Martyr in Heartsville


I wasn’t planning on doing any writing today, well maybe a few comments during the process of reconnecting with the wonderful world of blogging.  I had gotten a late start this morning because of a late end last night, and late starts always put me off my game to some degree.  I had finished setting up my little office environment here in NY just so nicely when I heard the dreaded question, “Are you going to write something for Valentine’s Day?”  Perish the thought!  That is one hundred and eighty degrees from me.  It’s so blatantly conforming.  Yet the pit of the stomach feeling had already dropped me and the childhood conditioning had already begun kicking the dickens out of me the instant I was downed.

Too dejected even to invoke the great idea gods, I cut straight to research and found this one-stop-shopping gem of a site, a valiant effort on the part of an unnamed hero of a writer who packed every fact and conjecture around a custom so vague that it’s unclear to me why the countries who’ve adopted it have adopted it and embraced it with such zealousness.   Which of the saints named Valentine, that the Catholic Church recognizes, was responsible for this custom of giving cards, flowers, and chocolates?  What was his true cause and how was he martyred?  And which of the three possible reasons is most probable as to why St. Valentine’s Day is celebrated in mid-February?  There are various legends to choose from.  Take your pick.

So I did.  In reference to the calendaring of Valentine’s Day, for its intrigue, my interest was piqued by the explanation that involved the Christian church interjecting its Valentines’ feast day midway into February as a diversion from the pagan Lupercalia festival of ancient Rome…like some say the Christmas celebration day had been strategically interjected by the bishop of Rome in 137AD amidst the pagan multi-god celebrations of the December months.  I love a little plotting expertise and the Lupercalia festival offers that and more.

The same thing in humans that makes us rubberneck at car accidents made me read every gory detail of the Lupercalia festival dating game rituals.  After a day’s worth of animal sacrifices for fertility and purification and dipping goat’s hide strips into the sacrificial blood to slop on women and crop fields, the city of Rome’s bachelors would gather ‘round an urn of ladies’ names and each would select a name and be paired with that woman for one year.

I’m not sure which thing was more shocking, that they did all that period, or that the one-year pairings most usually resulted in marriage.  I realize arranged marriages work splendidly in many cultures, but thinking about it always rouses within me that annoying fast-food kind of question, “Would you like attraction with that?”  I suppose if we can work our way around to loving some man or woman that shows up on our doorstep, we might also eventually find them attractive, so why do I get stuck on that?  Perhaps my own culture imbibed in me?

Culture’s a tough thing to break from, and the mores of mine would plague me again as I continued to tear up the internet looking for something, anything interesting.  Then I saw it.  The story of two Americans, a poet and a writer.  The poet, the very same Marie Howe whose poem “The Star Market” I featured on 02/08/08.  And the writer, Michael Cunningham, best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Hours,” based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dallaway and how it affected three women—one of whom was Woolf herself—in three different time periods.

And there, all mixed up in their story of unusual friendship, which would probably be a bolstering tale to most, was that same bothersome something within me.  Just as with arranged marriages, the accompanying awareness was of a feeling of something not being quite right, of something not synapsing.  There was the very same sense of incredulity and futility around our destinies that always produces an especially difficult brand of melancholy in me. 

Although Howe and Cunningham have a loving and devoted, supposedly platonic relationship, as featured in Garrison Keillor’s Literary Friendship pilot series, I couldn’t shake the melancholy left as an impression from Keillor’s interview  with them.  They have so much in common—they’re close in age, grew into their lives and crafts in similarly winding and unlikely ways, and there was a mutual sense of destiny when they were introduced to each other—yet their alliance took on the flavor of incompleteness and futility, similar to that of the hopelessness of a doomed extra-marital affair.

At the beginning of the interview Howe and Cunningham were highly energized and sounded to me like a couple madly in love, laughingly, agreeably finishing each other’s sentences.  But just as relationships often unravel exposing more and more of the not-meant-to-be-highlighted working parts beneath the pretty outer skin, it seems the interview unwinds and exposes more and more details that take the two from happily carefree friends to unlikely pair.

