This interview with Marie Howe, American poet and teacher, is the first
of a series of three different interviews with American poets. Note some poems
by Marie from her new book “The Kingdom of Ordinary Time,” are included in the
Addendum to the interview—by permission of the poet, and of W.W. Norton
publisher. The new book can be bought through the internet at this address.
Marie writes poetry of religious
and spiritual kind, and other works most lovely and engaged in what one critic
called the metaphysical. There is a lot of love in her work.
Marie I am so glad you’ve agreed to an interview. Let me
indulge myself by a quote from another interview you gave, for it offers a
lovely poem you wrote mentioning Jesus Christ:
Marie: Sure, let me see. It’s
funny; Jesus shows up in this book a lot. There’s a poem here called “The Star
Market” that I’d love to read.
A lot of what is throughout this book is that Jesus said “the
kingdom of heaven is within you,” — What does that mean, the kingdom of heaven
is within each of us? And if the kingdom of heaven is within us, who governs
there? Really? How do we govern ourselves? That’s another poem called
“Government,” but maybe I’ll just read this poem called “The Star
“The people Jesus loved were shopping at The Star Market
yesterday. /An old lead-colored man standing next to me at the checkout.
/Breathed so heavily I had to step back a few steps. //Even after his bags were
packed he still stood, Breathing hard and /hawking into his hand. The feeble,
the lame, I could hardly look at them: /Shuffling through the aisles, they
smelled of decay, As if The Star Market //had declared a day off for the
able-bodied, And I had wandered in /with the rest of them, sour milk, bad meat,
/looking for cereal and spring water. //Jesus must have been a saint, I said to
myself, Looking for my lost car/ in the parking lot later, Stumbling among the
people. Who would have/ been lowered into rooms by ropes, Who would have crept
//out of caves, Or crawled from the corners of public baths. On their hands /and
knees begging for mercy. //If I touch only the hem of his garment, One woman
thought, I will be healed /Could I bear the look on his face when he wheels
In a well liked online magazine of interviews with artists and
such, Marie had this to say and though it is apparent in the interview of this
writer’s that starts below that Marie Howe has developed themes in her work, and
in the maturity of her thought as a poet in that interview, the “Bomb” interview
enriches this article:
VR An interesting shift in the structures
between The Good Thief and What The Living Do is that you drop
the voices of Biblical mythology and let actual people, the actual people of
Marie Howe’s life, enter the poems. Brothers, friends, lovers, grade school
kids. It is a very brave leap to include all the names. The actual people are
all that is needed for a mythology.
MH I love the characters
in the Old and New Testaments, they were the stories of my childhood. I was one
of those girls who read The Lives of the Saints in the bathtub‚ and
through those stories I tried to figure out how to live. Abraham’s decision,
Noah’s task, Moses’s stutter and exasperation, all helped me feel less
embarrassed to be human—as did Mary Magdalene’s passionate love, Peter’s
impulsiveness, and Jesus’s anger. I’m still in love with both Martha and Mary.
They’re the only two who show up in the new book—and why wouldn’t they? Martha,
the active: Mary, the contemplative. The wrestling aspects of a woman
MH I think time is a lie. John used to say to
me, “Maria, it’s not linear, it’s circular.” I think I know what he meant. What
the Christians call “The Fullness of Time.” It feels truer to me. That sense
that time past and time future are present in now and always have
The poems I love most, and learn from are the
poems that are written from that place: Rilke, Hopkins, Herbert, Jane Kenyon’s
poems, Brenda Hillman, Jean Valentine—but there are so many.
It’s been eight
years since The Good Thief was published, and for some time I felt
ashamed that it was taking me so long to finish, to write the second book. Now I
know that whatever had me in its mouth has its own time and
“This interview, Marie Howe by Victoria Redel,” was commissioned by and
first published in BOMB magazine, Issue #61, Fall 1997 pp. 66070 Copyright Bomb
Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors, All rights reserved. The
BOMB Digital Archive can be viewed at www.bombsite.com .
2. My question to start is
this…What in the Bible that has a poetic sense captures your own attention as a
poet? And I know there is so much in the Bible that holds a poetic sense for you
and many people. Just tell us what you’re thinking these days.
