With 2015 now in the record books, a look back shows just how busy and…
NIU freshman Toni Keller ventured off campus on a sunny day in October 2010, a sketchbook and camera in hand. She never returned, and while a man was later convicted of her murder, the death of the young woman who loved sunflowers, music and art still wounds the close-knit NIU community.
Partly out of that source of deep pain comes a beautiful new work of art by NIU’s award-winning poet, Amy Newman.
In her new poem, “Howl,” the NIU English professor transforms Allen Ginsberg’s legendary poem by the same name, deftly turning the work upside down by infusing a female perspective and illuminating the constraints of society, culture and nature on women.
The poem “Howl” is dedicated to Keller. Newman says she didn’t begin writing the work with the NIU student in mind, but the girl who loved sunflowers eventually emerged as a muse.
“Howl” appears in the July/August issue of Poetry Magazine, and an interview with Newman was featured in “A Short Take,” a podcast hosted by magazine editor Don Share and assistant editor Lindsay Garbutt.
Ginsberg’s original poem is generally considered among the very best American poems of the 20th century, which makes Share’s words of praise for Newman’s fresh take all the more powerful. Share said he was “floored by” the new work.
“The audacity of it isn’t the least of it,” he said during the podcast. “It’s called ‘Howl,’ and you can tell from the first few words what it’s going to do, and I was of course inclined to be dubious. How is somebody going to do that?
“So this poem by Amy Newman really just kind of equals the (Ginsberg) poem and in some ways really betters it, because it takes over from the original poem, and it moves it into our own world, so it’s not a pastiche, it’s not a parody, it’s not a critique of the original. It’s as moving as the original but in a very different way—something I don’t think anyone would have predicted.”
With Twitter similarly abuzz with praise for the poem, the NIU Newsroom recently caught up with Newman for a Q and A discussing the poem and how it came together.
Can you summarize what your poem “Howl” is about?
Like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” in which he beatifies the marginalized, my poem is a howl, written about women. By understanding the personal—his friends and contemporaries—as universal, Ginsberg’s visionary method attended to the rebellious, the exhausted and suffering among us; his poem brings redemption and transcendence. I’ve read and taught “Howl” with much admiration, but a year or two ago I noticed the near-total absence of women in the poem. He mentions only two, and one is his mother. I wondered: Where are the women in “Howl”?
Why the dedication to Toni Keller? Was she an inspiration for the poem?
I didn’t know Toni Keller personally. Through tragic circumstances, she has become emblematic to me. She seems like so many of my bright, inspired and inspiring students, and her loss is devastating. Near the end of the poem I reference the many young women who only wish to study and create and become what they should become. In the final lines I found myself referencing the Mourner’s Kaddish and also sunflowers, I found myself writing toward Ginsberg and Toni Keller simultaneously, in a kind of surprising and truly felt comingling.
More obviously your poem is inspired by the works and travels of the Beat Generation, while also drawing from female writers such as Sylvia Plath. When did you first think, what if I did my own take on “Howl?”
It came to me about two summers ago, after re-reading Ginsberg’s “Howl” and other material, including Kerouac’s “On the Road.” I kept making a transition from Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady to think instead of Neal’s wife Carolyn Cassady, who cooked innumerable pots of spaghetti for these wanderers when they’d return home. She raised the children. She didn’t get to go on the road. And the female characters in “On the Road” are held mostly in rear-view mirrors.
“Howl” is this magnificent poem; you can’t help but love its energy and its contexts. But one night, over a year ago, after reading “Howl,” I woke up in the middle of the night with a line from Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Housekeeping” running through my head. It’s from a conversation two characters are having about the train derailment in Fingerbone. So many of the townspeople had died in that derailment. But one character says something like: “You can bet there were a lot of people on the train nobody knew about.” She’s talking about the hoboes, the unknown, unacknowledged and unremarked upon who were also there. And I guess I made an association: You can bet there were a lot of women during that “Howl” era who are unremarked upon.
Epic wandering is a male prerogative. I was reading Plath’s journals at the same time, and Plath writes:
“Yes, my consuming desire is to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.”
Ginsberg celebrates and laments the bold, the adventurous, the downtrodden. He beatifies his contemporaries, but even though the female beats were arguably more nonconformist than the men, their rebellion more socially shocking, there are very few women in “Howl.”
I wondered what it would be like to inhabit this great poem form created by a man, that explores iconic male behavior, and explore female subject matter, to see what surprises and discoveries I might make. I began with myself and my friends, and considered women from history, women from myth, and it just went on from there.
Was it surprising that no one has done this type of take on “Howl” before?
Yes, I thought someone must have done this, written the female “Howl,” but I couldn’t find it. The thing is, as teachers of Ginsberg’s poem, we often assign our students this very assignment; we say: “Write your own ‘Howl,’” for example. It can be a rather fun exercise for students.
But to do it seriously would be a task requiring the actual consideration of the form—of each line, studied carefully, of each movement and the shifts in idea, in tone, etc. And it would require attending to the history, the many Beat women—Elise Cowen, Jane Bowles, Madeline Gleason, Edie Parker Kerouac, to name only a few—the ones who helped discuss where to hide the bodies, the ones who left their families to live lives of poverty and rebellion. Then you start to think of all women.
Your poem is epic, more than 2,200 words—how long did it take you to write?
Altogether, once I started writing, it took about a year.
Did you, like Ginsberg, write it at a coffeehouse?
I can’t imagine writing at a coffeehouse! I wrote it at my table, buried under reference books galore.
Did you ever feel intimidated, or as if Ginsberg’s “Howl” was sacred ground, or is it common for poets to inhabit the forms of other poets?
Any poet who works in a traditional form (say, a sonnet) is bringing to bear on the new work the entire history of that form. And of course Ginsberg himself is working in the footsteps of Whitman: his use of the long line, his cataloging, having the personal to stand for the universal. At first the idea of writing in the exact form of “Howl” was at some level ridiculous; I mean, I felt intimidated, but that felt knee-jerk to me the more I studied the poem, because why should I not use this form to howl? It’s the very form I should use. But to do so respectfully, I would have to study the work intensely. Each aspect would have to be treated properly: not only the form, but also the sound, not only that, but also the honesty, and then the need to name, and to balance what is humorous and deadly at the same time. And then, as I began to work Ginsberg’s poem at an atomic level, it felt like one of those amazing learning experiences you crave in writing. I certainly had a few moments of feeling intimidated, and I thought that was a feeling that I would have to get over, since the women I’m writing about deserve the same intense response as the men.
What kind of feedback have you received?
I was fortunate enough to get the piece published in Poetry, one of the leading monthly poetry magazines. It has an amazing reach, and the editor, Don Share, has done a great deal to invigorate and support poetry. The magazine was kind enough to discuss my poem in their monthly podcast, and I’ve gotten a great deal of feedback from people reading and responding to this poem. It seems to have struck a lovely, vibrant nerve.