Justin Bigos: First, I’d like to thank you for visiting UNT last week as part of our Visiting Writers Series, and reading poems from your tremendous book,Sky Burial, as well as some new work. Before the reading, you gave a Q&A session, and one thing you said is that all poetry needs to become “fictive.” If Sky Burial was inspired by the deaths of your mother, father, and sister—all in a period of four years—how did you manage to move these poems beyond the realm of biography, and into the “fictive”?
Dana Levin: It’s not that I think that poetry “needs” to be fictive—it’s that it is fictive: it’s a form of art, which is not life, no matter how closely an artist may feel compelled to adhere to fact. The minute you’re moved to turn life into art, you enter a fictive space—which is to say a space for making, inventing, which demands flexibility, in terms of seeing and following where composition may be directing you. And the drive to bend, blur, or ignore factual truth was crucial to me personally, in terms of writing myself out from under the crush of grief.
I always think of Ted Hughes saying about Sylvia Plath, “If she couldn’t get a table out of it, she was quite happy to get a chair.” Abandoning the table for the developing chair often involves two primary things: listening to the poem (it only converses in what the poet receives as hunches, obsessions, epiphanies, and all other manner of telepathic communiques from the Muse) and (thus) relinquishing initial intent or spark for a poem, autobiographically, structurally. Plath’s famous poem, ‘Tulips,’ is often read as a poem about being carted off to the psych ward, but in fact she was on the verge of a burst appendix! I like the psych ward narrative: it’s so dramatic! It’s so Plath! Factual truth can be very deflating.
JB: You have a poem in the anthology, The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. Can you tell us a bit about this project, and what attracts you to it?
DL: The editors―GC Waldrep and Joshua Corey―have curated a significant anthology. The state of the pastoral poem, the poem located in nature, is now a changed poem: climate-changed. For myself, I had the realization a few years ago that my meditative encounters with nature―whether amongst flowers in a container garden, or on a rock above the sea, or walking among trees―were tinged with melancholy and worry; that I was having an elegiac experience of nature any time I was focused on it.
I found this disturbing, true, and fascinating. I knew I could not be the only poet having the experience of the natural field being a suddenly changed field―the most significantly changed field since industrialization drove the Romantics towards their nostalgic evocations of meadows and bowers―which the literal heft of The Arcadia Projectconfirms. The poem published in the anthology, “Spring,” from Sky Burial, is in a section the editors call Necropastoral: the dead field, the field of the dead. That we can even have such a section in an anthology dedicated to “nature poems” is telling.
JB: In your Q&A, you said “the gift of Sky Burial” is that you will now include significant research as a part of each book you write from now on. What research have you been doing lately, and what kinds of poems have you been writing?
DL: Appetite, mutation, oracles, End Times, nature, technology, the future and the ravings of the mad seem to be driving my current poems. Chernobyl post-meltdown and the way viruses “read” our DNA beckon―but all that research has to get wrung through the lyric washing machine, or I may as well write a series of reports. I spent a lot of time recently seeking and reading journalistic accounts of the birth of Telegraphic Age in the early 1900’s―perusing facsimiles of long defunct magazines with their tiny Edwardian script.
JB: Thanks again for your visit, Dana. And for this conversation.
DL: I had a great time visiting UNT! Thanks so much for hosting me, and talking to me here.