Books In Conversation
Dana Levin with Tony Leuzzi
Now Do You Know Where You Are
(Copper Canyon Press, 2022)
“Ahoy,” greeted Dana Levin in the first of several emails we exchanged during a week in mid-February. It was an apt way to start our conversation about Now Do You Know Where You Are, a book whose very title urges its readers to consider their positions in a world where “the Great Wheel always turns… as ash and seed change places.” Orientation and exploration are key concerns for Levin. Whether taking a midday amble through a public park; searching for the headstones of historic persons; unpacking a dream about packing a suitcase; or pledging to free herself of writer’s block through the portals of “wish and imagination,” a persistent, questing voice speaks through the poems in Now. That voice not only addresses recent social and political upheavals wracking many Americans with anxiety and doubt, but evaluates personal ethics in light of those feelings to realign body and soul. Consequently, the poet is as attuned to matters of national identity as she is committed to personal growth.
Because Levin is honest and self-interrogating, her desire for clarity yields more questions than answers. When human life seems predicated on “exchanges of suffering,” rigid definitions and reductive moralities must give way to something akin to possibility and mystery. Taken alone, her confident yet searching point of view compels. Combined with her attention to matters of sound and craft, the poems in Now make memorable music. Throughout the book, she balances provoking statement with deft lineation and choice detail. The collection’s finest poems ring with powerful resonance.
As is evident in the discussion below, Levin embraced all of my questions, no matter how impossible or naïve. For her, our interaction was an opportunity for self-revelation, a chance to contemplate vision and practice, and reflect upon life’s many “arrivals and departures.”
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Congratulations on your new book, Now Do You Know Where You Are. It’s a compelling, even provocative title insofar as its tone and meaning depend on which word (or words) one chooses to emphasize. Did you intend for this ambiguity or did you have a specific emphasis in mind? By extension, what is/are the reason(s) you chose this title? How does it reflect the poems inside? Do you see the title as a guide to lead us through the book or as a challenge for readers to purposely choose a position with which to situate one's heart and head while reading?
Dana Levin: Thank you, Tony. And thanks for these truly intriguing questions. They are teaching me about my own book, for which I’m grateful: the writer is so often the last to know what they are doing.
I love what you say here about how the title changes via which word in it is stressed. I tried them all out, and wow—yes. This was not intentional, but so in keeping with the spirit of the book, which is about feeling lost and trying to get located. As in syntax, so in life: which part will get “stressed?” As in: emphasized, or pressured.
When I say the title, I naturally put the stress on the word “now”—which, thinking about it, indicates marked change post “then,” and so it has been, since November 2016. Or since the death of Michael Brown and the firing up of Black Lives Matter in 2014. Or since pandemic overtook us, in 2020. In the course of history, these events will all seem one big Then, won’t they? And what will be the Now of that future? This question also drives the book.
I’m glad you asked if the title is a guide. It certainly was for me. It’s a line from C.D. Wright’s iconic book Deepstep Come Shining, and it came unbidden to mind and persisted for months after the 2016 election. It also perhaps serves as the motto of the book’s restless approaches to form.
Rail: So many of the poems in Now appear to be, at least on one level, a response to America during Trump’s presidency, though naturally your attention to, among other things, economic, racial, and gender-based inequities is part of a much larger, more systemic picture. What was your impetus for writing this book? Does the completed project do what you wanted it to do?
Levin: I think “impetus” is all in aftermath thinking, you know? The only impetus I was aware of was that I was in the grip of deep writer’s block, the most profound of my life. I lost some kind of creative confidence.
I think I was literally stunned: by eco-change, and change in the country, as well as change in my personal circumstances. I was leaving Santa Fe after nineteen years, to move to St.Louis, a city I knew very little about. My beloved cat, my primary companion for thirteen years, was dying. I was hitting fifty, and having to confront the nexus where what has actually happened in a life crosses long-harbored aspirations and hopes. And I was realizing so much about my position in this nation: as a person with a lot of privilege, as a woman, a poet, an intellectual, a Jew, which in America is a person considered white by many and alien by others because of that Jewishness. All of this stopped seeming conceptual and started to feel lived.
Then my beloved sister, in early 2017, said to me: “I am so sick of hearing you complain about not writing, I want you to take a pledge: to write every day for twelve weeks about your feelings.” I felt deep resistance, which didn’t surprise me, but also: a little thrill of interest, which did. I agreed, and embarked.
