Weekly Prose Feature: An Interview with Michele Poulos, Writer–Director of My Story in a Late Style of Fire, a feature-length documentary film exploring the work and life of poet Larry Levis

August 30, 2013

Michele PoulosMichele Poulos’s A Disturbance in the Air won the 2012 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. Her poems and fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2012, The Southern Review, Smartish Pace, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Crab Orchard Review, The Hollins Critic, Copper Nickel, MiPOesias, Sycamore Review, Waccamaw, and other journals. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Blackbird and Stone Canoe.

Emilia Phillips: First of all, for our readers who aren’t familiar with Levis, would you mind introducing his life and work? Why is it important to have a documentary about Levis?

Michele Poulos: Larry Levis has become one of America’s essential poets, and his work has continued to grow in popularity and influence among a broad range of poets and readers, including young writers. Levis was born in Fresno, California on September 30, 1946, and he grew up on the family “ranch” in the Central Valley where his home was surrounded by the vineyards and orchards where his father grew grapes, nectarines, and other fruit and nut crops. As a young boy, Levis drove tractors, pruned vines, and picked fruit. He also befriended the migrant workers he worked alongside and later memorialized them in vivid portraits and vignettes in his writing. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Fresno State College (where he began his lifelong friendship with his most important mentor, Philip Levine), his master’s from Syracuse, and his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. Among his awards, Levis won three fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Levis was married three times. He co-authored a book of prose poems with his second wife, poet Marcia Southwick, called The Leopard’s Mouth Is Dry and Cold Inside. They also had a son, Nick, who now lives in California. When Levis died at age forty-nine, he left behind five books of poems, a collection of stories, and essays. His works include: Wrecking Crew (1972), The Afterlife (1977), The Dollmaker’s Ghost (1981), Winter Stars (1985), The Widening Spell of the Leaves (1991), Black Freckles (1992), Elegy (published posthumously in 1997), The Selected Levis (published posthumously in 2000), and The Gazer Within (published posthumously in 2000).

It’s important to have a documentary about Levis because, to quote Philip Levine, by the time he died “he had become the finest poet of his generation.” His poems not only are morally and politically engaging, mining his own autobiography to record experiences and events that reveal the conditions and tensions of the lives of those working the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley as well as the land owners who oversaw that work, but also are historically and personally wide-ranging, exploring the counter-culture of the 1960s and the dissolution of his own relationships and marriages, while other poems take flight both intellectually and imaginatively to include a spectrum of subjects in highly inventive ways. David St. John has said that, “with his death came the sense that an American original had been lost.” Many others would strongly agree, including myself.

EP: What’s your main aim in the documentary? Is the documentary a narration of his life? Or does it focus more on his influence?

MP: We are still in production on the documentary, and as is the case with many documentary films, the story will ultimately achieve its final shape in the editing room, though its broad outlines are already beginning to emerge, following paths and including subjects familiar to readers of his poems. Right now, however, we are still in the exploratory phase, talking to as many people as possible, gathering as many various perspectives as possible by interviewing his family members, friends, lovers, former wives and students, poets who are fans of his work and so on. My hope is that, through these multiple perspectives, we are able to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the man behind the poetry as well as the poetry itself.

EP: Tell us a little bit about how you started to work on the film. What were your first steps?

MP: It actually began with a dream. A few years ago I was awakened by a loud, deep voice in my head that said, “You will make a film about Larry Levis.” Of course, I spent several months trying to ignore that command or prophecy, whatever it was, as I hadn’t made a movie since the 1990s, but ultimately, I don’t ignore dreams. If I had a dream instructing me to climb Mount Everest backwards I’d probably do it. I knew it was something I’d have to take on, even though making a movie is like climbing Mount Everest backwards.

Because I have my BFA degree in filmmaking from New York University, perhaps I may have been a little too confident going into this project because of my previous training. However, I first began my experience with filmmaking in what has already become another technological era—for example, I learned how to edit with actual film one could physically touch on a Steenbeck film-editing machine. I have since seen a Steenbeck in a museum somewhere—they’re that old. I discovered I had a lot of catching up to do.

Once I got over the shock of how little I knew about contemporary digital technology, I sought out the help of a cinematographer and hired Kevin Gallagher. And by “hired” I mean he basically worked for meals and accommodations but very little pay. Kevin’s a good man, and he has an incredible gift for making images look almost painterly, working with light in a way I’ve rarely seen before, except maybe in films like Days of Heaven and Fitzcarraldo. Finding a good cinematographer was one of the critical first steps.

