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Interview with Fanny Howe

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.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Has anyone approached you about writing your biography?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— No. I feel my five novels in Radical Love are close enough.

 

Q

The White Review

— Who, besides you, knows your biography best?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— Probably my younger sister, Helen, and my children.

 

Q

The White Review

— What sense of privacy do you desire for yourself?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— Eighty per cent.

 

Q

The White Review

— Could you qualify that quantity?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— I only like to spend about two hours a day with people.

 

Q

The White Review

— How was that with having three children?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— Children are easy compared with grown-ups.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your book Night Philosophy includes several texts that weren’t written by you but could have been, for example the United Nations’ 1959 ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Child’, which you re-title ‘The Rights of the Child (UN) Known Only to Adults’. On first read, I thought you’d authored that document. With lines like ‘The child shall have the right to adequate nutrition, housing, recreation and medical services’, it reads like fiction, since we aren’t abiding by it at all, or not in the United States at least.

 

A

Fanny Howe

— Not at all. I know. The whole of that book was sort of like an embryonic unfolding. I had no real plan for it. In a sense I just wanted to see more clearly. I hoped to discover one idea that ran through all of my work, and if it showed I was finished. It was sort of a recapitulation with the purpose of seeing what was there, what I had apparently cared about twenty or thirty years ago. Did I still care? Was I the same person? Do thoughts make the person? I have never used the technique of cross-referencing or sampling, but I see, in the juxtaposition of two or three texts, a disruption in the tone and textures of each one. But they do not carry irony, just a strangeness, an echo. Among those were the little quote from G.K. Chesterton and the long quote from Michel de Certeau which appear in the book, and which elucidated a central idea.

 

Q

The White Review

— What’s that idea?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— It involves a kind of person who is at the mercy of the developing world, who can’t quite figure out how to manage. This world now is made for might and ownership. I think you recognise in childhood the strategies that are necessary for being alone or adapting to surroundings, whatever they are. One example being how you go through school, from elementary, to middle, to high, to college, to a job, and you have to be somehow able to figure all that out, the timing and what you have to do to get to the next step. All this takes an understanding of the world based on ancient customs of domination and territory. There are people wandering around who don’t get it, and that includes many who are very intelligent. I think women have figured out strategies to disarm men, but it has not allowed them time to think of what it has cost.

 

Q

The White Review

— With the figure you’re describing, is theirs a nonviolent position?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— It tends towards nonviolence: they would rather run away than get killed. (Laughs.) There aren’t only two ways, killing or being killed; you can also collaborate, run away, signal and hide. There are people who can compete and other people who get frightened or confused. There was an idea of poets into the 1950s that they would lie in bed drinking, shooting up and writing poems. And why not? There’s a narrow trail between wonder and competence.

 

Q

The White Review

— I see this figure in many of your texts. It could be the voice of this poem from O’Clock (Reality Street Editions, 1995): ‘Scared stiff and fairy-struck / Under the oak tree / Under the moon – pink hawthorne / By a stony well – very sacred, / Very stuff.’ It could be the bewildered mother in Saving History (Sun & Moon Classics, 1998). The heroine of Bronte Wilde (Reality Street Editions, 2020, originally published with Avon Books, 1976). I wondered if Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon, as you write about them in The Needle’s Eye (Graywolf Press, 2016), could be it? And Nod (Sun & Moon Books, 1998), of course, begins: ‘Between a children’s progress from a heavenly world to a world that is a likeness of heaven and then to a world which is delivered and upheld by a dream of heaven, there is only the world.’ Are my examples just?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— Yes. My short poems collected in O’Clock were written in Ireland. They condense many of the thoughts I had already had and was going to have more of. It helped to be away from America to make them float off-kilter, like translations almost. I don’t think I have written a book without a child in it. I think this follows my feeling about human development from conception on, the stages that are composed of disappearance, replacement, as if there were a figure being made, a potential in process.

