13th Annual Levis Reading Prize Reading
captured September 24, 2010 at Levis: A Celebration, a conference marking the acquisition
of the Levis papers by the VCU Libraries & presented here as part of Levis Remembered
Good evening. I am Terry Oggel, Chair of the English department here at VCU. Welcome to the Thirteenth Annual Levis Prize reading, given by this year’s winner, Peter Campion, honoring his collection The Lions. Regarding his work, Poetry Magazine has proclaimed, “Campion’s meticulous poems have dangerous edges. He’s a major American poet in the making, if not already made.” Acclaimed poet Alan Shapiro says, “These elegant passionate poems explore the way we live now in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century: our capacity for love and violence, our hunger for both truth and self-deception, our estrangement from and our connection to the natural world in all its beauty and indifference. Campion affirms the value of intimate affection even while showing the frailty of such affection in a time of war.”
To make this award to Peter, more than 150 entries were narrowed down to ten finalists by our MFA students, and the final judges came from the faculty of the MFA Program in Creative Writing in our English department. But this year, as you can see on the big screen behind me, is a very special year, and many other people and organizations are participating to make this three-day event unique. This celebration is made possible by the support of many individuals and groups, and I want to recognize them now: the Levis family to start with, Larry’s sister Sheila and his brother Buck; Carole Weinstein; the New Virginia Review; VCU Libraries, in particular, John Ulmschneider along with Kimberly Separ; the James Branch Cabell Library Associates; VCU Friends of the Library; the College of Humanities & Sciences; the Department of English; Blackbird, the online journal of literature and the arts; the MFA Creative Writing Program; the School of the Arts; the Honors College; PBS, The Community Idea Stations; Barnes & Noble @ VCU; Joan Gaustad; Myron Helfgott; and Mamma Zu restaurant. As for my colleagues, for their energy and vision in seeing the conference come to fruition I am especially pleased to recognize David Wojahn and Greg Donovan, as well as Richmond’s literary matriarch, Mary Flinn. With these, I also want to acknowledge Thom Didato for his tireless efforts to make this a success.
I'd also like to extend our gratitude to the English department’s student group, Literati, for their help with the book sales. Thanks must go to all the MFA students who have helped with the logistics and local transport for our invited guests these past three days. In particular, for his tireless efforts in putting this entire program together, I want to single out this year’s Levis Fellow, Gregory Kimbrell.
I’d like to take a minute for one of Larry’s friends who has for three years now provided a special highlight in our award program—David Freed, whose mixed-media full-size portrait of Larry is here in the front. David worked with Larry on several joint projects, and the English department is most appreciative that David has given the department this richly fascinating depiction of Larry on long-term loan. This portrait, especially in the head and shoulders, captures Larry just right: the tilt of the head, the hand and the fingers as they pull at the neck—that gesture is perfect. We view Larry from the back. We see him, but I think he does not see us. He’s in thought, that gesture says that. He’s mentally writing. He’s lit up a fresh cigarette; the last one is not quite crushed out yet, under his heel. David’s portrait of Larry hangs in our department office suite, where we are reminded of Larry daily. We are extremely grateful, David. Thank you for your generosity.
The Levis prize is awarded to the author of the best first or second book of poetry published in the previous calendar year and is made in the name of our late colleague Larry Levis. With this award we remember a distinguished poet, essayist, teacher, scholar and, above all, mentor for many of us in the department. Larry was our colleague until his untimely death in 1996. As I said a moment ago, this year’s celebration is special. We are marking the acquisition of Larry’s papers by the James Branch Cabell Library of Virginia Commonwealth University. We are honoring Larry’s legacy in this three-day literary conference which has featured an opening night reading by the award-winning David St. John, then last night’s keynote reading by the great Philip Levine, and now concluding with the awarding of the 2010 Levis Reading Prize to Peter Campion. Peter writes about the struggle of making a life in America, about the urge to carve a space for love and family out of modern life. Interweaving the political and the personal, Campion writes at one moment of his disturbing connection to the public political structure—symbolized by Robert McNamara who makes a startling appearance in the title poem—then in the next moment, of a haunting reverie beneath a magnolia tree, signaling his impulse to escape the culture altogether. In The Lions, Campion shows himself to be one of the very best poets of his generation. Now let me make room for my colleague, Larry’s personal and professional friend, poet and professor, Greg Donavan.Gregory Donovan:
Each year on the celebratory evening honoring the winner of the Larry Levis Reading Prize, it’s my pleasant task to find some way to invoke the memory of Larry Levis, who was my colleague and my friend. On this occasion, however, perhaps it’s not as necessary for me to call up his spirit, since Larry has been so much in the air around here for three days. Still, it’s entirely proper to take one more moment on this particular evening, as we do each year, to think about him, and his work, and his literary friendships and influences.
