A Conversation with Dana Levin by KR Editor-At-Large G. C. Waldrep
G. C. Waldrep: In her introduction to In the Surgical Theater, Louise Glück asserts that you write as one in the grip of an image, rather than in the grip of a story. What do you make of this? What is the relationship of story to image, of image to story?
Dana Levin: I am often initially inspired by an image (encountered, dreamed or imagined) rather than an idea or narrative, though, interestingly, ideas propel more poems now than they used to. And I suppose, when I say “idea,” I mean a conscious thought, as opposed to the inscrutable gifts of the unconscious (my favorite kind).
In the early 90’s, when I was still in grad school at NYU, when Surgical wasn’t even a thought in my city-addled mind, I found myself assailed by the same image: a human chest burst open. And each time the chest opened, it revealed anything but a heart: a human eye, Eye of Horus, a bird, a spiral galaxy, a gallery of objects in rotation; I would walk around the city with the constant question of why the image was so persistent, why the chest’s contents were so strange, what they might mean.
The image is a message; why leads the poem. Composition is an attempt to understand what the image wants to say: its what, its why, its story. In that respect, for me, the relationship of image to story is psychological.
GCW: Glück also writes that “The recurring figure [of the surgical theater] has the feel, or, more accurately, the force, of biography, of lived experience. But it is biography wholly transmuted into metaphor . . .” To what extent are the poems in In the Surgical Theater autobiographical?
DL: The image was the message. In digging deep into the burst-chest image, after many many months, it gradually occurred to me that the poems wanted to talk about my birth experience. And I do mean the poems wanted. I sure didn’t. At that time (’90 – 92) I was allergic to the overtly personal poem. I was suspicious of the confessional poem: in lit-mags and books, at readings, it seemed to produce a very tired and predictable poem, especially one that often trumped personal declaration over artful language and image-making.
Eventually, the mysterious imperative to write about the violently opened body became obvious: I was born prematurely, with gangrene in the intestine, and had surgery at six days old. The surgeons cut me open from sternum to pelvis; I was given a colostomy bag and put in an incubator for the first two months of my life; then the colostomy bag was removed and they closed me up with another surgery. My sister has a photograph of me in the incubator, all four pounds of me, tubes at nose, wrists and ankles. It’s strange to look at, for it seems a picture of someone decidedly else. Yet, I’m the one now with deep scars criss-crossing my stomach.
Now, living with this indelible physical reminder of birth trauma, one might think of course she is going to write poems about it! But at the time that drama was closed to me, aesthetically and psychologically. The persistent chest-opening images drew me back into that initial trauma. The poem “Personal History,” in Surgical, chronicles my difficulty in writing about it: for after all, who the hell cares about my birth experience? And yet I felt compelled to write about it. So a big question that arose during the composition of Surgical was: what does personal suffering have to say to anyone else? I feel compelled to share my personal experience: can that possibly affect mass culture? What is the relationship between personal suffering and the excruciations-personal, societal-of all peoples?
Perhaps the compulsion, or wish, to share stories of personal travail is simply a matter of human solidarity: it’s hard to be human, as we all well know; it’s hard and vulnerable to have a body, where to live means to kill (even the poor carrot gets yanked from the ground); certainly my own physical suffering has attuned me to suffering in general; developing compassion is impossible without such attunement. And then the question: why do we have to suffer? As it seems we must, from hang-nail to unrequited love to disease, murder, torture, abandonment, want, the devastation of wars-the list is perplexingly endless. What does it teach us?
GCW: What, then, is the relationship between autobiography and imagination in your work?
DL: The interesting question here is: what constitutes autobiography? I think of the Prologue to Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Carl Jung’s autobiography (undertaken when he was 83 and a fascinating read, particularly in terms of autobiography as form). In it he says,
In the end the only events in my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world irrupted into this transitory one. That is why I speak chiefly of inner experiences, amongst which I include my dreams and visions. These form the prima materia of my scientific work. They were the fiery magma out of which the stone that had to be worked was crystallized.
