An Interview with Dana Levin
Natalie L. Tombasco
Dana Levin was born in Los Angeles in 1965 and grew up in the Mojave Desert. She is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Now Do You Know Where You Are (Copper Canyon Press, 2022). Levin is a recipient of many fellowships and awards, including from the NEA and the Library of Congress, as well as the Rona Jaffe, Whiting, and Guggenheim Foundations. She serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis.
Dana Levin’s fifth collection is a brave and perceptive companion, walking with the reader through the disorientations of personal and collective transformation. Written between 2016 and 2020, Now Do You Know Where You Are investigates how great change calls the soul out “to be a messenger—to record whatever wanted to stream through.” Levin works in a variety of forms, calling on beloveds and ancestors, great thinkers and religions—convened by her own spun-of-light wisdom and intellectual hospitality. Balancing clear-eyed forensics of the past with vatic knowledge of the future, Levin writes: “So many bodies a soul has to press through: personal, familial, regional, national, global, planetary, cosmic— // ‘Now do you know where you are?’”
Read the poem that begins the book, "A Walk in the Park," in our Online Exclusives.
Natalie L. Tombasco: The collection’s first poem invites us along for “A Walk in the Park.” Easy enough, right?
Dana Levin: Ha! I’m glad you caught that double meaning in the title!
NLT: Because I’m utterly floored by “A Walk in the Park,” I need to ask about how it begins as an instruction manual for reincarnation and then unfolds as a meditation on spindles by layering the Google definition of spindle over the fairy tale connotation of a kingdom’s hundred-year sleep. Then you consider Plato and the interconnected threads of planets and our “electric souls.” Within the poem the mythological women are associated with spindles and storytelling. I’m thinking of the Three Fates’ thread, seamstresses like Arachne and Ariadne, then of course Athena, Philomela, and Penelope’s tapestries undoing themselves just to begin again. This textile metaphor can be traced through Emily Dickinson’s fascicles and Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” thus nodding to the hearth’s art forms and old wives’ lore. Why reflect on the domestic and Ovidian transformations in this book?
. . . the real problem is not knowing how to incarnate without utter panic, especially in our burning world . . .
DL: I’m glad you read the poem as part of such an illustrious lineage! Your question presupposes that the poem had an intention and strategy from the get-go, but “A Walk in the Park” began accidentally—with a fragment left over from writing a poem in my previous book, Banana Palace. That poem—“By the Waters of Lethe”—follows a soul who rejects reincarnation because of our contemporary eco-dooms, who doesn’t want to “arrive alive in a world / that burns” and cries, “I need an excarnation / specialist—”
But once I wrote that, I thought that the real problem is not knowing how to incarnate without utter panic, especially in our burning world—how to be in a body imperiled not just by climate change and society (my Jewish, female, mid-life body) but by being alive itself—mortality is a rigged game after all. So I had this little note: “To be born again, you need / an incarnation specialist—a team / from the Bureau of Needles / to thread you through.”
This fragment sat around for years, until I found it in a folder while hunting for seeds that might bloom into new poems, and I started thinking about it. The Myth of Er in Plato’s Republic, which details the spindle-like Wheel of Necessity whirling souls around into their next lives, had always fascinated me—it sparked “By the Waters of Lethe,” too. So perhaps that fragment was like a little thread I started to pull out of “By the Waters of Lethe,” following it into the new poem-labyrinth that became “A Walk in the Park.”
NLT: In A. R. Ammons’s essay “A Poem Is a Walk” (1967), he likens the two as an “externalization of an interior seeking,” an aimless and unreproducible activity (or ritual) required for the entire body to be vulnerable to risk, all with hope of discovering something upon the return to the self rejuvenated. How would you compare poetry to a walk and how has the walking poem changed?
DL: The lyric poem is essentially a walking poem—even if the parks it wanders are imaginal. If the walking poem has changed at all, it’s in the places it wanders—which makes sense, since we no longer walk primarily in the provinces of white, hetero, male poets.