Recently, in the graduate poetry workshop, the students and I have been discussing the collection What Work Is and other poetry of Philip Levine—taking a close look at the roots of the writing of Larry Levis that might be found in the work of Levine. Phil was, as you know, Larry’s mentor and lasting literary friend, and eventually they both became extremely important “first responders” to each other’s writing. In our discussions, I’ve emphasized that, as with the writing of Levis himself, Levine’s work is not well understood if it is seen simply as a poetry of nostalgia and autobiography—that it will be more fully appreciated if a reader also sees clearly the fantastical and fictional elements in his work, which recall the surrealism and the magic realism of Spain and South America. Levine’s poetry is not solely made up of the simple reportage of a poetry of personal witness. Even Levine’s title, The Simple Truth, can be misleading if it is understood simplistically. In that very book, he includes poems which readers may believe are about his own sister, including a disturbing and ultimately quite moving poem, “Listen Carefully,” narrated by a brother who lives with his sister and sleeps with her, night after night, in the same bed. Memorable. And yet, as he has confirmed in interviews, Philip Levine has no sister, except in his marvelous and deeply humane imagination.
In that same vein, we’ve also looked at the sometimes ironic, yet always effective, use of myth in Levine’s writing, as in the opening poem of What Work Is, “Fear and Fame,” where the poem’s narrator engages in a hero-quest involving a descent into hell—climbing down into the industrial hell of the acid-filled “pickling tank” of Breslin’s First-Rate Plumbing and Plating. Unlike Apollo, who only has to visit hell once a day and comes back, or even Orpheus and other Greek heroes, who only have to visit hell on special occasions, the hero of Levine’s “Fear and Fame” has “to descend and rise up from the other world” twice in a single eight-hour work shift in order to be “known among women and men.”
In fact, in my online conversations with my students Emilia Phillips and Ross Losapio, we realized that Levine frequently enacts these hero-quests and descents into hell in his poems, but his hero is often something like a “reverse Orpheus,” in that Levine’s hero-figure not only avoids screwing everything up and leaving behind the one he was supposed to save—as you know that’s what happens when Orpheus leaves Eurydice behind, because he turns back to look at her as he has been told not to do—but in Levine’s work, the hero manages to save the other person and himself. In the seventh section of “Burned” in What Work Is, when the hero-figure, who has been taking a walk through a decaying urban hell near the canals, turns around to look at the frightened, lonely drunk woman who has been trailing behind him, not only does she not disappear like Eurydice, but she is magically transformed, it seems, into a lost, tearful little girl who manages to smile back when the hero-narrator smiles at her through his own tears of grief. In “Soloing,” the narrator of the poem has to go into the land of the dead, a hell named Los Angeles, in order to visit his mother who has had a visionary dream of the jazz genius John Coltrane. As he approaches his mother, the sea has become a dead place,"a carpet of oil,” and the roses he’s brought from Fresno have "browned on the seat" beside him, another death image. Orpheus is recalled when the narrator says in the end, “I could have turned back and lost the music.” But he didn’t turn back, and so he earned “the gift of song.”
The poems of Larry Levis also have these hero-figures, narrators who descend into hell and come back with a boon—though in Levis, the gift earned may perhaps be even more ambiguous and doubtful, and come, perhaps, at an even higher cost. In “For Zbigniew Herbert. Summer, 1971, Los Angeles,” the hero-narrator of the poem realizes that he has not only “raised a dead man into this air,” but that now “he will have to bury him inside” his own body, after which his “hands will begin to feel like glass on the page,” so that each resurrection comes at a terrible price for all who dare to “make poems about the dead.” In a later poem, “Slow Child with a Book of Birds,” the narrator enters another form of hell, riding a bus through a nightmare land of office buildings and rush-hour traffic, and shares the experience with a child who keeps repeating “no regrets,” his innocently mistaken pronunciation of “snowy egret” from the bird book. The poem manages an unlikely proof and salvation for that child, showing us that, despite his disabilities, he has a precious knowledge and way of viewing his world: “And no one I saw the rest of that whole freezing / Overcast day,” the narrator says, “remembered how to treat / the day as decently.”
