Last night I got to dine with Susan Howe! That in itself should have warranted a fangirl post (I should’ve done one about Art Spiegelman’s and Françoise Mouly’s talk as well), but let’s face it, I am not the most regular blogger. I started writing this one because I want to record some aspects of the conversation I had with Howe and others. So, let’s start with why I love Susan Howe. I am fond of post-1960s “difficult” American poetry, which means I enjoy Ashbery, Bernstein, Hijenian, DuPlessis, Silliman, Howe, and many others. Many of these poets proclaimed themselves to be part of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement (which is not exactly an unified movement) and the others, who did not claim allegiance to any definitive “movement,” continued to appear in contemporary poetry anthologies with some synonym of the word “idiosyncratic” stuck next to their names. I got introduced to Howe through an anthology of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems. Of the many brilliant and “idiosyncratic” poems I read in that collection, Howe stayed with me for the title of her poem, “White Foolscap/Book of Cordelia.” The pun on foolscap (the kind of paper + King Lear’s Fool; the performance history of King Lear suggests that in some performances the same actor would play the Fool and Cordelia, if I have not completely forgotten what I learned in my 16th century Theater classes!) and the whiteness of the space around the typed words of the poem left an impression that I am finding difficult to describe even now. I have been interested in the materiality of things, sense, and sensation–so Howe’s minute observations about things, following her hypothesis that perhaps things are materialization of words and not the other way around, never fails to strike a chord with me.
Recently I learned Howe’s origin story: she was a visual artist who turned to poetry, putting her word-art down on page. It was not surprising given how visual her poems are. She insists on having double spaced lines arranged in a particular way on the page in That This, for instance. She has also been instrumental in pointing out what has been lost in having Emily Dickinson’s handwritten manuscripts published by editors who did not pay enough attention to Dickinson’s line breaks, punctuation, and the visual rhythm Dickinson created on the pages of her handmade books. Howe’s own latest publication, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, is an exquisite book with facsimiles of archival paper juxtaposed with strings of quotations, her own verses, and reflections. When I got to talk to her about how the work she is doing and the textures she is incorporating in her books reflect an aesthetic that we also find in contemporary fiction, she instantly told me that she would love to do more of that, if she has the money for it. She was also quite forthright in asserting that Spontaneous Particulars was possible because of the “art money” that was tapped into for an allied project. I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that someone of the stature of Howe would be encountering obstacles while obtaining funds for her books. I mean it is not as if I do not know that poets, especially the more experimental ones, do not have it easy financially but it was disappointing all the same. For a while I thought perhaps “art” has it better than poetry (because of whatever such distinction means from a bureaucratic perspective). At the dinner, however, I sat next to an artist who incidentally started speaking of his latest project, which takes a dig at the emphasis placed on entrepreneurship in art by the forces-that-be. Basically, his point was that art has no money until it can prove that it is somehow “wholesome”–but why does art have to be productive, wholesome, good? By the end of the said dinner then, I learned what I have known for a while now (thanks to sitting on some executive committee meetings at the university as well)–poetry/art has a difficult time finding patrons even in the world of academics. In a world run on the principles of productivity, poetry/art comes across as dispensable and a luxury, when they are not. So, in case you are looking for a way to resist the machinery of productivity, write or read a poem, create or buy art. As a student of literature, I am living that dream.
P.S: From reading Howe’s poems, I knew that she is a visual poet but not until I heard her read yesterday that I appreciated the extent to which she attends to phonemes along with the graphemes. Listen to her read from the same text here: Spontaneous Particulars.