Line / Break | Season 2 is back with Dana Levin!
Dana Levin describes the loud tree frog taking residence on her porch and how personal reflection is the core for revolutionary poetry.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:00):
Hey everybody. I’m Ryo Yamaguchi, the publicist at Copper Canyon Press and you are watching season two of our interview series Line/Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We began Line/Break as a way to connect during the severe lockdowns of the pandemic and we’ve had so much fun seeing poets on screen, hearing poems, talking about writing, books, and life that we simply had to keep this series going. Thank you for tuning in.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:27):
So for this week, at long last, Dana Levin. Dana and I have had so many rich conversations, including a fabulous one for her book launch at Collected Works here in Santa Fe and I’m going to try hard not to recapitulate these conversations, but I can’t make any promises. Maybe we will. I figure reruns are good, but whatever it is that we get into, I am excited about it. I’ve been waiting a long time for this interview and so let me just say to Dana, ahoy, welcome.
Dana Levin (00:54):
Ahoy! Glad to see you and hello everybody.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:58):
I’m so glad to have you here. So I just want to ask you, how’s your morning going? It’s a beautiful Friday morning here. I think the vibe is good, although there’s lots happening in the world and so just kind of want to hear what you’ve been up to.
Dana Levin (01:10):
Well, I woke up to rain and I’m a little obsessed with this tree frog that has taken up residence on my back porch.
Ryo Yamaguchi (01:19):
Dana Levin (01:19):
And it appears and disappears and I just wonder about it all the time. So every morning now, I go out there and I’m like, is it there? Then I’m like, my porch is screened in, so how does it get in and out of the porch? Is it having a whole life? Usually around the late afternoon, it trills like once or twice, but that’s it, that’s it. Nothing else. I worry, it doesn’t have any friends so that’s how my morning begins, is thinking about this tree frog.
Ryo Yamaguchi (01:52):
That’s so amazing. Well, I was going to ask, is it loud? Because I mean, I’m thinking of like Hawai’i and I know they’re kind of famously invasive on the islands in Hawai’i, but I mean, there’re worse invaders for sure. But yeah, so does it sound like that?
Dana Levin (02:05):
Oh yeah. It makes a very loud sound, which is weird because it’s teeny. I mean, its body is probably as big as my thumb, if it’s limbs are all, you know. There’s hundreds that live in my boyfriend’s backyard and sometimes we have to shut the windows in order to get some sleep. So I don’t know but anyway, I obsessed about the frog. I made some coffee. I’m good.
Ryo Yamaguchi (02:36):
Yeah. That’s great. That’s great. I’m going to get one more point on the frog. I’m also thinking like Costa Rica. I mean, is it colorful, like what is it? I’m unfamiliar with the tree frogs of Missouri.
Dana Levin (02:45):
It is not colorful. It is designed to fade into stone and bark. You can tell because it kind of looks like it’s wearing camo. It’s gray and then with sort of darker gray splotches and in the right environment, you would not see it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (03:09):
Yeah. Yeah. I think that really kicks things off here. I’m going to hold onto the kernel of this frog as a theme for this talk of the tiny diminutive creature with the loudest voice possible, right?
Dana Levin (03:20):
Ryo Yamaguchi (03:21):
So let’s hold onto that.
Dana Levin (03:22):
Ryo Yamaguchi (03:23):
A little bit. So we have a couple traditions for this show Line/Break and one of them is that we really like poets to introduce themselves, if possible. So I’m hoping you could do that. So say your name again, any pronouns that you identify by and your recent book, certainly we’d love to show that off, and anything else that you kind of want to say.
Dana Levin (03:44):
Oh gosh. Okay, well my name is Dana Levin and I am now the author of five books, which just blows my mind. I came to Copper Canyon with my first book, In The Surgical Theater. It won the APR/Honickman First Book Prize in 1999, which is so interesting because I had sent the book two years earlier to Sam Hamill at Copper Canyon and it had been rejected.
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:14):
Dana Levin (04:16):
Then I won the prize.
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:19):
You’re not the only one. Yeah.
