Power of the Pen Poetry Plays: Week 2 Part III Dana Levin


>>During our class videos you may hear our
poets and playwrights use terms that are new to you. We’ve created a list of key terms
and definitions that you can refer to at any point during our video lectures. This list
is available on the videos and readings class page, where you can read it or download it
as a PDF. If you would like to find and review these terms as you watch each class video,
you can stop this video, go back to the videos and readings class page, and download the
PDF. There you can play this video and each of the following class videos. If you have
any questions about these terms, we encourage you to ask your teaching team in the weekly
class discussions.>>Dana Levin is an American poet and author
of IN THE SURGICAL THEATRE; WEDDING DAY; SKY BURIAL; and BANANA PALACE. She has received
numerous fellowships and awards, including those from the National Endowment for the
Arts; Pen; the Witter Bynner Foundation; and the Library of Congress, as well as Whiting
and Guggenheim Foundations. She has served as the Russo Endowed Chair in Creative Writing
at the University of New Mexico, and currently co-chairs the Creative Writing and Literature
Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.>>I’m so delighted to be here today to talk
to you about poetry and social issues. My name is Dana Levin, and I’m going to talk
about some poems from my fourth book, BANANA PALACE—just came out from Copper Canyon
Press. And the social issue that I’m going to talk to you about today has to do with
appetite. Which at first glance might not seem to be a social issue at all; but in fact,
if we think about what is happening with climate change and with environmental degradation
in this world, appetite is everything. Now how did I get to this notion of appetite?
And here is where the craft issues around angle of approach come up in terms of: how
do we lodge our protest, our outrage, our concern, our worry about things that are going
on in the world and still write—or attempt to write—resonant poetry that is working
with all of the craft elements that go into creating resonant poetry? When I think about
the potential pitfalls of writing what we would call political poetry—or poetry that
is coming out of societal difficulty—I think the pitfalls can be shrillness of tone, seeming
like you’re preaching, sort of banging your fist. And it can all be sort of outer-directed:
we can fall into tonalities of blame, tonalities of didacticism. And sometimes those kinds
of tonalities can put a reader off, which is what we don’t want to do because we want
to call their attention to an issue that we feel strongly about. In my own work, as I have been feeling increasingly
concerned about the state of the planet and how that’s going to affect peoples and countries,
I think about an alchemical motto from a medieval alchemist, and it says: “The outer sun hungers
for the inner one.” And the way that I interpret that motto is that the collective conditions—the
exterior conditions—have a hunger for understanding their own sources. So when I apply this to
issues around climate change in the environment, I end up going back to the source of the individual
person, and how the individual person is playing a hand, consciously or unconsciously, in the
predicament that we find ourselves in environmentally. So as I was thinking about this, and as the
poems were teaching me about this—because I definitely believe that if you’re writing,
the act of writing is an act of listening to, maybe, a better angel, a muse, who is
trying to offer a message through you—so as I’m listening to the poem, what I’m seeing
is that the poems want to talk about appetite. And the problem with appetite is that we all
have one, and we all have to eat in order to live. So how do we wrestle with that in
terms of the damage that we’re doing to the planet? For me, I then think about the adage of “the
personal is political.” I start looking around my own life and my own teachers of appetite.
So here’s a poem about my cat, my beloved cat Murray, who’s taught me a lot about appetite.