For “scientific” let’s say “poetic.” And for autobiography’s “childhood” let’s say “psychic development.” And I mean psychic, which is not only psychological because it includes notions of soul, or whatever you want to call the non-egoic inhabiting spirit in each of us. The suspicion in which I held Confessionalism while in grad school was well-founded in terms of aesthetic concerns, but it was absurd in terms of being a student of the psyche. How can one advance one’s study of human experience without plumbing the depths of one’s memories, deepest feelings and dreams? The problem was really in mistaking Confessionalism’s embrace of autobiographical content as a mark of its form (as often, but not solely, presented in the late ’80s/early 90’s): as if one could only express one’s personal experience if one was willing to write in a generally plain, linear, first-person, declarative manner; and without a spectacle of images, which was really disheartening.
Imagination: for me, imagination is a transpersonal force. Its products can come unbidden; when asked to be employed it is not tame, but surprises, frustrates, stuns, and confounds. Imagination, and its cousin Dream, bring me to autobiography, not the other way around: truly auto-biographical. Perhaps the often surreal quality of my autobiographical poems, as in the Home section of Surgical and elsewhere, suggest they are dreams composed while awake.
GCW: If the “imagination is a transpersonal force,” then both Jung and the Surrealists are right in some very interesting, far-reaching ways. Certainly a different sort of poetics arises from such a declaration: a poetics of experience that includes, that embraces both the imagination and the products of imagination, rather than seeing those products as somehow divorced from lived “experience.”
DL: I’m of a mind with Stevens, whose central preoccupation, it seems to me, is this very relationship between experienced reality and the imagination. When I introduce my undergrads to Stevens, I like to present two early poems, “The Snow Man” and “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” in dialogue. In the first, it’s about how reality resists the mind, or at least requires mind-emptying in order to encounter “the real” (Stevens’ emotional response to this resistance reaches high pitch in “The Auroras of Autumn”). In the second, he says, “I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw/or heard or felt came not but from my self.” Here, human imagination is a co-creator of experienced reality.
In one of my favorite later Stevens poems, “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together,” he says “It is as if there were three planets: the sun/the moon and the imagination, or, say, // Day, night and man and his endless effigies.” Later in the poem, when he is about to transfigure the pineapple in twelve different ways (“the hut stands by itself beneath the palms,” “out of their bottle the green genii come,” “the symbol of feasts and of oblivion . . . ,” etc.), he says, “Divest reality / of its propriety / Admit the shaft /of that third planet to the table and then:” What happens in transfiguring the pineapple in these ways, paradoxically, is that there’s a sense that the pineapple is truly and finally seen.
And richer for it, for it becomes a dynamo of relationship and association: definitely no longer static, definitely no longer simply food. Thinkers who want to separate the imagination and reality abandon the world, hand it over to the clutch of cause-and-effect, biological imperatives. There’s a mysterious tension between reality and imagination that drives the manifest world, I think. Together, they power the engine.
GCW: I think the sense of being “in travail” is very much a part of your work, in fact one of the qualities that unites the two books. What is the relationship between the imagination and the human condition of being “in travail”?
DL: It seems to me that to be embodied is to be in travail. We are each born into paradox: the paradox of the infinite-imagining mind and the finite, cause-and-effect body. So much of our suffering arises from the fact that we can imagine ourselves as gods-immortal, omniscient, impervious to harm-but we cannot be them. The stark reality is that from the moment we are born we begin to die; we are each, at least at some point in life, at the mercy of people and circumstances over which we can wield little control. Endurance-physical, psychological, spiritual-is a prerequisite not only for basic living, but for happiness as well.
It is increasingly astonishing to me how much trouble we seem to have accepting these facts, and how much trouble humans have always had with them. Avoidance, minimization, self-inflation, denial, medication and selective amnesia seem to be our primary ways of handling our stubborn gain/loss experience of impermanence.
Now, unlike my immigrant grandmother, who believed catastrophe was the primary experience of human life, I am of an optimistic bent. I believe sufferings large and small can be relieved, damaging systems can be renovated, wounds can heal. One of the gifts of accepting our basic impermanence is that you realize change is the only inevitability we face. The real problem for each of us personally and politically is our assumption that change is impossible (a complete absurdity: just look at nature!) or that it can’t result in pleasure, peace, and prosperity as much as it results in pain, anxiety and want (it is indeed hard to buck experience, but such is the conundrum of faith. And will. Travail indeed!)
