Gregory Donovan is the author of Torn from the Sun (Red Hen Press, 2015) and Calling His Children Home (U. of Missouri Press), winner of the Devins Award for Poetry. His poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, diode, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Copper Nickel, and many others. He's the recipient of the Robert Penn Warren Award from New England Writers, grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Donovan is on the faculty of the graduate creative writing program of Virginia Commonwealth University, and he is Senior Editor for Blackbird.
“Its Flight Is Ecstasy” an Interview with Gregory Donovan
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Nicholas Femiano. Of the process he said, “I am so grateful for the experiences that Gregory Donovan shared with me in this interview. His involvement in Michele Poulos’s documentary, A Late Style Of Fire, and his friendship with Larry Levis himself, is an incredible contribution to the American poetry community.” In this interview Gregory Donovan talks about the importance of Larry Levis’s poetry, his dedication to the art of poetry, and a certain Friday he spent with Larry involving James Brown, barbecue, and two broken carjacks.
Superstition Review: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I recently had the pleasure of watching A Late Style Of Fire, and I thought it was wonderful. Can you describe, in your own words, why it is important to remember the works of Larry Levis? What about his life sheds light on the nature of poetry and its role in society?
Gregory Donovan: Larry Levis has continued to grow in reputation and in popularity among those readers and writers who care about first-rate poetry, especially younger and aspiring poets. I seldom run into a seriously committed poet of any age or background who doesn’t know at least a little something about the work of Levis, and many are actually very much enthusiasts about his writing. Often enough, I encounter writers who list him as a primary, driving influence—and even some who say that they feel it’s his writing that has made their own work possible. We often have applicants to our VCU writing program who say they were strongly attracted to the idea of attending the program where Larry Levis once taught.
Levis was consumed with his dedication to his art. No matter what disturbance or sadness or distraction came into his life, he always was writing. As a result, because he was both remarkably talented and deeply committed, his writing grew ever more inventive, alert, insightful, and penetrating as he continued in his career. It remains a delight to read his writing, and I have always enjoyed introducing students and friends to his poetry, because I feel confident that—perhaps with a little encouragement and a demonstration of my own enthusiasm for what can be found in his poems—they will find the same sort of pleasure in reading him that I’ve had. For example, his poems about horses are wonders, not only because they clearly show that he knew what he was talking about with regard to them, since he’d ridden them on his father’s ranch when he was young and had even competed in barrel racing on horseback, but even more importantly, his nearly mystical, deep comprehension of them is reflected artfully in his phrasings in descriptions and in metaphors concerning horses. In a poem such as “Anastasia & Sandman,” named for two horses he knew well, his phrasings are craftily unexpected and his insights are philosophically and politically sophisticated. That poem includes a number of fascinating threads brought together into an unusually complex fabric of meditation, including: the innate holiness of a horse when deeply drinking, and angels hiding in the mists at the corner of a field or crawling into the ear of a horse or caught sailing over the heads of oppressed workers in dim factories, as well as the vile betrayals and mass murders of Stalin who took away the horses from the poverty-stricken farm workers under his control, along with the sometimes absurd processes of education and bureaucracy which control all of us (including the meetings of the Committee on the Ineffable), and the contrasting calm sanity of the two horses who used to “stand at the fence & watch the traffic pass.” In the poem he memorably addresses all of us among his imagined readers, all of us who are his fellow confused contemporary humans, as “Old contrivers, daydreamers, walking chemistry sets, / Exhausted chimneysweeps of the spaces / Between words, where the Holy Ghost tastes just / Like the dust it is made of. . . .” Every once in a while I laugh when I recall that I am just another walking chemistry set. That perception with its affectionate mockery gives me pleasure, and that sort of pleasure is a good reason to read any poetry, but especially the poetry of Larry Levis.
SR: I understand that you knew Larry Levis personally. Can you discuss an aspect of his personality and life that perhaps cannot be conveyed completely on film? What is the best memory you have of him?
GD: The documentary A Late Style of Fire offers an in-depth, multi-dimensional portrait of Larry Levis that narrates the life of the artist in large part through the words of his own poetry, a creative and innovative approach that does an excellent job of offering viewers a sense of what the life of an artist truly involves—an inside perspective. Michele and I have often heard from his relatives, friends, and colleagues that the person presented in the film is indeed the Larry Levis that they knew. In my own case, helping to make the film revealed many things about Larry I hadn’t known previously, elements that I wish I had known when he was alive, primarily because it would have made it possible for me to be an even better friend to him. However, it may be that some elements are more difficult than others to fully convey, as your question suggests.
