Dana Levin and Carmen Giménez Smith Talk Race, Politics, and Poetics
"All our annihilating qualities are on display."
Since 1999, with the publication of In the Surgical Theatre, Dana Levin has offered us incisive poems of dream and gut. About Sky Burial, her third book, Levin said, “The worms and the gods are dictating my poems”: it’s an appraisal that carries over her entire body of work. Over the course of a year, with Trump in power and the world shifting, Carmen Giménez Smith talked with Levin about her prescient fourth book, Banana Palace (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), and life and thought post-Election. Social media, dreams, meat bags, soul work, crazy fathers, race, culture split, the political nature of lyric interiority and protecting that liberty: all come up for discussion in this wide-ranging interview.
Carmen Giménez Smith: I’m really excited to talk about your work! You’re a poet’s poet who is doing the kind of intellectual work that inspired me to deepen the soul-work that I do in my own poetry. I’m fascinated by how prescient Banana Palace is with regard to our current political climate—and by how it’s also about the private life, because so much of the book is about the soul. Could you talk about that?
Dana Levin: Thank you, Carmen! I have never written a book faster. Everything was feeling so unstable, so teetering: the environment, the government. And now it’s intensified. Part of that feeling comes from the speed of change in our digital age. I don’t think we’ve integrated the fact that social media is deeply affecting our psyches. And when Trump got elected: there’s our first selfie president. I mean, here’s a president who, the New York Times tells us, gets a folder every day with great news stories about himself!
CGS: Calling Trump the “first selfie president” is so on point. Also the inability of discourse to exist outside of binaries; I’ve never seen such anger, such hate.
DL: I don’t think it’s an accident that this polarization is happening at a moment where we are obsessed with looking at ourselves on screens. The word “mirror” comes from this German root that means “shadow-holder.” Engaging with social media can too often be like looking into a shadow-holder: all our annihilating qualities are on display, and our fear of being annihilated by whatever doesn’t reflect us back.
CGS: Banana Palace is very unique in how it engages with apocalypse, which is foregrounded by the deep death-work that you did in Sky Burial. The book begins with “Across the Sea,” with Marconi’s very earnest, beautiful hope for the invention of the telegraph. He believed that all sound waves still existed, so the past could never be truly lost. The last poem in the book, “At the End of My Hours,” is one of my favorite poems of all time. It’s apocalyptic, but there’s hope in that one too. How do you see those poems framing the book?
DL: In hindsight, I think “Across the Sea” meant “Across the Sea of Time.” Across any great expanse where a message is trying to be delivered, whether it’s a physical expanse or the interior expanse of the mind or even oracular communication. Ginsberg says that prophecy is about feeling into a future. I think any sensitive person can have this experience. I felt a future coming upon us, and that was what propelled the book. “At the End of My Hours,” while one of the first poems written, just felt like the right way to end it: to end on surviving even though the world is so damaged.
CGS: You are a contemplative poet; you use your dreams as stories. I’m always telling my students, “Don’t ever write about dreams,” but you break that rule beautifully, because there’s a great incisive depth to your work. I’ve always admired your cool appraising eye. How did you form that?
DL: I think one portion is a natural disassociated state that comes with growing up in a traumatizing household. And also my birth experience: gutted open from sternum to pelvis, six days old. I think there’s a part of me that’s like, “Hmmm, let’s get as far away from the body as possible.” But I can’t get that far away ‘cause here I am, incarnated, so it’s like, “Hmmm, how fascinating, you seem really upset about that, Dana,” or, “Ooooh, look at that, how strange, blood and guts, let’s think about it.” Living in the mind.
Developing that cool eye was part of Louise Gluck’s tutelage. After she picked In the Surgical Theatre for the Honickman Prize, we had a phone conversation about the manuscript. She said, “When you don’t know what to do, you go to carnage. Or you go to a question. It’s a crutch.” I have a natural tendency to the grotesque, and the melodramatic, which I really love. But she felt like there were moments where it was excessive. I don’t think I’m as toned down as she would have ever wanted me to be (laughs), but I paid attention to that.
CGS: In prep for our conversation, I was thinking about how I situate your work historically. You’re troubling the idea of what subjectivity is, how it works. What you’re doing the most work on is not public in the sense of activism, but in terms of safeguarding subjectivity.
And there’s another piece to how I feel connected to your work and how I feel connected to you as a human being. You are, right now, an enemy to white supremacists. Being Jewish is incredibly relevant to this conversation, in that you could go somewhere, and a white supremacist would hang you—
DL: Was it you who said to me right after the election, “How does it feel to not be white anymore?”
