EIGHTH ANNUAL LEVIS PRIZE READING
I’d like to welcome you all to the eighth annual awarding of the Levis Reading Prize. I’m Greg Donovan and had the honor to be Larry Levis’s colleague. I’m joined this evening by Gary Sange, my colleague, who teaches poetry here at VCU, and Gary would like to begin this evening by giving a renminiscence of Larry.
So many Levisisms. Like the time in our English Department conference room when Larry whisperingly chanted, “Boooor-ring . . . Boooor-ring . . . “ Then leaned over to me with his [hand] screening his mouth and said—”I keep going to meetings where no one’s there and contributing to the discussion.”
I must try to tell you about an evening back in the 90’s when Larry had just moved into his place on Church Hill—unpacked boxes all around—while the two of us are sitting on the floor and listening to Coltrane. Wrapped up in his gangliness, under that riverboat gambler’s mustache, Larry lowered his head for the listening, looked up and grinned now and then.
Naturally the conversation meandered wherever we wanted it to go. We each tried to out-remember the other by coming up with good poets nobody reads much any more: Josephine Miles, Weldon Kees, Thom Gunn. After talking about high school, we each started to argue about who was the worst football player. Then Larry said, “Let’s see!” So far as I could tell, nobody signaled both of us at once to rise up off the floor and to crouch down, facing one another in a three-point stance. Then, with the wildest look in his eyes, Larry earnestly asked, “How did you block? Show me.” Whereupon two middle-aged English professors stooped forward with butts shoved out and elbows raised, at first tentatively, and then fairly seriously, then hilariously, started to “block” one another, till we both fell over on our backs laughing, stopping and resuming our snorts and guffaws for some time, while still looking up at the ceiling and listening to Coltrane.
How does a poet’s music keep renewing our lives? Larry once said, “I wouldn’t be writing if it weren’t for the voices in my head.” Maybe like many of us, Larry would have been alone with those voices—they’d be merely brain-chatter—if he couldn’t release and quiet them, hear them singing inside his poems. But what if the voices are your major company? What if our deepest companionship is with the voices inside our heads? Larry’s poems often meet us in the middle between his head-voices and our own, within an intimacy that’s usually just a little out of reach for both of us. In the poem “Widening Spell,” where an estranged husband is meditating on his wife’s bare knees, his son lost in daydreams at school, he ponders the confluence of “I” and “we”—omniscient-intimate and othering the self at once. What reinforces the impression that we may drift between anyone else and ourselves—vanish as readily as we are present—is Larry’s underway beginnings, such as, “I had a friend in high school who looked like Caravaggio, or like Goliath . . . ,” or in his “conclusions” that refuse to conclude, such as, “To find me now will cost you everything.”
Since a Larry Levis poem often creates the illusion of a mind making itself up as it speaks and sings, his long lines are forays, saunterings, that move like the tall, slouchy walk of the man, Levis himself. Enter “Anastasia & Sandman,” or “Slow Child with a Book of Birds,” and I defy you to know where you are going, or to be any more glad that you don’t know. Yet it isn’t merely surprise that Levis is after. What we get is the joy of a voice that is sauntering, the choreography of those long lines looped with long sentences that makes our listening both meditative and physical. Makes our listening a lot like a dance.
After going for weeks of reading only Levis, I saw Gene Kelly the other night in American in Paris, and sensed instantly from Kelly’s toyed-with skill, the tap dancer’s moves that appear to throw away what he uses, that same elegant nonchalance, impish ease, that makes us want more of the poetry of Larry Levis.
Music and jazz will be a motif this evening. The poem that Gary just mentioned, “Slow Child with a Book of Birds,” from The Widening Spell of the Leaves, works very much in the way of a jazz composition—the central motifs are repeated, with virtuoso improvisational effects and changes, throughout the poem. There’s the snow and there’s the snowy egret, there’s the name of the bird and the name which the slow child gives the bird and which the poet gives back to the child—No Regrets—there’s the child and there’s the rest of us, there’s the idea of survival and the idea of extinction, there’s the white and there’s the black, and these motifs come back around in the poem again and again, even as the poem ranges out like expanding ripples, to the point where you might mistakenly think that the composer has lost his way—but in the end, we come back to the birds and the snow, the white snow and the black seeds thrown out for those birds to live on.