There’s the rhythm, there’s the musicality of the Old Testament. What I love
of both the Old and New Testaments are the stories. The stories are depicted as
all action, without explanation. And in that way, they are like poems. I love
the silence surrounding the action of the stories: Cain and Able, the Binding of
Isaac, the flood: all those stories move me very much–in the way they’re
told…as stories about humans in particular. I love in Job when the voice from
the whirlwind comes out. What could be more gorgeous than the words of the
whirlwind? There are astonishing questions asked of Job. It may be one of the
most beautiful things I’ve read.
I am not interested in rating the stories.
3. Stanley Kunitz was one of your favorite and most influential
teachers, if not the most influential you’ve said. Here is a quote he offered
about your work: Stanley Kunitz for the Lavan Younger Poets Prize in 1988.
Kunitz said, “Her long, deep-breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and
spirit, in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet
still in touch with the sacred.”
Please tell us what it means for you to have an influential teacher
who moves you, and as I understand it was something of a mentor. Tell us what it
means to you, “mentoring” and more significantly, what it is to have or have had
That is a word I did not associate with Stanley. Other people use that word.
Stanley was my friend. I was 33 years old when I met him, and we were friends
for 25 years. What I love…what Stanley had…was as a great influence on me…as
friends do. He would look at my poems yes of course . But What he did
indelibly was to live in the world. Stanley was a man who was fully alive, all
the time. And attentive to the moment he was living in. This was 1983.
It means exactly what it says, to be awake to the moment you’re in and the
moment of living. It was a great pleasure to be with…to travel with him, and be
with him and he would get great delight in cheese and crackers…he enjoyed
everything so much. He loved stories and everything so much. He didn’t live to
be 101 (and not)…he didn’t say how good things used to be.
4. Here is another of those, What do you think of that kind of
questions. First some context for the question: In 2009 the Boston
Review said this of your work:
Several of Howe’s poems are explicitly religious, but if the Gospels
loom large in them, they are never simplistic or pious: “Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you, / Jesus said. . . . The kingdom of heaven / is
within you. . . . That’s the good news / and the bad news, isn’t it?” Howe’s
poems manage to be both complex and accessible; they provide pleasure and
provoke: “What would we be willing to give up to equalize the wealth in the
world?” The Kingdom of Ordinary Time confirms Howe’s position as one of
the finer, most serious-minded poets of her generation.
Is that a kind of off-putting remark? What I am getting at is how
does one react to these remarks of your importance: “…most serious-minded poets
of her generation…” How can someone react to such kudos, and importantly for our
readers, does this kind of thing help you or turn your head, or help you along
the way? Since we say we’re glad to have you for your wonderful poetry, we hope
remarks of praise are helpful.
I don’t read reviews of my own books. I don’t want to…it’s not my business as
a poet to know what others think. I’d rather live life and write the next poem.
It has nothing to do with my work. I think poetry is a vocation, not a
5. When we spoke originally, and I am so glad to make your
acquaintance as you know, we talked about young people. Will you talk a little
bit to young people, high schoolers and below, about writing poetry. What can
they look for to gain or gather a poetic sense, even if they never write a
word—but let us hope they will.
Poetry is the deepest song of the human soul. It’s our original art, and it
helps us with our life. We need to hear the voices. We need to write as we
please and as we can. The truth of what it is to be alive and on this earth.
6. Tell us a little bit about the school where you teach, and
something of your students. For instance, what are they most interested in these
days? Is there something that catches their imagination, or inspires them? Do
they think anything of your religious expression in your work?
There are unprecedented numbers of young people coming into tables to write
and speak about poetry. It’s wonderful, and I think that…the numbers are
unprecedented. Every kind of poetry is interesting; their excited about outloud,
on paper writing about metric and line.
7. Those are the questions I have for you. If there is anything
not covered, or you want to say something more, please do.
I wanted the poems to speak to people who might think they don’t understand
poetry. I feel that many of them were intentionally estranged from poetry in
high school and college. I wanted to write in a voice that is ordinary for us. I
want people to believe that more–more poetry belongs to them. They really don’t
need a teacher. There is nothing they need to do but know that what they do is
bring to the poem themselves. That most people can bring themselves to a poem.
