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Interview- Levis

04-04-08

“How Things Outlive Us”: Larry Levis’ Selected Poems

Interviewing the Poet's friend

 

A cold, grey day is the perfect background for this interview. I want to find out about Larry Levis and the recent publication of his selected works. The poems have captured me, I've been reading them continually for over a week, & now I want to know things that are none of my business. I want the People Magazine scoop and the Barbara Walters tears. I want to ask the question no one else asks.

 

Gregory Donovan, Director of Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, sits down across from me. I'm not taking notes. I want to listen, read his face, hear what his eyes say about his friend.

 

Larry Levis died suddenly in 1996 at the age of 49. At that time he held the job Donovan now occupies. They were great friends, even looking a little alike. “He'd been working on a poem,” Donovan said. “He got up to do something and dropped dead.” Donovan found the body on the floor.

 

Devoted to teaching and his students, Levis would work late into the night on his own work. He was sometimes unprepared for the next day's classes, late to meetings, but his good humor and love of life carried him through all manner of situations. Donovan called it Larry's “consistent generosity of spirit.” He was generous in his poetry, too, describing plain people in a few words, but the right few words to blow life into them.

 

Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard

What the men who worked here wanted was
A drink strong enough
To let out what laughter they had

 

Everyone loved Levis, evidenced by the tribute poems written after his death by such poetic heavyweights as Gerald Stern and Charles Wright. Philip Levine was his teacher and friend; he speaks in interviews of Levis, his talent, his promise. “They critiqued each other's work.” I think of Moses and Aaron, the great as mentor to the next generation.

 

David St. John assembled the selected poems in the book just published in the Pitt Poetry Series. The two men were contemporaries from Southern California. Donovan thumbs through the book, pleased most of his favorites are included: “Slow Child,” “To a Wren on Calvary,” “Sensationalism.” “Levis' sense of humor runs throughout his poetry,” he says. “His stories may seem to ramble around, but he brings you back to the beginning before you realize what he does.”

 

“Winter Stars” is another favorite, about the knotty ties between a father and a son. Levis' family was well off, working the land they owned, bringing him into contact with the characters who live in the poems. His father appears frequently -- he addresses him directly in some poems, in others he mentions his connections with the workers.

 

Winter Stars

Tonight, I'm talking to you, father, although
It is quiet here in the Midwest, where a small wind,
The size of a wrist, wakes the cold again--
Which may be all that's left between you & me.

 

His sardonic sense of humor runs though the work. He was never hopeless in the face of disaster. Donovan mentions more than once during our interview the way Levis could break a tense moment with the right line. In the same poem, after his father breaks a man's hand, then goes home to listen to classical music, Levis says:

 

I never understood how anyone could risk his life,
Then listen to Vivaldi.

 

Fathers and sons are everywhere in his work. In another poem Levis writes to his son Michael, who lived with his mother. The child appears in other poems, a father's love evident in the descriptions.

 

Blue Stone

Someday, when you are twenty-four and walking through
The street of a foreign city...
Let me go with you a little way,
Let me be that stranger you won't notice.
And when you turn and enter a bar full of young men
and women, and your laughter rises,
Like the stones of a path up a mountain,
To say that no one has died,
I promise I will not follow.

 

Many of Levis' poems contain images of death; some of them sound hopeless taken out of the body of the poem. Was he bound by heredity to die young? Did he drive himself with some inner sense that his life would be cut short by a few stanzas? Donovan didn't think so: “His poems reflect a sense of shared doom.” Everything changes, moves on... seasons give way to seasons. I thought of Chance the Gardener in Jerzy Kozinski's Being There. The poems are almost confessional, Levis revealing himself on each page.

 

Yet many of his poems are also short-line stories, using images to represent the many places Levis traveled and lived. In a few words, he captures time and place and state of mind. We've all been to places he talks about, sat across the counter from these people.

 

The Town

The town I grew up in
has a drug store where men
gather, since their words
fall into the tiny graves
rain makes in their tracks.

 

“Larry loved his home in Richmond, loved walking through the city meeting people,” said Donovan. He knew the street regulars, finding places for them in poems. “There's a story about a time he was approached by a would-be mugger on Church Hill, where Larry lived. The guy asked for his money, and as usual, Larry had none. As he was walking away, Larry supposedly said 'I can write you a check!' I don't know if it's true, but it certainly sounds like something he'd do.”

 

Church Hill is an area of the city where economic hardship and history clash smack into avant garde baby boomers eager to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood. A house can be had on the cheap, gutted and transformed into an elegant town home, if you have the money. Levis loved walking to work, not quite five miles away. In “Blue Stones” he tells about a workman who, if he paid careful attention “might learn, / How things outlive us.” His poetic voice is spiritual, sardonic, filled with love of life.

 

The new volume of Selected Poems contains excerpts from five of the six books Levis published. The sixth book, Elegy, was published posthumously. It is a wonderful effort, a poet's gift to the world he left behind.

 

Donovan & I were done -- all but the question I had come to ask. Larry Levis was a good man, a respected teacher, and an admired poet. I asked Donovan, “What would you say to him if he walked in the door right now?” He blinked, once, then said, “Hey Larry! Where've you been? I missed you.” I couldn't help looking at the door, filled with expectation.