“No Day Arrives Untethered to Other Days”: A Conversation with Dana Levin — curated by Lisa Olstein

Dana Levin’s new book of poetry is Now Do You Know Where You Are (Copper Canyon Press, 2022), a Lannan Literary Selection. Her first book, In the Surgical Theatre, was chosen by Louise Glück for the 1999 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize and went on to receive numerous honors, including the 2003 PEN/Osterweil Award. Copper Canyon Press brought out her second book, Wedding Day, in 2005, and in 2011 Sky Burial, which The New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting.” Sky Burial was noted for 2011 year-end honors by The New Yorker, the San Francisco Chronicle, Coldfront, and Library Journal. Her fourth book, Banana Palace, was a finalist for the Rilke Prize. Levin’s poetry and essays have appeared in many anthologies and magazines, including Best American Poetry, The New York Times, Boston Review, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, and The Nation. Her fellowships and awards include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN, the Witter Bynner Foundation and the Library of Congress, as well as the Rona Jaffe, Whiting and Guggenheim Foundations. A teacher of poetry for over thirty years, Levin has served as the Russo Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico (2009–2011), as well as Faculty and Chair of the Creative Writing and Literature Department at College of Santa Fe (1998–2009) and Santa Fe University of Art and Design (2011–2015). She has taught for the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College since 2002. Levin currently serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Lisa Olstein: How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture? 

Dana Levin: I will tell you about the day I had the breakthrough that led to my book’s final form. 

No day arrives untethered to other days. This day of breakthrough began six weeks earlier, when I turned in my book to Copper Canyon Press on the deadline requested, at the end of April 2021, because I am dutiful.

Yet afterwards I kept swinging back and forth, in my mind, about the poem order, about the book’s length—just as I had in the weeks before I turned it in. The book felt unwieldy to me, all over the place, over-extended. I could see the elegance of a much shorter book—what if it just had five long pieces? What if it had those five long pieces, and ten short poems? I could see it: a sharp, sculpted thing.

But once I committed to the knife: the book felt impoverished, incomplete, as if I’d done violence to it. Why was I trying to shut down this insistent spirit trying to express through my dense body and boiling mind, this spirit of variation and expansion? I would put back every poem I had cut, and then—the book felt unwieldy, all over the place, over-extended. 

I threw up my hands and dove into writing about Charles Simic. 

It was for a craft talk on waking up to the poetic line: long lines and short lines, and what each could offer a poem—and how for me this waking happened with Simic, who didn’t throw me out of his office when I showed up one day, unannounced, a stranger in her twenties, unenrolled at the school where he taught, to ask if he would work with me on my poems.

I worked feverishly on this talk. Periodically, the doubts about the structure of the poetry book would break through, and I would wonder yet again if the only reason I was “fine” with what I had submitted to the press was because I was just plain exhausted by the whole thing. And wasn’t this a perilous capitulation, this acquiescence to “good enough.” Then—

I started reading Underworld Lit, by Srikanth Reddy. I loved it! I found it maddening. I wondered about Reddy composing it, about his structural choices. I felt like it had too many moving parts, I was hoping it would cohere in some grand way I was seeking (but why was I seeking that?), I doubted it, I found it thoroughly dynamic. And my reaction to it felt related to my doubts about my book: what is excess? What is coherence? What is failure? What is success? Who decides? I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Thus were my preoccupations after submitting my book to Copper Canyon. Then, one day, in June—

I had a breakthrough. It lasted the whole day and into night. I will tell it backwards in time, beginning with the dream message that capped it.

In my dream I “finally” figured out how to get into “The Wade:” a virtual or imaginal space, all shiny chrome and lights and red and white. I had followed my friend in there, telling them I’d figured it out—as if they’d already known about it, had been visiting The Wade for a while. I was delighted and blown away by it, and felt a sense of adventuring into an unknown, a special place. “Casino” was the word that followed me out of sleep to describe The Wade, like entering a 3D human inhabited pachinko game, all lit up and a wonder-world kind of feeling. Waking, I thought it was a great figuration for literary success (which I affiliated with my friend): a bright shiny virtual space turning on chance, a splendid place to visit but not to live in—I had figured out how to “wade” into it.

It was an auspicious dream after my auspicious I Ching Hexagram earlier in the day: 46, Pushing Upward: “You have nothing to fear from others now” and “great blessings.” I had thrown the I Ching coins because I’d just had an unexpected Aha! about the book, while ruminating on my back porch: I finally saw how to cut it, and hence shape it—I finally understood its contours—

But I also felt tentative: I’d gone back and forth about its structure for so long, was this just the start of another round of that? That’s what I had asked the I Ching.

But in truth, this Aha! hadn’t felt part of that nauseating swing between opposites—it had felt solid. It involved sacrifices I hadn’t been willing to make, earlier:  to cut poems, yes, but—and this was the breakthrough—specifically the poems about early lockdown. Somehow, positioning the book in what was now a deeper past, a past before pandemic, made the book’s scope feel newly right. 

The “deeper past:” how astonishing! Astonishing because so barely over, 2016 to 2020, the Trump years. And I saw that the book was a book about transition, which I’d always known, but now I saw it was about transitioning into a beginning—like traveling through the bardo before (re)incarnating. And this traveling was happening both personally and collectively, as if America too was traveling through a birth canal (but what rough beast will come slouching out, I ask you), the Trump years just the initial phase, the initial dread and confusion, of this dreadful and confusing age... 

I considered the book through this new lens. When pandemic did appear in poems here and there—as a theoretical presence, in poems taking place and first drafted in 2017—it had a weird kind of post-oracular “oh!” for me. Maybe someone first reading the book in 2022 would have that feeling too. Suddenly the book’s primary repeating tropes—needing an “incarnation specialist,” the dread-meditations on future-death and past ends, the births—came sharply into focus. 

This breakthrough on the porch came in the late afternoon, between my dream of The Wade and a day of feeling not quite right, anxious and braced. I was confused by these feelings: was this grief? Yes, but for what? Sitting on the back porch thinking about my college lover, a divorced philosophy professor, who had introduced me to the poems of Simic; having spent most of the day trying to find photos of Simic from 1988, when I’d first met him—which had led to watching him on video and hearing his voice, cap to the intense month of work on the craft talk, which was a vehicle (I saw now, as I sat on the porch) for visiting a younger self, a self that had so confidently tried her luck in love (the professor) and art (Simic). That self had come now to rescue me, hadn’t she, out of my binary swings about my book, out of these last years of fear and doubt about writing and the writing life—my long crisis in creative confidence. 

I sat out on the porch thinking about all this and then really weeping for all that had been lost to time and fate and decision—not regret exactly, just feeling into the shape of my life thus far: what had and hadn’t happened, old hopes and assumptions, a big ol’ blank where the future would be. And I suddenly saw how I was in the midst of dismantling an old construct, an old way of figuring, an old set of attitudes. And as much as I was afraid to let them go, I so wanted, with all my heart, to be emptied and full of potential, open to a new, less painful way of holding my life and my hopes and then—Aha! The right structure of the book snapped into view, pushing upward.

“One must see the great man” Hexagram 46 had advised, and I had, hadn’t I, having spent that morning and early afternoon with Simic, the Mentor, who had once welcomed into his office an assured and braver self, willing to try—as willing as Reddy, writing his own indelible, idiosyncratic work—and thus a “third way” opened, through the aesthetic psychodrama of ascetic/ecstatic, stringency/excess, success/failure that had entrapped my thinking about the structure of my book.