Interviews

Spiral-Walking

Fanny Howe. Photo: Lynn Christoffers

Born in 1940 during a lunar eclipse, the poet and novelist Fanny Howe is the black sheep of her blue-blooded Boston family. Daughter of Mark DeWolfe Howe, a Harvard law professor and civil rights activist, and Mary Manning, an Irish-born actress and playwright, Howe grew up as part of a powerful and gifted artistic pantheon. Breaking with tradition, she moved West, became a communist and later a Catholic, and dropped out of college three times. (Howe attended but never graduated from Stanford.) She eloped with a conservative microbiologist but left him in the febrile days following JFK’s assassination. Howe first went to New York, where she supported herself by writing the pulp novels Vietnam Nurse and West Coast Nurse under the pseudonym Della Field. She worked for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and as a night secretary, a go-go dancer, and a hatcheck girl. She danced in silver lamé at the Dom. In the late 1960s, a friend introduced her to the African-American writer and editor Carl Senna and warned her not to fall in love—a futile imperative. She and Senna married a few months after another assassination, Robert Kennedy’s, in 1968, and had three children in the space of four years. Howe began publishing under her own name in 1969 with Forty Whacks, a collection of short stories, and shortly thereafter, Eggs, a collection of poetry. But Boston, “a parochial and paranoid city” at the height of the American civil rights movement, ultimately proved to be, as she would write in her 2003 essay collection The Wedding Dress, “a poor choice of a place to live as a mixed-race couple.” They divorced in 1976—“the ugliest divorce in Boston history”—and the experience of racial strife her marriage had illuminated would come to inflect all of her texts.

“Utopia cannot include parents,” Howe wrote in her spiritual biography The Needle’s Eye, and this line might be her credo. Throughout her fiction, poems, and essays, a preoccupation with childhood recurs. The figure of the child is bound less to a particular phase of life than to an ethos: the marginalized and vulnerable whose prevailing traits are fidelity and sincerity. To remain in childhood is an act of resistance, an idea found in Night Philosophy, Howe’s latest and perhaps last book. (According to Howe, every book she writes feels like her last, making her “apocalyptic in the writing department.”) Night Philosophy forms an uninterrupted arc that brings together fragments of her writing from the past thirty years with snippets of work by Samuel Beckett, Michel de Certeau, Henia and Ilona Karmel, the complete text of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and many other pieces of literary ephemera. The texts in the book follow no obvious sequence; rather the links are intuitive, spiraling out in nonsequential but emotively connected lines. Spiral-walking–a loose term she introduces in her essay “Bewilderment”—is its dominant motif:strange returns and recognition and never a conclusion.”

Childhood is the theme and content of Night Philosophy, so I wanted to ask about yours: When did you stop feeling like a child?

Never.

Do you have distinct memories from early life?

I do, which is surprising. Sidewalks, bricks, songs, practice air raids. I remember more from that time than from many other times. But I think there’s a huge dark part that neither my sister or I can remember, because of the effect of the Second World War. Our father was gone for quite a long time, three to four years. Our mother—whatever she was going through, we were going through with her. And who will ever know what that was. We adored her and were at her mercy.

Your mother, Mary Manning, founded the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge when you were 10. You’ve written about having actors in your house, rehearsing Ionesco in the living room. How did this affect you?

In a way, negatively. I didn’t want to be anywhere near human drama—people crying and screaming. Not my territory. But it was life too, fun.

Did you go to plays before movies?

I probably did, but I started going to movies at fourteen. I saw the movies that were made at that time, in the ’40s, or even earlier, like I Know Where I’m Going! an old Wendy Hiller movie. They were sort of European, not American.

I know that Bresson’s films became a touchstone for you and I watched a lot of them in anticipation of seeing you, like The Devil, Probably and L’Argent. It seems he got more cynical as time went on.

Though he used the same technique all the way. Even in the film A Gentle Woman—about a marriage, a terrible marriage, a suicide. And teenagers were always interesting to him. Bresson saw that it could go either way: Anyone could either become a saint or a murderer.

You’ve talked about being deeply affected by seeing Malcolm X as a young person. What was that experience like?

Malcolm X talked about a world, not just a city. He was, for me, the first public individual (not in government) who talked about a global movement—he connected the parts that had been held separate, on purpose. The force of Communism as a threat was there, too, and seductive because it let us see across borders. Seeing him in person—young, vigorous, serious, not ironic like the usual academic speakers, but prepared for battle—his thinking so deep, and recognizably self-discovered—well, he was not of this world. Especially not of the white one.

Did you feel compelled to take up some kind of action?

My father was a civil rights activist so he had been talking about civil liberties at home since the McCarthy days, so the experience of Malcolm up close was an extension of a conversation that could only go one way.

