photo credit: B. A. Van Sise
NER staff reader Marisa P. Clark speaks with poet Dana Levin about her poem “Maybe” (in NER 42.2), her forthcoming poetry collection, End Times, em dashes, hope, history, and an April Fools’ joke starring Emily Dickinson’s sestinas.
MPC: Was there a specific event that sparked the writing of “Maybe”?
DL: I was talking to my sis about Our Impending Doom (a perennial topic) and I said, “Maybe is about all that I can muster—” and it rang in my head all day: those m sounds, its predominant trochaic meter—trochaic like Blake’s “Tyger”—hard/soft, beats which felt like certainty/doubt. And then I realized the line had eleven syllables like the start of another recent poem, “No,” which begins: “Hoping to just live quietly unnoticed—” I tried out a “Yes” poem with the same eleven syllable start, “No contributions to the annals of joy”—but it went nowhere. Maybe the Muse went on strike, after that opening.
MPC: As is the case with “Maybe,” your poetry often introduces a speaker who is bracingly prescient, drawing on history and the current political and cultural scene, climate crisis, and humankind’s ostensibly casual self-destructive practices to illuminate the apocalypse lurking just around the bend. Yet the voice is also playful; levity counterbalances this dystopic forecast and intensifies it. What significance does wit have in how you construct your poems’ speaker(s)?
DL: I couldn’t possibly endure this vale of tears without laughing about it. The absurdity of being born and spending your whole life incrementally dying!—if you’re lucky. Being able to imagine perfection with no chance of ever achieving it! This rigged game!
In my Jewish immigrant family, recounting awful events was a fond pastime, and often finished with everyone cracking up at the ordinary accidents and absurdities that accompanied duress. That time Grandma Bea mistakenly made the kreplach with grapefruit juice instead of chicken stock while you were in the hospital dying! Haha! That time after a plate-throwing rage Dad was sulking on the couch and you accidentally dropped a can of tuna on his head! Haha! Grandma Shirley’s funeral! Poland! Russia! Complete hilarity. A coping mechanism, surely.
MPC: You’re a longtime virtuoso of em-dash usage, and I’m interested in the way your relationship with that piece of punctuation is evolving. There are so many questions I could ask about the choices you’ve made in ending “Maybe,” for example—from the line and stanza breaks to the imperative embedded in the penultimate line of the interrogative—but I want to know about that final em dash:
You’ve concluded a number of recent poems with an em dash, this one as well, and it strikes me as a way of launching the content into liminal space, as if the speaker is handing off the poem’s concerns to the reader. Is that part of your intention? What does the em dash as exit strategy mean to you?
DL: Oh, I love thinking of it as a baton! Thanks for that.
Em dash as exit strategy: well, it’s less a strategy than a feeling impulse. Having been an avid dash user for most of my writing life, I’ve learned about this impulse and what sparks it. Ending a poem on an em dash signals ongoingness, a stay against closure, sometimes functioning as a stay against didacticism (I can be very opinionated), so the poem cannot be the final word on what it discovers. Sometimes it signals overwhelm, of being made speechless by strong feeling. Always it’s a dive back into the mother-potentiality-silence of the unmarked page, potentiality out of which the poem sprang.
MPC: Your fifth poetry collection, Now Do You Know Where You Are, comes out next year from Copper Canyon Press—and I’d love for you to give us a preview! Will “Maybe” appear in it? Which of your themes, concerns, and obsessions do these poems continue to expand upon, and what new areas in content or form do they explore?
DL: Hooboy, a preview. Yes, “Maybe” will be in it, though I kept it out for the longest time—it seemed so redolent of Banana Palace, and yet the idea of history being the result of choice finally rang for me, in terms of so many of our current cultural and political flash-points. And let’s face it: End Times is still, tragically, topical—and less a sci-fi thought experiment and more a lived feeling and reality with every passing year.
