Prominent poets examine state of American poetry, Larry Levis’ legacy in new book
When Michele Poulos and Gregory Donovan teamed up to film the documentary, “A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet,” they shot hours of interviews with some of the most influential, revered poets in the United States. The film, which was released in 2016, could only pack but so much of that compelling content into its 92-minute running time. Poulos, an alumna of Virginia Commonwealth University’s M.F.A. in creative writing program and the film’s director, and Donovan, a longtime creative writing professor at VCU, knew well before filming was done that they would have to find another outlet to share a more comprehensive record of the poet’s words.
As a result, Donovan and Poulos, who are married, have collaborated on another project – “Prismatics: Larry Levis & Contemporary American Poetry,” a book that collects transcriptions of the extended interviews conducted during the making of the film. “Prismatics” features discussions with David St. John (who also contributed the foreword), Philip Levine, Charles Wright, Norman Dubie, Gerald Stern, Carolyn Forché, Stanley Plumly, Colleen McElroy, David Wojahn, Carol Muske-Dukes, Kathleen Graber, Peter Everwine, Charles Hanzlicek and Gail Wronsky.
“The interviews were extremely valuable, and we realized that immediately during the time we were conducting them,” said Donovan, a professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
Poulos said the book offers “free rein” for the poets to expand on a range of topics beyond Levis, a beloved poet who taught at VCU until his death in 1996 at age 49. The poets used Levis’ life and work as a jumping-off point to delve into subjects such as the connection between self-destruction and creativity, the necessity of poetry in American life, and the overall state of contemporary American poetry. The book’s title stems from the use of Levis as a prism for viewing these broader topics through the individual perspectives of an array of poets.
Terrance Hayes, a National Book Award-winning poet who has pointed to Levis as an influence on his work, wrote of “Prismatics,” “These transcriptions double as oral histories, flash memoirs, and spontaneous poetic essays not only about Levis, but about contemporary American poetry in the years spanning his larger-than-life life: 1946-1996. In one interview Carolyn Forché says, ‘Larry’s poems are suffused with an awareness of human presence.’ The same must be said of this rich and spirited collection.”
Interviewed participants’ answers were varied and thoughtful, Donovan said, providing rich insight into an entire period of American poetry and letters.
“The whole process of it was a confirmation of the nature and quality of the bonds of friendship, mutual inspiration and respect that exist among people who take the writing of poetry seriously,” said Donovan, who was Levis’ colleague and friend. “They are almost inevitably people who live with a kind of spiritual questioning and intensity, along with a sense of the unique value of other human beings, so they bring with them a penetrating thoughtfulness about being alive and how that’s translated into words. I really enjoyed being around these poets, and I loved hearing what they had to say.”
Donovan said the poets included in the film and book proved eager to talk about Levis. “He was such a central figure for so many American poets and that continues to be true,” Donovan said. For instance, the filmmaking team spent two days with Levine, the former U.S. poet laureate, at his house in California. The interview would prove to be one of Levine’s last – he died in 2015.
“He really wanted to talk about everything that he had been thinking over concerning Larry's career and specifically about what his work meant to American poetry,” Donovan said.
Of particular interest to many participants was the topic of the risks and sacrifices that are necessary to live the life of an artist.
“Larry was really the poster boy for that question, because he was so willing to sacrifice everything for his work,” Donovan said. “His work as a writer always came first. And that was a problem for some of the people in his life.
“It's a very difficult choice. It's a painful choice, not a simple one. Larry writes about that in his poems, and all of the poets interviewed could readily identify with that struggle and that choice. How much do you give to your work?”
Poulos, who like Donovan is also a poet, said the participants’ thoughts on the necessity of poetry in contemporary life struck a particular chord for her. For instance, she pointed to Wojahn, a professor of creative writing at VCU and Pulitzer Prize finalist, who acknowledged that poetry may not always be a matter of life and death, but he also noted, “Every once in a while, my house has been on fire, and poetry has come in and put the damn thing out.”
“People had such wide-ranging answers, and I found them striking and surprising,” Poulos said.
Many of those interviewed had known Levis personally, including Levine, who had been his teacher. Interviewees remembered Levis for the occasional glimpse of his dark side but also for his witty sense of humor and generous nature. Others, however, knew Levis only through his poetry, such as Graber, a professor of creative writing at VCU and National Book Award finalist. She cited the influence of Levis on her work, noting that she admired the fluidity and complexity of his poems as well as his sense that there is something ineffable, a world beyond this world, a realm that Levis sought to acknowledge through language.
Donovan said it is encouraging to see how many younger poets remain influenced by Levis. The winners of VCU’s annual Levis Prize, which is given to the best first or second book of poetry published each year, often find the award especially meaningful because of its namesake and his importance to them. In a blurb for “Prismatics,” writer Christopher Buckley called Levis “the genius of our generation.”
“All of the writers interviewed and many other writers I know have taken courage from Larry's work, and he's inspired them to expand the dimensions of their writing, what they can dare to include in it, and to enlarge what sorts of approaches they might allow themselves to take, so that overall they can raise the standards they set for themselves,” Donovan said.
“A Late Style of Fire” appeared at a host of film festivals, including the Mill Valley Film Festival in California (where the film had its premiere), the Virginia Film Festival, the James River Film Festival, and others across the country. The film is currently available to be streamed through Kanopy, which is accessible through VCU Libraries to those with a university ID, as well as on Amazon. Donovan said the film has been used in classrooms nationwide, and Donovan and Poulos both hope “Prismatics” can serve as an informative supplement to the film. Poulos is now editing her second film, “Wild Creation: Mardi Gras Women,” which examines the history of women’s participation in Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
In the book’s opening essay, “The Care and Feeding of a Dead Poet,” Donovan weighs the time he has devoted to “spreading the word” about Levis and his work through teaching, readings, the Levis Prize, advocating for the Larry Levis papers in VCU Libraries, and now a film and subsequent book. That devotion has come sometimes at the expense of Donovan’s own writing, but he doesn’t view it as an unusual sacrifice.
“For me, it’s all about celebrating the work of a poet who I deeply admire and whose work I believe is central to the advancement of the writing of the students I teach and to American poetry in general,” Donovan said. “If you love poetry the way that I do, and the way that Michele [Poulos] does, promoting a poet whose work you admire is just a natural activity.”
Donovan said this latest project, and the words of those involved, reinforce the importance of his life’s pursuit.
“‘Prismatics’ is another way of affirming the value of literature and art in our lives,” Donovan said. “It's not something that you necessarily need to live, like food or water, but you live a far better life when you have it.”