Dana Levin (04:19):
Then I won the prize and was like, oh man! Now they have to publish it anyway! Hope they’re not mad at me! But I was very happy to join Copper Canyon in real life with my second book. I’m a teacher, I’ve been teaching for over 30 years. I love teaching. I currently work at Maryville University in St. Louis. I moved here five years ago, seven years of teaching at the school after 19 years in beautiful Santa Fe.
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:50):
We miss you.
Dana Levin (04:51):
Where I miss the clouds and the stars and green chili breakfast burritos.
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:56):
Dana Levin (04:58):
I am the daughter of immigrants. All of my grandparents came over from Poland and Russia, except one. One grandmother was born here, but her grandparents came over from the same area. What else can I tell you? I don’t know.
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:22):
Dana Levin (05:23):
We’ll leave it there.
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:26):
Here, I’m going to bring this in frame here. Tell us about this.
Dana Levin (05:28):
Oh my, yes. That’s my new book, Now Do You Know Where You Are. Here’s an interesting thing about that book, at least it’s interesting to me. I did an interview with Tony Leuzzi, I don’t know if that’s how you say his name, Leuzzi.
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:44):
Yeah. Keep going. Yeah.
Dana Levin (05:46):
At Brooklyn Rail and his very first question was so amazing to me because I had never considered it. He said the title changes the way you read the book, based on which word in the title you put emphasis on. So after I read his question, I sat there going /now/ do you know where you are? Now /do/ you know where you are? Now do /you/ know where you are? Now do you /know/ where you are? I just went through and I was like, wow. That’s a really interesting and smart question and I hope that the book actually meets all of the slight nuance changes, depending on which word you put emphasis on when you read the title out loud.
Ryo Yamaguchi (06:32):
Yeah. I vividly remember that discussion from that piece and I went through the same thing, feeling a little bit insane in my room alone repeating it over and over and I love that play. I have to share this foolish anecdote about this. I remember getting in to a very long conversation in high school once about this with Taco Bell. Taco /Bell/, /Taco/ Bell. I think your point is a little bit more meaningful, but nonetheless, sonics are important, right?
Dana Levin (07:03):
Yeah they are. Well, the way they cue emphasis is really interesting.
Ryo Yamaguchi (07:09):
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It’s really fascinating to hear, well particularly about your parents since we haven’t really talked much about the kind of immigration history of your parents and things, and certainly, I mean that could open up all kinds of terrain for literary conversation. European forbearers that you’ve followed and things like that, which maybe we can get into, but it does trigger for me one of the other traditions that we have here on the show and another question I like to ask, which is if you could take yourself and walk yourself back into your past and into the even deeper past that precedes the temporality of these poems in this book, and think about the first time that not necessarily that you even enjoyed a poem or enjoyed a work of art, but the first time that you recognized yourself in a poem or a song or a novel or something like that. So when’s the first time that you saw yourself, your being, in the space of art?
Dana Levin (08:03):
Wow. What a great question. I mean, this is going to sound so cliche and I have other moments where poetry came to me and I responded to it, but in terms of self recognition, it really had to be when I was 16 and a friend gave me Sylvia Plath’s Ariel as a birthday present and what I want to emphasize is, yes, my 16-year-old self, my 57-year-old self responds greatly to the aria of the psyche coming forward and singing its song with intensity and I’m a sucker for melodrama. I really am. I love it, but her images are what, even at 16, I was aware that this was a capacity to put images in my mind that were so vivid and felt so accurate. Her magic use of metaphor and it’s just incredible. You know, “the moon is no door. It is a face in its own right, white as a knuckle and terribly upset. It drags the sea after it like a dark crime. It is quiet with the O-gape of complete despair.”
