Interview with Susan Howe
FV: It seems to me that your books are very distinctive objects. Could we begin by discussing your sense of the book as a space for words—as well as for other objects, as can be seen in The Midnight? Could you talk about how your sense of what a book of poems is has changed over the arc of your career? It seems that there has been a movement in the way that you think about the book from the beginning of your career until now…
SH: I graduated from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts in 1961 where I majored in painting. One of the first projects I worked on there was a series of illustrations to poems by Rilke. I wasn’t thinking in terms of illustrating a book—this was an assignment for a design course I didn’t like and I instinctively turned to Rilke for comfort and inspiration. Before that, in 1955-56 just after graduating from high school I spent a year in Dublin where I apprenticed at the Gate Theatre. In other words, I was an unpaid assistant to the stage designer occasionally cast in bit parts, usually parlor maids. My biggest role was a young woman killed by a vampire in Act 1 scene I of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. So maybe it was in Dublin that I started thinking in terms of words as spoken on the stage and stage design as being connected, but I put this aside when I returned to America and enrolled in art school. In Boston, during the 1950s, art disciplines were separate—you were a painter, a sculptor, a poet, a composer, but in New York where I lived during the 60s and early 70s the barriers between disciplines were porous. It was a huge relief and eye opener to arrive there in 1964. It radically changed my life and work. Around that time I started making word lists in sketch books along with pencil lines and watercolor washes. I thought of these as art books, not poetry books. In 1965 I was living with the sculptor David von Schlegell, and in 1972 he became the Director of the Sculpture Department at the Yale School of Art; the job required we live in the immediate New Haven area. We found a house in Guilford, a town several miles north/east beside Long Island Sound. For a couple of years I was able to keep a space in Manhattan by renting a portion of the painter Marcia Hafif’s loft on Crosby Street and I came into the city two days a week. At the time Marcia was drawing vertical pencil marks, as a kind of meditative exercise into standard black drawing books. She started at the upper left corner and worked systematically down the paper. Then she began to use words instead of lines, but words semantically unrelated to each other. She tried not to make sentences or phrases, used no punctuation, left no margin, line breaks were contingent on reaching the right hand edge of the page. You saw a wall of penciled words. Meanwhile I was arranging sentences and photographs on my side of the sheet rock walls we had put up as partitions. We didn’t discuss our work so we don’t know if it was shared influence or some mystery of affinity—certainly we were both intrigued by the idea current among minimilists and conceptualists that painting was no longer valid. I was also working in sketchbooks but I filled them with word lists, usually nouns typed then cut out and pasted in. The words were arranged as vertical lists. Names of birds, boats, flowers, combined with ruled lines and photographs from old instruction manuals charts, and maps. Increasingly, words I chose did relate to each other. Increasingly, line breaks mattered. The sketchbooks were a matrix, names and nouns were less tied to the way they looked on the page space than to the sounds I heard in my head when I put them there. (I still use exactly the same 5”x 6” drawing books when I begin working on poems.) I liked to leave a lot of margin. Gradually I filled the first pages of these books with quotations taken from reading, so they came to have the feel of commonplace volumes rather than art objects. I began going to a poetry workshop at the St Marks Poetry Project because it was near Crosby St., and because it was funded by the NEA it didn’t cost anything. Ted Greenwald, the workshop leader, had an open-minded way of reading our work: he encouraged us to think about poetry that embraced experiment. One day he came to the studio to see what I was doing there. I had been laboriously attaching a series poem (though at the time I didn’t think of it in this way) to the wall. I started to explain its logic and he asked why I didn’t put this particular group into a book. I thought about it and decided he was right.
Around this time I saw the Cape Goliard Press edition of Olson’s Maximus Poems, IV,V,VI and in a very immediate way they were an inspiration. I already knew Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés, Artaud’s writing and drawings, Duchamp’s Notes and Studies for the Large Glass, writings by John Cage; I was familiar with the work of Concrete Poets, their use of page space and typography, but Olson’s New England crankiness and force, his concern with the history of a particular local place, Gloucestor, galvanized me. I loved the way he translated Massachusetts speech into type—his bold narrative gaps, the way delicate word fragments such as “my memory is/ the history of time” or “The earth with a city in her hair/entangled of trees” floated alone in the center of 8” by 11” pages like tracery. During the same years Agnes Martin had a show at the Green Gallery that consisted of a series of small grid drawings in pen, ink and pencil over thin washes of color. As I remember it, they were all the same size. A single word sometimes two or three placed directly underneath each one served as a title. Even the name “untitled” seen in relation to these severely abstract grids, acted as an opening, almost the way a scrim does onstage. There, if the light catches it, what you thought was background becomes transparent and you see something new and unexpected that was always there, but hidden.