The shine of their relationship is definitely dulled by the fact that Cunningham’s novel-writing career took off in the way of fame and fortune and left little miss Howe in the dust teaching at Sarah Lawrence College with only three days off per week to write and only three collections of poems published.   But actual chrome seems to start to peel off when Keillor’s more personal questions force the two over the hot coals of their sexual attraction, their dear friend Billy who died from AIDS, Cunningham’s gayness and the “straight like me” game he enjoys when he’s together with Howe in public.  You can hear it in Howe’s voice, not so much in Cunningham’s.  Once bouncy and confident, toward the end Howe boils down to a faltering delivery of words that include “um” and “you know?” way, way too much.

Even when Keillor attempts to give them back their dignity with the ingratiatory question, “If your friend Billy was here right now…what do you think he’d say to you?” it was too late.  Too late like the suggestion that I write something for Valentine’s Day couldn’t be reversed and here I am writing to you.  And not only that but that I’m now telling you, after all this realization that relationships are hard enough, that I think it’s a saving grace we’ve pressed the St. Valentine’s Day tradition into the red-hot, hearts-and-candy lightness that it continues to be to this day. 


If you do listen to the Keillor/Howe/Cunningham interview, I would love to hear what it left you with.




A selected poets, writers, and speakers site with a nice piece on Marie Howe: 


Two poems by Howe: 


Norton poets online on Howe:  


More in depth on Howe from “Ploughshares:” 


Michael Cunningham’s site: 


Lorri Holt of Pif Magazine interviews Cunningham:  

11 responses to “Martyr in Heartsville

  1. Wow, that was something!
    First of all, I couldn’t agree more with your feelings on Valentine’s Day – “It’s so blatantly conforming. Yet the pit of the stomach feeling had already dropped me and the childhood conditioning had already begun kicking the dickens out of me the instant I was downed.” PERFECT!

    I’d like to be able to say we don’t celebrate it over here but unfortunately consumerism is everywhere and we’re not immune to the Americanisation of popular culture. My last year’s diary had the names of the saints for each day (that’s a catholic tradition) and St. Valentine is there but added to two other saints so I suspect it wasn’t St Valentine’s Day in the first place and even the Church had to add it under pressure. lol No, it can’t be that bad. I’m reading that Valentine was at least 3 different saints. You probably read that too (I dare anyone to say you don’t try and learn new things!)

    But, just as Father Christmas wasn’t in the Bible, Valentine probably wasn’t a chocolate maker.

    ““Would you like attraction with that?” – ahahah that was so funny! I think it’s possible to feel more attracted to someone after a while. Unfortunately the inverse usually happens as well, so I guess we’re doomed ! ;)

    I promise to give the interview a listen, but I always thought he was gay. I love the way you ended the post, but I like the complicated parts of love better anyway :)

  2. I’m back.
    I found all three of them so annoying to listen to that I wonder how I got through the whole interview (I fast-forwarded a couple of times). Perhaps it was your suggestion but I already noticed lots of ‘uuuh’ and ‘you know’ in Marie’s speech from the beginning, but it’s true that right in the end, after Michael talks about his writing, she sounds drained. But it could be because they’ve already been talking for an hour. I know I can be drained after talking a lot.
    I have to be honest and say that I thought Cunnigham was hugely pretentious. He said some things that made me want to gag, but all in all they said some interesting things.
    I forgot to ask: do you write for a living?

  3. I’m sorry. Had to come back.
    I like Marie’s poems from the little I heard and read but why is that poetry? Is it metrically correct? Perhaps she could puther poems into a text and maybe she would make more money, since she claims poets don’t make $$ ;)

  4. Wow, to you, too, Devil! If you were a mouse in the corner of this place yesterday you’d have been rolling on your back laughing at me getting ridiculously silly upon seeing all your luscious, thoughtful, thought-provoking thoughts! Oh where to begin, where to begin?!

    First, very interesting the little taste of your culture in relation to the whole Valentine’s Day thing—your diary entry, the saints, the Catholic tradition, and the fact that Portugal is on the Valentine’s Day bandwagon along with us. In the one-stop-shopping link I put in my post it mentioned Canada, Mexico, the UK, France and Australia as countries who celebrate Valentine’s day, so I was surprised that Portugal was infected with it as well! I’m always surprised… Just a note on that: when you mentioned Americanization… It never ceases to amaze me, the influence of America. I mean, I was born here, think nothing of it, have little other perspective. So it’s like receiving such a strange, surprising, fascinating gift when I hear what others think of Americans, even if it’s something bad, it’s something I/all Americans need to hear. And the more I tally opinions and comments on America the more it begins to look less like a country and more like a religion. That may be the place from which some of us go so over the top, get so fanatical, so arrogant, so demanding, so assuming, and so on and on. Or maybe that’s just all humans in all countries… Just a pause for thought there!

