Fanny Howe on Race, Family, and the Line Between Fiction and Poetry
A Great American Thinker in Conversation with Bill Corbett
To begin the interview that follows, I came up from Brooklyn, where after 50 years in Boston I now live, to Cambridge, meeting Fanny Howe at her apartment building off Cambridge Common. After teaching for many years in California Fanny returned to Cambridge. She named her new apartment “the brick womb.” From there we walked to her office in the former Radcliffe College Bunting Quad. Her apartment and office are ten minutes by foot from the Highland Street house in which she grew up.
Fanny’s office is on the first floor and looks out on lawn crossed by sidewalks, the backs of building and several parking spaces. She’s not there for the view. The single room has no personality—this is an office for work. There is a large standing bookcase filled with books she has carried with her and read many times, books that she pulled from the shelves to correctly quote a line or two. She sat in the room’s only armchair. I sat in her office chair across from her. On her desk three oranges and a deck of yellow Post-its lit up the drab, early March afternoon and there sat her computer attached to a printer. Off to the side stood a file cabinet. The room’s one unusual feature was the stacks of notebooks on a table. These were in the process of being catalogued. Fanny prefers cheap notebooks, ring bound or old-fashioned composition books easy to fit in coat pocket or carry all. Those on the table had known hard use.
At the first interview I placed my cell phone, set to record, on the hassock between us. We spoke for over three hours and the machine worked fine. On the second day, unbeknownst to us, it picked up only the first fifteen or so minutes of our talk. I went to Grafton Street, our Cambridge local, ordered a stiff drink and wrote down as much as I could recover of what Fanny had said. A few weeks later in Manhattan I attended a seminar Fanny gave titled “Acts of Mercy” at the CUNY Graduate Center on Madison Avenue at 34th Street. Some of what follows came from that afternoon during which Fanny showed two of the short films she has recently worked on.
A third session took place back in her office on a wet, raw May afternoon. We did as before, phone set to record on hassock, and talked for nearly three hours. Neither of us noticed that we did not pause for even a sip of water. Nor had we paused during our other sessions. There were no glasses or cups visible in the office. We were so hard at work that our lack of refreshment didn’t occur to me until much later when writing this introduction. To clarify a few points, we sent emails back and forth. Throughout, Fanny, nervous going into the process, finished each session by remarking, as if a little surprised, on how much she had enjoyed herself.
Bill Corbett: Born in Buffalo, you grew up in Cambridge?
Fanny Howe: Yes, my mother, sister and I left Buffalo when my father went into the war. He was a lieutenant and then he became a colonel. He served in Sicily and North Africa and then after the war he went to Potsdam to give legal advice in the reorganization of Europe. He was gone for most of my early childhood.
BC: What is your earliest memory of him?
FH: The very earliest is of him in his uniform saying goodbye. Then after the war he came home to Cambridge. He pretended he was delivering the paper and my mother opened the door and there he was, still in uniform
BC: Your mother is Irish. What was her background?
FH: She grew up in Dublin with her mother and two siblings. She was born in 1906 so she was alert to the events of 1916, the bombs falling. She disliked the British and DeValera and believed in the new Republic of Ireland. Her family was Quaker, some of them radical. She became involved in the theatre and ran the daily newspaper for the Gate. She acted in and produced her own plays. She was a rising and important figure in Irish drama, but she felt she had to get married. She came to America to do so and chose my father at a dinner party over Christmas and they married in February.
BC: What was it like growing up in Cambridge after World War II?
FH: It was a lovely shabby town full of trees and empty streets, bikes and wandering dogs. Many émigrés from the war in Europe lived and had their children in school there. Our family doctor was one of a group of highly educated women psychiatrists and physicians who had to flee Germany. Many of our teachers and our parents’ friends had accents. There were very few fathers or men in Cambridge during the war. This atmosphere, so very hard to describe, remains with me.
My parents were very permissive so I could run the streets, go to the movies and steal candy without fear of punishment.
BC: Your father died young?
FH: At 60, a heart attack in the night after he had shoveled snow and attended a meeting on school busing in Roxbury. He died in 1967 during the great sweep of assassinations and his death for me was part of what ended with (Robert) Kennedy’s death. My father is the model I have carried with me of being personally sealed off but still effective.
I went with him to rallies and the political skirmishes around Boston. Then Kennedy became the big excitement. He let me stay home from school to attend the book banning trial for Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. We were there when Ginsberg read aloud: “Motel, Motel, Motel” and the judge got interested. We did things together like this. He made sure that I attend the Malcolm X talk at Harvard, one of the most searing events of my life, alive as if yesterday.
BC: When did the Poets’ theater come into your life?
FH: Nineteen-fifty. I was ten. It was the thing that made our house so lively, its Irish sensibility including actors and plays that came from Dublin. My mother had a European sense of experimental theater. The theater put on Ionesco, her own version of Finnegans Wake and the eccentric Yeats plays.
BC: How were you involved in this world?
