We’re Not Watching—A Conversation Between Michael Klein and Marie Howe
Marie Howe is the author of four volumes of poetry: Magdalene: Poems (W.W. Norton, 2017); The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (W.W. Norton, 2009); What the Living Do (1997); and The Good Thief (1988). She is also the co-editor of a book of essays, In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic (1994) (edited with Michael Klein). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, Agni, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, and The Partisan Review, among others.
Michael Klein: What has inspired you lately?
Marie Howe: There's a guy in Washington Square Park who's made a puppet called Sticks. The puppet is a homeless guy—vitally alive. He’s a drinker and a dancer. Whenever I go the park, we look around for Sticks. And when we're lucky, he's there. What I love about the man who makes the puppets is that he’s also made these two other puppets—and there may be even more—of people who hang out in the park, people who most of us wouldn't notice. One of them is Doris, an older woman with gray hair, flower dress, gray sweater, old stockings. The puppet Doris is an exact replica of the living Doris. And he's also made another puppet—Wally, I think—a guy who’s spent a lifetime on the street, too. I love what Sticks is mirroring back into the world. He's respecting these people and animating them in a way—so we can see them.
MK: Like theater, in a way. That’s what I want when I go to the theatre—that idea of us mirrored back to us. Last year or the year before I saw The Apple Family cycle by Richard Nelson at the Public Theater. These are four plays about how political life intersects with private life and the action of each play is simply a group of people who gather around a table for a meal on the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 or the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination or election night. Each play opened on the actual night of the occasion being remembered. So, for instance, the last play, Regular Singing, opened on November 22nd, 2013, JFK’s anniversary.
The plays reminded me, in a way, of the Dialogue Project, which was done at MIT. People spent time in a room and talked while they were being recorded. I know this because I used to transcribe some of the sessions. It was all sort of free fall—they would talk about their lives, of course, but eventually—because of the intimacy and the empathy that was coming out in these people by virtue of being in a group—the subject always seemed to go to world peace. That was what people really wanted to talk about. That was the subject under the story of their lives. Or maybe it was running parallel.
What’s so fascinating about Nelson’s plays is how they are about the physical, practical world we actually live in. In most works of art, there’s a suspension of disbelief and nobody really talks about what they read, or what movies they see, or the real anything. Everyone seems to live in a world without ideas except for the ones they have in context to a kind of fiction. These Apple Family plays had real ideas and real things: like the Rainbow Room and Nixon or Bard College or Obama. It was like listening to an essay—the way the ideas were formulated.
MH: People don't eat in movies, either. Except Brad Pitt. He’s always eating in the movies. In one of the Ocean’s movies—in virtually every scene—he’s eating something. People never go to the bathroom in the movies either. Or you never see someone waiting for someone coming out of the bathroom.
MK: Or read. You almost never have a scene where someone enters a room and there’s somebody sitting there reading. But, there is that amazing scene in Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lecter is reading, of all things, Poetry magazine. There’s a long shot on the cover—astonishing for a couple of reasons. It said as much about him as the killings did and supported the audience member who can’t understand why they are fixated with a killer. And we don’t see him kill anybody until—as it turns out—the scene after Poetry magazine.
MH: Have you read Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill? I just saw the documentary based on it—which was devastating. The next day I was walking my dog and passed the two delis I always pass and see the headlines in the Post, the News and the Times about a drone strike in Afghanistan. And, after learning about these assassinations and drone strikes—and there have been hundreds of them—which is what Scahill’s movie is about; so many civilians have been killed “by mistake.” The cover of the Post was gratuitous and gross—some horrible joke about a drone strike killing a wedding party, instead of a party they'd hoped to kill. There was no compassion in the report, which also said three terrorists might have been part of the wedding. And nobody knows if the bride and groom were killed. And that was it. I couldn't find anything about the bombing over the next two days in the news. We are asleep.
