Stevie Howell is the author of “^^^^^^”
Stevie Howell published three poems in Issue 25, Spring 2014, and read at The Puritan’s Black Friday this year.
E. Martin Nolan: Your book contains an impressive poetic range. Formally, there are free verse poems spread across the page (or two pages in the case of “Avenue Road”); there are sequences; there are choruses; and there’s even a terzanelle. It is common for first books to express a certain wandering quality while the poet explores the early stages of her practice. Was that the case here, and if so, is there any particular direction you want to explore now that you’ve covered so much ground in [Sharps]?
Stevie Howell: I have a habit of thinking as much about the visual effect of the poem on the page as I do about the sonic qualities. Sort of a form follows function thing. Depending on what the poem is dealing with, there’s a shape I’m trying to use that suits it.
“Avenue Road,” is about being a most-definite outsider while working in one of Canada’s most affluent areas. I think the name of the street is funny—the redundancy. On the page, the poem is meant to resemble a Rorschach blot—an image made by pressing ink between folded pages, making a mirrored form. A Rorschach is what is called in psychology a “projective” test, in that the interpretation of the image reveals a great deal about the viewer.
I’ve gotten some unique responses to the poem, as an ambiguous image (“reminds me of a pelvis,” etc.). Great!
The other thing I was trying to do with these different approaches was to develop my own directory of forms that I would reuse. So my first book is not so much wandering, to me, as working as a surveyor, mapping a property, or setting up stakes.
EMN: While [Sharps] features a number of well-handled formal poems, I want to ask you about how musical effects emerge from non-predetermined forms (or free verse). For instance, “Suddenly, the Moon is Full,” begins curtly, directly. Then, four lines in, we get “Bloated, bruised arms/ like hotdogs in steam-water./ IV leakage in blood thinner.” The echo between “steam-water” and “blood thinner” is startling and effective. Similarly, in “FÖRLÅTER,” we get an unexpected rhyme and a heavy prevalence of “s” sounds in this stanza:
I can sew a tyrant a sailor
suit, but do I want to be his tailor?
A woman I knew sat on her shears
My question is, how do the musical phrases, or musical elements, arise in poems like this, when the form does not predetermine the musicality of the line? Do they emerge naturally, and do you, the poet, capture them? Or do you make a point of making it happen because musicality is a goal?
SH: In those lines from “FÖRLÅTER” that you quoted, I was making reference to what I think is an Auden line about how children are miniature tyrants … though I can’t remember where I read that. I said “sailor suit” in part for the rhyme, and largely because the poem, and the book, is watery. I was at Giant’s Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland, thinking about empire, thinking about the personal expansionism of having children, yay or nay. In that specific passage, whatever musicality exists is a byproduct of tapping into specific imagery, and adhering to the self-imposed line-lengths.
But in the poem called “Self-radicalized,” for example, the musicality is a more primary feature, I’d say. That’s a semi-found poem about rabid anti-Islamic sentiment on the internet, and the outcry against burying Tamerlan Tsarnev. Every line ends in a near-rhyme, moving further away from the initial sound, to make the poem devolve the way online comments inevitably do, and to make the poem as grating and bleak as I felt it ought to be.
Sometimes it seems that we expect musicality in poetry to be specifically melodious, pleasing, or rational. But every poem can’t be a chamber piece, or something’s broken.
Stevie Howell is a writer, editor, and psychology student living in Toronto. Her work has been published in Hazlitt, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and elsewhere. Her first book of poetry, called ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ was published by Goose Lane in fall 2014.