“The Wormy Compost: An Interview with Rebecca Gayle Howell” by Emilia Phillips

January 15, 2016

Rebecca Gayle Howell is the author of Render /An Apocalypse (CSU, 2013), which was selected by Nick Flynn for the Cleveland State University First Book Prize and was a 2014 finalist for ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year. She is also the translator of Amal al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation (Alice James Books, 2011), which was named a 2011 Best Book of Poetry by Library Journal and shortlisted for Three Percent’s 2012 Best Translated Book Award. Among her awards are fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Carson McCullers Center, as well as a 2014 Pushcart Prize. Native to Kentucky, Howell is the Poetry Editor at Oxford American. (Photo credit: Juan Pablo Echeverri)

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: I have always been drawn to poetry about work, and the sequence of poems in Render /An Apocalypse offer the reader the muddy and often bloody work of rural life. Do you see an analogy between the work of poetry and manual labor? Is it foolish—or even dangerous—to make too much of the similarities between two different kinds of work?

Rebecca Gayle Howell: I don’t think it’s foolish to think about work. I think we are in real need of a conversation big enough to include globalized war capitalism, exploitation, labor, and the possibility of neighborliness. It’s a necessary conversation, as necessary as our conversation about the global control of women or the brutalities of American racism.

However, for me, there is not a useful analogy between the work my grandparents did on their subsistence farm, or the work my parents did in our diner, and the work I do on a 13″ screen. I try to remember the difference, and I do find value in that.

EP: A student once said that poetry doesn’t reach a large and “diverse” (his word, not mine) enough audience to be meaningful or to make an impact in the conversations about social issues like the ones you just mentioned. Another student argued that if it’s meaningful to even one person, it’s meaningful to the conversation. Where do you see poetry falling on the spectrum of discourse about social issues? Even though newspapers no longer carry poems, do you see poems as being able to bear the “news” of the world?

RGH: bear. I love your right use of that verb.

I think poetry is built to bear the human heart. And some poems are built strong enough to bear it across time and place. “The news” is a part of that, isn’t?—all the sorrow we create by hurting others because we’re just too damned sad or angry or afraid to hurt alone. That’s what I see happening around me. The currency of time’s particulars—Ferguson, Fallujah, Kim Davis—these details are, in one kind of poem, what the frozen swamp is to a Robert Frost poem. The Waste Land lasts, but World War I didn’t. A Missouri boy wrote a few words down because he experienced real fear, and we return to April and its cruelty year after year because we also know a real fear. Does it make the poem irrelevant, the fact the war is over? I think now too of Espada’s Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100. Espada’s small will to put one word in front of the other forever resurrects the working class fallen in the Trade Center attacks. A resurrection is God’s work. How dare a guy from Brooklyn do God’s work! He dares, to borrow from the poem, because music is all we have. I see no reason to not sing out from the news, just as I see no reason to not sing out about the loss of one’s mother or the hope of falling in love.

Although, I want to say I think the first student issues an important warning. The love of a thing, like the knowledge of it, is passed down from generation to generation. If we worry about poetry’s relevance and readership, we must love poetry to each other. And by each other, I don’t mean the other poets at the cocktail party.

EP: How have you sought to take poetry outside of the classroom, outside of the poets’ party?

RGH: Ten years ago I began my public service to poetry when I was the director of The Kentucky Women Writers Conference. It’s the longest running conference of its kind in the country and, although its reputation is held by a regional few, it has hosted everyone from Maya Angelou to Gloria Anzaldua to Louise Glück. My tenure as director was formative for my thinking on literary citizenship. I worked to fundraise a large annual budget so I could expand the WWC’s reach beyond the University’s walls, and I increased its presence from 250 attendees to 2000 in three years by creating literary events that authentically held public interest. I also worked to start an annual symposium called The Sonia Series, which continues today—every year, the WWC now brings in a major writer and/or artist of color to teach in Lexington’s North and East-end neighborhoods (those neighborhoods which are predominantly African American, Latina/o, and working class). It’s named after Sonia Sanchez, who is many times over a former presenter of the Conference, and who, each time she came, asked to serve public schools and community centers (on top of what she was being paid to do). Ms. Sonia knows, and acts like she knows, that sometimes you really do have to bring the mountain to Mohammad.