Dana Levin (09:30):
I mean, this evocation of the moon, “the moon is no door. It is a face in its own right. White as a knuckle.” Ugh. It just did something to me and I thought, oh, I want to do that because I was already writing poems and I thought, I want to make images like that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (09:55):
That’s so amazing and I’m thinking of… I’m really glad you brought up Sylvia Plath in regard to this and the image-making too, because while I was reading through some things, I actually have a really great question I want to get to. I’m stalling here because I don’t know if I want to ask you this question just yet, but I’ll just mention that via your love of Sylvia Plath, I’ve been reading a lot of Sylvia Plath this morning also. Here’s the line that really triggered with me this morning, which is from an analysis that you did at American Poetry Review, speaking of the Honickman, which is just a line, “I’ve grown too big to go backward.” That too, I mean, it’s just been with me all morning and part of it is, that it reminded me of the Tears for Fears song that I heard yesterday and the opening of that song it’s… Oh, shoot. I can’t think of what the title of the song is, but it opens up, “welcome to your life. There’s no turning back,” right? Yes, yes. See?
Ryo Yamaguchi (10:54):
So I hope that you go listen to that after this interview but anyway, just as a quick anecdotal mention that Sylvia Plath is very much with us I think this morning, because of this. So I’m so glad that you’ve kind of divined her again here. So I do actually have a question about Sylvia Plath and confessional poetry, but maybe before we do that, it might help to let’s hear a poem. I mean, if you feel willing, yeah. Yeah. What do you think?
Dana Levin (11:22):
Oh gosh. Should I read one of my own poems that relates to Plath? Or should I read… What should I do, I wonder?
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:31):
Yeah I’m putting you on the spot and you don’t have to read a poem if you don’t want to, but you know, yeah.
Dana Levin (11:35):
Oh no. It’s interesting to think about how Plath may be at work in the latest poems because of course there’s a way in which I feel a little far from her than I did when I was 16.
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:49):
Dana Levin (11:51):
But you know what, I’m going to read “Immigrant Song.” I think it kind of does both in terms of what I mentioned about my parents and my grandparents and also just images. This is a poem that’s about my maternal grandparents. It takes us through my grandmother, my grandfather, my mother and her sister, and then myself.
Dana Levin (12:14):
“Immigrant Song.” “Bitter mother, blue dead rush of mothers, conceal your island, little star. Trains, hands, note on a thread. Poland’s dish of salt. They said the orphan lands of America promise you a father. The ship’s sorrows broken daughter, the ocean’s dark, dug out. Silent father, rain, stars, sewage in the spill, hush the river. In your black boat, broken snake you hid. You sailed for the merit lands of America, dumped your name in the black water. In the village, they pushed the rabbi to the wall. Someone blessed the hunter. Angry daughter. One says no and the other says nothing at all. Chicago, I will live in your museums where Europe is a picture on the wall. Obedient child. I concealed my island, my little star. In my black boat, I hid. I hid in pictures on the wall. I said, I am here in America, your hero, your confusion, your disappointment after all. They said, how did you end up so bad in a country this good and tall?”
Ryo Yamaguchi (14:08):
This is such a marvelous poem. I mean, I almost have it memorized. I mean, just hearing it, I could follow along with you like it was the beat of my own heart.
Dana Levin (14:18):
Ryo Yamaguchi (14:19):
It’s great, yeah. I hear the Plath in it. Well, I certainly hear Plath’s own resistance to her own family and the complicated resistance of that. So I thought that was a great impromptu choice based on this selection. On this point, so let me ask you this question, because I think you just demonstrated sort of the point of this question that we’ll get into. There’s so much anticipation for this question, but it’s a good one.
Ryo Yamaguchi (14:50):
The reason I’m really excited about it is, so this is actually a question… We also have our interns will read through collections and help me come up with some kind of new ways to enter the poems and those things and our previous intern, Vero Silva, who’s just a absolutely fabulous human being wrote just this extraordinary question for you.
Ryo Yamaguchi (15:09):
So Dana, I’m just going to read this verbatim here. You’ve written extensively about the confessional tradition, and it here links to an essay that you wrote about Sylvia Plath, and then another essay that you wrote about an Anne Carson poem and I hope you can call these to mind here. The no-frills transparency of your own poems show the hand of a seasoned poet, making the private public. How does this content demand the long journal-esque form and how do you maintain the momentum of a long form poem? I’ll stress that I think that Vero was talking about coming out of like a confessional tradition.