 

Q

The White Review

Bewilderment is a word and concept that repeats in your work. This is from a talk you gave in 1998 {later published in The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life}: ‘Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability. It cracks open the dialectic and sees myriads all at once. The old debate over beauty – between absolute and relative – is ruined by this experience of being completely lost by choice! {…} Bewilderment circumambulates, believing that at the centre of errant or circular movement, is the axis of reality.’ Is bewilderment the experience of the recurring figure in your work?

 

A

Fanny Howe

Bewilderment is the result of a ton of reading in various texts and traditions, and I think I was feeling defiant because of the crushing sense of failure I carry with me. I decided to stand up for the weakness of it all.

 

Q

The White Review

— In that same talk you propose ‘Bewilderment as a poetics and an ethics’. Regarding ethics, bewilderment’s vastness of perspective, decentring the ego, seems conducive both to writing poetry and to caretaking, reducing harm. I wonder if there’s another way to think about your central figure, as vulnerable, yes, but far from ignorant (‘lost by choice!’). If dumbfounded, what they don’t get is why customs of domination and territory are demanded of them in order to ‘achieve’.

 

A

Fanny Howe

— There’s always some concealed social type you are meant to be. Psychoanalysis, religion, manners, business… each and all have a model of achievement. If you can keep your objectivity, it is interesting to see how these things work either from the bottom or the middle, the amount of lying and self-deception that’s involved. Someone did a study of poets, and most of them who are doing well now went to good universities and grew up with money – inherited money. But no one would dare have a conversation about that. White, white. Whiteness now has the pallor of cowardice. That whiteness quotient was hard to miss. Good fortune is the subject of fiction over centuries, and its connection to a culture – look at Dickens. By culture I mean production, the gathering of people around a central value, to produce it more efficiently and safely. Privilege is the guarantee of blindness to your own conformism.

 

Q

The White Review

— I saw you’ve been attending Black Lives Matter protests this summer. How has that experience been for you, and how has it connected to your past experiences with the Civil Rights Movement? You worked for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), for instance, and your father was a civil rights lawyer.

 

A

Fanny Howe

— The great thing is to live long enough to see the return of values and people in history who seemed buried and gone. This is such a time, for me, with the Black Lives Matter movement, for a true reappraisal of slavery in this country and also worldwide. It is all I am thinking about now, because I didn’t understand enough of legal matters before, and I want to. The Constitution and capitalism arose together, for instance. The Federal wing of the Government is both intrusive and evasive. Structures we have lived with are not what they seem, or, in fact, are what they seem. But we have to have a complete re-education as a nation.

 

Q

The White Review

— Earlier on, you mentioned women disarming men in relation to vulnerable persons ‘at the mercy of the world’. Women have been emancipated somewhat from their subservient position. Now, they may be navigating a world that wasn’t set up, as you intimated earlier, either by or for them. What are some of the traits of ‘the world’ that are in conflict with women’s or feminine experience?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— The adults nearby expect you to turn into ‘a sweet person’. Your parents want to protect you from boys and men very early. That boys ‘only want one thing’ becomes a truism, as they develop with burning desires for instant gratification and goals to grab onto. This sounds very old-fashioned, especially when so much has been accomplished, but these characteristics are hard to erase. Women can be cruel to other women still, competition rules, and they can try to seduce men away from the women they live with. Old stuff. I don’t think of even the middle class as being a very protected area for women, or girls, or anyone else who is not a conventional man. It is like a field in which you can be tracked, traced, and targeted. Your generation is now on a very productive hunt for a new class, not middle, but edgy, where the forest meets the field. Whatever it takes, it is a necessary turn.

 

Q

The White Review

— What was compelling to you at fourteen about being a poet? Were there specific poets you had in mind?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— Fortunately, my mother was very Irish and very full of poetry, so it was in the house. There was also my love of the French language: I was reading Baudelaire and Verlaine when I was that age and I was just completely enamoured. I did very badly in school and didn’t get accepted to college.

 

Q

The White Review

— Why do you think you did badly in school?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— Rebellion, fear of people, and I think my brain is not good at that kind of teaching, where you’re asked to go home, remember, and then spit it out. I’ll do well at other ways of learning, but not the standard way of the West. I just kept over-interpreting a question and the teachers would get mad at that. If it was geology and they said, ‘What does this stone look like to you?’ I would start thinking, ‘Oh it must have dropped from this place and…’

 

Q

The White Review

— But you’ve taught since?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— I taught for forty-seven years. It was my penance. I went right to the university. I did some of the Poets in the Schools, which is something good and fun we did in the Seventies, but basically I began and ended teaching in colleges.

