“Hi. It’s Me, Death” with Dana Levin

Ana Garcia: What is your usual process for getting an idea for a poem, and then how is it for you to write it down?

Dana Levin: Ideas come primarily in two ways. One is from outside my head, like reading an article or seeing something in life, the news, or visual images. The first poem in Sky Burial describes something that happened to me: I came home and there was this hawk on the hedge, right there, and I was really surprised. Then I thought “Oh, this means something. It’s an omen!” I went up and I took a look at the symbol book, so that actually happened. With that experience and looking up what “hawk” meant, and how it started merging my internal experience with my parents and my sister being dead, it’s an example of the poem being externally inspired but ultimately coming back to what is internally on my mind. Another way that poems come to me is through the unconscious, like dream images.

The poem “Mentor” comes from a dream I had: ghosts that need reminding. Those three prose poems in the middle of Sky Burial come from dreams which seem very lofty… and I just felt like they had to stay in prose. When you read prose, there’s an expectation of reading for information of some kind, which doesn’t exactly happen when you see a poem format, it’s a different experience. It felt like I had to keep those in a prose format to be intentional with the fact that they came from just the weirdness of dreams. It was one of the things that helped me to write those.


Hannah Malik: What other religions and cultures did you research in your process of writing?

DL: The two main cultures I focused on were the Aztec and Tibetan Buddhism- and it’s a weird combo, because the Buddhism is very detached; everything is from the mind, nothing is completely real. They’re death-focused, but in such a way to teach us about impermanence. Nothing lasts. They do a lot of shamanic work, such as meditation to the point of imagining you cutting off your head, scooping out your brains to study the poison inside, then turning it into a golden elixir. Another imagines you chopping up your body and feeding it to your demons, it’s totally violent, but it’s all at the level of your mind… the Aztecs are completely different. They’re like a complete blood-cult and seem to me the most literal people I’ve encountered. For instance, they take captives from war, kill them, skin them and dye the skin golden. The chieftains would wear them for several days- while they’re rotting- and afterwards take off the skins and be new people; spring has arrived. To me, that’s a really literal interpretation. Blood sacrifice was practiced every twenty days to bring in the new months. I also studied things that didn’t necessarily make it into the book, for instance I studied the weird kinds of bugs found in Egyptian tombs for a while, but that didn’t end up in a poem. I read about really weird burial practices, but the only one that really came forward was the “sky burial”.


AG: You continuously mention websites and popular culture icons, along with more spiritual ideas such as the “sky burial”. What was your purpose in combining these two kinds of elements?

DL: I wanted to mix those details for a lot of reasons. One: that was my experience. On one hand I’m doing all of this meditation on Tibetan Buddhism and reading all of this very philosophical writing about Tibetan Buddhism approaches to death, and all of a sudden I’m on Wikipedia looking for what happens when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. I was trying to show the fact that I was having a transcendental experience but I was also having a very ordinary experience. I used to be the kind of poet who would get angry if people mentioned things in their poems such as Dr. Pepper or chips, it broke the spell for me. Now I’m more aware of how huge our digital world is, how it is part of what we are now experiencing, and how I would like to document my engagement with it. Somebody was writing about my work, saying, “I love how she talks about Tibetan Buddhism but then mentions junk food” and I liked that. But when I was younger, it would have driven me insane, because I would have wanted to break the spell of the poem. I wanted to stay true to my experience, to witness my journey on this grief. What I found very interesting about investigating for example about body’s decay, what happens to the body after it dies, forensic anthropology, is how found it very calming.


HM: On top of being a recalibration for yourself, is there a message you would like to convey to your readers?

DL: Yes, it isn’t really in the book, but in a nutshell what the Tibetan Buddhism says is ‘we’re all going to die, so why not be nice to each other?’ and that really resonated with me. We’re always being mean to one another in bigger or smaller ways. I don’t think that comes through the book, but I feel they should make the confrontation with death. Don’t shy away from it- it’s profound! It’s hugely transformative, and we’re a total death-denying country. We’re constantly trying to keep it at bay, from plastic surgery to freaking-out about the food we put in our bodies. We put all our death on TV, too, and I think that’s to help us pretend it’s not happening in the world.

