Howe, Fanny 1940–

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Howe, Fanny 1940–

(Fanny Quincy Howe)


Born October 15, 1940, in Buffalo, NY; daughter of Mark DeWolfe (a professor of law) and Mary (a writer) Howe; married Carl Senna, October 27, 1968 (divorced); children: Annlucien, Danzy Senna, Maceo. Education: Attended Stanford University, 1958-61. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Swimming.


Home—Martha's Vineyard, MA. Email—[email protected].


Poet and educator. Worked in various jobs, 1961-68; Tufts University, Medford, MA, lecturer in creative writing, 1968-71; associated with Massachusetts Poetry-in-the-Schools program, 1973; Emerson College, Boston, MA, lecturer in creative writing, 1974; Columbia University Extension and School of the Arts, New York, NY, lecturer in creative writing, 1975-78; Yale University, New Haven, CT, lecturer in poetry, 1976; Harvard Extension, Cambridge, MA, lecturer in fiction, 1977; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, visiting writer and lecturer in fiction and poetry, 1978-87; University of California, San Diego, professor, 1987-2001; Bard College, David and Ruth Schwab III professor of language and literature and co-director of M.F.A. program (writing), 1991; University of California Study Center, London, England, associate director, 1993-95; Mills College, distinguished visiting writer-in-residence, 1996-97; Small Press Traffic, San Francisco, CA, writer-in-residence, 1998; New School for Social Research, New York, NY, writing teacher, 2004; Kenyon College, Gambier, OH, Visiting Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing, 2005. Has served as a guest poet and panelist for several events and institutions.


McDowell Colony fellow, 1965, 1990; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1969, 1991; Bunting Institute fellow, 1974; St. Botolph Award for Fiction, 1976; Writers Choice Award for Fiction, 1984; Village Voice Award for Fiction, 1988; California Council on the Arts Award for poetry, 1993; National Poetry Foundation Award, 1998; Chancellor's Associates Faculty Award for Excellence in the Arts, University of California, San Diego, 1998; Best of the Small Presses Award, for Standards, 1998; America Award, 1999, for Nod; Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, 2001, for Selected Poems.


Forty Whacks (short stories; contains "Forty Whacks," "Rosy Cheeks," "The Last Virgin," "Plug Body," "The Other Side of Lethe," and "Dump Gull"), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1969.

Eggs (poetry), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1970.

(And illustrator) First Marriage (novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1974.

Brontë Wilde (novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1976.

The Amerindian Coastline Poem, Telephone Books (New York, NY), 1976.

Holy Smoke (novel), illustrations by Colleen McCallion, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1979.

Poem from a Single Pallet, Kelsey Street Press (Berkeley, CA), 1980.

The White Slave (novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1980.

The Blue Hills (young adult novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1981.

Alsace Lorraine (poetry), Telephone Books (New York, NY), 1982.

Yeah, But (young adult novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1982.

In the Middle of Nowhere (novel), Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1984.

Radio City (young adult novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1984.

For Erato: The Meaning of Life (poems), Tuumba Press (Berkeley, CA), 1984.

Taking Care (young adult novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1985.

The Race of the Radical (young adult novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1985.

Robeson Street (poetry), Alice James Books (Boston, MA), 1985.

Introduction to the World (poetry), The Figures (New York, NY), 1985.

The Lives of a Spirit (novel), Sun & Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1986.

The Deep North (novel), Sun & Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1988.

The Vineyard (poetry), Lost Roads (Providence, RI), 1988.

Famous Questions (novel), Ballantine (New York, NY), 1989.

The End, Littoral Books (Los Angeles, CA), 1992.

The Quietist (poetry), O Books (Oakland, CA), 1992.

Saving History (novel), Sun & Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1992.

O'Clock (poetry), Reality Street (London, England), 1995.

One Crossed Out (poetry), Greywolf Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1997.

Nord Profond (novel), Mercure de France (Paris, France), 1997.