And now let’s turn to the very next poem in that book, which is actually a poem sequence titled The Perfection of Solitude. Last year, those of you attending the memorial event witnessed a video recording of Larry Levis reading the second section in that long poem sequence, “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex”; the final poem in that sequence, to return to our jazz motif, is named “Coda: Kind of Blue.”
Of course you recognize Levis is taking his title from the famous jazz album by Miles Davis and the all-star band Davis assembled for two unforgettable recording sessions in 1959 in New York City. And if you wanted to understand the essential underlying compositional and structural approach in the poetry of Larry Levis, you could have no better instruction than a deep listen to that masterpiece of a jazz album, Kind of Blue, which would precisely prepare you to listen to Levis’s own poetry, including his poem by that same name.
The opening of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue starts with Bill Evans dithering a bit on the piano, laying down a foundation of eerie chords, and then Paul Chambers comes in with the song’s signature opening refrain, answered antiphonally at first by the piano, and then joined by the horn section—Davis on trumpet, Cannonball Adderly on alto sax, and the great John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, all playing in harmony.
And right after that, Davis takes off with the first solo, followed in turn by everyone in the group. The name of that opening song is “So What,” and it’s easy, then, to imagine that the repeated answer to the first musical statement is that very phrase—ba de ba da ba de, SO WHAT? ba de ba da ba de, SO WHAT?—a kind of musical self-critique and challenge as much as it is a philosophical one, and Levis’s poem picks up on that phrase and that challenge in particular, and he begins his own poem with it. In this poem, you’ll hear references to John Coltrane and Charlie “Bird” Parker and Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday. And of course, like all of Larry’s poems, this one is in some sense an elegy, a coda not only for the end of a long and marvelous poem sequence, The Perfection of Solitude, but for the end of a poet, whose life was itself marvelous and long, yet not long enough.
[“Coda: Kind of Blue,” from The Widening Spell of the Leaves, by Larry Levis, published 1991 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.]
Now I’d like to welcome my colleague David Wojahn to introduce tonight’s honored guest. Thank you.
I’m going to introduce Spencer Reece. But first some brief thank-you’s are required. Most importantly to the family of Larry Levis, and especially to his sister Sheila for endowing the Levis Prize in Larry’s name. The winner is chosen through a unique competition, chosen from first or second books of poetry published during the previous year. Every year close to a hundred books or more are entered into the competition by their publishers, and many of the books are themselves contest winners. And some of these contests each receive over a thousand entries. In other words, the prize recognizes a poetry collection of genuine excellence.
Thanks are in order to our MFA students in our
program who volunteer to screen the collections, and to Gary Sange and
Greg Donovan, our poetry faculty, who I was able to work with in selecting
this year’s contest winner. Thanks are also due to Mary Flinn [of
New Virginia Review] for her work each year on the competition, and to
the English Department’s graduate coordinator, Jeff Lodge, whose
work is invaluable in bringing this whole thing together. And finally,
MFA program is indebted to Dean Robert Holsworth of the [College of Humanities
& Sciences] for his support of the MFA Program and his efforts to restore
reading budget. This years reading series is now in place, and we’re
sponsoring readings by some terrific poets and fiction writers, writers
whose work is widely acclaimed. The schedule
is available on the English Department Web site, by the way, and we even
have a poster now. After the reading, we have
and copies of Spencer Reece’s collection are going to be on sale,
sure he’ll be able to autograph them for you.
“If poetry cannot absolve us, then let’s expect mercy from nowhere else.” These words are attributed to Constantine Cavafy, a poet who many readers—and I count myself among them—regard as one of the handful of the truly great poets of the last century. Cavafy came from circumstances that wouldn’t seem favorable for making memorable poetry, and he labored in the deepest sort of obscurity. He was a member of the small Greek-speaking community of Alexandria, Egypt, an outsider in a community where almost everyone else spoke Arabic or French or English; an outsider as well because he was a gay man in a culture where being gay was surely imperiling. He died in 1933, and he wrote scarcely more than a hundred poems, and few of them were published during his lifetime, save for in small chapbooks he’d mimeograph and, staple together, and almost clandestinely distribute to his friends. Few people even knew Cavafy was a poet; they knew him instead as a clerk, a city employee, who worked in a division called “The Third Circle of Irrigation.” In other words, he was a clerk in the sewer department. And today his name is mentioned in the company of Yeats, Rilke, Stevens—he’s in every respect their peer.
