Christopher Howell is a stalwart figure in Northwest poetry and publishing. A professor at Eastern Washington University, where he was a senior editor at EWU Press, he runs Lynx House Press, a small independent publisher. His tenth collection of poetry, Gaze, was published early in 2012 by Milkweed Editions. Meeting Chris Howell, one finds him to be a serious and thoughtful character, with an ever-present bit of mirth lurking nearby—not as though he’s about to share a joke, it’s more like he finds the highly serious things of life have some ironic comic truth at their core.
There are many currents in this book, ranging from childhood recollections to Grimm Brothers-esque tales. And though Gaze certainly contains comic elements and rich philosophic ruminations, I found the work overall to be stained by a very deep and beautifully compelling sense of sadness. For instance, this lovely elegy:
for Elinor Howell (1919-2005)
The tall trees tip their hats
as she is passing.
The berry fields sway from shadows
where they have waited ripe and shining
more than eighty years.
They bend, but what is wind
that she is passing?
On high the hawk tiles and falls veering
and blue bound as the day itself.
Others enter and depart
along the narrow dusty sunlit road
leading away from time.
Someone beautiful is passing.
How do you find your way back from that well of emotion with these brimming poems? The grief that comes across in several of these poems is so visceral it seems like you must be re-experiencing it as part of your creative process. There is a lot of sadness in the book, but I don’t think of it as purely personal. There is a phrase in Latin, Lacrimae Rerum, “the tears of things.” I think of the sadness in my work in those terms, that it is an acknowledgment of some fundamental mortal sadness essential to life and that it is only a micron from joy. Grief, it seems to me, has more specific sources and is more personal. But it is also a blessing, since it allows the one who grieves to affirm, again, that powerful affection for what has been lost. And right next to grief, I think, only a whisper away, is celebration. I hope the poems offer all of that, that they transcend sentiment, biography, technique, expectation, whatever scrim one might lay over them.
As to the journey you mention, into and out of sadness and grief, it is the same journey I want all my poems to take: from the conscious to the unconscious, the known to the unknown, and back again. It is difficult only because it is always difficult, not really because the elegiac mode makes it so.
Some of the poems in Gaze appear to flow from a kind of haunted, fairy tale vein. This beginning of the poem “Rachel,” for example:
It was a small hotel with a stone facade;
or a hotel with a facade of small stones.
It was late, and difficult to tell.
We beat and beat upon the gate, though the sound
we made was soft as breath
before it stops.
If the fairy tale as part of your work seems reasonable, what influences you that direction? Andre Breton said, in the first Manifesto: The fabric of adorable improbabilities must be made a trifle more subtle the older we grow, and we are still at the stage of waiting for this kind of spider . . . But faculties do not change radically. Fear, the attraction of the unusual, chance, the taste for things extravagant are all devices that we can always call upon without fear of deception. There are fairy tales to be written for adults, fairy tales still almost blue.
I like that: “the fabric of adorable improbabilities.” I like laying myself open to whatever might suggest itself as a path that may turn out to be a poem. It is a kind of receptivity we associate with childhood, when the magical seemed to lurk behind so many events and moments. So I am neither surprised nor distressed that some of my poems partake of the “fabulous.” I like it, in fact. “Fairy tales still almost blue:” I am happy to welcome them.
I can’t say what influences me to write such pieces, other than a love of Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, and the poems of Robert Desnos. Perhaps it is simply the inexplicable, periodic onset of whimsy: another form of blessing.
And your poems are so alive visually, “my mother walks through wind /to the clothesline,” I wonder if your work isn’t influenced by art other than literature, paintings and/or movies, for instance? If so, what are some of those influences? My poems are not often self-consciously ekphrastic, but there are many painters whose work is precious to me, that of the Swedish painter Hanna Pauli, for instance. I am captivated by light, placement, color, and the sense of movement. It is not impossible that such admirations affect the way in which I shade and position the elements inside the poems. A clearer influence, I think, is drama: speech is action. Where you have action you have actors, where you have actors you have context, even, as we know, if it’s a naked stage.
I studied the early 20th century dramatists extensively in graduate school, wrote my master’s thesis on Strindberg. I’ve never actually tried writing a play; I think because my approach to the poems satisfies that need.
I know from the personal history that shows up in some of your poetry you were in Navy during the Vietnam war. How did you find your way from the Navy to professorship, poetry, and being a publisher? That seems like a rarely taken career path. I was, of course, in the Navy under duress. I transferred from one university from another after my junior year and was declared still a junior because I hadn’t taken a one-hour health education course. So my draft board announced that I had obviously been bad, had not been making “normal progress,” and revoked my student deferment. Two months later I received my draft notice. I was on my way home from the grocery store, with two bags of groceries, draft notice in my pocket, when I saw in front of a low brick building a sign, “U.S. Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Training Center.” So I went in there, with my groceries. The Chief behind the reception desk laughed at me; they had a waiting list six miles long, he said. But he took my name. A week later the shore patrol showed up at my apartment and said, “Come now, son, this is your chance.”