AG: You have mentioned that you are not a fiction writer. Apart from the format, for you what’s the essential difference between poetry and fiction?

Dana: I guess that most fiction writers think in terms of character and plot, that’s how they get inspired. For me, poets are often inspired by not situations but are interested in emotional perception: the way the light might look on the wall, seeing a hawk and wondering about it. So I think the way they want to engage the reader is very different in terms of what might inspire them. I also think that you could think of poets as people who want to drop down deep, and prose writers wanting sort of fill up and expand. It’s not exactly vertical versus horizontal, but in a way it kind of is. It’s just a different way of holding inspiration and figuring out how you want to work it out.


HM: Is there a specific way in which you sequence your poems?

DL: Yes, I pay very very very close attention to the way I sequenced the book. Originally, I had wanted it to be circular, but I don’t know how to do that effectively. My mentor originally sequenced the book very strangely: we had agreed from the start the book would start with Auger and end with Spring, but she had sequenced very dark poems with short, unrelated ones. Her reasoning for this was to keep waking the reader up and keep them interested, and that was truly innovative for me. I didn’t quite like how the second half of the book was put together, so I sequenced that part myself, but the book as a whole is still cyclical in nature.


AG: You mentioned during another interview that writing this book was not part of a mourning process, it was a “recalibration.” How do you interpret that?

DL: When that many people who are close to you die in such a short period of time, I thought I was really supposed to get death. This isn’t about my personal loss and feelings, this is about “Hi, it’s me, Death. Again. Taking someone you love from you right now,” and I just thought I had to make the confrontation with death, to really see into our nature. And also just grief was an amazing experience, because I became convinced that we are born with a set of emotions: I think we are born with the grief as an emotion but it doesn’t get activated until someone close to you dies. Once of the reasons grief can be so disorienting is because most of us don’t experience the dead of a close loved one until we are older, and at that point we know what it is to be sad, and we know how it is to be happy, and the physiological experiences that go with those feelings. However grief comes with its own set of physiological experiences like exhaustion, insomnia, it’s a whole other thing, a physical feeling. Especially if you are an adult because you felt like you understood the emotional palette, and then this one gets activated and you just can’t believe it, it’s very overwhelming. I was interested in trying to look at those experiences with a more analytical eye and I think that is what I did not drown in the feelings that I was also having. Recalibration means that I have to integrate death into my life, and it has actually made me a person I like, I like what death has done to me. I’m more tempered in the ways I deal with the world, I’m a little more fatalistic, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’m less anxious about living. I feel like before these experiences I was a hot sword that you’re making and you put it into cold water to temper it, and now I feel like I was a very hot sword and then death came and it was very shocking but now I’m stronger, sharper.


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Combining Text and Sound with Laura Wetherington

JS: When and how did you begin to write poetry?

LW: In the fifth grade for a project, the class made a little book with poems in it. That was probably the first poem that I wrote. As for feeling like a poet and a person in the world, that’s an ongoing process. I went to school as an undergraduate and studied English in a place that didn’t have creative writing as a major, and then decided that maybe I could call myself a poet. I applied to graduate school thinking “maybe I could do this,” and then I graduated from poetry school thinking “maybe I could do this,” and then I published a book and I’m still thinking… “maybe I could do this.”

SM: Tell us a little bit about your online journal and what kind of things you guys publish.

LW: Textsound started in 2007. There were four of us: Anna Vitale, Anya Cobler, Adam Fagin, and myself. We knew we wanted to make something with sound, and we knew we wanted to make something that built community. We wanted to make something that would reach out and connect people through the internet because we thought, “What better way to use the internet than to connect poets and artists, right?” We met for six months and thought about what would be the format of the magazine, what we would call it, what color would the website be, etc. Somebody built the actual website for us and we launched in 2008. We publish some poetry that is read aloud without any background, but mostly we publish things that are edited, or sound based. It’s not just me reading a poem or a guy with a guitar, but someone reading a poem and a weird guitar in the background. We like disjunctive sounds. We like to be surprised. We like conceptual kinds of works — things that you don’t really understand until you go to the contributor’s page in the website and read the artist’s notes where they describe what it’s about. There’s this guy that has a piece called Swarm of Sun Valley where he overlaid a song that sold a million copies over and over and over again like a million times, and the sound is like a very loud buzz. That’s all the thing is, but when you read the background on the contributors page — what he’s doing, what he’s thinking about — it makes the sound a completely different thing. So we like that kind of stuff- things that make you think.

