of form that unless it’s infused with necessity, it’s just an empty form. I see a lot of that from well-meaning people who are afraid of showing too much feeling. Or, it’s not even feeling we’re talking about it’s again, the sense of necessity. People are writing a lot. They are very fluent. What a strange country, “We’re writing in a culture that doesn’t pay any attention to poetry. We’re writing for who? I think we’re so insular as a culture too. Very few poets I know are writing for an international community. There isn’t a sense that people are writing books that are going to be read in Baghdad or to be read in Paris even or to be read in Abu Dhabi. And I wonder if we thought people were going to read us in Baghdad how we would write so there’s that kind of strange provincialness about American writers or parochial and I include myself. I’m trying to expand but it goes against the American grain in some way. There’s a kind of “we’re writing to each other.” And then to who? And for what reason?
III. SOMEONE WHO THINKS YOU’RE REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY GOOD.
BLVR: Do you have a proudest moment as a writer? It could be anything.
MH: The first thing that comes to mind is when I wrote the poems that had my brother John in them talking. And after he died, after living with AIDS—and when I first read those poems for the first time out loud it was at Harvard College and it was a really remarkable poetry community there in the 80’s and we were all living in these rent stabilized apartment buildings and we were all writing our books and teaching composition for nothing. And I’d written these poems and I’d worked so hard on them so that John would be there without my thumb in the way.
And I read at Adams House and it was packed and I remember standing up and just saying to myself, “Let John come through me.” And I read these first poems and they were very different than the poems I had read before and written before and I remember looking there and Frank Bidart came in just during the introduction and he was leaning near the door and I thought, Frank Bidart is here, I can do this. Because they seem really raw and personal to me. And there was Frank who writes these amazing poems—and there was Seamus whose work has been such an influence on me and Derek Walcott and all my friends—and I read those poems and people really responded to them. And I felt what they were responding to were John, my brother, and somehow the poems had remembered him. Remembered him. And he was there. And that meant the world to me. I mean, it was so good to see him. And he had kind of helped me to write those poems. His spirit had helped me a lot because he’d always help me before he died. He was my reader. It was just a great moment in my life where somehow getting out of the way and letting this other reality come through and get to stand back and see it and then get so see people see it apart from me was a great, great, great, great joy. And the support of that community. The combination of those things. Because that community was there I could write those poems. Cause they could kind of catch them. And that was a very unusual time. Those ten years when poets of all different statures comingled very easily together. Hung out. Had dinner together at each other’s apartments. Supportive.
BLVR: Who is your community now? Do you want to talk a little bit about your writing process because I remember being at Sarah Lawrence and hearing you read from your book about your brother—and also when you talk about their being big emotional thrust behind. Your poems certainly have that. Especially the poems about your brother. You hinted that you throw out a lot.
MH: My early training with John, I would write something and I always call him up and read it and if I didn’t make John cry then it wasn’t a poem. And he was not easy. Or he’d go, “that’s nice.” And I’d say, “what do you mean that’s nice? What about the birds?” And he’d say, “The birds are nice.” And I’d be like, “Shit.” And he’d go, “Keep going, Mare.” A bunch of lines together. That just wasn’t it for him. He wanted something to happen. Something transformative. And Stanley Kunitz was the same way. So when Johnny died I was so bereft because my best friend was dead but also my reader because he would never lie to me. Then the man I was with for eight years, James, was a great reader. He was a working guy. Not intellectual in any way, though, very smart. An Arborist and fisherman guy-guy. I’d hand him a whole bunch of poems and he’d start to read one and just throw it over his shoulder and say, “No.” (laughs). Then he’d read another one and go, “No.” Then read another one and go, “Keep this one.” I loved that. But really I only kept three out of ten. Maybe two out of ten. The rest of them would be thrown out. Because I couldn’t move James, I didn’t want them to be in the world. I want them to be for people who come to the grocery store. So then I got divorced and I couldn’t ask James to read them anymore. My friend Jason read them. He read, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and then Jason died. So I’m in quite a state right now.
BLVR: I’m sorry.
MH: It’s bad. Michael Cunningham has actually been reading them. He’s a fiction writer. I’ve been writing prose and he’s been helping me with that. He said, “You have to keep finding new readers but to find someone who thinks you’re really, really, really, really, good, and who will be always honest with every thing in it takes a lot of commitment from somebody. Who wants to be bothered putting in all that investment. Because you have to tell people. No the ending doesn’t work or no—you need someone who can really do that and that’s hard to find. Do you have that in your life?
BLVR: I feel like I’m now having to revamp everything with those relationships. For awhile I had a salon at my house. I invited all these different people. Like ten people. The whole purpose was to read things in progress because time moves so fast. I can’t believe how fast a year goes by. So it was going to be once every three months. A) to have a deadline and B) to have something new. And then to have people hear it.
MH: Tony Hoagland. I didn’t mention him. He forced me to finish What the Living Do. Single-handedly that book belongs to Tony Hoagland. Tony would call me once a week and say, just go to your desk and get out a bunch of papers and put them in an envelope. And then the next week. Marie, just get all those papers and send me a bunch. It was like eight months before I finally did that and then he wrote me back and said, “Keep this, this, this, this. and send me more.” And I just began to do that. And he was sending me stuff for his book, Donkey Gospel. And he was like, “time to finish this book now. Come on, finish this book now.” It was such a gift.
BLVR: You were my teacher, Marie Howe. The best thing you ever taught me was to get the right tattoo of Emily Dickinson. Do you remember that? We were looking at…
MH: The awful pictures? The dolled up pictures?
BLVR: The illustrated one where they gave her the kind of Dorothy Hammil haircut and the clown collar.
MH: And the little rosy face.
BLVR: You said, “Don’t get that, Ali!”
BLVR: I was like, “Thank God! I went to graduate school for something.” Do you have any advice for writers today?
MH: Write something people want to read who live in Baghdad. Write something that people would want to listen to if it were on CNN. That’s what I wish Americans would start doing. I wish this for myself. I wish we’d start writing for the Globe, the World. Not to mention the aliens who are among us. Do what Emerson says: always do what you’re afraid to do.