Sean Howard is the author of three collections of poetry, Local Calls (Cape Breton University Press, 2009), Incitements (Gaspereau Press, 2011), and The Photographer’s Last Picture (Gaspereau Press, 2016). His fourth book, Ghost Estates, is due to be published by Gaspereau Press this fall. Howard lives in Main-à-Dieu, Cape Breton, and teaches political science at Cape Breton University. In the following, he talks about writing in response to photography and music, life in a lobster-fishing village, his new projects, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and poetry in particular?
I started writing stories very young (around 8); poetry, a little lifetime later (16). I wasn’t so much ‘drawn’ as overwhelmed—rudely awoken, it honestly felt like!—by a visit from the ‘The Angel of Poetry’ (as Paul Celan called Her).
Emily Dickinson wrote: “I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose.” Prose can be a beautiful space, with big, beautiful windows, great views.
But I was suddenly outside…
In your book The Photographer’s Last Picture (Gaspereau Press, 2016), your poetry responds to photographs from World War I. Do you frequently write poems in response to photographs or other works of art? Are there any other artistic forms that inspire or inform your writing?
In terms of photography, Last Picture was a radical departure: an exhausting (I think successful) experiment I have no intention of repeating! The basic idea was to ‘take’ twenty photographs from that Great Catastrophe and ‘develop’ them, via prose descriptions and reflections, into poetry, necessarily fragmentary ‘broken images’ (to quote the WW1 poet Robert Graves) shattering the falsely ‘clear images’ of that War—‘Death So Noble,’ ‘Forever Young,’ ‘Birth of a Nation,’ etc., etc.— still permeating and perverting much of what passes for ‘Remembrance’.
I do write occasional poems inspired by music, particularly modern jazz (whose players are consummate ‘dwellers in possibility’).
What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?
Making a home for nearly 20 years now in my particularly infinite part of Nova Scotia—the breathtaking lobster-fishing village of Main-à-Dieu—has been a blessing beyond my deserving or dreams: dreams which, from early childhood, always did involve somehow living by the sea, where, as one of my first poems said, “all there is to do is listen.” Well, there’s more to do than listen, but listening is perhaps the most crucial part of writing (and reading). “Think with Thy Self,” a character in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus advises; living here has taught me to listen not to but with my Self.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?
My biggest misconception, from my mid-teens to late twenties, was that writing—especially poetry—went or should go hand-in-hand with a self-destructive, suicidally-sacrificial, Dylan Thomas-esque, Icarus lifestyle.
But poetry’s the high (and high-wire)! Other addictions are superfluous, and you need a clear head to listen…
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
My work was rejected for many, many years; but throughout that Night Journey, I was convinced that lots of bad poetry (too easy to listen to) was accepted, lots of good poetry (hard to easily hear) turned down. And I remain convinced that’s true: publication doesn’t prove you’re a poet, rejection doesn’t mean you’re not.
Which isn’t really advice, I admit: but if I had taken their word—No!—for it, my words might have stopped.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
If you mean what’s great about the writing community, I’ve had the chance to take part in a number of powerful readings, alongside some spellbinding poets (Peter Sanger, Anne Simpson, Basma Kavanagh, Shalan Joudry, many others); received tremendous support and encouragement from friends and colleagues at Cape Breton University; and most magically, found a home with an extraordinarily gifted printer/publisher/editor, Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau Press in Kentville.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Is poetry an innocent pleasure?
What do you do when you have a writer’s block?
Try not to listen to myself…
Where do you like to write? Do you have a dedicated writing space, or do you prefer to move around?
Happiest of all, on-shore, scribbling into a pocket notepad…
Otherwise (wherever), fountain-pen on legal pad…
And at the keyboard? As long as there’s (ambient) music, coffee…
What are you working on right now?
I have a new collection appearing this autumn (Ghost Estates, Gaspereau Press), so I’m working hard preparing readings. I’m also wading into a new project, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, paying poetic (I hope) tribute to the formidable legacy and radical achievements of Robert Graves, aforementioned master-breaker of false images.