“to create something when no one is looking” – a Q & A with Phillis Levin

In advance of her ‘In Town Tonight’ reading on Friday 22nd March at The Poetry Café with Mark Ford, Ben Rogers at The Poetry Society spoke to the American poet Phillis Levin

Poet Kimiko Khan described The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English as “one of my desert-island books!” What might one of your desert-island books be?

An etymological dictionary is what I always need close by, and often bring along when traveling. But on a desert island, Shakespeare (the plays!) would be my oasis.

You have been writing from an early age, and writing seriously since the age of twelve. Can you tell us about the first poem that you remember writing?

I started composing poems aloud before writing them down, and to this day it is more likely for phrases and rhythms without words to occur before a pen or pencil is in hand. I recall asking my mother to transcribe some lines about a spider and its web: this must have been when I was in kindergarten or first grade, learning to print letters but not yet write longhand. The speed of thought, of words suddenly coming to mind, made me ask for help (and I was not a child who asked for things). I didn’t want to lose the lines; and even if I didn’t forget them, it seemed important for them to be written down.

The first poem I remember writing on paper concerned the season of autumn, trees in autumn, the behaviour of wind and light in the leaves. I was nine years old, in the fourth grade of elementary school. I can still feel the rhythm of the opening lines, a succession of nominative phrases creating a stanza that didn’t predicate and therefore seemed to float. Naturally I didn’t have the terminology to name what I was doing or understand why deploying a series of fragments following an anaphoric construction (“The fall” began each line of the first stanza) would lead to a certain effect; but I had an instinctive sense of how pattern and meaning are inseparable, and already delighted in discovering the power of words, experimenting with sound-shapes and syntax. I don’t recall the rest of that poem, except that an “I” began to speak in the second stanza, and that there was a thrill in changing tone and perspective. The first stanza was lofty; then the voice shifted, became idiomatic. The poem received an honourable mention in a competition for students in the fourth through eighth grade in Paterson, New Jersey; the judge was Louis Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg’s father. Five years later, I wrote to Louis Ginsberg, sending some poems and asking for criticism of my work and advice about publishing; he wrote back, to my surprise, using a typewriter whose keystrokes were marvellously uneven. I recall he said something about adjectives, how too many of them “heckle the text”; and he suggested a few magazines to which I might send my work. I won’t go into the drama this letter caused when my parents read it; they were appalled that I had the nerve to write to a poet whose son was so notorious (for reasons they did not mention), and didn’t understand why I didn’t understand their point of view. They didn’t know I had already met Allen by chance, when he attended the birthday party of a classmate of mine (all of us, except him, were twelve or thirteen years old); his presence made a strong impression, but I hadn’t read any of his poems yet and didn’t know anything about his reputation, literary or personal or political. Oddly, that “first poem” of mine set in motion a process that led to a crisis; for I learned that the impulse to write and the fulfilment of that desire was related in a complex way to the need for privacy and the desire to create something that reaches the public. My parents’ reaction, their pleasure at my talent, fear of my ambition, and out-of-proportion dread over how my work would be received (and perceived), revealed the gap that can exist between one’s artistic intention and the reception one’s work will meet, depending on the moment.

Regarding the memory of a first poem, I should add this: my original notion of the making of a poem emerged as I drew a maze-like structure on graph paper. What I thought of as my first poem—before I could read or write—was this imaginary form. My father, a mechanical and electronics engineer, spent much of his free time drafting designs for new inventions; he also enjoyed reciting poems to me. A felicitous confusion arose, leading me to conflate inventions with poems, to believe that playing with lines made it possible to create something tangible.

Your collection Mr. Memory & Other Poems takes its title from a character who is a mentalist memory expert in the Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps. How important to you is creating a sense of suspense in the delivery of a poem, and do you have a favourite Hitchcock film?

The 39 Steps is one of my favourite Hitchcock films, along with Vertigo, which seems a greater work of art. That’s where I encountered Mr. Memory, a figure both tragic and comic; perhaps memory itself is tragic and comic. The book’s title poem took a long time to complete: I always have trouble telling a story in a poem, wanting every syllable to matter on every level, disallowing any phrase that merely fills in or advances the narrative. Years after writing it, I read John Buchan’s wonderfully disturbing novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, whose suspense is generated in a different fashion. Hitchcock didn’t create Mr. Memory out of nowhere: the character is based on someone he saw in performance; but Hitchcock introduced Mr. Memory into the plot and gave him a key role. I have watched that film several times: what drew me in initially was the title’s mystery, the illusion of clarity that any specific number provides, and the ultimate disjunction between the various meanings we attribute to this number, surmising one possibility after another as the film progresses, and the actual significance of the number. What haunts me most in the film is the car-chase, a scene in which a flock of sheep blocks the road, making escape possible for the characters who are innocent. There’s something terrifying about Mr. Memory’s inability to do anything but respond to whatever questions are posed to him, the terrible innocence of his talent, his delight in recalling information that may be harmless and may prove lethal. His neutrality in relation to information and the raucous atmosphere of the music hall where he performs his acts of memory intensify the film’s suspense, bringing the struggle between good and evil to the foreground. I do not consciously aim to create suspense when writing a poem, at least not in terms of a plot; then again, tangentially I do, if suspense inheres in the acoustical, syntactical, and semantic tensions (suspensions) between expectation and surprise a poem generates line by line and between lines, and word by word and between words (especially through rhyme and off-rhythm). Your question and reference to “delivery” make me see how much I value drama in a poem’s unfolding: for I consider rhythm to be a nonverbal (pre-linguistic) narrative force, by means of which we intuit/feel meaning viscerally. As a writer, I am much less comfortable with a narrative mode than with lyric; but in longer poems, inevitably I must face, and try to resolve, the problem of creating momentum. Lyric sequences I find especially compelling, since they allow and elicit jump cuts, sudden moves. 

