Fanny Howe came from her island home on Martha’s Vineyard to read at Kenyon College in September 2004, but she’s as often away as at home. As she says in the interview, she’s a bit of a nomad, traveling, working on buses and in temporary spaces, carrying her writing with her to New York, Ireland, Boston, California. In spring of 2005 it was Gambier, Ohio, where she was in residence as the Visiting Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing. She has won numerous awards for her poetry collections, and has taught poetry, fiction, and nonfiction writing at a long list of colleges and universities. But she does not speak readily of her own accomplishments—she’s more interested in those of her students, or her daughter Danzy Senna (author of the much acclaimed novel Caucasia), or her pleasure in her grandchildren, with whom she spends part of each year in Oxford, England.
Her writing asks for the kind of absorption from the reader that she has as a writer. Her hope is to take her readers with her as she explores the nature of consciousness, by any means necessary. Part of those means, she says, is their unchosenness–they find her, and she uses them. In her poems the relations among word sounds becomes a way of ordering thought. So listening is important. She herself grew up listening to the sound of language, of literature, and is always remaking sound for her own audience. Her work explores as well the intersection of religious faith, ethics, politics, and suffering. She thinks of Simone Weil, of Virginia Woolf. A recent project has been a foray into translation, in order to save the work of two sisters almost lost in the death camps of the Second World War.
Interviewer Patsy Vigderman is the author of The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner (Sarabande Books, 2007), and a collection of essays: Possibility: Essays Against Despair (Sarabande Books, 2013). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Gambier, Ohio, where she teaches in the English Department at Kenyon College.
Kenyon Review: Why don’t we start with your newest work, the translations from Polish of poems by Ilona and Henia Karmel. Can you say something about how you came to know them and to be interested in their work?
Fanny Howe: When I first arrived at MIT in 1978, the minute I walked in the door, there was this woman, quite small—even smaller than me—she had this wonderful intense face. And we became fast friends, and that was Ilona Karmel who was a great teacher, both at MIT and to her friends. It was her first day at MIT, too. My interest in her work began then.
KR: What was she teaching?
FH: She was teaching creative writing, fiction; she had published two novels already, one a classic of the twentieth century called An Estate of Memory. Later I learned that she and her sister Henia, when they were very young, teenagers, had been in the labor camps in Poland and had composed a poetry manuscript together. The poems were written on worksheets taken from the factory where they would go each day. Someone either slipped them one of these papers or they would steal them and bring them back to their barracks and compose the poems at night. Ilona always said the poems were awful, worth nothing, she wasn’t interested in them at all. Years later, after both sisters had died, Henia’s children asked if I would take a look at the poems and I naturally wondered well, how can I? I can’t speak Polish. But I called a visual artist, Arie Galles, who was Polish and had done work with Jerome Rothenberg. We were planning a memorial service for Ilona at MIT and I wanted a few of the poems to be read then. So that began our project. The poems are intense. They carry obvious traces of a literary education. The two girls had been in excellent schools in Krakow and there were references to traditional Polish forms from early in the century.
KR: And they were able to bring them out with them, when the camp was liberated?
FH: To summarize the ordeal, and the amazing story of the poems, I will just say that the two girls were moved from one work camp to another, ending up in Buchenwald with the concealed poems. On the day of liberation they were marched around the camp with everyone else and Henia managed to hand over the manuscript from inside the hem of her dress, where she had concealed it, to a cousin passing by. The Germans drove tanks into the crowds, killing and mutilating many, and Ilona, Henia, and her mother were among a small number of survivors. A passing farm girl found them alive and ran back and got the man she worked for to come take them in the back of a cart to town. They were hospitalized, but their mother died, and the two young women each had a leg amputated. Meanwhile their cousin, carrying the poems still, returned to Krakow and gave them to Henia’s young husband, saying she was sure that the sisters had died. He refused to believe it, until he had searched exhaustively, carrying the poems everywhere with him. It was two days after he agreed to a memorial service for them, that they were reported alive at a hospital in a city at some distance. A selection of the poems was published once in Poland in 1947 in a small paper edition, and then someone published a Hebrew version of some of them in 1949, and after that they were put in a drawer and forgotten. Both sisters wrote two novels each, but no more poems.
