Sharps (Goose Lane Editions, 2014)

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“These poems are coded emergency & emergent code: hail, cut glass, cathedrals, systems, skeletons, & scorched earth. Stevie Howell has found a fault line underwriting Reality & turned this fissure, this terrible brokenness, into a lens. She sees the queasy, exact particular & can phase from its contours into metaphysics & back before we can see the ground shifting. An astonishing debut. An astonishing collection, full stop.”
— Ken Babstock, author of Methodist Hatchet

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New review of ‘Sharps,’ by Richard Greene

Really happy to be alerted to this new review of my book by the esteemed poet & professor Richard Greene, in the latest issue of University of Toronto Quarterly — reviews are always great but are especially sweet some time after the book has been out:

Stevie Howell is a poet of unusual intensity, and at her best she writes about terrible things in a manner that is wholly convincing. A Toronto poet, she has published widely and been nominated for several prizes. Her collection, ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ [Sharps] (Icehouse Poetry), has been very well received, and rightly so. My slight hesitation about this book is the overabundance of references to popular culture: this is the done thing in the contemporary poetry scene, but very quickly these references become non-functional and somewhat self-congratulatory. Nonetheless, Howell is a poet of very real powers. In ‘‘A Gospel’’ she writes of a first-communion photograph, then of the persona’s loss of faith, her search for something believable among the Hare Krishna and other groups, letting

 

the Bahai indoctrinate me on Bloor one afternoon,
where they fed me channa in a muralized Olive Garden
basement. I left with a cassette
and a mental image of a savior cresting a hill
with a hankering for garlic bread.
My school and church were poverty and violence. A quadriplegic
classmate lived in a Winnebago. Her mother’s ex
cowered in a laundry hamper with a gun and shot her dead
one Sunday after Mass. That’s all I know.

 

Review: ‘Sharps’ in Matrix Magazine

I’m grateful to Roxanna Bennett & Matrix Magazine for a new review of Sharps. I’m so appreciative of her insight. + my book is just shy of its “terrible twos,” and it’s a pleasant surprise people are still finding it & finding some love for it!

QUOTE: “But grief / has an unknown half-life” Stevie Howell writes in “The Guard,” a poem placed before the title page of ^^^^^^ [Sharps], a blistering debut collection. This certainty is indicative of Howell’s work, an unblinkered engagement with the uncomfortable, a fearless interrogation of pain.[Sharps] scrutinizes death in all forms; of old age, illness, murder, and presents a pure grief untainted by sentimentality. Howell demonstrates a singular willingness to examine subject matter that is often ugly, and employs language with masterful skill and surgical detachment.

Read the whole thing here.

 

Interview: 5 Q’s w/International Festival of Authors

IFOA: Please tell us a bit about your debut book of poetry, ^^^^^^[Sharps]

Stevie Howell: Sharps is my first book of poetry and emerged indirectly out of working in a hospital and beginning to study psychology. Those experiences gave me the tools to look at my life and issues around gender, class, trauma, faith and death.

I think of the book as grounded in the living city, but influenced by myth. It draws some inspiration from The Last Unicorn, in which the unicorn protagonist had to hide in female form to get her work done. It also draws inspiration from ancient Egyptian mythology of the afterlifefor example, the concept of ma’at, in which, when you die, your heart is weighed against a feather. A heavy heart, it was said, would be fed to a lion-hippo-crocodile hybrid. I write to try and prevent that!

Read the rest here.

 

Interview: Prism International — Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Saying “No” & Birding With Don McKay

You mentioned your own discipline (psychology), which I noticed a bit throughout [Sharps]. You speak from various psychologies (i.e.: ‘Crunches’), whose voices felt distinct from the general speaker of the book—for instance, when you re-appropriated a comment thread. There’s a lot of inhabiting of different minds, and you also actually talk about mental health facilities, the methadone clinic, and pedophilia. How do your disciplines fuel each other?

Well, I wanted this book to be “peopled.” I agreed with Philip Levine when he said, “our recent poetry seems totally without people.” For one thing, I’m a city kid; nature is alien, an anti-muse. But even more, I often feel that with my background, the odds were against me becoming a writer. And as I get older, and as I get more involved both with academia and the arts, I find I almost never meet people who (admit they?) grew up broke. Or (admit they?) had traumatic times. I feel like I crawled up through the sieve. And there’s a whole host of decent people I’ve known and loved who never read—who only worked—and I wanted as much as possible to give them voice, and to bring them with me.