EP: Who have you interviewed for the documentary? Can you tell us a little bit about some of the interviews, their backstory and circumstances?

MP: There were people that absolutely needed to be interviewed for the film, such as all three of his siblings. I have interviewed two so far, his brother Bucky and sister Lynn, and I hope to interview his older sister, Sheila, this coming summer. Also, I interviewed many well-known poets, including Philip Levine, who was essential, of course. My crew and I spent three days with him at his home in Fresno, and his interview, I imagine, will become the backbone of the film. Levine was charming, brilliant, and devastatingly honest. He spoke about the first time they met, their life-long friendship as brothers in poetry, and the later period leading up to Levis’s death. Other highlights include revealing and insightful conversations with David St. John, Norman Dubie, Kathleen Graber, David Wojahn, and many others, covering not only Levis but also the status and nature of contemporary American poetry itself. We spent two days with Levis’s first wife, Barbara, who told a very disturbing story about an event that occurred toward the end of their marriage. She also drove us by one of their first apartments and we discovered that it is now inhabited by a colony of feral cats! Additionally, his son Nick pulled an all-nighter driving down to meet up with us at his aunt’s house. He was simultaneously enthusiastic about the film while also expressing his view that there may be some ways in which his father might not have exactly approved of a film about his life.

EP: Did you contact the interviewees or did they get in touch with you?

MP: Mostly, I contacted the interviewees. Long-time friends of Levis like Mary Flinn and Gregory Donovan helped in crucial ways as well, helping me to make contacts.

EP: Where are you now in production? What’s coming up for you?

MP: This summer I hope to film the poets Carolyn Forche, Gerald Stern, Dave Smith, Carol Muske, Stanley Plumly, Ellen Bryan Voigt, and Colleen McElroy. I also am hoping to film his sister Sheila, as I mentioned. Ideally, once the filming is complete, I will begin editing this fall and then begin the long process of submitting the finished film to various festivals.

EP: During National Poetry Month here on the 32 Poems blog, Joshua Robbins urged readers to check out the Levis Reading Loop features on Blackbird—the journal in joint partnership between New Virginia Review, Inc. and Virginia Commonwealth University, where Levis taught at the time of his death in 1996—with the codicil, “Let’s get back to the man and his work. The legend can take care of itself.” In handling a legacy like that of Levis, one that’s arguably risen to cult status and peppered with rumors of infamies, I imagine that there may be a great deal of intrusion from fans, friends, exes, and family to preserve their individual and, perhaps, differing versions of Levis. How do you strike a balance between these points of view?

MP: As I never had the opportunity to meet Levis in person, this journey has been one full of surprises and discoveries, some of them sad and disappointing, while others have been for the most part joyful and full of wonder and grace. Levis was a complex human being, as one might expect in an intellectually brilliant and aesthetically sophisticated writer. It has been my goal from the start to present as rounded and full a portrait of him as possible. Some of the people I have interviewed for the film have acted as caretakers or protective custodians of his memory, and I can understand why: they feel a certain affectionate loyalty to him, even now, almost twenty years after his death, and that loyalty motivates them to avoid revealing anything that might appear damaging or hurtful or that might taint his legacy in any way. Others, like Philip Levine, have come to a point where they can take the long view and have come to more balanced and thoughtful realizations about Levis, including both his flaws and his lasting achievements, so that they can be more forthright and are more willing to take a good hard look at his life. My aim has always been to get at something real through a breadth of perspective, to have an authentic conversation or discourse with someone about a remarkable man they knew or loved or admired or with whom they may have struggled at times.

EP: In my final year in the MFA program at VCU, I got to assist David St. John on A Darkening Trapeze: the Uncollected Larry Levis (which is, as yet, unpublished) as a go-between for the Levis archives at the Cabell Libraries Special Collections and as a transcriber. Spending time in the archives, with Levis’s handwritten and typed manuscripts, his edits and revisions, I began to feel as if I’d been allowed to spy on him. It confused my sense of Levis as a literary figure and returned him to a much more human realm. Likewise, being in Richmond, I’m often around a great number of his friends, as you have been. His absence, in a way, is felt as a presence. Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like for you to be the director of this film without having met Levis? It strikes me that your one-step remove from Levis’s life actually allows you objectivity that his friends might not have—is that true?

