Fanny Howe of West Tisbury was honored last week with the 2009 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, awarded annually by the Poetry Foundation to a living American poet for lifetime accomplishments that warrant extraordinary recognition. The $100,000 that accompanies the award is one of the largest literary prizes in the nation.
“I am in total shock,” she said this week while in the throes of moving from her Vineyard Haven winter rental back to her West Tisbury home. “I had heard of the award and knew John Ashbery, who was a previous recipient, but it’s as if a plane fell on the house, it’s so unexpected.”
The author of 20 books that include not only poetry but essays and novels and young adult fiction, she has been the recipient of several previous literary prizes — among them the National Poetry Foundation Award, the Pushcart Prize for fiction and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the American Academy of Poets.
She has been a West Tisbury resident for the past 10 years, but began visiting the Vineyard 17 years ago. A native of Cambridge, she was then living in California but wanted a summer place in New England for her three children. She had visited the Island with her father once in her childhood and when a Chilmark friend suggested that she return with her own children, it seemed an inviting idea. During those vacations, the family lived in a different house each summer, usually in Oak Bluffs. One of her children, Danzy Senna, is a novelist.
Over the years, in addition to her writing, Ms. Howe has lectured at Columbia University, Tufts and MIT. She is a retired professor of literature and writing at the University of California at San Diego and has been participating this year in a seminar in religion and philosophy at Boston College. She expects to spend the summer completing a new book of poems and entertaining her six grandchildren.
In announcing the Lilly Prize, Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry magazine which the Poetry Foundation publishes, described Fanny Howe as “a religious writer whose work makes you more alert and alive to the earth. She is an experimental writer who can break your heart. Live in her world for a while, and it can change the way you think of yours.”
The Poetry Foundation, in making the award, described her as “a demanding and deeply rewarding artist . . . her body of work seems larger, stronger and more permanent with each new book she publishes.”
Ms. Howe grew up in Cambridge, the daughter of Mark DeWolfe Howe, a distinguished law professor at Harvard, and Mary Manning, an Irish-born playwright and actress who founded the Poets’ Theatre in Cambrdge. She left Cambridge for California in the 1950s, however, attending Stanford University briefly, then moving to New York for a while where she took various jobs to support her in her desire to write. Then, in the mid-1960s, she returned to Cambridge to work for the Congress of Racial Equality. There she also helped publish a literary magazine, Fire Exit. She ended up marrying one of its writers, Carl Senna, who was half-black, half-Chicano. They moved to Jamaica Plain. Her book of essays, The Wedding Dress, describes what it was like to be white, married to someone of color, and the mother of mixed-race children. Seven of her novels are also about interracial love and utopian dreaming.
The couple eventually divorced, but not before her mother in law had introduced her to Catholicism. Fanny Howe’s religious devotion is reflected in much of her work, and she spent time for awhile in a monastery in Limerick, Ireland. She has also lived in London and Dublin.
The Lilly Award will be presented May 19 in Chicago at the sixth annual Pegasus Awards ceremony at the Arts Club of Chicago.