Ultimately, real peace cannot be made with impermanence without asking, What will help me endure it? I think perhaps the psychic shift from Surgical to Wedding Day was a shift in inquiry from the why of suffering to this question of endurance, especially in light of the fact that very few of us are enlightened Buddhas and are just going to keep going graspingly along.
GCW: What, then, is the relationship of poetry to suffering? Individual suffering? Collective suffering?
DL: I am always looking for the medicine. Certainly poems can act as panacea, balm, can lighten the burden of experience: I think here of poets as bemused as William Matthews, as antic as Dean Young, and as hang-dog as Jay Hopler. Certainly all poets, we hope, “give up the burden awhile” when making art, and certainly we hope readers do too when encountering the made thing.
But sometimes the medicine is in cutting through one’s own denial about suffering: to simply say, or witness, “I hurt.” I tend to be disassociated a lot of the time, so for me the act of writing is about getting re-embodied, particularly in difficult emotional experience. Poems seeded in psychological or emotional struggle, which also have as project a bit of lingual/imagistic pyrotechnic, resonate for me, provide homeopathy: from the Roethke of “The Lost Son,” Berryman’s Dream Songs, Plath to the work of younger poets such as Hopler, Richard Siken, Tessa Rumsey and Cate Marvin. I cry, therefore I make: this is buoying for me.
Conversely, the medicine can also be allopathic: since by temperament I seek solution, the balm is often the mercurial, the inscrutable, the dream: Simic, Popa, Salamun, Celan.
GCW: Can you say more about this idea of “medicine” (which is not, after all, the same as the idea of a “cure”)? Is poetry a mere palliative? Or is poetry a necessary palliative? Or is this medicine that has the capacity, if not to cure, then to transcend the palliative?
DL: Well, palliatives are necessary, or this world would be too much to bear. But I think of medicine in two ways: first, in terms of something that prevents disease: dis-ease, with self and world. Stevens’ transfigured pineapple is a kind of medicine, because it reminds us that the world (and the mind) is far richer and more surprising than we can assume, in the smallest yet illuminating ways. For me, it argues against fatalism, a despairing suspicion that no part of the world or self can change, that we are all indeed simply biological accidents in a perpetual motion machine without plan. Secondly, I think of it via the Native American point of view, that medicine is anything-an object, a rite, a person, a place-with numinous power. Poems can have a numinous power that transforms
our experience of, attitude towards, self and reality: refreshes it, changes it, deepens it, broadens it, mystifies it, clarifies it, shakes it up. Again, such medicine is crucial to encountering the world as an open and constantly developing system, trans-human yet in relationship with the human, a system that always has one more trick up its sleeve, one more last-ditch effort, one more ingenious solution, one more hope-against-hope, than we can conceive (and now I see I am describing the kind of poem I am always hoping to encounter.)
GCW: Part of what appeals to me about your work is that it insists on asking difficult ethical, philosophical, and aesthetic questions while remaining firmly (em)bodied. In this sense, it reminds me of the poems of both Carl Phillips and Czeslaw Milosz. Can you talk a bit more about abstraction and the body?
DL: I am a struggling realist. I don’t see how you can ask ‘difficult ethical, philosophical, and aesthetic questions’ without being in the body. I know this will come as a vast disappointment to many (it certainly was to me), but embodiment is our essential condition. It is all very well to posit ‘self’ as illusion or construct, but if I step out into traffic some kind of ‘self’ is going to end up in the hospital (at the same time, I find the idea of self-as-aggregate, self-as-multiple, very accurate, interesting and helpful, though I tend to view it as much in psychic terms as sociological).
I suppose I have a pragmatic approach to life and art. By this I mean: what is the best way to utilize our life experiences? How can a work of art enlighten our understanding of the human condition, spark the development of wisdom? How can a poem teach us how to deal with our infinite mind and finite body: teach us to live, to feel? Perhaps this is the source of my exasperation with Ashbery and poets writing in his wake: I truly like a lot of this work and enjoy attending the circus, but ultimately it feels, for me, escapist, a shying away.