    Good point on the attraction thing. I really was locked in on the view that starting with attraction is the way to go, and that it’s a static thing! But it really, truly does work in the reverse! The chipping-away of sorts happens every day with some couples, and I’m not talking just physical attraction. I’ve been in relationships where the unattractive ways they have of being—like treating me or anyone in a needlessly inconsiderate way as if I/they didn’t really matter, for example—get revealed on a regular basis until there is only a small pile of things truly in common, next to the landfill-size pile of abominations!

    I loved your take on the interview. That you took the time to do that is heart-smiling stuff! :-) I laughed that my viewpoint was so focused on the deterioration of Michael’s and especially Marie’s state of mind that I couldn’t see Marie started out with those annoying place-in-thought-holders like um, uh, etc. and that she always abused the use of you know, you know? And yes, an hour-long interview…I can imagine as being tiring…especially if you were just doing it out of duty… Certainly Michael is in more demand to be interviewed and to speak at events (he spoke at “Virginia Woolf: Writing Life” which was a link in my Famous last words post) but yet I found him resilient throughout. It’s interesting that I didn’t read pretentiousness from him like you did (maybe I’m used to putting up with snobs!). But Garrison Keillor is such a hoot that I would think working with him would be a fun thing, and so I was surprised that he asked some of the questions he did. They seemed so un-Keilloresque. And to bring up the sexual issue like he did… I just think if he was going to go there that he could have done it more gently, easily, nicely…something (if that’s possible given the subject)! I really thought I detected irritation, embarrassment, perhaps even a touch of anger in Marie’s voice when Keillor first asked the dreaded question. And I felt a lot of hurt in her tone—from the fact that Keillor would put them on the spot like that, and maybe from a sore spot to do with Michael—and in her being so quick to quip, to blow it off by saying well every friendship has an erotic component. Anyway, I thought the whole interview was filled with nuances and I love trying to detect the feelings and meanings of nuances.

    Sorry, I had to love that you came back! On Marie’s style… First, I’m absolutely no expert on poetry and I’m very easy to please, have found something great in every poem I’ve ever read. So everything from here on out is me just talkin’ smack! I know there’s like 40 or 50-something types of poetry, a lot anyway, and she seems to be a confessional sort of poet (like my favorites Plath and Sexton) using, I guess, free verse. If that’s so, then there’s really not much for her to conform to, really only that she offer something new, a view, a thought, a way, that we haven’t seen before, that therefore touches something in us that changes us in some way forever. She seems at an artistic place in her life and times where she feels the style she’s using is the best vehicle to deliver the fullest effect of what’s in her heart and mind. I liked how she explained it in the context of her brother’s death, that after that she wanted “to make an art that was transparent, that was accessible to people who don’t usually read poetry, to my brothers and sisters, wonderful intelligent smart people who want to read poetry if they know what to read. Regular people.” And who can argue with art, anyway? I feel like art is a form of expression from the very soul, the very universe if you will, and that the experiencers of art’s effects can only really say that they either identify or don’t identify with a particular form of expression, and perhaps not go so far as to say they like or dislike the form because we all are form and understand how difficult it can be to just be!

    Oh I don’t know, but I had so much fun with all of that that I wrote a book! So much to think about, to write about! Oh, that reminds me of your question. In reality I’m still involved with telecommunications, just not nearly as extensively as I used to be. But in my mind I write for a living ;-)

  5. It shows (that you write for a living) because you seem to do it effortlessly.
    I wrote these comments last night, feeling completely mean. Perhaps if I were to listen to the interview again (perish the thought LOL) I’d have a completely different opinion. From the start they got on my nerves and I couldn’t detach from that.
    I only know Cunnigham so I have no context on the interviewer and the poet so I miss most of the nuances you mentioned. I did like her poetry (I even laughed, as though not as many times as that public did, they must’ve been on laughing gas!) and liked the fact that she decided to write things that were more transparent. I really appreciate that in a writer. If you’re confident enough in what you have to say you don’t try to say something that you can say with 3 words with 30. At least in my opinion…
    I laughed once more during the interview in something they said, I can’t remember now :(
    I agree that the part about the sexual attraction was very odd. There was a lot of silence by then.

