Backchat: Marie Howe in Conversation
Nick Patrick: Marie, I won't be the first person to say that there is a lot of pain in your poetry. But is that a positive as well as a negative thing?
Marie Howe: Poetry saved my life—growing up and finding poems that reflected back to me psychological and emotional states that I was confronting. It's an art that addresses the truth that we are living and dying at the same time. What could be stranger than that?
And yet we have this glorious morning, with the North Sea shining and the sun rising and the gulls squawking and each other's company. So all of this is always happening all at once. I find life to be so exciting and so full of joy, but all joy has pain in it, because of what we already know, and what we've already lost.
NP: Is that a position you've arrived at? Or if we sat here thirty years ago, would you have said exactly the same thing?
MH: I'm older now, of course. And so the great good news, I find, about getting older is that at every opportunity, we have a chance to either open to it or close to it. And the great thing about art is that art helps us to let our hearts break open, rather than close. Everybody has known unimaginable moments of loneliness. Everyone we know has known pain and fear. And yet art can help us open to those moments rather than shut to those moments.
So writing poetry and reading poetry has been a way of experiencing life so that everything can be contained in the human heart. Nothing is excluded.
NP: You were talking about going places where, maybe, you shouldn't go when you write. That clearly can be a painful experience too.
MH: Well, even to write about joy is almost unbearable. But every poem is a new experience. There are taboos one has personally—because of the way one was brought up—as a woman or as a man or as a mother or as a daughter. I just saw Howl, the movie about Allen Ginsberg, and the great thing is it's really about the poem. Allen says in an interview, "I wrote this poem for my friends. I didn't think anybody else would read it. I was afraid my daddy would be upset if he read it."
And now it's "Howl," a poem that has meant so much to so many people. But he had to tell himself that nobody would see it, so as to give himself the freedom to sing it.
NP: Is that what you did?
MH: I often pretend that no one will ever, ever see the poem. All of us want to protect ourselves. We want to come off looking good. So how do you get rid of that desire to always look like the hero of your own poem?
Especially recently, I have no desire to be the hero anymore. And the most interesting things to me are the parts of ourselves that we would disown. Because they're there—even as a country. For example, I come from the United States. We disown our shadow. We disown it as a country. We do not own what we're doing in the world that is illegal, aggressive, inhuman. And as people, we need to own our shadows. Art can help us do that.
NP: I don't know how you feel about anniversaries. They're often overplayed these days, but 2011 is the 30th year since the HIV pandemic was first spotted in California (even though now we know that it goes way back). But that's shaped you too, hasn't it?
MH: Oh, yes. My brother died from the AIDS virus and many of my friends. Death came, as it has for generations and throughout thousands of years—in the plagues, and the cholera epidemics and in the flu epidemics. It came to the United States of America, which has been so protected.
It came in, and it came fast. And people died so quickly. Young people, beautiful healthy people, died so quickly.
It was a way of waking up to what always happens to humans throughout the rest of the world. Yes, it had a big effect on me. My brother John said to me one time, "It's so suprising to me that everyone's walking around, and they don't know they're going to die."
He was twenty-eight, and he knew he was. And when John died, it became very clear to me that I would too. So there's a kind of death consciousness that has always been part of me.
I was raised as a Catholic in a convent school—with all the monks who pray with a skull in front of them. That was very much a part of my consciousness growing up as well. Lives of the Saints. All of that. People who were aware of their finitude. It makes the world...well, what did Wallace Stevens say? "Death is the mother of beauty."