SM: Where do you draw the line between poetry and noise or music, sound poetry, etc.

LW: I don’t draw the line. That’s what I like about the magazine. I feel like it crosses. It’s at an intersection– like a twelve way intersection. A lot of people send us work and they don’t necessarily send us a bio, so we’re listening to something and we’re not sure, “Is this an artist who has sent us this piece of art, is it a poet who sent us their poem, or a musician who sent us his music?” Because you tune your ear a little bit different depending on what the thing is, what its being called, and where its coming from — the field out of which it arises. We listen to a lot of things cold and have to take it at its auditory value. So I’m not thinking about categorizing things. I’m trying to break out of that mode.

JS: Do you have a selection process and what would that be?

LW: The selection process has evolved over time because we started out with four editors, and when there were four of us we would listen separately and then come together and have a discussion. It took a while for us to figure out how to say yes to a piece because we’re not always gonna agree, and we had to have a way that somebody could say “It’s life or death that this goes in,” or “life or death that this stays out.” We had to have some kind of extreme “yes” and “no,” and then there was a kind of “maybe” thing going on in the middle. And there were moments where we would all kind of say “Well, I’m fine with it,” and then we realized “Well that’s not good enough,” so we had to have at least some extreme in one direction or the other. Sometimes it would be that extreme where one person would be like “Life or death, yeah!” and the other person would be like “Life or death, no!” and we would have these amazing discussions. I feel like it really shaped my understanding of poetry — listening to these things that were maybe art or music and having someone say life and death things about the piece. It was a really challenging process. We moved from four people into three, and then from three into two, and when there were less people in a discussion it got a little bit easier because then its just one “life and death.” It became more a matter of me or my co-editor saying “I believe in this so much,” and then the other person would say, “Well then of course we’re gonna put it in, and now let’s have a conversation about why, what’s going on and what we think is happening.” It became less of a struggle and more of a fun conversation, and now for the last couple of months my-co editor has moved on, so I’m in a transitional phase where I’m moving into editing the thing completely by myself, which I’ve never done before. I took it over for a year and put out the issues, but I still had in mind that the other people were gonna come back, and the aesthetic needed to stay in that realm of that thing that we had made. Now I’m thinking about how I can make it mine, because now it can be mine, which also is scary because I liked the idea that there would be things in the journal that I didn’t love — that I thought were important, but I didn’t love — and now I think if everything in there is gonna be the what I love, is that gonna be boring?

JS: So you’ve had it by yourself now, and the site says that you’re expanding in visual art and moving pictures. So what kind of submissions in those disciplines are you looking for?

LW: About a year or two we started to think that what we were gonna edit the webpage so that it would have the archive of the old Textsound and maybe would turn into Text-Image-Sound in another portal. We would be expanding it, and I was very excited about visual poetry and for art working with sound. I spent a while putting together a proposal for that new portal and tried to get a little bit of funding and I think I just don’t have, as a single person, enough time to pursue that and publish the magazine at the same time. I just haven’t gone and updated the fact that we’re not doing that anymore.

SM: What do you think are the parallels between poetry that uses words and poetry that just uses sound?

