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Poetic Justice: Marie Howe Named New York Laureate

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Marie Howe is nobody's fool. She isn't a woman with grand illusions about things like awards, career, reputation, or the mawkish vicissitudes of the book world. Still, she's grateful to have been chosen this month to be New York's new poet laureate and determined -- passionately -- not to waste this opportunity to vitalize awareness of poetry in the age of Twitter and Hello Kitty.

Howe has long been a poet's poet, a cult favorite, the Rita Hayworth of the poetry world. Born in Rochester in 1950, Marie was one of 11 Catholic children, the kind of girl who read The Lives of the Saints in the bathtub and dreamt of a visionary life. A protégé of Stanley Kunitz (whom she remembers lovingly here), Howe is equally loved as writer, teacher, and mentor in the writing program at Sarah Lawrence. Her first book, The Good Thief, was selected by Margaret Atwood as the winner of the 1987 Open Competition of the National Poetry Series. In 1998, she published her best-known book of poems, What the Living Do, centered on her brother John's death from AIDS, and in 2008, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. She has received honors from National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships among others.

When I caught up with Howe to talk about her new job, one sunny afternoon in Greenwich Village, she was sending her 12-year-old year daughter, Inan, off to a friend's house, and preparing to teach her first class of the fall term.

MM: What was your reaction to the phone call?

MH: I was just stunned! Then, after I calmed down a bit, I realized that this was a huge opportunity to serve what I love so much. The foremost thought in my mind is: How can we bring poetry more into the public world than it already is? Bookstores and libraries are closing and people have fewer places to just go and browse. When it comes to poetry, lots of people don't even know where to start. I think of my brothers and sisters. Smart, interesting, wonderful, committed people and many of them don't know how to read poetry. We live in a country in which the academics have inadvertently taken over and many people don't feel as if they know how to navigate the world of poetry. Walking around New York on any given day, we bump into, maybe, a dozen Gap ads, 20 ads for various TV shows on channels I don't even know about. All that information is constantly entering our psyches, souls, and bodies, and I've been thinking: What would it be like if people bumped into poetry like that? When they didn't even mean to look for it and there it was! Poetry doesn't always have to be printed. It can be said.

MM: What do you mean by saying that academia has taken over the poetry world?

MH: I don't mean to say that academia is this evil force (laughs), but many of us have had experiences in school that suggest to us that we need an interpreter to read poetry. People are always saying to me, 'Ok, here is a poem by Robert Frost. Where is the symbol? What is the theme?' Well, I really don't know a poet who writes like that! It was a function of modernism to make us believe that the poem was a riddle that one had to solve -- that the poet was keeping something from us -- and that if we could just figure out the symbol and the theme, we would get the poem. So often I will be sitting on an airplane and someone asks me, 'Well, what do you do?' I tell them I'm a writer. 'What do you write?' And I'm very reluctant to say poetry, because often what follows next is 'Oh, I don't get poetry.'

But remember after 9/11, when those big sheets of cloth went up in Washington Square and Union Square, and people put up the missing posters, and poems, and all sorts of personal messages. Remember those big sheets?

MM: Sure.

MH: I remember being so moved by those weeks when those sheets were up and everyone -- all different kinds of people -- stood side-by-side, reading what had been written there. In the morning, in the afternoon, in the night, people stood there reading. What they were looking for, and what they found there, was poetry. We're so hungry for what poetry offers us. It is, I think, the deepest song of human consciousness and we go to poetry at the crucial moments of our life. When someone dies. When we fall in love. When we get married. When we have a child. When we lose a child. When we experience the great passages of our life, we often turn to poetry. And I just remember those days and thinking, 'If only these sheets could be up all the time.'

MM: Instead, we have Twitter and Facebook. How is social media affecting the poetry world, do you think?