Your question sparked my curiosity and I went to etymology to see if “wander” and “wonder” had a linguistic relationship. They don’t, but it was interesting to find out that wander and wind (as in “turn”) do—and what is verse if not the art of turning? I learned too that, while “wander” and “wonder” do not share etymological roots, at some point in the Middle Ages “wander” became associated with the mind and emotions. According to the OED, somebody named Pety Job was the first writer recorded using “wander” in this sense: “My thoughtes wandre wyde whare, For they ben, lorde, full variaunte.” (Maybe all poets are petty Jobs!) So it seems writers of English have been connecting the experience of wandering and wondering for at least eight hundred years.
NLT: “A Walk in the Park” reminds me of the flâneuse, an unaccompanied woman leisurely exploring her urban surroundings like in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties,” where the wanderer is reimagined for a female subjectivity. Your poem strays to the metaphysical, but the speaker is jerked back by “genderdoom—” by the reminder of the physical body’s potential threats, especially one that is racialized, gendered, or disabled.
DL: That turn in the poem—the realization of “genderdoom”—came as a complete surprise to me as I was taking my mental walk around The Myth of Er. Once that happened, the setting for the poem’s drama of thinking popped into view. I am often late to setting: I spend a lot of time thinking about something on the page, engaging in pure lyric meditation, but at a certain point it starts to feel ungrounded to me. Often, realization of setting releases a stuck poem, solves how to move it forward—ha, just like getting incarnated! I live in my head! Then the body, the body in its setting (world), calls me, which helps the poem—and me—ground into being.
I’ve taken many walks alone in parks. They begin with a feeling of freedom and opening—a feeling of being pure mind—but at some point I remember the facts of my body and hyper-vigilance takes me over. Whatever peace and freedom I was feeling while thinking and walking alone closes with a thud. The specter of death and harm arrives. It’s interesting to consider Ammons’s saying that a walk results in a “rejuvenated self.” It can, but not always, and not without a shadow, if you’re not a white male. Writing though—writing is indeed “an aimless and unreproducible activity (or ritual) required for the entire body to be vulnerable to risk all with hope of discovering something.” In the privacy of my study, facing the blank page, I can risk all. But once I consider publishing—walking into the Park of Po-Biz [the business of poetry]—that feeling of peril takes over again. To be seen is to court danger.
NLT: The Adroit Journal’s review notes that your book examines “the perilous nature of the present, of what it means to age in a time where uncertainty pervades our everyday actions and interactions, and of what transformation, even in the smallest sense, might look like when one pauses to look at themselves in relation to others and the world.” I feel like being in poetry workshops, it was recommended I not write about Donald Trump, or that I find some other muse, but you take on the years 2016–2020 directly. The way you engage with the geography of the present feeds into an immediate displacement or disorientation.
DL: You asked earlier, “Why reflect on the domestic and Ovidian transformations in this book?” I was trying to feel how to navigate a moment of great change: a new labyrinth. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the election of Trump in 2016 and the far-right aspects of American culture it nourished, the intensification of climate change and its undeniable effects on the world, resulting finally in 2020 in our global pandemic—well, this time period has really felt to me like a bridge period, where the 20th Century was firmly ending, and we were about to discover what the new 21st Century would mean in America. And each of us was going to have to feel into what that would mean for dailiness, for being one’s particular self in the world. We were all about to be born again—and boy would we need help!
In times of turmoil, I always consult history and myth—because let’s face it, no human experience is entirely new in its essentials, even if details change. The perils of birth came to the forefront of my mind as I lived through this bridge period, which is why, ultimately, in the late stages of sequencing the poems in the book, “A Walk in the Park” and “Appointment” came to essentially open and close it. Both poems meditate on the relationship between birth and suffering—the first conceptually, and the second autobiographically.
