The Association for Mormon Letters presented Susan Elizabeth Howe with the AML Lifetime Achievement Award at the AML Conference on April 22, held at Utah Valley University. Susan attended both the award ceremony and a panel discussion about his career after the award ceremony.
It is hard to imagine anyone more deserving of AML’s Lifetime Achievement Award than Susan Elizabeth Howe. After teaching for nearly 30 years, Susan recently retired from BYU. Thus 2017 affords an excellent occasion for looking back and celebrating her many contributions: as an editor and literary citizen, as a university professor, and as an award-winning writer.
Susan has always been one to involve herself professionally, whether presenting at conferences or volunteering in crucial arts-related organizations. Besides serving in demanding roles as associate chair of the BYU English Dept. and as a member of the Utah Humanities Council for three years, she has spent some of her most productive hours working as an editor at the following journals: Denver Quarterly; Science, Technology, & Human Values (a journal at Harvard); Exponent II; and Literature and Belief. More recently she edited a volume titled Discoveries: Two Centuries of Poems by Mormon Women, which deftly rescues and contextualizes LDS poets deserving a larger audience. She also ran the BYU Reading Series for yearly three years. During this time, she was responsible for all the detail work involved in carrying off ten or eleven readings each semester. No small accomplishment, especially given the caliber of some visitors, among them several Pulitzer Prize winners (Marilynne Robinson, Carolyn Kizer, Charles Simic, and Philip Levine) and one Nobel Prize winner (Derek Walcott).
Susan Howe brings to her teaching the same kind of wisdom, generosity, and critical acumen so easily observed in her literary citizenship. While at BYU, besides promoting creative writing courses at all levels, she taught classes in American literature, women’s studies, 19th– and 20th-C. literature, and creative writing theory. No matter the subject, she always introduced cogent and historically relevant insights to her discussion, garnered not just from close reading and exacting research, but also from numerous study abroad programs she directed in London. She is perhaps best at mentoring other writers one-on-one. She possesses an uncanny ability to celebrate and critique a piece on its own merits rather than impose upon it some alien aesthetic. As one recent student puts it, “ She walks a graceful line between challenging and encouraging the writers she mentors. Much of her encouragement takes place outside the classroom as well, and former students look forward to her caring inquiries into their work when they run into her years after the class has ended.” Thanks to Susan’s sympathetic tutelage her students and colleagues have published hundreds of pieces in highly-respected venues.
Perhaps Susan’s biggest contribution can be seen in her own work. While she has published numerous reviews, criticism, and plays, her true forte is poetry. Her poems have appeared in the very best journals and magazines, including The New Yorker, Poetry, Shenandoah, Poetry Southwest, and River Styx, to name a few. What’s more, she has published two collections of poems. Stone Spirits, published in 1997, won both the Charles Redd Center publication prize and the AML prize. A second collection, Salt, an AML Prize finalist, appeared in 2013 with Signature. If I had to select one word to characterize Susan’s poems it would be versatility. Her latest collection, for instance, features not only formal rigor, with a sestina and ghazals, but also free-verse lyrics, letter poems, narrative poems, elegies, and a prose poem. Her poems are only sometimes autobiographical, though they nearly always strike intriguing personal notes. She is equally comfortable celebrating the cobbled lives of the rural poor and literary figures such as Charlotte Bronte, equally comfortable with the starkness of southern Utah and the haunted landscapes of Ireland. She knows how to multiply meanings through irony, how to evoke strong feeling without tipping into sentimentality. And always one senses a questing of sorts, an exploration of limbic space, both cultural and psychic—what it means to desire, to celebrate, to mourn.
Susan possesses special facility in writing dramatic monologues, whether she is channeling The Statue of Liberty, a praying mantis, or a turkey buzzard. Sometimes she writes in response to newspaper headlines—“Petrified Fetus Found in Sixty-Year-Old Argentine Widow”—a deliciously tawdry title which calls to mind Eudora Welty’s story “The Petrified Man.” Other stand-out poems include “Arch Angel,” “Liberty Enlightening the World,” and “Dear To Me as Salt.” As another talented poet, Jane Hirshfield, puts it: “All writers recognize the objects of the world made new, alchemizing their passage through the imaginal, musical world-foraging, word-forging mind.” This description aptly sums up what Susan Howe does in her own work.
As the above summary amply corroborates, with Susan Elizabeth Howe we are in the presence of generosity and genius. It is with both pleasure and honor that we award her the 2017 AML Lifetime Achievement Award.
(Adapted from the Poetry Foundation website).
Poet, playwright, and editor Susan Elizabeth Howe was born in Provo, Utah, and raised in Pleasant Grove. After receiving her undergraduate degree in Spanish and French from Brigham Young University, she turned her focus to creative writing, earning an MA from the University of Utah and a PhD from the University of Denver. She taught in the Brigham Young University English Department for thirty years, from which she recently retired.
Influenced by Elizabeth Bishop, Howe’s poems tend to find their source in observation rather than personal experience, and often explore women’s lives and the natural world through the lens of her Mormon faith. In a 2009 interview with Mormon Artist, Howe noted, “Imagination, as I have experienced it, can be part of and lead to spiritual growth, and imagination is the natural province of the poet.”
Howe is the author of two poetry collections Salt (2013) and Stone Spirits (1997), which won the Charles Redd Center Publication Prize and the Association for Mormon Letters Award in Poetry. Her poetry has been anthologized in Great and Peculiar Beauty: A Utah Reader (1995) and Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems (1989). Her poem “Things in the Night Sky” was given the 1989 Association for Mormon Letters Award for Poetry. Her commissioned poem “Utah: Five Sacred Lessons” was performed with musical accompaniment by the Utah Symphony in 1999. Her plays include include Burdens of Earth, Voices of the Sisters, and A Dream for Katie. She has also published criticism, essays, and short stories.
Howe is the co-editor of Discoveries: Two Centuries of Poems by Mormon Women (2004) and the co-editor, with Marie Cornwall, of Women of Wisdom and Knowledge (1990). She has taught at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and the University of Denver. She has served as poetry editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought; poetry editor of Literature and Belief; managing editor of the Denver Quarterly; and the editor of Exponent II. She is married to Cless Young.