Dana Levin (15:44):
Wow. So it makes me think about the long prose pieces, but it also just makes me think about long poems in general. Am I on the right track, you think?
Ryo Yamaguchi (15:56):
I think so. Yeah. Yeah. Keep going. Yeah.
Dana Levin (15:59):
How do I sustain, how do I do that? Well, one through line, I think in all of my work and I’ve only just begun thinking about this intensely over the last year, is the individual self, the personal experience is not happening in a vacuum. There’s always an awareness of collective forces. Now, when you’re a kid, collective force is family, it’s neighborhood. The world begins to impinge. Now Do You Know Where You Are is definitely a book that is about trying to navigate being an individual, trying to navigate collective forces.
Dana Levin (16:43):
I think the confessional impulse is another way of thinking about the deep emotional and psychoid experience of a single self and one of the things that I’m really interested in and I’m becoming aware of, my goal is to be a vessel for whatever is supposed to come through me, because I don’t know why I have this gift to write and I want to be of service. So all I can do is just kind of open up and be like, okay, what wants to come through and what I’m trying to say is that what I see, over five books, is there’s this argument that my soul wants to make about the necessity of self-examination, self-reflection, self-engagement in relationship to that collective.
Dana Levin (17:39):
Since we’re in a moment right now where the writing of what I would call civic poetry, poetry that is outward-looking, poetry that wants to help enact social change, poetry that is very much aware of collective forces and the way in which identity is both stymied and formed and encouraged by collective forces. That civic poetry needs the lyric impulse. Social change needs the personal, self-examined soul. I don’t believe you can have lasting social change if you’re not engaging in some kind of revolution inside the self. For me, the confessional impulse is one way of going through the process of that revolution internally and then on the page.
Dana Levin (18:35):
The complications of that, the vastness of that, the penetration of that, I think just carries into longer poems, longer pieces, all the way into a long line that begins to be prose. I think that I’ve been trying to hold more and more as I’ve been trying to, so many bodies a soul has to press through and just trying to penetrate through all the layers until finally there’s some moments where I feel like I can only do this in paragraphs. So I hope that answers the question. I don’t know. Is there a part of that question you think I didn’t quite address, Ryo?
Ryo Yamaguchi (19:21):
No, no, this is great. I mean, I take this as a maxim — and maybe this is one I’m particularly sensitive to — but this idea that civic poetry needs a lyric impulse. That, in a way, I mean what I’m hearing you describe is how the private and the public have this form, they’re in this dance, they’re a necessity of each other.
Ryo Yamaguchi (19:43):
I learned from Arthur Zipalm yesterday, I’m going to pronounce this wrong, the word syzygy, right? It’s how we have eclipses and so you have to have these polarities in this linear contest almost, you know?
Dana Levin (19:55):
Ryo Yamaguchi (19:56):
Yeah. This also makes me think, so looking at some of your brilliant essays on Plath and Anne Carson, the Anne Carson one I was really taken by, I think it’s kind of your close for this little micro essay you wrote on one of Anne Carson’s poems. What made Anne Carson so unique, was that she learned through feeling. She was able to somehow, and I think this is what we mean by mindfulness and what all kinds of meditation and frankly, certain kinds of substance uses like are done, is to have this dissociative relationship also with your own emotional impulse. So I could maybe ask about that, if you feel that poetry is trying to achieve a dissociation from emotion, also in order to engage a civic life or something like that. Yeah.
Dana Levin (20:42):
I don’t know if I would call it disassociation as much as I would say what Carson does in The Glass Essay, is bring a really incisive, analytical mind to deepest painful emotive and psychological experience.
Ryo Yamaguchi (21:02):
Dana Levin (21:03):
Like what we would call psychoanalysis and so I think that it’s the psychoanalysis part that feels very important to me in terms of civic life and civic poetry because a collective is made up of individuals and if individuals are not looking at the ways in which their own crap is flooding out into the collective, what hope do we have? Right?