So I became a member of the Navel Reserve. Which allowed me to finish my degree.
It was noted that I had been editor of a collage newspaper and had a degree in English, so at the beginning of my two years of active duty, I was sent to the Defense Information School for journalists, at Fort Ben Harrison, in Indianapolis. After that I went to the fleet, aircraft carriers the whole way.
Even on board ship I was writing poems; I really never stopped. And I was writing other things, too, of course, news releases, articles for the ship’s magazine and newspaper, copy for the news show I did each night on the ship’s closed circuit station. And I got to know the boys in the print shop. They showed me quite a bit about printing, and I begin to think about maybe publishing a magazine, kind of an underground thing.
That’s where the publishing part kind of took root; and, well, it just never went away. Since that time I have edited at least six journals and been director and principal editor of four presses. It has always seemed perfectly consistent with my devotion to writing and to teaching—though I confess that, at times, confluence of the devotional requirements of all three have worn me to a nub.
A little sleuthing showed me that Lynx House Press was founded in 1972 and you have been associated with it since its inception. You’re referred to as the director of the press on its website, and have been for a considerable time. In this publishing landscape what do you see as the role of the small press? And will you chime in on the foggy notion of the book’s decline as a cultural medium? The role of the small press. Well, I’m not sure it has changed much since the beginning of the 20th century. It’s role is to make public what commercial publishers will not. Forty years ago you could have said that, where literature was concerned, university presses really inhabited the same ground. Now, because library buying programs have been so seriously curtailed nationwide, they have moved closer to the commercial model and are competing (not very well) in the trade book market in every literary category except that of the novel.
But some things have changed. The availability, now, of print-on-demand production, which allows even poorly financed small publishers to keep some control of their overhead; the easy and inexpensive access to first rate typesetting and design offered by new computer technologies; the expanded advertising and marketing opportunities offered by social media and the Internet generally. All these have made small presses more active and effective in the marketplace and more attractive to first-rate writers, particularly poets—who don’t expect their work to bring in any money anyway and who really just want their work attractively published and made broadly available.
So, the role is the same, more or less, but in terms of cultural impact it has expanded. And I don’t think electronic publishing is going to drive books into extinction. A virtual text is still virtual, no matter how you cut it. People still believe in the efficacy of the material world. Drop into Powell’s Books in Portland any day or night and you’ll find thousands of people eagerly and happily buying books, whether they own them in electronic form or not.
In that spirit, what’s the last (non-Lynx House) book you’ve read that excited you? I have come across at least a dozen very good books of poems in the past year, books that gave me great pleasure and helped to renew my faith in our literary culture (it does need occasional renewing), and there were two I found especially exciting and nurturing. The first is Laura Kasischke’s Space, In Chains. A stunning collection, the only book I know that employs a kind of fragmentist technique to actually amp up emotional content—the usual result of such employment, I notice, is a kind of frigidity. The poems contain some of the most original and electrifying imagery I’ve ever encountered. No one seems to much like the term “Deep Image,” but that’s what’s going on, what gives the poems their incredible resonance.
The other book I do truly love is Melissa Kwasny’s The Nine Senses. It’s comprised of prose poems, but the language in them is as tough and taught and clarified as any lyric you’ll ever read. They have in them, too, moments of breathtaking candor in which the poet steps right into the room and says, in many ways, “if only there were a story as great as our aching need to tell one.”
I recommend both these books with all my heart.
John Marshall, along with Christine Deavel, co-owns and operates Open Books: A Poem Emporium, the seventeen-year-old poetry-only bookstore in Seattle. He publishes poetry under the name J.W. Marshall because the late, lamented Seattle Post Intelligencer had, as its book editor, a John Marshall whom this John Marshall was not. He won the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, and his first book, Meaning a Cloud, was published in 2008 by Oberlin College Press.
Marshall tells us that the day he received Gaze in the store, a customer bought a copy of it. “He bought it with no encouragement on my part . . . I was on the phone when he came in and he went straight to shopping. The customer was a plain-spoken, salt-of-the-earth type late-20-something who, when I asked why he was buying this book I so admired, said he had been assigned a book of Chris’s in college which wowed him. Said he wasn’t even an English major. Then he told me he’s in catering now and when he caters weddings he thinks of a Chris Howell line that goes ‘the music / of their clothes dismantling restraint.’ It’s good to be reminded that poetry, and lovely that it was Chris’s, can be a partner in getting through the world.”