A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.
Kathryn Levy, whose “Wedding” and “Becoming Angels” from her Reports (New Rivers Press, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform her life and/or craft.
Q: 1) Can you briefly describe how you came to these poems; or how they came to you; or how you came to each other?
Kathryn Levy: I begin most of my poems with one or two given phrases and then, in Roethke’s phrase, “learn by going where I have to go.” The first drafts of poems often come quickly, but I tend to revise for a long time, sometimes for years. In the process of revision, I try not to betray the first impulse and the discoveries made through the poem—which is easier said than done!
As for the circumstances leading to these two poems, it’s simpler to describe the evolution of “Wedding” since the composition of that poem surrounded the preparations for my actual wedding. I never thought of myself as someone who would get married and I always had ambivalent feelings about marriage. Yet when the man who became my husband asked me to marry him, I immediately said yes. However, as I was swept up in wedding preparations, I kept wondering: Who am I exactly? What is this about? It caused me to contemplate these unions, and our celebrations of them, more deeply than I had before. The poem answers some of my questions about the ritual of marriage and points the way to others. Like most of the work I care about, it surprised me. In particular, the phrase “this is for life” took on a powerful resonance in the course of writing the poem.
The origin of “Becoming Angels” is less clear, except that the poem deals with subjects which obsess me—death, isolation, those 3 AM moments, the “dark night of the soul,” when, however secure we feel during the day, the illusion of security and certainty is ripped away. For me, the image in the poem that is most vivid is the children in the snow flapping their arms “becoming angels,” an emblem of what might be happening to us throughout our lives. As for self-pity, the use of that derisive term amuses me, and in revising the poem, I was interested in playing with the unacknowledged value of self-pity.
Q: 2) Please comment upon voice and the necessity for that/of that voice in your poems highlighted here.
Kathryn Levy: That often vaguely defined and elusive term “voice” is a critical element in poetry—it’s one of primary things that animates and defines a poem. I think the voice in these poems is a particularly intimate one, even as it speaks of “we,” and in the case of “Becoming Angels,” to a “you.” Perhaps it’s a voice spoken in secret to an imagined other—perhaps all my poems are that. It’s urgent, born of a desperate need to escape isolation and to answer questions about survival, and it is skeptical, even of the answers it tentatively offers.
Q: 3) How do these poems reveal in microcosm what you and your poetry are up to in macrocosm? If they sound or draw out a story, if they sing of vision/visions, yours, what impression/s do you hope they make in that endeavor?
Kathryn Levy: You could see these poems, as people do much of my work, as dark and death obsessed. But to be obsessed with death is to be obsessed with life—to question what we are living for, and how to make sense of the constructs we create to live and keep sane. And then, how to explode those constructs—to ask new questions.
Both of these poems also play with punctuation—there is unconventional punctuation, or none at all, in the majority of the poems in Reports. While finishing my previous book, Losing the Moon, I became interested in the ambiguity of this approach, in particular the unexpected connections it creates—the way it allows a phrase to pull simultaneously in two different directions. And I think, partly thanks to unconventional punctuation, these poems have a propulsive, edgy rhythm, with some bite to the lines.
As for the impression the work might make, I don’t think very much about that. If the poems are alive, searching for something vital, and if the language and the vision of the world are renewed for me in the process of writing, I hope they will be alive for the reader. There are plenty of poems that don’t meet that standard and I keep those in the drawer. The ones I send out to the world involve moments of discovery or at least real questioning.
Q: 4) Recommend two age-old poets/writers and two contemporary poets/writers you feel are vital in your own life and work. Briefly state why.
Kathryn Levy: This is a difficult question, because I read and love so much poetry. In responding to these sorts of questions, I think we tend to refer to poets who are foremost in our minds at the moment—there isn’t an overarching answer. Or if there were one for me, it would be Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare. But aside from Shakespeare, whose plays haunt me, I’ll play the game and pick four poets from my long list.
Dickinson and Frost always stay with me—I rarely go through a day without thinking about or reciting one of their poems to myself. I agree with Wallace Stevens’ notion that that “all poetry is experimental poetry,” but some people engage in more dangerous experiments than others. Certainly Dickinson seems to write from the very edge of being. I often think of the line from one of her letters to T.W. Higginson: “You think my gait ‘spasmodic,’—I am in danger—Sir—.” I love her peculiar “gait,” her deeply charged language, and her profound understanding of the constant experiment of being a human being. She demonstrates how vital it is to “play for mortal stakes.”
That last phrase is from Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Although Frost is on the surface a more conventional poet, he is also playing in very dangerous territory. He explored some of the most complex and disturbing elements of our experience, and through his fluency in poetic form and ability to draw on a wide range of voices, he delved deeply into what can and can’t be said. For me, it’s hard to imagine any poet interested in the human predicament and in the way we use language, “the American idiom,” not drawing strength from these two poets.
Two contemporary poets who have been important to me for many years—Michael Burkard and Robert Pinsky—are seemingly quite dissimilar, and have very different sensibilities, but both have a great lyric gift and a kaleidoscopic vision. However, they both push against the music of their poetry—it is restless, never completely comfortable work. In their different ways they demonstrate how to keep exploring, searching for those rare moments of truth, the moments when intensely alive language embodies the complexity of our being. And I don’t think either of those poets can be easily categorized, which is certainly what I hope for myself.
We sang songs
and danced in circles
sticks in the dust
sticks that formed
strange new patterns
over the patterns
slipping beneath us
like watching your wake
as the boat presses
into the wind the sails
swell the hand grasps
the powerful tiller—this
could lead us to death—
risking so much
we had to dress
in the palest colors
flowers on our heads
flowers on the tables
obscuring the stakes
that hold up the house
the minister placed
hands upon hands: This
is for life
and some days you see that
I have felt it too—the blinding
self-pity in the dark
and longed to hold on
to any treasure longed to clutch
my husband’s arm
to scream to the neighbors
What are you feeling?
let’s make a fire and burn
all the fences
let’s sit in a ring feeling the flames
singe our faces—all
made out of flesh all falling
out of our flesh
becoming angels we did it as children
lying in the snow
flapping our wings as the cold crept
toward our bodies—have you
felt it too? I know you have I know you
have fallen awake the darkness crashing
into your face seeing
all at once—no one can help you
no god no lover
not one of the others lying
incredibly close—and they all
so much—as well they should
someone has to
Kathryn Levy is the author of the poetry collections, Losing the Moon (Canio’s Editions) and Reports (New Rivers Press), as well as The Nutcracker Teacher Resource Guide (New York City Ballet Education Department), a guide to poetry instruction. Her work has appeared in various journals including Slate, Cimarron Review, Provincetown Arts, The Seattle Review, The Southampton Review, Dahse Magazine, Manhattan Poetry Review, Blink, and Lo Straniero, among others, as well as the anthologies The Light of City and Sea, We Begin Here:Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, and Adventures in the Spirit. In the spring of 2013, a musical setting of her poetry, Only Air, was premiered by the Illinois State University Orchestra.
Levy has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received numerous writing fellowships, including awards from Yaddo, the Blue Mountain Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Cummington Community of the Arts. Her many readings include appearances at the Harvard Club of Boston, KGB, Middlebury College, and The Bowery Poetry Club. She was founding director of The Poetry Exchange and the New York City Ballet Poetry Project, two poetry-in-the-schools organizations. She has taught poetry to public school students throughout New York and conducted courses in literature, film, theater, and arts education for numerous schools and cultural institutions. She divides her time between Sag Harbor and New York City (www.kathryn-levy.com).