Nod (novel), Sun & Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1998.

Q (poetry), Paul Green Press (Cambridgeshire, England), 1998.

Forged (poetry), Post-Apollo Press (Sausalito, CA), 1999.

Selected Poems, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2000.

Indivisible, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.

Gone: Poems, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2003.

The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2003.

On the Ground, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2004.

The Lives of a Spirit; Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken, Nightboat Books (Beacon, NY), 2005.

Radical Love: 5 Novels, Nightboat Books (Beacon, NY), 2006.

The Lyrics, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2007.

(Introduction and adaptations) Henia Karmel and Ilona Karmel, A Wall of Two: Poems of Resistance and Suffering from Krakow to Buchenwald and Beyond, translated from the Polish by Arie A. Galles and Warren Niesluchowski, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2007.

Contributor to journals, including Ploughshares and Fence, and to online journals, such as Poetry Daily.


Novelist and poet Fanny Howe is noted for an increasingly avant-garde literary output. Beginning her career in print with mainstream New York City publishers, Howe's work has become increasingly less commercial, with much of her more later work available only through smaller presses. Howe has been grouped since the late 1970s with so-called "language poets," such as Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, and others. Her well-known long poem The Lives of a Spirit is reminiscent of the work of poet Rainer Maria Rilke and in the poem "the openness of the text, the sometimes dizzying abysses between the sentences, invite the reader to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage parallel to the author's," according to Contemporary Women Poets contributor Burton Hatlen.

Forty Whacks, Howe's first book, is considered among her more popular mainstream early work. A volume of prose published in 1969, it contains six short stories dealing with troubled women. Some of the protagonists are murderers, others adulteresses, but as M. Ann Petrie pointed out in a New Leader review, "all are out of touch with themselves and the world—and they are lonely." The protagonists of the short stories "Forty Whacks" and "The Other Side of Lethe" provide evidence of Petrie's observations. The main character of the title story reveals her detachment as she describes in her diary, in the cool language of psychoanalysis, her deliberate destruction of a couple's marriage. She rationalizes her actions in an account that Nation reviewer Shaun O'Connell judged "as tightly told as [Robert] Browning's dramatic monologues," and when she has achieved her goal, she decides she doesn't want the husband after all. Instead of being the "severely alive" person she believes she is, "she proves to be a very dead young woman," assessed Petrie. The heroine of "The Other Side of Lethe" is a woman left dispassionate by amnesia. Because she has forgotten the details of the death of her lover, whom she was convicted of murdering, she is unaffected by them. She relates the events, described O'Connell, "as though she were arranging flowers."

After Howe's marriage to fellow writer Carl Senna in 1968, her work Became increasingly "eccentric," as Howe once noted to CA. Through her multiracial marriage now exposed to a culture different from the white, middle-class milieu of her youth, Howe continued to write fiction and poetry but found that "some world view was inexorably shifting in me, and I felt sidelined by conversations and remarks that would have slid by unnoticed before." The period between 1968 and 1988 was a fertile period for Howe as an author—she published thirteen novels and seven collections of poetry during this period—but socially her life became more domestic.

Other works by Howe include the 1992 novel Saving History and One Crossed Out, a collection of poetry published in 1997. Poetry and prose have merged increasingly throughout Howe's oeuvre, and Saving History exemplifies this merger. A long narrative work, it is broken by passages of verse. The novel focuses on a homeless woman, Felicity Dumas, and her involvement in the black market—as well as with one of its smugglers—after she learns her daughter needs a new liver. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called Saving History "a taut, lyrical tale that demands careful reading," noting Howe's writing as being part of "the experimental, postmodernist tradition." The reviewer added that the novel is "a tale of magic realism perfectly set in its Mexico/California landscape." According to Dennis Barone in Review of Contemporary Fiction: "The ‘saving’ of Saving History means redemption: who shall be saved and how shall they be redeemed?" Barone maintained that "the novel should appeal to many readers," and called the work "very special and unusual." In American Book Review, Santiago Colas stated: "The back cover of … Saving History characterizes it as a ‘brilliant contemporary social novel.’ I certainly feel compelled to agree. But I also feel that such a characterization somehow is inadequate to express the inestimable importance of this novel, which is nonetheless … ‘brilliant’, ‘contemporary’, and ‘social’. I think the problem is with the word ‘social’ and with the alternatively abstract or narrowly topical associations that attach themselves to that word…. By reinventing the social novel from the ground up, Saving History has addressed this problem, and others, in a very provocative, engaging, and moving way."