To live in this country at this time—to live in a first world country, which is what we are—to live in an empire that is waging war or has a military presence in seven countries—all of this is something very easy to forget. No one is talking about it in the media; no one is talking in mainstream media about the fact that many of us have what we have—our phones, and our cars, and our comforts—all this at the expense of other people. Even the Kennedy assassination—the relationship between Jack Ruby and Oswald and the CIA—and all these training camps, and who was trained by who—is still not common knowledge. It feels like we're just constantly going to sleep, while the government is saying, It's okay, it's okay, we'll take care of it.
So, art wakes people up and art revives people—like those plays that you’re talking about—and like the puppeteer in Washington Square Park. It’s art that reminds us that the political and the personal are deeply connected and that the public and the personal are connected. That was Adrienne Rich's entire project, wasn’t it?
MK: Adrienne wrote: “The moment when a feeling enters the body is political.”
MH: But, back then I thought, what in the world is she talking about? And I was in this class, thinking: how is this possible? Her book, Diving Into the Wreck, was a book that was too hard for me to read. I couldn't see it. It took me months and years to see what she was talking about.
MK: The amazing thing about Adrienne was how singular she was. Why aren't there more people like this? Was she so important and loved because she stood alone in the wilderness? Her readings would attract, sometimes, a thousand people.
MH: She was a global thinker and I don't know that I am. I think about that a lot—people who can write from one self, and see out—like Audre Lorde, Adrienne or Muriel Rukeyser. These are people who can look out and see the whole world. Then, there are people who are more interior, but still have a huge effect, I think—like Paul Celan, or James Wright. Or Brenda Hillman, right now, who is such a lyrical, interior poet and who is also very political. It's a very interesting place to be—living inside the American empire at the beginning of the 21st century, the beginning of it—because I doubt that we'll be the empire for much longer. We really need to look at who we are and where we are.
We did this poetry event in Washington Square Park that was so exhilarating—a 20-minute, out loud, call-and-answer poetry kind of church which involves saying the words of another writer and using the human microphone from the Occupy Movement. It broke down the wall between the audience and the so-called speaker. No one is watching. That's the thing, right? Not to watch anymore?
Back to what you were saying about The Apple Family plays—the great plays are the ones where we don't feel we're watching, but actually participating in some way.
MK: Marie Irene Fornes did this, literally, with her play Fefu and Her Friends. The audience was divided into four parts, and each one stood in a room on the stage and listened to someone speaking, and then moved to the next room, and the room after that. The genius was that it was written in such a way that no matter where somebody started, you were able to get the full experience. And the play always made sense. The very design of it gave the play a great sense of empathy.
MH: Empathy is the answer to everything, isn’t it? Hundreds of people go to plays and not to poetry readings. I think we should stop calling poetry “Poetry.” I think we should start saying, come to a performance about sex and death and doubt.
MK: Where we read poems.
MH: But don't tell anybody that. We have to begin to call it something else.
MK: So people will come.
MH: Why are The Apple Family plays completely sold out at the Public Theatre? Why is poetry still—except for people like Adrienne Rich or Billy Collins—who is another breakout poet for other reasons—so obscure? I think we have to answer that. And, we have to reframe it in the culture in a different way. Well, now that I think about it, performance poets are reframing it—hundreds of younger people go to hear and see performance people and rappers. Oh, it might be the page poets who need to recalibrate—not to give up the page—but add another way for poetry to be seen and heard.
MK: What does that reframing entail, do you think?
MH: People have tried to document what was happening in Washington Square Park, but it always looks like it's one person reading and that gets annoying, because it's not. It's everybody saying the poem at the same time. That experience is so different from listening to a poet. When everybody says, "I sing the body electric” together it's really electric. And I'm not saying that every poetry reading should be like call and answer, but a way of putting it in a kind of context where there are no spectators.
MK: One of the great things about Hair, the musical, was that they put Shakespeare to music. “What a piece of work is man? How noble in reason . . . .” I’d never read Shakespeare before or couldn’t care less about him. But when I heard him presented in a song, it was thrilling. And “I sing the body electric” was put to music in the movie Fame. Lynda Barry, the writer and cartoonist, reframes poetry, too. She says, if you take Frost’s “Whose woods are these, I think I know, his house is in the village though,” you can sing it to the tune of “Hernando’s Hideaway” from the Broadway musical The Pajama Game.
