Conversation with Dana Levin

Raised in California’s Mojave Desert, Dana Levin is the author of Sky Burial (2011), Wedding Day (2005) and In the Surgical Theatre (1999), which won nearly every award available to first books and emerging poets. The Los Angeles Times says of her work, “Dana Levin’s poems are extravagant…her mind keeps making unexpected connections and the poems push beyond convention…they surprise us.” Levin has received many fellowships and awards, including those from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting and Guggenheim Foundations. A teacher of poetry for twenty years, Levin joins the faculty at Santa Fe University of Art and Design this Fall.

KY: Your poems seem to be evocations—written spells even. Maybe all poetry attempts this in certain abstract ways, but your work seems to function more explicitly as incantation…Do you see your work as spiritual or religious?

DL: I do not consider myself a devotional poet per se, a God-praiser, which is often how we think of spiritual/religious writers; my inclinations are more mystic, engaged by the hidden, how we seem to be cupped in the hands of something greater, over which we have no control and little firm knowledge and which may, in fact, be a gigantic mental fiction which nevertheless provides great solace and psychic organization for a great many people, myself included. God(s), dream, self, fate, soul, time, embodiment in the world―these seem to be my uneradicable concerns, percolating beneath everything I write.

KY: I’m also interested in the ways your poems seem to re-imagine the spirit versus flesh duality. The body seems to act as a spiritual vessel. How do you see the bodily functioning in your work?

DL: A vessel for spirit, yes! But one I often feel I can’t get the hang of: how to move in it, tend it, feed it, protect it: my poor animal! that is me! (but isn’t)

I really enjoy the sensations embodiment offers: pretty colors, tastes, warm skin! Then again, there’s pain, sickness, blood, breakage, leaks, malfunctions―who came up with this plan? It’s so contradictory, inconvenient! What is the purpose of embodiment? is for me a vivid conundrum, shows up in a lot of what I write, directly or indirectly.

For someone who feels so strange inside the body a lot of the time, perhaps my poems compensate: I always want to be located in whatever I’m reading; and thus I extend that concern to whoever might be reading my work: this often translates into an emphasis on image and narration, however fractured and complicated, a suspicion of ungrounded surrealism (though the grounded surrealism of someone like Serb poet Vasko Popa, or the hallucinatory vividness of Plath, I love love love) and cerebrality. I like to create scenes, tableaus, to place people and self in them. Maybe through writing I finally get embodied!

KY: You mentioned in an interview that you prefer to think of poems as containing “form and feeling” rather than form and content—that poetry grows out of a reaction or relationship to something else. I wonder if you might comment a little further on that idea.

DL: The familiar form/content cross seems such a clinical way to try to articulate the relationship between what one writes about and the way that writing happens on the page. We only write about because the about has moved us. Content is the object of this movement, but the movement itself is the subject of the poem: it is its because. A poem occurs at the intersection of a perceptual and/or psycho-emotional experience―the feeling―and the arising linguistic response―the form.

KY: This is such an apt description of the writing process (though I suspect it might be criticized by some contemporary poets). Many well-crafted poems lack such feeling—and it seems somehow taboo to address this concern. In a poetry workshop, for instance, the tendency is to focus primarily on craft or form, instead of raising the issue of how the poet’s depth of character or experience shows up in the poem. Does considering feeling as a key component of a poem imply that the individual must have a certain capacity for insight and truthfulness? Is this the work of the individual person? The poetry workshop? Does the art lead us there?

DL: Hmmm, a tricky question, the answer to which will belie any given poet’s aesthetic and philosophical inclinations. For instance, I was recently at a reading where a poet said his work is a product of the imagination: by which he meant, not autobiographical or personally-oriented. Another poet I know gets irritated by the idea that “products of the imagination” are seen as somehow less real, less authentic, than autobiographical or obviously-personal poetry. In this, I’d have to agree with him: how is dream, fantasy, invention any less real than confession, memoir, declaration? Are they not all, ultimately, product of Art and Mind?

At the same time: our current poetic scenes, as evidenced by publication and prize-giving, seem allergic to strong feeling, strong I’s speaking plainly from overtly personal experience. Ultimately I think this is the result of style ins and outs. We fear falling into the excesses of late 80’s Confessionalism: melodrama, histrionics, content at the expense of art, the art’s “validity” based on how violated the speaker of any given poem is. This late 80’s Confessionalism is not the Confessionalism of Plath or Berryman, who employed high amounts of artifice and did not usually confuse themselves with the mythologized speakers of their poems. This kind of Confessionalism remains vibrant art, at least for me. We’re in a “cool” period for poetry, suspicious of any “hot” feelings beyond the heat of absurdist fun provided by poets like Dean Young or John Ashbery. This is a shame. I’ve been thinking of writing an essay in praise of melodrama, emotional heat.

The questions and concerns you pose have mattered to me with varying degrees of urgency over the years. My second book, Wedding Day, is almost completely obsessed with such questions. I wrote an essay on the oppressive effect of “make it new” on younger poets during that time period ( The new book, Sky Burial, is not much interested in these questions: the vivid encounter with Death via the loss of my parents and sister made such concerns seem ultimately superfluous, which perhaps is my own ultimate aesthetic declaration.

KY: Death seems to have that effect: one either surrenders to a sense of overwhelming chaos or finds some provisional meaningfulness. Merwin’s idea is that poetry comes out of the vowel of grief and gives language so the grieving one can come back to the world. In Sky Burial I sense a similar impetus–a searching for a way to live after being touched by the chaos of death. When you say death has made the concerns we’ve been discussing seem superfluous and that’s your ultimate aesthetic declaration–are you pointing to this sort of fundamental need to write in order to crawl out of the chaos of grief? Do you mind talking a little more about what that means to you?

DL: Ooh, love that Merwin quote: “the vowel of grief,” language helping the grieving to come back to the world. But you know, I think poetry can do this for all readers, grieving or not, wounded or not: refresh the world, bring us back to it, again and again. I get irritated with the ins/outs of poetic fashion when they start to impinge on content and feelings: this subject matter is old hat; that feeling state is old news. Such “what’s hip” thinking can be very silencing, because who doesn’t want their art to be met with approval, enthusiasm? And yet art has a medicinal force, I do believe; and it is very hard to take the poem cure, for both writer and reader, when you sense you might be judged for admitting you’re sick. Now, there are all sorts of different cures: sometimes entering the associational circus of a Dean Young poem is just the ticket for what ails you; other times it’s the searing, bald intensity of Gluck; or the documentary collage of CD Wright; or the melodrama of Plath; or the cool filigreed thinking of Stevens. The medicine cabinet is deep and diverse. I just want all medicines available; I don’t want to be told that some are off-limits because of the dictates of fashion.

Ultimately, for me, writing poems is directly related to figuring out how to live life, endure it. The confrontation with death, as I experienced it via the deaths of my father, mother and sister over four years, really drove that home with renewed vigor. And figuring out how to live life, endure it, means there has to be a confrontation with the heart and the spirit, as well as the mind and the world around us. To engage the heart and soul, to transform their landscapes into resonant and shapely art, demands courage and perseverance. And openness to invention, because we are ultimately moving beyond therapizing; we are making art, after all.