Weekly Prose Feature: “‘Invention Aids Understanding’: An Interview with Dana Levin” by Emilia Phillips

May 24, 2013

Dana LevinDana Levin is the author of In the Surgical Theatre, Wedding Day, and Sky Burial, which The New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting.” Levin’s poetry and essays have appeared recently in The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, APR, Agni, and Poetry. A recipient of fellowships and awards from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting and Guggenheim Foundations, Levin teaches at Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Emilia Phillips: Let’s start at the surface and work our way deeper. Your poems constantly reinvent themselves on the page. In just three short poems in Sky Burial, we move from the irregular, “Cathartes Aura,” that tends to privilege single lines over stanzas, into the long-lined, left-aligned stanza sections of “Letter to GC” to the terraced three- or two-lined stanzas of “Pure Land.” Any time that I see your name on a journal, my first thought is: “I want to see what her poem(s) look like!”

Will you speak to your consideration of and attention to form during the drafting process? On average, how much maneuvering do you do of words/lines before it looks right to you?

Dana Levin: Oh I spend an alarming amount of time moving lines and enjambments and indentations around; it’s my primary OCD behavior. 90% of it is an attempt to capture the pace and volume of the speaking voice speaking the line or stanza, as I hear it in my head (poetry’s strange synesthesia!). This includes trying to mimic dramatic unfoldment, via line length and line break. But sometimes visual considerations come into play. I have an aversion to blocks of text (except in the case of the prose poem); I like to read and write poems where script tangos with white space, where silence and the invisible can thrum under or beside the spoken and the seen.

EP: Would you mind likewise talking about your use of the em dash? It may be, I think, somewhat in vogue, if punctuation can be “in vogue” (Thanks, Emily), but it may be that, for some poets, it’s mutated from a tool in the bag to a tick of the hand. When I encounter a dash in your work, I never feel that it’s out of place, distracting, or showy. As an example, here’s a section of “Sibylline.”


which is what a god can offer
               a petitioning crowd

that is crying,
               I want to wake up, I don’t want to wake up—

               —wake up wake up—

Come to me and step behind me,
               put your thumbs gently to the back of my neck—

               Make my mouth move—

               O voice of a different timbre—

For me, the em dash provides a visual semblance to many of the subjects you take on, all of which possess a sense of liminality: death, possession, violence, belief.

DL: Liminality, yes. It even looks liminal: line between this and that, above and below―

Y’know, the reality is that I feel the dash: it vibrates somewhere between the comma and the period—faster than the former, more open than the latter, carrying a little bit of effect from both. It’s the punctuation of urgency, hysteria, questing, seeking through confusion—the fraught pause on the diving board before the plunge. I love how it can propel the reader into white space! Like pushing you off a cliff! Poet as murderer!

EP: Despite the fact that Sky Burial takes on these “ubertopics” like death and spirituality—or, as you say in “Auger,” “danger and wonder”—the poems are incredibly physical. We have visceral moments like the opening of “In Honor of Xipe”:

               with a birther’s goo, it

               gleams up green from the ground—

Little blade.

Counterbalanced with a more abstract moment in “Five Skull Diadem”:

They weren’t really gods, they were

Your choice to cloud up with the monstrous ones
               if the gentlest ones didn’t


your plasmatic breath, your mental

The long line/short line combination, however, creates a sort of breathing effect, a kind of in-and-out movement that rivals a description of breathing. Can language provide us with something physical, even if it’s not describing something physical? If so, how?

DL: Absolutely. In a poem, if you accept line length and line break as script for movement, you can do a kind of dance. I sometimes do a little chair dance in class when teaching poems, swaying or Martha Grahaming my arms to the flow-n-stop of lines (my students think I’m an idiot)

EP: Have you ever felt like you haven’t left a particular collection or like you’re not finished with a subject, even after a collection is published?

DL: Hmmmm. It’s more on the level of individual poems. Like, Oh! If only I could have included this poem in book X! But in general, when a book is published, I consider it done, with all its flaws and my residual misgivings. I won’t be going back to old work when I’m 70 and massively revising it. On that path madness lies.

EP: Is there a subject that you’ve been craving to write about but haven’t been able to or have done so unsuccessfully? Are there subjects you feel you can never touch?

DL: The new ms. I’m working on is presenting such challenges, from poem to poem. I’d been craving to write about End Times and I am getting my wish, via poems about technology and mutation and appetite and Apocalypse, environmental destruction. Now the challenge is hope. Where is hope? How do you write about it without engaging the sappy? I may not be able, tempermentally, to crack this one.

EP: Have you ever regretted publishing a poem?

DL: Only in that I submitted one too soon (a retrospective feeling)

EP: Do you ever find yourself breaking down a poem for parts, taking out sections and placing them into other poems?

DL: All the time. I cannibalize, frankensteinify. “You have changed the assignment to Swirl,” Brenda Hillman says. Maximum flexibility as stay against irrational attachment (oh my god, how Buddhistic)

EP: Someone once told me that “Buddhism is bad for poetry” I think because there’s a tendency in some self-identified Buddhist’s work to engage in the mysticism of the mundane and a kind of complacency with one’s own understanding. Some readers may find this work boring, inconsequential, disconnected, or indulgent. That said, your poems never drift in that direction; they’re intense, wild, and complicated. Would you mind talking about your connection to Buddhism, in life and your work, particularly Sky Burial, as well as its dynamism in guiding some of your concerns?

DL: Perhaps we should say “poetry is bad for Buddhism”! In terms of the kinds of poems you describe.

