A Conversation with Rebecca Gayle Howell
Eloquent and cool, Rebecca Gayle Howell is someone to listen to as the future becomes increasingly murky and unclear.
Howell’s voice is commandingly calm, decisively informed by both the uncertainty of the future and her belief in humanity’s enduring spirit. She also succeeds in deconstructing what it means to be human and unapologetically stitches together the remains. The result is the amalgamation of beauty and ugliness and the story of survival, our ancestors, and of us.
Howell’s poems are filled with invitations to reflect; therefore, it is no surprise that she herself is also incredibly perceptive. She’s passionate about climate change and she’s read a variety of texts ranging from the Bible to Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Furthermore, it is very clear that Rebecca Gayle Howell believes in writing, hope, and humanity. It was a privilege to pick Rebecca’s mind and glean some insight into what it means to be a writer and a human in the process.
Find Rebecca Gayle Howell’s poems in her superb collection, Render/An Apocalypse, as well as in such literary journals as Poetry, Guernica, and Rattle. To read Rebecca Gayle Howell is to experience an existential awakening (meaning, seriously, why have you not read her poems yet?).
P.S. Rebecca is this year’s judge of the Poetry Society of America’s Young Writers Award. Congrats, Rebecca! Student writers—be sure to send your work her way.
To start: What are you reading right now? What have you read in the past?
Right now I am reading Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, The Book of Job, and sections from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I’ve recently finished Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, and I’m headed into Alicia Ostriker’s Vision and Verse in William Blake.
When did you start writing? What catalyzed you to start, and then stick with it?
I started writing when I was 12 years old, when I first started reading seriously. I would lay on my bed, my feet kicked up behind me, and read aloud to myself. First, it was the Bible. Then, Dickinson and Longfellow and T.S. Eliot and others; I would steal my sister’s high school English textbook out of her room. I wanted that strange music in my lungs. I didn’t care if no one was listening but me.
It wouldn’t be until I was 21 when I would return to the practice with the kind of seriousness an adult can put to it, but by then I was all in.
As you might imagine, many of our readers are still quite young. How did you develop your writing voice? Did you experiment and—if so—how much experimenting did it take to hit your stride?
Well, as I just described, I read. I read. I read aloud. I memorized poems. I recited them. I wasn’t afraid to have someone else’s music in my mouth, next to my heart, in my body. I trusted the masters’ works, first. This is the experimentation that the arts have long trusted.
I let the great poets change my voice; I let them change my life. Then I slowly, over ten years, apprenticed myself in the craft. I wrote with real discipline, and I wrote a lot of bad poetry in order to learn what it meant to write a “good” line, a line, a poem, that sang for itself. Then, after that, I started my M.F.A.
My buddy, the memoirist Andrew Meredith (author of The Removers), always jokes that writing “is an old man’s game.” I agree with him; it’s an old woman’s game, too. The only way to apprentice to an art is to devote time to it, great swaths of time. Years of your life. Years of careful attention. If you want to become a runner, you run every day. Soon, you’re running miles, not minutes. If you want to be a carpenter, you learn to not cut your hand off by coming way too close to cutting your hand off. Time allows for mistakes. And real development. Wait until the last minute to publish. It’s a lucky grace, to apprentice in private.
Poems are often ambiguous creatures. Along with Husam Qaisi, you translated Amal al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation. What sort of challenges did you face in maintaining the poems’ core as you translated?
All of them. Metaphor. Music. Religious myth. Histories–personal, national, and global. The Arabic language itself. I’d work my hardest to understand Amal’s meaning, and then I would meet on Skype with Husam, and he’d laugh and say, no. Not this, this. You’re wrong here. And here. Let me explain it to you again.
The practice of translation is something I’d recommend to every writer. It will turn your relationship to language inside out. It can also change your sense of your own importance, if you let it. To translate the vision of a poem, you must collaborate across time and place and spirit and welcome someone else’s heart cry into your own heart, first, then into your language. The process is profoundly intimate and trying and transforming.
Okay, let’s shift gears for a second. Can you speak on what inspired your brilliant collection Render / An Apocalypse?
Oh wow. Thank you for your generous use of that word.
I’m not sure anything inspired it. Other than worry. I had been in recent correspondence with Wendell Berry, in whom I had confided how anxiety-filled I was about the suffering I thought some of us, mostly the poor, would experience in this coming climate change, how I was beginning to think nothing could be done to relieve what was to come. And he told me that I must not give into despair. That hoping was what could be done, actually. And that hope would bring work; work, hope. That I should find, and I’m paraphrasing here, a little job to do–a poem to write, a speech to give.
