Two nibs

J A C K E T
I N T E R V I E W


Fanny Howe

in conversation with Leonard Schwartz
May 2004

This interview was transcribed by Nicholas Perrin from a radio interview on Cross-Cultural Poetics, KAOS, 89.3FM Olympia. It is 3,700 words or about six printed pages long.


The Wedding Dress:

Meditations On Word and Life


Leonard Schwartz: Welcome, Fanny Howe. There’s a bird chirping in the background…

Fanny Howe: I know, they’re very loud here.

Leonard Schwartz: You can hear it right across the phone. What kind of bird is it?

Fanny Howe: I think it’s a chickadee.

Leonard Schwartz: Well then, Fanny Howe and chickadee on the line from Massachusetts. Great to hear both of you. The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life, a collection of your essays, is a remarkable book. One of the things that struck me about it immediately is your introduction, which narrates the difficulties and dissonances of raising your children in Boston during a racially charged period. And then goes on from that introduction to a series of essays on themes like “The Contemporary Logos,” “Fairies,” “Bewilderment,” “White Lines,” “Purgatory” and other places; a philosophical and theological vocabulary that stands in stark contrast in some ways, to the introduction. Can you talk about the two aspects of your thinking that are going on in this book?

Fanny Howe: The book was written over several years and past several ways of thinking about things. But I was always aware that I am a person in the west living in acute privilege compared with the rest of the world, and that there is an excess of information that creates mental suffering. It is almost as if it is created in order to counterbalance the luxury. So behind the essays is this concern. When I was raising my children it was in the post-assassination period when everything was politicized, and race was my central preoccupation because of the children. But all such thought can only go so far as ordinary difficulties mount, and so it was through the adoption of a new vocabulary, one that was theological, philosophical, poetic — that I crawled my way to a state of equilibrium. In the old days, a brain was freed by education and information. Now this process has turned on itself. And one must select from all the words the ones that are openings. I was interested in people who had managed to do this.

Leonard Schwartz: The father of your children was African American and you are Irish American. You describe in that essay the problems of identity then, which now are still at work. Could you say a little more about that and how the fact of being a mother informs your writing?

Fanny Howe: Well, it’s very essential to me, the relationship I feel towards the future of young people, children in particular. And so without that relationship I really don’t know what I would be wanting when I was writing. The race issue is so hugely complex, that for me as a white woman who had three children by an African American man in America it has left a permanent mark. With my children I felt I became black; and my interior life is now fully identified with people on another side of history than the one I was raised in. And so there is no way of turning back after that. What you carry physically inside of you can’t be distinguished from what you carry psychically.

Leonard Schwartz: There’s a passage in the essay entitled “Fairies” in which you quote the British-Guinese writer Wilson Harris. “The frame that conventional realism uses endorses the absence of cosmic love. It consolidates the nation state and the vested interests of the nation state.” Could you comment on that passage in this context?

Fanny Howe: Well I think that the whole pressure that convention exerts on artists is very subtle and very powerful. It does hark continually back to the values that are familiar. It’s very hard to strike out into wider cosmic imaginings — towards something like the Bhagavad-Gita or Scripture — without losing your way home. To separate yourself from what you know is to leave tradition behind, and that is extremely difficult. In fairy tales you see the return home as a kind of law that runs counter to the law of free will.

Leonard Schwartz: I also hear suggested in that passage the notion that a conventional realism in art and in fiction in the end suppresses the imagination as opposed to liberates it, that is to say there’s a certain linear narrative notion that no matter how hard one tries to work it works against us. Is that an accurate reading?

Fanny Howe: I do think that’s an accurate reading. But I believe he meant something social and political rather than just the linear of narrative — perhaps he means that obedience to the structures of a nation feeds the machine of nationalism, even as one is wildly critical of it from within. Criticism and obedience are not mutually exclusive by a long shot.

Leonard Schwartz: There’s another passage in the first essay of the book entitled “Bewilderment”, which really amazed and overwhelmed me. “There’s a Muslim prayer.... Lord, increase my bewilderment.” This sense of bewilderment as a positive value within the life of the mind and within the work of making art — could you speak to it without lessening the bewilderment?

Fanny Howe: (laughs) The freedom of the individual to pursue mad and lonely paths — this is an action that’s often in contradiction to other more obvious laws. Thoreau and Emerson were certainly in that mode, and it amounts to a force, the force of bewilderment. But I was reading Arabic poetry at that time and found these absolutely gorgeous references to a bewilderment that was looked upon as a great virtue because you were in a permanent state of awe and horror.

