Camera, the Baby in My Arms
An Interview with Fanny Howe about her films
By Nazila Hafezi and Jennifer Martin
Fanny Howe is the author of many books of poetry and prose as well as the winner or finalist of too many awards to list, including the finalist for the National Book Award of 2014. After teaching writing at Tufts, Emerson, Columbia, Yale, and UC San Diego, she came to UMASS-Boston as the inaugural visiting writer in the MFA fiction writing program in 2012 and stayed for two years. Also a filmmaker, Howe hosted in March “an evening of returning” at the Woodberry Poetry Room where she introduced and screened three films she made in collaboration with Sheila Gallagher, John Gianvito, and Maceo Senna: “Brigid of Murroe” (2014); “What Nobody Saw” (1979/2015); and “Be Again” (1992/2015). Keith Jones, in his introduction of Howe at the Poetry Room, remarked that her films shouldn’t be considered “a departure from her essays, her novels, or her poetry, but rather as further evidence of how fully her genius lie in making genres overlap and misbehave. If we imagine genre as a territory, she is the trespass figure at its margins.”
For this issue of Breakwater, Nazila and Jennifer got the chance to sit with Fanny Howe for a conversation about her films and the process behind the scenes. For the convenience of the reader, Nazila and Jennifer would be referred as “Breakwater” in the interview.
Breakwater: Thank you so much for your time, Fanny. I’ll jump to the first question here: As a poet and a fiction writer, when was the first time you became interested in making films? What was your first work and how’s it been throughout the years?
Fanny Howe: I think I was 47. I had been teaching at MIT. They give you these short contracts. While I was there I audited a film class by the filmmaker Ricky Leacock who was a documentary filmmaker. I was already then at that point getting fascinated by film processes. I had always loved movies more than anything. When I had to leave MIT and move out to San Diego in order to pay for my kids’ college, I found myself in a completely alien landscape. I didn’t know that kind of desert landscape with no trees. I sort of felt like I’d been sent into exile. I bought a VHS camera and just decided I was going to treat it as another person almost, who goes around with me, because I was so lonely. The camera was like a baby I carried in my arms. I carried it around everywhere I went. I went for long walks taking endless pictures and looking at them and seeing what was salvageable. Most of it wasn’t. Finally the University of California sent me to England to run their junior year abroad program. So I went to England. I began doing a little documentary on this great philosopher Simone Weil. She lived in London for the last year of her life. I started using the camera purposefully: going to her grave and houses she lived in and streets she walked, the church she went to. I kept pursuing this parallel thing while I was teaching.
Breakwater: About the editing process in filmmaking, you mentioned how much time you spent with the visual editor to go back and forth and finally come up with the result. We had fiction workshops for two semesters with you, and now we wonder how similar film editing could be compared to fiction editing or poetry. Is it different?
FH: No, they aren’t different. I was very influenced by movies all my life. This kind of jumping from scene to scene was already in my consciousness inside me. And subtitles: I’ve watched to lots and lots of foreign movies so I was always looking at words and images. I think without even knowing, it was always coming into my way of seeing things. Editing fiction was very similar to film editing. When I wrote novels, I used to cut them up with scissors and lie them around on the floor and move them, so it was almost the same thing.
Breakwater: Did you do that with the whole novel?
FH: I did.
Breakwater: Did you have space?
FH: It went all through the house.
FH: The putting down on the floor when it’s typed is really useful because in the computer things just vanish. You know, you have the page and then you can’t see it again without ruining the rhythm. You really need a stage where you see every page laid out. Or I do anyway.
Breakwater: Going back to your films, is there any sort of connection between your films, or does each stay by its own individually? Are they connected somehow, character-wise, theme-wise, or prose-wise?
FH: I suppose in the end we’re like birds. We’re only allowed to sing one song. I have sort of a theme in my life which I wouldn’t have been conscious of until I lived this long. Now I can see that it was in everything. That would be sort of the defense of the weak to the point of invisibility.
Breakwater: Are there any particular filmmakers that you admire whose films you enjoy and inspire you?
FH: Well, I go way back because of being old [she laughs]. But the first films I watched were like Ingmar Bergman and the Italian neorealists, Rosselini, and Fellini. So those are my ground zero. They’re the ones everything that comes for me comes out of. So if something reminds me of one of those, then I love it. If it doesn’t, I don’t like it. But I still sort of prefer foreign movies, I have to say. French, well and now even more remote: Japanese, Chinese, Indian, I prefer them. There’s something less violent in them. American film has become so violent that the camera is like a weapon or something.
Breakwater: Do you think it’s true that in some films the content isn’t violent but thrillers or Hollywood movies are filmed in an aggressive way?
FH: Yeah, I do. And they make a lot of assumptions. Like they show, let’s say, a couple having a bad relationship, but always there is beautiful furniture, the trees blowing, nobody is having to make a living, they don’t talk about and they just never mention what it’s actually built on.
