My conversation with Liz Howard started a couple weeks ago, while I sat in Birge-Carnegie at Victoria College to attend the seminar course she is teaching this semester, VIC459 — Creative Citizenship, The Here and Now. Our discussion stuck with me, and I was eager to continue it.
She asked me to call her on the afternoon of January 26 for this interview. In class, Howard is usually the one asking me questions, but she was just as comfortable and eloquent on the other side of the metaphorical table. She contemplated before answering every question and spoke reflectively about her life, work, and deep passion for the art of poetry.
The Varsity: How would you describe yourself?
Liz Howard: I’m a poet, educator, and editor. I’m originally from a small town in Treaty 9 territory called Chapleau, Ontario. I moved here when I was 18 years old to go to university, and I studied and worked in psychology for many years at the University of Toronto. I began taking a number of poetry classes, and participated in poetry readings throughout the city. I eventually did a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Guelph, which led to the publication of my first book, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, which has led me to a life of writing and teaching.
TV: Do you have a core memory from your childhood that has shaped you as a poet?
LH: When I was six or seven years old, I was in our basement; there were boxes of my mother’s things, and I was snooping around in them. I found a copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. My mom must have had it from when she was in high school and just never returned it. In any case, I started reading it and, of course, I didn’t understand every word. But something of the manner in which the characters spoke — the iambic pentameter and tetrameter — launched itself inside my head. I found that my inner voice began to match the patterns of the speech of the characters in the play. I started to write things down, keep a journal, and write poems. That’s a core memory for me.
TV: What is your process of writing poetry?
LH: Poetry comes about for me in a few different ways. The main way is through free writing. I will usually sit down and just allow words to come through. Another way is that I will often do a certain amount of research into different topics, and that information will make its way into poems. And, a third way is that I may have something specific in mind that I want to address. Then, I go about trying to bring that into the world.
TV: What would you say is the role of poetry in our world?
LH: I certainly feel like poetry is a barometer for the different registers of language operating in our world. [Its purpose is] to bring those different registers into release and to interrogate them and challenge them.
TV: You’ve been appointed as the Shaftsbury Creative Writer-in-Residence at Victoria College for the 2022–2023 academic year. What were some of the things that were important to you when you were designing your course, Creative Citizenship, The Here and Now?
LH: I wanted to select a mix of texts that were published recently, and there’s at least one that I think originally came out in the 1980s. I wanted to have texts that were representative of different genres. So we’re looking at poetry and then also prose poetry. We’re looking at hybrid writing, which is bringing in poetry, prose, and visual elements. We’re going to be looking at short fiction, a novel, as well as a collection of creative nonfiction essays by Joshua Whitehead.
I selected texts that I thought would be great for generating discussion about the role of writing in our contemporary moment and writing from different groups of people that have different experiences. Also, selecting work that I was curious about, so that I could put my own passion and interest into the class.
TV: What are your passions and interests?
LH: I’m interested in history. I’m interested in archaeology. I have a deep interest in the past. I’m interested in cosmology — the origin and fate of the universe in a really layperson sort of way. I don’t claim to be an expert on a lot of these things. But, my last book had to do with the origins of our universe, and the possibility of multiple universes, as well as interesting things around quantum physics, and the ability of matter to be in many different states simultaneously. I find ideas like this to be really interesting to think through, and to extrapolate into more human realms.
In general, I find myself generatively distracted, and I tend to be interested intensely for short periods of time on any number of different topics. Bits of those hyperfixations will make their way into my writing.
TV: Relating to a conversation that we had in our Creative Citizenship course a couple of weeks ago, I want to bring up the intersections of poetry and politics. We talked about how poetry that deals with political or social themes is considered by some to be less-than. How do you think poetry intermingles with politics and social issues?
LH: Those who have those sorts of criticisms show themselves to be saying that they consider the individuals, the issues, and the groups themselves to be less than.
There’s this lack of recognition and capacity to contribute in a longstanding, compelling, and meaningful way if your writing isn’t falling in line with certain conservative ideas about form and content, [or] if it’s not playing by the rulebook that’s been established by hierarchy. And [this is] a hierarchy that is predicated upon some people being excluded and used for content to be appropriated from, to be vilified, and [to be] romanticized in stretches.
TV: Thinking back to that conversation, we also talked about how marginalized writers can often be pigeonholed into writing about their trauma. Do you have any advice for writers or artists who are grappling with this?
LH: I think this is why courses like Creative Citizenship are important — to tap into conversations already happening. People from marginalized groups are now being lifted up into positions of power where they can acquire stories that aren’t the usual trauma narratives, which — for whatever reason — have been shown to be highly consumable and profitable. We will continue to see the great richness of narratives that haven’t been as represented before, perhaps in a more widespread or visible way.
Writers should continue to be fueled by what makes writing rewarding for them, and to not feel that they need to recapitulate these narratives of trauma from their own lives or those of their community, to feel as if that’s the only way that they’re going to be recognized or heard. That being said, my personal position is that simultaneously one should not be dissuaded from writing about the difficulties that one has experienced or the difficulties in one’s community. Certainly in my writing, I’ve written about personal trauma as well as intergenerational trauma. And I’ve written about that out of necessity. There was no way for me to not write about it.
TV: Finally, I’m hoping you can impart some words of wisdom to young artists and writers. If you could go back in time and say something to your younger self, what would you want her to know?
LH: I don’t know why this is such a difficult question.
Don’t be so concerned about what other people think, even though I believed myself to not be so concerned. Be wary of people who seem as though they’re supportive and, in fact, have ulterior motives. And read more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.