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Transom:
American poets tend to take Pound’s dictum to “make it new” as a foundational principle, and as a result many of us have a short literary memory. The poetic culture in the UK seems far more conscious of the legacy of centuries of predecessors. What are the pleasures and challenges of contributing your voice to this chorus?

Howe:
Funnily enough, my first reaction to this question was to reverse its poles – but then I suspect that says more about the exercise of gazing idealizingly across the fence than it does about reality. My fuzzy impression was that US poets have a sense of their place in a line of American poetic inheritance, looking back to progenitors like Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, and so on. Perhaps it’s precisely the many centuries of English literary history that make such a time span harder to get a handle on. Picking up books of poems being written in UK right now, I’ll detect echoes that stretch back twenty years in the poetic memory, or fifty perhaps – that being the period, aesthetically-speaking, with which our poets seem most urgently in dialogue. With a few exceptions, the weight of a longer history doesn’t feel terribly important. It’s hard, too, to think about this question without thinking about form, and the break brought about by free verse.

But then doesn’t Eliot point out that the adjective ‘traditional,’ with its whiff of archaeological reconstruction, is seldom a term of praise when it comes to poetry? For a long time, I consciously kept my academic work – as a scholar of English Renaissance literature – out of my writing. It’s started to creep in recently.

Transom:
What’s happening now in the UK poetry scene that you find particularly exciting – or frustrating?

Howe:
I’m happy that the scope of what the poetic ‘mainstream’ will encompass seems to be broadening. It’s probably a bit early to start talking about a ‘post-division’ era here, to use a term I’ve spotted in American discourse. But there are poets around, especially young poets, who will read Keston Sutherland and Don Paterson, Sharon Olds and John Ashbery, with equal attentiveness, and without seeking to erode the distinctness of their projects. It’s not that I would like all aesthetic antagonisms to disappear, but this new spirit of synthesis does excite me. Maybe synthesis is the wrong word – openness might be better, since it would emphasise that poets have to be readers before they can be writers. Which brings me to my main frustration, namely that I think we have to be watchful about the quality of reading contemporary poetry receives. Poetry magazines try hard to keep alive the culture of poetry reviewing, yet we don’t seem to have enough really strong critics – voices that can show a generation of poets to itself, as well as to a wider public. I wonder if prize culture is a response to that critical gap – though surely seeing the workings is the whole pleasure of such judgments.

 More briefly, things I love about the UK poetry scene now: so many readings and events, so many poets who are great readers and performers, a really exciting generation of new poets, pamphlet culture, irony, collaboration, a growing internationalism, pop-up blogs and zines. Things that frustrate me: economic squeezing of publishers generally, lack of slots for first collections, magazine response times (that’s just selfish though), the fact that any poem longer than two pages is considered rather suspect, irony.

Transom:
In “Human Marks,” you offer us a concrete poem that takes the shape of a medieval manuscript marking. Within the seemingly strict confines of this typography, spectacular images (of “flame-buckled books” and “oddly curling ascenders”) abound. For you, is image a starting point, or a byproduct, of formal procedure?

Howe:
Image and form come together (uncannily, I’ve always thought) in the shape poem, but I hadn’t really considered they might be connected in my other work. Now I come to think of it, some of my forms do have a visual dimension – a strictly aligned right margin, for example, is a self-discipline more visual than sonic or metrical. I’ve just finished a poem about Pound in his traitor’s cage in the US detention camp at Pisa, where the poem’s monolith-like block, justified left and right, tells an obvious story about constraint. Indentation is another example: I often write in a pattern which indents alternating lines – that form’s restlessness, winding visually down the page, feels like the motion of thought.

‘Image’ is often the starting point of a poem for me, and I find it hard to think without them. I have to remind myself that the world is not purely visual, that vividness will involve the other senses. When poetry succeeds in evoking that kind of bodily sensation in a reader – the crackle as you turn a page of vellum – that’s when you start to appreciate how writing might be a vessel for life and voice: writer and reader are sharing an experience, even if the former is long dead. In some ways, that’s what this poem is about – whatever human presence clings to ink and paper down the centuries, how strong and fragile that is.

Transom:
We are fascinated by the twisted fairytale that “Tame” seems to articulate. Are you inspired by particular storytelling traditions? Do you feel that poetry is a satisfying vehicle for delivering narrative?

Howe:
I love ‘twisted fairytale.’ But I have to confess narrative is not a natural mode for me, or the one I’m most drawn to in poetry today. (Though without doubt – cf. Homer – poetry is the originary storytelling medium.) As a reader, I’m generally happier in the realm of atmospheric, fragmented, imagistic poems, where any narrative is either submerged or elliptical. But ‘Tame’ is part of a sequence and it felt right, at that moment in the larger frame, to emerge out of the surrounding, denser poems into a parable-like clarity. A game of opacity and transparency, like a windowpane in sunlight. Like me, the poem is a hybrid affair, though it’s probably closer in spirit to the Brothers Grimm than Chinese folktales – and the transformations are straight out of Ovid. Not ‘wild swans,’ but a tame goose.

It weaves into a story various details I’d been reading about at the time: the ancient Chinese practice of the midwife placing a box of ashes next to the birthing bed, so the baby might be efficiently smothered if female. Journalistic reports about Chinese state orphanages in the 1980s and 90s, populated by abandoned girls and the occasional disabled boy, arms tied to their highchairs with string. My family history (my mother was such a given-up Chinese girl baby) made me want to try to write about what’s been dubbed China’s ‘gendercide.’ I originally imagined this poem as a kind of lyric lament – a lullaby perhaps, in the voice of the mother laying her bundle down on the pavement – but I think you can imagine why that poem never got written.