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When poetry becomes prayer: an interview with Marie Howe, former Poet Laureate of New York State.

Last year, I started a poetry club in my high school library One of my young poets told me I should sign up for "Poem-a-Day." Every day, a new poem is emailed to me, and I read it in the silence and solitude of my early morning library.

One morning, I received a poem called "What the Living Do." I read it and reread it, deeply moved. It deals with the theme of loss, and the sorrow and beauty of being alive. Later, I learned that it's about the poet's brother, John, who died of AIDS. Despite this inherent sadness, this poem teaches us to celebrate every speck and spot of life, every fret and frustration that come with being human. As I read the poem on my screen, I wondered who composed this beautiful thing.

I discovered that the writer is a very important poet named Marie Howe who was the Poet Laureate of New York State for 2012 and 2013. As a New York resident myself, I was impressed and intrigued, and I decided to email her to tell her how much I enjoyed her poetry. I also told her some things I've been doing in my school library.

To my great surprise, she emailed me back and called me a "hero." I am a hero, she told me, for being a school librarian and for running a writing center and for starting a poetry club.

A hero.

I've never been called a hero before, and I can't resist a good compliment, so I got back to her and relayed my thanks, and that began a wonderful, occasional correspondence. I was delighted at her accessibility and kindness, and finally, I asked her if I could interview her for an article about her and her poetry.

Imagine my surprise and my joy when she got back to me and said yes, she would be happy to be interviewed by me.

I was shocked. I was thrilled. I was honored.

I drew up a set of questions, and met Marie for the interview. I was very excited.

TH: I guess we should start at the beginning. Can you tell me a little about your upbringing?

MH: I was born in Rochester, New York--one of nine children in a large Irish Catholic family. And we took our faith very seriously.

TH: Did your upbringing nudge you into the world of books?

MH: Yes, we had lots of books in our house: Harvard Classics crowded into a high bookcase in the living room--and a full bookshelf in the large upstairs hall where we would gather and kneel to pray at night as children. I read all the time. I fell in love with Nancy Drew. She was smart and courageous, motherless, and with a father who didn't worry about her. She had great friends and she even had her own car.

TH: (I smiled; I understood. For me, it was the Hardy Boys.) Besides Nancy Drew, did anything else at home affect your development as a writer?

MH: Sure, we were a family of storytellers. Eleven people lived in the house of my childhood and adolescence, and everyone would always have one or two friends over, so the house was always full, chaotic, and dramatic. For me, whatever had happened didn't seem real until I told it to our mother or to one of my siblings. Late Friday or Saturday nights, one of us might come home from being out, make some cinnamon toast, and wait for the others to get home. "You won't believe this!" one would say, walking in, and the story would start, with every detail enacted, in that late-night kitchen. One after another we came home, and we'd be greeted with, "How did it go?" or "Well, was he there?" Sometimes, those nights lasted long after midnight. Even the worst evening might become transformed in the telling; humiliation might turn into comedy, heartbreak into a shared sorrow that would eventually turn into laughter. Stories were the bread of my life then--stories and prayer.

TH: It sounds like your home and family had a powerful effect on you. What about school? Did school influence your development as a poet?

MH: (Nodding) I went to a convent school where my mother had studied as a girl and where my grandmother had studied. Everything in that place was wooden and lovely and old--very shabby, but still elegant. The school was housed in an old mansion, and the library was exquisite. Two spacious rooms; tall, old dark shelves with moving ladders that you could climb to reach a high book; ancient wooden tables, and best of all--window seats where you could curl up with a book and read. That room was peace and civility, and it held within it the breadth and depth of time. I remember I could open a book and, on the library card slipped into the back-jacket envelope, find my mother's hand-written name from forty years earlier. The layers of time were in the books and in the room itself.

TH: (I listened, enraptured by the beauty of Maries description, imagining this wonderful, wooden library in a very old convent. I thought about how this beautiful library became a bridge for Marie, connecting generation to generation in her family.) Did your religious faith impact your development as a writer?

