What inspired this book of poetry? OR What inspires you to write poetry?
My book is inspired by The Last Unicorn, joe jobs, hip hop, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It’s populated by the working class, troubled by gender, and driven by the desire to be reborn, in this life, on my own terms.
Describe your writing process. OR Describe your favorite ways of avoiding writing.
I don’t write things out for a long time, to test their mettle. And when I do jot notes down, I never, ever go back to them.
The theme for this year’s National Poetry Month is food. If your book were a meal, what would it be?
Sunday afternoon in a pub with Tim Fagan from New Fries.
You are this century’s Rilke composing your Letters to a Young Poet. What is your advice?
As this century’s Rilke, I mail out free copies of Rollo May’s The Courage to Create.
Favourite food: All curries. No fruit. // Favorite poet: W. H. Auden / Bill Callahan
“I’m currently reading Stevie Howell’s debut, ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ [ a.k.a “Sharps”]. I first became hooked on Howell’s poems after reading one of her chapbooks, Royal, and her first collection doesn’t disappoint. The poems are often darkly cinematic and linguistically-charged, full of slant-rhyme and clever phrasing. Howell is also daring with form, inventing unusual stanzaic shapes and renovating inherited ones—for example, the nursery-rhyme-inflected lines of “Mother’s migraine” sprawl across the page as if tracking their own lilting music and “flutter[ing]” images. Howell’s speakers are also diverse and run the gamut from hard-boiled but wounded (“No Good”), to wistful (“ • • •_ _ _ • • •”), to downright unsettling (“To the free felons who run your facility”). Accordingly, the poems interrogate an ambitiously eclectic array of ideas, including the monarchy, the film industry, crises of faith, and the loss of loved ones, all while remaining a cohesive and striking debut.”
I’m in party unicorn mane mode to celebrate the nomination of my book for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award from the League of Canadian Poets. There’s also (already!) a write up about the full shortlist in The Toronto Star. Really happy my wildly talented pal Kerry-Lee Powell is there, too. I mean, all the books are great.
Anyway this is what the judges wrote:
“Stevie Howell’s writing, in Sharps, has an inevitable quality, as though there is no other way to say what she wants to say. There is a wonderful mixture of high and low culture achieved with enormous skill. Her writing is original, skillful and quite often humorous without being self-consciously that way. Howell is always asking questions and answering them in ways that are quite often totally unexpected. Her choice of words have implications that make a careful, considered reading necessary. She comfortably inhabits a poetic world of great depth and richness. She writes, “Anything can happen, and it will./ The question is, to whom.”
Who’s the lovely person who wrote this for CV2? I might LOVE you!
“Stevie Howell’s poetry collection ^^^^^ [Sharps] is upfront and unsentimental. The book takes its title from an Egyptian hieroglyph which is used interchangeably to represent “waters,” the letter N, and all prepositions within a sentence. Howell’s poetry is all of the above: fluid and rhythmically dynamic like water, sharp like the points of the letter N, and as abrupt and biting as prepositions. As Howell explains in her interview with The Toronto Quarterly, ^^^^^ [Sharps] embraces the poignancy of the word ‘no.’ She resists fantasizing the ordinary, but she also denies the mundanity of the everyday. She says no to violence, but embraces it in her imagery: ‘You crush by moving, mulch / the recently fallen autumn leaves, snap branches, / snag open the tear in your jeans. / Your panting. / His panting. / It’s a kind of transfusion.'”
Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?
Honestly, many of my poems begin with me ranting in bed at night.
Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I can’t manage to feel one way about readings. The vibes are so variable and I can’t be the mountain. If someone sneezes, I say, “Oh no! They don’t care at all!” Then I say, “They can’t help it, it’s a reflex! Get over yourself!” And it feels like I’m Richard E. Grant in How to Get Ahead in Advertising, fighting with my giant boil co-head in the middle of a dinner party.
Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t have a lot of patience for theory. But I have many concerns. I get this line in my head from some daytime TV talk show I saw, when they had a cook on as a guest. She’s shoving onions around in a frying pan, and he host asks her, “How did you start cooking? Did you go to culinary school?” And she hollers: “I went to the school of MAMA!” That’s pretty much my background with theory.
I’m with C. Wright Mills on this — “Let every man be his own methodologist.”
Here’s an interview where I admit my formative (and I stress: since reformed) rabidity for all things Morrissey.
TTQ – What inspired you to start writing poetry and who were some of your early influences or mentors?
Stevie Howell – In the beginning, there was The Smiths. I got into them in 1988 and they’d already split, which took me all year to learn, and it didn’t stop me. I had them looping for about 5 years, even on earphones while I slept. I identified with Morrissey’s loser themes, but I didn’t understand any of his references. I thought, this other stuff in his lyrics must also be for me? So I’d go to the library and ask, ‘What’s “A Taste of Honey?’ ‘Who’s Keats?”’ Ballad of Reading Gaol was the first poem I remember reading. Had a big Oscar Wilde phase. Everything by James Baldwin. W.H. Auden, especially The Sea and The Mirror. Baldwin and Auden are my Bible and Catechism.
Russell Smith wrote recently in the Globe & Mail about his renewed enthusiasm for poetry! He emphasized the variety within a new generation of poets, with specific reference to The Walrus Poetry Prize, and a direct quote from me:
You know where Canadian literature is excelling? In its poetry. There hasn’t been so much challenging work around – so much that is playful, amusing, dazzling or simply exasperating – for as long as I can remember. Some of this has to do with a new generation of tough-minded editors, some of it has to do with the fading of a certain kind of weepy folksiness, and a lot of it has to do with the Internet. Quite simply, it is easier to read and share poems now, and people are actually doing it.
Exhibit A: The Walrus magazine, a general-interest journal that bravely publishes poems every month, has been spreading the word online about their “readers’ choice” competition. They asked for submissions of individual poems, then their poetry editor, the truculent Michael Lista, selected his five favourites (blind – that is, he saw no names). Lista has posted the five finalists and is asking for a public vote on the best. (You can vote at the Walrus’s website; voting ends Sept. 30.) The winner gets $1,000. More importantly, the poem will be widely linked to and forwarded, which means it will be read, unlike prize-winning poems of my youth.
Also unlike the prize-winning poems of my youth – which tended to be about aurora borealis and the great noble sorrow of being descended from rugged settlers – the ones selected for this shortlist are amazingly, some might say frustratingly, dense and intellectual. They are not about birds. (Well, only one is.) All of them contain at least one utterly cryptic and barely grammatical conglomeration of words, as if the goal of the best poetry is to flirt with the nonsensical, to see if some suggestions of meaning – maybe just some mood or personal association – will be sparked by the centrifugal force created by a bunch of words wildly spinning together. “We leap magpie flat-footed, shriek obsidian/ disbelief tidings,” writes Stevie Howell, for example. Obsidian disbelief tidings aren’t things I’m familiar with or can picture in any way, but then I think in a frustratingly direct manner.