Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Dana Levin

Dana Levin’s fourth book, Banana Palace, has recently been released by Copper Canyon Press. The collection rings with immediacy, drawing readers in with poems that float through nearly apocalyptic landscapes, then zoom in to rest on the bodies within, grounding readers in living, breathing imagery. Levin explores a world after “the bees collapsed and the seas rose up” to speak to us. A world full of hunger, consumption, destruction. But also hope. These striking poems call for us to listen, to look, to see again—before it’s too late.

In addition to Banana Palace, contributor Dana Levin is the author of Wedding Day (Copper Canyon), Sky Burial (Copper Canyon), and In the Surgical Theatre, which won the APR/Honickman Award in 1999. Levin’s poetry and essays have appeared in many anthologies and magazines, including The Best American Poetry 2015, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry magazine, Memoriousand The Paris Review. Her fellowships and awards include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and Guggenheim Foundation. A teacher of poetry for over twenty years, Levin splits her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Maryville University in St. Louis, where she serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence.

The poems in this collection are futuristic and yet grounded in the familiarity of contemporary society. They explore a world in which bee colonies have collapsed, ice has melted, oceans have risen, and where lack of food is a big fear—environmental topics that are particularly timely. How does ecology play a role in this collection?

Well, I do think climate change poses the most profound threat to civilization as we know it; we’re already seeing its effects in terms of drought, flood, storm surge, sea rise, animal and plant migration: it’s happening. And I’m a pessimist in this regard: I don’t think humanity has it in it to put aside greed, will to power, love of convenience, and tribalism in order to make a unified and resourced effort against the industrial practices (global and local, from factory to household) that have heated up Earth.

But this is an analytical response. More intrinsic to Banana Palace is that, in the wake of my parents and sister dying between 2002-2006, something in me broke open to feeling this ecological change. I’d find myself standing on my back deck, weeping in grief for my loved ones, and then suddenly I’d be weeping for the trees, feeling the stress of drought and climate change upon them. Perhaps this was just a projected feeling, but I felt it nonetheless; this feeling drove a lot of the poems in the book.

Some of the poems even feel prophetic in a sense. The haunting opening poem of the third section, “Fortune Cookie” reads as a statement of fact, but holds an eerie feeling of being about more than fact, something akin to prophecy. The title poem, too, has moments that read oracular. Is poetry a type of prophecy? And if so, in what ways is poetry similar to prophecy and the poet to a type of prophesier?

I love Ginsberg’s answer to this question, in a 1965 Paris Review interview. He says prophecy is not knowing such and such a thing will happen on such and such a date, but rather feeling into the future. “HOWL” presents us with the damage mid-20th century American norms inflicted on artists, gays, eccentric thinkers, men who didn’t want to put on a suit and tie and go to work for IBM; Ginsberg offers in this poem, published in 1956, a cure that won’t become a cultural movement for another 15 years: love. Love the one you’re with, love your brother (physically, spiritually). This to me is poetry as prophecy. Pound says poets are the antenna of the (human) race: I think if you’re open to the Muse, messages sometimes arrive that are transpersonal, atemporal, and can seem, in hindsight, quite prescient.

There is play between the mind/body connection and the desire for a disconnection between body and mind in poems such as “Dmitry Itskov: A Cento” and “Across the Sea.”  In the latter poem, the speaker wonders, “Was that the soul, wishing // we would invent the body / out of existence.” And then there are poems like “Murray, My” which feels very embodied in its motions and preoccupations. How do you see the role of the body and mind—and the mind versus the body—in your work? Can we have one without the other?

The birth of art and religion begins with the first human confronting the first dead body: where did that person, or animal, go? Something animating used to be inside that sack of flesh; now the flesh is left but the spirit is gone. This is the beginning of knowing that flesh and spirit are separate in some mysterious way, yet irrevocably joined in order to be what we call “alive.”

We can’t have one without the other, as yet, though some try, like the Russian billionaire Itskov. To me, this drive is the very reason why the planet is in such dire trouble: if you can’t stand your own body, if you don’t want to tend it, if you feel outraged by the reality of aging and death, why would you be concerned with tending any bodies? You wouldn’t. You’d want to trash the whole body thing altogether, or let its appetites rampage with impunity.

I’m at peace now with being embodied, in a way I really wasn’t as a younger person. My body was such a source a physical discomfort, shame, and humiliation, a lot of it due to the internalized fat-shame, female-shame, generated by media and cultural norms. I lived from the neck up. It’s taken a concerted effort, and the help of some amazing body workers, and aging, for me to find this peace.

Hunger, consumption, and destruction are irrevocably linked in this collection. The speaker of “At the End of My Hours” is aware of this when she comments on “the wheel of appetite” and the cycle of “eating to live to kill to eat.” In a way, poetry is a hunger which may result in consumption and destruction. Can you discuss the relation of hunger and destruction in poetry? What did you consume while writing this collection? Was anything destroyed in the process?

Wow, what an interesting question! Well, I sure consumed a lot of chocolate and coffee while writing Banana Palace; I’m a slave to the bean.

Space seems to be a major component of this collection, in the sense of time and otherworldliness, but also in the formal aspects of the poems. Many of the poems look as if they could float off the page with the spaces between lines, indentations, and even the spaces between sections within the longer poems. The forms are visually appealing, adding another layer to the complex connections of images, sight, and sound working in individual poems as well as across the collection. How does form play a role in your work?

White space is a pregnant space, a place of drama: emphatic pause, the violence of being silenced by feeling or experience, lives there. It serves as a proxy for water and air. It’s a pool of non-verbal response. It’s the sea out which written expression arises and recedes. It’s as important to me as text. It gets bigger and more prominent in each book I write.

What are you working on now?

A fraught question! I would lament: Nothing! But my sister would say: That’s a lie. Ideas for essays assail me. Let’s see if I write them.

Interviewer Anastasia Stelse is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, (parenthetical), and Meniscus, among others.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Dana Levin

  1. The birth of art and religion begins with the first human confronting the first dead body: where did that person, or animal, go? Something animating used to be inside that sack of flesh; now the flesh is left but the spirit is gone. This is the beginning of knowing that flesh and spirit are separate in some mysterious way, yet irrevocably joined in order to be what we call “alive.”

    a sterling answer. a visceral solution to the quest of the spirit, rather than we are seeking god or something merely intangible, we are seeking a broader answer to the answer of what is the lump of flesh, what animates it, which leads us down multiple avenues of thought. a sterling answer.
    great interview with some very exacting questions.

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