Interview with Howard Winn

This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.

Howard Winn’s fiction and poetry, has been published recently by such journals as Dalhousie Review, Taj Mahal Review (India), Galway Review (Ireland), Antigonish Review, Main Street Rag, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Tole Review, The Long Story, New Verse News, and Wisconsin Review. He has been recommended for the Pushcart Poetry Award three times. He received his B.A. from Vassar College, his M.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University, and completed his doctoral work at New York University. He has been a social worker in California and is currently a faculty member of SUNY-Dutchess as Professor of English. Winn’s poetry appeared in Issue 1.3 of The 3288 Review in early 2016. 

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3288 Review: You have a writing career that stretches into the decades. How and when did you get your start? Was there an event or person which served as a catalyst?

Howard Winn: I wrote stories and poems in my high school college prep English classes with the encouragement of English teachers, although I was enrolled in the pre-engineering curriculum and planned a career as an Electrical Engineer because in my adolescence it seemed that was what young college-bound males did with their lives, so I applied to colleges like Dartmouth, MIT, and Clarkson, I choose Dartmouth, but World War II intervened and I took delayed admission. College was on hold and I was drafted into the Army Air Corps, which first sent me to technical military schools because of my math and science background, and then assigned me to teach Air Crew personnel in those schools. I wrote nothing but letters home.

I finished out the war in the Western Pacific Theater of Operations, assigned to the bomb group that included the B-29s that carried the A-bombs. The war ended and I came home, disgusted with the engineering technology which my experience told me was being used to make instruments of killing.

Although Dartmouth was ready to take me, I was accepted as a WWII veteran with the G.I. Bill college provisions by Vassar College, my mother’s alma mater, where I could major in English with a creative writing senior thesis. I was fortunate to have English faculty who encouraged my writing, most particularly Dr. Ida Treat Bergeret, who published widely in such magazines as The New Yorker. It was under her guidance that I first published both poetry and fiction in a number of “little” literary journals. She was one of my instructors who suggested that the Stanford University Creative Writing Program should be my next step. Here I was fortunate to have both Wallace Stegner and Yvor Winters as teachers, who also encouraged me to continue writing, as did John Ciardi who was my instructor in a summer session at Middlebury while I was still an undergraduate at Vassar. I could also mention Oscar Cargill in the N. Y. U. graduate program later.

3288 Review: In your experience as a poet and teacher of poetry, how has the public reception of poetry changed since you started writing?

Howard Winn: When I began teaching at the college level, at SUNY, the Beat poets were just beginning to be heard and for my students their appearance was both frightening and liberating. The San Francisco Renaissance was yet to come. But here was something new and uninhibited, and on subject matter and in forms that were unavailable then to my working and middle class students. The assignment of Ginsberg’s “Howl”, for example, brought a parental protest from a father who was a fervent member of the Knights of Columbus and who took his anger at this daughter’s assigned reading to the President of the College. An academic freedom moment for the college administration and the answer to the parent was that professional faculty had the right to make appropriate assignments and administrators did not interfere with such professional judgments. The student could drop the course, but the course content would not be changed. Of course, eventually, the “new” approach to reading and writing poetry was accepted and the writing of Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso, questioning mainstream politics and culture, became acceptable for reading and models for composition. And, of course, forms have gotten much looser and in our post post modern forms, even punctuation and connection is up for grabs, as they say. And we have come to writers like John Ashbery, Eamon Grennan, Robert Creely, or Mary Karr. Many poets seem to have re-discovered e e cummings!

3288 Review: As a poet, what was your reaction to the renaissance/revolution? Did you notice your own voice changing? Was it more freedom or hindrance?