“Murray, My:” “FEED ME /
caterwauler―a meat-sack / with another meat-sack for a pet, I /
tended hunger―his and mine, the baby moles /
he bat to death, the low-slung / hunt near the sink /
for chicken grease―my / teacher-beast―he liked it // raw or cooked or canned or kibbled, he’d
/ clip a claw to my lower lip /
if I was asleep―so that I’d / pad to the kitchen and slop his bowl /
with seafood medley or chicken-beef, I’d /
grab him up―squeeze so tight I thought I’d /
pop, croon / silly silly silly silly and watch his eyes
/ close down to slits, I // tended hunger―it was on my mind a lot /
as I watched the climate curl and bang, were you /
watching too? Wondering if you’d / hesitate to eat your cat /
in the new extreme / of flood and flame, I had a brute /
hypochondria / about the future’s body―all around me
// summer burst its sack of seeds /
in trumpet horns of purple blue I loved / so much I cut them once /
to bring inside―where they / promptly died―and thus /
I knew―no matter how much / I loved the world, to hunger /
was to be / a destroyer―” Hopefully, if you are listening to that poem
attentively, you can hear a lot of rhyming going on. And sometimes I think that in our
wish to talk about societal issues, in a wish to give expression to our outrage, we can
forget that poems truck in sound, they truck in pacing and rhythm, and they truck in images,
too. So I think that successful political poems don’t forget about the craft of poetry
as they are trying to talk about the issues at hand. So in terms of the objective correlative,
what Eliot meant when he was talking about it—and you can find it in a pretty wonky
essay called “Tradition and the Individual Talent” where T.S. Eliot offers up a lot of
his theories about poetry and how to write it—his contention was that if you’re feeling
very heated about something—which is often the case when we’re writing about social issues—if
you attack it directly, you just may end up with a very forced poem, or something that
doesn’t even seem like a poem, it might in our case, with social issues, seem more like
a screed or a rant. And so his contention was don’t attack the issue directly; find
a correlating object that will kind of act as a symbol for all of the feelings and thoughts
that you’re having about a particular issue, and just write about that object. He thought
that if you just focused on the object itself, that all of your feelings and concerns about
an issue would inevitably come forward in the way that you describe this object, in
the way that you interact with it. So in the poem “Murray, My” I’m really focused on my
cat: I’m focused on his eating habits, the fact that he’ll wake me up out of sleep by
taking a claw and going like this to wake me up, “Feed me!” And he becomes the correlating
object for the way in which that poem wants to look at appetite. I can direct you to a
wonderful poem by Seamus Heaney called “Helmet,” which is a wonderful poem about 9/11 but what
he focuses on is a fireman’s helmet that a downtown New York City fire brigade gave him
years before 9/11, and the occasion of 9/11 makes him go back and look at that helmet
and meditate on the receiving of that helmet, what the helmet looks like, and very slowly
the poem then just makes a little mention of the towers falling, and it’s incredibly
poignant, it’s incredibly beautiful. But he’s using one of the central tricks of poetry
which is T.S. Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative. The next poem I’m going to read is called
“The Living Teaching.” And this poem stems from a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice
where you build a refuge field, which is basically a spiritual family tree—you envision this
tree, you populate it with all your teachers and their lineages—and it’s a way of feeling
supported as you go through the work of Buddhist visualization. The way this meditation begins
is that you’re supposed to imagine a clear blue sky, and then your primary mentor should
arise—it could be a person living or dead, it could be an animal, it could be a landscape,
it could be a thing. And when I first was trying out this visualization, the primary
mentor that kept coming to mind was my own father, which was really shocking to me. And
I just started to think, well, what did my father teach me? He was an untreated manic-depressive,
he was wonderful and terrifying, he was a rager, and he was an eater—he loved eating.
And he taught me to take a lot of pleasure in eating; it was one of the few things we
could do together where it was like, I’m hanging out with dad and this is really fun. So I
started to think about being a student of eating and, you know, based on what I just
said earlier, this then leads to thinking about how we learn about appetite and restraint.
My father didn’t have a lot of restraint around eating; he was a person of excess. And dealing
with my own personal excess, it’s something I’ve been dealing with my whole life, but
I think that if you go back to this idea of the outer sun hungering for the inner one,
the only way out of our predicament is having to look at our own hungers. So again, this
is about the angle of approach. How do I write an authentic poem that expresses my concerns?
