A Conversation with Dana Levin / by Peter LaBerge

BY WESLEY SEXTON

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Dana Levin is an author, essayist, and teacher. Her most recent book is Banana Palace, which was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2016, and she teaches as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis. She has been the recipient of several prestigious honors, such as the Whiting Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

 

I recently had a conversation with Dana about technology and teaching that came to a point of, “maybe we’re destined to become cyborgs.”

Wesley Sexton: In places in Banana Palace, you seem to be arguing (or at least pointing out) that technology’s goals are often immensely spiritual. When technology attempts, as it often does, to exceed the bounds of the body, it puts itself in a camp with other spiritual processes, namely poetry and religion. But what does that mean? For poetry? For technology? Are they speaking out of the same mouth and should they be?

Dana Levin: Wow, those are the questions, right? Okay, here’s what I think: Art and Religion were born the first time the living came in contact with the dead. The first time our primordial ancestor found her friend dead on the ground, touched him with her hand and shook him, was the beginning of our central realization: the body and the animating spirit are not the same, for in death the spirit vanishes and yet the body remains! Our technological innovations have always been in service to making work easier on our bodies, to accomplishing tasks with greater ease and greater speed. What would be easiest and speediest of all? To not have a body, to not be bound by time and space, to move and change all things simply by thinking it. Hence: hands-free communication tools, self driving cars, increasing automation in all areas of manufacturing, and soon: every day access to virtual reality, which I fear more than anything else, because it will make it even easier and more attractive to ignore the karma of being an embodied spirit on earth.

WS: That’s the rub.

DL: Most of the time, I think we’re embodied because we are supposed to be. I don’t think the goal is to leave our bodies behind, despite what many major religions tell us. Humanity seems hell-bent on ridding itself of its pesky body—both the personal body, and Earth. So there are other moments where I think: well hey, we’re tool-making animals: maybe we’re destined to become cyborgs, what do I know? And we may be taking such bad care of Earth that cyborgification may be our only hope for prolonging our species.

Poetry has always been sparked by the body/spirit problem. It is the central thing it sings about, whether in love poetry, religious poetry, or poems of resistance. Even in surrealist work, in poetry that seems driven primarily to explore and express the Imagination’s circus, the underlying tension is the way such poems sing against the Imagination’s annihilation, inevitable because it is housed in a mortal body (cf. Keats’ Urn). Technology and Poetry sing out of the same mouth because it’s the only mouth we’ve got.

WS: I love how what you say makes sense of so many large and disparate forces in society (religion and technology and even politics). I’ve heard before that, in terms of subject matter, there are only about four or five poems that one can write; but your response really makes me think that every question attempts to come to terms, in one way or another, with “being an embodied spirit on Earth.” In a way, that is what we are always talking about, as poets and as people. Everything is a response to that question.

DL: Yeah. I’m always interested in getting to source.

WS: Some of your poems tend toward a journalistic accounting of events, or a poetics of witness. I’m thinking about that rhetorical move in conjunction with your line, “information about information was the pollen we / deposited.” Is there something contemporarily important about taking stock of our experiences and saying what actually happened?

DL: Your question suggests that there is something extra going on in our contemporary times that makes “saying what actually happened” especially important. But “saying what actually happened” is always necessary to the history of human civilization, with its comings and goings of wrack and ruin, the rising and falling of silencing forces. One thing poetry has always done is bring us the news. But it brings it slant, it brings it with all its shadowy interiors intact. I often tell my students that, especially in the twentieth century, American Poetry offered a shadow history of the United States: Ginsberg’s HOWL and Plath’s ARIEL being crucial books of the 1950’s Silent Generation, books by Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, and Wanda Coleman bringing us the news of black women in the 1970 + ‘80s, when the Women’s Movement was first trying to reckon with its own white supremacy. But even beyond the cultural and political, poetry has always brought us the crucial news of the Unsaid and the Unseen, which is often news of the SOUL, which is the most undervalued, under-broadcasted news we get.

WS: I think that’s great—thinking of poetry as bringing the news of the soul! I also love what you said about poetry’s slant-ness being a way to keep “shadowy interiors intact.” I think if there is one reason people struggle with or choose not to read poetry, it is this slant-ness, so I am often looking for ways to articulate the utility and importance of complexity in poetry. Many people (initially) explain poetry’s slant-ness as an authorial trick that intellectually shows off by creating some uncrackable riddle or something, but of course poetry must present itself to us in a mysterious way because that is how the world presents itself to us. That is how we present ourselves to ourselves.

DL: I agree.

WS: You recently said in an interview with Divedapper that you’ve been teaching poetry to many non-poets and that in that experience, you feel like a “missionary bringing the word of weird.” I love that moniker, and I wonder what ways you have seen poetry’s weirdness impact the uninitiated.

DL: A student recently told me she recommended another student take my class by saying, “Dana’s classes will make you feel like you’re going insane—” When I asked, with some alarm, how this was an endorsement, my student explained that, before my classes, no one had ever opened up the unconscious to her as a creative source. Poetry gives wildness a shape, poetry says: your dreams and daydreams might be trying to say something worth hearing. Poetry says: your imagination has value! Pearl beyond price!