GCW: How does the sensuality of the physical body relate, for you, to the music of poetry? To your understanding of poetic form?
DL: For me, line and stanza-break are guided by hearing, 90% of the time. And this hearing is guided mostly by a physical response to drama: rises and falls in tension, the pauses that accompany a draw of breath after a spew or rant, a loss for words due to a struggle to articulate or understand, the dashes that at times (I hope) suggest the sensation of being overwhelmed by feeling or epiphany. Andy Mozina, a wonderfully strange fiction writer, wrote an intro for me in ’01 that suggested the endings of many of the Surgical poems enacted a physical blacking out, which I thought terrific. White space is an incredibly dramatic tool.
Punctuation too I take very seriously. I bang my students over the head about it, for it is the most unused, ill-used, tool in the burgeoning poet toolbox. But punctuation is fantastic! Like musical notation: you’ve got stops, pauses, exclamations, all of which help direct and express tone and dramatic flow. So
too line-length, the difference in affect between long and short lines.
I’ve come to see that I compose many poems as dramas, enactions. Therefore, pace and volume must be attended to, for essentially I am trying to render the sound of feeling (and/or the pace of thinking). Enjambment and punctuation are the primary tools. I’m always demanding that my students, when reading poems aloud, take punctuation, enjambment, line-length seriously, to read them aloud, if you will. Interestingly, this usually means hearing and making room for the silence of white space, as well as vocal ebbs and swells. A lot of undergraduates are quite loath to do it, preferring uninflected, rushed monotone: the vocal equivalent of hunching down in your hoodie.
GCW: The most recurrent stylistic element in your work is the almost continual posing of questions, almost always addressed to a “you.” What place does the interrogative have in your conception of poetry?
DL: I think, at first, as a poet in her mid-to-late twenties writing towards Surgical, questions became a way of pulling the reins on the insistent rhythm and graphic visions (blood, guts, etc) most of the poems were pressing. I was afraid of these poems. On the surface, I was afraid of their autobiographical content, afraid of what my parents would think, what my writing peers would think, what the LangPo poets would think (laughs). But more deeply, I think I was afraid of the force of these poems. I remember when I met Louise Gluck for the very first time, a few months after she picked Surgical for The APR/Honickman Prize: she said, “Who would have thought such a sunny personality would write such devastating poems!” In some ways my experience too was like “someone else” wrote those poems, not the Dana of daily life. So the interrogative felt a little bit safer than declaration. Too, the interrogative made room for my own uncertainty with what I was doing. So in many ways it was the main tool that allowed Surgical to be written, got the poems past the inner critic (the most tyrannical and unforgiving critic, as we know).
Some questioning also directly serves that force I was afraid of, the inner Jeremiah, the Blakean self often at work in my poems. This self uses the question form to shake the egoic-self, and the reader, from time to time: Can you see? Do you feel? Not only ‘can you see me, feel me,’ but can you see and feel anything? (and now I sound like The Who’s Tommy). Most Americans are well-swaddled against physical and psychic discomforts, and expend a tremendous amount of cash and energy to keep it so. Ear-buds, Xanax, anti-bacterial wipes, you name it: we have the luxury and will to keep the world out. The drive to “know thyself” makes such a situation a target for wrath, for violent waking.
GCW: So how does the “you” operate in your work?
DL: Let me count the ways: a way for the split self to dialog; a way for the wise-self to instruct, goad, the fool-self. Of course, a significant effect of the second-person approach is that the reader too is instructed, goaded, implicated-and for some poems that has been an intention-but more often than not the “you” is in service to internal dialog: a way for one self to say to the egoic-self (especially the dissociated egoic-self), “Hey! Look at this! Tend to it!”
The ‘you’ also serves beyond orienting the self in experience (psychological, epiphiniac and otherwise). It’s a way to take myself (and the reader) on a journey (the Balkan poems “First Cradle” and “The Washing” come to mind); a way to guide myself (and the reader) through deciphering the image-as-message or move through a scene; a way to move characters around (in Wedding Day, the city-dweller in “Cinema Verite” and the teens on acid in “Suttee”; in more recent work, the grad student in “Spring,” the pyro boy in “Pyro”).