Finally, among many other examples I could cite, in “Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside It,” Levis makes use of a rather familiar Richmond location—Larry lived in Church Hill, and if you know the area, you'll recognize the small park, an area on the side of the hill near the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Larry places there not only the hovering spirit of Edgar Allan Poe, but also inhabits the park with “three or four guys sprawled”on the benches who very likely were figures based on people Larry actually knew, or at least recognized from his neighborhood. In this poem, the park might momentarily seem a heaven, but it soon becomes a hell. This is Larry:
I only imagine it as a sunny place. If they're
Awake, they gaze off as if onto a distant landscape,
Not at the warehouses & the freeway the hill overlooks,
Not onto Jefferson Avenue where, later, they'll try
To score a little infinity wrapped up in tinfoil,
Or a flake of heaven tied up in a plastic bag
And small as their lives are now, but at a city
That is not the real city gradually appearing
As the mist evaporates. For in the real city,
One was kicked in the ribs by a night watchman
Until he couldn't move. Another was
A small time dealer until he lost his nerve,
And would have then become a car thief, if only
The car had started. And the last failed to appear,
Not only for a court date, but for life itself.
In these ways, they are like Poe if Poe had lived
Beyond composing anything, & had been kicked to death.
In the end, in the poem, Poe is condemned to be caught in that place, unable even to cross the street and make his way to a carnival nearby, where there’s a sideshow where
With sow's hoofs instead of hands, taps the glass—
Some passing entertainment for the masses.
In the carny's spiel, everyone lost comes
And so, in Larry’s poem, Poe is resurrected and comes back again, but in this case, our hero-narrator is a rather ironic Orpheus calling the dead back to life, because in the end,
at the intersection of radiance
And death, the intersection of the real city
And the one that vanishes, Poe is pausing
In the midst of traffic, one city inside the other.
The rain slants. The flesh is a white dust.
The cars pass slowly through him, & the boy keeps
Tapping at the glass, unable to tell his story.
[Editor’s Note: Poem originally published in VQR, Winter 1997]
Poe has indeed been brought back from the land of the dead, yet even though the poet’s hero-quest has been successful, it’s highly questionable whether Poe is any better off. And perhaps Poe has simply entered another hell, the one that all of us live in—Richmond, Virginia—afraid that we, too, will be unable to tell our story. I don’t know, maybe that’s the best any other poet can do for Edgar, give him a chance to come back and have a look at us—even if he’s not, this time, allowed to speak.
I want to end this invocation of Larry Levis with the brief story of the last day I saw him alive. One Friday I had a phone call from Larry and he said, in that goofy voice he used when he wanted to indicate that he knew he was being foolish and awful—but didn’t you find him charming anyway?—he explained that he needed a favor. His car had a flat tire, and he was parked illegally in front of the VCU/MCV hospital, and the cops were circling around. “Yes,” I said, wondering why he needed my help with that. He went on, his friend Boots was with him and they had been running an errand—Boots was doing some work for him around the house. Boots was undoubtedly some guy who was out on bail and was doing work for Larry—which he probably did not need done—and they were off to the hardware store when the mishap occurred. So, I asked Larry, “OK, fine, but why are you calling me?” Because I knew what I was in for already, that if I said yes to this thing, my whole day was shot. I understood that from the get-go. So I said “Why are you calling me?” and he said, “Well Boots, he broke the jack on my car.” I said, “How did he do that?” He said, “I don’t know, I have no idea how he did it.”
Occasionally in my life, every once and a while, I actually do have the ability of prophecy and I understood that even though I had truck that was new to me, that had a nice big, giant, thick jack in it, I better throw an extra one in the back of the truck—because this guy Boots seemed to have some kind of reverse Midas touch and anything he touched turned to junk. And you know, the first thing he did when I got there with this big, giant two-ton jack is he broke it, and it never worked again. So luckily I had a third jack, you know, this other jack, and we put it on the car, and we got it up, and we got the wheel off and everything. Boots was helping.
We finally got the thing off, and I said, “OK, where’s your spare?” I should have known—there was no spare. This was that junk car that Amy Tudor sold him. It came without a spare. So now I realized I was right, I’m in for a whole day of this. We took this flat tire off, and I am thinking the police may come by here and get this car and take it away, it’s sitting here with three tires on it. We went off to this place, and on the way to the tire shop, Boots announced that he was dreadfully hungry. And we were passing a barbecue place and he insisted that we go in there, into the barbecue place. And so Larry shrugged his shoulders, did his goofy act thing again: “Oh, what can I do? You know, Greg, I don’t know.” So in we go, in to go have a barbecue sandwich. After the barbecue sandwich we go back out to the car and Larry demanded that I put on a particular oldies station, and of course it was just what he wanted, The Rolling Stones. And there was Boots, and I, and Larry singing at the top of the lungs, making fun of that god-dammed Mick Jagger pretending that he could get no satisfaction.