I didn’t always write about my feelings, but I did write about a lot of things that I had never really written about before, and certainly not in my haphazard journal. The material in what I came to call the Pledge journal came to inform nearly every piece in the book, with the piece “Pledge” the closest replica of what the raw journal read like.
The completed project surprises and delights me. It was a really hard book to bring to fruition: I doubted it all along the way, form and content. I am most glad that I let the book be wide-ranging in form. And I love how peopled it is; I’m usually all up in my head, or dreaming with the archetypes.
Rail: Having read through Now a few times, I noticed a frequent evocation of spherical shapes: wheels, discs, bowls, balls, balloons, globes, pregnant bellies, even skulls. Johannes Janssonius's antique map on the cover reinforces your attention to spheres. Can you explain the significance of this shape in your conception for the book?
Levin: Oh my god, I love this question! Completely unintentional, except in the poem “Your Empty Bowl,” where the poem developed in “nesting bowl” fashion, which was new and fun to work with. One aspect I love about the Janssonius image is that it looks like a roulette wheel. “Now do you know where you are?” is a turning question, and the answer to it will always change, buffeted by chance.
One thing I was aware of in the late stages of composition, and articulated in the title poem of the book, is that the book wanted to get at the concentric circles in which we all live: “personal, familial, regional, national, global, planetary, cosmic.” Nesting bowls here, too. I was worried (am worried) the book will be labeled a Trump book, but he’s an incident among many, one track on a many-tracked wheel, all turning. I’m glad you saw that, Tony.
I guess when you feel lost, source starts to especially matter. The circle to me is the first shape, the sphere the first habitation.
Rail: “The circle to me is the first shape, the sphere the first habitation.” Your statement has Jungian dimensions, doesn’t it? The womb is a sphere; the earth is a sphere; the sun, the moon. And while an understanding of the sphere’s importance and ubiquity seems essential to our comprehension of time and space, it’s remarkable how removed our habits and systems seem to be from this understanding. For instance, our aspirations for happiness and material success appear to be predicated on movement along a line, a syntax of actions that take us from one point in our experience to another. Then there is the myth of social progress: the idea that once a lesson is learned or a step towards equitable change has occurred that all of the feelings and attitudes that brought about the inequity have been vanquished, that we are always improving and becoming as we move forward.
Levin: That’s what is so subversive about lyric poetry! It asks you to dwell. Its aim is nothing more than deeper knowing, which to me always feels spherical, if “deeper knowing” has an architecture. Yes, a womb. A place where change happens. In this respect, lyric poetry is highly political: of the people. In the private self, a poem helps an awareness build, and that self is changed. Societal change cannot be sustained without personal, interior, change—we have to periodically scrub-out the contents of our skull-bowls. Poems can do that.
Rail: But what if we are caught in a circle, going round and round in something that seems inescapably beyond our control? While I sense in many of the poems from Now the value in circling back and arcing forward for the purposes of contemplation, as in the opening poem “A Walk in the Park,” I also sense an anxious need to free ourselves from the tyranny of circles, as in “How to Hold the Heavy Weight of Now” where you open your arms to let in all of the anxieties and confusions of “now” and then shrink them as your embrace closes in on itself. How do you reconcile the enrichments and horrors of circular or spherical conception? Is this even something that can be considered in light of the poems in Now?
Levin: Whew! You’re describing the heaven-hell of life in a body, here on this earth. We’re all caught in the tyranny of the circle, where we have to reconcile the enrichments and horrors of being alive. I think that knowledge completely undergirds not just this book, but every book, by anyone—that endless reconciliation is the whole enterprise of being human.
Rail: Earlier you mentioned leaving the familiar Santa Fe for the unfamiliar St. Louis. One of the many captivating poems in Now is “Two Autumns, St. Louis” in which, across eight moments or scenes, that city takes center stage. Your poem brought me to Google more times than I care to admit, and I really gleaned a lot about a place I too often overlook when I think of major American cities. Depending on which direction you travel, St. Louis is the gateway to the Midwest, the north, or the Deep South. All of those regions intersect there and so, in some ways, it is the ideal “home” for the origin of the poems in Now. What have you learned about America by living in St. Louis, and how has living there changed you as a poet?
