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Fragments Toward Autobiography

Susan Howe

I was always going to be an artist though the art form changed. There was the sense, I suppose from my father, that because I was feminine, anything would do except law or history. Those disciplines were for men. Civil rights activist he was, liberal he was, yet he was adamantly opposed to women being admitted to the Harvard Law School. fie thought standards would plunge immediately if they were. The poor man had three daughters and no sons. My mother wanted me to be an actress and she nut a lot of time into this. Instead of college I went to Ireland to apprentice at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. That meant that I helped build sets and acted in small parts. My first part was in a Restoration Comedy called "The Jealous Wife." I played the maid, Toilet. Over there "toilet" meant getting dressed. To me, an American, Toilet meant toilet. I remember how funny it seemed when I wrote home to tell my parents I had been cast as "Toilet." My father was a Puritan of the old school. The next part I got was in a play by the now forgotten Sheridan Le Fanu. I was a young girl who is killed by a vampire in Act I, Scene 1. This was not the glory I had imagined.

When I made the choice not to go to college I was the only girl in my graduation class at Beaver Country Day School who didn't. It was a rebellious act in terms of the school but I wasn't rebelling against my parents. Nevertheless for a person of my background -- genteel child, Boston family college was part of the package. After such a gesture, it never occurred to me that I could change my mind. in those days the idea of a year off wasn't even an idea. So when I failed in the theatre -- which I did, two years later, back in New York -- I believed I had made an irrevocable mistake. I was nineteen and I was sure I had thrown my life away. The only place I thought might accept me was an art school. I had done lots of drawing and some paintings and was able to put together a portfolio and the Boston Museum School let me in. I think anyone could get in there at that time. So I fell into painting in a rather desperate way. Again it wasn't law or history, so it was all right with my father. But the Museum School, the students there, really changed me. And my painting had an effect on my writing so in the long run it was the right path to take. And it did lead me out of Boston.

From The Difficulties (1989)

I graduated in 1961 from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, where I majored in painting. I used quotation in my painting in the same way that I use quotation in my writing, in that I always seemed to use collage; sometimes I made a copy in the painting of some part of another painting, another form of quotation. Collage is also a way of mixing disciplines. Those were the early days of pop art, when it was common practice among artists to move around from one medium to another--it was a very exciting time. I moved to New York in 1964. Then I began living with a sculptor, David von Schlegell. He was involved with the group around the Park Place Gallery, which I think Paula Cooper was running at the time. There was lots of really interesting sculpture during those days and lots of interesting writing about the work in Art Forum magazine. Barbara Rose had written some really good pieces on Ad Reinhardt, there was Reinhardt's own writing, Don Judd and Robert Smithson were busily producing manifestos. Richard Serra, Joan Jonas, Don Judd, Eva Hesse, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Morris, Carl André, John Cage, Agnes Martin ... the work of these artists influenced what I was doing. There was the most extraordinary energy and willingness to experiment during the sixties. Painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, conceptual artists were all working together and crossing genre boundaries, sometimes with appalling results, more often wacky and wonderful events. I remember a show Agnes Martin had at the Greene Gallery--small minimalist paintings, but each one had a title; it fascinated me how the title affected my reading of the lines and colors. I guess to me they were poems even then. Eva Hesse's show at the Greene was also an inspiration, it was so eccentric. Daring and delicate at once.

From Contemporary Literature (1995)

Anyway, I began to make books -- artists' books are different from poets' books. These books I made were not books of poetry or prose; they were objects. I would get a sketchbook and inside I would juxtapose a picture with a list of words under it. The words were usually lists of names. Often names of birds, of flowers, of weather patterns, but I relied on some flash association between the words and the picture or charts I used. Later I did a series of watercolors with penciled lines, watercolor washes, and pictures and words--I always left a lot of white space on the page. Around that time (1968 or '69), through my sister Fanny, I became acquainted with Charles Olson's writing. What interested me in both Olson and Robert Smithson was their interest in archaeology and mapping. Space. North American space--how it's connected to memory, war, and history. I suppose that's the point at which it began to dawn on me that I needed to do more than just list words. I was scared to begin writing sentences. I'm not sure why. But it just gradually happened that I was more interested in the problems of those words on the page than in the photographs I used or the watercolor washes.

From Contemporary Literature (1995)

I remember the days I was in Ithaca. I was a young mother, alone so much, and I read with horror that Virginia Woolf heard birds talking to her in Greek because she overworked. This was a real and metaphorical punishment for hubris. I remember being afraid that if I worked too hard with words I might start hearing voices. I had this lesson of these two writers whose language was exemplary but whose mastery told the other story that a woman could go too far. When you reach that point where no concessions in art are possible, you face true power, alone. But if you have young children you will make all sorts of concessions. Writing still seems more threatening to me than painting because it becomes so self-absorbing. I saw my desire as a threat to my children. Honestly, I nearly did go mad in Ithaca. I think I kept myself in one piece because I had to for Becky and Mark. But I started writing. I made that break. Those two women were still in there but fear fell away. I wanted to bring from words what they were able to bring. I had to accept that because I was also a mother it might take more time. But necessity is the mother of invention. I probably sound self-indulgent and arrogant. This all really touches on the nature of the sacred. What is accessible to us? Words are like swords. "S" makes word a sword. When you slice into past and future, what abrupt violence may open under you? The stories of Pandora and Psyche must have been told before the Flood.

If you look at my life I'm well-behaved. I'm not an alcoholic or a drug addict. I don't smoke. I live in a fairly neat house. I don't break traffic rules, but I have never been to a university. I have no degrees. No qualifications. I'm a marginal person who couldn't get a job except for the one I have, punching a cash register, selling books. Eccentric low-paid jobs. So I have been outside the power structure. I know what it is to stand on your feet all day and serve people for a minimum wage. But then this isn't quite fair because my husband is in the power structure. His part-time job teaching sculpture at Yale helps to support us. It pays our medical insurance. I was very anxious for my children to have good educations, and they did. We have been able to send them to college. I was determined that they would not end up as unqualified as I am. I was lucky. I had some choice.

From The Difficulties

Lynn Keller

Although family connections have kept her close to academia throughout most of her life--her companion of twenty-seven years, David von Schlegell, directed the sculpture program at Yale--Howe herself did not begin university teaching until 1988. She is now a professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo. Since her husband's death in the fall of 1992, much of her teaching has been at other institutions. Based at the University of Denver where she was a visiting poet in 1993-94, Howe made presentations at universities across the country.

From Contemporary Literature (1995)

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