In the twenty poems comprising One Crossed Out, Howe's poetry, too, is experimental. Characterized as "inventive" and "consistently surprising," her verses challenge the commonly held conventions of both "lyric and narrative through an idiosyncratic … understanding of how language inhabits things," in the words of Library Journal contributor Fred Muratori. Told from the viewpoint of May, a homeless woman with a drug problem, the poems in One Crossed Out were cited by a Publishers Weekly critic as an "acquired taste." But, noted the critic, the work "can also reveal how a language of brutalized distress can be unexpectedly beautiful." As Howe herself explained in ContemporaryWomen Poets, "my poetry has continued to work as a response to the daily world and how strange it is in every aspect."

Nod, a novel published by Howe in 1997, is a "dark fable in prose, verse and pictures," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The tale, set in Ireland just before the start of World War II, is about the troubles of an American family. The reviewer commented that the growing friction between the two sisters of the family—Irene, the favored of their parents, and Cloda—appears to parallel the conflicts of the twentieth century. In Review of Contemporary Fiction, Brian Lennon commented of Nod: "The principal movements of the novel occur on seemingly ‘universal’ planes—those of family life and its frequently repressive effects on adult social identity." "Language, not plot, propels this book by way of metaphors, sensory images and lilting rhythms," noted the Publishers Weekly reviewer, who called Nod a "virtuosic book."

Howe's 2000 collection, Selected Poems, combines sixteen previously published serial poems on a variety of subjects, including her childhood, as in "The Sea Garden"; feminist thought, as in "The Vineyard"; and religion, as in "The Quietist." "Sensuous and intellectual pleasures commingle beautifully," a reviewer for Publishers Weekly maintained of the collection, and went on to say: "Howe is here revealed to be working out a project of enormous consistence, clarity, and grace." Melanie Rehak, writing in the New York Times noted: "Stillness … tempers this volume." Rehak felt that this book, which covers a twenty-year span of Howe's work, contains "quiet, forceful poems." Selected Poems was awarded the 2001 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

Howe's novel Indivisible also appeared in 2000. It explores the life of Henny, a filmmaker, who is married to a musician named McCool; the man is an alcoholic who is severely depressed. This childless couple lives in Boston, and Henny accepts foster children into their home. Indivisible not only describes the bonds between Henny, her husband and her "children," but also delves into the complexities of her longtime friendship with Libby, a wealthy young woman. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly stated that Indivisible "is sometimes confusing" but felt that in spite of that, "the strange logic of the novel hangs together."

In Gone: Poems, Howe creates an eclectic combination of poetry and prose, of short verses with long, more serialized works, and a melding of both physicality and actual presence in reality with spirituality and freedom. She explores faith and doubt equally, illustrating the yin and yang, the balance of emotions, and frames her concepts within the typical daily power struggle that is constantly apparent in life. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that "Howe's willingness to take on subject matter that many poets shy away from is handled with care, complexity and passionate clarity." Donna Seaman, reviewing for Booklist, observed that "Howe writes with great daring and delicacy about mortification and bliss, confinement and escape."

The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life is a collection of essays that focus on meditation and ideas that have come to Howe at restful or meditative moments. They run the gamut from religion to politics to literature, as well as to some deeply held personal beliefs that Howe chooses to share with readers. Gene Shaw, writing for Library Journal, remarked: "Profound and finely written, this is highly recommended for most literature collections."