Ryo Yamaguchi (21:34):
Dana Levin (21:35):
Sometimes I think as a society, we’re always trying to fix things from the outside in, and how can it last if the inside is not examined? Is not sound? Has not been cleansed out? So I think that it’s being aware of how you walk through the world as an individual and the way in which that contributes to collective problems, is so crucial and it’s hard because to do it well, to do it truthfully, you have to let go of blame and victimhood, which in this era seems like an incredibly tall order.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:27):
Yeah. Yeah, that’s such a truth, I think even just even just your last phrase of that blame and victimhood is, I feel like we’re in a moment where we’re really struggling with how that’s going to fit into, as we’re saying, both our personal and public and civic lives.
Dana Levin (22:43):
Also like what is justice, right?
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:46):
Dana Levin (22:47):
I mean if justice is always about blame and victimhood, is that complete justice? I don’t know if it is.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:57):
That segues into this idea of what is justice? So I really struggled in drafting questions today because I don’t want to dance around this too much, but you know, the January 6th hearings were last night and I don’t know if you watched them or if you’ve been reading the news about them. I assume you’ve been at least reading a couple news stories about them.
Dana Levin (23:15):
Ryo Yamaguchi (23:17):
So obviously this moment has triggered kind of several thoughts that I’ve had about civic life and one thing I noticed is that like Stephen Colbert, late night hosts, their question was like, do we have capacity for this right now? Is anyone paying attention to this and what is its purpose? For me, when I was looking through and reading stories and understanding how the hearings were kind of playing out and what their structure was, I realized that there’s like two twin things that I think we’re asking from it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (23:47):
One is empirical, one is like how off the rails is our Republican legislature that they’re condoning these things. How far gone have our politics gone and empirically, what’s the evidence that that’s happened? Then the other question is this question about reconciliation. Are these hearings supposed to be about healing and that kind of question. I pose this all to you because, and one reason I did absolutely want to bring it up, at least for a little bit, these hearings, is because to me, they mark somewhat of a culmination of the entire Trump era, the entire Trump administration and your book is inaugurated by that, in a way. Yeah. Yeah.
Ryo Yamaguchi (24:28):
So I’m curious if this has triggered a moment for you to look back over that era and then look back also over the poems that you’re writing in that time, and if you’ve come to any new realizations or kind of just where you are, how you’re feeling about it. Yeah.
Dana Levin (24:40):
Oh, that’s a tough one. I mean, asking does anybody have the bandwidth to take this in? I mean, the answer is no.
Ryo Yamaguchi (24:57):
Yeah. Right. I’d rather talk about tree frogs honestly, but yeah, yeah.
Dana Levin (25:04):
No. I mean, we are in a very, very stressful moment at every level of life.
Ryo Yamaguchi (25:11):
Dana Levin (25:12):
Does that mean that they should not be doing this? No, it does not mean that. If only one person tunes in who hadn’t really been paying attention and saw footage or listened to testimonials and had their mind opened, that is worthy. It’s the same thing about writing poems. Right? One thing I learned from Louise Glück is, I asked her once about audience and I’m going to say something about that in a second, in terms of the hearings. I said, “Did you ever imagine you’d have such a large audience?” She said, “I don’t think about audience. I hate that word. I think about a single reader.” She really deeply, deeply holds to the idea that she has written a book and she hopes that it will meet a single reader.
Dana Levin (26:07):
I love that because it comes back to the idea that there has to be individual change. There has to be personal change for the collective to have lasting transformation. Audience is interesting because it starts to become the default as to whether something matters or not. I heard on NPR today that Tucker Carlson has a viewership of three million people. Do you know how small that is in relationship to the entire population of the United States? Why do we say that this man’s voice is so important? Why do we say that Fox News matters so much? Why are we oriented that way, when we’re talking about a minuscule percentage of the population who is tuning in to listen to this man. It’s very strange to me, the falsities and inflations and deflations of scale with which we are determining whether something matters or not.
Dana Levin (27:12):
So I think it’s important that these hearings are happening. I don’t think they’re about reconciliation. I think they’re trying to get out the Democratic vote, frankly.
