SEVENTH ANNUAL LEVIS PRIZE READING
Good evening. My name is Marcel Cornis-Pope, head of the English Department, and I would like to welcome you to the Seventh Annual Levis Award Reading. As you know, this event honors the memory of the late Larry Levis (1946-1996), former director of our MFA program and winner of many national and international awards for his poetry. Each year the English Department and the MFA Program in Creative Writing award a "reading prize" in Larry's name to the author of the best first or second book of poetry published nationally during the previous calendar year. The seven-year history of the Levis Reading Prize is a prestigious one, with a list of winners who have established notable careers and who have themselves contributed to preserving Larry's memory and increasing the visibility of our MFA program and department. The fact that this prize has survived adversities of all sorts is a tribute to the man we honor and to the act of poetry. The Fourth Levis Reading Prize was awarded shortly after the events of 9/11; the Fifth just before the Washington sniper killings; last year's award came on the heel of the worst hurricane to visit Richmond in a generation, and this year's is poised precariously between the stormy visits of Frances and Ivan. I'm sure Larry would have appreciated the beautiful irony of these circumstances that befit the event of poetry. His poems and essays celebrate the resilience of poetry in situations where natural or man-made calamities make other forms of discourse fail. As he explains in "Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex" (Blackbird Vol. 1 No. 2), poetry remains "vulnerable, no matter how scrupulously aesthetic it may be, to history, to time, to an ethical and therefore political formulation or interpretation within a culture." At the same time, he argued it has the capacity to rise above its historical occasion, creating a space where a "community"—even if only the community of "language itself"—can escape the pressures of circumstance. Larry's posthumously published Elegy turned that space into—to paraphrase "Some Notes on The Gazer Within"— a permanent threshold for experiences lost or not-yet apprehended, for the promise of ecstasy in a world whose condition is misery, for the poverty of writing but also the necessity of it.
We are fortunate to have with us today a fellow traveler in the region of the "in-between, / The dusk and dawn, the not-quite-being, / The nearly-night-sky, the nearly-day" ["Venus Among the Wanderers"], who is concerned just as much as Larry was with the brutality and gentleness of words, with their becoming and passing away; he'll help us remember Larry and celebrate the resilience of poetry. David Daniel fits many identities (something Larry would have happily approved of), as poet, essayist, editor, songwriter, political activist, and even—to quote a well-known critic—"authentic heir to Hart Crane."
We are grateful to all of those who have made this evening possible: first of all, to Larry's family—sister Sheila and brother Kent—without whose generous contribution this remarkable yearly event would not have been possible. I also want to thank Mary Flinn, director of New Virginia Review, Inc., for her continued support of this program, to the MFA Committee for choosing such a deserving winner, and to David Daniel for coming to share his poetry with us.
I will now invite poet and Professor of English Greg Donovan, editor of Blackbird, to return us for a moment to Larry Levis's voice and poetry and to introduce the winner of the Seventh Levis Reading Prize.
Every year it is my pleasure—for the sake of those of you who knew Larry Levis and for the sake of those of you who never had that opportunity to meet him—to invoke the spirit of Larry Levis on this occasion which is dedicated to his memory, and I often do that by offering everyone some story about Larry's writing process or some incident from his life that you might not otherwise know.
It has been my experience that most writers, and most especially the writers I most enjoy, are great storytellers. Some few, it's true, are rather stiff or even boring personalities when you meet them, and are only good storytellers on the page. But again, most of them are every bit as good in person, and of course the advantage then is that you get to laugh, or shake your head in sorrow, right along with the teller of the tale, and you can look them in the eye as they speak. Philip Levine is one of those great storytellers, and one evening during a writer's conference I sat across from Levine and Gerald Stern as they swapped whoppers, and not only did I laugh myself into painful breathlessness, but I never did get the chance to swallow any of my rather expensive dinner. Philip Levine's greatest student, as he has often said, was Larry Levis, and Larry himself was a superb storyteller, though you had to listen close because the best parts, which he would speak rather softly and swiftly under his breath, almost always involved some slightly demonic appreciation of some twisted aspect of the story that was dark and absurd and very, very funny. A taste for the absurd moment which is possibly more than a little frightening, but which is also inescapably familiar and deliciously, but not quite viciously, hilarious is something that's a shared quality in all my favorite stories and storytellers. They're not quite vicious, primarily because we can recognize ourselves somehow in the stories they tell, and the stories retain a quality of humanity and warmth, even when the stories themselves are outrageous and divinely ridiculous.
