Interview with Dana Levin

by Ann van Buren

Dana Levin’s most recent book of poetry is Now Do You Know Where You Are (Copper Canyon, 2022), a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, praised the book as “luminous.” Her other books include Banana Palace (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), Sky Burial (Copper Canyon, 2011), which the New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting” and Wedding Day (Copper Canyon, 2005). Her first book, In the Surgical Theatre, was chosen by Louise Glück for the 1999 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize and went on to receive numerous honors, including the 2003 PEN/Osterweil Award. Levin will read at the Katonah Village Library on October 2, 2022 at 4PM.

Ann van Buren has been conducting interviews for KPS since 2017. Her poetry and other interviews and book reviews are published in The Rumpus, Library Journal, The Westchester Review, The Columbia Review, and elsewhere.

This conversation is centered around Levin’s most recent book and took place in August 2022, via Zoom.

Ann van Buren: Your opening poem, “A Walk in the Park,” is a meditation on the myth of “Er” as recounted in Plato’s Republic. You talk about the meaning of the spindle as an object that turns people from one world to the next. There are references to the ancient Greeks throughout your work. How did that come to be?

Dana Levin: The first thing that just popped into my head is those big books for kids—what were they called?— D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. From a very young age the myths made a huge impression on me. I have an archetypically-oriented mind in terms of thinking about heroes and villains and all that kind of stuff. My thinking is definitely informed by Jungian psychology, but the myths are touchstones in literature, a way we track continuity in the development of poetry in English. I’m thinking of my own mentor, Louise Glück, and how much she goes back to myth. It’s always been with me. The Greek myths are foundational to the sense of self in Western culture and it’s always interesting to look back at them and to think about that and to critique them and understand that although they’re thousands of years old they still inform how we look at the world.

AvB: Can you talk more about the disjuncture between thought and physicality? This topic is prescient not only for people who suffer from particular physical conditions (as you describe in the poem “Appointment”) but for all of us, as a people living under the specter of the pandemic and other physical and existential threats.

Do you maintain a practice of mind/body connection? Can you talk more about the notion of being a “split creature” that you mention in the poem “A Walk in the Park?”

You refer to the mind/body split/connection again in “2016: A Biography.”

DL: This is a perennial topic for me. It seems a given to me that most of us walk around engaging that disjuncture at some point…but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are some blessed people out there who are fully embodied with no feeling of difference between mind and body—but I definitely feel that split. Maybe this condition is simply a byproduct of being self-reflective creatures, but I have a more mystic viewpoint and feeling about it: I believe in the animating spirit, beyond what can be empirically measured.

I think that my birth situation—being so sick and having an operation at six days old and being put in an incubator for the first two months of my life—has something to do with it; so too growing up in a household that was very difficult. My father suffered untreated bi-polar disorder and was a rager. In both situations, my ability to disassociate from the body was a way of escape. I feel like my whole life—from birth until I really started to address this in my twenties—was about being so split and then trying to figure out how to come back together. When I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico—which I did for 19 years—I met a really amazing personal trainer named Ramleen Voss. What I loved about Ramleen is that we’d be doing all the stuff that we’d do in the gym but she was always aware that part of what we were doing for me was getting my awareness into my body. So exercise for me isn’t just about trying to stay healthy; it’s also a way toward that kind of awareness. I’m not very good at keeping that practice though!

AvB: “Immigrant Song” paints a forlorn picture of “The ship’s sorrows, broken daughter.” It references Poland. Is this an autobiographical poem? Has the current war triggered more writing on this theme?

DL: It is an autobiographical poem, about my mother’s side of the family. My maternal grandparents both left Eastern Europe in the early 20th Century—Poland and an area of Russia that was sometimes Polish and sometimes Russian—fleeing anti-Semitic violence and oppression. My grandfather was from Bialystok and my grandmother was from Warsaw, I think. In terms of the war in Ukraine, I have not written anything but your question makes me think of this incredible book by Rebecca West I read when the Balkan war broke out in the early ‘90’s. It is called Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It’s about 1500 pages long and is West’s travelogue about that region of Eastern Europe in the 1930’s, when Hitler was coming to power. The whole reason West decided to go on this journey was because she felt like so many of the conflicts that engulf the western world are seeded there. So I started thinking about that as the current war began.

I also lived in NYC from 1990-1994 and worked for a refugee resettlement agency for Jewish refugees coming from the collapsed Soviet Union. It was interesting to work with those populations from Ukraine, from the city of Tashkent, from Belarus, from all over the former Soviet empire. I became aware that the Ukrainians were different from Russians. It’s like thinking of Americans as one homogenized people, but then you travel through the country and see: “Oh the people from the South are very different from those from the Midwest, who are different from New Englanders.” What I loved about the Ukrainians is they really had a sense of humor and seemed very pragmatic too. So when the war broke out, I started thinking about my former students even though so much time has passed. I’ve been thinking too about the amazing life path of Zelensky, who started as a comic and is now leading a country through war. Astonishing fate!