FV: One thing that seems to follow from this is that your sense of the page has come down from your sense of the canvas or a larger white space from the visual arts.
SH: Yes, although not only from painting but also from the way David thought about his sculpture in the landscape and also from performance art. It’s there in early work like The Liberties where I have a short play called “God’s Spies.” All the time I was writing it I was aware that it wouldn’t actually be produced on a stage (at least not in those days). And I didn’t care. To me the stage was the page itself. The voices of actors were letters in typeface.
Even though I don’t paint or draw anymore, I still do all my writing at a drawing table. The computer and printer are in the center leaving lots of space on both sides. As each sheet of paper comes through the printer I lay it out as if it were a drawing. I work to a page and usually in a series. For many years I worked on an electric Smith Corona typewriter, and while it was easy to change over to a computer with prose, shifting from the typewriter to the computer in poetry was hard and I am sure changed my voice. The medium you use has to become your way of thinking. By now it would be impossible to return to the typewriter especially for prose. I seldom spill words across and over the way I did with my electric Smith Corona because I haven’t the patience (or brains) to learn complicated programs like Photoshop or Quark. On a typewriter it was easier to think of a page as a field because you could physically grasp each one and shift and pull it around the platen. You could scumble lines together and turn the paper sideways or upside down. I used to enjoy the process of taking something to a Xerox machine, making several copies, bringing it home, really cutting and pasting, then going back to the copy store—so it was a moving process. Maybe it was a way of continuing to make visual art but bound to sound and narrative. I don’t trust my Mac the way I did the Smith Corona. The G 5 may be pretty but it’s unpredictable. It’s always a crisis when one machine gives out and I have to get used to another “improved” model and program with “upgrades” because it takes time to stop dwelling on the difference. The same thing goes for a printer. Maybe even more so. Because for me a poem doesn’t exist until I see it (these days in Times Roman font) on paper. On the screen it is only an idea that could evaporate. I like to lay the pages out on the table so one speaks to and almost mirrors the other. I finish one and answer it with the next.
FV: And that’s from the theater for you?
SH: Because when revising and arranging I judge and shift and move lines in the same way a director might plan actors’ moves on stage during rehearsal. And because, despite my talk about sketchbooks and table surfaces, the most important thing about poetry is sound. Sounds that you see. Space in a single glance. Every mark you put on paper is acoustic. A comma, a colon, parentheses, hyphens, an en dash—each single letter shape. Usually in my poetry I don’t use punctuation but that doesn’t mean that I’m unaware of pauses, connectives, sentence endings, rhetorical emphasis and interruption. Far from it.
FV: Is Beckett an important writer for you?
SH: Not as important as James Joyce. His writing hasn’t moved me in that deepest sense. Early Joyce, middle Joyce, late Joyce, any Joyce: his writing rises to the level of music, theatre, and painting at once. So that reading his prose you are always almost singing in your head. Reading becomes direct experience, it reveals rather than describes. My mother Mary Manning’s dramatization of Finnegans Wake was produced in Cambridge, London, and Washington. She loved the plays of Yeats, Synge, and Shaw; those three most vividly. Always in terms of an Irish theatre world that for her was the real world she wished she had never left. She always emphasized voice in reading prose or poetry. So that for me, reading and writing are tied emotionally to pronunciation and listening. Her old Cuala Press Broadsides are still dear to me and my sisters. You can see that one hanging up there [Howe points to a framed broadside in her study]. It’s been with me for as long as I can remember. The first line “HAD I THE HEAVEN’S EMBROIDERED CLOTHS” all in caps with the first H decorated as in a medieval manuscript. I think of it as both picture and music at once. Theater for Yeats is closer to a tradition of private theatricals: short plays some influenced by Noh, some by Irish mythology, meant to be performed in private houses or small theatres–I love their eccentricity.