MH: In really wonderful ways. People post poems on Facebook, they share poets they love, they share videos on YouTube. Writing a tweet with 140 characters is not unlike the rules for a haiku poem. I asked students in a class to text poems to each other once a week that were only written as texts. And they were gorgeous! I think that a lot of the new media can absolutely be a real pipeline, a crucial heart line, for sharing poetry with one another.

MM: Most of the writers I know are grumpy about the invasion of social media, and the sense of our work being devalued by so many open channels.

MH: The great thing about poetry is that it is simply not 'commodifiable.' Materially speaking, it's worthless in this culture. There's very, very little money to be made from writing poetry. In that way, it's subversive since anyone can steal it. Anyone can take it. Anyone can learn it by heart. Anyone can whisper it, can carry it into a jail, through borders, across all sorts of state lines. Poetry is that which can be carried anywhere. It's invisible. And that makes it very, very precious in a culture where everything has a price. It still has a purity. It has not been co-opted. And as I say, a poet wants you to learn his or her poem by heart. They want you to copy it. They want you to steal their work. There's no greater pleasure than knowing that somebody has taped your poem to the refrigerator door or sent it to five friends. That's the greatest joy in poetry, having it passed around and read and heard.

MM: Do you consider the writing of poetry a sacred practice?

MH: Yes, in that poetry involves a deep receptivity to something beyond myself. Beyond my ego. It requires one to be in that state of receptivity, which is often difficult. It may take days or weeks or months to enter that state but it's one of the greatest joys of my life. Sometimes, in that state of receptivity, something occurs (is said or spoken through a writer) that the writer never could have imagined beforehand. The act of writing itself brings one into a relationship with imagination, memory, music, silence, diction, syntax, language, and history, all at the same time. To write not knowing where you're going is an act of faith that something will come of it that is more than one could have hoped or imagined.

MM: How do your poems come to you?

MH: It's like feeling along a wall -- along the panel -- till the door opens. But this 'feeling along the panel' can take twenty years! In my work, it's really about disappearing... some voice that wants to speak through me. I have to be completely there, and ready, but it doesn't feel like I'm expressing myself really. When a poem occurs, writing becomes an experience right then and there. I'm not writing about an experience, I'm having an experience.

MM: Is Catholicism an important part of your work?

MH: I grew up steeped in a Judeo-Christian tradition where the stories of the Old and New Testament, or of the Torah, affected me very deeply. Those stories and those characters serve as archetypes or mythological characters in my life. Some people grow up with the Greek gods and goddesses and stories. I grew up with Noah and Moses and Isaac and Abraham and Mary and Martha. And these characters are very alive to me. They carry so much human complexity and mystery with them that I would be happy to spend the rest of my life thinking about them. In their company.

MM: You once told me a wonderful story about Stanley Kunitz helping you after your brother John had died of AIDS.

MH: Well, Stanley was a great friend. We were walking down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. This was in the fall, my brother had died that summer. Stanley asked me how I was doing, and I said, 'I feel as if something has me in its mouth and it's chewing me. ' And he said, 'It is. And you must wait to see who you'll be when it's done with you.' It was the most comforting thing anyone said to me. Because what he was implying was that I was undergoing a critical, essential transformation. Stanley always looked at change as transformation -- all his poems have that quality in them. It was a great, great comfort to me when he said that. So many dear friends would say, 'Oh, I wish I could take it away from you' or 'Oh, I wish I could make it better.' And I didn't want anything to be made better. You know about this, Mark, you've written books about it. One doesn't want anything to be taken away. But you don't know how to necessarily negotiate it, either.

MM: That's true. Tell me, what do you say to young poets who want to give everything to their work, but don't know how to make a life out of poetry?

MH: I say: You lucky, lucky person! You get to be in relationship with this. Every artist knows what it means to be in relationship with the ineffable, and that that relationship is its own reward. The poems are their own reward. I tell them that in spite of appearances, our culture does need poetry. Remember those sheets in Washington Square Park? That's a sign of what poetry can do. We only need to remember.