Issue 59 |
Winter 1992-93

About Marie Howe: A Profile

In 1987, Marie Howe's first book of poems,
The Good Thief, was selected by Margaret Atwood for the National Poetry Series. Persea Books published the book in 1988, and later that year, it won the Peter Lavan Younger Poet Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Although Howe didn't begin writing poetry seriously until she was thirty, she'd written for her eight brothers and sisters since she was a girl -- "Christmas plays, birthday oratorios: little kids with washclothes on their heads as shepherds or angels. The boys, when they were older, stomping out of rooms, and who could blame them?" But it gave her, she says, a sense of
necessity -- eleven people in her family, "a lot of joy and grief." These incipient efforts taught her the rudiments of craft. Writing for a family tribe prepared her for "the joy and meaning implicit in speaking
to someone,
for someone." If she learned that writing for the printed page demanded an even more accurate rigor, the oral tradition is still where Howe lives as a writer. "Poetry is telling something to someone," she says. "It's between them. It can't happen alone, without being said aloud. It's physical, social, erotic."

Howe attended the Sacred Heart Convent School, where the enlightened, politically active nuns served as important role models: they were strong women who, rather than retreat from the world, dug into it with intellectual and spiritual passion. After college and a brief stint on the Catholic media and art beat for a Rochester newspaper (her articles were "a little too impressionistic"), Howe taught high-school English near Boston. In 1980, during a summer teacher's program at Dartmouth College, she took her first poetry workshop with Karen Pelz. Inspired, she returned to Cambridge and joined a workshop led by poet Stuart Dischell, who encouraged her to apply to Columbia. It was in the M.F.A. program at Columbia that she met Stanley Kunitz. "As soon as he walked in the door," Howe remembers, "I saw my true teacher -- the light in his eyes, the way he held a piece of paper, the way he sat in a chair and gathered himself. He never said an extra word. Never. And he always told the
truth. He always saw to the thing you were avoiding, and he loved you there . . . me . . . whoever. Meeting him was one of the great gifts of my life. Stanley taught us that to be a poet is to live a life not separate from the work; both demand authenticity, courage, clarity. So many voices have entered the world through his gate, and none of them sound like him. 'Don't listen to anyone,' he once said to me at Columbia, 'not even me.'"

From Columbia, Howe went to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown for seven months as a fellow and lived "on the edge of the world, in love and in trouble," and then returned to Cambridge in 1984, where Alan Lebowitz was hiring writers and poets to teach expository writing at Tufts University. There, she met Lucie Brock-Broido, Robin Becker, Steven Cramer, Stuart Dischell, Askold Melnyczuk, Tom Sleigh, Bruce Smith, and Stephen Tapscott, among others. This group of peers, as well as others in Provincetown and New York, served as another kind of family: "Invaluable. We listened to each other, read to each other, argued, ate, talked, laughed, helped each other send this or that out."

In 1987, she visited the MacDowell Colony for a residency. She was shown to her cabin and assured that no one would ever disturb her unless it was an emergency. Less than ten minutes later, she heard a knock on the door. There was a phone call from her brother John, who was being treated for cancer. The emergency, however, concerned their mother. She'd had a heart attack. Howe went home to Rochester and stayed for a week. Her mother was still in intensive care but better, and Howe was about to leave. But then John spiked a high fever and had to be admitted to another hospital. Howe accompanied him, waited with him for hours while he lay on a gurney in a hallway as the hospital tried to find him a doctor and a bed. Finally, a nurse came with a clipboard and asked the standard series of questions -- only this time: "How long have you had AIDS?" John had told no one that he had the disease, and Howe promised she would honor his privacy. She visited her mother at the other hospital, maintained that
John was fine, that it was simply the chemo, then went home to her family's empty kitchen to eat dinner and call her answering machine. There were friends' voices, all concerned about her mother, then: "This is the National Poetry Series. We are looking for Marie Howe . . ." More beeps and clicks and friends, then. "This is the National Poetry Series again. We're still looking for Marie Howe. Is this her? Where are you? You won." Margaret Atwood had selected Howe's manuscript of poems,
The Good Thief, as the winner of the Open Competition of the National Poetry Series.

Howe remembers, "And now I'm weeping because my book has been taken, and my mother is in intensive care, and the one person who knows what the National Poetry Series is, who helped me arrange the manuscript to enter the contest for years, is curled on his side in a hospital bed, sweating out a 105 - degree fever, without a phone installed yet.

"So I drive up to the hospital again, John's hospital, and walk up to the seventh floor because I'm afraid of elevators, and it's dark now and visiting hours are over . . . past the nurse's station and into the ugly green room where he is lying as I left him, sweating and weak and smiling to see me. 'Maria,' he says. And I say, 'John, I won the National Poetry Series.' And he holds out his hands and says, 'Good.'"

Persea Books published
The Good Thief the following year (they've just broght out a second edition). Howe now conducts poetry workshops, part-time, at Tufts University, and also teaches or has taught at the Warren Wilson M.F.A. Program, the Nathan Mayhew Writing Seminars with Thomas Lux on Martha's Vineyard in the summers, poetry in the schools, and private classes in Cambridge. She still spends a great deal of time in Provincetown, where she is on the writing committee of the Fine Arts Work Center, screening applications for incoming fellows. Over the years, she has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, the St. Botolph Club Foundation, the NEA, and the Bunting Institute. Howe is at work on her next book,
What the Living Do. In addition, she and Michael Klein hope to edit a companion book to Klein's
Poets for Life: 76 Poets Respond to AIDS, which will include prose, journalism, letters, journals, and other material.

"My brother John died of AIDS," Howe says, "and so many friends have died since then. Stanley [Kunitz] has said, 'We have to make our living and dying important again, and the living and dying of others. Isn't that what poetry is all about? Perhaps that is what AIDS is here to tell us. I wouldn't presume to know, but it is here to tell us something. And so many poets are listening: Thom Gunn, Cyrus Cassells, Melvin Dixon. It's breaking down the 'literary' walls that separate writers from everyone else, which is a great hope and dream."

Howe cites the necessity and community celebrated in the Dark Room Reading Series, organized by Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange. Recently at a reading, it was announced that Melvin Dixon had died the previous week of AIDS. The whole room moaned. Later, after an intermission, Sharan Strange stepped up to the podium and told the audience that to celebrate Melvin Dixon's life, they had placed copies of his latest novel under some of their chairs. "Everyone was bent over," Howe marvels, "bumping head with strangers, asking, 'Did you find one?,' and it was a community. We had, suddenly, more than ourselves in common."