Leonard Schwartz: The poet Coleman Barks was recently on Cross-Cultural Poetics speaking about the Sufi poets, Rumi of course whose work he’s translated but also Rumi’s father Bahauddin whose work is now being published for the first time. He paraphrased the Sufi position as being that there are three modes of spiritual practice hierarchically arranged, with prayer as the lowest rung in which one liturgically speaks to the unknown in a prayerful mode; the second rung being meditation where one tries to empty the mind and hence allow “it” in; and the third and highest mode of spiritual practice being conversation in which the free play of speech conjures up this something which we cannot name. Does that correspond in any way to your sense of arranging these things? Because of course the book, being titled The Wedding Dress, is concerned with theological issues, and you define yourself at different parts of the book as a Catholic, and you’re very interested in the experience of conversion. I just wondered how you might arrange prayer, meditation, and conversation?

Fanny Howe: Did you mean conversion? Because conversation is a good method of prayer. The words for these postures change over time. St. Theresa called recollection and contemplation two entirely different approaches to God; some say detachment, some say retreat. For me in my own time the methods shift continually between rant, rave and conversation. In the end I depend on the relationship with another person who is wise and kind to come to an understanding of the emptiness in which we live. The other voice coming out of the other person and being heard by oneself — well, it’s shocking in many ways that we take it for granted. What is created in relationship with another person finally is a third presence. In Catholicism that would be the Holy Spirit rather than, you know, the father and the son. But it is a third presence that’s created out of this relationship between two. It can of course be hellish too.

Leonard Schwartz: There’s a particular essay in The Wedding Dress entitled “White Lines” about a writer by the name of Karmel. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about her, and then read us something from that essay?

Fanny Howe: I’ve just spent four years translating poetry that she and her sister — her name is Ilona Karmel and her sister is Henia Karmel — wrote. They went into the camps in Poland, out of the Krakow Ghetto, when they were teenagers and wrote poems for the next four years in labor camps, and ended up in Buchenwald almost killed. But thank God they both survived. All the poems I translated were written in that camp experience by two very young people. Their references are largely Nineteenth Century poetry that they had learned in school. But then they erupt into Brechtian cries. For many years Ilona Karmel was my closest friend, she was a great novelist, and when she died four years ago I ended up with the manuscript of poems, which hadn’t been published. Before this I wrote an essay based on a long letter she sent me once. . . . basically about what I had learned from her. She was what I call a Teacher with a capitol “T”, and not just for me but for many people.

Leonard Schwartz: So that translation work you’ve done from Karmel will be coming out soon. Is it ready for publication?

Fanny Howe: Well, Princeton is supposed to be doing it in a series called Facing Pages.

Leonard Schwartz: Facing pages meaning Polish on one side and English on the other?

Fanny Howe: Exactly.

Leonard Schwartz: It’s fantastic when that’s possible. You describe her as a Teacher, probably not in a formal sense; you didn’t study with her at a university. Would you say a little about what you learned?

Fanny Howe: Well, many people did study with her at MIT, but they all seemed to understand as I did that there was something more than the usual academic relationship going on between her and them. There’s this story about babies carrying all knowledge from all times inside of them inside the uterus and as they leave all of it departs from them. But a few children slide out into the world with their knowledge intact. The angel who was supposed to ensure that this didn’t happen was distracted and forgot to touch their nose! Ilona was one of these people. She had a nearly supernatural memory, wisdom and attentiveness to people, the ones in front of her.

Leonard Schwartz: Judith Roche, a poet I know who has been on Cross-Cultural Poetics, has a line about an infant making the sounds of all the languages in his/ her infancy. Only later is it paired down to the sounds of one language. So some of those Chassidic myths may be carried forth after birth. And I think it’s probably true. Could you read to us from the essay?

Fanny Howe: Wow. Yes, I think so...I’ll read the section on listening; this essay is called “White Lines.”

Listening is existing in the future of all utterance.
     So the future is full of listening, wanting, and understanding.
     But what a speaker intends to say is rarely fulfilled in the sentence; and if it’s attention is over intended, it losses its capacity for arousing attention in the hearer.
     Part of the force of speech comes with its emotional risk. One hears units or tones more than particular words or facts and attends to these. It is possible that people want to hear poetry whether they like it or not. Their brains and ears want it.

“One is seized,” Aquinas said about the experience of being “found” by God.

