Interview with Joanna Howard by Christopher Kondrich

Joanna Howard

Photo by the author.

I had the pleasure of interviewing our Prose Open judge, Joanna Howard, on behalf of Tupelo Quarterly. Joanna is the author of Foreign Correspondent (Counterpath, 2013), On the Winding Stair (BOA Editions, 2009) and In the Colorless Round (Noemi, 2006). Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, Verse, Bomb, Chicago Review, Brooklyn Rail, Unsaid, Quarterly West, American Letters & Commentary, Fourteen Hills, Western Humanities Review, Salt Hill, Tarpaulin Sky and elsewhere. She has also co-translated Walls by Marcel Cohen (Black Square, 2009) and also co-translated Cows by Frederic Boyer (Noemi, 2014). She lives in Providence and teaches at Brown University.


Christopher Kondrich: So much of Foreign Correspondent, at least to me, engages with dialectics of physicality and ontology — public vs. private, tangible vs. intangible, the self vs. the other, etc. — and we should definitely speak about all of these dialectics. That said, I want to start where the book starts, at Alphonso Lingis’ house, at the intersection of a real person and the page. While this fact vs. fiction dialectic isn’t necessarily the most original to discuss, I find myself drawn to it because it feels so closely related to the other dialectics I mentioned, almost as if they were one in the same. Can you speak about your decision to incorporate Lingis? Were his books, which I really love, the seeds to Foreign Correspondent?

Joanna Howard: I read The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common in my early 20’s. At that point in my life, I had grown up in an insular, rural, basically anti-intellectual community, and I hadn’t travelled outside the US. Yet this book — written by someone who had already been travelling for decades, and whose philosophy came out of these travels but also out of an incredible erudition in classical and continental philosophy — absolutely captured something real for me about community: how we fit in it or don’t, and how we trust it or distrust it, and how we value difference — in bodies, in faces — outside our selves. It’s impossible for me to disconnect the man from his thinking, since the thought comes out of his undaunted commitment to move about physically in other places, and to think about them.

Foreign Correspondent is a book for me about reconciling a lot of dichotomies. Dialectical perhaps not just in the seeking of synthesis, but in the constant upheaval, the ‘on the one hand’ and ‘then on the other’. I wonder about my faith in the dialectic. Alphonso was an obvious starting point: an embodiment of a kind of bravery, generosity and openness that I think my narrator desired. And, in any case, he does have all those wonderful birds, the beehive indoors, etc. — in fact, I believe the most magical ‘fictional’ elements of the book come out of Alphonso’s existence in the real.

CK: I am so happy Alphonso has those birds! Meanwhile, that you “wonder about [your] faith in the dialectic” (which is perfectly phrased, by the way) strikes me as you doubting the dialectic’s assumed opposition and wanting to evoke its implicit dependence. The ‘one hand’ depends on ‘the other’ in the same way two boxers are dependent on each other — they share the same ring. So, in a way, Foreign Correspondent is about dependent things corresponding (as in ‘to be similar or equal’) in addition to corresponding (as in ‘to communicate with another person’). Do semantic engagements of this kind interest you? Am I way off base to say that I loved how often my mind got to play around with language in the book?

JH: I think I am trapped always in semantics, and at times, at risk for thinking consciousness is a language construct, or more likely, a language obfuscation working on behalf of something else — a subconscious, or sur-conscious. I suppose I think nothing gets said that doesn’t have a second meaning buried in it somewhere, and usually one that is somehow more honest. Dangerous thinking, obviously, and probably silly. But mostly I like moments when the metaphoric and literal are married through a turn of phrase. It’s a constraint in the language I’m often seeking. It feels like you have your cake and are eating it, also. But I also just have a sinister and low-brow love of puns. I love writers who allow their plots to be absolutely driven by packets of phraseology: Muriel Spark is the queen of this. The Girls of Slender Means, which is mostly about women living on post-war rations, turns the plot on the girls’ slenderness in both a metaphoric and a literal sense in an end sequence that is very funny: when the house goes up in flames, will the young heroine escape through a tiny window with her only designer gown still in tact, or will she have to leave the material behind? It just says kind of everything there is to say, or so I imagine, about trying to be a young independent woman in London immediately after WWII. I’d like to be as economical as Spark, and I’m working toward that. But typically, I have to work backwards from the phrase to the plot. I once wrote a sentence ‘Duffers clutter the fire pit’ and I was so enamored of the sound of it, I had to construct a plot twist that would allow for the elements in question: a ski lodge with malingerers lounging around an open fire pit while their more intrepid counterparts were out on the slopes, presumably. It served no purpose in the narrative initially, but I just would have done anything—in terms of narrative world building—to get to have said it.

CK: Of course you would do anything to say ‘Duffers clutter the fire pit’; it’s incredible! You have me thinking about how often what is taught to budding writers has to do with ‘saying something’ in the emotional-political sense. What is it I want to say was something I asked of myself often, way back when. But your excitement about saying a thing based on sound and sense seems to be more conducive to “dangerous thinking” (I’m taking that phrase out of context, I know) — the kind of thinking that generates more interesting work and, maybe, even gets closer to the honesty humans are obsessed with.

Anyway, all of this amounts to more thinking about thinking, and I found that Foreign Correspondent seemed to be a very tactile way of breaking through the “all mind” the speaker feels contained by. What would it be for you to break through the “all mind” we experience as writers and, more generally, as people?

JH: Keith Waldrop has described poetry as “having nothing to say and saying it.” I love this idea, and I think it can be a saving grace for younger writers feeling that pressure to have an emotional or political statement in mind before they ever write a sentence. I don’t think I ever suffered from the to have the big statement in my work, but I certainly suffered from “Who am I to speak?” about almost every topic imaginable, and I think I had a kind of artsy prejudice against just crassly saying a thing. I so admired silence, and it seemed to be the most evocative type of saying something. My focus on language and form was the only thing that allowed me to proceed within such a seducing paradox. But I am now coming to an age where I am starting to worry that I have things to say, perhaps I am overwhelmed with things to say, and perhaps am at risk for saying all of them at once. It’s a different type of problem, and one in which the mind obsession or oscillation might actually be helping to sort out which things are most urgent to me. I have been finishing a book called Voice Overs, an odd little book in which a couple tries to do some important out-loud thinking in a series of humorous vignettes, mostly having to do with anxieties about technology, social media, and all things post-human. The characters talk over each other, and rant at each other, and think over each other, but it is in service I suppose to moving beyond the anxieties of the mind, and I think the performance of voice in these cases is what most obsesses me. We are in a moment in time where there is so much access to other voices, mediated voices, and yet so little yield. I suppose that is what writers have said about every era, and so it evidence that I don’t have anything to say and have just said it. I do hope so!