I suppose the basic answer to your question would go back to my habitual split state. I walk around in the world as both I and You. There is a You (which is me) having direct experience and an I (which feels me and not-me) evaluating it. I often encounter trouble in drafting poems because of switching from I to You and back and still meaning a single person (who is me? hmmm. This self stuff is tricky) (then again, we can just go back to Uncle Walt and remember his self-multitudes. Or Ashbery, who I just said exasperated me. Oh well. He interests me with his slippery-self and then he exasperates me. Pax.) I suppose the second person poem lets me have an implied I and an explicit You, and so split identity can be retained and expressed, even if a by-product is that readers think the ‘you’ is them (now ask me about the Buddhist idea that we’re all each other).
GCW: Wedding Day is studded with ars poeticae, some explicitly labeled as such, others implicit. And the book turns on the fulcrum of “Working Methods,” a brief essay on poetic practice in the form of a poem. Did you set out, in Wedding Day, to dramatize or enact the poetic process?
DL: A poet friend calls Wedding Day a restless book, and I think that’s an accurate assessment. At the time I started really working towards the book (the late nineties), I was trying to integrate what postmodern poetics were offering to us: how it engaged with postmodern ideas about language and power and “truth” and the nature of reality, how I found myself attracted to the work of poets like Michael Palmer, Anne Carson, noticing my responses to the soft avant-garde (as Cal Bedient has deemed it). Brenda Hillman was very important to me in the way she was beginning to lyricize uncertainty/simultaneity/planes of existence and explore the rich capacity of postmodern poetics to enact metaphysical space (I have come to realize I wake up to postmodern theory most when I sense metaphysical or psychic analogs, which might seem sort of odd).
During that time I did a stint as a Visiting Writer at a small liberal arts college. I used to sneak into the laundry room of the nearby graduate dorms because it cost $1.50 less a load than the laundromat in town and read the then current avant poetry while the clothes went round and round. And I’d think, passionately, “I want to write like this, I cannot write like this!” feeling really torn: I was so excited by the vivid lingual textures such work often displayed, by the looseness of visual form, by its engagement with the complications of self: it came as a tonic after 40 years of poems indebted to Confessional and Deep Image impulses. And yet I “could not” write like that because of a gut suspicion that I (and I mean me, I don’t speak generally) could get very lost in the glamour of intellect and aesthetic surface, in a world of idea ungrounded by body: the dirty body, with blood and hungers, its proliferation into other bodies, all of them with feelings and sufferings and psychic lives that often went untended by contemporary culture and its products (including poems).
GCW: Could you embroider a bit on this question of “postmodernism”? What does it mean, to you? To poetry? To the culture?
DL: To me, overall, postmodernism seems have become, for the educated lay person and not necessarily for the intellects out there continuing informed inquiry, a philosophy of suspicion. Suspicion of anything closed, pedestalled, neatly-wrapped up, suspicion of any abstraction that one believes is singular and concrete (truth, beauty, yada yada), suspicion of any structure that is/has been unquestioningly believed in as “right” or “the only possible way,” whether it be political, linguistic, societal, aesthetic, etc. This is in theory, and often in practice, a thoroughly good and important thing, especially in a consumerist culture where everything seems so overtly part of an agenda. Or can be successfully co-opted for same.
Its downside-certainly as I encounter it in some of my undergrads and friends, who, like me, are getting their po-mo simplistically, simply by marinating in contemporary thought and culture-can be to encourage a cynical view of all things. There is no hope in cynicism, there is no heroism, no faith: if all events, arts, institutions, people must be viewed with cynicism, how ever can we figure out how to live well, in harmony with others and with our world? To be cynical is to refuse to be open: a fascinating paradox for postmodernism, which above else prizes the open. I don’t think we should abandon suspicion; but some other ingredient needs to cut it. I think of William Blake’s idea that most of us are born innocent and become jaded by experience: become jaded innocents; but that the real key for humanity to live well is to retain innocence in the face of experience, to become innocent experiencers, if you will. Stevens certainly was an innocent experiencer of that pineapple.