“If poetry cannot absolve us, then let’s not expect mercy from anywhere.” When I first read Spencer Reece’s astonishing collection, The Clerk’s Tale, I was reminded of Cavafy, and especially reminded of that quote. It’s not only that Reece is also a clerk—fortunately one who works for the firm of Brooks Brothers and not for a sewer department—but it’s also that his poems embody that deep-seated faith in the mysterious and redemptive powers of poetry that Cavafy insists upon in his words. Why write poetry unless you feel that it can explain and perhaps even save your life? Yet when you ask that question today—even among poets—you are apt to be seen as a quaint throwback to the Victorian age, as some sort of Arnoldian fool. Instead, poets today seem more likely to attend to their careers, and to write a sort of self-absorbed but aridly impersonal and largely wise-ass verse, deriving as much from literary theory as from poetic tradition. It’s a depressing trend, and thus the appearance of a book like The Clerk’s Tale is especially refreshing today.
Simply put, The Clerk’s Tale reminds us that selves write poems—selves and not cultural force, selves and not what Foucault calls “the author function,” and the poem reminds us that selves write poems in part because of a yearning that I could only call spiritual, and devotional. You see this quality in the book whether the speaker is evoking the surprising and bittersweet camaraderie takes place among the store clerks in the book’s title poem, or in poems of personal history that remind me of Robert Lowell, especially the Lowell of Life Studies, for they perform the difficult task of writing of the sorrows of childhood, of mental anguish and breakdown, with a crisp acuity that never devolves to self-pity or solipsism. They are above all precise poems, fluent in their ability to render difficult subject matter and difficult forms such as the ghazal in a manner seems effortless. But you also understand that the poems’ precision and lucidity are arrived at with considerable cost; the writer is suspicious of the easy tour de force, of anything in his writing that could seem like posturing or self-importance. This is all to say that Spencer Reece seems to me the real thing, and he’s a writer whose career I plan to follow avidly. It’s a pleasure to welcome him here. And as a gift to Spencer, we have have for him a print by the esteemed artist David Freed of Larry Levis. Spencer Reece.
Oh, my gosh. I’m flattered and honored by all those words. You have no idea, to hear those things about yourself leaves me speechless, really. Thank you so much for all your hospitality since I arrived here in Richmond. I’ve never been here before; it’s a beautiful, beautiful city. My friend Robert, who I met over the phone at Brooks Brothers, who lives here, gave me a brief tour of that street with all the monuments. It was so pretty. Then I went to dinner—where did we go to dinner?—it was a great restaurant. I recommend it highly, Edo’s Squid. It was great. I don’t know what to do, so I’ll just read these poems.
I didn’t know what to read, but I did just want to say that I am honored to receive this prize, and it was great to hear about Mr. Levis and his poems. It’s an honor to be here. I’m humbled, and grateful, and honored to the bone, and I wanted you to know that.
So I didn’t know what to read, but then I was sitting next to Mary Flinn and she was telling me that Edgar Allan Poe grew up here, which I did not know. That got my mind going, as it sometimes does, and I remembered that when I wrote this poem I’m going to read to you, there was a word that I stole from Mr. Poe. The word is “tintinnabulating,” and I just loved it from the first time I read it many, many, years ago. And I thought, There’s got to be a place that I can put this in somewhere. It means “the sound of ringing bells,” for those of you who don’t know what that means. It’s a little poem. I wrote it in honor of two friends in Palm Beach that were getting married. And it’s called “Chiaroscuro,” which is in a painting when there’s light and dark. It’s simply an evocation of the town of Palm Beach—if you haven’t been there, I hope you get the chance to go—just evoking that town, at the end of the season.
[“Chiaroscuro,” by Spencer Reece, from The Clerk’s Tale, published 2004 by Houghton Mifflin.]
As they were invoking the spirit of Larry Levis, I was thinking Oh, gosh, I hope they don’t start chanting “boring, boring.” I’ll try to keep this on the shorter side. I think poetry readings are like going to the museum. I was just on a vacation, and I went to a few museums. You can just take in a few things, at least I can, and then I just can’t take anymore. I have to run out, run out of the Louvre.