KR: You’ve said these are something beyond Holocaust literature, that they are about deracination . . .
FH: They are about a condition more than a situation. The condition of homesickness in an alien world. Because they are so much a part of this condition, they are not about it. They are perhaps closer to theater than anything else, being instant responses to what is around them at the moment.
KR: Is there an example of one you could read?
FH: Here’s one by Henia Karmel:
A storm—a wind—the pears knocked down
Onto the morning street. Now look—
Despondent women—locked in formation.
See how furtively they stop
To pick up the pears from the ground and eat.
Even their guard—a decent old man—
Is ashamed to see their joy and greed.
KR: How was this for you, working with these?
FH: Well, the strange thing is, I carried them with me everywhere. I had never done translation and each translator would send me a batch and I’d take those English versions around with me and revise them constantly, so they were living with me literally in bags and in pockets for four years. Then I moved over to a new translator who chose a different selection. And this altered my conception of the project, naturally. Even now, only two thirds of the poems are included in the selection we have made, and I have depended on the translators to make choices that would add up to a unified book. When I went to visit Henia’s husband, Leon Wolfe—
KR: Who’s still alive?
FH: —who is very much alive in New York. We talked about the two sisters, their history, and the poems, and once again my idea for the work was changed. By this time Princeton University Press had pretty much committed itself to the book. I was anxious to make the introduction as strong and useful as it could be, for both Polish and English-speaking readers. This was a whole new way of writing for me, amassing facts and studying history, and the last thing I did was to fly to Buchenwald in January and wander the snowy meadows and forests there. This experience was beyond words. It was the end of the written work. I knew I couldn’t take it further.
KR: That was the moment when you knew it was over.
FH: I knew it was over. It left a physical impression, Buchenwald; I don’t know if you’ve visited there. It was winter, and it hasn’t been finished as a memorial site, so it contains elements of the historically real to a troubling extent. It’s not yet a monument, but like a half-open vault.
KR: Was the work of translation significantly different from other writing that you’ve done? Once you have the English, do you work in the same way with their language that you work with your own?
FH: I think people who have read my poems would probably know that I was working on these. The process of composition was similar, I write in a blitz and then carry all this material around and work on it. But the content is so overwhelmingly different from my own that only my method remains as a ghost of my presence.
KR: In this case the blitz has been the English that was given to you from their Polish.
FH: Right, and the second translator, Warren Niesluchowski, read them aloud to me in Polish so I could hear the language the way the sisters would have heard it silently writing.
KR: And your effort was to get the sound.
FH: Well, an echo of the sound. In the end the most important thing for me was to bring a folk sound into each line by rotating adjectives and nouns.
KR: Now, if we can talk some about your writing process. . . . In your essay on Simone Weil you quote these lines from a Jewish mystic, wonderful lines, about lighting the room, and gathering the materials, and making one’s heart warm by attending to the movements of writing . . . and to the letters themselves in order to receive the influx of divine power and then turning your thought to the imaging of the Name—can you say something about that process?
FH: I love that passage because it’s as if the words have an inner illumination . . .
KR: But it’s almost not just the material of words, it’s also the material world around you . . .
KR: . . . the lights, and the paper and the pen. I’m wondering if you can say a little bit about how you make your heart warm.
FH: I think it’s very much about, as Simone Weil would say, attention. You create a circle where you can focus your attention, the focus being the pad of paper, the pen. You have to stay fixed there until there is a reflected image rising up between your mind and the page. I also work with the context of where I am writing in mind, as a fertile base, an influence.
KR: What do you mean, “the context”?
FH: Well, I probably would never write about the Parthenon when I was in New York City. I’d write about it if I was sitting there swatting away flies and with my sandals off, but actually that may not be true. I probably would write about the Parthenon because the word itself is so great, but I probably won’t.
KR: And all pen and ink—no computer.
FH: It’s always been pen and ink for me, even in the first drafts of my novels. It matters to me to be able to feel from my heart to my hand, almost a kind of pain is possible then, the impression is contact, erotic, you might say.
KR: So, one of the ways that you make your heart warm is by the actual physical motion.
FH: That’s right.