They don’t need to feel afraid of them or feel that they can’t read it.
Notes from Sara Lawrence
Marie Howe is the author of, most recently, The Kingdom
of Ordinary Time (March 2008, WW Norton), What The Living Do
(1998, WW Norton) as well as The Good Thief (1987, Persea Books),
selected by Margaret Atwood for the National Poetry Series. She is the editor,
with Michael Klein, of In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing
from the AIDS Pandemic. She has received numerous awards including the
Mary Ingram Bunting fellowship from Radcliffe College and grants from the
National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and the
Guggenheim. She is a member of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence
This is a reading/writing course. We will spend time every week reading poems
that have already been published, so that we can see how they were made: music,
syntax, line, sound, and image. We might spend time generating new work in class
through exercises and experiments. And we will spend time looking closely at one
another’s work, encouraging one another to take risks and to move even closer to
the sources of our poems. Each writer in the class will meet with another class
member once a week in a “poetry date.” Each writer will be responsible for
reading the assigned work and for bringing to class one written offering each
week. We will work hard, learn a great deal about poetry and about our own
poems, and have a wonderful time.
Open to any interested student.
What is that book we always see—in the paintings—in her lap?
Her finger keeping the place of who she was when she looked up?
When I look up: my mother is dead, and my own daughter is calling,
From the bathtub, Mom come in and watch me—come in here right now!
No Going Back might be the name of that Angel—no more reverie.
Let it ber done to me, Mary finally said, and that
Was the last time, for a long time, that she spoke about the past.
We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
And the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry hurry,
As she runs along two or three steps behind me
Her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.
Where do I want to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry—
You walk ahead of me. You be the mother.
And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
Back at me, laughting. Hurry up now darling, she says,
Hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.
A Thurrsday—no—a Friday someone said.
What year was it?
Just after the previous age ended, it began.
And although the scientists still studied the heavens
And the stars blazed—if the evening wasn’t cloudy—
What happened did not occur in public view.
Some said it simply didn’t happen, although others insisted they knew
All about it
And made many intricate plans.
The Snow Storm
I walked down towards the river, and the deer had left tracks
Deep as half my arm, that ended in a perfect hoof
And the shump shump sound my boots made walking made the silence loud.
And when I turned back towards the great house
I walked beside the deer tracks again.
And when I came near the feeder: little tracks of the birds on the
Of the snow I’d broken through.
Put your finger her, and see my hands, then bring your hand and put it in
I put my hand down into the deer track
And touched bottom of an invisible hoof.
Then my finger in the little mark of the jay.
Someone or something is leaning close to me now
trying to tell me the one
true story of my life:
low as a bass drum, beaten over and over:
It’s beginning summer,
and the man I love has forgotten my smell
the cries I made when he touched me, and my laughter
when he picked me
and carried me, still laughing, and laid me down,
among the scattered
daffodils on the dining room table.
And Jane is dead,
and I want to go where she went,
where my brother
and whoever it is that whispered to me
when I was a child in my father’s bed is come back now:
and I can’t stop
This is the way it is,
the way it always was and will be—
beaten over and over—panicking in street comers,
or crouched in the back
afraid I’ll cry out in jammed traffic, and no one will know me
where to bring me
There it is, I almost remember,
It runs along this one like a brook beside a train.
The sparrow knows it,
the grass rises with it.
The wind moves through the highest tree branches without
seeming to hurt
Who was I when I used to call your name?
[Reprinted from What the Living Do (W. W. Norton & Company,
Once or Twice or Three Times, I Saw Something
Once ot twice or three times, I saw something
Rise from the dust in the yard, like the soul
Of the dust, or from the field, he soul-body
Of the field—rise and hover like a veil in the sun
Billowing—as if I could see the wind itself.
I thought I did it—squinting—but I didn’t.
As if the edges of things blurred—so what was in
Bled out, breathed up and mingled, bush and cow
And dust and well: breathed a field I walked through
Waist high, as through high grass or water, my fingers
Swirling through it—or it through me. I saw it.
It was thing and spirit both: the real
World: evident, invisible.
Marie Howe at the NYS Writers Institute in 2008
Images: (1) Marie Howe, photo by Brad Fowler