AvB: “Two Autumns, Saint Louis,” follows the thread of the history of racism in the South. What has it been like for you to move from Santa Fe to Missouri? I detect a note of irony in section 7 when you characterize place names such as “Confederate Drive, Plantation Drive” as “HOPE-FULL Living.” Your words also leave a bitter taste in the mouth when you use the word “Schnucks” in Section 4. While “Schnucks” is the name of a supermarket, is it safe to say that the bagger who refused to place purchased eggs directly into your hands was behaving like a Schnuck in the Yiddish sense of the word?

DL: Oh, no, the bagger was Black and the shopper was White, Jewish me! As recounted in the poem, I had an interesting conversation about this encounter with somebody who was born and raised here in St. Louis. She said that I’d have to find out this and find out this and this before I could know if what happened stemmed from the fallout of a long history of fraught relationships between the White and Black populations in Saint Louis or if the store had just mandated something that had nothing to do with race. I had to confront the ways in which I was unconsciously racializing situations that may or may not have had anything to do with race. I had to confront what I didn’t know; I was new to the city. The thing about Saint Louis is that racism and classism is on the surface; nothing is hidden. All you have to do is drive down what they call the Delmar Divide. Delmar is a major thoroughfare and you have these mansions that go back to the 19th century on one side and you have blight on the other side. Whites live on the mansion side and Black people on the other. I was astonished by how overt segregation has been and continues to be in Saint Louis neighborhoods. And as I was driving around, getting to know the city, my God! There’s a street called Plantation Drive! And walking in Forest Park, which is a jewel of the city, all of a sudden there’s Confederate Drive and an enormous statue dedicated to the Confederacy, which has since come down. I don’t know if they’ve changed the street name, though I hope they did. St. Louis—and Missouri itself—is right in the navel of the nation, right in the middle. You can really feel the clashing forces of the American character living here.

AvB: It’s especially interesting to hear what you’re saying about the way we tell stories in our heads and how careful we need to be about making assumptions. If we could all do that more the world would be a better place!

DL: It would be helpful!

AvB: “Heroic Couplet” alludes to Ginsberg and Corso who were shunned at an anti-nuke meeting for reading words that were meant to transcend our earthly sense of life and death, but which were perceived as counterproductive to the purposes of the activist audience. How do you reconcile what seems like a moral contradiction between those who claim residency in the spiritual realm and those who feel, in your words, “like someone/had jammed a helmet and breastplate over me” and who is “supposed to find a sword…?” The poem ends with the couplet,

I felt the cogs of Era turn—

         and had to pop a Klonopin—

DL: Well, this comes back to our body and mind split. One of the running meditations that I have been having—especially over the past six years—is on a civic life in poetry, where poetry and activism merge. Many people tend to think of the classic lyric project of a single soul singing its song—of the heart or of the spirit but definitely of the interior life—as being at odds with civic life. I don’t believe that. I will not believe that. I don’t believe they’re opposite. I believe that there’s a spectrum from private to public that we’re constantly negotiating in every field of life. I’m writing essays right now and one thing that’s driving them is how the classic lyric impulse of that single soul speaking its spiritual or feeling truth is interrelated with the life of civic poetry or activism. For me it has everything to do with the potential for self-examination and self-reflection. I don’t think you can have lasting collective change unless you are constantly trying to have a revolution inside the self. I think all collective change begins there. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing actions in the world. But I think we have a tendency to dismiss or be suspicious of the impulse toward self-examination or self-reflection and dismiss it as navel-gazing while the world’s on fire. Believe me navel-gazing can happen, but I think self-examination and collective action must inform each other.

But if you’re somebody who is introverted—which I am, though I don’t seem like it at times—the idea that I have to be of the world—especially at this moment, with what is happening politically and ecologically and in terms of health—it is totally anxiety-producing. So that little heroic couplet at the end of the poem is kind of an ironic statement, a way of saying “Okay…but I guess I’m just going to pop a Klonopin… because I can’t take it!”

What’s hard about self-reflection is that you can’t rush it. It takes time. It requires patience. It requires a brutal kind of self-honesty. I can firmly understand somebody who looks at me and says, “We are in trouble. We need help right now! We need change right now! There is no time for you to do the patient work of self-examination.” But I also believe that you can go through the world doing everything you can, in a very active way, to try and enact cultural and sociopolitical change, while also being aware of yourself in the world as you’re doing it, and being aware of others in the world as you’re doing it. This is where mindfulness and activism must come together, I think.

