Lyric Essentials: Jennifer Martelli Reads Marie Howe

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For this episode of Lyric Essentials, we’re thrilled to welcome Jennifer Martelli, who reads for us two poems by Marie Howe. We discuss the personal feel of Howe’s poetry, and Jennifer tells us about the ways in which Howe’s work has impacted her own. As always, many thanks to our readings for their support of this series!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems in particular? What do you admire about them?

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Jennifer Martelli: It was so difficult choosing two Marie Howe poems! One of the many things I admire about Howe’s poems is that they invite the reader into a space, a room, where it’s as if I’m having coffee with her. The poems are conversational in that they emphasize syntactical rhythms—the way we speak. There isn’t a false musical step in any of her poetry (to my ear), and yet, these are not poems that follow a metrical pattern. So how do they work? How do they maintain their structure? I guess a better question would be, how do I tell you a story? It has to begin and end; it has to inform. A master poet, Marie Howe turns that into something I listen to, a room I want to be in with her. So, the two poems I chose were the two I felt exemplified this. 

Jennifer Martelli reads “How Some of It Happened” by Marie Howe

“How Some of It Happened,” from her second collection, What the Living Do, tells the story of her brother’s fear, his medical horror, and finally ends with a philosophical truth. This poem, though, changed how I read, and more importantly, how I write a poem. Look at the fourth couplet:

            We found a pile of sharp and shining crystals in the upstairs hall.
            So you understand, it was terrible

I italicized “So you understand” because it is brilliant: who is the you? It’s us, it’s me—the speaker, the sister, wants us to understand the accuracy of her brother’s terror. She’s not using the “you” to tell the brother—he knows what happened! The pronoun is more than just a useful trope—it’s integral to the urgency of the poem. It is a moment of intimacy between the speaker and the poet. “Come here, I need to tell you this, how some of it happened.” This charges the poem and the book with integrity, clarity, beauty, and grace. This is a challenge I give myself every time I sit down to write: to whom am I writing this poem, and why?

Wow—I love that poem.

Jennifer Martelli reads “Magdalene—The Seven Devils” by Marie Howe

I chose “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” from Howe’s most recent collection, Magdalene, for much of the same reason: I believe that I am the “you” Howe is addressing.

            The second—I was different from you: whatever happened to you could
            not happen to me, not like that.

This is a list poem, but a list that is in flux or distracted from its last item, which is its truth. In many ways, it is how we write poetry—or how I write poetry.  It takes constant revision to get to the truth. So, here, the voice is Magdalene (which is a contemporary, or eternal, voice), inviting me in and then proceeding to try to tell me the truth—and that’s it, isn’t it? Telling the truth? I admire Howe’s piling on of the “devils”—some are downright funny (the aphid, the obsessive touching, the laundry) and some are painful. I felt a real identification towards the end of the poem, as well, with the introduction of the mother’s dying and her death. The only other time the poem addresses me, the “you,” is the final item on the list:

            The underneath. That was the first devil. It was always with me.
            And that I didn’t think you—if I told you—would understand any of this—

If we think of the word stanza as meaning “room,” then this is what Howe does in this poem: she creates all these rooms where she’s telling me something in a language I know. This is how I write a poem.

RS: In our emails, you mentioned that Marie Howe was one of your first teachers and poets that you heard. Can you elaborate a bit about your relationship with her and her work?

JM: I lived in Cambridge from 1990–1996. At that time, Marie Howe was living there, as well as Lucie Brock-Broido and Mary Karr. They would have workshops in their homes—their kitchens, living rooms, little Harvard offices. They’d Scotch-tape the announcements on the windows of the Grolier Book Store—£50.00 for a workshop, £100.00. Amazing—six weeks with these master poets! Marie’s workshop was my first and one that I returned to many times. She urged me to apply to Warren Wilson College for my MFA (I loved WW, but the experience of sitting with her and Lucie and Mary was as good as any MFA). These workshops were ruthless and honest and loving.

When I met Marie, she was working on What the Living Do, or perhaps just starting it? Anyway, when I walked into her house, I had absolutely no relationship with the poetry being written and read at that time. The most contemporary would have been Plath, whom I love, but that’s where it ended. I needed to hear poetry, and that meant reading and going to readings. I’d been writing “poems” or “Poems”—stilted, with very little truth, just lots of poetry. I’ll never forget the first time I got it—I remember the poem (though I can’t find it), but it was in the voice of Lady MacBeth. I was sitting in Marie’s living room, she was nursing a bad cold, and she said, “That’s it! That’s what it sounds like!” It was a visceral understanding. It was syntactical more than metrical.

RS: You also mentioned that Howe’s work has had a huge influence on yours. How so?

JM: Howe’s influence has been on this kind of listening and telling. I’ve learned from her about the music of the sentence, which, in poetry, has to work with line breaks, right? I try to think about whom I’m inviting into the poem, and why. What do I want/need to tell you? Why is it important? And who is the “I”? I’ve really tried to avoid being gratuitous with “you.” I also learned the importance of spacing on the page; I like those spaces around lines and stanzas.

I think her greatest influence has been to read and to listen to poetry. When I’m not reading poetry, I have a much harder time writing. My poems seem so precious! I’ve been lazy since the spring, so I did #TheSealeyChallenge (a book a day in August)!

RS: In that vein, is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to tell us about?

JM: My book My Tarantella came out last fall from Bordighera Press, so I’m still doing readings. This was a weaving of the Kitty Genovese story with my life, and then, the intrusion of Donald Trump. It’s about violence, about silencing women, about trauma. The urge to write this was sudden and intense and intruded on another manuscript, which I just “finished”—maybe. This newer/older manuscript is about my long-term sobriety: what happens to the recovering alcoholic 30 years in? It’s about shame, about the seeds of this disease. Also, I’m writing these poems about Geraldine Ferraro (like Kitty Genovese, an Italian-American from Queens), so I’m back to women, trauma, the 80s. These poems are very new and kind of blend the misogyny in My Tarantella and the craziness of addiction, but we’ll see what happens!

Marie Howe is the author of the poetry collections The Good Thief and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. Her 1997 book What the Living Do is viewed by many as an elegy to her brother John, who died in 1989. Her most recent work is Magdalene: Poems, published in 2017 by W.W. Norton. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and others.

Further reading:

Visit Marie’s website
Listen to Marie speak about her work in this NPR feature
Read Marie’s interview about Magdalene: Poems in The Millions

Jennifer Martelli is the author of My Tarantella (Bordighera Press), selected as a 2019 “Must-Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Her chapbook, After Bird, was the winner of the 2016 Grey Book Press open reading period. Her work has appeared in Verse Daily, Cutthroat, The Bitter Oleander, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Iron Horse Review (winner, PhotoFinish contest). Jennifer is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. She is co–poetry editor for Mom Egg Review and co-curates the Italian-American Writers Series at I AM Books in Boston.

Further reading:

Visit Jennifer’s website
Read Jennifer’s poetry in MORIA, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Psaltery & Lyre 
Purchase My Tarantella (Bordighera Press)

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.