“Being a phenomenon of language, the poem can be in its essence dialogical, a message sent out in a bottle — certainly in the not always hopeful belief that somewhere sometime it will be washed onto land, into heartland perhaps. This is how poems travel: orientated towards something; towards something that stands open, that can be occupied, perhaps towards a Thou that can be spoken to, a reality that can be addressed. A poem, I think, is about such realities.”

Ilona Karmel referred to these lines of Paul Celan’s as her Flaschenpost. He wrote them after reading a poem by the Russian poet Boratynksky:

     My talent is small and I am not famous
     But I live — and there is someone
     To whom my existence is dear.
     The distant one, he who comes after me
     Will find in my verse my soul.
     Who can tell? My soul might connect with him
     And just as I found a friend in my generation
     So will I find a reader in the future.

The sending out of words to a blind future is what any writer does. It is a simple occupation (nothing special, chosen, or justifiable) that replicates the sending of messages without envelopes, speech traveling forward to a listener. It reproduces the sensation of being all mechanics and body, loaded with events, and projected onto a blind No One. It echoes the turning around of Orpheus in the underworld, because he wouldn’t have been a poet if he hadn’t turned. Why should he have trusted anything but his instincts? Everything is there while everything is Orpheus.
Save it,
before
the Stony Day has blown dry

the swarms of men
and beasts, just
as the seven-reed flute mandates,
in front of mouth and muzzle.
                                           — Paul Celan
     Ilona Karmel read poetry passionately when she was dying and in the hospital. She blamed her pride for the fact that she had not done so earlier. Certain poems struck her as wonderfully unthematic. “Is this why you prefer poetry to prose? Is that why you insist on the opaqueness of true poetry?” she asked.


(Almost all the quoted prose passages in this piece come from a handwritten letter I received from Ilona Karmel in 1998 and didn’t read closely until after she had died. It followed on discussions we had over the preceding years.)

“There is a Chassidic story saying: Why was the miracle Elijah the prophet performs so great (when he caused the idols to be consumed by fire)? No one said how great is Elijah. Everyone said how great is God — that is why it is a true miracle.”

Leonard Schwartz: Thank you so much for the reading, Fanny. There are a number of things that were beautiful about that passage. There is the kind of collage you do of quotes from Karmel, Paul Celan, from the Russian poet Boratynksky. So there’s that kind of weaving together, “listening is existing in the future of all utterance.” I thought of that passage also when I commented on the idea of conversation among the Sufis. Is listening the most important dimension of writing for you?

Fanny Howe: That someone is out there to hear it?

Leonard Schwartz: I wondered whether one overhears the poem or one wills the poem.

Fanny Howe: I write in a sort of echo state where the sentence passes through me and around in a circle and hits something out there and then comes back in again. It’s like the spiral that I keep talking about. I suppose that it’s like an ear, and I’m inside of the ear and outside of it at the same time.

Leonard Schwartz: The whirl shape of the ear, you also say in the essay “Bewilderment”, “The being both inside and outside simultaneously of the world is not just a writers problem by any means. To start the problem over again what I have noticed is that there’s a field of faith that the faithful inhabit.” I just flashed on that passage because of the sense of being inside the world and outside the world simultaneously. There is a strong Gnostic motif that runs through the book. For the Gnostics this whole world is a mistake, the wrong God made it. The demiurge invented it, and the Gnostic recognition is that alienation is a positive ideal to the extent that we can recognize that we don’t belong here. If the world is a mistake that explains why everything comes out so badly. Is that an accurate statement?

Fanny Howe: That is an accurate statement of Gnosticism. I went through a Gnostic stage. First I was an Existentialist Atheist, then a Gnostic. Then I thought it was actually evil. I hate to even use a word like that nowadays, but it felt evil to have that view of being.

Leonard Schwartz: You describe yourself as a person of faith and as a Catholic in the book, and yet I sense this Gnostic undertone to some of the things that you are saying. In what sense you do see the Gnostic perspective as evil or bordering on evil?

Fanny Howe: I think it’s cultish, the way belief in predestination can become cultish. The way it expresses itself is that only a few people are privy to truth (the presence of God in their bodies); and others are not, and those others are wandering like robots around the face of the Earth. I guess if truth is anywhere, it’s everywhere. I also feel that it’s a very dangerous thing to separate yourself from mystery by diagramming spatial patterns. It seems pretty clear that our knowledge of reality has to be readjusted every couple of centuries. The Gnostics were brilliant and existentialist and bravely pessimistic, but it grew into a fixed system for only a few to enjoy.

Leonard Schwartz: Well, I guess I know what you mean. The Gnostics certainly do have an elitist perspective. It is only a select few who know. So I guess your suggestion there is that, like any form of elitism, it’s self-congratulatory.