FH: Not involved except I worked as an usher in the dark. Theater scares me. I went to movies alone, my love them for was so great, when I was a teen. In a sense I believed they were made for me, me alone. Neo-Realism especially.
BC: Were you involved politically while at Stanford?
FH: Yes, there was capital punishment, Caryl Chessman in San Quentin, and HUAC. I got into the courthouse for the HUAC hearings, shouted and they threw me out. I was washed down the steps of City Hall by a fire hose. My boyfriend was a Communist who wore a fraternity pin and a red star. I also did have great teachers, including a teacher in comparative religion who kept the God flame alive and Alexander Kerensky who headed the White Russian party during the revolution. I majored in European history. Then I met my first husband, a microbiologist, eleven years older than me and very handsome and conservative. I eloped with him to be free, what a mistake. His last name was Delafield. We lived in Berkeley during the early 1960s.
BC: Didn’t you use his name for the first two books you published?
FH: Yes, Della Field.
BC: These are the novels you published with Avon Books. How did that happen?
FH: Money. I needed to earn money. I had left college without a degree but needed to prove myself to my family. So I regressed to the family trade—that is, a long line of writers who were like weavers, nothing very exalted but requiring persistence. You could hide away with this trade, conceal your shame, and try to live up to your privilege.
I left my husband on November 26, 1963, days after JFK’s assassination. I took the train from California to Massachusetts. I had a walking breakdown that lasted a few years, but nobody noticed. I understand that the poet Bob Kaufman also had a breakdown after the assassination of JFK.
BC: And then you moved to Manhattan?
FH: My friend from high school was in New York. We got an apartment on the Bowery between 3rd and 4th Street and I got a job by just going in and asking for one at Avon Books so I could stay at home to work, but it was not enough money, and I went to work at Joe Allen’s bar in the Theater District and hid in a mountain of wet coats reading novels while money was tossed my way. More and more by the hour. I wrote Vietnam Nurse there and began to read contemporary fiction from other countries: Alberto Moravia, Julio Cortazar and Doris Lessing.
BC: Is this when you met Edward Dahlberg?
FH: Frank MacShane, a friend of mine who taught at Columbia, gave me Because I Was Flesh. The book blew my mind, so filled with scripture, socially brutal, sacred and profane in one inseparable blast. We had a correspondence before we met. He responded warmly and his letters meant the world to me.
BC: What did you learn from him?
FH: I suppose a language for the heart. The heart is a brain but it works by reaction rather than by speech. He believed that every word you wrote had to come from the heart. “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.” It’s a way of life, following calls, rather than writing maps. A language for the heart is certainly my goal. Not sentimental, but perilous. And very hard to achieve, if you take its meaning seriously. Dahlberg would have castigated me throughout my life for failing.
BC: And after?
FH: Avon Equinox published some young writers who went, later, to the Fiction Collective. We were trying to work out new forms of storytelling. Some of it was meta-fiction, some (like mine) used fragments and stanzas like poems to organize plot and thought. Jack Spicer’s poems gave me the structure for my novel In the Middle of Nowhere. Many of us were looking at fiction through the lens of film and the Nouvelle Vague in France. This was before structuralism, it was post-War and existentialist in mood. We sensed that the end of the Enlightenment had already happened and the place of the human in the scheme of things was radically reduced. We were Gnostic at heart, some of us, terrified. In the last 40 years of the 20th century in America it was young women who showed what was being lost, who writhed and wrote the most vital and interesting work, came out of hiding and tore into the West (Audre Lorde) or were unearthed, like Hurston, Duras… but it would continue to be male fiction writers who dominated.
Because of the strange twists in my reading life, it was Weil, Arendt, Benjamin, Boff, Malcolm X and finally Agamben who helped me along. But poetry, both original and in translation, was my unwavering companion.
BC: How did you meet your husband Carl Senna?
FH: He brought me a short story he had written, as a submission to our little magazine, Fire Exit. We took the story, as you remember, it was very intense and good. Carl and I were friends first and I met his family later. We had our children, three in four years. His mother lived with us and worked in the traffic department downtown.
BC: Do you think of your children as black or white?
FH: Neither. They decided to call themselves Black at their father’s behest, and that was fine with me. The segregated city of Boston was still dominated by academic and paranoid discussions of race and children and it was best that they claim a side before someone else laid it on them. Race has determined their relationship to this country, and mine. For me, it was economics, racial injustice and the lives of children that mattered, and still do.
BC: Did Carl influence your religious direction?
FH: He was Catholic and did refer to the Church, with love and loathing. He would come to Mass and read the newspaper during the liturgy.
Then he and I discovered Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace. I think he brought the book home, and I still have that worn copy. We had excited conversations about her beliefs, her thought, and political philosophy. My reading changed after that. It became more and more clear to me that I was on a new way. I plunged into theology, philosophy, political theory and left fiction far behind. It was Weil’s attraction to paradox and her notebook voice empty of seductive clauses, not written for show, her analysis of impersonality woke me up, supernatural mechanisms in syntax and physical labor.
