Thursday, April 27, 2006

Reading report: Fanny Howe at Umass Boston, April 26th

To my ears Fanny Howe is one of the best writers working in these United States. With that in mind, it was a particular pleasure to hear her read this past Wednesday morning in a small conference room on the Umass Boston campus. Readings don’t get much more intimate than this. Put together by Joe Torra, currently working as an adjunct in the creative writing department there, it was attended mainly by students from his past and present classes as well as a couple of strays (like myself) who were fortunate enough to get the news from one of Dan Bouchard’s very generous emails.

Fanny read two excerpts from her most recent novel, Indivisible, which she claims will be her last. Later she would tell us she is “Not interested in questions of plot anymore”. Neither Joe nor myself were inclined to believe her. At least, we should all hope that she’ll soon change her mind.

Her recurrent themes were in evidence even in this short reading : The soul/religion (an obvious subject of many of her poems as well), less than reliable parents (see Nod, also), children trying to cope with the confusion of an adult world, sickness, and more than a little verbal and even physical violence. But done with the kind of gorgeous and dense lines that would shine if broken into poem size chunks.

The real treat followed the reading, when Fanny asked the members of the audience to join her in a conversation. This is the kind of moment that’s hard to find at a poetry reading, where at the end people are rushing to get out and on with their busy lives, or to a barroom where folks will gather in their various factions and conversations will deteriorate along with brain cells. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The discussion was blessedly devoid of any wrestling with questions of dull, algebra-like “poetics”, nor did anyone break out that old chestnut, "What's your, err, process?" Fanny talked at length about her activist father and his politics, her mother, and keeping together a household of her own in Jamaica Plain decades ago where something like a dozen people lived at any time, each contributing money so that Fanny and her then husband could earn a living. It was personal, honest, and at times touching. “My father was consistent, which was good for me”, she said. “My mother was, well, Irish.”

Favorite line of Fanny’s from the conversation other than that last one: “I have a fear of irony”. I realized at that moment how little irony there is in all of her work (and this comment coming from a writer who early on eeked out a living by writing pulp novels with titles like Saigon Nurse*). It’s a nice thing to hear from a writer nowadays, where we’re fairly swimming in an ocean of crappy ironic gestures (usually just cynicism or its mouthpiece, sarcasm) and poetry that sounds more like stand-up comedy than art. Irony isn't dead, nor should it be; but quality irony seems to be in short supply

* Interestingly, the heroine of this novel is North Vietnamese, which Fanny says was possible because she was paid by the page. If the number of pages were sufficient, and the action tawdry enough, no one seemed to care or notice.

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