MP: I would say that’s true, mostly. Having some objectivity allows me the freedom to ask the hard questions, such as: Why did he die so young? Was his muse the sole love of his life—and was that muse his destroyer? Is there a link between art and addiction, both of them, as Tony Hoagland suggests, “pursuits, of a sort.” I imagine the film will also widen to include discussions about topics such as the complex roles of elegies and the need for poetry, if any. And yet, I’m also reminded of a quotation by Stanley Kubrick who once stated in an interview that, “While you’re making a film, and you get deeper and deeper into it, you find that in a certain sense you know less and less about it.” I relate to that insight  quite a bit, and as I knew very little about Levis to begin with, I have found myself at times adrift among all these varied and colorful stories and perspectives. Some days I find this to be a real advantage, giving me permission to be innocent and wide-eyed in my approach, while other days I find the open-endedness and unknowingness, as in the writing process itself, terrifying and paralyzing.

EP: Has your work on this documentary influenced your own writing? If so, how so?

MP: I’ve found that while working on this film, I’ve been reminded of an interview with Werner Herzog I read a while ago in The New Yorker. In it, he states that, “you will never see people talking on the phone, driving in a car, or exchanging ironic jokes in my films. It is always bigger, deeper.” He goes on to suggest that his films expose “the ecstatic truth” of mankind, and while truth is a word that I’m uncomfortable using (what can I say, my father is a lawyer), I do relate to the idea that there is a driving impulse behind a body of work. What I’ve been surprised to discover in making this film while simultaneously studying in the MFA program for creative writing at Arizona State University is how similar the process is for both writing poetry and filmmaking. For example, during the filming I’ve often found myself thinking about the occurrence of fire in the film—in the film’s title, in Levis’s work, or when we passed a car outside of Los Angeles burning on the side of the highway, or when we visited the small town (Shaver Lake) where Levis vacationed as a child, and the place was swarming with rangers and firemen after a forest fire. One day it occurred to me to ask one of the characters in the film, a former schoolteacher who now worked in a nursery, about his witnessing a fire as a child, and his description of that experience seemed a perfect metaphor for Levis’s life. Unfortunately, I lost that footage, but the experience of following that impulse is what matters. All that’s to say that there is, for me, continuity in artistic endeavors, and they do influence and inform each other in mysterious and surprising ways.

EP: How have you funded the project?

MP: When I began the film four years ago, I was funding it entirely myself. I started with $5,000. After I had used up that money, I created a Kickstarter campaign to see if I could raise some funds. The show of support on Kickstarter was amazing—I gave the funding period 30 days, and in that time we raised over $12,000. People gave what they could—anything from $5 to $1,000. Through that campaign, I met so many different sorts of people: former students, friends, colleagues, you name it. It was a very exciting time, and it was thrilling to see a community of people interested in Levis, and interested in poetry, come together to support the film.

Finally, I must thank the Libraries at Virginia Commonwealth University and in particular University Librarian John Ulmschneider. He and his staff have been very generous and supportive of our efforts to collect raw footage and materials. Most if not all of the footage and materials will eventually be housed in the Levis Collection at the VCU Libraries along with the Larry Levis papers that they acquired a few years ago.

EP: Is there any good advice you received that you can share with us?

MP: I think some of the best advice I received comes from my good friend and mentor, Norman Dubie. Even though he was speaking about poems, I think the advice applies to all sorts of creative endeavors. He said, “Whatever you do, don’t make it boring.”

EP: How and when do you plan on releasing the documentary?

MP: My hope is that by the end of 2014 or early in 2015 I will have it completed. At that point, I would love to see it make its world premier at a festival like Sundance or the Toronto International Film Festival—why not dream big?

EP: Do you plan on doing any more documentaries about poets in the future?

MP: Not at this time, but I suppose anything is possible. I do enjoy the process of making movies, and I have a few screenplay ideas I’ve been tossing around. In addition, I won the 2010 Virginia Screenwriting Competition with a screenplay titled “Mule Bone Blues” about the collaboration and friendship between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. It would be thrilling to finally see that screenplay come to life on the screen.

EP: If Levis could see the documentary, what do you think he’d say? Does it matter?

MP: I can hope that he would see another artist hard at work in the effort at making something as exciting, unpredictable, engaging, and vivid as his own poems were. On the other hand, his son Nick told me only half-jokingly that his father would be appalled at the idea, though I’m not entirely convinced about that. I think Levis might find the idea somewhat amusing, and rather odd, but I think he’d secretly enjoy it. Perhaps that’s how any of us might feel about having our life story filmed and projected. At any rate, Levis was apparently quite good at making fun of himself, and my film would be another opportunity for him to have a good laugh at his own expense, I suspect.

Emilia Phillips is the prose editor of 32 Poems.

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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