Larry Levis is my guy. He always has been, even now, years after his death. His long, discursive meditations, slowly lengthening through his career, altered how I shape my own work.
He’s the reason I came to Richmond, to study at VCU, and maybe he’s the reason I’ve stayed. I was too young to really know what I was doing in grad school. Twenty-three, a little shy, from a small southern town, and mostly nervous, especially around Larry, who was brilliant and hilarious and beyond anything I could ever be as a poet.
He died my second year of school. A few of my classmates and I helped to clean out his house. We took most of his stuff in my truck down the street to a Salvation Army. It was strange for all of us. I wore a pair of his jeans for a few years. I still have his framed Albers poster…from a show at the Guggenheim in ‘88, and an old Slingerland snare drum that had knife slits through the head. I was going through a box of random papers of his that day and found a checkbook. On the back of it, Larry had written the more you are, the cheaper death seems. There are people all over Richmond who have Larry’s pants, shirts, pots, chairs. Who are those people?
Around the same time Larry died, both my father and my grandfather died. It wasn’t a good time for me. I graduated and didn’t write for a few years. Why should I? I worked extremely lame temp jobs. One at Philip Morris, the cigarette company…for a horrible man who had Crohn’s disease and loved model trains. Or maybe it was that he loved Crohn’s and had a model train disease. I forget. I created endless PowerPoint presentations for him. After a few years of this, I reread The Dollmaker’s Ghost… Winter Stars…Widening Spell…Elegy, after a long drought of no reading, and they brought me back to poems. Larry saved me. From the man I was becoming.
Fifteen years ago, I was an undergraduate journalism major at College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, MO, when I enrolled in my first poetry workshop. I didn’t know anything about poetry, and I couldn’t have named any living poets. At some point early on, the instructor changed my life by introducing us to a Russell Edson poem about a pig (I can’t tell you, now, exactly which one). I thought: this is poetry? You mean, I can do this? And so I did. My very first poem was about a pig too. It talked–I remember that much–and it didn’t want to be butchered. I also remember sending it by itself to The New Yorker a few days later (my first ever submission). I drove to Springfield, MO, with a few friends in those pre-online-shopping-days to special-order Edson’s The Tunnel from Barnes & Noble. After reading Edson, I wanted nothing more than to write poems like that at all hours. I started seeing the world differently, as a resource for poems. I would listen to conversations for strange narrative poem premises, etc. And still, almost every poem I write, especially the poems I’ve been working on most recently, are retellings of his poem “The Fall.” I’d tattoo that thing on my chest–maybe I will.
My poetry crush on Edson is resilient, unwavering, and is as strong as ever before. I solicit him by postcard or email for nearly every issue of Octopus (to no avail) and once saw him speaking to James Tate and Charles Simic right in front of me at an AWP conference. I just stared at that paralyzing triangle while my poem-heart was being sucked into its negative matter. Without Edson and that triangle, my poem-heart wouldn’t know how to pump.