When Larry Levis taught at the University of Missouri—the place where I got my own undergraduate degree many years before Larry taught there—he had as one of his colleagues the late writer of fiction and poetry Thomas McAfee. McAfee had been my own teacher when I was a student there, and he certainly was a storyteller who enjoyed the dark and the absurd himself, whether on the page or in person. McAfee was a true eccentric, an utterly strange genius of a kind that academic life hardly permits in its midst anymore at all, and he not only told good, harsh, strange stories, but he also caused many strange stories to be told about himself, like Larry. One of them was about an apartment he rented once in order to write a novel, an apartment he used only for writing. He had painted the masks of comedy and tragedy on the kitchen wall behind the table at which he worked. The legend was told, whether it was true or not, that one day he got up from the unfinished work and, disgusted with it, walked out the door never to return. Yet he continued for decades to pay rent on the place, and that if you could get someone to tell you the right address, you could still walk up the back stairs and look in the window and see the masks painted on the wall and witness the unfinished manuscript still lying there beside the typewriter on the table, awaiting the writer's return.
Don't we all want to dream we have poems and stories and novels waiting for us somewhere, in some room, waiting for us to return?
Larry and I often swapped McAfee stories, and one night, while we were having dinner together, sitting at the bar of a restaurant where a student of ours was the bartender (where of course we liked to go because the conversation was always good as well as because of eternal writer poverty and we could sometimes cadge a free drink), we shook our heads and laughed over a story that Tom McAfee himself particularly loved to tell, and which Larry and I told each other again that night as a way of remembering Tom. Another of McAfee's eccentricities, which both of us enjoyed about him, was that he never would live in an apartment and surely not in a house, but only in hotels. First, he lived in the Daniel Boone Hotel, and later in the Tiger, which is where Tom was still living when he died. If you asked McAfee about this peculiar preference, he might tell you that of course he preferred to live in a hotel—there was room service! Or he might tell you that he liked knowing that the walk home from the bar was never going to be all that bad—if you could just stagger to the elevator, you were home free. Usually he explained that he loved living in a hotel because it was like living in heaven—since, after all, didn't you know that heaven would be just like a hotel lobby? That you could sit there, with all that vaulting space and light hanging above you, and you would have a big, comfy chair and have long quiet conversations with friends in a place you never had to clean up yourself? A place where there sometimes would be music, maybe a piano playing, and lots of interesting people coming and going, and where you were always allowed a drink and a cigarette? Larry himself certainly liked that vision of heaven.
Tom liked to tell the story, which he had told to both Larry and I, about the night there was a fire in the hotel, and he was awakened from a deep alcohol-fumed sleep by the night desk clerk, a Chinese man who spoke in a mumble interrupted by shouts, and who used to speak some kind of twisted and incomprehensible mix of several approximate languages which the only person on Earth ever to understand was Tom McAfee. Tom rushed to the elevator and down into the street with only his house slippers on and a blanket wrapped around him, and later he was grateful to the young man who came by with hot coffee for all the guests standing around in the cold and the rain. The best part, Tom said, was that later they discovered that the kindly young fellow handing out coffee and donuts to the firefighters and the sleepy guests was actually the pyromaniac who had set the fire himself.
Often during those years before his death, which of course none of us who were his friends imagined would ever be described as the "years before his death," Larry would tell me stories which later I discovered were on his mind because he was working them into poems. And anyway, as is always the case, one story leads to another, and that night at the bar Larry told me about another hotel fire, one which featured him riding down in an elevator in his underwear with a group of naked Jamaicans who were members of the reggae group The Itals and a rather scary woman who was all dressed up in money which was pinned all over her clothing. It was a story that was delicious and absurd and a little frightening. And now, rather than have me trying to invoke the spirit of Larry Levis anymore, why don't we just let him do that job himself, and you can look him in the eye yourself.