KR: I’m interested in what you say about needing actually to be at the Parthenon because I wanted to ask if you need a place of your own in order to write.
FH: Well, I am sort of ashamed of my way of working, it’s so scrappy. I don’t need a room at all. I know people I admire enormously who have rooms that they go to each day, where they construct their poems like paintings; it’s imagination and literature at work together, and it’s amazing to see that process in action if you are the complete opposite. My room is the road.
KR: Well, you’re not a studio artist; you’re an open-air artist.
FH: That’s right, yes, exactly . . . or closed air, in a sense—it’s usually on a bus or a train or in a waiting room.
KR: A traveling artist.
FH: It must be my genetic fate. My Irish mother used to say to me, “You’re a tinker. You make a little mess and move on.”
KR: But a tinker, a traveler, is often a searcher, and as you’ve said, lyric is searching for something that can’t be found. In one of your essays you describe a “poetics of bewilderment” which is very intriguing to me: “An enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.” To me that sounds like a frightening state of being. Not a little mess, but a big one! Is that frightening to you?
FH: I think it is frightening. Staying completely open to what might happen and trying not to prefigure what is coming at you is frightening. The imagination is in jeopardy. Belief is bold. There’s a philosopher I like called Gianni Vattimo and he’s written a book called Belief (he is a nihilist) and in it he talks about the secularization of belief and turns it into a positive event, being the collapse of hierarchical structure; and he says that Christ was attempting to secularize belief, to return it to the ground. And one of the terms he uses is infinite plurality, that the relations and contingencies that mark your movement through time are always taking place in ways that are outside judgment and imagination. That is sort of where I would like to stand, without being terrified. It involves an openness.
KR: Openness to. . . ?
FH: To . . . everything . . . it’s like seeing the future coming at you instead of yourself walking into the future. It’s a reversal of the time relationship, so that you have to welcome it because it’s approaching and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. That’s the best way I can describe it. It is definitely anticontrol.
KR: Even though, when you’re writing, you try to have some control.
FH: That’s the desperate effort that the mind has to make. But I try to let the words write the words, not interfering, until a meaning begins to reveal itself to me. It emerges from the random mass of words facing me as a mind that happens to be mine for that moment. I think what I am always after is discovering the interrelationship between the parts that are given, because I don’t see, or want to see, any conflict between mind, body, context, intelligence, memory, stars, weather, and emotion. I really want to understand consciousness in the end. To pass under the “gates of wrath.” To feel how the mind takes form.
KR: Then, when you go back and revise, what happens?
FH: The sound values determine the way the words are finally placed. I usually begin with a pile of random thoughts, observations, strange forgotten thoughts, and as I look at this heap of words, it is the material I see, just texture and surface, and not much content. The words then attract other words to them, in the second stage of this process. Here is an early poem of mine:
whose anonymous losses
as potent as gains
will change our land and us.
The sound of each word in relation to the next is what makes meaning for me.
KR: It feels as if what you’re describing is a poetics that’s based in listening, and in stillness. In order to have things coming at you, you have to be very still and quiet in order for that to happen. Is that. . . ?
FH: Yes, although the problem is, with all of these things, that in a way I don’t know what I am doing. It would be a lie to say I have chosen a method for myself. This is what happened, I think, is all I can say in the end.
KR: When I look at your poems I also wonder if there are any traditional forms that are with you as you write. I guess I’m asking about your relationship to other poetry, and particularly to earlier poetry.
FH: Well, the one that I think’s been deeply close to me has been early Celtic poetry, with the four-line stanzas and the I—the first person—as a pure but heartbroken observer. And Shakespeare’s sonnets and Keats. I grew up with a mother who still referred regularly to Yeats, Tennyson, John Donne. She, and later learning French—Baudelaire in particular—made me care about sound. At first the pleasure of a surface reading was enough, and the syntax and sound value as a music of logic were what interested me. I didn’t really care about the deeper readings I could give to those poems, or to any.
KR: There seems to be a kind of struggle in your poems, a difficulty in seeing different registers of being. I’m thinking in particular about a line in “The Splinter” about the “sticky sub-atomic soul.” They are poems that require a particular kind of attention, trying to bring different kinds of things together—the senses, and “sub-atomic” is like technology or something . . .