FV: In The Midnight it seems that you’re bringing together or bringing into convergence experimental practices with a “home-made,” familial avant-gardism, if you like—the practice of cutting books into one another comes to mind. Did you realize in writing The Midnight that these avant-garde practices had a familial history that you hadn’t thought about before?
SH: It has been pointed out to me now, but no, I didn’t. It’sa patchwork. My mother’s death, and Uncle John’s death in Dublin a couple of years earlier, was a catalyst, but I don’t think I would have noticed the ramifications of obsolete interleafs in old volumes had I not been brought up in a household where everyone loved books and where the theatre and lecturing was of central importance. Authors such as Eliot, Woolf, Wilde, Yeats, Synge, and Joyce were as familiar as bread and butter, but so were Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Hugo, the Brontës, Thackery, and Jane Austen. You might say that the interleaf in Uncle John’s copy of The Master of Ballantrae is a “punctum.” Through it I conjure up everything I feel about odd volumes as uncanny objects. The semi-transparent sheet is a curtain or maybe a scrim. On one side is the author of “Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde,” A Child’s Garden of Verses, Kidnapped and Ballantrae; on the other, an assortment of real personalities who surrounded my childhood. That obediently disobedient thin piece of paper can transport me anywhere. If it were a character it would be Bartleby. Sometimes in The Midnight I assume a tone my mother used to call “shabby genteel.” Prim, super-polite, a little artificial. In the way her mother who took in boarders in Dublin to keep financially afloat, referred to her tenants as “paying guests” in public but “P’eeing guests” in private.
FV: And that’s one thing that struck me about The Midnight—it seems it’s a kind of throwback to an older kind of form—a capacious form, whether of the eighteenth-century, say, or even the Puritan period, where the writer could put just about anything into the book, into the space of the book.
SH: Like Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, a work I adore—I haven’t really read the whole thing in the way I haven’t actually read all of Thoreau’s Journals, Stein’s The Geography of Americans, or Finnegans Wake, or Pound’s Cantos, but I am thrilled to own a copy of the nineteenth century edition Hawthorne or Thoreau would have consulted. I love to dip into it on rainy days. He looks to history. Figures appear: founders, dissenters, divines, heretics, Indians, poets, page after page of them. The rhetorical force of all those italics and caps; the prefatory poems, “epitaphiums,” epigrams. It’s a hodgepodge of anger, grief, veneration, loathing, legal terror and religious ferver. His is a first second generation Anglo-American authorial voice. Cotton Mather—even the twist and humor of his name is American.
FV: You mean it has an eccentric or idiosyncratic shape to it?
SH: That—and his perpetual need to resort to citation, as in T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, Oppen, among the Modernists and a host of others during the 19th century including Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Dickinson. There are ways of doing this. Eliot and Pound want us to know the classics they have used for their own compositions. Moore adopts or adapts more anonymous sources and so does H.D. Emerson, whose essays were an amalgam of material he had written in his journal, has a wonderful late essay called “Quotation and Originality.” Here he makes the tendency universal with an opening epigraph that may or may not be taken from someone: “Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation of all forests and mines and stone-quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” You could say some American intellectuals have the mindset of tourists. We feel isolated and provincial (though in the age of globalism things may be changing), but I am speaking of my generation and before. Some of us are magpies, cutting this from that and that from this. Borrowing and assimilating according to the emotional dynamics of the materials we choose yes, but also because we lack confidence in our authenticity.
FV: It’s part of what your writing has lead you to, but it also seemed that The Midnight brought you back to something that your mother and other people in your family did to books as well.
SH: Marta Werner, a textual scholar who has done important work on Dickinson’s manuscripts, reviewed J.C.C. Mays’ book (Coracle Press) Fredson Bowers & The Irish Wolfhound, for the journal Text along with an earlier version of The Midnight I titled Kidnapped (after Stevenson’s novel). It was also published in Ireland by Coracle a few months before the New Directions version. Mays, a textual scholar who has done work on Yeats and is the latest editor of Coleridge’s poetry for the great Princeton edition, here writes about Irish bookmaking traditions—the unique interrelation between design and text. Werner says that according to Mays’ sense of things Kidnapped is an Irish book. Because of its asides, transitions, illustrations, and turnings.
FV: I can see that.
