Coincidences, Accidental Connections, Even Puns: Catherine Graham Interviews the 2018 International Griffin Poetry Prize Winner Susan Howe
Catherine Graham: Congratulations on winning the 2018 Griffin Poetry International Prize for your most recent collection Debths (New Directions Publishing). This book connects to your time as artist-in- residence at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston. Can you talk more about this?
Susan Howe: I spent a month as an artist-in-residence at the Gardner Museum in Boston. Fellows are provided with a lovely living space high in the added wing designed by Renzo Piano--all soaring glass and steel but attached to Gardner, dimly lit late Victorian faux Venetian structure. I was free to wander the collection in off hours. Wandering among all the art objects Isabella Stewart Gardner had acquired and carefully arranged during the early years of the 20th century I began to think of her as a pioneer American Installation artist. All the poems in "Titian Air Vents" were made while wandering through these weirdly haunted and highly arranged exhibition rooms.
CG: Leaps and gaps reverberate throughout the book. The leap forward yokes the looking back as illustrated in the cover image by British illustrator George Cruikshank. The poems—visually, poetically—capture points of suspension. What is it about gaps and leaps that interest you?
SH: All my work is in some ways about coincidences, accidental connections, even puns. I still believe what I said in My Emily Dickinson that "connections between unconnected things is the unreal reality of poetry." There is a kind of telepathy and magic involved in making the leaps, feeling the chance connections.
I was thrilled to discover that George Cruickshank had done the illustrations for the cover of the English translation of Peter Schemiel: the man who sold his shadow. (Cruickshank has been extremely important to me since childhood, as he illustrated most of Charles Dickens' novels.) Peter Schmiel's leap from the iceberg into the sea is a leap of faith of the kind that is essential to the writing I do.
CG: The title Debths, a Joycean word from Finnegans Wake, is an amalgam of three words: debts, depths and death. Did the title come early or later? What does the word mean to you?
SH: The title came when I was writing the poems in "Periscope," so in the middle, while I was working on all the various sections of the book. I chanced on the word from Finnegan's Wake in the passage I use as the epigraph for the book. Almost every word in that epigraph lead me further into Debths. It all comes down to the smallest detail, the flipping of the letter "b" and "p"—the ascender becomes a descender. In my mind the word conjures depths of the sea and our position in the world today—the glaciers are melting, the sea level is rising, and polar bears are becoming extinct. Cruickshank's image on the cover is both old-fashioned and prophetic. Of course the word also suggests debts and more and more I'm concerned with questions of originality and quotation, as so much of the work in this collection is collaged I feel profoundly indebted to writers whose work has inspired me.
CG: The foreword sets the book up beautifully and slips the reader’s mind from prose to poetry. Why did you feel it was important to have a foreword?
SH: I wrote the foreword last (as in many of my books) partly to ground the connections I have been making in my own mind. Maybe it harks back to a book of essays of mine called The Birth-mark where the editor said I must have an introduction. I protested and gave in. Solving the problem of connecting these essays became a form of writing that was equal to the essays. It took over sort of and became the most exciting thing I had to do. That's the way it's happened to me. I loved writing it. It turned into a poem and I can't see the difference between what one would call poetry and prose. I was completely obsessed by it. I was explaining myself to myself.
CG: During our lovely conversation you shared your recent insights about the tip of the tongue phenomenon and how it relates to the Tom Tit Tot section. Can you talk more about this?
SH: I chose the title “Tom Tit Tot” because I like the look and sound of the three letter that forms a tri-syllabic name—not to mention those three percussive double ‘t’s. Following the title I began to work on a series of poems in relation to the mysterious and powerful connections between names and things.
Thek's title of one of his pieces “The Personal Effects of The Pied Piper" led me to the wonderfully titled Tom Tit Tot: An Essay On Savage Philosophy in Folk-Tale by Edward Clodd, London Duckworth and Co. 1898. It's old English folktale called “Tom Tit Tot” (an offshoot of a large group of tales in many cultures—“Rumplestiltskin,” being the best known) where a woman who has been set to the task of spinning—under threat in a magic space of time—a large quantity of flax for various reasons, sells herself to an imp, dwarf, giant, or magician (alias the devil) who suddenly appears to help her: his price being she must guess his secret name. In the end he is defeated, usually after three false tries, and vanishes in a rage. Clodd turned out to be a friend of Yeats. But I had no idea of that when I pulled the book from the library stacks because I thought it leapt out at me. The oddity of such a title in the stacks of Columbia University's Butler library, the section on linguistics.
Only two months ago while skimming through Playing by Ear and the Tip of the Tongue: Precategorial information in poetry. edited by Reuven Tsur, I discovered there is such a thing as the TOT phenomena. The three letters stand for "tip of the tongue." It is the auditory phenomena or information we try to rediscover when we forget the name of a word. All the connections we search for while trying to recover that word we can't remember. And what is this but a mystery of the hidden name! That sort of telepathy involves the intuition necessary to make word magic which is after all poetry.
CG: Before your mother, Mary Manning, emigrated from Ireland to America, she worked with W. B. Yeats as an actor in Dublin. In the foreword you say that “Yeats is the poet I loved first.” How exactly did your love of Yeats develop?
SH: My mother came to America in 1935 on what she thought would be a visit. At the time she was an actor and playwright in Dublin. She started in the very early days of the Abbey Theatre where she was trained by Sarah Allgood, one of Yeats' earliest actors. In many ways Yeats was her guiding spirit. I talk about this in my book The Midnight. Yeats was like Mother Goose to me as a small child. That's one side of Yeats for me, on the other side are his great poems of age and the end of things. "Debths," the final series in the book, you might even call them fragments, are indebted to Yeats—"The Circles Animals Desertion," "Are You Content"—[they work] as a kind of prayer.
CG: What’s next for Susan Howe?
SH: To keep exploring the mysterious connections between the ear and the eye. Graphemes—phonemes—reverberations—strings—patterns—
Catherine Graham is a writer of poetry and fiction. Among her six poetry collections The Celery Forest was shortlisted for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry, named a CBC Best Book of the Year and appears on their Ultimate Canadian Poetry List. Michael Longley praised it as “a work of great fortitude and invention, full of jewel-like moments and dark gnomic utterance.” Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award and CAA Award for Poetry and her debut novel Quarry won an Independent Publisher Book Awards gold medal for fiction, “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best Fiction and was a finalist for the Fred Kerner Book Award. She received an Excellence in Teaching Award at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and was also winner of the Toronto International Festival of Authors Poetry NOW competition. While living in Northern Ireland, Graham completed an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies around the world and she has appeared on CBC Radio One’s The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers. Visit her at www.catherinegraham.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @catgrahampoet.