In the film, many people mention his great sense of humor and fun, which does emerge at times in his writing as well, although in the poetry it’s often quite subtle or implicit. But it’s difficult to “show” all aspects of Larry’s humor without telling some stories in detail that the necessary compression of a 90-minute film might not always allow. That’s one reason among several that Michele Poulos and I are currently editing a collection of full-length transcriptions of the interviews that were conducted for the film with many of the nation’s best-known poets. Those interviews characteristically were striking and entertaining hours-long sessions with highly articulate and perceptive people, but unavoidably they often had to be distilled to only a few minutes, so some longer-version stories of genuine interest, some of them quite funny, couldn’t be included in the film. Editing of that collection of interviews, whose working title is Prismatics: Larry Levis & Contemporary American Poetry, has just been completed and soon we’ll be sending the manuscript out to potential publishers.
It’s difficult for me to choose a single best memory of Larry because I have so many I like to recall. He was fun to be around, a brilliant conversationalist who maintained a healthy disrespect toward bureaucracy, intrusive formalities, and academic posturing of all kinds. He had a naughty, witty sense of humor—once when he was being mugged at gunpoint he apologized to the robber for having no cash in his wallet and he offered to write him a check.
A treasured moment that springs to mind is the very last day I spent with him before his death. I’m grateful that he had a flat tire on his rather worn-out car—it broke down right in front of the downtown VCU hospital and he was stuck in a no parking zone that was seriously enforced. He had along with him a guy named “Boots” whom Larry was helping out by giving him some odd jobs around his home—Boots had been, I believe, recently released from jail. I got a call from Larry that day, and he asked me if I could bring a jack and help him fix the flat. “Don’t you have a jack in the car?” I asked him. Well, yes, he told me, but Boots had somehow broken it. “He broke the jack?” I said. “How did he manage to do that?” I didn’t know it was even possible to break a car jack. “I have no idea,” Larry said, “and we also found out my spare tire is gone, too.” I quickly calculated the likelihood that I was going to be devoting the rest of my day to this project, so I surrendered. I not only brought the heavy-duty jack that came with my recently purchased (used) SUV, I also went to the basement and grabbed a second jack I had from a car I’d taken to the junkyard some years before, just as a precaution.
When I got to Larry’s car, Boots grabbed the heavy-duty jack and started in to raise the vehicle, and somehow he miraculously managed to break that jack, too. He had some sort of reverse Midas touch, a kind of bad jack mojo. On the next attempt, I got under the car myself and used my other jack; we got the car raised up enough to take off the wheel, and Larry negotiated with the cops who had showed up to let us go get a new tire, since there was no spare. We took off for the tire store, but soon Boots announced that he was hungry, and he asked if we could stop at a barbecue place he liked. We all decided that sounded good (and to hell with the police), so we sat down for some serious eating and storytelling, and when we got back into my vehicle, we cranked up a local oldies station and sang along to some familiar tunes—first it was Rolling Stones, and then some soul music out of Detroit. Boots, it turned out, could do a pretty good rendering of James Brown, and we all sang along to “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, with Larry drumming on the dashboard (drums had been his instrument), and soon we all were feelin’ nice like sugar and spice and feelin’ good like we knew that we would. I’m glad I wasted that whole blessed, blasted Friday with him and Boots. It was a great annoyance and a lot of fun, and I never saw him alive again.
SR: What was it like to read Levis’s poetry aloud for this film? What cues did you take from his own readings?
GD: That’s an interesting question with an answer that requires a bit of explanation. I’ve been reading the poetry of Larry Levis aloud to various audiences for many years now, and it’s always a pleasure. Of course, I frequently read his poems to my students as part of their inspiration and education as poets. I also often read some of his poetry at the celebration each year for the winner of the Levis Reading Prize, a competition for the best first or second book of poetry published in a given year that is judged and awarded at VCU in his memory. The poems themselves have taught me how to read them with clarity and respect.
However, for the film, we slowed the pace of delivery and technologically altered my voice, since I was reading the poems under the careful guidance of Michele Poulos, the film’s director, for a particular purpose. After some experimentation, she had decided that excerpts from the poems would be creatively deployed as a kind of poetic narration for the film, a way of allowing the viewer inside the mind of the poet, and, at another depth, inside the mind of the poems. The intention was to achieve the suggestion that it was as if the poems were reading themselves.
