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ABR poet's award-winning work changes reader

Nov. 5, 2013 at 5:05 a.m.

Shannon Castille

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For more information on Christopher Howell's poem "The King of the Butterflies," visit the National Endowment for the Arts website at arts.gov.

By Shannon Amidon Castille

Thursday's University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series brings to Victoria my grad school teacher, thesis adviser and friend: award-winning poet Christopher Howell. This highly decorated writer's 10-volume career spans more than three decades with university appointments along the way in Massachusetts, Kansas and Washington state.

His writing, at once ghostly and grounded, as in his latest collection, "Gaze," opens small portals into time and the imagination. Populated with family, fishermen, bandits, brothers caught in life's tuneless dance and a house not exactly itself, the edge Howell walks is the thin line at which you cannot stop staring.

He uses personal narrative, nature, comedy, history, ideas, heartache, both singular and collective memory and longing to transport his readers with language based in the real and concrete to an unfamiliar yet welcoming dream life. His own writing succeeds in what he teaches his students good writing should accomplish: It brings about a change in the reader.

If this sounds complex, well, it is, in the same way all things beautiful are never only one thing: Birdsong is both animal and vibration; flower's scent is both science and remembrance.

When my husband and I drove two cars from northeast Louisiana to eastern Washington in the fall of 2000 for his newest job, we went with real excitement. Neither of us had ever visited the Inland Northwest before, so that first late September, we marveled at the Norway maples that lined our street, glittering golden in the bright air. Leaves piled onto our front yard and overflowed onto our tiny neighborhood street. We sat on our wide porch and watched in wonder and amusement as our energetic neighbors worked at raking their sunlit piles into giant black leaf bags, disappearing by gilded armful the remains of an autumn season. We thought our leaves were so beautiful, we wanted to keep them; we wanted them to stay and greet us after work. We vowed to never rake, to let the color simply melt away when the snows covered the city.

Then came winter, heavy snows by November, and 3:30 p.m. darkness by Christmas. How could it be that we lived in a place so cold and dark? No matter how high the heat was set in our little house, we could still see the white curling wisps of our breath in our upstairs bedroom. We bought winter supplies: fur-lined boots, long underwear and heavy gloves. We learned which streets were mostly plowed for the daily commute and which were left unkempt.

We spent our evenings cooking Southern dishes with the warming seasonings of our Louisiana home and with the sacred trinity (bell peppers, onions and celery) cooked clear for a constant base. We needed one. It was winter, and we'd learned more descriptions for snow than we'd known to exist. The snowdrifts piled onto our porch. To tell the truth, it was getting to us; we were lonesome.

So I signed up for two poetry classes at Eastern Washington University, where my husband worked. The creative writing department there (the Inland Northwest Center for Writers) is one of the oldest in the country and its faculty very fine. This is where I first met Christopher Howell. The class was contemporary poetry, and though Howell's soft and gentle demeanor was as intimidating as a Mack truck headed for a Karmann Ghia, I grinned through the first three lectures. I'd found my people!

Then the work began, and everything I thought I knew about writing from years of working as a newswriter, university relations writer and fledgling poet became disjointed. Howell taught me to lean on intuition but distrust it until it became new. He encouraged writing that was a complete break from the familiar; he taught me to begin inside out, then let the edges show.

That spring when the snow melted, our golden leaves had turned to a gooey black decay that covered our yard like tar paper. While crocuses pushed their delicate faces forward in our neighbors' yards, our own stank of mold and dank earth. The task at hand was large. We heaved armload after heavy armload of our old leaves into the biggest bags we could find. We lugged them one by one to the curb while our amused north-country neighbors looked on. To our surprise, a few strangling, yellowed crocuses greeted us from underneath the dead layers.

The work of those early spring evenings is much the same as the work of poetry. You reach down into the muck, and sooner or later, something beautiful appears. Howell taught me that. He brought me to the happy day of my MFA thesis defense, and for that, I will always remain appreciative.

When I relayed the story of my successfully completed thesis defense to my coworkers at the university Writers' Center, a fellow writer who was to defend his thesis later that week asked what happened at the end.

"Nothing much," I answered. "Chris said, 'Congratulations,' hugged me, and it was over."

His eyes grew wide, and he said quietly, "Wow, that's kind of like hugging a unicorn."

Well, in a way, he was right. I hope you read his work, or better yet, join us at noon Thursday in the UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium and find out why for yourself.

Shannon Amidon Castille is a widely published poet who won the national Dorothy Sergeant Rosenberg Poetry Prize for 2009. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University at Spokane.

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