 

Q

The White Review

— Was teaching at the university how you subsisted?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— I first wrote pulp novels, and that helped me get through about four years. And then I had to teach, my most dreaded idea. By then, I was twenty-seven, and having three children meant I had to be on their schedule.

 

Q

The White Review

— How did you start writing pulp fiction?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— I was in California. I had no money. I was not good at anything. So I wrote a story and it was rejected. It was a typical first novel, humiliating.

 

Q

The White Review

— What’s a typical first novel?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— I mean, it was very blind. It was pretentious and blind at the same time. About a family like my own but I didn’t even know it was my family. An idiot’s novel. So then I sent it to an agent in New York who wrote back and said, ‘Give this up, write some pulp novels, I can tell you know how to tell a story.’ He sent me a mountain of these books that used to be called ‘Sweet Nurse’ books or something. They weren’t dirty but there was always a romance. I got the job to write the ‘Sweet Nurse’ books when I was West, but the Vietnam Nurse one {Avon, 1966, authored under the pseudonym Della Field} I wrote in New York. I had to do quite a bit of research. I would go around New York and meet the WAVES {Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service} and the WACS {Women’s Army Corps} and talk to them. I had it all down to the formula by then, they took usually six weeks to write. They paid 500 dollars for one. My rent on the Bowery was 200. Later, I wrote young adult books to pay for me and my kids to go away for two weeks in the summers. By then I was living in Boston and working there.

 

Q

The White Review

— Did you write erotic novels too?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— No. Never.

 

Q

The White Review

— What about Forty Whacks? I’d shelved that 1969 collection in my mind under ‘erotica’.

 

A

Fanny Howe

Forty Whacks was my first collection – it was one long story and five short stories that were an apprenticeship for me. That came out of Houghton Mifflin. It had the suffering sexuality of that age. But it wasn’t porn. I really worked on the prose. I got deep into making sentences and sound for the first time. Otherwise, before, I had just spun a good story. The writing of pulp fiction gave me a great respect for storytelling. It’s something that I taught myself. I realised there is a kind of ideal: the useless hopeless child goes out in the world, is terrified of leaving, but goes out anyway, and bad things and good things happen. Sort of the idea is you can’t go home until you’ve been completely eviscerated by the outside world.

 

Q

The White Review

— You describe this archetypal story format in Night Philosophy. It reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ {from The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949}, based on studies of the stories of Buddha, Jesus and James Joyce, and Carl Jung’s archetypes. This idea that the same story structure or ‘monomyth’ repeats across time: a journey from the known to the unknown and back.

 

A

Fanny Howe

— It’s just like that. In my nurse books, I had to invent a format for women.

 

Q

The White Review

— Right, because the popular rehearsals of this story, from Buddha to Star Wars, are male-centric. Do you find that the Hero’s Journey is true to life?

 

A

Fanny Howe

— Human development in retrospect, and as I watch my young friends and my kids grow up, does weirdly resemble the classic Hero’s Journey – for a while and for people of all ages, genders, and traditions. My nurses had to be good at their jobs and want a man but not sleep with one. They were heroic in that they didn’t fall apart. I learned a lot from writing those books, about plot and consequence. We always think we’re inventing a new narrative. Now, there are new ways of thinking about the narrative, thanks to female and non-American writers.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you think people go through many of these journeys in a lifetime?
A

Fanny Howe

— I do sort of see the spiral that we have maybe four or five such wanderings in our life and that’s what makes it confusing. Maybe we should call them Bardos.
 

 

This is an extract from the full interview, which can be read in The White Review No. 29. Buy the issue here: https://thewhitereview.bigcartel.com/product/the-white-review-no-29


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a Canadian-American author and artist. Her debut novel Exquisite Mariposa won the 2020 LAMBDA Literary Prize for Bisexual Fiction.

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