Fanny Howe: Yes, in a sort of sadistic way. I came to fear it. I didn’t like the thing of the serpent being the true God. Partly because I don’t think of God in any of those ways at all, I don’t like myths. The whole thing is to see the object as it is.

Leonard Schwartz: I’d like to ask you about a particular writer who is clearly important to you in the overall theology of this book, and I think perhaps the one male writer, along with Paul Celan, who plays a very important role in this book, and that’s Samuel Beckett. You say in your essay “The Contemporary Logos”: “Beckett’s characters speak for, in, and out of an awareness of infinity as the cause of an alienation so complete it is absurd to make a home in it. The strangeness in his writing begins in an uncertainty about whether he is writing out of infinity or into it. The mouth as a contemporary oracle floats in a void.” A famous play of Beckett’s in which all you see on stage is a mouth lit up, I remember being moved by that . Where do you place Beckett in your thinking? Is he a Gnostic, is he a Protestant, is he a believer?

Fanny Howe: Well, he saw things as they are, and I don’t know what that makes him. He lived fully in his time, and it was a dreadful time in history. If he hadn’t entered into it so fully, he would not have spoken for and out of it so clearly as to be recognized at once. So I think of Beckett as not being religious in the usual sense but at least being alive, being truly alive, and horror-struck by it. Out of that threshold, the threshold of both horror and wonder, there is life, and life is everything.

Leonard Schwartz: Although I also think that within Beckett there is that cult of the select, that not everyone knows. There is a kind of pride in Beckett, isn’t there, about recognizing the conditions of his alienation? Also in Celan, who you site, “There are so few human beings” as he said in that famous speech...

Fanny Howe: Who understand it?

Leonard Schwartz: “So few human beings”, I’m paraphrasing more or less correctly from the speech he gave when he returned to Germany to receive the Buchner Prize. So there is in both Beckett and Celan, and maybe it’s a European sense, that sense of an elite.

Fanny Howe: Well I think it’s male elite actually and it’s worldwide. But I still have to say that I believe they are at least facing the nth degree fully and in full pain and alive about it.

Leonard Schwartz: Yes, I was getting to gender! You say in your essay on faeries, “A mother gives birth to someone who won’t last, she has to love someone who will leave. She has to teach a child who will suffer anyway to avoid all pain. To be a mother you have to hold down a job that you can never quit.” Is it that sense of distinction you’re making between your perspective and what you just described as the limitations of two great — but male — authors?

Fanny Howe: Well I think the thing is that a woman’s experience — let’s say a mother’s experience, I don’t want to categorize it completely by gender — but I think the experience of being both a womb and a tomb as you’re walking around is pretty intense and heart changing. And I don’t think men have yet in their biological history experienced that at the level that women do. When you give birth, you divide into parts. You become dispersed.

Leonard Schwartz: That makes sense. I know I’ve never experienced being a womb except in some metaphorical sense, as Virginia Woolf described in A Room of One’s Own, that any mind in the process of making something is a womb giving birth.

Fanny Howe: Exactly, that’s why I don’t want to just reduce it.

Leonard Schwartz: Fanny, we’ve talked about a wide variety of topics, I’m just going to ask you a quick question about production. What are you working on these days. You mentioned the Karmel translations, what else is on your mind?

Fanny Howe: Right now, because of that, which was four years and very grueling because of the material coming out of the concentration camps and my closeness to one of the people who wrote the poems, I’m actually in a state of collapse where I’m really just trying to tie up little things I’ve never finished before. So that’s what I’m going to devote myself to right now: tying things up.

Leonard Schwartz: Fanny, it’s been great to hear you and I’m really glad that chickadee stuck around. I can still hear him tweeting. What town in Massachusetts have we been speaking to you from, by the way?

Fanny Howe: I’m out on the Vineyard, in West Tisbury, and there are trees everywhere. How could I complain?

Leonard Schwartz: Very nice, there are trees everywhere, there’s still sunlight, and there are chickadees in the trees. Enjoy it and thanks for spending some time with us.


Leonard Schwartz is the author of numerous books of poetry including The Tower of Diverse Shores (2003) and Ear and Ethos (November, 2005), both from Talisman House.


Fanny Howe is the author of several novels and collections of poems. Her most recent fiction, Economics, was published by Flood Editions. A few of her books of poems — The Vineyard, Gone, On the Ground, Selected Poems — have received awards. She is now living in Massachusetts and is a recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.


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