In addition to being an "authentic heir to Hart Crane," David Daniel is some kind of heir to Larry Levis, and the winner of the Seventh Annual Levis Reading Prize, David Daniel, author of Seven-Star Bird (published last year by Graywolf Press), has for over a decade been the poetry editor of the prestigious Ploughshares magazine and till recently he taught at Emerson College in Boston and is now working with the low-residency program at Fairleigh-Dickinson. In addition to being a well-respected and well-published poet, editor, reviewer, and essayist, David is also a union organizer. Those of you who are adjunct faculty here might like to know that he is president and co-founder of the first independent part-time faculty union in the East—the Affiliated Faculty of Emerson College. I think that was a mixed experience, wasn't it? And therefore he is, in that sense, and in others, a political activist. He is also a singer-songwriter who sometimes tours with his band of Nashville friends, Love-Star. He will be participating this year in Festive Revolution, a new organization dedicated to social and political change, involving a group of fifty artist-activists, including such folks as Sean Penn, Sheryl Crowe, Tim Robbins, and Steve Earle, who gather annually in Nashville for a series of workshops about how to mix art and activism. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, Bethany, and their sons, Wilder and Doc, who, I am very happy to say, are here tonight with us, and welcome to them.
Before David reads, I would like to give him a memento of this evening, a portrait of Larry Levis created by the internationally renowned printmaker David Freed who teaches here at VCU and who was also a close friend of Larry's. And I'll hand this to him when he gets up here. And now, without any further ado, David Daniel.
It's remarkable to win an award of any kind, of course, and I was just thrilled to hear about this. But more remarkable still, for it to be an award associated with a poet I admire as much as Larry Levis and just to have my name associated with him is a very special thing. Thank you all. Thank all of you who worked on the prize, those of you have supported this in the past, and everyone else. Thank you all for coming.
I'm going to read some poems from the book and then some new poems, and the poems from the book will just be sort of a sampling of sort of the overall architecture of it, I hope. The book, primarily, I guess, basically the lens that I have sort of seen through in the past many years was one that was created by the fact that my mother's hometown of Friendship, Texas, was flooded in the mid-seventies, in order to protect the poorer towns south along the San Gabriel River. It was sort of an odd community, it was a place where I spent summers as a kid. They were all Czech farmers; they still spoke Czech and did everything Czech: sang Czech, drank Czech, ate Czech, everything was Czech, and yet you're right in the middle of Texas with the pick-up trucks and the boots and the big hats. And then one day, basically, when I was a teenager, it was a lake, and the loss of that. So, anyway, I say that in part just to—sometimes there are water images that might not make much sense in the poems, unless you know that fact. The first poem I'll read is called "The Joke," and my son Doc, who is here, came home from first grade with a good one, which he repeated over and over and over again. It's rare that they're good ones, by the way. Thanks, Doc, for this.
["The Joke," by David Daniel, from Seven-Star Bird, published 2003 by Graywolf Press.]
Doesn't turn out so funny really, does it? I always try to start out funny.
I was out in California back in January and experienced something I had never experienced in the very uptight Cambridge where I live. People just started talking to me during the reading, often in the middle of poems, and that was a little weird. But in between poems, and it was just sort of this rapping that went on and there's something about it that I just loved in terms of breaking down the barriers of this. It's gonna be difficult since there's this weird little space. But, you know, if you want to heckle, whatever, please jump in. This poem is called "Maybe Night Comes."
["Maybe Night Comes," by David Daniel, from Seven-Star Bird, published 2003 by Graywolf Press.]
There's some cheery ones in here someplace, I promise. The beauty of America and, perhaps, all of the world, is that no matter how low you are on the social totem pole—like the Czechs were very low—there's always, at least, somebody below you to kick around. In the case of my grandparents and the farm there, it was the Mexicans, typically, who were known there as the "wetbacks," and that's the word I use here, and this is the story of one of them. Once Friendship was flooded they had to remove all of the bodies from the cemeteries, and so here's my imagining this one man who worked for my grandfather coming back to come get all the Mexicans himself. It's called "Mr. Sweatner's Parade."
["Mr. Sweatner's Parade," by David
Daniel, from Seven-Star Bird, published 2003 by Graywolf Press.]
["Uncle Emmet, Wiser Than God," by David Daniel, from Seven-Star Bird, published 2003 by Graywolf Press.]
