Jun 2, 2014

DANA LEVIN--Response to Margento WRITING PROCESS Questions

Thanks to poet GC Waldrep for inviting me to participate in the writing process blog tour.  You can read his own response here.

1.  What am I working on?

I’m finishing up my fourth collection of poetry and hope to submit it my editor this summer. I feel mischievous about it: it has never-before-seen-in-Dana-Levin-poems qualities like humor! Poems about my cat! Fruit as a recurring trope! There’s even a Cento about cyborgs crafted almost entirely from snippets from articles in the New York Times and Huffington Post. I’m calling the book Banana Palace. It’s pre-apocalyptic Barnum.

I’m also about to gear up on some essay assignments: one on Jim Morrison (lead singer for that ur-Late Sixties band, The Doors), one on dreams, one that examines the idea of the Via Negativa in post-modern poetries. I think my next big project will be a book of essays on poetry.

2.  How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Oh my. What *is* its genre? My work’s been called confessional, my work’s been called experimental (that one always flummoxes me, in terms of what we tend to deem “experimental poetry”) (is it all the white space??)

Regarding Confessionalism: we seem to have a very reductive idea of it these days, like how my students throw the term around any time they encounter work that feels emotive, disclosive, autobiographical. A couple of years ago I wrote a brief intro gloss to Anne Carson’s great Confessional poem The Glass Essay, a poem (I’m going to quote myself; sue me) “where Confessionalism’s essential gift―self-analysis―was given free rein to get beyond personality (Lady Lazarus! Henry!) and closer to what might be called a sense of soul.” That transformation from self-centeredness to soul-centeredness is how I’d like to think the Confessional has transformed in me.

In terms of being an “experimental” poet: well, aren’t we all?

3.  Why do I write the way I do?

Terms like “confessional” and “experimental” feel reductive to me; they create an easy, but false, polarity. I don’t want to claim allegiance to any one mode – I don’t view modes as beliefs; I view modes as tools. I want to have access to all the tools in the toolbox. In my last book, Sky Burial, and in this new manuscript, the poems seem to want to change up forms all the time: Banana Palace offers prose poems, long sectioned verse meditations, two-line poems that (I hope) move with surprise like Haiku. I have a long poem in fourteen short prose blocks and a long poem in really short, blippy verse sections, with a narrative through-line like a (very odd) Book of Hours. I like to play around, and I’ve become, apparently, increasingly, formally restless.

Perhaps formal restlessness is a solution to the potential monotony of the “project” book, another term I resist (for myself) and find reductive (see next question for more on that). One aspect of my work that never changes is the engagement with a lot of white space and em-dashes as dynamic actors. White space offers a lot of dramatic potential (what makes us pause, what silences us, in relation to all this poetry speaking?) as well as relief on the reading eye and listening ear. Inclusion of pause and silence feels crucial to me. Paradoxically, I often use the em-dash as a line-ending gesture that propels the reader into that white space (like pushing you off a cliff) I suppose that em-dash propulsion into silence and gap makes white space in my poems a thrumming place---a way-station, rather than destination, even when a poem ends on such a gesture. My poems don’t offer a lot of rest.

4.  How does your writing process work?

Something sparks my interest—in the world, in the self, in the soul―and percolates in mind, barely conscious, for a very long time. Then I might write some notes towards it, and then not pursue it in verse for a very long time. I avoid versification for as long as I can (it’s so hard! It takes so much focus! Ugh!) But such resistance brings the poem-to-be to a boil, and then I can’t avoid making art. That moment comes like….an em-dash at the end of a line, throwing me into the generative/frightening white space―
After a while―five, ten, poems in to new writing―I may note that the poems seem to be circling pretty tightly around a constellation of ideas/images. I say “constellation” rather than “project” because I don’t go into writing new poems with an over-arching project idea/impulse; I just start to notice how the new poems are talking to each other, how they individually shine and shine together, like stars in a constellation. The poems in Banana Palace constellate hunger, appetite, environmental ruin, End Times, technology, the “real,” the “mutant,” post-apocalyptic survival. Noticing this does effect revision and may also suggest tropes, poems, to add to the mix, but I don’t start a manuscript with this in mind. I’m an obsessive by temper, but also chafe against the rigid; thinking in terms of constellation allows me to hold the subject(s) of obsession together while allowing them to speak freely and in whatever tropes and forms they individually want.

In revision, I’m guided by three related principles: 1) Poetry is a fictive space. You do not have to adhere to facts, autobiography, or whatever in “real life” may have prodded the poem. You get to make up stories about yourself and the world and time. Better to suss out the narrative, the lyric hub, the formal possibilities, the poem at hand is offering, rather than staying stubbornly true to personal intention and experience. 2) Wallace Shawn saying, “I think there’s something idiotic about the self,  that every day you have to get up and be the same person.” ―for ‘person’ insert ‘poem’. 3) Listen. 

Dana Levin is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Sky Burial, which was noted for 2011 year-end honors by The New Yorker, the San Francisco Chronicle, Coldfront, and Library Journal.

Levin’s work has received numerous fellowships and awards, including those from the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN, the Witter Bynner Foundation and the Library of Congress, as well as the Rona Jaffe, Whiting and Guggenheim Foundations. Her poetry and essays have appeared in many anthologies and magazines, including, most recently, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Review, The American Poetry Review, Poetry and The Arcadia Project. 

A teacher of creative writing and literature for over twenty years, Levin has served as the Russo Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at University of New Mexico (2009-2011) and currently co-chairs the Creative Writing and Literature Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

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