Howard Winn: When I was doing my undergraduate work at Vassar College, and my English major was fiction writing, THE poet in residence for some of my four years was John Malcolm Brinnin as visiting lecturer. Of course, with his connections to the world of poetry he brought major poets to Vassar to read, including (of course) Dylan Thomas who turned up drunk but still able to give an impressive reading. His lyrical style became a model. Brinnin’s taste and teaching did have an effect upon student poets but at the time when I turned to poetry from my classes on fiction writing I still tended to write sonnets and villanelles and those were what got into the “little journals.” Until I took that summer course with John Ciardi who was scornful of writing in those traditional forms. They were all right for another time, he said, but now minor talents can whip off a sentimental, romantic, and trivial sonnet in three minutes, which he did for the class who gave him the topic. So I was ready for the revolution and found that there were subjects and forms that were releasing and actually fun, if I can use that word, to use. So, yes, I guess you could say my voice and my topics and my point of view was altered. I doubt it was Yvor Winters who affected me, while there I mostly listened to Wallace Stegner about fiction and tried not to antagonize Winters. With the change later, and the examples of the new poetry, however, one could be witty and funny and satirical, even bizarre, and produce serious not light verse.

3288 Review: Do you feel there is still a place for public, politically engaged poetry? Or are those voices being drowned out by the abundance of new creative outlets?

Howard Winn: I think that there is always a place for poetry that is engaged with social, cultural and political concerns. It is true that there is an abundance of outlets now, with print journals being supplemented, or overwhelmed in some cases, by digital publications, often with personal and “loud” voices, sometimes puerile in my estimation. However, the impact of political poetry from the likes of Langston Hughes, Auden, MacLeish, Ginsberg, Yeats, Updike, Baraka, Whitman, Hardy, Robert Graves, Randall Jerrell, right up to Brian Turner have been important and new young poets can learn from that history what literature has an enduring influence and what is merely self-indulgent or “flashy.” If a creative writer has a conscience as well as a selfish wish to be remembered, he/she will learn the difference between what is significantly vital and what is trivial self-importance. For example, the website New Verse News speaks to these matters.

3288 Review: Do you have a particular style of poetry you are drawn to, as a reader or as a creator?

Howard Winn: I guess I do have a preference, although I am always willing to look at something new just to see if I want to bother to spend time with it. I do realize that the influence of one of my mentors in graduate school, Yvor Winters, did affect what I found worth reading and ultimately writing. His book of literary criticism, In Defense of Reason convinced me that rational creative work was to be my approach and that a healthy skepticism concerning beliefs based on some irrational, mystic or religious mythology was the way to go. So that approach to reading and writing has led me to creative work that is analytic and often critical of the culture and its irrationality or its tendency to set up systems of belief that are illogical or worse, foolish.

3288 Review: In your own poetry, which themes or subjects do you find the most compelling, and worthy of the most attention?

Howard Winn: I think that I often find current events such as politics, cultural clashes, historical references, and even memories of my own past experience jarring a poetic response out of my thinking. I guess I am looking for the general derived from the specific, and of course the older I get the more time is there from the past and present to mine for poetic expression. As I noted in another answer, I am often irritated if not repulsed by the Emersonian emphasis on the rightness of impulse as I think that reason, logic, and scientific evidence should be the basis of human action, not irrational beliefs and unsupported myth, no matter how romantic or “pretty” they may seem.

3288 Review: What are you working on currently? Do you have any work scheduled to be published in the upcoming months?

Howard Winn: I am currently reading galley proofs of a novel under contract with Propertius Press entitled Acropolis, focused on a Greek family who run a diner in a small town in the Hudson Valley before, during, and after World War II. It focuses on the effects of the war on the young men in the community, and the clash of culture and class that occur as the working class second generation goes to college and has to deal with upper class snobbery and the sense of entitlement that accompanies inherited privilege. I am also putting together a collection of poetry, primarily of work that has appeared in literary journals. I have poetry being published this summer and next fall at such literary journals as The California Quarterly, The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Saltfront Journal (studies in human behavior.) And of course I keep writing new stuff as things happen to me or around me.