Michele Poulos's first feature-length documentary film, A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet, had its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival. The film’s an official selection at seven more festivals including the Palm Beach Film Festival and Virginia Film Festival. She holds a BFA in filmmaking from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, an MFA degree in poetry from Arizona State University, and an MFA in fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University. Iris Press published her first full-length collection of poems, Black Laurel. A Disturbance in the Air won the Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition.
“A Radical Empathy” an Interview with Michele Poulos
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Nicholas Femiano. Of the process he said, “Michele Poulos’s documentary, A Late Style Of Fire, is a milestone for the American poetry community. The film is a reflection on the life and work of poet Larry Levis, showcasing both stunning cinematography and a completely original soundtrack. I hope her words in this interview will inspire people, as they did me, to read and reflect upon the poetry of Larry Levis.” In this interview Michele Poulos talks about filmmaking, editing, and poetic fire.
Superstition Review: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I recently watched your new documentary, 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?
Michele Poulos: Thank you for your kind words about our film. It’s important to remember the poetry of Larry Levis because, to quote Philip Levine, by the time Levis died, “He had become the finest poet of his generation.” His poems not only are morally and politically engaging, mining his own autobiography to record experiences and events that reveal the conditions and tensions of the lives of those working the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley as well as the landowners who oversaw that work, but the poems also are historically and personally wide-ranging, exploring the counter-culture of the 1960s and the dissolution of his own relationships and marriages. At the same time, other poems of his take flight both intellectually and imaginatively to include a spectrum of subjects presented in highly inventive approaches and techniques. David St. John has said that, “With his death came the sense that an American original had been lost.” Many others would strongly agree, including me.
The film I created seeks to reveal the myriad ways in which a poet’s art and life can reflect and refract one another. There are poems we encounter that have a more obvious or direct connection to what’s happening in Levis’s life at that moment, and then we hear poems that simply use an event or an emotionally intense moment as a kind of springboard, as the poems begin to move outward, spiraling in ever-widening circles until we almost can no longer remember or recognize where we started, until we do, returning to the poem’s original impulse with both surprise and delight.
Levis grew up on the family “ranch” in California’s Central Valley where his home was surrounded by the vineyards and orchards where his father grew grapes, nectarines, oranges, and other fruit and nut crops. As a young boy, Levis drove tractors, pruned vines, and picked fruit. He also grew close to the migrant workers he worked alongside, and later he memorialized them in vivid portraits and vignettes in his writing. He came of age in the 60s, and his poems concern the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and the United Farm Workers movement, among many other subjects. I think what his poetry teaches us is that poetry can be many things—it can be political and it can be witty, it can be devastating and it can be ecstatic, and sometimes it call be all of that in a single poem. His work shows that the best poetry enlarges our own understanding and experience of the world, of language, of each other--and that enlargement creates, for me, a radical empathy.
SR: I loved how you visually paired the readings from Levis’s poetry with stunning cinematography. One of my favorites was the excerpt from “Elegy For Whatever Had A Pattern In It,” which was paired with a shot of a lonely spider web. How did you choose the scenery for this? How does the shot reflect the tension in the poem?
MP: Structuring and editing the film was by far the most difficult part of the entire process. It took two years to edit. In the beginning, I had a loose plan that I’d use three poems (one at the beginning, middle, and end) as a way to impose a kind of organization or structure on the film. I imagined that the poems would bookend the film, and then I’d throw one in the middle for good measure. Really, the idea made no sense other than to serve as way of keeping myself calm by not becoming overwhelmed with the amount of material I was facing (roughly 200 hours of raw footage). But when I got deeper into the material, I started to really listen. That focused attention was, I think, the turning point—listening to what the poets had to say about Levis and his work, as well as listening to the work itself. I moved away from trying to take control by wrenching the material into a specific form (kind of like writing a formal poem by deciding on the form first and then artificially forcing things to make the words fit) and instead I allowed the interviewed poets to guide me on my way through the patterns that emerged in their perspectives and expert viewpoints. I began to notice that there were overlapping categories of information and repeating motifs in their conversations. Once I began to take note of those patterns, I began to gain control of the material, and that was the true beginning of the editing process. Choosing the right places for selections from the poems came later, once I’d identified those patterns.