BC: You have said that as an adolescent you imagined a poet as having a life outside the law. Did being a poet feel like that in your thirties with children and a difficult marriage?
BC: When you separated from your husband where did you go?
FH: The kids and I went to live near family in Connecticut and there I met Maureen Owen who was then publishing Telephone Books and was one of the pioneer women poets. Her attitude was so great and innovative, open, her poetry the same. We helped each other with the kids. She traveled to New York to work at the Poetry Project, up and down, back and forth, independent, productive. I was commuting to Columbia to teach.
BC: For several years you were on the move.
FH: Yes, and then I returned to try to make my marriage work. When it broke up we, my children and I kept moving around Jamaica Plain, four different houses. A lot of the dislocation had to do with school busing and having to get the kids into schools that were decent, as in racially sane.
BC: How did you begin to teach at MIT?
FH: It was a time when it was possible to get jobs without advanced academic training. None of my poet friends thought of ourselves as having a career. That I had no higher degree didn’t matter. I met my MIT colleague and friend Ilona Karmel on the first day. She remained my best friend and teacher even when I moved to California and England and back to California, then Boston.
She had written one great novel, An Estate of Memory, about the years she spent in Buchenwald, where she and her sister wrote poetry they sewed into their clothes. They both survived massive injuries. She talked about all the things I wanted to talk about. She was a brutal critic and slashed through books and manuscripts with a machete. She saw my work as innocent and helped to make me see.
She swore she did not like or understand poetry but after she died, I was handed a manuscript of her poems written in Polish with her sister Henia in the camps, and asked to make something of them. I spent seven years working with two translators to produce A Wall of Two. After the University of California Press published it, I wrote my collection of poems, Come and See, a direct consequence of the years spent thinking of that terrible time through the eyes of two adolescents and their poems. By then I was very lucky to have Graywolf as a publisher of my poems and essays.
When I finished the book, I took a trip to Weimar to visit Buchenwald with a friend. I was afraid to go alone. All I could think, crossing the icy grass fields to folds in the ground where barracks stood, was of music. If only some lone figure could play a violin there day after day after day, the bones might live again.
BC: Between 1979 and 1989 you published four adult novels, four books of poetry and six young adult novels. How did the young adult novels come about?
FH: I was an arrested adolescent. I still have in me a person who likes telling stories for young readers. To so-called literary writers this may seem like a lowering of standards. And in fact the last one I did was a story told by a dog. Revising for re-print a novel I wrote in the 1970s, now, I am wishing I could use my old pseudonym, Della Field. What is the pleasure in it? Teenagers can say directly what they think of the world, without metaphor or tactics of concealment. This is very liberating as a tool for resistance. In most of my other fiction, there is at least one child and the haunt of racial prejudice.
BC: Did you have time for your own fiction?
FH: I wrote two novels that were published by the Fiction Collective. Holy Smoke and In the Middle of Nowhere. I never was a real part of the Collective or any group of fiction writers. This was not a good time for women to write alternative fiction, or poetry… you were the lowest of the low. The fierce ambition of male writers in America was a crushing reality. They were only interested in each other. It is still the case that women lack influence, are not taken seriously as thinkers, idealists, important to the culture.
So I did, yes, manage to keep on. I was always writing my poems and stopped writing fiction in 2000, according to plan. By then the poetry and the fiction were in fact one combined effort and in practice very close. My stories may have been ruined by this alliance, but only time will tell. My models were children’s books, Joyce, Woolf, Nightwood, Duras, Flann O’Brien, fairy tales, Bessie Head, Hurston—they were crazy reaching-for-the-moon writers. At this moment in America, it may be poets who change the direction of prose fiction, but they may have to leave their personal obsessions behind for it to happen.
BC: You have said that you remember little of the novels you have written. Is this true?
FH: I do have amnesia about almost every novel I ever wrote, about where I wrote them and why. They blocked the reality I was writing out of. I never look back at them and I never reread them so I can’t even remember what I was writing about. I can remember where I wrote the books of poems but for the novels it’s like a blackout on trauma. I may have loved them too much.
I haven’t read much fiction outside of what I was teaching for decades. I didn’t teach poetry. Religion and poetry are unspeakable for me. I don’t like to talk about them.
From an early age poetry was like an invisible figure walking at my side, and holding me lightly by the right arm. I lived with it in a secondary world and preferred the visions and invisible beings that live in poetry, Scripture, Ouija boards and songs. I don’t know why, but I always believed in things I couldn’t see, in a God that has no name, and preferred the outdoors to the indoors.
You will see all the effects of this in my newest book, The Needle’s Eye, which is a kind of embryo including the forms of stories and poems I have attempted to write. The mysterious case of Djokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, is its heart. I would say his spirit attempts birth as a her at the end. Giorgio Agamben has come to write about “an unspeakable girl” who, I think, is Simone Weil, the subject of his thesis years ago and never mentioned by him again. What will rise to the surface or take form is truly anyone’s guess. We are complete mysteries.