I was having dinner, and two tables over was this person who I thought that I remembered from college, which was now, I hate to say, twenty-five years ago. And I thought, Gosh, that looks a lot like Billy Adams, and then I got back to the conversation at the table, and then lo and behold, it was. And he’s here tonight, and I feel so honored that he made the trip to come to this reading. He’s an architect now, and I thought, Well, I’ll read this poem, because it’s about a house. And so maybe Billy . . . I don’t know if you’re still called Billy, maybe it’s William now or something. But back then it was Billy. This is a poem called “Cape Cod.” It’s about a house that my family owned, and I think that’s all I have to tell you.
I’ve got to get more water. Any questions? It’s a little nerve-wracking giving these readings. I’m used to being behind a sales counter more than this podium, but every time I do it . . . The first time I gave a reading it was like, Oh, gosh, I was crying. It was really a shock to me to find myself . . . I had worked on this book for over twenty years, really, and so I didn’t ever think it would come to this. So the poem, it begins with a quote from a poet I love, T.S. Elliot, from the “Four Quartets,” and the quote is, "houses live and die."
[“Cape Cod,” by Spencer Reece, from The Clerk’s Tale, published 2004 by Houghton Mifflin.]
I’ll read you two more poems. This poem is called “Triptych.” It’s in three parts. I’m forty-two, so the early memories that I have growing up in America was the Vietnam War, the music at the time was being heard on something called The Ed Sullivan Show, and there were all kinds of great rock-and-roll acts that came into our living room in our little basement apartment in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Also it was the rise of black power. We had the first black woman run for president, Angela Davis. It’s a poem that tries, I guess, to come to terms with difficult issues around family of origin, I guess, might be a buzzword, where there’s mental illness and alcoholism.
[“Triptych,” by Spencer Reece, from The Clerk’s Tale, published 2004 by Houghton Mifflin.]
All right, one last poem for you. Thank you for everything, for recognizing these poems. They almost feel separate from me, like another entity. So I’m happy for them when I get word of their recognition. This last poem is called “Florida Ghazals.” It’s in seven parts. The ghazal, David Wojahn was mentioning that. And it’s really a pleasure and an honor to meet him. I had read his poems over and over again. There was this anthology called the Morrow Anthology [The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, 1985]. It was one of the few modern anthologies that I had when I lived for many years in this farmhouse, and I would read them over and over again. Little did I know that I’d get to meet him one day.
So this poem is called “Florida Ghazals.” It’s about Florida. It’s about hurricanes, which, let’s take a moment and say a little prayer for all those people that are about to get hit. I know what that’s like. It’s not fun. We get a lot of them in Florida. The ghazals is a Turkish form of love poetry as it was taught to me at Harvard when I was in graduate school there, at the Divinity School. I was taught by this German woman who was like ninety-years old. Her name was Anna Marie Schimmel. She was a great teacher, but she was very distinct in the fact that she would recite all of her lectures with her eyes closed and her head thrown back, next to the blackboard for an hour and a half. We’d just take notes and notes and notes and notes. It was an incredible experience just to watch this take place. It was there that I learned about this form. They were written by [Jalal al-Din] Rumi, and he had a religious experience through . . . He wrote these to his friend, Shams ad-Din of Tabriz, who was his beloved, and it was through that that he was writing these poems, think, if I’ve got that, if I remember it right.
One of their distinguishing characteristics is that each two lines make up its own poem. So the poem will jump around, as the mind does, or my mind does, from one thing to the next. It’s in memory of my cousin, John Stephen Reece, who was murdered in Florida the year I graduated from college. My family never recovered from that. And as we were honoring Larry Levis beginning this reading, and hearing him now through his poems, I thought I wanted to close with this because John, my cousin, is long gone, and I can never get him back or undo his murder. But in writing this poem, it was an attempt to sort of make sense of it, and to remember somebody who would be all but forgotten. He was twenty-three when he was murdered. So here’s the poem.
[“Florida Ghazals,” by Spencer Reece, from The Clerk’s Tale, published 2004 by Houghton Mifflin.]
Thank you very, very much.