It seemed, in the late 90’s while writing towards Wedding Day, as it seems now, so vital to believe in reality; our postmodern milieu (and many of the poems it has engendered) seemed so deeply suspicious of it, and yet for all its suspicions it had no real medicine for me, who, like everyone (including the theorists), had to deal with the problems of embodiment. Why believe in the cynicism of the postmodern mind, as if it provides the only appropriate response to the world? How else, in the face of apocalypse (socio-political and environmental), can we preserve this existence than to first believe in it, hope for it, emphatically?
I think many of the poems in Wedding Day chronicle a struggle to reconcile these tensions, especially the ars poeticae (implicit and explicit). Working on them inevitably lead to self-inquiry about the purpose of poetry and language and art (as befits a pragmatist like myself), as well as a need to be suspicious of any final thoughts on the matter (as befits a good Postmodern). I suppose it is not so strange that this struggle for reconciliation (the drama of questioning) should be dramatized by the poems in Wedding Day, since dramatization in general seems to be what my poems like to do; it’s just that the central tension during that time was primarily aesthetic (as opposed to the more physical and psychological tensions of Surgical, or the psycho-spiritual tensions of my current work).
GCW: “You want to get in and then get out of the box,” you write in “Quelquechose,” “form breakage form.” Is this an accurate rendering of your own poetic process, or poetic ambition?
DL: I do seem to move forward dialectically: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. With the Wedding Day poems, I felt keenly a wish to expand my poetic palette, to include more of myself, which meant primarily my thinking and conversational selves, which weren’t given much room in the vatic atmosphere of Surgical. And certainly that wish was continuously spurred by the internal arguments I was having with the avant poets (laughs).
GCW: If lyric closure, as you imply in the preceding “Ars Poetica,” is not a death, then what is it?
DL: Does the poem imply that? There is an “as if” beginning the last line, which isn’t exactly a vote of confidence for a final interpretation . . .
Sometimes the impulse for lyric closure provides the best end for a great poem; other times it cuts a poem off at the knees. There is no single prescription. Some poetic events demand the beautiful click-shut and others rebuff it. The important thing is to remain flexible enough to respond to the demands of the poem in front of you.
GCW: Could you say more about “why being experimental means / not having a point” (from “Quelquechose”)?
DL: I must add that these lines are followed by “But I needed a new way to say things.” Not having a point can be incredibly liberating; I think often of Brenda Hillman writing in Loose Sugar: “A power came up; it was in between the voices. / It said you could stop making sense.” I think this comes to mind so often precisely because I am so wedded to sense: not ‘sense’ in terms of a poem being understandable, accessible, plain-spoken, etc., but ‘sense’ in terms of what will serve? (the pragmatic approach again). I want, as a reader, to be able to put experimentation to work, to apply it to something other than itself. To make a medicine of it. To understand its necessity to the human condition. And of course, such an impulse is very counter to not making sense. As an experimenting writer (and really, what writer worth his or her salt isn’t experimenting), you have to spend a lot of time feeling around for the edges, the shape, of the new thing you’re discovering: any early attempt to understand and declare its “point” can stunt its growth.
But, y’know, I could just be a dense reader, in terms of not getting what the experimental piece in front of me is good for, how it will serve us. And usually it’s helpful for “nonsense” to smack me upside the head, rip the cobwebs out. “Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.” says Wallace Stevens. It’s the relation part I’m looking for when I read avant work. Stevens also says, “The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully;” the ‘almost’ is the important part of that statement.
GCW: How did you come up with the title to your second collection, Wedding Day? How does the figure of the wedding relate to or unify the work? As a bond? A consummation? Or-?
DL: It came like the image of the burst-open chest; much later (about four years), I understood its potential for application, once I saw the orbit of the poems I was writing. The poems seemed to be wrestling with opposites: joy/grief, relation/solitude, individual/society, shadow/illumination, connection/disconnection, etc. Ultimately, I think the title is a metaphor for the momentary resolve of any dialectical encounter, any encounter between opposites. It’s fleeting, which is why it’s called Wedding Day.
GCW: I was thinking about the final poems in Wedding Day and the ways in which “Sumer Is Icumen In” invokes the idea of choice and being chosen: in terms of the literary world, in terms of romance, in terms of ambition. What does it mean “to be chosen”? What does it mean “to choose”?