Speaking of patterns, I paired “Elegy For Whatever Had A Pattern In It” with the spider web for a number of reasons. First, the poem revolves around a variety of images, including the black widow spider. In the poem, Levis revives his friend Ediesto Huerta after Huerta faints from the bite of a black widow. So when I viewed the footage of the spider web we’d captured in an empty shed on the Levis ranch, that poem immediately came to mind. Second, the poem works as a transition from considering Levis’s work to recalling his life. In the moments before we encounter the poem, poets David Wojahn, Peter Everwine, and others discuss his various gifts as a poet. Wojahn talks about how Levis was a “consummate craftsman” for being able to keep a reader’s attention for eight or nine pages, while Everwine says, “One of his great gifts was dealing with time in a poem. Larry was trying to write the kind of poem where past, present, speaker, spoken to, spoken of, about . . . were all held in some kind of widening spell. That’s stopping time, as far as I can tell.” The words “that’s stopping time” seemed to lend themselves to the stillness caught in the spider web. Also, because we move from the work to the life at that moment, the next section of the film reveals Levis’s troubled relationship with his third wife, Mary Jane, a situation in which he may have felt trapped. So, I wanted not only to introduce a darker music, but I was setting up the discussions about his marriage with the words from the poem that begin, “Black widow is a name no one ever tinkered with or tried to change.” I wasn’t exactly insinuating that his third wife was a kind of black widow, but based on my interviews with his family members and friends, I learned that she wasn’t an angel, either. Finally, I just liked the look of the image—its haunted quality and its stillness echo that of the lines that come later in the poem: “What are we but what we offer up?” All that’s to say that I hope the shot reflects and intensifies some of the tension in the poem, and I certainly hope the shot reinforces even more profoundly the tension in the film.
SR: What other filmmaker tools did you use to draw out the tension and meaning of Levis’s poetry?
Aside from editing, the use of music was especially important in communicating the tones and temperatures throughout the film. As you may know, I was extremely fortunate to have worked with Sam Beam of Iron & Wine. Sam composed an original score for the movie—he actually wrote an album’s worth of songs, a collection of striking music that I hope he releases one day. Sam is also a big fan of Levis’s work. When I met Sam for the first time, he told me a story about how, during one of his tours throughout Europe, the only book he had with him was a collection of Levis’s poetry. In addition, I’d really wanted to work with a musician who read poetry, and so Sam was a perfect fit. He wrote the score before he ever saw the film; he wrote the songs after having spent time with the poems, an approach that I love, and which gave me a great deal of freedom in selecting where the music would be most effective. The music is another texture in the quilt of the film.
Another tool I used quite consciously was silence. I left a lot space before and after the poem excerpts as a sort of palette-cleanser so that one could be primed and ready for the next thing, while allowing the words of the poem to sink in, so that the audience could fully absorb the poems. When I’m at a poetry reading, one of the things I find most annoying is when poets end a poem and then immediately start in on the next one. I like a moment to pause and take in all that I’ve just heard.
Finally, I’d like to say that it’s my intention that the film will actually serve as a kind of introduction to the work and an encouragement for people to read the poetry of Larry Levis. I think I included twenty-three poem excerpts—short snippets from much more expansive and meditative poems. My hope is that, after seeing the film, people will go out and buy the books, because the film can only do so much for the poetry; the film is not a substitute for reading the poems. The film offers an enlarged perspective on the work and his life, but it’s definitely not a substitute for experiencing the poems.
SR: As an interviewer, I deeply appreciate the achievement of having gathered such an impressive cast of interviewees. In my opinion, poets are by far the best people to interview. How did you decide who to interview for this film? Whose interview was the most fun to conduct? Whose was the most startling?
MP: The poets I interviewed almost all had a direct connection to Levis—most notably, Philip Levine, for example. Levine was Levis’s first poetry mentor, and he and Levine continued to be close personal and literary friends throughout their lives, trading poems and letters and stories. David St. John and Norman Dubie were also very dear lifelong friends of his, as were Sam Pereira and Bruce Boston. Other poets, such as Carol Muske-Dukes, knew Levis in a more intimate way. I think Kathleen Graber was the only poet I interviewed who hadn’t directly met Levis in person. So, the decision about whom to interview was primarily determined by those friendships and encounters.
I honestly enjoyed all of the interviews—when I was editing I felt that each one was like listening in on the best conversation you’ve ever heard. Charles Wright’s interview was a lot of fun. I went to his house in Charlottesville, Virginia with our crew and some friends of mine who are big fans of his. He’s hysterically funny—he cracked jokes the entire time. I included one funny moment in the film when his home phone rings, interrupting our interview, and Charles says, “That must be Larry. He’s always calling me, you know.” Later he read his poem “Thinking About the Poet Larry Levis One Afternoon in Late May,” in his backyard, so we had a chance to see the location he once called his “largest canvas.”
