Katharyn Howd Machan
Katharyn Howd Machan, born in Woodbury, CT, in 1952, is the author of 30 published collections, eight of which were selected in national competition, most recently Belly Words: Poems of Dance (Split Oak Press, 2009), When She’s Asked to Think of Colors (Palettes & Quills Press, 2009), The Professor Poems (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2008), Flags (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Redwing: Voices from 1888 (FootHills Publishing, 2005), Greatest Hits (Pudding House Publications, 2004), and Sleeping with the Dead (Finishing Line Press, 2003). She has lived in Ithaca, New York, since 1975 and since that time has actively coordinated the Ithaca Community Poets’ reading and workshop series while teaching at Tompkins Cortland Community College and then Ithaca College, where she is now a professor in the Department of Writing. In 2002 she was named Tompkins County’s first Poet Laureate.
More than 1,300 of her poems have appeared in magazines (Yankee, The Writer, Nimrod,Runes, English Journal, The Hollins Critic, etc.) anthologies (Early Ripening: American Women’s Poetry Now, The Poets’ Grimm, Tribute to Orpheus: Poems about Music and Musicians, etc.) and textbooks (The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Perrine’s Sound and Sense, Literature: The Human Experience, Gender Violence: Inter-disciplinary Perspectives, etc.)
In 2000 Dana Gioia selected her poem “Tess Clarion: Redwing, 1888” to receive the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize from the University of Southern California, in 2001 she received the ByLine Literary Award for her poem “Les Salles du Gardon,” and in 2006 her poem “Gingerbread” was awarded the Luna Negra Poetry Prize from Kent State University.
She holds a B.A. in English from the College of Saint Rose, an M.A. in English literature from the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D. in interpretation (performance studies) from Northwestern University. Every March she offers “Writing in the Garden” as artist-in-residence for the Mana Project, Inc. in Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden, Key West, FL. As poet and dancer she serves year-round on the faculty of the Community School of Music and Arts and, for ten day summer sessions when possible, for the Greek-island holistic Skyros Centre based in Great Britain.
Katharyn graciously agreed to answer questions about poetry, process and the art of writing. We enjoyed talking together at The Community School Of Music & Arts. Michele Lesko's interview with Katharyn follows.
Michele Lesko: What prompted you as a poet? Were your interests a continuance of your upbringing or a way to escape into a world of your own?
Katharyn Howd Machan: Poetry has been my core since 14 yrs of age. I understood art because my father was a composer, pianist. My grandfather came from Bohemia. My father played piano for the dance school, so I got free lessons but was never good at any of the different types of dance I tried.
A teacher in high school, Harriet Koshar, said to me, "You can do this. You should do this." I'd been working on the school's literary magazine, writing plays, creating portrait poems. I was a writer from the age of 15.
ML: When did you first feel successful in the field of writing?
KHM: I had great support, I can work with words; I'm in my element. I'm always proud to say I was the first to publish Kimiko Hahn. She was three years younger, & I published her in Pleasantville High School's literary magazine. I get such a kick out of that! I got very good support from the world beyond: the National Council of Teachers of English Award meant dozens of colleges sent info wooing me to come to their campus.
ML: Have you ever felt your work may be classified as part of a genre, movement or specific group?
KHM: Feminism is central to my view of the world. Spring of 1970, I was a senior in high school and remember a Mademoiselle magazine article mentioning feminism. Finally, a word for what I'd felt my whole life. I've never seen or felt that my work is perceived as fitting any genre. There is a certain political bent in some anthologies. But, no, my work comes as it does from different places in life.
ML: Do you consider your work to have a recognizable thread that stamps it as your own or brings you the sense that it can be categorized, if only by you in the way that you think about the poems as a whole?
KHM: No. Never. But a good friend judged a contest in which poems were submitted to her anonymously, so thinking I didn't have a recognizable style or "voice,” I figured she wouldn't know mine. She was furious. She said, "I knew it was yours immediately."
ML: How has your work changed down the line from book one to your last collection?
KHM: "Since January I have been at work on a manuscript called 'Fox,' poems about a shape-shifter who is sometimes all animal, sometimes all human, and sometimes a mixture of both, at her own will. My life and others' lives are woven into these poems. Writing has again and again saved my sanity through different periods in my life. I've found some of my most personal poems reach people. We do have to be careful when we use others' experiences."
My Redwing series, which I consider my life's work, has fictional characters who also reach people. These poems, set in 1888, west of Ithaca in a county I created, are stories that people would not voice aloud. They take place in one calendar year, but I've been writing them since 1985. I borrow freely from friends' lives. "The 1888 setting makes it safe to do so."
ML: Are there rhythms or an internal sense of meter that you find are lost when a poem is read to oneself rather than spoken aloud?
KHM: I make sure my work is good on the page and for reading aloud. I may write with metrics first & that metric form may be tossed but still inform the free verse. Most of the Redwing poems are free verse but still scannable. There have been many productions of Redwing poems over the years as plays.
ML: In her book, Broken English, Heather McHugh speaks to that moment when one must consider the impact of the articles used on the word(s) it is modifying. Have you found yourself lost in that moment of choice?
KHM: Yes. Especially in revision. I still write a lot of poems that are exercises. But I know after all these years of experience writing poetry the ones that take off right away, when I've one that is good and worthwhile.
ML: So you know when you've written one really good poem that speaks exactly as it should? Still, do you write and rewrite always?
KHM: Some can be written all in one sitting. In the one about the Ithaca Farmer's Market, during initial composition, I revised as I went & ended up that afternoon with a complete poem, in stanzas that shaped the poem. I waited & waited for that heron to fly!