Now, like the hero-figure in Phil Levine’s “Soloing,” I’m glad I didn’t turn back that day. I’m glad I went on and gloriously wasted the whole beautiful day, hanging out with Boots and Larry, because if I didn’t “I could have turned back and lost the music.”
And now I am going to introduce my colleague David Wojahn who is going to introduce Peter Campion. Thank you.David Wojahn:
Thank you Greg. Before I introduce Peter Campion, I want to thank not only our sponsors but also the participants of this event. You know, we have heard a lot of talk these past few days about the competiveness of American poets, a competiveness that seems all the more strange when you consider how small the rewards and perks are when you become whatever can be defined as a successful poet. But American poets just aren’t social Darwinists in any significant way, expect maybe on the island of Manhattan and part of Cambridge, or during those three or four days where they convene in that antimatter Brigadoon that’s called AWP. And I can’t think of any better evidence of the general goodwill that exists among American poets than to note that we have been here for the last three days for one reason alone, and that’s because we all admire and had our lives changed by the poet Larry Levis. This event is our way of acknowledging what a gift that body of work is. So, from all of us at VCU, thank you, guys, and thank you, Larry.
So this morning one of my sons, who is eight, wanted to know what I would be doing today, and I told him I’d be at work celebrating the work of Larry Levis. And he said “Oh, didn’t he write The Dollmaker’s Ghost? That’s a really cool book.” Now mind you, this was because he saw the book sitting on my desk. And then he said, “Are you going to be doing things like pumpkin carving at the celebration?” Well, I am pleased to announce that the winner of the pumpkin carving contest is Peter Campion with his entry, this exquisite book, The Lions, which was published last year by University of Chicago Press.
You know, so often the verse that I love, the work that energizes me, is a kind of Savonarola poetry—its message in one form or another ends up being pulled down by vanity. And I often think that the vanity which is hardest for us to pull down is the belief that there must be some sort of scrim or curtain or window between the self of the poet, with all its seductive pleasures and its fascinations with inwardness, and the sorrows and sufferings of the world. That’s a vanity which Larry Levis, and Phil Levine, Robert Lowell, Adrianne Rich, and a handful of others have insisted always on pulling down. Too few poets have that nerve, dedication, or capacity for the controlled jeremiad.
Peter Campion is a quieter poet than these figures, but he shares their desire to pull down our special occupational vanity. This is a task made immensely harder in a world that is so mediated, so pixilated—a world where violence and suffering are ghettoized within the circuitry of a flat screen TV. How do you put down the channel selector and begin the project of pulling down the vanity? That’s a question that’s pondered over and over again in The Lions,and the answer comes in myriad forms—but most importantly it’s in the insistence that there is a juncture between public history and private history, that the two forces entwine in mysterious and unforeseen ways, ranging from the speaker’s very early childhood memory of watching on television the American hostages paraded around by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to an image of Robert McNamara holding up the speakers infant mother at her baptism or to an account of a protest demonstration against our current, ongoing, war.
The speaker of these poems broods upon these images and memories with a remarkably composed sense of the line and of the larger shape of the individual poems and of how they coalesce into a book. And he confronts all these issues as an artist of the highest order, not as a mere ideologue. The Lions is a book I will often go back to, in no small measure because it tells me, as the title of one poem has it, “Here Is How We Live Now.” As it tells me this, I feel for a moment, consoled. Peter Campion is the author of one pervious collection, Other People. He has published poems and terrific criticism in many journals. He was a Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer at Stanford, and last year he was the Brodsky Fellow at the American Academy of Rome. It’s my pleasure to introduce you tonight to Peter Campion.Peter Campion:
Miles Davis once told one of his quartets, “If you’re not nervous, you’re not paying attention.” After hearing that gracious introduction from a poet I admire immensely, and after hearing three days of wonderful commentary from poets I admire immensely, and after simply being allowed to play a small part in honoring a poet whose work I love deeply, and while feeling gratitude towards the Levis family especially and for the sponsors here, I can tell you I’m paying attention.
This first poem is called “Just Now,” and it’s one of these poems in which the title begins the first sentence.
[“Just Now,” The Lions, Peter Campion, University of Chicago Press, 2009.]
I’m going to read a new poem. It’s interesting this idea of a speaker, if we’re talking about the speaker of the poem in workshops. I have to say, I really hate that phrase, the speaker. It’s my own neuroses probably. Pedagogically I call it the poet, so students don’t feel they’re being judged. But I begin to realize that perhaps it’s one of my limitations, that there aren’t more speakers. This new book I have a draft of, called Salt Water, I try to have more speakers. We talked about influence and also antagonism today, and I think we are influenced by our antagonisms; they’re part and parcel of the same current and backwash. This poem has Virginia in it. It also has a very literary reference to NASCAR. I’m sure you all know what rumble strips are.