SH: A fault in my criticism, if you can even call it criticism, is that I’m so involved with the sound of a sentence or a line, or a paragraph—it’s as if I were writing a poem. There is almost no difference to me even if I’m anxious not to make scholarly mistakes. I get so involved with the sound in my head of the words I am looking at on the page that the aural alchemy between them is the overarching force. One of my models for the ocular rhythm I am trying to explain is Emerson. Maybe prose for Emerson is poetry. Often he writes a poem as an epigraph to an essay. So he must have felt there is a difference. Almost always the poems seem more conservative. For him, prose is where life is. Why am I even calling it prose? Sometimes I think Stevens takes the opposite approach in that some of his poems are philosophical essays. Henry James, in his late work carries language to a place where he breaks open the paragraph. I don’t quite know what I mean by this: it’s almost as though the prose block on the page becomes a window—or widow.
FV: So your compositional model for your criticism is really based on poetry or ecstatic prose?
SH: “Ecstatic prose,” is a nice term. It’s based on the work of poets who have written about writing in ways that to me are deep—Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, Williams’ In the American Grain, Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. Marianne Moore on Stevens, Eliot, and Williams, also in her wonderful essay on Lincoln, R.P. Blackmur on Henry James and Stevens, Pound on James, James on Balzac, Turgenev, and Shakespeare. All of these are models. I enjoy Virginia Woolf’s critical writing more now than I did when I was younger.
FV: I see your point. In The Birth-Mark, there are essays like “Incloser” where there is a kind of breakdown between poetry and prose.
SH: This hybrid effect in early American literature is what appeals to me in seventeenth century writers many people find repellent. I love the way John Winthrop’s 1630 History of New England begins abruptly in media res as a Journal entry: “Easter mundaye. Rydinge at the Cowes near the Ile of Wight in the Arbella. a ship of 350 tu. whereof Capt. Peter Milborne was master, havinge abo beinge manned with 52 seamen, &28: peeces of ordinance,(the winde coming to the n: & by W: the euening before”.” The opening sentence of Mather’s Introduction to “ecclesiastical history;” “I WRITE the WONDERS of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the deprivations of Europe, to the American Strand; and, assisted by the Holy Author of that Religion, I do with all conscience of Truth, required therin by Him, who is the Truth itself, report the wonderful displays of His infinite Power, Wisdom, Goodness, and Faithfulness, wherewith His Divine Providence hath irradiated an Indian Wilderness.” To a twenty-first century reader the juxtaposition of “irradiated” with “Indian wilderness” has a sarcastic and sadistic aura. In the Thursday chapter of A Week on The Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau turns to Mather’s account of Hanna Dustin’s escape from captivity during the French and Indian wars, because: “We can never safely exceed the actual facts in our narratives. . . . a true account of the actual is the rarest poetry.”
FV: Are you working on a critical book or essays, or is your energy going towards your poetry these days?
SH: Energy? [Laughter] I don’t have the energy I once had. I couldn’t write The Birth- Mark anymore. I would dearly love to write something on Wallace Stevens. I have a plan in my head, but there it remains in solitary glory. I’d like to do something along the lines of The Midnight only the midnight would be Stevens.
FV: The Midnight has a more obvious autobiographical turn to it than your previous books. But it seems equally true to say that in rereading American history in your poetry and prose that you are also doing a kind of genealogy for the twentieth-century Irish-American who bears the name “Susan Howe.” Not obviously autobiographical this other work of yours, but at some level profoundly so?
SH: All my work seems to move between my parents—It’s as if I am fated to travel from my New England relations to the Irish ones and never to touch down firmly at home. In the middle of writing “Melville’s Marginalia,” convinced this was one of my American poems, unexpectedly the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan erupted as a ghost into the text. I spent several years working on Pierce-Arrow, a book centered around the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and the tangled history of his manuscripts. No sooner did I finish Pierce-Arrow than as a sort of counter-impulse I began The Midnight. So it’s a perpetually transitional condition. A matter of crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic ocean in imagination.
FV: And to the history that formed them?
SH: The history, the genealogy—whatever that is. I wonder if my interest in manuscripts and the politics of the archive isn’t simply a search for a precursive relation always beyond us, no more than that.
FV: So it’s not that the search leads to more epiphanic understanding: it leads to more questions.