So, even though I always had deeply enjoyed the readings I heard Larry give, and I very much appreciated them, they actually weren’t a direct influence on the way I read the poems for the film. Larry’s own reading style was sophisticated, intimate, and even a bit eccentric—in a good way. I always thought that his reading style suggested that he expected that many of his listeners might already be familiar with his poems on the page, and so he was giving them a unique and jazzy oral interpretation of his work—while at the same time, if listeners were not already familiar with the work, he was giving them reason to want to go to the poems and read them on their own to gain more familiarity and arrive at their own appreciations and interpretations. In addition, the poems that Michele wanted to use in the film were not all available in recordings of Larry reading them himself, while others had been poorly recorded, and she didn’t want to have a confusing mix of varying presentations of the poems. So it was her decision to use his voice in the videos she had of him reading and commenting on his own work, and otherwise to use the sort of pristine, high-quality recordings she could make using me as a reader for the excerpts, which kept everything crystal clear in several senses of that phrase. I think it offers viewers who have little familiarity with poetry an opportunity to feel that they do understand every word of the poetry they are given. This documentary, then, is intended not only for poetry enthusiasts but also for a general audience—and in North America that includes a lot of people who have the unfortunate preconceived idea that they won’t be able to understand any poetry—so the film becomes not only an introduction to, and revelation of, the poems of Larry Levis, but of poetry itself.
SR: An honest portrait of Levis’s life must have rattled the literary community you both belonged to at VCU. Can you speak to how you navigated some of those challenges, and why you felt it was important to do so?
GD: After struggling mightily to complete the enormous task of editing all on her own the nearly 200 hours of footage she had collected, Michele realized that the task was too enormous for any one person to handle, and there were numerous technological complications and other challenges with which she wanted assistance as well. It was her great good fortune to discover a very talented and experienced young editor with excellent credentials who made herself available to the project, a highly accomplished young woman from Costa Rica, Gloriana Fonseca Wills. The first question that Glori asked Michele was, “Do you want this to be a basically positive or a possibly negative portrait?”
The approach of so many documentaries is that their directors seek out opportunities to include some “gotcha” aspects that involve uncovering something hidden or dark—they feature spectacular or shocking revelations that can “sell” the film. But Michele didn’t feel that was her mission, although she did want to deliver a fully honest and compelling story about a supremely talented but at times troubled artist. She put at the center of her considerations in structuring the film a fundamental question: Is self-destruction required for a serious life of art? It’s a question that has been asked for millennia, and it will always be asked. In the case of Larry Levis, there was the problem of his use of drugs, which did contribute to his early death, and there were the difficulties he encountered in his marriages, and yet the overwhelming truth of his life and his art had to do with his brilliance, creativity, insight, and passion. If the film had been made by a commercially oriented filmmaker, perhaps it would have deteriorated into an excessive focus on the more “tabloid” or scandalous aspects of Larry’s life—but that certainly would have meant the withdrawal of cooperation from the poets and others who knew him best and who have respected and have had such great affection for both the man and his poetry. And what would have been the point of such a film, anyway? It would have been neither instructive nor perceptive, but simply tawdry, superficial, and sensational.
Instead, Michele handled difficult revelations with good taste and with respect for the complexities of the situations she presented. She made room for a multiplicity of perspectives arising from the poets, friends, and relatives interviewed. Michele is herself a poet, and her admiration for the poetry dominated her motivation for making the film, and that shows in the rather unique nature of the documentary, which allows a penetrating vision into the life of a deeply serious and accomplished artist. For myself, while I did make some disappointing discoveries about Larry after his death, those were far outweighed by my sense of loss in not having any more poems from a powerfully engaging literary figure and not having any more immersions in great conversation with a wonderful writer friend. I’m proud of the film Michele has created and the effect it has on its viewers, and proud of my own involvement with it.
SR: After watching this film, I was curious about your own poetic vision, so I read your latest poetry collection, Torn From The Sun. One thing I noticed was that fire is a common theme or occurrence, much like in this film. What does fire mean to you? How is the fire of your poetry similar to that of Larry Levis?
GD: Inevitably, people who have passed through a similar band of time will have shared some profound experiences in common, including deeply affecting historical events and powerful cultural or political movements. Those backdrops to one’s life at times are seared into one’s consciousness—the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and John and Robert Kennedy, protesting the Vietnam War, participating in the civil rights movement, dealing with the drug culture and alternative life style choices that characterized the Sixties—those were among the elements that Larry and I shared and which helped shape our world view, just as our both having grown up doing agricultural work and being Catholic altar boys did. However, with regard to the fire motif, it is such an essential archetypal element that I imagine one would find fire used widely in the work of a great many writers from a wide variety of experiential and cultural backgrounds.