On the Ground, Howe's next offering following Gone, is a brief collection of poems that address questions of intimacy and redemption through love. Themes of good and evil and the war between the two thread through the poems contained in this volume, the darker side of which leads to references to the political landscape, including the war in Iraq and the attacks of September 11, 2001. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found the poems included in this book to be "simultaneously tender, political, lyrical and global in scope." However, Brian Phillips, in a contribution for Poetry, wrote that "when the obscuring cloak of this poetry fails to conceal its essential vacuousness, Howe's stance begins to look less like transcendent impersonality and more like a kind of alienated solipsism, a failure of articulation in which the only representable thing is private to the point of insignificance."

In Howe's Radical Love: 5 Novels, all five novels feature characters that experience some type of emotional extreme, which is frequently of a political nature as well as or instead of being one related simply to relationships. It is unusual for a successful poet to also be a prolific novelist, yet Howe proves herself both as this collection represents only a small portion of the fiction that she has produced over the course of her writing career. Pedro Ponce, in a review for the Small Spiral Notebook Web site, referred to poets as "stylistic tightrope walkers, using sound, syllable, rhyme, and diction to create paths over the abyss," and remarked that "when a poet turns to fiction, the result can be unsettling but ultimately bracing for the discerning reader." He concludes, however, that "for all the liberties she takes with narrative conventions, Howe still manages to grab readers looking for vivid characterization and page-turning plots."

With The Lyrics, Howe provides readers with a journey in words. The poems travel, following a sequential order and the rocky coast of Northern Ireland. Howe invokes the harshness of the coastline, the rough weather, and the barren nature of the land beneath her feet, yet focuses outward as well, up to the sky and the hope that is linked to wide open spaces and the possibilities that come with them. The poems themselves feature a musical cadence and rhythms that prove memorable to the reader. Sue Russell, writing for Library Journal, noted of the collection that "the setting is specific, but the voice is that of a history spanning generations and geographical boundaries." A reviewer for Poetry commented on the sense of movement and anticipation that the poems generate, remarking that "each new line offers a fresh thrill of interest, and I read on like a hiker following blaze-marks through a forest, not sure where I'm going but confident I'm not lost."



Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Hatlen, Burton, contributor Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.


American Book Review, February-March, 1994, Santiago Colas, review of Saving History, p. 14.

Booklist, April 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Gone: Poems, p. 1367.

Boston Book Review, April, 1999, Kim Jensen, review of Nod, pp. 36-37.

Library Journal, November 1, 1997, Fred Muratoni, review of One Crossed Out, p. 77; January 1, 2004, Gene Shaw, review of The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life, p. 110; June 15, 2007, Sue Russell, review of The Lyrics, p. 74.

Nation, December 8, 1969, Sean O'Connell, review of Forty Whacks.

New Leader, November 24, 1969, M. Ann Petrie, review of Forty Whacks.

New York Times Book Review, September 10, 2000, Melanie Rehak, "Unlight Verse," p. 26.

Poetry, February 1, 2005, Brian Phillips, review of On the Ground, p. 397; March 1, 2008, review of The Lyrics, p. 523.

Publishers Weekly, May 24, 1993, review of Saving History, p. 82; October 27, 1997, review of One Crossed Out, p. 72; January 12, 1998, review of Nod, p. 45; April 17, 2000, review of Selected Poems, p. 71; January 1, 2001, review of Indivisible, p. 69; March 31, 2003, review of Gone, p. 57; June 21, 2004, review of On the Ground, p. 58.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1993, Dennis Barone, review of Saving History, p. 212; spring, 1999, Brian Lennon, review of Nod, p. 184.


Academy of American Poets Web site, (July 24, 2002), "Fanny Howe."

Small Spiral Notebook, (February 26, 2007), Pedro Ponce, review of Radical Love: 5 Novels.