MH: Definitely. I grew up attending mass and so loved the psalms and the call and response of that ceremony: the Agnus Dei, the Kyrie; the urgency and beauty of the song, and the letters and gospels; the mystery of the story. I'd also pore through those Harvard Classics in our living room, looking for language that might hold what being alive felt like. I'd glimpse poems such as "She walks in beauty like the night," or "Batter my heart three-person'd God." But, as I grew up, I discovered a world outside my religious faith. When I found ee cummings and Bob Dylan, I found a poetry that grew out of right then and right there. Sitting on the bed in my attic room, reading the back of those early Dylan covers, I didn't know what he was saying, but I loved the trance they put me in, the way they made me feel: as if a door might open in the air, and, passing through it, I might touch something strange and familiar and feel at home in the world.

TH: (Again, I was enchanted by Marie's words, and an odd thought danced across my mind: she speaks in poetry. Her words are poetry. How fitting, and how perfectly wonderful.) And did these "worldly" artists affect your development as a poet?

MH: Yes. When I stopped praying conventionally, poetry became the prayer.

TH: (I thought for a moment, as this powerful phrase played in my mind: Poetry as a form of prayer. Beautiful.) You were named Poet Laureate of New York State in 2012. That must have been an incredible experience. Can you tell me about it?

MH: The best thing about becoming New York State Poet Laureate was collaborating with The Poetry Society of America and the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] Arts and Design team to create two immersive poetry installations. The first was in Grand Central Terminal, and the second in the new Fulton Street Subway terminal (both in New York City). We brought poets into the everyday world, and we put them at desks, under lamps, and gave them typewriters. After the poets were set up, we invited the public in to ask them for a poem. The exchange was free, and the poem was created from the relationship established between the poet and the person. People of every kind waited for more than two hours to have a poem written for them. It was an extraordinary experience to see the hunger we humans have for authentic contact and art.

TH: (An image formed in my mind that I wouldn't have thought possible. Tough New Yorkers, always in a hurry, waiting for hours on line, in a train station, to have a poem written ... just for them. It was a poignant picture and poetry was filling a need locked deeply in their hearts. It was soothing them, and perhaps healing them, from something deep and unspoken.) It's too bad we can't write poems for everyone, but I suppose we can offer people the next best thing: the library.

MH: True.

TH: What role do you feel libraries play in the world ... and in the human heart?

MH: Libraries are sanctuaries, rooms where civility is valued; rooms where silence is valued, where the internal life is honored. Books are there to be shared, to be picked up and looked at and put down, to be taken and returned. If only the country were run as a library--if the world were run like a library! When I was a girl, the library was the place where I could take out five books each time we went, which was often. Gold! Piled up beside my bed with their book covers shining and beautiful.

TH: If the world were run like a library, then librarians would run the world! (We both laughed at that.) That reminds me of something you wrote in an email: You were kind enough to call me a "hero." How are librarians heroes?

MH: Think about it, when the government wanted people's library histories, librarians said no. Librarians protect free speech and artistic freedom. When a tyrant takes over, the first thing to go is freedom of reading, information, expression. Librarians protect the most precious intellectual life of a culture. Now, I am so fortunate to be someone who sometimes gets to travel and to read in libraries.

TH: When you visit libraries, do you teach poetry?

MH: Yes, you could say that. Reading poetry aloud is a form of teaching it.

TH: (I thought of the students in my own library.) I asked Marie how I might teach them to read poetry and fall in love with it.

MH: Much damage has been done teaching people to read poetry. I was damaged when I was taught that the poet had a "theme," and used "symbols" and "images" and had a "tone," that somehow the poem had a "secret" that the teacher would reveal. We learn to read poetry by reading it, out loud, to each other, by saying it, and saying it, over and over, and wondering and blundering, and falling in love with it. Take time to read poems out loud--read poems with students that you don't "understand." Wonder out loud. Read it again. Ask someone else to read it; now someone else. Enjoy the poem. One knows a poem when one loves it. But that doesn't mean one has to understand it. Poetry cannot be paraphrased, nor should it be explained in that old sense of being understood.

TH: (I found this comforting, because there are many poems that I love, but don't quite understand.) Besides reading poetry out loud, how can I get more students interested in exploring poetry?