You have translated the work of Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun. What influence has Šalamun had on your own work?

We recognised each other as kindred spirits when we met. He greeted me as we passed each other walking on a snow-covered path at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, in January 1987. He had read some of my poems in magazines (without telling me, he started translating a few into Slovene). I didn’t know a word of his language, hadn’t read him in translation or, until that moment, ever heard his name. We spoke briefly, standing in the freezing cold; that exchange began a lasting friendship that changed my life. He showed me manuscript pages of some of his poems translated into English; even in translation, these strange, confident, sometimes outrageous, sometimes tender chock-full-of life utterances spoke to me. Ecco Press published his Selected Poems the following year, and that led to his name becoming more known in the USA. The person is not the work, but in this case the influence of this poet’s being is difficult to separate from the influence of his work, which was a distillation of his being, his attitude to the world, his assimilation of multiple realms of thought and action, multiple histories and geographies. The breathing in of these realms through reading him on the page, and later on through the experience of hearing him read his poems in the original, affirmed something I cannot name, unless I call it the primacy of the poem, the unapologetic conviction in poetry’s centrality to culture, a conviction ingrained in his own culture, taken for granted in his upbringing. For reasons I cannot explain, I was possessed of this same conviction from early childhood, and maintained that belief through adolescence, having no idea that the poet’s place in culture had been displaced and that the world I would soon enter did not share this assumption. My introversion and relative social isolation until my third year of college may account in part for my prolonged ability to maintain this belief, which allowed me to write without a doubt that poetry matters. My habit of reading whatever books I found on the bookshelves at home, or when exploring the library, further confirmed this sense of poetry’s (and the poet’s) significance: Auden and Shakespeare, Frost and Dickinson and Keats, and many Latin American poets in translation; I was reading fiction, as well, but poetry made a claim, cast its spell. If Tomaž’s Šalamun’s poems were unlike anything I’d ever heard or read, they rang true, and this truth sounded familiar because it transmitted a vatic sensibility—authentic, uncannily recognisable.

Starting in 1995, Tomaž and I began working on collaborative translations of his poems; he would read them aloud so that I could hear and try to emulate or simulate the rhythms and phrase structures as much as possible (close to impossible, in most cases); and he would explain metaphors and similes based in cultural references that would not translate well into English, thus I had to find analogues for those figures or arrive at words that conveyed his intention, what he meant by a particular allusion. The struggle to figure out how to approach a phrase, line, or word did what the act of translation tends to accomplish—made me put more pressure on my own language, brought me closer to what English can and cannot do, sharpened my awareness of my native tongue. His poems invited me to expand my range of reference, to combine elements that rarely coexist in the space of a single poem, and to make declarations and petitions and prayers. This influence was not self-conscious or conscious, even; it was osmotic, with collaborative translation playing a role since I had to give myself over to and be inhabited by the poem to bring it into idiomatic English.

But to address his influence truly I must mention how his hearing what I was doing, what my words were doing in relation to each other, his sensing what I wanted to accomplish artistically, his ability to articulate his insights, affected my development. When he told me, back in 1987, that I wasn’t an American poet, he said this without irony, and explained that I was writing in a tradition that my culture could not appreciate; at the time, I had published in numerous journals but my first book (at that point, a third manuscript) had not yet been accepted; that would happen a year later. A lot has changed since then: one of the many things for the better in American poetry is a wide-open approach to how a poem can behave, and how it’s not necessary to build a wall between poets who compose free verse and poets who compose in measure, no need to turn rhyme into a taboo or divide poets into aesthetic camps. When he told me that my poems are constructed “like Borromini” I didn’t know much about Borromini’s architecture yet, but gleaned that Tomaž was referring to a way of building structures within structures (sounds within sounds, by analogy), that he grasped when reading my work an affinity for spaces both baroque and classical, a desire to combine radically different styles. Living in Rome in the year 2000, I encountered his words anew. Through him I also came to understand why one would want to kiss the land beneath one’s feet; for that was my impulse when I returned to Slovenia in 1995 to live there for four months after having spent only one intense week there a few years before.

