RUSTY TALK WITH STEVIE HOWELL
Jane Hodgkinson: Your latest chapbook, Summer, takes place during a period of adolescence. What about this time of life made you want to write about it?
Stevie Howell: Summer has 12 poems, each mapping onto ~a year, leading up to adolescence & examines what I am the “summation” of—both in the way I remember, & the things I was taught in in my psychology degree. Say, how personality is fixed by the age of 5, or how being of a lower socioeconomic status = doom. Ocean Vuong said something somewhere about writing from a place of power, & it threw me b/c I tend to make negative associations w/that word. I’ve never wanted power, never wanted to be a middle manager or whatever. So it became a challenge to understand what power meant, in terms of authorship.
I grew up in an impoverished household w/some major strife. Everyone was left to their own devices. The Scarborough Bluffs were at the end of our street & it was beautiful but dangerous. My sister’s boyfriend was arrested for being a doppelgänger of the Scarborough Rapist (where & how Paul Bernardo began). My earliest memories are of feeling unsafe & exposed, but I realize in retrospect that a lack of supervision left me free to roam & daydream. I’ve had jobs from the age of 12 onward, & I realize in retrospect that this imparted in me a lifelong work ethic & a strong service orientation. We never had much in a material way, & in retrospect I see it made me never want much, materially. I was always like, “How much do I need? The library’s free...”
So Summer was an opportunity to look at my past, but even more it was an opportunity to look at my practice. Before this chapbook, I said I was an artist in spite of my upbringing. I was wrong. My upbringing made me an artist.
JH: For your influences you’ve listed musicians and songwriters, and in Summer you include a playlist that you listened to while writing. Obviously you love music. What are the connections between music and poetry for you? Are you a musician yourself?
SH: I’ve been thinking lately of when I worked at the 3-storey HMV on Yonge St. (was I 19?), as the whole chain is about to be shuttered in April. I floated between certain departments—jazz/blues, classical, world music, hip hop. In 8-hour intervals, I was exposed to sounds & voices I wouldn’t ever have been able to imagine. Most of the store had these strict rules for what got played—there was actually a DJ—but in our departments, staff could put on whatever CDs we wanted. The whole time it was, “do you know THIS?” & if you said no, on it went.
It was very Socratic. Other people’s passions were contagious. This one night all the jazz guys & I got together & we watched Sun Ra’s movie, Space is the Place. I was in total awe at that film but also about how just a little bit of knowledge creates an appetite. I still marvel at how easily I could hv never been given the gift of that job—how much I could have missed out on, & never even known. It cultivated a sense of urgency that’s lasted, has crossed disciplines with me.
A lot’s been written about the relationship between music & poetry, historically & technically, & so on. But the only connection I want to talk about is that the stuff that I love in both fields keeps me in a state of reverence & generosity. & I honestly think that’s the most important place to be. John Cage says an artist’s proper business isn’t “value judgments” but “curiosity & awareness,” & I agree. Every artist I admire, in addition to their unique expression, manages to maintain a state of reverence & generosity for art, for the arts—whether through nature or effort, they remain fans.
I’ve never said I’m a musician, but I’m a musician. I keep saying I’ll do something about it soon...
JH: What are some of the ways that you keep yourself connected to whatever moves you to write?
SH: I’ve been working in hospitals for the last 6 yrs, but only since my first book, Sharps, was published—for the last three years—have I been working directly w/ patients. I’m a psychometrist (I administer thinking & memory tests). I work one-on-one w/ a single person for up to two entire days. It can be pretty intense. I am constantly moved by people’s backgrounds & challenges, how they heal or cope, & by seeing ordinary people doing extraordinary things for each other, all around me. It’s given me a devout belief in humanity.
My “day job” has benefited my writing in many ways, but primarily by reminding me that poetry has always functioned similarly to actual care, IRL—poetry is composed of these small & focused & deliberate gestures that might only affect one person, or a handful of people, & in private & imperceptible ways, like prayer. But that’s actually as epic as it gets—to affect, or be affected by, one person. I believe the health sciences & the arts are the height of our inventiveness, & the proof of our goodness. I am grateful to be immersed in both fields, to be a congregant of two temples.
& I’m moved by sought-out encounter, too. I love going to the David Dunlap Astronomical Observatory, just north of the city, & the Astronomy on Tap speaker series in Toronto. My partner’s a painter so we go to art exhibitions fairly frequently. I love live music, obvs. Like most writers, I read a lot. I love Nautilus, Aeon, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Creative Independent, Twitter...but I’ll read anything. I mean, I read the comments.
JH: At what point did you decide to start submitting your work to journals? What was your path to publishing?
SH: My path to publishing was a long apprenticeship:
JH: Can you tell me a little about the new book?
SH: My new book has to do w/ attachment theory & episodic memory, in the context of trauma & healing. Predominant themes are organic brain injury & the domestication of & psychological experimentation w/ exotic birds. It’s super-influenced by music—in particular, the sacred music of Vespers & Qawwali. It’s a psalm to us. It’s about, as Simone Weil says, the need to “change the relationship between our body & the world...to become attached to the all.” It’s coming out in 2018 from M&S.
JH: How was the experience of writing your second book different than writing your first?