KR: Something different has come in, and then the soul—that’s something even more different. My question is, how are you asking your readers to come to your work? What would you say about your hopes for their relationship with it, when you think about your readers?
FH: When I am alone, working, I never think of my readers. And in terms of what I am after, I don’t think of them either. I think about the problem I am creating for myself as I go along. The problem is, as you describe it, the difficulty of reconciling multiple registers of consciousness and language. Soul and sticky atoms. I think a lot about my readers when I am giving a reading and hoping that they can hear the subliminal logic behind the music of the speeding words. If someone is alone reading my poems, I hope it would be like reading someone’s notebook. A record. Of a place, beauty, difficulty. A familiar daily struggle.
KR: As if you want your reader to mirror your process.
FH: That’s right, the convergence of two minds.
KR: Are you saying that coming together over this third thing, which is the poems as they exist, is a way of saying, “ . . .We are the same”?
FH: That’s it. It is a matter of survival, knowing that you can be known and that you can know someone else. It is that recognition which is the condition for sanity. You don’t know who will open the bottle when you throw it out to sea, but if someone can read the message, it means you are not insane.
KR: That’s the risk . . .
FH: The bottle might go blub blub blub down to the bottom of the sea.
KR: This may be irrelevant, then, but I was going to ask you if there’s any place in your poetry, in your poetics, for metaphor. Shakespeare is full of metaphor. It feels to me as if your poetry is not metaphorical.
FH: No, I don’t think it is metaphorical, perhaps just the opposite, if that is possible.
KR: I was also going to ask about allegory, the idea of something that can’t be said to be exactly the other term in the metaphor, but is kind of struggling with the uncertainty of it.
FH: I do see that, except that allegory seems to me to be idealized behavior, stripped of the trauma of relationship. Acts are emblematic rather than erotic.If you think of Pilgrim’s Progress, you see the hero Christian as a perfect First Person, who learns in very complete stages, without interference from the slop of the other. Yet this is an attractive prospect, too. To be so free. Parables are allegories that have fingerprints on them. This I like.
KR: It’s almost the opposite of what you say in your essay on Thomas Hardy—that Hardy’s is a world that makes the reader intensely conscious of what doesn’t happen, a world drenched in contingency—mishaps and misunderstandings—the cruelty of plot.
FH: I think Hardy truly understands tragedy in relation to human freedom. How it is undermined casually. There is an influence, in my thinking, of the theories of chance in both modern science and in Hinduism; but it is mostly from studies of narrative and from thinking about plot while I was writing fiction. I do see the usefulness of allegory being in its elimination of confusing contingencies. We’re very aware of an aura of possibility around us, a kind of air that accompanies us through every gesture as a second possible move—that you’re almost another person, you’re almost another life. I think this is the insight of a writer of fiction, rather than an allegorist who takes it into the zone of the imaginary.
KR: In that same essay you say Paradise is being able to turn to our past and see its beauty—see it precisely because we aren’t in it, aren’t there. You refer to Purgatory as if it were one’s own painful past, and it’s as if Dante’s language (rather than Bunyan’s) is hovering just outside Hardy’s.
FH: I must say Dante, to me. . . I still think he is the author of a world that we know. And with Dante I don’t see any of it as metaphor. I think that it is reality, what Dante describes.
KR: Say more.
FH: I couldn’t possibly say that the poet going off with Virgil into the Underworld is anything but real. It’s as real to me as the Republican Convention. I don’t see it as an out-of-time invention or impossible at any mental level. That’s why Dante was able to throw historical figures in with legendary figures, because they were part of one phenomenon.
KR: At some level, then, the Divine Comedy is more than a work of the imagination, and you’re saying that at some level is also true in your work.
FH: I can agree with this view of the world. And it’s frightening, just as death pursues us all the time as a kind of imagined event, while of course, it is real.
KR: Well, that’s what the future coming at you is, is death.
KR: And I think you said somewhere else that we miss that because we’re so involved with the past and the present . . . that the past and the present come in to keep us from seeing the frightening future. So that is the risk. Rather than writing about the past or the present, whether they are Paradise or Purgatory, you are facing that.