SH: Yes. The important thing is to keep looking for truth through the thing itself. It may be locating rightness crystalized in a single name, a line, a break between. You feel there has to be something and the only way to trace it is by continuous rigorous investigation.
FV: Could I turn to another element which your work foregrounds—style? In your writing you pay homage to Dickinson and Stein as important figures for you. As a writer, have they been the most important for you?
SH: Dickinson certainly, Stein not as much.
FV: I wondered about that. I can see how Dickinson is so important, but in terms of your style I don’t see as clearly the Stein influence.
SH: She can be wonderfully freeing. Especially her critical prose. Her writings and lectures about writing and painting brilliantly hit the nail on the head often by being oblique. When I get mired by New England rigidity I open my dog-eared Penguin edition of Look At Me Now And Here I, Am: Gertrude Stein Writings and Lectures 1909-1945 to “What is English Literature,” “Composition as Explanation,” “Poetry and Grammar,” “Plays” or her vivid ‘portrait’ of Henry James from Four In America. All of these are classics. I wish I had her wit and bravery.
FV: Are there chapters in Ulysses or Finnegans Wake that you go back to time and again?
SH: I’ve never read the whole of Finnegans Wake through. I like to light down on it the way John Cage consulted the I Ching. If I pick up the book and open it at random I always find something to serve as a sign. The last ten pages are up there with the Bible.
FV: [Laughter] Better than the Bible?
SH: Well maybe nothing is better than parts of the King James version of the Bible. But I’ve never read the Bible through either. It doesn’t matter. What can you say? When I was young A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man meant everything to me. Particularly the early chapters. And stories in Dubliners as well, particularly “The Dead,” others too. For me—Joyce could almost be Shakespeare.
FV: Early and late in your career—has Shakespeare always been that important for you?
SH: Yes. To put it mildly. So much so, that here I can only fall back on quoting Emily Dickinson. Shortly before her death in 1886 she sent a note to her sister-in-law: “I was just writing these very words to you, ‘Susan fronts on the Gulf Stream,’ when Vinnie entered with the Sea. Dare I touch the Coincidence? Do you remember what whispered to ‘Horatio’?” We can’t be sure if Lavinia had brought a copy of Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets into her room. It might have simply been a letter. But Emily and Susan would have known Hamlet’s last words to Horatio: “-the rest is silence” without having to write them out, and they were almost certainly familiar with Keats’ famous remark in a letter to Jane Reynolds: “Which is the best of Shakespeare’s plays? I mean in what mood and with what accompaniment do you like the sea best?” A year earlier, after the sudden death of Otis Lord, ED penned a condolence note to his niece whose cousin had drowned in Walden Pond; “An envious Sliver broke” was a passage your Uncle particularly loved in the drowning Ophelia. Was it a premonition? To him to whom Events and Omens are the same.” There you have it: the sea (chaos -outside language) + the luminous particular (aesthetic creativity-envious sliver)=Shakespeare.
FV: Let me turn back to The Midnight. In it you refer to an eleventh-century seamstress, Thorgunna, as having an “aesthetics of erasure.” In many ways, of course, the phrase is descriptive of your own allusive poetry, in which the subject or object being referenced is often ghostly, and the obvious markers of place, time, locale and identity can be indeterminate for the reader. To stretch the question out a bit longer, Raymond Williams once said that “Every theory of language is a theory of human beings in the world.” It seems to me that every poetic use of language also implies a certain way of looking at the self or the subject. What notion of self or subjectivity is suggested by your poetry?
SH: I need to ground my work in particulars. In my case this usually means a material object such as a book, or a manuscript, most recently lace. Often a historical moment, or a specific person. Not a made-up character—I could never be a novelist–but I try to understand all aspects of the person I am writing about the way a playwright or an actor might. Esther Johnson, Emily Dickinson, Mary Rowlandson, Hope Atherton, Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Shepard, Clarence Mangan, Herman Melville, Charles and Juliet Peirce—the only way for me to reach them, or for them to reach me, is through the limited perspective of documents. This doesn’t say much about my notion of self—because for something to work I need to be another self.