And then some of the things you mentioned might fall into the category of writing about things that scare you.

Read the rest here.

 

Review: ‘Sharps’ in Canadian Literature

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Stevie Howell’s [Sharps] opens with “The Guard”—a poem that appears before the collection’s title page, and that serves simultaneously as a gesture of admittance and an administered pause:

King Tut, 5’6”, lies supine on mould-flecked cotton,
ceiling-transfixed. Body broken
as if struck by lightning. Dead at nineteen,
before purpose, before the remark.
My avatar.

Throughout the collection, Howell’s poems are edged with violence and whetted with measured and attentive lines. The speaker of one reflects on her First Communion, then on experiences with Hare Krishnas and Bahá’ís before concluding:

My school and church were poverty and violence. A quadriplegic
classmate lived in a Winnebago. Her mother’s ex
cowered in a laundry hamper with a gun and shot her dead
one Sunday after mass. That’s all I know.

Howell’s poems speak of people who “fumble towards intention,” who compare social rivals to the eerie children in The Shining, who see Rip Torn’s likeness in portraits of the Queen, and who debate the longevity of “the three-winged, / fluorescent snow angel of radiation”—a symbol that may mean zilch to whomever or whatever is alive to come across it in 100,000 years. Some poems are sharp and playful, eschewing the Roman alphabet to copy the wax rubbings of children in museums of natural history—“Dinosaurs have a Jungian resonance / with the <5 set,” after all. Others are worrisome and ominous. Some probe the “the one thing you can do / with a sawed-off rifle, a low IQ, and curiosity / about human biology;” others chronicle inventories of online vitriol and hate. Readers may find that Howell’s work calls Karen Solie’s to mind, or that of Ken Babstock (who provided a back-cover blurb). It is exquisitely visceral, and arrestingly intelligent.

Original review can be found here.

 

Review: ‘Sharps,’ Northumberland Daily

^^^^^^ is an Egyptian heiroglyph that can have a number of meanings. The word “waves” in English would be one but it can also be translated as the letter “n” or used as a preposition.

Realizing that most people would never know all that, the publisher has kindly provided – in square brackets on the book’s spine – the word [SHARPS] so we can say that as the title.

The peculiarity doesn’t end there. Open the book to where copyright info, publisher, date, title, etc. is usually seen and instead there is a full page poem. And what a trippy, powerful piece it is! It opens with King Tut, “dead at nineteen, before purpose” then the poet avoids murder by Volkswagen driven by her man, reminisces about hot knives and a doctor as well as finding that her “ex-love became security guard, a bored protector of goods against longing.” She ends by “believing I can spell-cast superstition into art.”

Howell’s poetry in this collection provides a wide sampling of theme and content. There is nothing, it seems, that cannot be enriched with her sensibilities. A keen perception matched with clever composition brings exciting images, as in a poem titled The Last Dollar Show, “When the last Roll Up the Rim to Win serves up its last lying sorry.”

She makes a call that “there ought to be names for qualities of silence, as the Inuit don’t have for snow.” Qualities of silence. Stevie Howell explores the current reality with the qualities of cultural dissonance.

In her poem Outpatient Methadone Pharmacy: Help Wanted, she details these users of methadone in visceral detail, the monthly cheque runs, the dealers and the “ghostly ones.” It ends with “The meth pharmacy pays high, but has retention issues; it’s hiring again. It’s one thing to do one thing well. It’s another to do only one thing, ever.”

Of Glass and Men is wonderfully unsettling writing about Gunther von Hagens, the inventor of plastination and “reanimated health porn” while “Museums took the ticket price.” The horror settles in as we are informed “Don’t you know the dead are always volunteers. His plant in Dalian, China, near a prison, ahem, was in trouble.”

Another piece, Fear is a World, is a delight to read aloud. The cadence, rhythm, a loose rhyme scheme, and systematic repetition of entire lines brings out the sinister in the poem, rendering the eerie as a beautiful background to a slaughter: “In ER, a tumour could be mistaken for a sebaceous cyst. Fear is a world, and the world is foreclosed.”

^^^^^^ is a debut book of verse for Stevie Howell of Toronto. This is not the poetry of a novice, but of a woman who has tightly refined her craft while respecting the possibilities of language.

 

Original review posted here.

 

Interview: Gerald Lampert Q&A

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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

 

Review: ‘Sharps,’ in The New Quarterly

“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.”

Michael Prior read my book and said some nice things here.

 

Jury Citation: Gerald Lampert Memorial Award Nomination

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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.”