Fanny Howe’s bibliography is as bewildering as her itinerant biography. Born in 1940 in Buffalo, New York, the poet and author grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before moving an estimated thirty times in six decades – spiralling around New York, Massachusetts and California states, with volleys to Ireland, where her talented mother, Mary Manning, was born and raised – only to settle back in Cambridge in her seventies. Howe’s books, all fifty (at least) of them, track these moves: as she suggests in this interview, place informs her writing ‘completely, like being dropped in water. It is the environment.’ With a majority of her books – published by independent and experimental presses – out of print, to be a reader of Fanny Howe is to be a seeker.
‘[T]he greatest writer there is,’ wrote Eileen Myles of Howe, who has, however, eschewed fame. Her humility is active, her obscurity intentional. She rarely grants interviews and undermines the authority others might claim given her talents and family. A ‘long-tailed’ Bostonian, ‘[s]he can trace her lineage back to the Mayflower,’ wrote her daughter, acclaimed author Danzy Senna (whose husband, Percival Everett, was interviewed in The White Review No. 28), of Fanny, whose father was a Harvard professor and a civil rights lawyer and mother a playwright and film pioneer. Samuel Beckett was a family friend of her mother. Susan Howe, Fanny’s older sister, is as renowned for her poetry as are her children for their art: R. H. Quaytman, painting, and Mark von Schlegell, science fiction.
Though Fanny Howe inherited wealths of history, politics, art and culture, such privileges and responsibilities came with neither money nor property. ‘There were many women like me,’ she reflects in The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life (University of California Press, 2003), ‘born into white privilege but with no financial security, given a good education but no training for survival.’ In essays, Howe stories the difficulties of raising three children alone – divorced from their father, the Black American writer Carl Senna – in a nation defined by the violent exploitation of minorities. Through teaching, community work and writing, Howe has worked with thorough, subtle care on behalf of the vulnerable in America. Ariana Reines called Howe’s latest book – Night Philosophy (Divided Publishing, 2020) – ‘a manual for surviving evil’.
Howe’s writing is formally precise, poetry even when it’s prose. Philosophical, mythic, mystic and religious. The author is a converted, practising Catholic of the Liberation Theology kind that is Marxist – wherein good Catholics are radical activists and obscurity is a means to truth, beauty, and justice, like doubt to God. This interview – at times aphoristic, conversational, informational – was conducted over the course of six months, first via email and in person, beginning in February 2020 in Greenwich Village, then continuing via Zoom and more emails during the Covid-19 lockdown. I had met Fanny Howe once before. In October 2018, I travelled to her apartment in Cambridge to film her reading from a favourite book. She selected A Tomb for Anatole by Stéphane Mallarmé (translated by Paul Auster), pieces composed after the death of the poet’s eight-year-old son. Dimly lit and painted far off-white with round wooden arches and religious art on the walls, her apartment looks like a church backroom. Framed family photographs line the kitchen, where tea is offered. Howe chose to read in her bedroom, beside a wide, horizontally inclined window like the glass casket of Snow White (her reference). In the footage, the book glows in her hands. She is tiny in the chair.