Were you already writing at that time?

In my early teens I began to write short stories and poems, and to find great happiness doing so. I still would rather be lost in work and thought than to be talking.

I was not a good student—I did poorly in school—but loved thinking.

How did you end up at Stanford?

I had failed to get into any college. My father called a friend of his who worked there at the time, and they were looking to bring in students from the East Coast. I took classes with great professors including Frank O’Connor and Yvor Winters and hung around Marxist groups. I dropped out a year and a half short of graduating. I was in Berkeley and remember reading The Golden Notebook and Julio Cortázar. They made a huge impact on me. Fabulous lives in difficult history.

Turning to Night Philosophies: The book has a unique form—scraps of past work from the past thirty years brought together with no roadmap. Did you revise your old work as you went along?

I tried to keep things as I found them and not change much at all. This was part of the experiment. Recapitulation is the word best suited to my approach to the job. First it was going to be a simple revival of a book of mine, but because of copyright rules, it was too complicated. I was staying in a monastery then and asked the monk Patrick if he had any ideas and he suggested I cut out parts of my books and this way make a new one for the two young publishers, Camilla Wills and Eleanor Ivory Weber. They came over to the Abbey to see me, from Belgium, and we worked it out in my little cottage. Soon I realized this would be difficult to do unless I found one thing that was common to the parts I chose.

You’ve written before about your editing process, in which you sometimes spread sheets on the floor and move them around, laying them out almost as you would outline a film. Did you do that for this collection?

The first one I did like that was The Deep North, which is a novel made of patches. I suppose the grasp of poetry dragged me that way—the little outbursts that don’t necessarily belong to the person whose story is being told. They are common, as if to say that the soul surrounds the body, rolls into other ones nearby. I found the only way to do that was to see paragraphs laid out like a chess board on the floor—to see how this thought would go with this act, without being illustrative or stuck.

There’s a sense throughout the book of things coming full circle.

Full square. The thing I did in Night Philosophy is something you couldn’t do until you’re an old person because you need to have all the remnants packed in a box.

The form also mirrors the content. Each fragment becomes its own fairy tale or fable.

Once you begin lining up disparate pieces of writing, a narrative arises which was never planned. I have felt the tales of Greek and Roman gods, European fairy tales and what Frank O’Connor called “the lonely voice” to be my foundation. But I was also very influenced by Eisenstein’s books—Film Form and The Film Sense—which is all juxtaposition and disjuncture. I read them when I was about twenty and they made a deep impression. He was making and discovering at the same time. The whole idea of juxtaposition was his major preoccupation—what third thing arises. In the end I think movies must be the big underlying model for me that I didn’t even know was there.

Have you ever wanted to adapt any of your work to film?

I made a handful of amateur films when I lived in California and had graduate students to help me, and I’m working now with the wonderful choreographer Martha Clarke who called me three years ago to see if I would write a script for her, and which I’ve now done, on Saint Francis of Assisi. We hope it will be performed in Italy.

Did becoming a mother change your writing?

The work became more fragmentary.

What other constraints have you experienced?

I’ve always written longhand. My hand would get tired and I would stop. Quitting smoking—in 1982, the same year I converted to Catholicism—was another shift. I could sit at my desk for uninterrupted stretches of time with a cigarette. It was bliss.

Do you feel Catholicism had an impact on your work? How do you negotiate writing and belief?

My sense of the world always, from earliest days, included light and air as properties of a spirit, for want of a word not God. This isn’t exactly belief or faith, but a nod to invisibility. Writing poetry was a practice in alignment, no different than meditation really in the solitude and attention it requires, and no rewards. Going back to the word “recapitulation,” writing this book in particular was returning to the remnants of a lost time. It was acknowledging the way we are swallowed by every day we live and disappear, and only in the leftovers can we see the values we carried like babies at night.

Liberation theology was a significant aspect of my conversion to Catholicism, whose line of thinking around poverty is truly radical. They fell in line with many of the political philosophies I was reading at this time, mostly radical South American writers including Paulo Freire, Miguel Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff. It was one face of an era and we can recognize its traces in the current pope from Argentina, a Jesuit. It’s hard to explain what a great reassurance it was to have him elected, a person who knew so well a radical political theology. I was afraid I would never see its face again in my lifetime. The crazy Gnostics were and continue to be very important to me—the constant question “Who am I? Where am I?” They keep reappearing in different guises. They seem to stand like shadows reproducing without figures.

One last question: Your daughter’s memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night, uses a photo of you from your wedding as its cover. Do you still have your gold lamé wedding dress?

It went up in flames.

Was there a fire?

No.

Janique Vigier is a writer from Winnipeg.