LW: I think that poems happen on a continuum with absolute meaning being one end of the continuum, and absolute dissolution of meaning being the other end of the continuum. Those sound poems that are only sound, that are phonemes, that are phonetic like — A BIT DOE BADALOW BOWBA — that kind of thing is at the absolute dissolution of meaning. Very often, playing with words at the level of phonemes reflects what poetry is about and what poetry is for. When you’re talking about layers of a poem you’re thinking about playing at the level of language and making multiple meanings. You have a metaphor and it stands for this thing, but it also stands for this other thing, and theres a kind of cloud that happens around those two things it’s standing for — like a kind of ambiguity that’s happening at the level of metaphor. I think that the sound poem is one extreme of that one part of the poem that’s making a metaphor so I think thats how they… talk to each other.

JS: So going along with the idea of text sound do you think there is an element of poetry that’s lost when its simply printed and not read out loud?

LW: Its hard to say that about all poetry. I think that there are some poems that are better aloud. I think about June Jordan, and how I’m just weeping when I hear recordings of her poetry. She does this thing to my heart and my soul. It’s like an arrow; it goes right into you. When I read her stuff on the page it’s not always as provocative, or it doesn’t always elicit the same level of emotion from me. In that respect I would say there are some people who, when they present the poem, you can tell that there is something living inside of them. When they give it to you in person you’re like “WHAT?!” but when you see it on the page you think, “Oh yeah… Yeah, thats good”. I feel like its difficult to think about how to place things on the page in a way that will transfer what you’re hearing in your mind as the writer to the reader’s mind. If you write a poem and you have it in your mind and you know what it’s supposed to sound like, you wrote it so you know what its supposed to look like. You hand it over to me, you ask me to read it, and I might read it aloud and you think, “Well that’s not how it’s supposed to sound.” When you hear a thing in your mind, how do you make the line breaks in a way that transfers all of the sound over to the other person? I think in that way the page and the sound are at odds with each other. In a way I think you’re asking about translation. How does sound translate to the page or how does the page translate to sound, and of course any time you’re translating, things are gonna be lost. You can’t move the word for “cat” into another language without some part, either culturally or soundwise, being lost. Absolutely, there’s something lost.

SM: I was reading the masthead in the journal and I read a quote from you that said that you find comfort in discomfort. What is it in discomfort that comforts you and how do you think that communicates effectively?

LW: I’ll tell a story about a friend of mine who was disabled. She had a disability and physically lived in a wheelchair. She really liked watching slasher movies. When I asked her, “Why? They’re so traumatic?!” she said “Well there’s something comforting about it, because my life has been so hard.” She had a hard upbringing and lots of people making fun of her and being rude to her and staring at her when she’s going around in the world. She said, “I feel, in the face of all of that stuff… somehow normal.” I think that there’s something about that in Textsound. Like the parts in Textsound that seem really discordant or jagged parts of sound- there’s something about my initial response to that which is to feel like an elevation in my nervous system– to feel a little anxious or weirded out. There’s something about that feeling that reflects how fucked up the world is, and all the things that make me feel mad, or a little bit crazy, or that- I just don’t have answers to all the things that are messed up in the world, and that’s the feeling that I have. There’s something about art which makes me feel those most important elevations. That is somehow comforting and I don’t know how that gets communicated… Was that your second part? What do you mean?

SM: There’s a conception that art is, at its very core, communication, and I’m just wondering if you agree with that. Do you think that discomfort communicates as an art?

LW: You have to turn to something artistic in order to try and communicate feeling because you can’t say the word “sad” and feel the sad. But I can show you a painting or write a story and you can somehow suddenly feel like you’re a part of the sadness. I think discomfort is an emotion like any other, and transmits itself through art in that way by somehow putting the reader or the listener into the subject position so that you feel like you’re the one inside it.

SM: How do the things that you publish connect to your own writing and your own experience of poetry and art?

LW: I think those conversations that we had as an editorial board, those really heated discussions about what makes something the best. We were talking earlier about “what does the best mean?” Those kinds of discussions really helped me hone and articulate my ideas about what I value in experimental work. I think that because I don’t really work in sound and I only curate it, it makes me think about how I transmit sound in a page in a way that I wasn’t really thinking about before working with that magazine. In poetry a lot of times you’re thinking about meter, and you’re thinking about iambs and trochees, and now I’m thinking more about discordant musicality rather than really fluent music.

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