DL: The amount of attention In the Surgical Theatre received when it came out was astounding to me. I was just mainly relieved that the damn thing was finally published; everything else seemed like gravy. I think Surgical‘s success contributed a great deal to Wedding Day‘s “restlessness”: On the one hand, an urge to not replicate Surgical, both in terms of style and content, and on the other a whole set of new questions revolving around possible dues owed an audience, poetry ‘camps,’ why I wanted to be a published poet in the first place. The published part is important, because even if what draws a new writer to book contests and presses is primarily a wish (conscious or unconscious) to be seen as a person, once the work is out there, it takes on a public life.
So often we confuse ambition for self and ambition for art. While I think any honest poet will say both drive them, the wiser ones, I think, develop the much needed capacity to tell which one in any given situation is running the show. So Wedding Day strove also to keep the poems honest; perhaps this too was a source of resistance to newer, more avant forms making their debuts in magazines and books. A part of me wanted to rush willy-nilly and embrace them; I was truly interested in this work, and certainly things I read, aesthetic approaches I encountered, affected and changed the way I composed, for the better. But the rush to embrace felt driven by a craving to join the cool kids, not by true artistic compulsion. Thus I was really grateful to encounter Ray McDaniel’s review of Wedding Day on the Constant Critic website, where he says:
Hers aren’t wholly my convictions, but I respect how quickly Levin has become suspicious of her own faculties, and also of how stubbornly she refuses to utterly abandon them . . .
Happily, there’s something in this lament (“Quelquechose”) to offend everyone. And while Levin obviously isn’t going to be surrendering her “sad tired I” anytime soon [DL: Boy, and how], at least that ego isn’t barricaded within the terrible certainties with which poetry abounds.
I quote these because they’re pinned to my bulletin board, to remind me of the balance I strive to maintain: deep suspicion of my own precious poetics.
GCW: I suppose I was thinking about our earlier conversations on the subject of ambition, what it does/could/should mean to a poet, any artist really.
DL: Ambition should, ideally, always be for the work; and the work, ideally, suggests the directions in which one should turn one’s ambitious hand. In this respect, I suppose the best ambition to develop is an ambition for listening. In all areas of life, I am thinking just now.
I know I can sound adamant in print, but I’m really wracked by aesthetic uncertainty and doubt most of the time. Thus: no ambition without a heavy dose of second guessing. The tension this can create is deeply unpleasant and usually resolves in new poems, which seems a good trade off to me. Ambition and suspicion should be brought to bear on one’s reading as well: an ambition to read beyond one’s predilections and prejudices and a suspicion of everything read, especially the work one loves, especially the work of established contemporary writers, newbies and flavors of the month. How else to create at least a personal sense of excellence than through a search and expectation to encounter great poetic art? I remember in very early days, pre-NYU, working with Charles Simic, who gave me a stack of literary magazines to take home and read. When I returned a week later he asked me what I thought. I was a little tentative, didn’t want to hurt his feelings (after all, he gave them to me), but said, “I dunno, I didn’t like them very much,” and he laughed and said, “Excellent! You shouldn’t like them!” It’s hard to buy a book and encounter disappointment, but such work must be done if you are engaged in developing your own aesthetics. Not a wasted Amazon dollar, no-sir-ree.
GCW: Is poetry a “being of grief and terror” that the poem helps “assemble”?
Or is poetry “a burning machine,” toward which one feels compelled to walk?
Or perhaps the poet’s way of “syntax[ing] / the fragments” of “the world’s / game of shards”?
GCW: Where do you see your newer work heading, since Wedding Day?
DL: My parents died within six months of each other in 2002, and this has impacted everything I’m working on. My mother’s death, so soon after my father’s, was particularly sudden, shocking, and unexpected. I cannot even hope to describe clearly what the true shocking encounter with death can do, to one’s assumptions, expectations, ambitions, wishes, will, what one believes to be crucial and significant to one’s life and the world. Astonishingly, just as I was feeling myself coming back to life, as it were, my sister passed away in the summer of ’06, at the age of 46. Death is the new and unshakeable lens through which I see.