One measure of my current life is that I write books I hope speak beyond the AWP crowd. My dear friend, the poet Ada Limón, and I have been in recent conversation about the word “accessible,” which is often thrown as an insult, but she thinks, and I agree, is anything but. I receive letters from Render’s readers, commonly from farmers and cooks, and those letters mean everything to me. I am a member of the working class; I started working in my parents’ diner when I was eight years old. Nikky Finney tells her students (of which I am one) “Don’t leave your people behind.”

I suppose another measure is my editorial position with Oxford American. I committed myself to OA in large part because it speaks to a wide and general readership. Our print run for each issue averages at 35,000 copies. That’s a lot of coffee tables and bedside nightstands, a lot of people who are just looking for a good read. And it’s my job to select poetry for them! I couldn’t be happier about that. This summer I also started what I’ve been calling to myself an all-in CSA—in exchange for some of their home grown or home preserved foods, I’ve offered a few months’ instruction to two writers. “CSA” stands here for both Community Supported Agriculture and Community Supported Art. Needless to say, I’ll be eating real good this winter. I encourage other artist-teachers to try it.

EP: I’m thinking of nourishment now. A few students in one of my creative writing workshops were complaining that we read too much for a writing class. Is reading as important—more important—as writing for you? For all writers? Is reading the nourishment we have to take in in order to write?

RGH: Gerald Stern, who was another of my teachers, says “Writers are readers who occasionally write.” That’s been true for me; when I was 12 years old I didn’t fall in love with writing, I fell in love with literature, with its capacity to share a charge, a spark, to act as a conduit for a living electricity, that electricity we call love or grief or wisdom or prayer or….I let its possibility race my heart, change my life. It gave me hope. And I’ve lived my life since in the pursuit of it. I read widely—in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, socio-economics, human rights, protest literature, history, the news—and all of it is dumped into the wormy compost that is my mind, from which my actions spring. (My writing being only one of many actions for which I am responsible.) I think Gerry was warning us, his students, to not turn writing into a masturbatory act. Literature gives us the chance to make real contact with someone else.

When I am teaching I remember his advice in the context of my background in language acquisition. If what we apprenticing writers are acquiring is a fluency in literary Englishes, then we must practice immersion to reach that goal. In other words, we must read. A lot.

EP: What have you recently assigned your students? What have we loved? As a teacher, do you think that guiding a new reader to poetry is as important as writing a great poem. Why or why not? [You can totally answer “no.”]

RGH: Well, I’m not teaching in a traditional classroom at the moment, so I’d be lying if I said I was assigning much these days, but, when I do, my reading lists select widely among genres, as well as across both critical and creative voices. I also love teaching classes wherein the students are responsible for a new poetry collection every session; it helps them develop a consistent practice of reading poetry and requires them to rapidly understand many traditions. All in all, I want my students who are intimidated to become less afraid, and my students who are a little too interested in their own voices to fall in love with others’. And, yes. I do think reading and writing are equally as important. I mean, what’s the goal? If you are Gwendolyn Brooks or if you are student #657 reading Gwendolyn Brooks, I think the goal is the same: let poetry in, let it change you.

EP: I recently had Carl Phillips sign a book for a friend of mine. Carl asked, “Is your friend a poet?” I said that she wasn’t a part of the publishing poetry community, that most of her experience with poetry was through reading. “That’s almost better, I think,” he said. I’ve been thinking about that ever since, and I’ve been committed to giving poetry as a gift. Like all gifts, I think, some will appreciate it, some won’t. Have you ever given poetry—a book, a broadside, a url, etc.—to someone and been surprised by the reaction?

RGH: I gave Alicia Ostriker’s The Old Woman, The Tulip, and The Dog to my doctor a few weeks ago. She thanked me, but in the way you thank a two year old child for giving you a rock. The next appointment she said, “I really loved that book!” (Her shock at herself was the exclamation.) “I mean, I really liked it! I couldn’t sleep one night, and I picked it up and read one poem, and pretty soon I wanted to stay awake just so I could finish it!” That shock is part of the gift, I think.

EP: How was your experience coming to know the poems of Amal al-Jubouri, whose work your translated in Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation? In some ways, do you see the act of translation as gifting poems to yourself in your own language?

RGH: Translation is an incredibly careful, slow, frustrating, thrilling, turn-you-inside-out experience—maybe it’s closer to say it is a lot like love affair. It changes you.