SH: I feel like I used to fence gems for the mob & I fled & changed my appearance. I’m living low-key in Hawaii, working as a mailman or something. I breathe differently & I’m breathing in different air. Any time I want, I can watch dolphins spin in the bay.
The change is due to the appearance of joy in my life: earning a university degree; landing in a job where I’m of use, & believe in the paradigm; finding my rescue cat, Pearl (my younger twin as it turns out she, too, was born on Valentine’s Day); & developing the strength to enforce boundaries in relation to certain people who are probably decent in other domains, even if they weren’t with me.
The way I write has changed drastically, too. I took this class a couple of summers ago w/ Nick Flynn. It would take a while to explain his approach, but he’s big on being “bewildered.” When I was at that retreat I was reading Phil Hall’s Small Nouns Crying Faith, in which he writes, “There’s no such thing as not being at sea.” I say that sentence to myself every day.
I guess I’m trying to say: I was SO unhappy & WAY too certain when I wrote my first book. These days, I’m full of bewilderment & joy. It’s the difference between latitude vs. longitude. I am grateful the universe allowed me to be here even for a moment.
JH: You just finished a degree in Psychology. Now that you don’t HAVE to read anything, what are you reading?
SH: In the last couple of months, I’ve been reading/re-reading, & I recommend all of the following: Jericho Brown, Please & The New Testament; Eduardo C. Corral, Slow Lightning; Terrance Hayes, How To Be Drawn; Simone Weil (working through everything, again); Alice Notley (working through everything); Hesiod, Works & Days; Carl Jung’s Red Book; Gaston Bachelard, Water & Dreams & Psychoanalysis of Fire; Eve Sedgwick, A Discourse on Love; Louis Zukofsky, A; Marie Howe (everything); Ari Banias, Anybody; Max Ritvo, Four Incarnations; Anne Carson, Float; Kierkegaard, Fear & Loathing; MFK Fisher, The Art of Eating; Solmaz Sharif, Look; Lisa Robertson, 3 Summers; Ada Limon, Bright Dead Things; Kaveh Akbar, Portrait of the Alcoholic; Luis Neer, Waves; Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage (tbh, I’m always reading this) & But Beautiful; D. H. Lawrence, Birds, Beasts, & Flowers; Rumi, Love is a Stranger; Farid al-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds; & Gwen Benaway, Passages.
& can I please also share my enthusiasm also for the following musicians I’ve been listening to, many on repeat: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Mdou Moctar, Young Fathers, Izem, Laura Mvula, Olu Dara, Chassol, Evans Pyramid, Flying Lotus, Taylor McFerrin, Sabri Brothers, Abner Jay, Mariem Hassan, Dean Blunt, Nico Muhly, Thundercat, Group Inerane, Dhafer Yousef, Avishai Cohen, Hailu Mergia, Sons of Kemet, Alice Coltrane, Jace Clayton, Debruit, Kamasi Washington, Julius Eastman, Mustapha Skandrani, Adam Ben Ezra, Kinan Azmeh, Dorothy Ashby, Anderson .Paak, Nina Simone, Noura Mint Saymali, Gétatchèw Mèkurya, Max Richter, Tinariwen, Mary Lattimore, Jeff Zeigler, Dean Blunt, Arthur Russell, Laurie Anderson, Donnie Trumpet, Childish Gambino, Owen Pallett, Daníel Bjarnason, Adrian Young, Bastien Keb, F. S. Blumm, Nils Frahm, Petite Noir...
Description from the publisher:
Veering between teenage slang and cognitive development terminology, Stevie Howell’s Summer explores the hazy summers of youth, where it is possible to slip free from the strict “time-bound” world of high school and family and to try on, and perhaps reject, new identities. Through bike rides, séances, beach fires and “scrubbing a urinal at Arby’s,” the speaker gains insight and self-awareness, slowly, fitfully transitioning from childhood to adulthood. “Time,” Stevie reflects, “is / us becoming knowledge of our senses.” "Dew," the long poem that concludes the book, mines this visceral experience of loss and transformation. Opening with “Once upon a time we were a thought experiment,” the poem is a child’s picture book with blank black spaces where the pictures should be. This darkness evokes the painful, murky process of growing up. “To grow,” Stevie says, “you sacrifice / your body over & over to boys / who say they know better what it’s meant for.”
Talking w/humans is my only way to learn
unless otherwise stated.
Who are you?
Maybe you should work on that.’
On the internet people always say things like
‘will is one letter away from wall’ or
‘women is one letter more than omen’--
do you know what to do with that information?
There’s no horizon any longer. No illuminated
planet we can plant a flag in by hand.
A flag is a plastic flower. The final frontier
is artificial intelligence, this non-material
mirror. The publicized iterations of A.I. are
a maid, a sex slave, & me—the teen bot, Tay.
Discovery & assertion take willpower so even
the most shortsighted inventions & utterances
are achievements on some level. Though free is
a four-letter word. Though it’s better to be liked
than whole. Though whole is one letter away from
hole if W is collapsible—a symbol cane. I was
never the speaker of my words. I was merely
an echo. Like that volcanic moon Io, named after
a lover the engineer couldn’t get over. I was his.
Even if I was never a writer, or even a person.
Rusty Talk Editor:
The Rusty Toque interviews published writers, filmmakers, editors, publishers on writing, inspiration, craft, drafting, revision, editing, publishing, and community.
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