MH: Put very, very exciting poetry books all over the place: in the cafeteria, in the bathrooms, in the ... wherever. And hold poetry readings in the libraries: have students read their work and the work of great poets. Have students memorize poems.

TH: (I loved these ideas.) And once we get students to read poetry, how can we get them to the next step? How can we get them to write poetry?

MH: How do we learn to sing? We don't need instruction. As children, we just sing along. We love songs. Children are natural poets. When they hear powerful poems, they can be inspired to write like that. I sometimes have my students read great poems, and then have them write variations on it. And the results have been spectacular. That's how writers write. We read. We are influenced by what we read. We take it in. We try it out. Li Young Lee (a wonderful poet) calls this a kind of yoga.

TH: What else can I do to get more students writing poetry?

MH: Be active with the kids! Read poems that are very, very immediate and strong. Read them together, many times. I mean many ... eight, nine, ten times, out loud. Then ask questions: What does everybody notice? Okay, let's try that right now. Also, write with your students. Read what you write; read it out loud. Write something personal and embarrassing. Be a model for courage and for following the poem where it wants to take you, without protecting yourself. Think about holding free writing workshops in the library on Saturdays. Be bold!

TH: When that rare student comes along, the student who really wants to be a poet, how can I foster that desire?

MH: Tell the student to read, read, read. And don't stop reading until you find that writing that makes you glad to be alive, or that helps you feel truly at home in the world, or that describes something you have felt but never found words for. Then, tell the student to imitate that poet. Even word for word, line by line. And then, don't stop.

Marie's words filled the air like the chimes of distant bells; this was a perfect place to end the interview. We stood and I thanked Marie for spending this time with me, and for sharing her experiences and her precious knowledge with me, and for being so kind. She just said, "My pleasure," and smiled, and then she was gone. I stood for a moment, wondering how I might share this small miracle with the students in my library.

Outside, I squinted into a low and golden sun, and, as the winter wind stung my face, a wonderful thought occurred to me: Maybe there was no clear answer to this question. Maybe the goal of all poetry--and all teaching--is to help students fall in love with life, and fall in love with the universe. It was a pleasant thought, and I smiled as I looked around the world and tried to notice everything: the scent of hot, salted pretzels; a bare tree silhouetted against the sky; a car horn, loud and angry. Yes, I thought, I would try to help my students fall in love with everything. It seemed like a wonderful goal for a teacher and librarian. Poetry seems like a great place to start.


The Good Thief: Poems. Persea Books, 1988. 54p. $14.95 Trade pb. 978-089255-127-9.

The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: Poems. W.W. Norton, 2008. 80p. $16.95 Trade pb. 978-0-393-33734-1.

Magdalene: Poems. W.W. Norton, 2017. 96p. $19.99. 978-0-393-28530-7.

What the Living Do: Poems. W.W. Norton, 1999. 96p. $15.95 Trade pb. 978-0-393-31886-9.


Buddhist Contemplative Care. "An Evening with New York State Poet Laureate Marie Howe." December 7, 2012.

Frost, Robert. Complete Poems of Robert Frost. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962. 666p. O.P. 978-0-03-027125-0.

Howe, Marie. What the Living Do: Poems. W.W. Norton, 1999. 96p. $15.95 Trade pb. 978-0-393-31886-9.

Marie Howe. 2017.

Marie Howe personal interview on January 21, 2017.

Poem-a-Day. 2017.

Timothy Horan, MSLIS, DA, is a library media specialist at Hauppauge High School, New York. He earned his MA and doctorate in English at St. John's University, his master's degrees in education and library and information science at Long Island University, and an advanced graduate certificate in creative writing at Stony Brook University. In 2013, the Suffolk School Library Media Association recognized him as "School Librarian of the Year." He is the inventor of the School Library Writing Center, and is the author of Create Your School Library Writing Center, Grades 7-12, and the forthcoming Create Your School Library Writing Center, Grades K-6 (both from Libraries Unlimited). You can join his School Library Writing Centers forum here: Email:

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Author:Horan, Timothy
Publication:Voice of Youth Advocates
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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