Ryo Yamaguchi (27:23):
Dana Levin (27:24):
I’m sitting here going, yeah good because, I don’t know, the Republican party as it stands right now seems rather bankrupt. The only thing that ever makes me feel slightly less alarmed about this and… That’s not true. “Less alarmed” is not good. That helps me retreat from dread is that this country has seen moments like this before. I don’t know where I read this or heard this, but the time period just before the Civil War was just as bad in terms of the kinds of people we were electing to office and what media was doing. So I think that America must go through these cycles where it’s just really corrupt and the worst voices get a seat at the table. I hope that we don’t cleanse our way through it with actual armed conflict, but I don’t know what to say about that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (28:30):
Yeah. Yeah. Well, and-
Dana Levin (28:34):
In terms of how it relates to this, I have such an ambivalent relationship with the time period of the book. It made me so afraid while I was writing it. I was like, oh my God, I don’t want people to be like, oh, Dana Levin wrote a Trump book.
Ryo Yamaguchi (28:48):
Yeah and I want to be clear, that’s not what it is at all. I mean, if anything, it’s just so much more than that, but yeah.
Dana Levin (28:57):
The way I like to think about it, I don’t know if this comes through, is that it’s about the soul and eternity and time, and at this moment it’s about a soul-
Ryo Yamaguchi (29:04):
Small things, minuscule things, right, got it.
Dana Levin (29:07):
You know, having to navigate this absolutely insane moment in American culture where my own assumptions about America just blew up in terms of what the country was capable of and where it might be going and all of that. So I dearly hope this book is not timeless in the way that it talks about the Trump years and at the same time, I hope it’s timeless in terms of being a chronicle of what it is to go through a time of incredible volatility and having really no clue what the future holds.
Ryo Yamaguchi (29:49):
Yeah. Yeah. So many things here. Yeah. Well for one, I take solace in your discussion of cyclicality and certainly thinking about, which another word for this is reincarnation, which also a theme that’s so present in the book, which we have talked about in the past. Also just this reminder about scale and exceptionalism that you’re talking about. I mean, that Tucker Carlson thing is like, that’s so true, but in a way it feels so big. I know certainly with COVID, I think news has tried to, in some ways, resist distorting the numbers and things like that, and try to remind us of like, well, actually more people die in car crashes and things like this.
Ryo Yamaguchi (30:33):
So it’s very, very helpful to hear this and to think about previous times, because this moment in history is also the moment in our lives, each of our lives. So of course it’s important to us because it’s us and it’s this moment in our lives. Yeah. I’m getting off track here, but the thing I guess I want to ask about in the writing process… Well let me ask you this. The other thing that you kind of mentioned to sort of start this whole conversation, was this discussion kind of attention and do we have bandwidth for all the things that are happening and for this very stressed, stressful, stressed-out moment.
Ryo Yamaguchi (31:10):
I mean, I know this summer is going to be a conflagration. I mean, it literally is here in Santa Fe. But part of this that I want to ask, is that you’ve also just published this book and I’ve been so excited about the reception and seeing all these interviews and you having this life with this book out in the world. One thing that occurred to me as I’ve been tracking on this and being in tandem with you and working to get this book out into the world, is: are you working on poems now? What’s the dynamic of your attention because one thing that you’ll hear from poets over and over and over again, is this idea that by the time the book comes out, and you’re out and you’re on a reading tour and you’re doing readings, a lot of poets say something along the lines of like, I’m sick of these poems. I’ve had these poems for years. So I’m curious what your dynamic is with that, both trying to represent these poems now, but then thinking about new work.
Dana Levin (32:05):
Yeah. Well, I definitely have a project, a new project, that I desperately want to get working on, and sometimes doing work for Now Do You Know Where You Are gets in the way, and I get irritated, and then I have to come back to myself and be like, no, you are a mother. You have to help it move through the world. You know? So this new book I’m working on is prose, what a shock. Though sometimes I wonder if there will be poems in it, almost an inverse of Now Do You Know Where You Are, where there’s a few prose pieces and there’s prose chalked through, but mostly it’s poems. This is definitely going to be essays and I’m not exactly sure yet the angle, but I know that there’s a memoiristic component and there’s a craft moment, and I think right now what I’m trying to investigate, of course this could change as the book develops, why poetry for me?