And for me it’s all about trying to find the source, which will be inside myself. So, “The
Living Teaching.” The “you” in this poem is the father. And you’ll hear a kind of drum-beat
to it, which is where I think the intensity of inquiry comes forward. “You wanted to be a butcher /
but they made you be a lawyer. // You brought home presents /
when it was nobody’s birthday. // Smashed platters of meat /
she cut against the grain. // Were a kind /
of portable shrine — // I was supposed to cultivate a field of 
bliss, / then return to my ordinary mind. // You burned the files /
and moved the office. // Made your children fear /
a different school. // Liked your butter hard /
and your candy frozen. // Were a kind /
of diamond drill, drilling a hole / right through my skull — // quality sleep, late November. // What did it mean, “field of bliss” — // A sky alive “with your greatest mentor” — // I wore your shoes, big as boats, /
flopped through the house — / while you made garlic eggs with garlic salt,
what // “represents the living teaching” — // Sausages on toasted rye with a pickle, /
and a smother of cheese, and / frosting/
right out of  the can without the cake — // You ruled /
with a knife in one hand and a fork in the other, you raged /
at my stony mother, while I banged // from my high chair, waving /
the bloodied bone // of something slaughtered — I was /
a butcher’s daughter. // So all hail to me — // Os Gurges, Vortex Mouth, I gap my craw /
and the bakeries of the cities fall, I // stomp the docks — spew out a bullet
stream / of oyster shells, I’ll // drain the seas — the silos /
on every farm, the rice // from the paddy fields, the fruit /
from all the orchard trees, and then I’ll // eat the trees — // I’ll eat with money and I’ll eat /
with my teeth until the rocks // and the mountains curl /
and my blood sings — // I’m such a good girl // to eat the world.” So the poem is a kind of self-indictment,
but it also takes, to an exaggerated level, what I learned about eating from my mentor
father. And the idea of that personal restraint, the lack of personal restraint, can have massive
collective ramifications. And sometimes when we’re thinking about social issues they feel
so huge it’s hard to understand how a single person can do anything about them, or how
a poem can do anything about them. And for me, the angle of approach of thinking about
the personal complicity in a system is one way of feeling like, okay, if I really want
to address and call attention to the ways in which appetite is damaging the planet,
I have to look at the ways in which appetite has affected me, and the ways my appetite
affects others. And here, too, a kind of objective correlative becomes this idea of the mentor
and the father mentor, and then allowing myself to transform into this monstrous, gigantic
creature that’s eating the world. In terms of exaggeration as a craft approach
to writing about social issues, it can be the exaggeration of an image, it can be an
exaggeration of a voice. So in terms of exaggeration of an image, at the end of “The Living Teaching”
I just see that the speaker of the poem just almost becomes this baby tyrant, just almost
like a giant baby stomping around the world just eating everything in sight. And calling
myself, or the speaker self—because they’re pretty close in this poem; that’s not always
the case—”Vortex Mouth,” to give yourself a name to enlarge this part of yourself that
is appetite. And then the intensity of “spew out a bullet stream of oyster shells.” It’s
almost cartoon-like in terms of… you can imagine a Looney Toons cartoon of a figure
just going [rapid spitting noise]. And this idea of just eating the fruit from the orchard
trees, and then eating the trees themselves. So it’s an exaggeration of the drive of appetite.
It’s just one method for calling a reader or listener’s attention to what’s happening.
In terms of exaggeration of tone, it walks hand-in-hand with the exaggeration of image
at the end of this poem. Obviously this is just my way of trying to avoid those pitfalls
of screed and rant and preaching and didacticism, and it also is an outgrowth of my own personal
philosophy that I have to go into my own internal source in order to understand how I am participating,
consciously or unconsciously. I think it’s really easy—especially when
the exterior world, and the polis, the city, the country, the nation, is facing so many
dire issues—it’s really easy to think that somehow, writing poems from the interior self
is a misdirection, or a frivolity. I don’t believe this, because I don’t believe that
collective difficulties arise unless many, many individuals are having a hand in creating
them. So the other thing—the last thing—that I would hope to say to all of you is don’t
ignore your interior self in your wish to speak about collective issues, but at the
same time, in terms of writing about social issues, the real question is: how does exploring
my interior self help illuminate these issues? Because the interior self may or may not,
and we have certainly read many poems that want to cry out about social issues that just
sort of seem to be “all about me.” So you do have to consider how the interior self
is participating in and reacting to those collective forces. But I just wanted to say:
It’s okay to go inward.

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