Phil Levine’s interview was also a lot of fun—and startling. He took us through his backyard where Franny, his wife, was hanging laundry to dry beside all the fruit trees, and he was in a really good mood and very animated and spoke frankly and freely about his relationship with Levis. He seemed like he wanted or needed to get some things off his chest, and that made the interview feel electric. But they were all exciting, and in very different ways.
SR: After watching this film, I was curious about your own poetic vision, so I read your latest poetry collection, Black Laurel. 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?
MP: Wow—you’re telling me something I hadn’t thought about before, my use of fire. I’d been afraid that I was using too many of Levis’s stars, now I have something else to worry about! (Just kidding.) Much of my book was written well before I’d gotten very far into making the film. Black Laurel has at its center poems that reveal and explore issues related to my identity as a Greek-American writer, discovering the connections that link to the past and present of both Greece and America. Many of the poems work to achieve a layered understanding of a history that has both individual as well as a broader cultural meanings. In thinking about fire and my own collection, some of the poems were written in Greece while others were inspired by the stories I heard from my family—stories dating back to WWII and earlier. For example, one of the poems, “Before My Mother Set Herself on Fire,” was inspired by the story of when the Nazis burned down my relative’s house, and the poem, “When the Wind Falls” reveals the true story of the time a Nazi fighter pilot fired shots at my three relatives (they’re siblings) when they were children—they were forced to seek refuge behind a rock while the pilot searched overhead for them. So, if there’s a lot of fire, those stories and more may help explain its presence in the book.
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?
MP: Toward the end of the film, Carolyn Forché tells a story of driving through the Ozarks with Levis when they were much younger, and he was “worried that poetry would require him to live at a certain intensity.” At one point he asked her if she thought “it was possible to live without that, so that we could be sane and live for a long time?” She continues, “I was too young to be able to say yes. I had the same question myself at that time. And today, I think he would know that the answer was yes, too.” I love this moment in the film because it’s a moment when an older and wiser Forché talks to her younger self, and to Levis as well, thus telling us all, in essence, that it’s a false dichotomy, it’s not an either/or scenario: either you take drugs, stay up all night long, and use your senses so intensely that your life and art bleed so fully into one another that you create really exciting, edgy, and complicated poems OR you stay “sane,” “live for a long time,” and therefore create really dull poems, if you’re even writing at all. I think that what Forché suggests is that there are shades and complexities to life and art entwined. She’s also suggesting that perhaps it’s a question of youth—of being young and inexperienced. On the other hand, there are books upon books devoted to understanding the creative mind, so it’s a topic that’s of interest to all kinds of people.
What the making of the film did for me and for my own poetry was give me permission to be even more adventurous in not only my writing, but my revising as well. In the editing room, my editor and I would study sections of the film and, if they didn’t feel right in that place, we’d simply move them around as though we were trying to fit a puzzle piece in different parts of a puzzle. It was really freeing—simply moving things around. It reminded me of the day I gave a tour to the poet Claudia Emerson who was visiting Virginia Commonwealth University. She wanted to see the new School of the Arts building—in part because VCU has such a terrific art school. When we walked through the building, we saw paint all over the floors and walls, sculptures that had been torn apart, “found” objects lying everywhere, everything in disarray. She got really excited and said, “I wish poetry was taught in a space like this—perhaps then students might not be so afraid to tear things down and start over again.” That’s what making this film was like—it was a process of tearing things down and starting over, again and again. That’s the lesson that I’ve carried over into my writing life as well.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
A mess. Just like the art building. Seriously. I’d take a photo, but I’m too embarrassed to show the world. I work out of a small spare bedroom in a one-hundred-year-old cabin in the woods in Virginia. I have a custom-made cherry desk that you can’t see because it’s buried under sky-high stacks of loose papers. Some random things around my office: a hand-woven table runner from Cusco, a toy Krispy Kreme truck my father gave me a few years ago, a black and white postcard photo showing a group of poets including Bob Flanagan and Amy Gerstler outside the Ear Inn in New York City taken in 1983, a “Coalition of Nasty Women” sticker from the Women’s March in D.C. (because, you know, I had to protest the illicit victory of the person least qualified in history to be president), and about fifty different types of pens.