MH: Yes. And there's Emily Dickinson and "The Yellow Rose of Texas." A lot of her poems go to that song.
MK: And you remember them. They get into your body and stay there. Speaking of Robert Frost, I know he’s one of your influences in your own work. Who else is an influence, do you think?
MH: Seamus Heaney has been a big influence on me—especially his book Seeing Things. It's interesting, Robert Frost and Seamus Heaney. Who knew? I started reading Heaney’s poems from the beginning—straight through. It's just fascinating to see the patterns and repetitions and the deepenings. He must say the words “I loved” dozens of times. I loved this, I loved that—it’s one of the most common phrases he uses.
MK: Like Hikmet's “Things I Didn't Know I Loved.”
MH: Well, in a sense—but Hikmet has been in prison a long time—his tone is very different from Heaney’s. Heaney is a celebrator of the earth and of tribal delights—as in Seeing Things, a childhood of brothers and sisters making games out of any old thing like a couch or a rope. It’s been just wonderful to be in his company every day. And I was thinking, again, about the interior life.
We were talking about people saying poems together, out in public, and plays—where you don't feel like a watcher, but you're together with a whole lot of people—the way we used to go to the movies; where you would have a collective experience together—individual, but all together, which is so important.
And yet, every day, for maybe an hour or 45 minutes, I'll be just with Seamus. And it looks like I'm alone, but I'm reading him and it's totally interior. It’s been so rich. I want more and more of my life to be two things: going out to theater and concerts and places where I am with people of my species, and also home, where I can actually inhabit the interior chambers of my own soul. So, poetry can be both. Which I think is what Adrienne was doing all along. She was an orator, in a way—a spokesperson in the world.
MK: One of the great things about seeing her read was how she engaged with the audience. And, again—the fact that she was standing with people, not in front of them. She was a great reader of poems.
MH: Grace Paley was the same way. You always just felt that you were with Grace at eye level—and she was talking.
MK: Yes. Everything they said was all of a piece. I see a lot of people just sort of getting up there to present themselves. Show and tell. It feels sometimes like the work only belongs to them and that's why I think poetry gets a bad rap, because it's presented in a way where you need credentials to get into the club. And you don't. You just have to be a human—awake, listening.
MH: That was the gift of Jack Gilbert's poetry. He was so completely one soul who said that we can't give up delight. We always feel included in his work. You feel like he's talking with you all at the same time.
There's this amazing book, Against the Pollution of The I by Jacques Lusseyran—a man who was blinded at eight, who worked for the Resistance in France and was turned in with a thousand other people and sent to Buchenwald. He writes so movingly about being in the camps. Of the thousand there, two survived and he was one of them. And he says, now I'm going to say a word that one cannot say, unless you've been there. There's joy, even in Buchenwald.
And he talked about a day when they were all in these freezing showers and there were a thousand men in a room that could only hold 30 people. They were wet and it was awful and you couldn't move. And someone began to say a poem out loud and everyone made space for this person. And Lusseyran wrote that they all felt as if they were being warmed by a hearth, as this person said the poem. And then another person said a poem. And then another person said a poem.
But these were not poems about loss. These were poems about bread and apples and sunlight—poems about the beauty of the world. That’s what people wanted to hear. If anyone started to say a poem that wasn't about that beauty, they wouldn't listen. There it was, Gilbert’s “We must risk delight.”
Against the Pollution of the I is such a wonderful book. It is so moving. It opened up places in me I didn't know were there, and reminded me of what's important. He talked about the gift of being blind and how sighted people are handicapped because they could actually believe that surfaces matter; that surfaces are the truth.
MK: What have you been reading lately aside from Heaney?
MH: Oddly enough, I've been reading Thomas Merton.
MK: The sacred or the secular stuff?
MH: Zen and the Birds of Appetite. I'm so late to reading this. But, he writes about Meister Eckhart—who I love—and says that Eckhart was very close to being a Zen master. And what he's talking about is how he sees the presence of God and Zen's notion of emptiness and Meister Eckhart's notion of extreme poverty of spirit—giving up everything—even the idea of God. So that God can come and possess you. It’s very similar to the Zen idea of the void or emptiness.