CGS: That was me.
DL: As a Jew, I am really feelin’ it. It was startling to feel that blood memory, dormant for so long, in the first months after the election.
CGS: You’ve told me stories about your grandparents and your connection to immigrant culture. I think that’s how I connect you to Bishop. The poem that I think is very Bishop-ian is “A Debris Field of Apocalypticians, A Murder of Crows.” It’s one of my favorite poems of the book. I like the mono-stitch, the aphoristic quality. There’s a very powerful ars poetica thing here when you say: “The fact of suffering is not a question of justice./Everyone is sick from what we made.” To me, that is very, very political, and it’s very charged.
There’s an arc across your last three books, from “Quelquechose,” to “Letter to G.C.,” to “Apocalypticians”: an arc about integrating aesthetics with the soul. You write about the soul and about our meat bags, and the problem of reconciling, in poetry and in life, those two things. I think in poetry that’s a challenge for people of color. For example, the idea that I’m a person of color, so my job is to inscribe the experience of all Latinx people from all different times to the present, when actually I just want to be a singular voice, that sometimes also emerges from my history.
One of my favorite descriptions of apostrophe is from Helen Vendler, maybe she’s talking about George Herbert? I’m an atheist, so, this is complicated love, but she talks about the apostrophe as someone speaking with their head upturned to god, right? So to me, that stream of language coming out of that body, the purity of that stream of language, has everything to do with who I am as a Latinx woman, and nothing to do with who I am as a Latinx woman. I think that’s what you’re trying to preserve: that stream. And that’s enough good work, because there is a resistance to it, even in the politics of poetic aesthetics. Your poems emerge from a defense of the lyric voice, a defense of having the right to the lyric voice.
DL: I mean, just being a woman asserting a right to her own mind! And the privilege of being able to do that, as a second-generation Jewish-American. I do think that we are all the same in that we are all suffering inside of our meat sacks, and it doesn’t matter what color or gender we are in terms of that. But. Such suffering is also not the same. Not in a patriarchal, white supremacist culture, with laws and institutions built to maintain that supremacy.
CGS: I have great admiration for millennial poets of color, and how they don’t back down. I’m an ethnogenic person who was trained to just kind of bide my time, be obedient, hope for the best. Millennial poets are like “screw that, that obviously didn’t work,” not just in poetry culture, but in the world. The inquiry into privilege is messy, but the public messes keep being on the surface. They’re not the messes of depth. Like you, I call poetry “soul work” with my students, and I think that’s what’s not happening–no one is doing the messy, disorganized soul work that’s required.
DL: Totally. You’re bringing to mind a meaty conversation I had with one of my black students the day after the election. She was devastated. She told me about her political experience: how the only president she’d ever really known was Obama. How she’s from Missouri, she was here for the events in Ferguson. She said, “I just thought we were making a lot of progress.” And she said, “How can people who voted for Trump not see that this hurts me?” We started talking about the problem with PC culture resting at “You can’t say that,” how that doesn’t encourage the real inquiry: “Why are you saying that?” What is in your background that leads you to say that?” I wish we were all doing that work. It requires a tremendous amount of humility and fortitude, digging into that reflection in the shadow-holder. Most Americans don’t want to look in that mirror.
CGS: Well, no. I mean, that’s how Trump became president. I remember going across the street to my neighbor’s house after the election, and he was like, it’s not about race, it’s about the economy. What?! Uh, not at all, this is a referendum on having a black president for eight years. If they would have put up a piece of garbage with a hat, that would have been our president! I’m an optimistic dystopian, so there’s a way in which I thought, Yes, the world has trash but it’s not trashy enough to elect this guy. And then I was like, it is trashy enough. But this also comes from fear; I understand that, and I’m tired of that fear. That fear has dominated my experience in this country, and my mother’s experience in this country.
DL: So when you say that “safeguarding subjectivity” or “safeguarding lyric interiority” is political, you’re talking about protecting a kind of liberty?
CGS: That’s why I think you’re a political poet. Milosz makes the argument that the most important thing art can do is protect interiority, and that poetry can be political work. I think about the Misty poet, who writes about perceiving, capturing, and being in the world—and the fact that that’s enough transgression that the Misty poets have to live in exile. That’s the tradition of political poetry that I see you being a part of. Maybe as a white woman you are able to do this, like you’re deciding to do this work, even though you don’t have to. You have no obligation to safeguard lyric subjectivity, but that is a big part of what you do.
DL: I guess this is what drives me to read and write poems: what is it to be an individual soul locked in a body? What is it to be conscious? Such poems are not apolitical. Part of being an individual soul and body is dealing with other individual souls and bodies. And everyone’s suffering inside their bodies. Everybody.