Dana Levin (33:12):
My parents were not readers of poetry. They read, they were great readers, but they were not readers of poetry. I responded to poetry even before I could read, really, in strange ways. Having to do with this book, Robert Louis Stevenson’s… Is that who wrote it? A Child’s Garden of Verses. And it was just one of many books that was laying around. I was the youngest child, so there was a lot of detritus from the childhoods of my two older sisters. This book, the illustrations in this book, fascinated and disturbed me. And that feeling of fascination and disturbance, I really came to affiliate with poetry. That feeling of fascination and disturbance was in the work of Plath, as I experienced it at 16. It was in the work of T.S. Eliot when I fell in love with his work at the age of 17. It’s a quality that’s in the work of the Eastern European poets I love so much like Vasko Popa and [inaudible] but even Charles Simic, though he is American, he was born in Serbia.
Dana Levin (34:25):
So the large question, these essays are like, why poetry, and what is it about the technology of poetry that helped me navigate a very oppressive and difficult home life? My father was an untreated manic depressive. He was a rager. My mother’s way of dealing with that was to shut down everything, just a wall. As a kid, there was really no recourse to speak about what was happening at home, or to say how one was feeling about it, or to complain, or to cry or to anything of that nature, and poetry rescued me, but I’m just fascinated that it came to me as the rescue when there was nothing in my environment, it wasn’t part of my parents’ life. So I’m fascinated by that. I think ultimately the book too, it’s going to try and make that argument about the relationship between personal examination and collective change, but also about how the psychoid qualities of craft work, the psychoid qualities of working with the craft of poetry.
Ryo Yamaguchi (35:41):
Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that’s great. I’m going to be walking around all day today with like psychoid and technology of poetry and the aria, and like all these things just kind of flow… Which is wonderful. That’s exactly how I want to spend my Friday is that ruminating.
Dana Levin (35:55):
Yeah, me too.
Ryo Yamaguchi (35:56):
Yeah. Yeah. Okay, look at me here. I’m improving the structure, but you know, what structure anyway? So let me ask you my closing question. How about this? Let’s lay this out for now. I’d like to ask you kind of my closing question because you’re touching on it right now and then maybe if you’d have one more poem in you to read after that.
Dana Levin (36:15):
Ryo Yamaguchi (36:16):
Maybe we can do that and then we’ll close this whole thing out. So here’s the closing question, the closing, not-closing question. This has to do with something that you brought up again, but let’s go back to Sylvia Plath and talk about, one thing that you mentioned in Plath is this word, which is the heroism and the heroic, and I want to mention this because… So let’s consulate this a little bit. So we’ve got Plath, who’s writing this heroic kind of poem in her way. We have the tree frog, who is this heroic of Cantor, right? But let’s also talk for, again quickly, about what happened on January 6th, because I think what happened on January 6th was this distorted version of heroism.
Ryo Yamaguchi (37:01):
These folks who thought they were doing something really heroic, and maybe we can argue whether or not it is or not, or what that is, but I think that one of the great tragic forms that are happening now in our world, is this very distorted sense of heroism. That of course also goes, I mean, you can make that claim going back to all kinds of actions that have happened in human history, but so just getting the heroic here in kind of sight and so let me ask you, as you’re beginning to already start talking about it, what’s the most heroic thing about poetry? What about the technology of poetry or… Yeah.
Dana Levin (37:37):
Well, I think the most heroic thing about poetry is speaking. I think the most heroic thing about poetry is, and I’m going to speak now about classic lyric poetry, because of course there’s so many kinds of poetry, right? The heroic thing about classic lyric poetry is it is a single self coming forward and singing a song. I can’t think of a more terrifying, vulnerable position to be in, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re singing a ballad, which is a song of a community, or if you are singing an aria of the psychic self, like Plath, it’s heroic to do that. It’s heroic to do it in the spirit of telling the truth about something.