Levin: Oh wow, so much. I feel as though I have moved to the navel of the nation: full of stink and lint, the mother-source for all of America’s grifts and griefs, yet also its industry and improvisation, its energy for solidarity and reform. I think the best articulation of what I’ve learned about America from living here is this new book. And maybe “learned” isn’t the precise verb. Perhaps it’s more precise to say that Saint Louis has reformed my attention and attentiveness to what is American, and who gets to define it, and why.
As for the city’s influence on the poems: this is an ongoing experience. One thing I have noticed is that my lines have gotten a lot longer, all the way into prose—is this the city’s doing? Hmm.
Rail: As you already mentioned, the poems in Now draw on a vast range of styles. There are the subtle, compressed verses that constitute “Immigrant Song”; the roaming yet carefully-crafted meditations in lined poems like “A Walk in the Park” and “Maybe”; a haibun; several incantatory passages; and a variety of proses, such as the exposed, unadorned language of “Pledge” and the comparatively more metaphorical, densely-lyrical moments in “Appointment.” Quite a lot of variety—and yet, at no point in the book did I feel that this range in presentation didn't cohere. That comes down to the consistency of your voice. I could make a handful of theoretical statements about that voice, but I’m more interested in hearing from you what you think about your own poetic voice, and how that voice holds all of the poems from Now in its embrace.
Levin: It is so relieving to hear you say the book coheres. I worried about that all through the book’s making: it seemed such a hodgepodge of approaches. Well, it is a hodgepodge, but I can see how it holds together via shared themes across poems, and a central inquiry around being lost and trying to get located. But now, in light of what you’re saying, I wonder if that worry was primarily related to forgetting I even have a voice. Because when I first read your prod to share what I think about my own poetic voice, I was pretty mystified—I drew a complete blank.
Then a couple of hours later the word “questing” rose up—which felt right in some way, to me. And then I was like, Okay, well how does this “questing” quality manifest? In the lines, I thought—line length and punctuation enacting the pace of questing, pause and venture, a line so often extending beyond its last word and into an em-dash (so expressive, our beloved em dash). But was this voice? Lines carry voice. Isn’t voice more about sensibility? About tone? I don’t know. What’s my voice, Tony?
Rail: “What’s my voice, Tony?”—That made me burst out laughing, especially at myself. The presumptuous wording of my previous question suggests I might know a thing or two about your voice. Who the hell am I? But maybe you really want to know. If so, I am awed by the nakedness of the question.
Levin: I really want to know.
Rail: I will say this: you’re one of few poets who I have actually heard speak before I read a word of your work. A few years back, I attended an AWP Conference in Tampa. You were on a panel of poets discussing dreams. I was so taken with the directness and the confidence of your speaking voice. That confidence included being unafraid to let those in attendance know when you felt uncertain, as if foregrounding doubt or “not-knowing” was its own virtue. (And I think it is.) I knew I had to read your work. And guess what? When I did I found that very speaking voice on the page. I suspect this is rare. Maybe not? So my next question is: how connected is Dana Levin-the-person to Dana Levin-the-poet-on-the-page? What are the similarities? The differences?
Levin: Wow, this question: it gets at the driving force of my life! Which has to do with accessing the authentic Self, which let me tell you, is not easy and has nothing to do with Ego—Ego is the main impediment to this drive, since Ego is so invested in control.
Not knowing is a gift. Not knowing is the beginning of growth. It’s so weird how humiliating it can feel to confess you don’t know something, but less weird when you realize that the humiliation is the response of Ego, who in that moment is ashamed that it is not a god.
Your question helps me see a connection between the psychological drive to rescue the Self from Ego and the artistic drive to access more of my voices. Most poets write in incredibly narrow tonal and rhetorical ranges, compared to the full range of their speaking voices—is this because they’re honing a single “poetic voice?” And maybe this urge to find and speak from all the voices is why, with each successive book, my formal approaches and diction fields have expanded. One of the most full-throated poets I know is Jay Hopler: the whole personality comes forward, in all its moods. I really admire this.
I guess part of my impulse for poetry—and life—is to continue to chip away at whatever is keeping Dana-person and Dana-poet separate. To break down persona, in life and on the page.
Rail: One of my favorite poems in Now is “Your Empty Bowl,” a poem you describe above as a “nesting bowl” in terms of its movement and form. Immediately, I was hooked by the opening lines, which recount the manifest content of a dream. But I was also intrigued by the way you let the tail end of sentences in each section spill (bleed?) into the succeeding section. For me, your decision seems connected to the ways in which dream and reality—theoretically separate—are intimately connected in our experiences.