CGS: Yeah. Even jerks.
DL: Even Donald Trump.
CGS: This actually brings up another question I wanted to ask. Your book came out right around the election. And we were all gobsmacked, so I wonder what that felt like . . . you were overshadowed by a Cheeto.
DL: (laughs) Well, it was tough, to go on the road with Banana Palace right after the election. We were all stunned and here I am going, “Hi! I’m going to read you my poems about the apocalypse.” I don’t think many people were up for hearing it. It was too close to the bone. And also, for someone to stand up and be like, “The earth is in peril,” when we had just elected Donald Trump, it’s like: Sorry, I can’t have that conversation right now; I’m worried about my civil rights.
CGS: But the book is so prescient, so germaine, in terms of climate change. There’s the wonderful poem about your cat, “Murray, My,” about hunger. It features one of my favorite endings to a poem: “No matter how much/I loved the world, to hunger/was to be/a destroyer.” I think that’s at the very center of your poetics, how you keep reminding us that we are all part of this cycle of life and death. Banana Palace is about how, in our lifetime, we’ve never been so close to the arc of death in terms of the earth.
DL: Well, in terms of, “to hunger is to be a destroyer,” we are all participating in that. Men, women, doesn’t matter what color you are, what your sexual orientation is, where you come from, whether you’re rich or poor: needing to eat is the basic state.
CGS: Having had a volatile, mentally ill father, I was so moved by the poems about your father and what that instability felt like. In many ways, this is your most deeply autobiographical work, and so I wondered why those poems are in this collection, and if you could just talk about your father, and whether we will see more poems about this.
DL: I’ve just begun writing about him, in prose, investigating how growing up in that household primed me for poetry. In terms of his presence in Banana Palace and my new work, I mean, America is now in the hands of an insane person. And one could argue that we’ve always been in the hands of a raging, insane, masculine, principle. My experience of that was local, and family-based: I grew up in material comfort and emotional poverty, in a very traumatizing household. My father’s explosions usually happened at the dinner table. My mother cooked something “wrong” and he would stand up yelling, face rage red, breaking dishes, cursing at her. He was a big guy with a big voice, and when I was really little and he exploded, I would slide out of my chair and crouch under it, counting to ten wrong on purpose so that I’d have to start over. Just to endure. So he’s up there raging, I’m under a chair going 1, 2, 4, no – 1, 2, 3, 5, no –
CGS: Holy crap.
DL: There’s a lot of clinical depression in my family, a lot of suicide. When I was a kid, no one would say that anybody was mentally ill. While working on the book, I started thinking about all the stories I tended to trot out about my father. And I realized (so late in my life, it’s amazing) they were all stories about his manic depression. That material informed the poem “Melancholia.” Once Trump was elected, it was uncanny for me to look at the back of Banana Palace, where it says “she’s disquieted by a world ruled by a bipolar father-god, unconscious, suicidal”— uh, yeah! (laughs)
CGS: (laughs) We all are! My dad, interestingly enough, or weirdly, or not surprisingly enough, worshipped Donald Trump all my fuckin’ life.
DL: Oh my god!
CGS: What was it about Donald Trump that attracted my father? The endless privilege, the idea that all it takes is hard work. My dad was aggrieved in many ways that Donald Trump would be aggrieved when things wouldn’t go his way, and would rage and be out of control.
DL: And now we’re all living in that house of crazy fathers! I have moments where I realize some of the stress I was feeling right after the election was because I was really reliving my childhood terror. I don’t think I was alone in this.
CGS: No, it’s true. A big part of it was me thinking, “My dad is president of the United States.”
DL: Yep. And this is why, for those of us who can do the interior work, it’s of necessary political import: to transform the inner mental poisons.
CGS: This relates to my last question: I first heard about you as a teacher; you’ve had some fantastic students. We earlier talked a little bit about carnage, but you’re also a really merciful poet, and I imagine that’s why you’re such a fantastic teacher. Could you talk about that?
DL: I’ve been teaching for over 25 years now. Sure, there’s the communication of craft, and literary history, and literary biography, but at this stage of the game what teaching is about, for me, especially at the undergrad level, is helping students be souls. Helping students connect with their soul-work. Teaching then really becomes a form of mentorship. I hear a lot of secrets and I hear a lot of pain when students come into my office or when I read their work. And I think that age group in particular, students between the ages of 17 and 25, they need someone who is not a parent, but who is not a friend, and does this mentorship thing with them. More like an auntie. (laughs) So you can just call me Auntie Dane.