Dana Levin (38:51):
It’s also heroic to work with an art form where, depending on how you’re calibrated as a writer, it might be really dense and unavailable to a lot of readers on first read. That’s really heroic. That’s really courageous and really asking a reader to start to develop consciousness about the uses of language. One of the first things I do with my Intro to Poetry students is talk about how we’re taught to read. And the ways that we are taught to read are absolutely counter to reading poetry, because poetry yields best when you don’t stop at just getting information. So it’s really heroic to go forward with that. I guess that’s how I’ll answer that question today.
Ryo Yamaguchi (39:48):
No, absolutely fabulous. I love this and what I’m hearing here in what you’re saying at the end, is that reading a poem is a heroic act.
Dana Levin (39:56):
Ryo Yamaguchi (39:58):
Way back in the day when I used to teach poetry too, several semesters I would open the class by saying, “Here’s what I’m asking you to do. I want you to ascend to the poem. I’m not going to hand it down to you. You have to come up here.” Some students were down on that and others weren’t, but it is heroic. It’s heroic to have to challenge yourself, to approach our very means of communication with each other with the demands that poetry makes of it.
Dana Levin (40:29):
Yeah. It’s heroic to push through confusion.
Ryo Yamaguchi (40:32):
Dana Levin (40:32):
It’s heroic to admit you don’t know something. It’s heroic to proceed through not knowing with the spirit of inquiry. It’s heroic to admit you’re not a god, basically. You know?
Ryo Yamaguchi (40:49):
Dana Levin (40:50):
And that you’re just a person who’s trying to figure shit out.
Ryo Yamaguchi (40:54):
Yeah. Oh, that’s great. That’s wonderful. Okay. I’m not going to complicate that anymore. Do you have another poem? I mean, speaking of poems. Yeah.
Dana Levin (41:03):
Well the only thing I wanted to read and I’m really not sure why, except that I think about this woman all the time. It’s in C.D. Wright’s book with the really long title that we call The Poet, The Lion, and of course, if a viewer doesn’t know, the phrase Now Do You Know Where You Are, the title of my book, is a phrase that C.D. Wright uses three times in her book Deepstep Come Shining, and her spirit is the titular deity of my book, in terms of a guiding force. Occasionally in this book, she writes about William Carlos Williams in sections that are called “Spring and All,” after Williams’ great book. I think about this particular section a lot.
Dana Levin (41:43):
“Spring and All.” “The Great War is barely in the background,” and she means World War I, “the Great War is barely in the background. The fatal flu pandemic fills the void, concentrating on the young and healthy. This weird little book is brought into the world the same month as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s first major drive to seize control. Among artists and writers, the urge for renewal is gaining ground in the aftermath of monstrous destruction, in the bud of worse to come. It is boggling that so much hearty artistic innovation has commenced to proliferate and thrive, do or die. Those who can, do. Even the wreckage of Europe is tempting to the young, creative, contrary, and restless. One American writer stays put, finishes school, starts a medical practice. One American writer sticks around to catch the babies.”
Ryo Yamaguchi (42:45):
Wow. That’s so amazing. We miss C.D. so much and well, thank you for that, Dana. I think I’m just going to kind of let that poem resonate and just say thank you for joining us. I mean, let’s do this monthly, you know? Yeah.
Dana Levin (43:00):
Ryo Yamaguchi (43:00):
Yeah, a podcast. One guest, excellent. I think we’d have at least 10 listeners.
Dana Levin (43:09):
Yeah. Yeah. Maybe.
Ryo Yamaguchi (43:09):
We’ll work on it. Well, in any case, I’m grateful for today’s conversation. Like I said, it’s Friday. The vibe is good because we’re making it good and let’s go heroically forth, right?
Dana Levin (43:20):
Okay. Sounds good. Go catch some babies, you know!
Ryo Yamaguchi (43:22):
Oh, that’s fabulous. Awesome.
Dana Levin (43:27):
Ryo Yamaguchi (43:27):
All right, thank you so much Dana and thank you all out there for tuning in.
Dana Levin (43:30):