The fire motif in my poetry arose there as part of a mysterious eruption of inner workings that I couldn’t fully explain myself, but at some point I became aware of it, and I began to use it. Ultimately the fire theme made its way into the title of my book, which earlier had been Labyrinths in Black and Blue, a title that had reflected the appearance of the labyrinth in several poems as well as my interest in music, including jazz. Those ideas and interests aren’t unique to me, although they became particularly important in the making of that book, where fire emerged as well. The opening poem in the book, “After the Fire and the Big Bang and All That,” in part came out of my having been in a house fire once—a terrifying experience I hope never to repeat—and I foolishly fought the fire with a garden hose while standing up in the kitchen; in the process I gave myself a good dose of smoke inhalation that got me hospitalized briefly. On reflection later, I saw that fire as the mythic emblem of a turning point in my life, when several profound changes and losses happened to me all at once, disastrously altering my life’s course beyond my ability to control or comprehend—a shift I could only witness and accept. In the poem I suggest a comparison of that fire to the Big Bang that blew up into the entire universe where we now find ourselves spinning.
In Larry’s poetry, specifically in his wonderful poem “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” (which gave the film its title), fire signifies both willful celebration and destruction, and it is intimately bound up with sexual passion—the risk and the joy that such passion can engender. In the poem, the fire is an emblem of throwing all caution to the winds in the firestorm of an illicit affair as well as being the crackling harsh voice of a fiercely honest self-awareness and castigation, the voice of the fire itself, as the narrator’s life is threatened with being overwhelmed by misfortune and eventually, desolation. The poem’s speaker cannot fully justify what happened, yet he still does want “to explain this life to you.” In his decision to choose “fire, ashes, abandonment, solitude” there finally is an urge toward rescue of the irretrievable past that is also a destruction of it, figured as a kind of triumph, a triumph of fire—although even then, that triumph, “so American” and so “like us,” is only a brief one.
The fire in both poems is disastrous and destructive as well as life-changing, but in Levis there is an element of willfulness, and therefore it’s accompanied by guilt and self-accusation and self-justification, while in my poem, the fire becomes enmeshed with the Nietzschean concept of the Eternal Return and an erasure that is depicted as inevitable yet ultimately forgiven, since it’s cyclical—or, in religious terms, it’s a mystery. Both uses of fire are similar, as one might expect with such an essential mythic element, yet they are distinct.
SR: I felt like the heart of this film was centered on the concept of intensity, what kind of intensity is demanded in the life of a poet, and whether it is sustainable in a normal life. How is poetic intensity central to understanding Levis’s life and life’s work? How did the making of this film influence your own poetry?
GD: Larry Levis was, in many ways, classically Californian. He met conflict with comedy, was laid back about most matters—which is not meant to suggest that he didn’t have strong convictions—and he was often generous to a fault, literally, since he was charitable to the downtrodden folks in his urban neighborhood even as he struggled to pay the hefty tuition for his son’s private school and was sometimes writing bad checks himself. He was not a good manager of money, mainly because it was not of great concern to him—he found talking about money an embarrassment, or a bore.
But about literature and writing he was passionate, focused, and intense. He demanded much of himself, and he never allowed anything to derail him from giving his full attention to his writing, which often seemed to consume him and take him out of this world. The effects of such intensity can be both positive and negative, of course. His poetry benefitted from it tremendously, and all of us who find his writing amazing are also the beneficiaries of that intensity. However, sometimes his relationships with the women in his life may have suffered, and at times you could see in his conversation that his attention was drifting back to a piece that he was working on at the time. I could understand how that tendency could definitely become bothersome to a significant other, especially if something important or difficult needed to be discussed. Larry could be “mercurial” as one commentator in the film put it.
