IFOA: Please tell us a bit about your debut book of poetry, ^^^^^^[Sharps].
Stevie Howell: Sharps is my first book of poetry and emerged indirectly out of working in a hospital and beginning to study psychology. Those experiences gave me the tools to look at my life and issues around gender, class, trauma, faith and death.
I think of the book as grounded in the living city, but influenced by myth. It draws some inspiration from The Last Unicorn, in which the unicorn protagonist had to hide in female form to get her work done. It also draws inspiration from ancient Egyptian mythology of the afterlife—for example, the concept of ma’at, in which, when you die, your heart is weighed against a feather. A heavy heart, it was said, would be fed to a lion-hippo-crocodile hybrid. I write to try and prevent that!
IFOA: You said in an interview with The Toronto Quarterly that you don’t write often. Does your poetry come from random bursts of creativity? Do you always have a pen and paper on hand?
Howell: I tend not to write often but I do edit lines in my head, so that might have a similar effect in the end. I’m in the camp that tends to think that whatever lasts without form might be worth eventual shaping, and that, in the meantime, if it gets lost it wasn’t worth keeping. I find that if I write things down too soon or incompletely they have no energy. They’re like weak tea.
IFOA: You listed Morrissey of The Smiths as an influence for your poetry and said that he broadened your knowledge of literary references and awareness of poets. Is there a particular Smiths song you identify with most?
Howell: I wish I hadn’t said that! Because I was talking about when I was 12 years old in suburbia and totally bullied, and I’m not nostalgic about those times or what got me through them. If pressed I’d say the song “Stretch Out and Wait,” which is their least Smiths-like song, probably.
A more enduring influence would be something like The World According to Garp, which I found at the library around the same age. I was so drawn to the protagonist’s name. The librarian had a fake pearl bead safety chain on her glasses and looked down at me and said, “Don’t you think this is a little too MATURE for you?” And I started sweating because I was really invested in getting it. So I said quickly, “It’s for my Mom.”
I hope I’ll never forget how rapt I was by that book. It wasn’t about someone else who was equally miserable somewhere else (i.e., The Smiths). It was imaginative and full of compassion, sincere and absurd—everything I felt life was and hoped writing could be. I’d say that book is still a favourite song.
IFOA: You also study psychology. Is there a link between psychology and poetry?
Howell: There’s probably a link between everything, but for me, out of professional necessity, I have to keep these two worlds pretty discrete. I tend to turn to psychology to understand others, and turn to poetry to understand me.
IFOA: What are you reading right now?
Howell: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, Oliver Sacks’ On the Move, Phil Hall’s The Small Nouns Crying Faith, Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent and Nick Flynn’s My Feelings (I am writing my answers from Provincetown, MA, where I am taking a class with him).
Stevie Howell’s poetry and criticism have appeared in publications such as The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The Globe and Mail and National Post. Her poems have been finalists for the 2013 Montreal International Poetry Prize and the 2012 Walrus Poetry Prize. She is from Scarborough and studies psychology. Howell presents ^^^^^^ [Sharps]¸ which was published to critical acclaim in 2014 and shortlisted for the 2015 Gerald Lampert Award. Emergencies, faith, truancy and poverty intersect in this wry debut.