Interview with Fanny Howe, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
SL: You’ve had a long career in writing; how did you feel when you heard about your nomination?
FH: I was astonished, almost afraid. Although I have judged lots of manuscripts for contests, I have rarely been nominated for anything and have never entered a contest. I was a second daughter, out of three, and happily lost in the shuffle. My ideal state is solitary, at home, watching the world go by from my window. When I heard about the nomination, I immediately looked at the others on the list to decide who should and would win.
SL: “I decided to stop becoming an adult. That day I chose to blur facts, fail at tests, and slouch under a hood.” Second Childhood works towards seeing the world afresh by imagining aging as a state of childhood. What were the interesting problems that occurred for you, as you explored this idea, while writing this collection?
FH: This collection was written away from home, in strange places, and between places. I was working with strangers and in many cases the stranger was myself. My only friend for two years was a Trappist monk, studying for his degree before he returned to enclosed living. It was a miracle we had each other to go to movies, galleries, museums and restaurants together, talking of philosophy, theology and life matters. Outside of that relationship, I was very alone in a large city (DC), invisible and happy only with books and films. I realized a deep mistrust of adults had been with me for decades, and a kind of idiocy too. I am almost always wrong.
SL: There is the marvelous quote from Blake that serves as an epigraph to the collection: “Fear & hope are—Vision.” How does this book bear out this intuition?
FH: The picture that accompanies this line of Blake’s is of a mother in bed with two children, faces full of fear, a little hope, as an angelic vision hovers before them, pointing upwards. In the next to last poem in the book, “A Vision,” the gates of heaven are partially opened and two children are accompanying the poet through meadows, transcendental fields.
SL: You write both poetry and prose; does one practice influence the other?
FH: My obedience to story-telling emerges in my sets of poems. But also the “I” in my poems is a stranger to me, someone “sent forth” like a character in a novel to explore the bizarre nature of being, to touch and feel surfaces, to wander as a child does, invisible, without power. Poetry for me is close to allegory in this way. But the story can only be traced in reverse.
SL: Many of your poems seem to express a longing for contradiction, an appetite for the unanswerable. How do you square history and the personal in your writing?
FH: When I hit a paradox I feel I have just bumped my head on the ceiling of heaven. Half of me always wants to stay in the world, but the other half wants to leave wherever I am and float up and out of here. This creates a desire for failure, something to make real the impossibility of the world, of living in it, and verify the existence of a limit. If there were no shock on hitting a limit, there would be no meaning to existence. The impossible keeps us going.
Sandra Lim is the author of The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014), selected by Louise Glück for the 2013 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and a previous collection of poetry, Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006). The recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Getty Research Institute, she is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.