“Paradox is the resting point.”


Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar

We could start talking about you growing up in what I imagine was a pretty vibrant aesthetically engaging household. Your mother was an actress at the Poets' Theatre?

In fact she was not primarily an actress. When she came here from Dublin, she came as one who had done acting, directing, filming and writing. She did little acting at the Poet’s.

But she worked there, right?

Yes. She founded it with a few other people in Cambridge.

Oh wow, I didn’t realize she’d actually founded it. They put on works by Yeats, and Ashbery, and O'Hara?

Yes, and many others that no one over here had ever heard of, and never did again.

Did you have any interactions with those people when you were younger?

I did. I worked there after school. I would go over to the theatre, and hang out, and bang out sets, and talk to everyone. I acted in a couple of the plays. I loved being there. It was so full of fun. There are a few books that go into great detail about it.

So, yes, I definitely met some of the poets, but I only remember a few individually. I was really quite young.

Do you have any go-to anecdotes or memories of any particular poet who was at the theatre?

Well, I was in John Ashbery's play. I was a boy named Jim. I think I remember John Wieners from that far back. He was doing the lights. The actors would come over and rehearse in our living room at night, so I would just sit on the stairs and listen.

 There was the night Dylan Thomas and all the Clancy Brothers were poetic. In every sense.

My first boyfriend was Liam Clancy, the singer. So, he was the greatest for me. But the theater was about the atmosphere more than just about the individual.

As a teen, I was excited by all the Harvard students—all boys then—coming and the very fluid sexual identities and the way this was referred to, always in a tone of amusement. I didn’t understand the joke, or the apparatus, but picked up on the tones.

You were a fly on the wall in what is one of the seminal scenes in 20th century poetry. Were you aware at the moment of it leaving an impression upon you in terms of orienting you toward literature?

I knew that we lived in a bohemian and strange household. It wasn't like the other academic households. My mother came here at age 29 from Dublin, and she was very attached to her home, so she brought a lot of Irish with her—Irish people, Irish poetry, Irish theatre. That was something that tipped the balance in an unusual way in Cambridge. I felt it was unusual, but you just sort of accept your childhood reality, and you don't think it's anything that special. My mother read and recited poetry by heart and referred frequently to Yeats, Joyce, Tennyson and the Romantic poets. Yet she was very avant-garde in her choices of plays for The Poets' Theatre, and fully aware of European trends, surrealism and film, too. And I had a very wonderful father, who I was probably even more influenced by.

And he was a lawyer, right?

He was a professor of law and a civil rights activist. He was in the war from 1942 on. Anyway, he was a very ardent left wing activist, so there was a lot of that going on, too. The two of them made quite a pair.

Right. His passing colored some of your early work. It came up quite a bit.

It did, yes.

So, you went from that household to living in New York and writing pulp novels like Vietnam Nurse—

Well, I first went to college. At seventeen, I flew to California and went to Stanford, but I was a dropout. I kept leaving and returning, which set up a relationship to California that I've kept all my life. Then I ran off with a man. And Kennedy was assassinated. And then I moved to New York. It was a wild ride.

I started writing the pulp novels in California before I came east. They were just a way to make money. They were the equivalent of a workshop for me because I learned how to construct a story, and how to do pacing and character. No matter how cheap they seemed, they were quite useful.

Absolutely. You've talked in the past about how, at the time, you had a morbid fear of human beings and that writing those pulp novels for money justified staying inside the house instead of going out in the world.

I did. It did.

That sort of anxiety and unease with the world comes up in your work, especially in your earlier work. In The Deep North, the character has an anxiety attack, and they describe it as being like, "Desire going backwards and backwards obliterating all hope and imagination." I love that.

We were living then, as we do now, in a very fractured social world around race and money, and other issues which seemed always very present to me, maybe because of my father. Physical identity, clothing and speech were continually remarked on. Segregation, too. Enforcement was in your mind as much as in the subway.

That's fascinating. I'm interested in hearing you elaborate about that, how it would manifest in the mind as well as in the subway.

Well, I feel that we are much more conscious than we know we are of the way the world—or the immediate neighborhood, let's say, of how our childhood is marked out. As a child, you suppress the questions of why all the Irish people live on one street, and why all the Black people are on another.