Levin: I’m so glad that poem is a favorite: it was long in the making and felt like a triumph, compositionally. I finally told some stories I’d really wanted to tell: the dream, and the stabbing, and the man with the bowl in Central Park and what happened there, and after. I love how you read the bleeding over the section breaks: the connection of things seemingly unrelated.
Rail: This connection is beautifully distilled in a single line midway through, when, after seeing a man stabbed in the street, the “I” of the poem says: “I wanted, I thought, to leave.” That parenthetical phrase is devastating. One wishes to flee yet the feet remain planted. The mind processes this division between desire and inaction. Or maybe the body is telling the mind: you don’t know what you really want. What are your thoughts about that moment in the poem? And of the poem in general?
Levin: Well, that moment, so long ago now, was one of the experiences that really brought home to me that I wanted to leave NYC; and then the shame I felt that that was my response to seeing a guy stabbed and dying on the street! And the shame that I was interested in how no one was helping him, as if I was not part of his world! The form of the poem: maybe it’s making its own argument about connection, about interrelatedness. Thematically, feelingly, I think the whole poem engages the problems people have, I have, connecting with the pain of others—and how fate and circumstance can be obstacles to empathy.
Rail: Another favorite of mine is “Appointment,” a 21-section prose poem that could be proposed as a lyric memoir. The poem is so rich and generous that it deserves its own interview. Of the many images and ideas I carried away from it, the “suffering exchange” you discuss in section nine is especially resonant. While there is a specific context in “Appointment” that leads you to the phrase, I’m wondering if you can discuss, in broader terms, what a suffering exchange is and how it might impact lives constantly in need of “an adjustment.”
Levin: I love that you focus on that phrase! “The Suffering Exchange” was the title of the book, for a couple of weeks.
When the phrase came to me, I loved thinking about it as a place, more than an action: like the Stock Exchange, except here on Earth we do business in the Suffering Exchange. Our most basic activity—eating—is a suffering exchange: something dies, so we may live. Suffering accompanies every change, including the first one: being born from a womb. The pain of the birthing mother, the pain of the infant being birthed—such travail!
How this idea might impact lives… I really take to heart the essential message of Buddhism, which is: we are all going to die, so let us be kind to one another. Isn’t this the primary adjustment? How different the world would be, if we could practice it! How nearly impossible it is to do!—being kind. You have to put aside victimhood, aggrievement, blame.
I’m not talking about martyrdom; the need for justice is real. I’m talking more about how people react to the annoyances and outrages of daily living, to the inevitable disturbances that come with being alive, among other people. Kindness makes the suffering exchange bearable: compassion—it literally means “to suffer with.”
Rail: It occurs to me as we discuss suffering exchanges that we have come full circle—or at least towards where we began, with our talk about circles and spheres. The way you have articulated it, suffering exchanges are inevitable parts of the life-death cycle, perhaps part of the great wheel of fate? I think of a couplet from your poem “No” where you write: “so much damage done as ash and seed / change places, as they always do—”. One response to this cycle might be: “Though we suffer, eventually it will pass.” And yet, time and again in Now, you challenge the self to avoid repetition, complacency, and reliance on systems whose familiarities mollify fear of change. “Why / choose the past / as the future—” you say in “Maybe”; alternately, in “You Will Never Get Death / Out of Your System,” you suggest “Voting backward, into what / has already died” is a way of hiding from challenges that lay ahead. That challenge is reinforced in “Appointment,” where you confess you are “troubled by my inclinations to mine the personal past, when the collective present needs so much attention and aid.” Again, compassion. It’s an answer, but is it the sole answer? How do we brace ourselves to face the present and march forward?
Levin: That’s the pregnant question, isn’t it, in these times. It’s the primary question of the book! I can only reply from the perspective of being a poet and a teacher, which means I can only reply from the small arena inside the self and inside the classroom. I’m thinking of the end of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where he says: “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” I think poetry and education have the capacity to make these recognitions, to teach them, to give them space, to encourage the spirit and influence the mind: surely this is necessary fuel for marching forward, the foundation for any lasting collective, practical, reformation. So this is the work I am trying to do, hoping to teach others to do, and Now is part of that work.