In his latest collection, “Love’s Last Number,” poet Christopher Howell uses seemingly average events, like a troop of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts re-enacting a battle that may or may not have occurred (“Scout’s Honor”) and a barn being torn down to make room for a row of double-wide rentals (“Biography”) to comment on how we deal with love, loss, violence and a search for meaning.
Howell, who also teaches at Eastern Washington University, talked with The Spokesman-Review about the collection, as well as how he finds inspiration and how he knows when a poem is complete.
Q: Do you typically split your collections into sections?
A: Yes, because you have so many poems together and you look at them and certain themes emerge or certain poems or groups of poems converse somewhat with one another. You want to get them next to each other and you want to separate them from other conversations that are taking place between other groups of poems. It seems like a natural development usually.
Q: What themes did you notice with each section?
A: I think that the first section is actually more eclectic certainly than the second section. I called it “The Agnostic Pirouettes” because a lot of it has to do with the sense I have of the lurking behind conditions and events of something that used to be called truth but we don’t really call it that anymore. It’s finally too hard to substantiate, which is to say we have an agnostic relationship with the concept. That was why I called it that. I thought that those poems really circled around that kind of concern. As I was working on them, I wasn’t thinking that “Now I will write a group of poems about this kind of ghostly agnosticism that exists in our lives.” I was just doing it, so when I went to put the book together, I saw that I had these poems and I tried to respond by placing them appropriately.
The second section (“The Wrong Angels”) really is all about organized violence. It’s all about war partly from my experience and partly from my understanding of history and current events. You can tell by reading it that I don’t like it. That was much more deliberate. I really did set out to write a very coherent group of poems around that subject and intended subjects because I have strong feelings in that regard and I had been feeling for a number of years that actually those feelings were getting stronger. They weren’t going away. Initially I thought I perhaps would have a whole book of those, but, it’s not that I ran out of steam, I have a bunch of poems around those subjects that didn’t make it into the book, I just felt ultimately that I want it to be a part of this book and not its own collection.
I called (the third section) “The Unattainable Now.” I took that from a quotation by a poet that I admire, Czeslaw Milosz. There is a kind of ghostliness, I suppose, about those poems. There’s a sequence called “The Nothing That Is” and it really is all about the sense that everything you do was possibly something else and that every place you are is then absolutely contingent. If you think about it, then most of what you look at then has also this sense or a haze or a mist of contingency around it so all of the poems circle around and through those perceptions. I think that they are probably the flipside of the agnosticism, in a way, that’s in the first section.
There are a lot of poems that are pretty frankly about relief as well in all three sections. I hope that I was able to couch them in such a way that they did not seem like contradictions to this other valence in the poems towards what’s agnostic, what may or may not be there.
Q: This collection mentions Lucretius, Baron von Richthofen, the Second Amendment, Boy Scouts, love, loss, God. Have you always found inspiration from such a diverse group of topics?
A: I don’t think that I look for inspiration in subject matter or in topics. I don’t really look for inspiration exactly. I sit down and I simply wait to see what’s going to occur to me, and whatever occurs to me, I write it down and then I try to follow that as though it were a conversation. You could almost call it a form of dreaming, I suppose. I don’t even usually think in terms of subject matter. Once in awhile something occurs and it seems to me “Hey, I could write a poem about that.” But usually those subjects are not really what the poems turn out to be about. Poems, if they’re successful, are almost always about larger concerns than anything that could be nailed down historically or spatially. I think that’s always true of poems that succeed. I can’t, of course, claim that all my poems do. I hope they do.
Q: How do you know when a poem is finished?
A: I arrogantly suppose that when I don’t want to work on it anymore it’s finished. It seems to me it was (Paul Valéry) who said that poems are never finished, they’re only abandoned. It’s true and I think nearly any poet who’s been working for some amount of time and has reached a certain level of accomplishment is going to tell you that same thing.
It is true, however, that I was taught years ago by one of my first poetry teachers that you never stop a poem where you think it stops, you always write on past that a ways just to be sure you aren’t stopping it too soon. I am often cutting off the last 12 lines, for instance, that I’ve written because they were written to make sure that I had reached a point where I could set it aside.
Q: On your page on the Eastern Washington University MFA website, you say “Technical dexterity and range are useless to the poet unless her/his poem brings about change in the reader, a sort of transport from one state of being, or experience, to another.” Does that weigh on your mind when you sit down to write?
A: No. I don’t think so. I think that if I’m feeling it myself, it’s transferable. If I’m not feeling it, I’m pretty certain that whatever is in the poem is not transferable. Poetry is for transferring, not ideation, let’s say, but emotional knowledge from one person to another. It’s using language almost to subvert itself. I don’t really think about it but I’m fairly certain I know when no transference is likely to take place and the poem has not succeeded. I can’t afford to be thinking about individual readers. I can think about an ideal reader, a reader that’s comprised of all the people I care for and the poets that I care for and some prime ideas, but an actual reader, I can’t afford to think about. That would confuse me.
Q: That was my last question for you. Is there anything you wanted to add?
A: I have been here 21 years now, and Spokane is starting to feel very much like home. The literary community here has gotten larger and stronger and more intricate and interesting every year, so I’m pleased to be a part of that. I sometimes feel as though I have a better national profile than a local profile, but I don’t worry about it. I’m quite happy to be here and part of this place.
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