While this is not foregrounded in my classes, it’s inevitable for the psychotherapeutic to rise up in workshop, which I think is of great aid to undergraduates, especially those who don’t have much experience tracking their minds, or feelings: writing and reading closely and inevitably lead to aha! moments of revelation and reflection. Last year I had a very quiet student, who I could tell was in the midst of personal difficulties, write a heart-wrenching response to Michael Dickman’s first book, The End of the West, and the way it evokes drug addiction, which was something her family members were struggling with. This student had no idea that poetry could engage this territory: speaking about the suffering of body and soul in the grips of addiction, and how this suffering affected loved ones and communities. She’d thought poetry too formal and polite to do this: she responded not just to the subject matter in Dickman’s book, but also *the way* he worked with language to talk about it. Poetry offered this student a double epiphany: first, that she was not alone in her suffering, and, second, that Poetry was open to the full range of spoken and written speech.

WS: That’s a great story! It happens so often that people have such a limited view of what poetry is and can be, that it is often such a great experience to show them how variously strange the practice of poetry truly is.

DL: It really is! I mean, come on—poetry is such a weird and powerful technology.

WS: For years there has been a deep skepticism about the workshop setting. What do you find are the wonders and limitations of a poetry workshop?

DL: Workshop, as a teaching tool, has the capacity to help students of any age encounter language anew, and as material: its sonic capacities, its nuances, the wondrous effects of diction and figuration. If a workshop is not spending time discussing these things, it’s not an educating workshop. Workshops can also create learning and artistic communities. To go back to the class referenced above, it was really meaningful to these students to have a place where we could discuss the secret, the unsaid, the inmost heart. And the closeness they began to feel as their poems told their secrets, their thoughts, their doubts, their angers and confusions, made the workshop experience all the richer: they really wanted to help each other figure out the most artful way to get at the truths they were trying to tell. Workshops fail when they devolve into focus group, thumbs up/down experiences, where clarity and immediacy win every time. It’s important for creative writing teachers to bring up, again and again, the complex nature of experience and how that complexity informs poems; to model patience with what at first seems opaque and inaccessible; to help students gain access to complex work.

At the graduate level, I have more ambivalence about workshop. Sometimes the hungers and necessities of career-building, hyper-awareness of poetry fashions, thrum under workshop discussion. The facilitation of the instructor is paramount here to keep everyone’s eyes on the ball, which is to help each student more strongly and sharply express their vision and linguistic palette, no matter how fashionable or unfashionable that vision and palette may seem to be.

WS: Yes, I suppose I’m wary sometimes of workshop imposing too much onto a writer instead of helping one say most artfully what it is they want to say. It sounds like that is a danger you are very aware of as a teacher.

DL: Thanks.

WS: You have done a lot of essay work exploring and explicating some of poetry’s most canonical authors (Homer, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, etc.). What is the importance of some of these writers to you, and do you think the canon is dangerously under attack?

DL: Hmm. I recently had someone studying with me express surprise and gratitude that I assigned him to read the canonical Modernist poets: Eliot, Williams, Stevens, etc. He said he had had no real idea how many of the craft approaches he was using in his own work came not from the contemporary but from poets working more than a hundred years ago. To truly be an informed citizen, one must familiarize oneself with the history of where they live. This is true for all citizenry, including citizens of the country of poetry.

Maybe we’re over-prescribing the debut on our reading lists; maybe censure or avoidance isn’t in the best interests of the students in our classrooms, when it comes to the sins of the canonical fathers (and mothers). And what a thorough and necessary education!-—-to confront, with a real spirit of inquiry, the paradox that some of poetry’s influential and innovative works of the past were produced by anti-semitic, racist, sexist, classist writers. It can be deeply uncomfortable and very challenging, for student and teacher, to have these conversations, but it seems the ethically and aesthetically sound approach.

WS: What you say makes a lot of sense out of a complex issue. I think the issue with having a canon probably emerges when canonical works become the only works being prescribed and read in academic settings. Given the way canonizing often ignores and silences voices and aesthetics from the margins, to treat canonical works as the model of “good” poetry would continue to silence those same voices and aesthetics.

DL: Totally, totally true. Because, as you said, the canon has ignored or silenced voices at the margin, we question, even deny, the value assigned it. The questioning is crucial. The denial, if knee-jerk, can get in the way of considering what the poems plunked on the canon’s gilded, ivy-strewn pedestals offered to the development of the art. For myself, I think the promoters of  the “canon” are hierarchical and exclusive, but the poetries inside the “canon” are merely a set of aesthetic artifacts, saying something about their moment in space and time. They offer a set of aesthetic suggestions. Power says “canon,” but the canonical poems are, simply, poems. Best to acquire knowledge of both the Power and the poems, their history of influence, and be free to absorb, embrace, rebut, reject, synthesize, mutate this influence, create anew.

WS: Thank you so much.

 

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Wesley Sexton is pursuing an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in online journals such as Story South, Literary Juice and The Connecticut River Review. He lives with his wife and cat near a large Pin Oak tree and several brambleberry shrubs.