Not immediately, but soon thereafter, the first How To poems came, and I followed them. I followed the words, the sentences and lines, like bread crumbs back to shelter. I understood, eventually, I was in the middle of a book, the same way one might understand she’s woken in the middle of a field. One of my teachers, Jean Valentine, told me if I listened for what was true, the poems would write themselves. I tried to do that when I was writing Render. I still do.
David Orr, the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review once wrote, “Poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts, alternately ignored and swaddled like a 19th Century invalid, and that will change only by means of a long, tedious and possibly futile effort at persuasion.” I understand you have, through photography, documented the adverse environmental and social effects of the coal mining industry on Kentucky, your home state, and Appalachia in general. Do you agree with Orr? Can poetry ever be a means of activism and documentation on par with, say, photography?
Orr wrote that comment in his respectful review of James Franco’s Directing Herbert White. I like him for sharing honest respect with a fellow poet instead of taking the opportunity to be cocktail-party catty. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read Franco’s collection; I’ve meant to. I can’t comment on it as a book of poems, but I’m glad Franco wrote it, just as I’m glad any one writes poetry for any reason. I’m not sure I understand the preferred alternative.
As for the ‘is poetry dead’ question, to which Orr’s comment gave another life, I’m not interested. It’s not dead because Don Share isn’t dead. Neither is Maxine Kumin or Amiri Baraka or Eduardo Galeano or Ai, not really. Because we still have dogs on this planet. And memory. Because it’s not all over. Not yet.
Do I think poetry can be a means of activism and documentation? Yes, I do. Go to the works of Sarah Ogan Gunning and Muriel Rukeyser for a quick primer in each. Today I was listening to an interview with James Dickey in which he argued against that possibility, the possibility of real poetry being made by an activist, and, although I truly love many of James Dickey’s poems, I take issue with anyone who claims to know the limits of poetry, just as I take issue with anyone who claims to know the limits of God. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, village explainers are fine if you are a village. But if not, not.
You are the 2015 Marguerite and Lamar Smith Writing Fellow at Columbus State University’s Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. In addition to working on your second book of poems, what are you excited to do during your stay at the McCullers Center?
I’m looking forward to knowing Georgia as a literary place, to knowing the writers in Columbus, as well as other the writing communities native to that soil. I’d like to encourage your readers to not be shy. Get out in their neighborhoods. Go to poetry readings, poetry slams, open mics. Host some. Community can make all the difference.
What is the strangest piece of writing advice that you have ever received?
Have a business card.
Let’s talk about something light. Are you aware of the twitter account, @GuyInYourMFA? As you have an MFA: is there some truth to this parody account?
I had to look him up. Funny stuff. I don’t know. I went to a weird and wonderful MFA, a low residency at Drew University, a university that was not too long ago a seminary, and our program there was a kind of literary brigadoon of reverence for the art. Steered by folks like Alicia Ostriker, Jean Valentine, Anne Marie Macari, Gerald Stern, Ross Gay, Michael Waters, Ellen Doré Watson, and Joan Larkin, ours was a curriculum where workshop was at a minimum, craft lectures at a maximum, and where we students were required to read more than we wrote. The person in the front row taking notes at the lecture wasn’t the guyinmymfa; it was Jean or Gerry. We were all there to learn something. To think bigger than ourselves. That’s the culture I’m from. I know the other exists; I’ve taught enough to know that. But I try, with vigor, to stay as far from all that as a long-tailed cat from a rocking chair.
So, that’s to say, I do think the M.F.A. phenomenon has been a meaningfully democratizing force; I was able to study craft even though I’m a working class person. A student of mine, one of the most gifted I’ve known, just left behind his family’s legacy as junkyard dealers in a no-economy town to study the craft of fiction, all expenses paid. That’s worth a lot. I will say, though, that I think writing is an art that challenges the ego. One aspect of literature is that it calls us to empathize. Another is that it requires great amounts of time alone, in solitude, thinking one’s own thoughts. If she is not careful, the writer might focus on the second and forget the first. The writing practice, especially when we are apprenticing, especially when we are young, can draw us into the infinite mirror of our self-reflective consciousness. Beware, is all I have to say. Don’t be that guy. Get a job washing dishes. Or work admissions at the local A.I.D.S. clinic. The living, wrought world can not be found in your head.
Last question! There has been a time warp (imagine Rocky Horror Picture Show style) and you have been transported back in time and are now standing in front of 18-year-old you. You have ten minutes until you are magically transported back to the present. What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
I’d tell her she has my permission to fall in love with the world and let it break her heart.
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.