    I dare you to find a country where Valentine’s Day isn’t known. It’s not so much that we celebrate it (I’d rather not!) but you go to the shops and there’s hearts and then you turn on the radio and they won’t shut up about marriage proposals.
    The Americanisation is inevitable, especially in a cultural level. Computer games, the Internet, Tv series, films, music. The truth is we don’t have such a strong cultural motor that can compete with the international offer.

    And well, I’d really have liked to see you reading my comments heheh, glad they made you happy.

  6. Devil: LOL regarding listening again! Yeah, that was definitely a one-time thing! Just thinking about it…ick. Makes me wonder if what you call feeling mean could be likened to what I felt which was more of an impatience, an irritation. For me, there was a period of openness at the beginning of the interview and then the more they talked, the more I felt a disappointment, even a feeling of a loss of respect by the time it was all said and done. Not loss of respect regarding their art. I have the utmost respect for their talent. But their lives…I guess it’s this: I get from some people that their relationships are healthy and equal in addition to loving and supportive, i.e. there’s no codependence, no one is getting used or abused. But with these two I felt like their relationship was built on sickish needs, unhealthy (mentally) neediness on the parts of each. And that always gives me the creeps.

    I pictured your laughing experience! And I laughed! Because I’m aware of that sort of thing, too, like Am I missing something??? Then I finally came around to a place in my life where I said Who cares?! And it’s the same with the transparency issue and the 3 vs. 30 words. I’m with you 100% on that. I used to like a really cryptic poem, and now I want it to practically slap me in the face with the depth of its meaning. To anyone who looks at writing as a craft, I would say “Don’t make me have to search high and low for your meaning! Write so that it shows me. Show me what you think, what you are, what you mean, what you feel through the visuals you create with words!” That’s what I like about Phish’s writing. It’s a direct hit, whatever he wants you to experience, you get it delivered straight to the gut or the heart or the head. I also remember liking to try to get all flowery with my writing, like an 18th century writer. LOL! OMG I have absolutely no interest in producing that kind of thing now! Life and its phases sure are a trip!

    Well, Devil Mood, it has been a pleasure, yet again, and I’m glad you’re not sore at America! ;-) I was picturing your radio stations blabbering about marriage proposals LOL! Similar to here. People are just people aren’t they? It’s nice. :- )

  7. Yes, people are people. :)
    And yes show me, show me what you mean! Make me feel something.

    I meant that I felt mean because I kept coming here and badmouthing them, when perhaps in a different state of mind, I’d have felt differently about the interview.

  8. Devil: Oh, I see! Well, you know, I really didn’t think you sounded mean at all! I feel so open to receiving the thoughts and feelings of anyone who wants to share them, no matter what they are, that I took your comments as more neat angles to ponder!

    Speaking of that, my guy N finally listened to the interview today. N is very wise, very astute, one of “the high IQ set” as I like to call it, and he brought up so many excellent points. So I went back and listened (yes I know…) to pieces of the interview and you’re right about state of mind. I was in a whole different place this time around and so many of the darker nuances I noted before just weren’t there. Makes me want to somehow try and make sure all the cobwebs are shaken out of my head before I listen to anyone in person or otherwise!

    Oh hey I keep forgetting to thank you for adding this site to your blog roll! I am silly about it of course and ultimately honored! :-D

  9. Don’t be silly! I really think your blog is very interesting.
    The truth is we can never get all the cobwebs out of way in our perception of the world, otherwise it wouldn’t be us. We are so partial and will always be this way.

  10. Oh Devil Mood! Say it ain’t so! I’ve got a head fully networked all the way around with those flimsy, stickyish things. I need RELIEF!!! You’re a therapist. Fix me (which means agree with me)! LOL ;-)

    Hey, speaking of the word “interesting,” have you checked out JC Montgomery’s site ( before? She’s one of the Sunday Scribblers. I spent something like two hours over there reading her stuff (I read slooowwww). It doesn’t affect me like Phish’s stuff (where IS he anyway? I’m jonesing for some Phish!!!) but man I think it’s good.

  11. I’ll make a point of visiting that site. I’ve probably been there before but don’t recall.
    But I do agree with you very often. For instance, the pajama thing at Chloe’s blog. I agree. I couldn’t sleep with them inside out, it’s uncomfortable, chaotic and most of all it’s wrong!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.