Friday, April 25, 2008

Poet Miriam Levine makes the dark open

Poet Miriam Levine makes the dark open

Miriam Levine is the winner of the 2007 Autumn House Poetry Prize for her collection “The Dark Opens.” She is also the author of “In Paterson,” a novel, “Devotion,” a memoir, three poetry collections, and “A Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England.” Her work has appeared in the Harvard Review, the Kenyon Review, the Paris Review, and Ploughshares, as well as others. She was a guest on my program “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer” on Somerville Community Access TV.

Doug Holder: I read your essay “Food, Sex and Betrayal” Do you often use food in your poems? Can you judge a person by the food he eats?

Miriam Levine: I’m not sure I want to judge anybody. Poets who call themselves “Poets of the Body” certainly would include food. They deal with the whole notion of the “Love Feast”: the meal you have with a lover, either literally or in the imagination. It is the food you would prepare for your lover, the food you would prepare for yourself, the food you would take from the lover’s body, and the lover from yours. We see this all the time. The Honeymoon has a special meal. There is the food that increases desire—the French are very good at that. I think food is entwined with the whole notion of pleasure. If you think of poetry as the spoken word, you can see the entwinement, —the sound of the word in the mouth—certainly. Whitman was known for that. He had some wonderfully delicious lines like: “Beautifully dripping fragments.” These words come from the mouth. So for me poetry is connected, sometimes connected to food.

Doug Holder: In your memoir “Devotion” you air a lot of your family skeletons. Philip Roth once said you have to be willing to insult your mother if need be to be a good writer. A good writer isn’t a “polite” writer. What’s your take?

Miriam Levine: Well I think you have to be honest to some extent. There are many ways to go about it. If you have the bird of judgment sitting on your shoulder saying: “Don’t, Don’t, you mustn’t say this!” then you might have a problem. If you muzzle subjects that are really central to your material (what Henry James called the “germs” or “seed’) you really are not going to write. In some way if you are writing good memoir you will betray.

Doug Holder: Did you alienate your family?

Miriam Levine: No. Not in the least. When the memoir came out I did a couple of readings in New Jersey, and I changed the names. When I was reading at one venue, my aunt yelled out from the audience “That’s me!” There was nothing in the material that identified her. So for some members of the family this was validating. My mother experienced a great sense of release when she told me these family secrets. So it was something that we shared. She said, “ Everybody’s got something.” I grew up with secrets and it was very important to release the shame.

Doug Holder: Again in your essay you write: “Metaphor gives my life meaning. I can also stuff myself with words and not get fat. Words are a pleasure in the mouth. My mouth is moist when I write.” So in a way you align writing with eating; a sort of satisfying mastication?

Miriam Levine: I do ally it with a satisfying mastication. But that’s not all there is. There is the music and the mind working at the same time. For some poets, and I hope I have this in my work, the held note, the music note, the pleasure of words. I view art as it was said in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as “flaming amazement.”

Doug Holder: The poet Mark Doty was the judge of the Autumn House Prize that you won. Have you read his work? His recent collection “Fire to Fire?” Is your work similar?

Miriam Levine: I haven’t read “Fire to Fire” yet. I have read some of the poems that are in it. My knowledge of his work is spotty. I don’t know Mark Doty. I admire his taste and I admire his poems, and I feel very lucky that he chose this manuscript.

We do have similarities. I thought that never in a million years that Mark Doty would pick my manuscript. I was in awe. His work is elegiac—he likes to write of the dead. We share that. He love music and so do I. He wrote a wonderful poem about “Chet Baker” His work has a wonderful sense of music. The music that continues and the music that is lost. Lorca describes something that translates into “deep song.” The music escapes along the horizon to a point of common longing. And what we do long for we have often lost.

Doug Holder: In your collection “The Dark Opens” you have a poems that centers around the Winslow Homer painting “Summer Evening” In the painting there are two woman dancing with the backdrop of a vast ocean. You write:

“He got it right, the proportions
our place is as small as the woman dancing
in each other’s arms near the ocean.”

Do you think in these days, when we are out of touch with nature, we become centers of our universe, and forget the scale of things?

Miriam Levine: Absolutely. Absolutely. Particularly now where the star, the picture of the star, the cult of personality, abounds. In one of the Greek tragedies our lives are described as sparks escaping from the fire. I am not sure about the Old Testament idea that the whole universe was given to us. I am not sure we figure that big.

Doug Holder: You wrote a book “A Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England. Is there any communality in writers’ home that you discovered?

Miriam Levine: What got me going was going out to The Old Manse and seeing Hawthorne’s little room. The desk that he used is very small. It is about the size of the seat of a child’s door. The theme in the 19th Century was the privacy of a room where the writer could go and be “private.” Edith Wharton would write in bed, Hawthorne wrote on what was in essence a tiny shelf. Mark Twain certainly had a grand desk. I was very interested in the interplay between family life and private life of the writers of this era. In the case of Melville his sisters and his wife were his copyists. His, was a home industry. Thoreau walked daily from his cabin to visit his mother daily. I was interested in these writers who presented themselves as the “imperial self” Their domestic life said something entirely different.

--Doug Holder

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