Breakwater: And they drive beautiful cars, eighty thousand dollar cars, and beautiful apartments, yeah.
FH: I know, exactly. So it’s all a lie, really. That bothers me. So I like movies that are more squalid. And I love scenes about children. I even like children’s movies. Those Japanese anime I love.
Breakwater: We were wondering how long it takes to make a movie, like the movies you’ve made, the short films. Does it take you a long time to do them?
FH: Let’s say the first one I was talking to you about, which was based on the passage from the philosopher Simon Weil, took me a long time. I kept making mistakes and going back. That took months. They usually take quite a long time, even for a short film, because you keep tinkering with it and it’s very hard to believe that you’ve got it right.
Breakwater: That sounds like short stories, too.
FH: It does, definitely, or a poem. You just can’t really rest. Even when you’re done you can’t feel it’s done.
Breakwater: The first film we watched at Woodberry Poetry Room was about your uncle, right?
Breakwater: Now I’m curious to know: do you pick your subjects, I mean what you’re going to make a film about, or do they pick you?
FH: That [the first film] was when I was learning, so that was in Ireland when I was in England working. So that was right at the beginning and I just carried the camera behind my uncle. We went for a walk and I just followed him. So it picked me. I didn’t go out to do it. But now I would say I actually imagine something first. I imagined “Brigid of Murroe.” And the new one that’s turning around, I’m imagining. And the one my son and I made recently, I invented that out of current history.
Breakwater: We wanted to ask you a little bit about the future: whether you think you’re going to be doing more filmmaking or spending more time writing? I’m sure you’ll be writing, but also more filmmaking, or more poetry, or more prose, or more teaching?
FH: No more teaching.
Breakwater: No more teaching!
FH: And I have all the pages for the next manuscript. But everything has sort of changed, because my energy is so different than it was. I had a lot of energy, and now I have maybe a third of that. So I have to work every morning before I begin falling down [she laughs]. I get tired. But I’m completely committed to making that manuscript work.
Breakwater: Is it fiction?
FH: It’s hybrid.
Breakwater: I see. You said that your films are hybrid: a mix of writing, poetry and prose, and visual art.
FH: Yeah. So I would hope that this book would be a combination of all those. But I think of it as my final writing project. So I want to make it, you know, really good. And then, I love working with someone on a visual project. I have something in mind that I could do with Sheila Gallagher. I hate giving public talks, so I wouldn’t mind sort of using a film instead of a talk, of being there. [She laughs]
Breakwater: Do you hate giving public talks? I mean, at the event the other night you seemed very comfortable.
FH: I think because I had that whiskey with me.
Breakwater: Yeah, there was whiskey there.
FH: Yeah, and with that it was fun.
Breakwater: What happened to Brigid? I’m just curious. We both re-watched your film and it kind of spotted my interest in her and I was looking for her online.
FH: Oh, yeah. She was a real person. But I guess I haven’t had much interest in a very spontaneous way in grownups. I like writing, thinking about childhood and children, and so that came out of that. It was a complete fantasy about Brigid. She was a real person. She really was the daughter of a chieftain named Dubthach and her mother died as a slave. So there were certain facts that I put in, but mostly I was talking about how transitory childhood is. You can never really get it back.
Breakwater: Do you have any advice for other people who want to make short, personal kinds of films?
FH: I think the thing that helped me was that I didn’t have any intention at first, and I walked around with a camera for probably four years before I even thought about making films. So I think my advice would be that getting comfortable with the camera and having a relationship with it is very important.
Breakwater: Do you remember when we were talking in class about how in writing sometimes you have to kill your darlings? Do you feel like you have to do that in film as well? Do you have to cut out parts that you love but they somehow don’t fit?
FH: Probably not quite in the same way, because you’re thinking about something so objective. Everything is about juxtaposition in film, trying to make the edges of two different pieces melt. I do go back over my own footage and I find the ones that I really wish I could do something with. I set them aside for later.
Nazila Hafezi is originally from Iran and has been living in the United States since 2007. She is a third-year student in the MFA program as a fiction writer. She has a Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering and a Bachelor of Science degree in Software Engineering. For fifteen years she worked as an engineer and for the past three years, she has worked on her fiction and as a graduate assistant with Broadsided Press, Consequence Magazine, and Breakwater Review.
Jennifer Martin is a recent graduate the UMass Boston MFA creative writing program. She also has a master’s degree in international nutrition from Tufts and an earlier BA in English from UMass. She has long been torn between humanitarian aid work and writing and for many years was an aid worker in the field of emergency and public health nutrition before joining the MFA program. For the last 15 years, she has lived and worked in many countries in Africa, southeast Asia and the Caribbean. She has been writing fiction since she was a child and co-edited her high school and undergrad literary magazines. With the help of Grub Street, she has long been revising a novel (based on her experiences in South Sudan). Currently, she is focusing more on short stories that explore some of the same themes as her novel and is looking forward to continuing to grow as a writer.