AvB: The poem “Pledge” marks a whole section in the book and describes your lovely art installation through which students were invited to pass through a door that was set up in an empty field. The poem mentions a word-art installation as well. Can you tell us about the ways in which your writing work intersects with visual art, the ways in which you connect poetry with something physical, as in the poem “How to Hold the Heavy Weight of Now?” I love the way that you draw ordinary gestures with words and allow your reader a sense of release.

DL: Thank you for that question. Going back to our conversation about embodiment I think that poetry is a way that I try to be embodied. This may seem odd, since poetry seems so ephemeral. It’s an art you make in your mind; the physical effort is very minimal. But I get a lot of inspiration and resonance from visual art, which is concrete. I was talking about something related to this recently with participants at the Napa Valley Writers Conference. Oftentimes, when a poem I’m writing is not working, it’s because the poem has no setting, no location. I have to figure out how to help a reader get located. For me, being located is physical.

Having a setting in a poem or understanding where the “I” of the poem is—instead of just being a voice that is speaking from the ether—is important. In my book Sky Burial, I have this long poem called “Five Skull Diadem.” I kept trying to write it as a lyric poem about encounters with Tibetan Buddhist gods and I just kept writing in circles. The stack of failed drafts kept growing until this voice was like, Dana, why don’t you just go back to where you had the inspiration for the poem?—which was at an exhibit of Tibetan Buddhist meditational objects and world view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The minute I made the decision to just take the reader through that show I was able to write the poem. Getting into my body is always hard. Getting into the world of where I am is also hard, but art and art installations seem to be a way that helps me do that.

AvB: I love installation art. Are you working in collaboration with any particular artists?

DL: Not right now. I’m pretty deep in a prose project and I’m collaborating with my younger self. I am writing these craft memoirs, craft talks/memoir/hybrid things. I don’t quite understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it now. It’s like the world’s on fire, why are you talking about your childhood? But I think it goes back to the necessity for self-examination I talked about earlier.

AvB: Speaking of prose, I was looking at the poem “For the Poets,” which looks like a haibun—a section of prose that is distilled in a poem at the end. The next poem, “Maybe,” is written in couplets for the most part, but breaks form and seems to sprawl across the page. Can you describe the connection between your thought process and the way that poems take shape on the page? The poem “January Garden” references lines of poetry that come to you in dreams.

DL: Thank you so much for that question. The architecture of a poem means a tremendous amount to me. I have a bunch of different ideas about this. I feel like all the different formal approaches of the new book are ways of trying to feel into where we are. Is it this way with the haibun, or is it this way that looks like a lyric essay, or this way in traditional verse? So there’s that. I also believe that the open space of the page that doesn’t have text on it is hugely communicative. So when I’m writing in verse lines the way that text and open space interact is part of my compositional process. Where a line breaks, where text gives way to empty space, can be very emotionally expressive: a space that evokes speechlessness, or needing to take a breath, or hesitating for a moment before you continue on with a thought. So there’s that aspect.

In this book in particular, I was writing a lot of prose. I think some of it was probably seeded in the original pledge I made to my sister when she charged me to try and break through some writer’s block. This proved hugely effective because so many of the poems in Now Do You Know Where You Are come out of that original prose writing. But I also think that there’s a different rhythm and pacing that comes with working with sentences and not working with verse lines. It was a change for me and it was exciting. I love the haibun. I love the impulse of a prose journey followed by a verse distillation or a verse encapsulation. It informs not just the poems that really look like haibuns but some of the ones that kind of look like haibuns, like the poem “About Staircases,” which feels like four variant haibuns. Working with haibun, I was thinking a lot about racing minds, racing life, and then that verse moment where you stand still, where you realize what was driving you.

AvB: Well, I think it works. The physicality of the poems is palpable.

Your work is an exchange of physicality and transcendence. Thank you!

DL: Thank you! That means a lot!

AvB: Thank you for taking the time to talk with KPS. We look forward to your reading at the Katonah Village Library at 4PM on October 2, 2022! Will you be coming from Missouri, where you have been writer-in-residence at Maryville University?

DL: Yes. Maybe I’m a fool, but for the first time since the pandemic began I’m going to do some travel for this book. Coming to Katonah is part of that. I’m looking forward to it and will be glad to be with people who love poems.

AvB: You’ll be with people who love your poems, in particular.

DL: That’s entirely encouraging.

Join us on October 2nd, 2022 at the Katonah Village Library. 26 Bedford Rd., Katonah, NY 10536. The library is within walking distance from Metro North. Recommended donation: $15. No charge for students. Masks encouraged. For more info>>