FV: I see that your poetry is very grounded in that way, and yet from the point of view of reader, it seems that the poetry is unmoored—that is, it has a kind of fluidity to it, and it takes to itself a freedom of movement between selves sometimes that are never clearly demarcated. So there’s this interesting tension in your work between a kind of historical grounding and being ungrounded—the metaphor of being unmoored…
SH: I’m grounded in words. I hold onto them for everything safe in life. A poem in a series might be triggered by its central character or some circumstance but I can’t stop to wonder if an imagined reader will connect one line or passage to another. Hart Crane puts it perfectly at the end of “Voyages VI”: “The imaged Word, it is, that holds/ Hushed willows anchored in its glow./ It is the unbetrayable reply/ Whose accent no farewell can know.”
FV: But for you, in the “iconic” poems of yours you just referred to, the connections between the words, there’s a logic that is manifest to you?
SH: Clear as the sound of a passing bell buoy when you are sailing. The logic is the way words sing to each other, that music is never meaningless to me.
FV: In your Talisman interview with Edward Foster, you spoke of the importance of language and place in your poetry. That seems instructive and right; at the same time, though, when I read your poetry, place is, in the space of the poem, de-contextualized. Or is it that language, for you, is less about representing a particular place and more about revealing the way in which “placeness” seeps into the materiality of language? Could you talk about that relationship? Are you interested in bringing the placeness of Connecticut, of New England into your own work?
SH: I don’t think I found my voice as a poet until I moved here [Connecticut] to this specific landscape with it’s rocky granite outcroppings, abandoned quarries, marshes, salt hay meadows, most of all Long Island Sound itself. Certain houses near the Guilford Green always remind me of Concord Massachusetts. Probably in 1947 I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Little Men. Whenever I opened each treasured edition I saw the same sepia colored photo of the Alcott House spread across the inside cover and first page. Just the spreadsheet was enough for me to create in imagination an ideal originary home. My father loved the suburbs around Cambridge, and we often drove out there on Sundays. He parked the car in a lot near the “rude bridge that arched the flood” near various commemorative markers and we could see the Old Manse across the road in the distance. From there we walked along the river’s edge and through fields and woods. When I first read Thoreau’s Walden in high school it seemed to me that life in and around mid-nineteenth century Concord represented the prelusive promise put into practice of America. On my 16th birthday when he gave me an edition of Emerson’s essays, I was hurt he hadn’t chosen something by Thoreau. In a moody teenage way I let him know my disappointment. All these years later I understand he was offering me the future. As a poet I feel the responsibility of this. According to Heraclitus: “We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.” In the case of Concord—just the name itself is enough. In 2005 Guilford is as close as I can get. Words I follow are like painted trail markers on trees in our West Woods.
FV: To shift away from this question of place for a bit. The work of yours that I know best, around the period of Singularities, you’re using couplets or single lines, and now you’re using what I call the “iconic poem” the short poem that hangs in the space of the middle of the page. Could you talk about how you moved from one form to the next? What was the impetus for this change?
SH: My earliest book, Hinge Picture, is formal in the sense that I obsessively used a justified margin. In those typewriter days I went to great trouble to get this effect. Then I thought it was a visual imperative, but now it seems sound-based. The same thing goes for couplets or single lines in poems in The Europe of Trusts and Singularities. It’s as if for each work some demand for formal order makes itself manifest. I don’t have a theory. Sight and sound in one astonished moment are brought together. What I love in Henry James, particularly the later novels and stories are his paragraphs. I feel the same way reading Emerson. The structure of their blocks of prose is rigorous and free at once. These days, what concerns me most is the space between two facing poems in a sequence. The relation is almost invisible; but not quite. Sometimes I wonder what is being dictated to us by the effect of words walled in by a justified margin. The insight of the margin itself?
FV: There’s a massed quality to it as well. Within that space of the poem hanging in the middle of the page, it seems to me that there is a sense of place—but also, places that seem to be referenced, or half-evoked or alluded to. Is your reference to James in part having to do with the way in which consciousness moves in and out of place?
SH: That’s true. And that is the great thing James accomplishes time and again by strict attention to form. In The Sacred Fount, The American Scene, The Ambassadors, “The Birthplace” or that other perfect short story “The Altar of the Dead.” Often it comes down to the level of the name of a character, a sentence, a parenthesis, or the same word repeated over and over with perfect lucidity—differently. There is always a sense of moral urgency involved. “The sense of the state of the dead,” he once wrote, “is but part of the sense of the living.” For me, the way back through the spirit of a place is through material remnants, documents, local histories. Due to my gender, libraries and archives contain ethical and aesthetic blanks, relinquishments, apparitions. A lot of fragmentation in my work is because this unapproachable space of negative energy is one that attracts me.