That said, I was entirely afraid to write these poems that “take on the years 2016–2020 directly.” I was afraid to publish them. I was afraid to get grounded in the times, and in poems about the times! And Donald Trump as a muse!—what a dismal development. I ended up trashing most of the Trump-focused poems I wrote. By nature, I am suspicious of topical poems. So many things can go wrong in them where making art is concerned: didacticism, self-righteousness, pandering to public prejudices and assumptions. But the poems wouldn’t be denied.
NLT: Something I really love about this collection is your formal transitions from uneasy, jagged enjambments to large walls of prose. This marriage is most obvious in the employment of the haibun, a hybrid form adapted from Matsuo Bashō’s travelogues of observations, self-scrutiny, prophecies, and meditations between mobility and stasis. Can you discuss this?
I wanted to write haibun where the prose journey was interior: a journey through thought, feeling, and psychic experience, a hybrid of the western lyric impulse and the classic Japanese form.
DL: I really love haibun. When I first encountered it, I saw that its movement—from prose travelogue to compressed verse (haiku), from outer experience to interior felt/thought essence, was a lot like how poems begin for me, or how my own journal entries move when I’m thinking through something. For a long time, I wanted to write haibun where the prose journey was interior: a journey through thought, feeling, and psychic experience, a hybrid of the western lyric impulse and the classic Japanese form. The spirit of haibun was the primary formal deity presiding over Now Do You Know Where You Are as a whole. There are a few poems in the book that feel like variant haibun to me: “About Staircases” is one. Sometimes I felt like the whole book was one big haibun! And I think you can see the spirit of haibun at work in “A Walk in the Park,” which primarily travels with the reader through space and thought, until the haiku/essence end: “How painful it was! To be / such a split // creature—"
NLT: Lastly, the titular and final poem communes with C. D. Wright, addressed as “Spirit I only met once” and a “practitioner of deep coordinates.” I must confess with embarrassment I have not (yet) read Wright’s poems, so perhaps you can end on how her work has guided you, her legacy to American poetry, and if one should enter Wright’s work, where is best to begin?
...the truth is that the lyric and the civic—the personal-psychological and the socio-political—nest inside each other, inform each other, merge and separate and synthesize, constantly birthing new forms of self and world.
DL: Oh, I love best the hybrid works: the book-length travelogue of Deep Step Come Shining, the docu-poetics of One Big Self and One with Others, and the book of collected prose with the very long title that begins The Poet, the Lion. . . . Wright was an absolutely capacious writer, both in form and content, from lyric compression to rhetorical expansion. Whenever I felt stuck writing the pieces in Now Do You Know Where You Are, whenever I felt afraid to write about something, whenever I doubted the formal restlessness of the poems and their ability to cohere into a book, I would think, “What would C. D. Wright do?” She models grand permission.
One thing I have taken to heart, reading C. D. Wright, is that the standard binary of lyric and civic—poetry sparked by the subjective interior and poems driven by civic engagement—is false. We tend to pit them against each other and have ridiculous debates about why one kind of poetry is better—or more moral!—than the other. But the truth is that the lyric and the civic—the personal-psychological and the socio-political—nest inside each other, inform each other, merge and separate and synthesize, constantly birthing new forms of self and world. I hope Now Do You Know Where You Are evokes this nesting quality. It can be disorienting to ride those pulses, especially when the changes come fast and from myriad directions, as they are currently doing. I think most people these days are feeling spun around the spindle of change, full of dread, afraid to hope, and holding on for dear life. I love that phrase: “Holding on for dear life.” As if you’re on the phone, waiting for a beloved. Dear Life!
NATALIE L. TOMBASCO was selected for the Best New Poets anthology 2021 by Kaveh Akbar, Copper Nickel’s Editor’s Prize, and Cutbank Books’s chapbook contest as a published finalist with her manuscript titled Collective Inventions (2021). She is a PhD candidate at Florida State University and serves as Co-Poetry Editor of the Southeast Review. Her work can be found in Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, Diode Poetry Journal, Cincinnati Review, and Peach Mag, among others.