You suppress them, and questions of money and imbalance, but they're boiling away inside you, these questions of class and race that nobody really talks about, but they're clearly patterned, like where the stop signs are and where the stores are. So, it's a sense of political consciousness that comes very early, but is often ignored, or slowly suppressed.

Yeah. It's interesting how the relationship to the psychic self would change when there's that friction between what we think is ostensibly progress, and what we still see as events pointing to the fact that progress hasn't really been made.

I know. Well, Donald Trump and the GOP today give us an example of the return of the repressed. His bursting red face. It is like something out of the social psyche. As if one of the gods of Revenge had manifested in our day.

It's really terrifying. Aside from him just being this horrible bloated red face, he's also sort of the mouthpiece for an element of our cultural landscape. He's signaling that these are the beliefs really held by people who walk among us and stand next to us in grocery lines.

  That's it. Exactly. Like the whole money imbalance, nobody really talks about it privately, unless bitterly.   Economic values so out of balance—working people who worry about five dollars when their managers don’t. I know this has always been the case, but it’s time to ask your neighbor, "How much money do you make?" We're not allowed to talk about it. The great novels by Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskill had an open face on the problem of greed and free enterprise. Their characters were formed by an economy they saw was unjust. They wrote about it.

Yeah, and that trickles down into everything. It breeds neuroses and anxieties.

It really does. Inheritance, abandonment, the oldest stories.

I could postulate how I think that this relates to what you're doing with your writing. I could say that I think your writing often feels like a manner of meaning making for you, like popping the hood to see what's tinkering underneath, but I wonder if you might speak to how your writing works to orient itself in that landscape?

I was trying something in my fiction, which was of course different than what I do in poems. I suppose they're related, but once you're dealing with telling a story, the whole approach to the format of the page, and of the pages working themselves out, is different. Panpsychism is a good word for a theme in my novels. On one page, I'd have a set of poetic or strange thoughts and you didn’t know to whom they exactly belonged. Like in The Deep North. They come in like radio signals. That's the way I was hoping to have the books read—split and entanglement, the search for a new human.

I like that notion of the voices coming in like radio signals. I love a lot of your work, but one of my favorites is The Lives of the Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken, and it's interesting to think about some of the voices in that as radio signals.

It's true, and those ones were coming out of the past, out of a 19th century past. So that was the point of the exercise, to allow myself to hear the voices in there.

Yeah. One of my favorite sections of yours is from that book. The character is making that list of things to do before the world ends, "1. Get down on your knees and play. 2. Scrape the air until heaven appears. 3. Go out and shoot all the violent people."

Haha. Really?

It's fascinating and delightful. It's one of those things that you can hold up to the light, and keep turning, and keep catching new angles. It almost has a referent in our contemporary political reality, where the world is ending and we just get down on our knees and play. That's one option. The other option is to go out and shoot all the violent people.

That's right.

That's the binary that we're constantly straddling.

You just never find the resting point. Paradox is the resting point where impossibility has to be faced as a rare kind of pleasure.

With regards to the poetry, it seems to me that the aural sounds of the words, and the sonic relationships between them, often build the meaning for you and are the sources of energy for the poems.

Actually, I was just talking to a class, and that was the main topic that came out of me.   I wasn't expecting to be talking about it. The students had noticed the close relationship among words in the poems, and I was trying to explain that I let the words write the poem. That is, as you said, making meaning, but, at the same time, I have this other side, which seeks what’s unknown. I see it coming up to meet me if I let the words do the work and write the poem.

I love that so much, the idea of the words coming up to meet you. Reading your poems, I often feel as if I'm discovering something along with you. Some of those discoveries seem to relate to how you're orienting yourself spiritually as well as psychologically. It seems like you’re almost figuring out how to align yourself with the cosmos around you.

I usually write in a place that's alien, that's not home, like a bus stop, or waiting room, so that what comes out is already unhinged when I read it later, and I just accept it—there it is. Then I do a turn of looking at it and picking it apart, and that's when I let the music and the words call to each other across the scribble of sounds I've put down. So, that's when I'm doing the composition, but it is a thing of discovery of something that was already there.