I think of all my books, this one is the most engaged with our present moment in history, and with the people and places in my life. It’s a chronicle of dis/orientation: personal and collective, psychological and political. It’s about moving from Santa Fe to Saint Louis, Obama to Trump, this “shit / Paradiso” of the contemporary American moment. The book title comes from a line from C. D. Wright, which appears three times in Deepstep Come Shining: I heard it in my head for months after she died, all through the 2016 campaign cycle.
It’s also a book about writing through writer’s block—a collapse in creative confidence that plagued me all through 2017-19. There are a lot of shout-outs to literary figures and the writing process, touchstones as I navigate vast change—
The title poem ends the book, and there’s a passage in it that, to me, seems the book’s perfect abstract:
. . . writing from the intersection where eternal forces meet history and place. Where the soul and the body press against and into one another—so many bodies a soul has to press through: personal, familial, regional, national, global, planetary, cosmic—
“Now do you know where you are?”
MPC: You mentioned your move of several years ago, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Saint Louis, Missouri. Your poem “Two Autumns, Saint Louis” in Kenyon Review ends: “I’m new here, / from the desert West. / All the license plates say Show Me.” I’m curious to know how the change in location and landscape shows up in your new poems.
DL: I’ve never been much of a poet of place; I’ve never written much about my immigrant Jewish heritage; I’ve never written about Whiteness—these are all new marked presences in this book. I’ve lived in New England, New York City, grew up in Southern California, and lived in Santa Fe for nineteen years, but in Saint Louis I feel most connected to the mother-cord of the nation—place, race, heritage—its cultural promise and pathogens.
MPC: What gives you hope?
DL: History, and the irrepressible force of the Creative. This world has endured incredible forms of suffering, forms which recur, forms which have been survived: pandemics; tyrants; slavery; economic collapse; extinctions; awful, ordinary, daily violence and violations—you name it, the world and its creatures have been through it before. Our climate mega-emergency sometimes makes me afraid the earth is destined for Martian rockhood, but usually I think: humans might not make it into the next Eden, but the earth might. Something is always being born, as much as anything is dying: change seems to be the only sure thing on this plane of existence. That opens up potential, which for me is synonymous with hope. And now that I think of it, it is exactly this way of holding history and hope that drives “Maybe.”
MPC: My final question is a humdinger. On April 1, 2021, you posted an April Fools’ joke on Twitter about your discovery of The Lost Sestinas of Emily Dickinson. Admittedly, I was duped long enough to follow through with some research. But your joke raised some pointed questions for me. If you were to channel Emily Dickinson in writing a sestina, what would it be about, how many em dashes would it have, and what would the six end words be?
DL: Oh, ha! That was Ross White’s grand idea! He just asked if I’d lend my name to it. I had no idea it would fool so many!
Dickinson sestina: what would it be about? The end words will suggest it. Em dashes: 39! One for every line and three for the envoi.
For the end words: I considered spirit, wing, privacy, dress, wild, soul, grass, nobody, wind (Dickinson is a whole lexicon)—but ultimately went back to my very favorite Dickinson poem, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340),”and chose words from the last two lines of the penultimate stanza, lines which are burned in my psyche:
I, silence, strange, wrecked, solitary, here.
MPC: Thank you for taking time for this interview, Dana. It’s an honor.
Marisa P. Clark has been a fiction reader for NER since spring 2017. She holds a PhD in fiction writing from Georgia State University and has taught at the University of New Mexico for over twenty years. Her prose and poetry appear in Shenandoah, Cream City Review, Nimrod, Epiphany, Foglifter, Rust + Moth, Indianapolis Review, Louisiana Literature,and elsewhere, and Best American Essays 2011 recognized her creative nonfiction among its Notable Essays. She grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, came out in Atlanta, and lives in Albuquerque with three parrots, two dogs, and any wildlife and strays who stop to visit. Her Twitter handle is @Professor_Gaga.