FV: In reading your poetry, especially the most recent collections, I’ve been struck by not merely the presence of memory, but the usurpation of place by memory or even what can’t be remembered, by various forms of silence. This seems to me to confer upon your poetry a sense of the uncanny. I wanted to just talk about this notion of the uncanny with you. Freud’s sense of the uncanny has to do with a return, often a sudden return to a pre-rational self incarnated in childhood fear, or a sense of unboundedness when struck by a sense of terror or fear.
SH: [Laughter] That’s me!
FV: For Freud, too, western cultures shaped by the Enlightenment carried with them, he believed, half buried, as it were, their pre-Enlightenment identities–identities that do not believe in the omnipotence of human rationality. I get a similar sense of the genealogy of the self, of a reaching back, even of the insubstantiality of the self in your poetry. Does that sense of the uncanny resonate at all for you?
SH: It may help to explain why there have been so many Gothic Anglo-Irish writers.
Charles Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker among them.
FV: And the stereotypical, prejudiced image of the Irish has been they’re not “rational”—but Freud turns that around and suggests, well, this is just a more obvious manifestation of the presence of the uncanny than the English might like to admit (though you get a lot of that in English Romanticism). It’s this quality of reaching back in your work…
SH: Maybe if you are Anglo-Irish as opposed to “Irish-Irish” or in my case half Boston Irish-half Irish Irish, you’re reaching back to something that isn’t there. There’s a fundamental estrangement.
FV: So much of Anglo-Irish culture is based upon a fiction of itself. At the same time, I wonder if your poetry isn’t only reaching back to your own genealogy and cultural inheritance. It seems that it also trying to access or touch a political unconsciousness in America—your attraction to the silenced and marginalized in our history, but I don’t just mean that, I mean the language that you use.
SH: It’s always in danger of being lost.
SH: You know I have an attraction for odd Utopian and Separatist Protestant religious communities particularly in the Connecticut River Valley, Massachusetts, and upper New York State. So many splinter groups, vanished sects and worn out controversies…
SH: When I was writing My Emily Dickinson I opened this Pandora’s box and I haven’t been able to close it ever since. Now I’m reading about the Labadists—mainly Dutch followers of the French Separatist Jean de Labadie. They arrived here from the Netherlands in 1684 and settled on land in Bohemia Hundred, Maryland where Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware meet. In Europe the sect had attracted some brilliant women among them the German artist Maria Sybilla Merian, famed for her etymological drawings, and Anna van Schurman known as a scholar, poet, and philosopher (she corresponded with Decartes). Labadists called their settlement in Maryland, “New Bohemia.” When Samuel Bownas visited the site in 1727 “these people were all scattered and gone, and nothing of them remained of a religious community in that shape.” I found the word ‘Labadist’ while I was looking through Stevens manuscripts at the Huntington Library. It occurred in a reference to genealogical research he and his wife were doing during the 1940s. It was the kernal. Jean de Labadie. His reach is through language hints; through notes and maps. In the lapse of time the pressure of others. So it’s telepathic. But who knows why or in what way.
FV: It seems that you have this fascination for these ghosts in our culture and history, and a project of recovery–or release–for them.
SH: Because they are still wandering. It’s homelessness at home.
FV: That’s true of your reading of Dickinson too—homelessness at home. For you it seems to be almost the quintessential American condition, you can’t live with it and you can’t live without it.
SH: It was also my mother’s condition as an emigrant. Maybe due to her constant emphasis on slightest shifts of pronunciation and what they said about a person’s character, I’m interested in the morphology of linguistic conversion. At what point in the Massachusetts Bay Colony specifically—did English English became American English. It’s a transitional moment—almost inaudible but not quite. Noah Webster said in reference to his monumental American Dictionary of the English Language: “An immense effect may be produced by small powers.” I like to think my poems are economical compact fragments. They’re a kind of picture. This may explain my attraction to Peirce because his existential graphs are an attempt to formally express foundational types of relationality. Using graphical symbols he is trying to represent logical relations in the most economical way by simple diagrams. At the same time he wants to represent ontological and psychological relations. If, for Peircian philosophers this is a hornet’s nest, for a poet his figures are formal and elusive at once.