I'll sort of pull out of Friendship for a while for a couple of prose poems that are in the middle of the book. This is called "Paint."
["Paint," by David Daniel, from Seven-Star Bird, published 2003 by Graywolf Press.]
So it starts out funny, gets sad, right? It's like life. I grew up in Tennessee mostly, outside of Nashville in a little town called Murfreesboro. I'm happy to be back in a place where I can say you all know what the phrase "good people" means. Growing up, it was a phrase that was everywhere, and it was code, of course, it meant that you all belonged to the same clubs and hated the same groups of other people. So this is a poem about, well, called, "Good People."
["Good People," by David Daniel, from Seven-Star Bird, published 2003 by Graywolf Press.]
I've read from this book like thirty-five times, and I have not once remembered to look at my watch before I started reading. You'd think I might figure it out. Let me skip to the end of the book. This is the title poem, "Seven-Star Bird," and it requires a little glossing, probably. A couple of people make cameo appearances, and they're fairly obscure, unless you're big X-Files fans or now following Madonna into Kabbalah. The first is there's a reference to Isaac Luria in the Palestinian sixteenth century, sort of the father of modern Kabbalah, of whom very little exists but who remains sort of a figure. There was actually an X-Files where there was a golem, they called the golem Isaac Luria, which was one of those sort of wonderful moments you know those people in Hollywood are a little bit . . . they're not doing exactly what they want to do, maybe. The other person who make an appearance is Valentine. Valentine was probably, certainly my favorite of the Gnostic thinkers, simply because I find his stuff so beautiful. It's rich for stealing, and I do that. The last note, I think, it this has an epigraph from Ovid. This is from the beginning of The Metamorphosis when the gods are pissed off—at whatever, the stick people or the mud people, I forget which—and decides just to wipe them out. And so here are the gods in Ovid calling on the river horses to flood the place.
[Epigraph to "Seven-Star Bird," from Seven-Star Bird, by David Daniel, published 2003 by Graywolf Press.]
This is addressed to my son Doc. I had wanted to write . . . I'm a big Coleridge fan, and you know the poem "Frost at Midnight," maybe. There's this beautiful poem where he's holding Hartley and there's, you know, a fire, and it's gorgeous. So I wanted to write one of those, and it turns out I didn't. But it is the same sort of sense of addressing a poem to a son, sort of with the hope that it'll be something that's there for him later. "Seven-Star Bird."
["Seven-Star Bird," from Seven-Star Bird, by David Daniel, published 2003 by Graywolf Press.]
These are brand new poems. Almost none I've read aloud, and very few people have seen them, so they're potentially offensive in all sorts of ways, aesthetically and because they seem sort of rough and unfinished. But I thought this would be a fun occasion to sort of bring them out, so I hope you'll forgive me. The first one is called "Crash." It's a long first section of a much longer poem, that sort of is the title poem of the new collection. And, let's see, we need to know that, if you don't know or don't remember, that Milton was blind as he was finishing "Paradise Lost." Milton and Blake are sort of friends of mine; they show up a lot in the poems.
There's something I haven't quite worked into the poem properly yet. Have you ever heard of Claude glasses? In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century it was a fashion in England to walk around the countryside with these little colored mirrors or colored lenses that would act as a frame. So they would walk around looking for basically poor people or beautiful scenes and to make them picturesque. It's sort of a lovely thing. You can actually, I looked up pictures of these things, it's wonderful. So, anyhow, they make an appearance later on. "Crash."
["Crash," by David Daniel, unpublished.]
This is a poem called "Rock and Roll." You may not know, and it's sad that you may not know it. But John Doe and Exene Cervenka, do you know those names? They led the seminal L.A. punk band, X, and they were great and they were beautiful and they were in love. So there's a little reference to those two here. Maybe AC/DC is a band you know. There's also a reference here to Dante, and he has a poem, sort of his mid-life crisis poem, "The Inferno," where he starts off, "Midway in the journey of my life/I found myself lost in the woods" [sic], and if you don't remember, that's maybe relevant here. "Rock and Roll."
["Rock and Roll," by David Daniel, unpublished.]
Funny, sad, right? I can't get out of that. I'll just read one more. This one is called "The Sonnet."
["The Sonnet," by David Daniel, unpublished.]