I’d like to spend a little time on this question. Most Buddhistic poetry in America is inspired by the Zen tradition. Zen philosophy promotes radical simplicity: poems of this type sometimes forget the “radical” part, which can indeed lead to some snoozy work. Gary Snyder often accessed this radical nature; the classic Haiku poets certainly do, as does a lot of the work of Arthur Sze.

The Buddhism I study and practice (in the most fumbling way) is Tibetan, which is a very different animal: wild and complicated, to use your phrasing. For one, Tibetan Buddhism is a hybrid religion, incorporating many shamanic aspects of the religion, Bon, indigenous to that part of the Himalayas. Like the Catholics absorbing Celtic rite and cosmology into their evangelizing in the now British Isles, the Buddhist teachers who arrived in Tibet from India and Afghanistan met the locals where they practiced. Shamanic practice is quite physical and cosmologically brutal: demons, gods, body mortification, intoxication, skull, blood and bone work. I am always amazed by how an entire people were converted by these teachers into a realization that the demons and gods they worshipped were figments of mind, of Buddha nature. In this respect, Tibetan Buddhism aligns well with Jungian conceptions of the nature of psyche, something in which I was well-versed before Tibetan Buddhism entered my life. Unlike Zen, Tibetan Buddhist meditation is linked to visualization: of gods, of mandalas. As a very visual poet, this resonated with me as a general practice; so many of my poems begin with image-fascination.

The tantra of Vajrayana, the Diamond or Thunderbolt way, was of immense aid as I experienced the deaths of my parents and sister in 2002-06. Like lightning striking, Vajrayana really wants you to get impermanence: our essential, inescapable condition. The body, in meditation, is subjected to the most violent and shocking rituals: chopping up your body to feed to demons as primary act of compassion; chopping off your own head to create a skull-cup in which you transform the poisons of your mind. Tantric adepts meditated in cemeteries and in charnel grounds, wore aprons of bones, made ritual trumpets out of bones of the thigh. Vajrayana’s violent refusal to fetishize self and its corporality―the violent turn away from sentimentalizing loss―spoke to many of the particular intensities I harbor, made more acute by the family deaths and the overwhelming character of my grief during that time period.

EP: Because Sky Burial alludes to the deaths of your parents and sister—inherently personal subject matter—I wondered after reading it, as I often do when I know or expect a poet is taking personal narratives or circumstances, if you’ve ever had a poem rewrite a memory—or, at least, if you suspect that that’s the case—where the poem acts as a kind of palimpsest on top of the original text of experience.

DL: Poetry is a fictive art. I will change factual detail, if it will aid the poem, when writing through personal event and relationships. While I’ve never confused what actually happened with what I invent as poetic drama, invention aids understanding and integration of actual events.

EP: Have you ever received any critique or feedback that your subject matter wasn’t “feminine” enough? What kind of expectations do you think the average reader has for female poets, if any?

DL: Hmmm, interesting. When Louise Gluck called me in 1999 to congratulate me on the Honickman Prize for In the Surgical Theatre (which she had judged), she said, “So you’re a woman! We couldn’t tell―Dana can be a man’s name―and there were no clues from the work.” She seemed to view this as a virtue. I took it as compliment, but it left me uneasy, prodding questions on which I still meditate: what is “women’s poetry”? What is “feminine”? No one, to my ken, has ever accused my work as not being “feminine” enough, but I do sometimes wonder if I walk through a no-person’s land of ambiguity in terms of readers or critics wanting to categorize my writing: I am not overtly feminist on the page, I don’t have children, I am not married, the domestic, coupled and vaginal life is not of much interest to me, in terms of poetic inspiration. And why should such be “women’s” subject matter, just because we have vaginas? Biological and social determinism still festers under our ideas about women and art (and politics, and economics, and―fill in ten blanks). My gaze is usually soul and psyche-ward, which is an essentially genderless territory.

EP: As a teacher, how much and when do you tell students about a poet’s background or life circumstances when looking at a poem? Do you think that, as a culture, we are too focused or not focused enough on the poet when we read a poem?

DL: I teach undergrads mostly, so biographical and historical context is of supreme importance in terms of getting students interested in poetry and poets. That said, I always remind my students that poetry is fictive, to beware assuming all poems are autobiographical in fact and feeling, or that there’s a deterministic relationship between historical and cultural context and the poem at hand.

In terms of our critical culture, especially when it comes to book reviewing, there’s a tendency to focus on the “about” at the expense of craft. I understand why―to spend a lot of time on poetic craft is to narrow the range of potential readership and understanding of the work under review―but it’s an impoverishment. The best kinds of reviews, to me, educate as well as evaluate.

EP: How do you balance poetry and the business of poetry?

DL: To me, this is a question about self-addiction and practicality. For the former, Buddhism and general self-interrogation comes in handy. For the latter, all public activity has a biz component; to expect poetry to be exempt is to be naïve. I’m pretty pragmatic.

Curtis Bauer*: Do you find yourself returning to any particular subject matter across your writing career? Why do you think that is?

DL: Body and soul, ad nauseum. It’s our essential problem.

EP: Now, Dana, provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

DL: What’s behind the curtain?

Emilia Phillips is the prose editor of 32 Poems.

*As a part of our interview series, we ask each interviewee to provide us with a question for the next interview. To view Curtis Bauer’s interview, go to May 3rd’s Weekly Prose Feature: “The Written Line Perceived as a Drawing: An Interview with Curtis Bauer”

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com.

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