The weirdness of revising is that you don't know what you're looking for. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, how do you know when it's right? That already puts you in a trance-like state, where you're unearthing something that you don't even know what it is. So, how do you recognize it? Recognition is a puzzle. Something I worry over.

When I feel the poem is done, it's both that I'm just sick of it and tired of it, but also that I've made the discovery, I've found the thing that I didn't even know I was looking for.

I like the idea of recognition being so important to you. You've talked about how your poetry flies in the face of metaphor, and how what you're writing about is, and this is a quote, "perhaps, just the opposite of metaphor, if that's possible," and that's really interesting in light of that recognition idea. You're writing about that which you can exactly recognize.

That's right. It's a given from all directions.

It makes me think of the opening of your new book, Second Childhood. The first words of the first poem are, "Yellow goblins / and a god I can swallow." It's not some abstract, mythological, esoteric God, but one you can swallow. I think about it all the time.

Oh, thank you.

It establishes the tonal, psychic, cosmological environment that we're going to be spending the book in so precisely and so perfectly.

It did do that. That was the reason to put it first.

Where did that poem come in the drafting of the manuscript?

Well, I wrote the whole group of poems over quite a long period, probably three years. Much of the time I was living in Georgetown in Washington D.C. I kept having to live in haunted 18th century apartments that were scattered around. It's a very haunted city. In some cities, the ghosts are right on the surface. Washington D.C. is one of those.

That's interesting.


I was literally out walking, and it had been building in me more and more—this polytheistic experience   of little drops of God leaping around me instead of a huge and heavy God overhead. Little blobs of God—or spirits—everywhere. So, the poem came out of that feeling. Also, "A god I can swallow" is both what you were saying, and also the Eucharist. God is in the Eucharist, and you can swallow that. It was very polytheistic actually.

That reminds me a little of Franz Wright and the way he was obsessed with Catholicism, how he was God-haunted. The line later on in the book, "The gods and animals / pound their way in / on a divine night wind," seems in keeping with that terrible awesomeness of gods.

People who are suffering a great deal are the God-haunted among us.

Yes. The book circles around this God-thirst, this God-haunt, but also this idea of going back to childhood, "I decided to stop becoming an adult. That day I decided to blur facts, fail at tests, and slouch under a hood." And the book title and the titular poem relate directly to that.

Yes, I'm probably an arrested adolescent. I know I am. I can’t stay anywhere long. I've always been getting kicked out of schools, or leaving them. Everywhere fixed is a prison, so any motion away is an act of insolence. If you keep on the side of the teenager, then you are actually resisting something that is brutal in the world. So, that was the second childhood, it was being aware of something that I had been doing when I was young, and becoming aware of the way it keeps its place. Even writing poetry for all those years, I see as a kind of resistance.

That's great. And to the would-be detractors—in that titular poem, you have that character that says, "Don't laugh so much, you're not a child," and you respond with, "My cheeks burned and my eyes grew hot." That's so beautiful, and funny, and true. What an ugliness it is for someone to conspire against my joy, or my resistance to the brutality of this life.

That's right.

It's really wonderful. It’s such an important collection.

Well, yay! And the image of the monk is important, too. To me, the monk is a figure of liberation, a figure both imprisoned and out. I've spent a lot of time with monks in Ireland.   I've gone there every year for the past fifteen years, and I've grown accustomed to the nuances of being a solitary in company. They have the discipline of singing chants four or five times a day. They try to make all their voices be one voice so that you can't hear any distinction. There are all these interesting practices going on when they chant. To me, all of these things are practices that extended social boundaries by staying apart from them. I'm so much on the side of the teenagers with their hoods hiding their faces. I just get it.

Yeah. I feel that you truly do. As someone who is not too far removed from being one of those teenagers, I feel that you're one of the good guys in all of it. Does writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction orient you in a posture of resistance against that brutality, too?

It tries to.

Interview Posted: April 18, 2016


Poetry Foundation Profile

Poets.org Profile and Poems

Second Childhood at Graywolf

Fanny Howe on Bewilderment