FH: I feel the onrushing of time, as they say. But rushing on into my face. The Tarot card that’s the most like it is the Fool. Have you seen that one, the boy is walking on the edge of the cliff with one leg up and just poised to fall. Speaking of allegory.
KR: And yet, that’s what there is to do, is to be on the edge of that fall. I find that I’m connecting this to what you said about the Karmel sisters, the immediacy of their work. They were poised on the cliff.
FH: That’s it. They were dragged out of their normal lives into hell. The path was interrupted. Every moment was perilous.
KR: And yet they wrote.
FH: That is really fascinating to me. I heard a Brazilian man at a party, over the crowd (someone was about to get up and read a poem), and he said, “Oh God, I hate it when people get up to read poems, and yet the strange thing is, my brain likes it.” And I have a feeling it’s like a cognitive function in people that keeps them writing, music or poems, there’s something that’s built into our whole cognitive system . . . it’s not that they’re such inspired people, it’s actually a given. You can’t not do it. The Karmel sisters were very well educated in literature and history, their consciousness was already stirring.
KR: I’m wondering how you see the difference between writing fiction and writing poetry. I read a review of Economics, which is fiction, and Gone, which is poetry, and the writer said it was as if two completely different people had written these books. Do you feel that yourself?
FH: Well, for one thing, most of the Economics stories were written in the seventies, so that was a long time ago. And I did have a different goal for the story. If I wrote those stories now they wouldn’t be the same.
KR: How would they be different?
FH: I think they wouldn’t be constructed in favor of one position. The stories are very much in the great tradition we all learned, beginning with the Russians, Chekhov. Now I would probably have the same events leading to two or three different conclusions, and having serial and contradictory epiphanies. My last four novels are more like that, they’re like my poetry really: Nod, Saving History, The Deep North, and the last one, Indivisible—I couldn’t make a distinction between these and my poems.
KR: In Gone, most of the work is written as poems, and there’s one that’s in prose, “Doubt.” Why is that one like that? Or why aren’t all of them like that?
FH: Well, it’s my feeling about the way an idea moves in the mind. For me a sustained set of sentences in a prose piece is necessary to the breath-length of a thought. “Doubt” could not have been written in short lyric spurts because it carries the weight of certain painful historical details with it, and the ideas in it are heavy. A thought to me is an emotional assemblage that includes multiple angles and images, influences from above and below and to the side. To capture the rhythm of a thought is to tune into a complex universal pulse. A line of prose is sustained on a series of short breaths. Say, Beckett.
KR: What is it that makes you happiest in what you’ve done?
FH: I think what makes me happiest in what I have done is that I didn’t know I was doing it. I am surprised that I wrote anything. I can’t remember where I was or how I got to the lines that I did. It is as if I was not present at the writing, though I know that the material in the work bears my experience. The happiest thing is learning that nothing is really mine.
KR: I’m reminded of something that Adrienne Rich said to me long ago. She said, “My poems are like children; you have them and you’re working on them, and then they go out into the world and they’re themselves and they’re not you anymore.”
FH: You still feel protective of them though, the way you do with your children. I do feel I stand—or however to put it—behind the work I have done, partly because of my sense of bewilderment about where it came from. The incompletion of my early fiction was a symptom of anxiety about the form of the novel. The first three I wrote were really one, with life taking place in between. I suppose my books are like my children to the extent that I would never disown one of them, because I don’t know how they got here, stuck with me.
KR: Which brings us back to where we started, with the Karmels’ early work. You must have a sympathy with those early poems that came out of complete catastrophe, a sense that they should have their chance to live.
FH: I always have saved most of my sympathy for children, for young people who are poised on the brink of responsibility, and who are oppressed because of inexperience. They are at the mercy of a deeply confused adult world. “Hell is for children,” as the song goes. The Karmel sisters were very young and full of hope and heart and family affection when their lives were suddenly disrupted and they were dragged into slavery. This day represented the nth degree of materialism. They were sucked into one century’s fulfillment of the centuries before, of nations built on prostitution and enslavement. They happened to be there. They were children still. Their poetry is something else. It is mature in its grief and outrage. It has revolutionary passion for survival and revenge. And at the same time each poem is on alert to hear the sound of the brain at work in the great machinery of its surroundings.