The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews the spritely, compassionate, and soulfully brilliant Stevie Howell.
Stevie Howell is an Irish-Canadian writer whose first collection of poetry, Sharps (Goose Lane, 2014), was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her second book is forthcoming in 2018 from Penguin Random House Canada.
Natalya: I understand we both grew up in Scarborough.
Stevie: Did you, too?
Natalya: Yes. Well, downtown Toronto for my innocent birth, but my evil, adolescent years were pure Finch and Midland.
Stevie: Ah… I had friends up there. I was in the south. My street was Scarborough Heights Blvd. – one of the streets that curves around to the Bluffs.
Natalya: We drove past you en route to unauthorized bonfire parties. We were always risking death.
Stevie: Yes! And I’ve been up your way to Agincourt Mall.
Natalya: Ah, la jeunesse dorée de Scarborough.
Stevie: I know it well.
Natalya: Let’s talk poetry. I enjoyed your first collection, Sharps, which included some memories of life in the suburbs of Toronto. I also understand you’re working on your second book now.
Stevie: Yes, my second book is called I left nothing inside on purpose. It’s coming out next spring with McClelland & Stewart (Penguin Random House Canada). The title alludes to confessional poetry and minimalism. I’m in the editing process now. My editor is Ken Babstock.
Natalya: Holy crap.
Stevie: Yeah, he’s the first poet I took a workshop with – I sweated through my shirts every time. It was so intense to have someone you admired that much as a first reader. And it’s so sweet to have gotten along as naturally as we do, and to have had the editing relationship evolve to this point. I feel enormously blessed by his friendship and his care for my work.
Natalya: My armpits are sweating just thinking about it. What drew you to poetry initially? When did you start writing?
Stevie: When I was young we did have a lot of books in the house. We were encouraged to do stuff that was arts-related, because it’s sort of cheap – you know, go read, or go get out the watercolours because it’s raining, or something. Art is an easy way to be occupied and we weren’t allowed to watch TV much, other than, like, Nova.
I always had the idea that writing was a long apprenticeship, and I really didn’t start writing until about five years ago. I thought, ‘First I have to read all these books; then I have to open a bookstore.’ In my twenties I did open a bookstore. Then I worked as an editor, so it was, ‘Once I’m done editing, then I’ll write.’ And when I had the bookstore all these people were buying books, and I remember getting this sad feeling of, ‘They don’t even know that I wish I was a writer.’ That started to gnaw at me.
Natalya: Hold up. What was your bookstore called? Can I go to said bookstore immediately?
Stevie: It was called Speak Volumes, and it was in Peterborough. I opened it with my partner at the time. He ended up having to drop out of school… I was a postal clerk…We saw an ad for a youth entrepreneurship program and applied. We closed the store after five years of running it but, in a roundabout way, it led to us both becoming serious about our writing.
Natalya: Stevie, you’re already making me crazy. So, you grew up in an artistic environment, and then you open this – let’s face it – totally awesome bookstore, and then late in adulthood you start writing. I found Sharps to be very reflective of a suburban experience in Ontario. Scarborough and the Bluffs are all mixed in there. You mentioned that you were around 36 years old when you really started writing poetry, but the poems certainly harkened back.
Stevie: Yeah. Thinking back, even when I was working crummy jobs, I was always thinking, ‘One day I’ll write about this.’ I just took a long time to feel ready. There are a lot of people – and they’re not wrong for thinking this – who are, like, ‘I gotta get a book out. I gotta get a book out.’ I wish I’d been that way, but for some reason I moved really slow. For a long time, I didn’t understand time.
Natalya: I hear you.
Stevie: You started late too, right? You were all ballet, no?
Natalya: I went from ballet to journalism to poetry. Clearly I’m in it for the big bucks. But yes, I’m a late starter with the creative writing.
Stevie: I’m with you.
Natalya: Well, I want to hear about the new project, but let’s go back to Sharps for a moment. What experiences led you to write that book?
Stevie: In Sharps, I was thinking about three things – working in a mental health hospital (The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, also known as CAMH), my grandfather dying at the time of dementia, and (the animated feature film) The Last Unicorn.
Natalya: Tell me about that tricky title, because it’s not actually, visually, called Sharps.
Stevie: The title is a hieroglyph that the ancient Egyptians used for all the prepositions in a sentence. ‘Sharps’ is the name of the safe disposal box or container for needles. Also, and it’s kind of subtle in there, but – are you of the age to appreciate The Last Unicorn?
Natalya: Puhleeze! I’m only two or three years younger than you. My son was watching The Last Unicorn on a loop all last week on Netflix. Some might say that’s poor parenting, but we have to keep the new generations informed, Stevie.
Stevie: I watch The Last Unicorn all the time! But, basically, the narrative is that the unicorn is on the hero’s journey. Which, let’s be honest, girls and women don’t get to have much. But the unicorn has to assume the body of a female to protect her mission. To me, The Last Unicorn is a trans parable. It’s about hiding in the wrong shape, and the stakes involved with that.
Natalya: Not a bad debut, Stevie.
Stevie: I was… overly concerned with anyone being able to pin anything on me, so I didn’t address certain things directly enough. I didn’t want to be restricted, and yet I retracted. I’m trying to do the opposite of those things the second time around.
Natalya: With your second book, in the editing process, are you rethreading those ideas or images more succinctly to your liking? How does your work in hospital continue to feed into your new book?
Stevie: Since that book, I went back to university late and finished a BA in psychology. I work as a psychometrist. I administer cognitive and memory tests. It’s basically looking at what domains of the brain are being affected by illness or injury, and to what degree.
Natalya: You’re working with people who are sometimes vulnerable.
Stevie: My job is to help the neuropsychologists determine what domains are intact, so in some ways it’s a ‘strengths-based’ approach. Another great thing about my job is I am able to spend up to two days with each patient, which is a lot of time in any healthcare setting. It might be the longest and most detailed assessment a person may ever have. So patients do tend to feel heard and seen by our service.
Natalya: And within your poetry, these ideas play out in weird and strange ways.
Stevie: Of course! My new collection starts out talking about attachment theory, which has to do with developmental bonds and how they inform your future relationships. That came from a personal place. At the same time, it’s really weird to work with any one individual in the clinic for that duration. You get such a strong sense of someone’s unique personality, challenges, etc. You have to be patient. Your heart goes out inevitably. You end up wanting that much amount of time and degree of intensity with everyone you ever met, really – especially people you know and like, which can be weird, I think. But the nature of that work has taught me what a fine line there is between me and anyone else, and how much of what happens between two people depends entirely on trust. I mean, the administration of healthcare is always standardized, and yet there’s also this kind of magic.
Natalya: Oh hell yes. Basically, what it comes down to, is that all humans want to be loved and cared for.
Stevie: I’m so glad you get what I’m trying to say… The most important thing I’ve learned, and what I am trying to bring to my poetry, is to write non-judgmentally, as I don’t believe that’s my role here. I think a lot about what Franz Wright wrote:
Furless now, upright, My banished
You said, though your own heart condemn you
I do not condemn you.
As an artist, I think about how in one way or another we are all kind of banished, and feel condemned on some level. We all want back into the kingdom. And the only kingdom we have on Earth is each other.