The worms and the gods are now dictating my poems: researching the science of corpse decay and burial practices across many cultures, as well as how various religions view death. Tibetan Buddhism, with its ideas about impermanence and self-addiction, has been a great solace to me, and has sparked some poems. Ambition says: what about the big death? Iraq, Darfur, the long discouraging list. But poems don’t seem to want to go there; they’ve apparently got enough death and grief to handle at my house.
Stylistically, it’s been interesting to see what forms poems want to take around such topics. It’s as if the stylistic impulses of Surgical have gone through the washing machine of Wedding Day to create both something familiar and different: theatre-making is back, but with more air in the poem, more white space. A lot more periods. Rhyme, of all things. A poet friend said, “You’re not so quick to get on the rapture-train.” Certainly the aesthetic issues that obsessed Wedding Day have come to seem very beside the point. Worried that the poem is too confessional? too narratively conventional? that you belong to the wrong poetry ‘camp’? So what.
GCW: The critic Francis Spufford writes, “You can’t stop being a son or a brother. But you can lose a friend, you can leave a job, you can stop being someone’s lover. So the question is: how do we rely on those who are not obliged to look after us? How shall we be fed by strangers?” How would you answer him?
DL: Ohhhh, such an important question. It moves and overwhelms me. The central image I carry in the aftermath of so much familial death is that of my surviving sister and myself clinging to a life-raft in endless open sea. Is there a boat that will come pick us up? What if my sister dies and I am alone? How shall I be fed? Issues of community have become very significant to me, as well as the price to be paid for a once hard-fought-for solitude. At this point I imagine taking dying into my own hands once body and mind start to fail, because I have no faith that I will be cared for, or that my dying can be handled naturally and spiritually. In this country, it seems to me, the dying are a medical mess to be cleaned up, which is truly scandalous.
GCW: An odd question, perhaps, but: To what extent is poetry prophecy? It seems to me there is, in a Yeatsian sense, a certain prophetic insistence, or rhythm, in many of your poems. I keep slipping between the birth poems in Surgical and the Balkan poems in both books, and thinking about that relationship, which means something more than merely the painful inverse of the body. And of course the prominence of dream imagery in Wedding Day.
DL: I really like the way Ginsberg talks about it (in a 1965 Paris Review interview): “What prophecy actually is is not that you actually know that the bomb will fall in 1942. It’s that you know and feel something which somebody knows and feels in a hundred years.” This idea of prophecy being a feeling, perhaps even before it is a knowing, feels accurate to me. If insistent, incantatory rhythm feels prophetic, perhaps this rhythm (and the poem it carries) makes plain what we feel in our bodies: little spurs of anxiety, or numinosity, or the impending, still inchoate and inarticulate, yet significant, in a won’t-leave-you-alone kind of way, in the incantatory systole/diastole song of the heart beating. In film and television, the sound of a single heart beating always portends something, even if only heightened awareness of one’s self and/or surroundings. So there must be something in such rhythming in poetry that makes us pay attention a little more, and perhaps feel the poem in our bodies in a way we wouldn’t without incantation.
I also think that anytime anyone is involved in an endeavor that requires intuitive participation, a feel for the future can come through. Ginsberg’s Howl was certainly a poem of its moment, but the industrialized, corporatized, massified world that the poem describes and the damage it can do to the psyche seems prescient, in light of the poem having been published in the mid-fifties. And Howl‘s prescription for that sick world (“Ah, Carl.I am with you”) becomes, 10 or 15 years later, the rallying cry for an entire generational shift in mores: love your brother (or sister; or, hell, everyone!). Ginsberg was feeling into his present moment and intuited the way through the predicament that the next generation would take.
I think Wedding Day‘s use of dream material was another way in which I was trying to expand the poetic sources at my disposal, to include more selves on the page. I pay a great deal of attention to the sleep-productions of the unconscious, but they didn’t often make it into Surgical. A great, weird, vivid dream, or a line of poetry that comes in sleep: these are delightful and unexpected gifts, and begin to feel indispensable. I get really alarmed when I quit dreaming. Kind of like when I quit writing. Irritable, and alarmed.
[This interview is part
of a series of conversations with authors who have work in KR.
It is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for