FV: It’s also a kind of American mania too isn’t it—the desire to define things? I don’t even know what an “existential graph” is, but this notion that you can plot existence, fix it on a graph…
SH: The danger is that a quest for precise definition brings you to a bottomless pit. You can’t do it. He concocted numerous word lists, time lines, dictionary definitions, number calculations, rhetorical speculations, doodles, graphs: he re-wrote essays over and over. It was as if he couldn’t stop, moving his hand across paper. As if he thought with his fingers.
FV: A kind of “logorrhea.”
SH: You could call it that. Or monomania. But isn’t Pound similar? And Poe? Even Melville, in his way—After Moby-Dick and Pierre he was dismissed by his contemporaries over here as a crank. In Billy Budd he expresses the conflict in our culture. Antinomianism versus authority. Our attraction to both extremes at once.
FV: Fredric Jameson once said that “History is what hurts.” Would you agree with that?
SH: That’s good—yes. But it’s all we’ve got.
FV: On the other hand, it always seemed to me that your work is about the past, but not the past as separate, but is something that leads to the present and forms it. Even though it is not speaking directly about the contemporary moment in a very obvious way, it always is connecting those two, past and present. In fact, that’s one of the arresting things about your poetry, is the seamlessness with which you move between past and present. Emily Dickinson once wrote “The past is not a Package you can lay away.” That seems to be the sense in your poetry too: the past is the present.
SH: The past is certainly present when you consider our appalling invasion of Iraq. It’s presaged in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 1630s. When I recently saw Jean Luc Godard’s film, Notre Musique I was overwhelmed by its power. I left the cinema feeling that, that this may be the poetry of the future. Even if he here concentrates on the Israeli Palestinian conflict and Sarajevo, Godard’s concern is war—all wars. He’s not that much older than I am, and no matter what our citizenship may be what else have we so far known in our life span but World War, Cold War, Civil Wars—the omnipresent spectre of nuclear Armageddon. Seeing this film was more powerful than reading. It was something to do with hearing many languages spliced together with music on the soundtrack (often without the mediation of subtitles), at the same time he collaged images from fiction and non-fiction film footage. Even if Godard scorns our culture, Notre Musique would be impossible without American cinematography and political history. I have always loved French film even through the remove of having to read English words moving along the base of the screen. I can’t do without certain French theorists, filmakers, actors and poets in translation. What he’s saying here is that this eternally conflicted world situation is our music. It’s all we have. I know that for him a large part of that music is ugly and American.
FV: What do you see as most vital about the state of contemporary American poetry and what do you see as most troubling—if anything?
SH: Despite our prevailing anti-intellectualism I feel part of an innovative tradition among poets that is very much alive and courageously independent, if you consider the political tragedy and corruption of recent years. This tradition is particularly to be found in small presses, because they haven’t entered into the capitalist nexus and dare to do the unexpected. In some ways the Internet has made access to cutting edge work easier because it is easier to locate books on line. I don’t care if poets have small audience in terms of this culture’s insatiable desire for blockbuster ratings or numbers of Internet hits on a title or author’s name. Numbers aren’t everything. Some powerful work is quiet and at first may even seem to set up defenses against being approached. Maybe in these noisy bloated times poetry on the page doesn’t provide the instant emotional immersion and immediacy of films such as Notre Musique. On the other hand, John Ashbery’s splendid new collection Where Shall I Wander has recently been published. Elizabeth Willis is fine-tuning Meteoric Flowers for Wesleyan University Press. The Boston Review prints poems in each issue that are far more intellectually ambitious than poetry I read in in The London Review of Books, or the TLS. Flood Editions, an independent press for poetry and short fiction founded in Chicago in 2001, is thriving. In Berkeley SPD continues its important work, distributing independently-published books around the country and the world. The Library of America edition of Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson is here beside me. By opening it I can rendezvous with my “Interior Paramour.” Through the perfection of sound in his words I approach “those sanctions that are the reasons for his being and for that occasional ecstasy, or ecstatic freedom of the mind that is his special privilege.”
FV: Susan Howe, thank you.
SH: Thank you.
Interview by Jon Thompson