I admire Amal’s poetry greatly. I learned and still learn a whole lot from her ability to levitate history while she is in the confessional I.

EP: I love this idea of poetry being able to “levitate history,” as it also reminds me of WCW’s lines about “the news”—the present tense of “history”—in poetry:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there

How do you think poets help define the news, if at all? Classical poets have helped define ancient history. Do you think that a hundred years from now, scholars and historians will look to our poems to understand our day’s news?

RGH: O Lord. I don’t know. When I think about a hundred years from now, I think about who will have water, food, and safety—and who will not. We who are living now have changed the habitat and, with it, the human narrative. Whether I think poetry currently defines the news takes us back to our earlier conversation; what I think is that poetry is built to bear the human heart. I have no doubt, for example, Adrienne Rich’s heart and the words she built to bear it into our time, now without her, have dramatically shaped today’s news. But I don’t believe for one minute she was trying to make news. Ms. Rich lived, imagined, and wrote courageously. Once she decolonized her mind from the patriarchy, she seems to have never flagged in her effort to encourage women everywhere to think, read, write, tell the truth, come out from the shadows of “lies, secrets, and silence.” Do I think I can draw a straight line from Ellen Degeneres’s historic TV kiss or Senator Elizabeth Warren or Malala Yousafzai to Ms. Rich’s Diving Into The Wreck? No, I don’t. But I do think it’s a little like catching the A train by way of the J.

EP: For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how poets can render landscape—or, at the very least, the atmosphere of that landscape—in language. I believe increasingly that the sound of language can help render space and the sound that echoes around in that space. (In a workshop in Mexico several years ago, Tom Sleigh pointed me to the section of Wordsworth’s The Prelude in which ice skating was rendered more through sound than the actual description of the act.) Your poems, both of Render/An Apocalypse and the new ones I’ve seen in journals, always have a feeling of having a physical atmosphere beyond that rendered in the content of the language. This morning I was just rereading your two poems in the June 2015 issue of Poetry, and in “Something’s Coming but Never Does,” I’m just so struck by the sounds of its opening:

I follow locusts. I think they’re loyal, but it’s a story.
In morning’s bleached streets and nights
of tungsten glinting, their fretted steel legs
ticker the minutes. What do I know, except I need
a thing to walk behind.

Without going down the rabbit-hole of prosody here, let me just say that I get this sense of chasing after something, and I think it arrives with phrases like “tungsten glinting” in which consonants follow after one another, in much the same way the speaker is following locusts. (Not to mention that almost onomatopoeic “steel legs / ticker.”) In some ways, it strikes me that I most admire those poems that have onomatopoeic gestures, those places in which the sound of the language mimics the sounds in the dramatic situation and setting. Certainly, this could easily be overdone and heavy-handed; too willful and perhaps even easy. How do you find a balance between sound and content in your poems?

RGH: I’m not sure I know how or if I do that. I believe that every poem, or movement of poems, possesses its own song, shape, form; it is my job to listen deeply, to seek the song the poem is already singing. “Listen and dictate.” All I can tell you is I try to do this with as much integrity as I can wield on any given day.

Landscape or place is important to me. Wendell [Berry] teaches us that we are all of a place—that no human, no dollar, no tomato, and no poem is an isolate void of interconnection and interdependence. Beginning first with the place of a poem is a contemplative practice for me, as it teaches me how to be the small creature I am, in my now, endowed both with consequence and action.

EP: Is a poem a landscape?

RGH: Land is a corporeal space tuned to its lived history. A poem is a metaphoric space that is tuned to its now.

EP: Do we need poetry to attune ourselves to the present moment?

RGH: Well, I think we need to attune ourselves to the present moment, and I think reading, writing, and memorizing poetry is a real good way to practice that.

Sara Eliza Johnson: Pick an animal or plant that you think epitomizes your poetry and/or poetic process. That is, what animal or plant is the best metaphor for your poetics and why?

RGH: My dog Key. She is a Great Dane / Malinois mix, which is to say, she is big, smart, impatient to play, and full of grace. I don’t care about my own poetics, but I know she is what poetry has been in my life.

EP: Thank you for your time and work on this interview, Rebecca! Please provide us with a question for our next interviewee.

RGH: What is the TV show you most love and are most embarrassed to admit to in public?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming March 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com

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