And then he talks about the church in the '60s—how the post-ecumenical thinking—and one could sense this in the bad poetry and music of the time—had ceased to be representative of a church that was celebrating the presence of the divine. It had become a church that was encouraging a connection of the human community. People would get together and have a community—which was this hunger they had; make meals, do social work. But, what was discouraged, oddly, was meditation and prayer and the notion of a presence of the divine. And, as soon as I read it, I thought, my God, it's true. It became like a hootenanny—moving, because we're all together. He was talking about how the mystical essentially upends the authority of the church constantly. You can't have the structure of the church. The mystical doesn't pay attention to that; doesn't have anything to do with that.
And that's where I was yesterday. And then I was reading Seamus and his turf people. Actually, I've read to where he's just gotten married and it's very beautiful because he writes, within these limits, now, I have lived my life. He has that gorgeous poem—“Field of Vision”—about a woman in a wheelchair in a house in a country who sits in a doorway and looks out all day and how her view is made clearer by what bars the way. She can see deeper in, because of the frame around the door.
So, I'm very interested in the frame around things, these days. Being a mother is a door, is a frame. It's a limit, to an extent, because I have to be home. I make meals. I'm there when my daughter goes to bed. I'm there when she wakes up. I make her breakfast. And I've really come to love that limitation, if you will—that anchoring; that frame in life. It's new for me to understand that.
MK: Are you used to the new thinking—being a mother?
MH: Everything changes. And it sounds so corny—but now there's somebody I would die for. There's somebody I would put myself in front of a car for.
MK: Real love.
MH: All kinds of real love exist. Mother love is one kind—and as every mother knows it is joyful and it’s not without its ambivalence.
MK: When you were the New York State Poet for two years, you staged a public artwork called “The Poet Is In.” Could you talk about it a little bit?
MH: Yes. “The Poet Is In” was an interactive public art performance of a kind. It was a way to bring poetry to the public world, to the streets and public intersections where those who might not know poetry could access it, as well as people who already loved poetry could bump into it and be refreshed, moved, celebrated, and resuscitated. The model is inspired by the old Peanuts comic strip character Lucy who often sat at her booth with a sign that said “The Doctor Is In.”
MK: Explain how it works—the logistics?
MH: It’s a simple setup: A poet sits at a desk with a lamp, a typewriter, a bell, a timer, a stamp that says ORIGINAL, carbon paper, and white copy paper. Another chair is pulled to the desk, at an angle, for the person who wishes for a poem to sit and wait. The desk provides a space that is a refuge from the movement around them, a place for safety and repose. So, the Poet is there to write a poem for that person and spends a minute or two asking some questions, talking in general—that kind of thing. Getting to know them. After a few minutes of that, the Poet turns over the timer, and in three minutes writes a poem for that person—never worrying about mistakes. Mistakes happen on a typewriter, which is why we use one. The Poet puts XXXXs through the wrong word and types the necessary one. It is a great reminder that imperfections are human.
At the conclusion of writing she rings the bell, stamps the poem with the ORIGINAL stamp, signs and dates the poem, and pulls it out of the typewriter. Then, she signs the poem and reads it to the recipient before giving them the original. The carbon copy is kept in a box to archive.
When we first put on the event, it was at Grand Central Terminal in Vanderbilt Hall. We were just astonished at the response. Some people stood in line for over two hours to receive a poem. And when the Poet read the poem to the person who came for it, that person often wept. It was an utter joy.
MK: I love that you used a typewriter. I bet many young people didn't know what a typewriter was. Or carbon paper, for that matter.
MH: The kids were fascinated about how you could make a lot of mistakes—Xs and crossing words out. All the poems had all the “mistakes” in them.
MK: Like Mary Ruefle who said in a letter to me, Isn't it great how you have to cross out words to make sense?
MH: Yes—and poetry is the place where the meaning is as much in the silence as it is in the words.