[“81 South,” Peter Campion, unpublished.]
I never thought of my poems as being influenced by the poems of Larry Levis, although I love them immensely and maybe I wish that they were more influenced. When I read Levis for the fist time, it was more like seeing a zebra walk down the street. I just said, “God, that’s incredible.” But I didn’t say, “I wanna be a zebra.”
But influence works in very strange ways. I promise you—I don’t know, maybe my memory is wrong; it very well could be—that I had not read Larry Levis’s poem “Adolescence,” before writing this poem. There is a line in here, that I think is a very sincere line, spoken not by a speaker, but by something resembling me, about a person whose real name is in the poem. And I just realized recently that it duplicates almost exactly a line in that poem of Levis’s. It is called “Auburn,” which is the name of the town I live in, and so many states have towns named Auburn. There’re all named after a poem actually, an 18th century poem by Oliver Goldsmith, in which this imaginary English bucolic town is referred to as the “loveliest village of the plain,” which is the epigraph.
[“Auburn,”Peter Campion, unpublished.]
I’ll try to read a couple of cheerier poems. Elegy is always a celebration of some kind. [MFA student] Katelyn [Kiley] was talking about the challenges of writing love poems, and the way that, in writing a love poem, sometimes you write against writing a love poem. I will read two short poems from a sequence, the title sequence of Salt Water.
[“Salt Water,”Peter Campion, unpublished.]
I realize I did this thing that Kathy [Graber] was making fun of, because there’s a line here boosted from Wallace Stevens. In fact, everything up until now has been Wallace Stevens. This is the second of those two poems.
[“Salt Water,”Peter Campion, unpublished.]
Another way to think about influence, I think—and elegy at the same time, and the gratitude that has to exist in the art if it is going to exist at all—is to think about how incredibly far reaching that influence is. It doesn’t just have to do with poets of your parents’ generation; it has to do with poets two thousand, three thousand years ago.
It’s rude to segue from that to a funny story I want to tell at someone’s expense that has to do with age. You know, we talked about so-and-so’s teacher and teachers here, and David mentioned that I had the criminal good fortune of spending a year in Rome. And I was sitting at the American Academy in Rome and with this lovely classicist from Detroit. I won’t discuss a women’s age except to say she’s seen a lot more of the world than I have—and she’s from Detroit—and she said, “You write poems?” And I said yes, and you know there’s an incredible poet from Detroit, one of the great American poets. And this lovely woman, this classicist from Detroit, named Norma Goldman said, “Phil Levine? I had him in my high school English class.” It’s true.
This poem is called “Hartsfield-Jackson,” after the airport in Atlanta, which I think is the biggest airport in the world by some measure. It actually translates an Anglo Saxon poem which is a riddle—there are so many of these Anglo Saxon poems in which an entity asks you to figure out who it is. There’s an anthology of these coming out and they got poets to translate them, and I got, I think, the best one, which is the wind. Because the wind not only asks you who it is, but it has this weird criminal psychology—it asks you who’s pushing it around and making it do these terrible things and then it takes credit for the terrible things. It has a kind of Bush-Cheney relationship with this figure.
[“Hartsfield–Jackson,” Peter Campion, unpublished.]
I’ll read another love poem.
[“Lilacs,” The Lions, Peter Campion, University of Chicago Press, 2009.]
This is a pretty short poem.
[“Simile,” The Lions, Peter Campion, University of Chicago Press, 2009.]
Two-poem warning seems to be a meme this week. But this first one—I don’t know, except maybe for the words drum solo, the word long poem is probably the most feared phrase at any arts event—maybe more than drum solo. This is the title poem of the book, and I was very grateful that Blackbird published it. So it’s a long poem, smoke ’em if you got ’em. It’s in five parts, and I think all you need to know is that it goes back and forth in time.
[“The Lions,” The Lions, Peter Campion, University of Chicago Press, 2009.]
Last poem’s much shorter. As is evident, one of the ambitions of this book, and of the new one, is to write a kind of political poem. But of course it would be really boring to just write a poem, you know, telling someone which way you think they should vote or that there’re on the wrong side or something—seems to me a kind of unaesthetic way of going about things. This poem is called “Lines After Watching the Returns, 2004.”
[“Lines After Watching the Returns 2004,” Peter Campion, unpublished.]