“Every true poet is a monster” is the opening line of his poem called ‘Folk Song’ (translated by Charles Simic): that line, that entire short poem, told a forbidden truth, that admission released me from a curse. That poem—and ‘Eclipse II’—go to the heart of the unsayable. It may seem odd that a quiet, shy child who would do no harm, who spent most of her waking hours readings books and writing in notebooks, could be called a monster; but that was the word applied when I said what I freely thought. In retrospect, there was a reason for its use. The overwhelming power a child feels may be a response to powerlessness; those who wield power may be terrified of the one they love, a soul that will not yield its power, even if being exiled is the consequence. In Šalamun’s ‘Folk Song’, the body’s separation from the soul is the final act of the poet, a separation accomplished in the act of writing.

You have exchanged poems for several decades with poet Molly Peacock, who says that when collaborating you would “meet in a room in the Mansion of the Mutual Muse”. Can you tell us a bit about how this process has worked? 

I wouldn’t say that we collaborate: we work independently and produce work independently, showing each other what we have written only after completing a draft, often a draft close to a final version. But the relationship Molly Peacock and I have developed allows us to trust each other to read drafts at various stages, including those we might have thought too raw to show anyone else. At first I didn’t realise how rare this dynamic is, especially since our rapport is so productive. We are extremely different from each other as poets, in terms of sensibility, voice, and style; and we are extremely different human beings in terms of personality and history. But that difference, in conjunction with the immense respect and affection we have for each other, is part of why the process works so well. In our role as teachers and mentors, Molly and I both give a lot of ourselves to foster the talent of other poets: that commitment requires the negative capability we apply to each other’s work. We enjoy the otherness of each other’s poems; and finding ourselves immersed in the familiar yet unfamiliar language and world of each other’s work, we have become adept at intuiting what each other’s poems want to do, where they seem to want to go. How does this rapport work? For several decades, we have faxed drafts of new poems to each other, read these poems closely, written comments on them, faxed the pages back, and arranged for phone conversations in which we discuss individual lines, words, punctuation, as well as a poem’s overall effect; we make suggestions, give candid criticism. But nothing I say here is unusual, these are typical elements of a critique; I cannot explain the magic of this literary friendship.

In addition to speaking on the phone after faxing or emailing poems to each other, we meet in person periodically to discuss new work we’ve shared with each other. Molly lives in Toronto and I live in New York City, so these extensive conversations occur when I’m visiting Toronto or when Molly is staying in NYC. And essential to both of our lives is a ritual we developed eight years ago: for ten days in July every year we each rent a room in an inn located on a beautiful lake in northern New York State. We spend most of the day writing and reading on our own, but meet early in the morning for a walk through the woods to a breakfast place in town (noticing the dragonflies and birdcalls and wildflowers on the path along the canal), then walk back to the inn, following one path or another, and part company. We meet again in the evening to have dinner together—outside, at the inn’s restaurant, which faces a beautiful lake. Over dinner we begin showing each other drafts of what we finished that day and revisions we have made to poems we shared the previous evening; and after dinner we spend at least one hour critiquing that work. A delicious meal, the setting sun, and time gazing at the lake’s transformation are part of this ritual. 

In your note to the poem ‘Kettle’, as well as saying you are a keen tea and coffee drinker, you admit to being a night owl. What is your preferred time and place for writing poetry? 

Preferred time is any time, though liminal moments seem to provoke new poems: waking from a dream, twilight turning into dusk. As for a preferred place: on a speeding train or in a cabin in the woods comes to mind this instant. Once I draft a poem, I tend to wake early and enter its spell, working without awareness of time passing; at that point, it doesn’t matter where I am, though the Place is my apartment often, or a library or bus. No need for a special location: I used to write at a desk; these days, I write just as often when sitting on a sofa or chair; and since I still work from memory, it’s when I am out walking that many of my poems are composed and revised. It’s true that I’m a night owl by nature, though my inner clock adjusts when I spend time away from a city; then I tend to wake at sunrise and work on poems before breakfast. One summer long ago, I wrote every day for several weeks without paying attention to the hours most people observe. That’s when I realised that 9 to 5 works well for my biorhythms: but it was 9pm to 5am (went to sleep when the birds started chirping) instead of 9am to 5pm that suited me, so I was off by twelve hours. These days, however, since I am married now to a man who wakes no later than 5:30am, I have learned to adjust, but not entirely. I still experience a surge of renewal as sunset begins, with energy intensifying between 9pm and midnight. There’s something about writing late at night that gives me a sense of imaginative freedom; maybe this originated in childhood, in the desire to keep things secret, to create something when no one is looking.