For myself, I wasn’t much bothered by his occasionally drifting off, especially since most of the time, when we were talking over dinner or drinks, he simply opened up about what he was pondering and we would take off into the subject matter of one of his poems, though most often I didn’t realize that’s what we were doing until later, when I would again see the ideas or images or experiences we had discussed when they emerged, refined and concise, in a poem. One evening we wandered into a discussion about how dull and disingenuous it was when someone our age from among the infamous “boomer” generation tried to discount their early experiences with hallucinogens, making fun of “hippies” or even lying about everything and claiming they never touched the stuff. I recall that we agreed we were not likely to be experimenting with LSD ever again—too risky for people who are “brain workers” and need to keep from scrambling the most important tool needed in their profession. At the same time, we didn’t see any reason to discount the value of the experiences we’d had tripping, even if many of the insights gained were evanescent or inexpressible or even ludicrous. Everything experienced can be useful to one’s art. Later, when I read his poem “In 1967,” I saw how he made superb use of what he’d been pondering, exploring his past experience with both humor and insight:
Some called it the Summer of Love, & although the clustered,
Motionless leaves that overhung the streets looked the same
As ever, the same as they did every summer, in 1967,
Anybody with three dollars could have a vision.
And who wouldn’t want to know what it felt like to be
A cedar waxwing landing with a flutter of gray wings
In a spruce tree, & then disappearing into it,
For only three dollars? And now I know; its flight is ecstasy.
No matter how I look at it, I also now know that
The short life of a cedar waxwing is more pure pleasure
Than anyone alive can still be sane, & bear.
And remember, a cedar waxwing doesn’t mean a thing,
Qua cedar or qua waxwing, nor could it have earned
That kind of pleasure by working to become a better
Cedar waxwing. They’re all the same.
Show me a bad cedar waxwing, for example, & I mean
A really morally corrupted cedar waxwing, & you’ll commend
The cage they have reserved for you, resembling heaven.
So, Larry took risks in his work, and for his work. I am well aware that it’s not always easy to be around artists—they can be difficult and challenging and distracted and sometimes downright crazy. The threatening uncertainties and self-doubts are one side of the coin that has on its other side the necessary courage required of all artists who put themselves out there to an audience, risking both rejection and praise. From their biographies, it’s clear that the likes of Beethoven, William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, and Picasso were not always pleasant to be around, and yes, sometimes they were maddening. Their intensities were integral to their creativity and their push toward innovation and invention. I’ve worked for most of my life as a mentor to young artists, as well as being a director of a creative writing program, and I’m well aware of the psychological challenges and the unanticipated confusions and missteps that can be expected as part of the life journeys of all creative people—just like all other people, of course—but the intensity of artists boosts the highs and lows of the rollercoaster ride in their emotional and intellectual lives. Larry wanted to be a good friend to those who knew him as a friend, and a good father to his son Nick, and a good person in myriad other ways, and indeed he was that good person. Like all of us, he also was imperfect and vulnerable. Most of his greatest intensities were, in a sense, private—the roiling boil of creation and the sweeping dream-state of imagination were inner activities mostly undertaken in the solitude of his writing desk. Michele’s film explores the many facets of an artist’s life and draws back the curtain on how the life and the art may be integrated and may also greatly diverge. Larry’s life and his work illustrate the sort of magnificent improvisations and tightrope-walking that are required to create art that is lasting and deeply engaging. There’s risk involved, and great pleasure, too. Larry seemed to enjoy writing enormously, and I’m glad he did.
Regarding the influence of the film on my own work, it has encouraged me to keep working and to be even more eclectic in my reading and sources of inspiration. Its even greater influence may be on my teaching, because I’ve encountered in the interviews the welcome wisdom of a number of poets who are great mentors as well as perceptive thinkers about the art of poetry. They give me confidence that the planet is home to some marvelous humans and that because of them, and for them, the art of poetry will survive.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
GD: I have a small office in an equally small house that might be called a cottage or a cabin. It has one window that looks out on a wooded area with a pale green algae-covered pond and a barn, but I don’t look out there too often; it’s too distracting. The mostly drawn curtain is, however, thin and lets in plenty of light—a bit too much in the late afternoon, in fact. The walls are lined with bookshelves that are reasonably well organized alphabetically, though some books have spilled over into stacks on the floor—and in that room, it’s mostly all poetry. Other books of mine are on other shelves in other parts of the house, and many are in boxes in the attic, waiting for us to win the lottery and move into a larger house where they can get back out onto shelves again, perhaps. My writing desk gets cleared off and made pristine once or twice a year, but most of the time it’s a glorious mess. But I do know where everything might be located in that jumble and can be archeologically rediscovered. I work with a laptop computer that’s held upright in a stand and it’s connected to a monitor as well as a wireless keyboard and touchpad. There’s a bit of artwork on the dark pine walls, and some portraits of protective goddesses, one of whom is my wife.