Conversation with Marie Howe

Brad Aaron Modlin: In the past, you have written in the persona of both Eve and Mary the Mother of Jesus. While Eve speaks anachronistically—of driving a car on ice, for example—Mother Mary does not clearly do so. In the new poetry, Mary Magdalene does. When you (re)write a pre-existing character, how do you know when to stick to what we’ve already heard and when to change it? What do you hope to add to these characters?

Marie Howe: Midrash is a form of rabbinic literature, a storytelling that fills in the gaps in stories from the Torah. I always wished that Christian literature encouraged that kind of imagining. Growing up with the characters of Eve, Mary, and Mary Magdalene, I was moved by the deep silences within their stories. These are women in extremity, and also women who go on living, through those extreme states, into days and months and years—as we all do. What is their experience? And what is it the day after? And the day after that?

Many others have written through these voices—Rilke in his “Life of Mary,” W.H. Auden in his Christmas Oratorio called “For The Time Being,” Eliot, and recently so many women have brought their consciousness to these stories: Lucille Clifton, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman, many women writers. Each writer receives the poems according to her sensibility.

BAM: In some ways, your poetry insists that the sacred is wrapped up within everyday life—in, as you put it, “what the living do.” In other work, such as the poem “Hurry,” you also rue the twenty-first-century busyness we’ve gotten ourselves into. What interaction do you see between the everyday sacred and the contemporary life-pace? Do you consider them as at odds? In congress?

MH: This restless busyness is an addiction for me, and perhaps for others too. Like any addiction it attempts to keep things steady and safe when everything is dynamic and ever-changing. It keeps us from directly interacting with the real. It pulls us ever outward toward consumption (of stuff, of news, information) and away from the still center.

BAM: In an interview with On Being’s Krista Tippet, you said:

I don’t know about the soul. I don’t know anything about that. All I know is that some things have happened that I don’t understand. And they’re the real, they’re the most true things I’ve known. That’s all—that’s finally all I can say. . . [They] feel like the most important things that have ever happened to me.

When writing about these experiences, do you ever hesitate to try putting them into words? Do you ever fear that verbalizing them will pin them down and diminish them or their mystery? What makes you do it?

MH: The poetry that matters to me is the poetry which tries to hold the ineffable, the unsayable, and fails. It fails because it must fail. But the structures that a poet builds to try to hold the unsayable are what poetry is.

BAM: What mysteries are you currently noticing? What do you imagine puzzling through on future pages?

MH: The same ones as ever: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?

BAM: You have said that poetry holds silence in its center—would you like to say more about that?

MH: Shhh.

BAM: When you visited Ohio University, you told a story from your time as New York State Poet—about (as I recall) an initially disappointing recitation of Czeslaw Milosz in the park. Would you tell it again?

MH: Oh yes, it wasn’t Milosz, it was Wislawa Szymborska, the great Polish poet. We had started to read poems out loud in Washington Square Park every Sunday at 4. But to read them in the way that Occupy Wall Street has created, using the Human Mic. Someone would stand on a soap box, read a line, and whoever had gathered there said the line back—out loud. The whole poem would be spoken like that—first in one voice, then in many others—the poem moving through so many bodies and mouths at once. These events were exhilarating and short—twenty minutes. That day was very cold, bitterly cold and windy. We could hardly hear ourselves, our faces bundled into scarves. Ed Hirsch had come to participate, and it was so cold there was but a handful of us, and I thought oh this is silly, a waste of time. It seemed like a failure that day and some of us were walking across the park when finished, feeling dejected, when a man stopped us and said, Excuse me, were you just speaking those poems? Yes, we said. He said, I am a doctor, from Poland. I have just arrived in New York for the first time in my life for a conference, just checked into my hotel and walked into the park. And in this park I suddenly hear the poems of one of my country’s great poets! Perhaps you can imagine my joy!

BAM: Your work also gives the impression of a speaker humbled—even surprised—in the presence of important truths. How do you see a poet’s relationship to humility? What cultivates that? How, then, might you advise a poet to move through the world?

MH: Every writer is different. My life as a writer has taught me that I have little to say in a poem, but that the poem has something to say to me.

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