Condemnation, confrontation, remembrance

A conversation with Andrew Levy and Norman Fischer

Above: Norman Fischer (left) and Andrew Levy (right) at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn. Photo by Trace Peterson.

Note: I have long been interested in Andrew Levy’s poetry. He and I have corresponded, and in recent years have read and performed together in New York, so we are familiar with one another’s approaches. Fragmented, collaged, passionate, engaged, the trajectory of Andrew’s work over the nearly thirty years of his publishing seems particularly suited to poetry’s jagged and provisional responses to the present moment in which the apparently out-of-control social and political situation we had been in for some years veered way out of orbit since the presidential election of 2016. At that attention-grabbing moment, my reading of Andrew’s work became more urgent, and I was glad finally to have in my hands the poems (many of which I’d already seen in manuscript) of Artifice in the Calm Damages. As usual with Andrew’s texts, I was dazzled and spun around. Battered, even. I felt compelled to explore as far as I could his method and his madness, so I asked him whether we could conduct an email conversation. As per our conversations over the years across the cultural and geographical gap that separates us — he plays drums seriously, and is a journalism and writing professor in New York City, so is very involved in the cultural and political storms of the urban moment; I am a Zen Buddhist priest living quietly on the California coast — we connected over a shared vision of the spiritual and political as being one gesture: how we exist in the world with others. Our conversation, like his work, tacks this way and that — but never losing track of the urgency of what we do as poets, and the need to find voice for the pain of our times. This interview was begun January 13, 2018.  — Norman Fischer 

Norman Fischer:
Artifice in the Calm Damages is an overwhelming work! I could only read one poem at a time, stunned, then had to regroup for the next one. An all-at-once response to the terrible social/political moment we’re in now. I was struck, first, by phrases in the epigraphs: Dr. King’s “to speak is often a vocation of agony,” and Chaucer’s “Our mysterious craft, we seem wonderfully wise.” So there are both sides here ­­— the “artifice,” the “calm” that (we hope anyway) our mysterious craft can provide, and the “damages” that are everywhere we look. Was the work as intense to write as it is to read? How and when did you begin it? 

Andrew Levy: Norman, I’m glad that the epigraphs seem well chosen, and that they have helped frame the poems in Artifice vis-à-vis the social/political moment we’re in. King’s “vocation of agony” also speaks, I believe, to the cultural/artistic moment we’re in now, too. It seems there’s been a return, so to speak, of the socialist/civic cultural worker/poet whose work is projective, polemical, and appropriative. Without knowing the password to the world that is coming, arrayed and not arrayed, intending to write pertains to the comprehension of this place, to existing informational attestations we’re in now. That artifice helps us see such attestations, and ourselves, in a state of struggle is preferable, I believe, to feeling anything comfortable. The “calm,” a beneficial side effect, perhaps, of our artifice, might temporarily soothe the “damages” that, as you say, are everywhere we look. But it can also bring those damages into agonizing clarity, becoming something other than a balm for pain, the destructive effects of which produce a “snowballing” of ever-growing disharmony and conflict which tends to destroy the mind.

On how the work began … its demands overwhelmed everything else I was working on at the time. I don’t recall how many pages of false starts and partial successes it took for the prosody to organize itself among the multitude of threads, the partial and incomplete information, but it burnt through a lot of ink and paper. There was a lot of noise. I was building toward what Franco Berardi, an Italian Marxist theorist and activist, calls a socialism or collectivity of intelligence. I began writing the poems in Artifice in May 2015. I felt then, as I do now, that the terrible condition of the world, the connection between a sense of personal pain and a political and social imperative, is not an intellectual matter but a matter of deep personal significance that affects the way we live our personal lives. What perplexed me in May 2015 was distinguishing between three dominant strands/modes of writing that I was involved with at that moment — one being a humorous, musically resonant, and playful word by word and line by line improvisational poetry, another a set of poems that stressed the polemical and appropriative, and a third manuscript which became an assemblage of everything into prose essays, as with the experimental essay “Snowden” published a couple years ago in Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. I continued for several months, working simultaneously on these three different stylistic tracks until realizing that the work felt most urgent and could be more open if each discrete approach intermingled one with the other, so the chronology of the writing and its references to real world events came to be mixed up. For example, the poem “Last Night,” dedicated to Julie Patton, the sixth poem in the book, addressing the shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church June 2015, was not the sixth poem in the raw manuscripts. The reader might identify a number of events in 2015 through 2016 that speak through the poems. 

Fischer: This makes sense in explaining the density of the text, that it’s as you say a melding of several modes you were working at separately that came together in the writing of Artifice. Your saying that our current drastic political moment “has deep personal significance that affects the way we live our personal lives” resonates. 

The poem you mention, “Last Night,” combines the violence of the Dylan Roof shootings with privileged grad students, consumerism, sentimental politics, and performance art (if I am reading the poem correctly). As someone who writes improvisationally myself, I wonder about this text. How much of it was thought through in advance? Did you begin (as the poem begins) with the Charleston church shooting and run from there? I find it really difficult to respond, in poetry, to events like this. Did you feel you did so adequately in the poem, or, anyway, did writing it change your relationship to the event in some way? 

Levy: The poem “Last Night” arrived somewhere in the midst of the more improvised sequence of poems. I’ve never been interested in writing “occasional” poetry, and I don’t think I’d be good at it. The poem wasn’t in any way an intended or premeditated “response” to the Charleston church shooting but something that felt unavoidable. It was written the day after the massacre. Also, if memory serves, I’m not certain how accurate mine is given that “Last Night” was written almost three years ago, Julie and I had been writing one another about various things. Julie plays, rhymes, and riffs as mightily in her correspondence as she does in her performances and her publications. I’ve found her person and her work inspiring for many years. Her playfulness with language, her creativity, seriousness, and wit, has always pushed me to stretch the musicality and plasticity of my own work. Happily, Julie has been a close reader of the Artifice manuscript, and early in the writing of it she encouraged me to get the poems published. About whether “Last Night” is an adequate response to Charleston, that’s a question that I’m not sure I’m in … that I can answer. It’s weird to be alive at a time when so many people arrange their lives about a compulsion every five minutes to look into the palm of their hand, that we rely on digital devices to manage (and target) our political and social reality. When I look around, I see so much junk thought and poverty, all of it tailored to discreet viewpoints of this or that persuasion and ideology, each one seemingly impenetrable to dissenting viewpoints. I use poetry to teach myself patience. To slow things down. Although “Last Night” appears to move at a quick tempo, that’s a reflection, the mimetic component at work. Last night was crazy — the news, everything swirls around everything else, as it seems to more and more these days. I think that writing the poem and sharing it with Julie (its first reader) did change in some way my relationship to the terror that Dylan Roof inflicted upon so many people. I experience the poem as a form of protest against an “ultimate killing machine,” such as our society continuously produces, but it’s not a campaign to mount an organized protest. The poem is a condemnation, and a confrontation. It’s also an act of remembrance. An attempt at redemption. I’m never going to get over it.

Fischer: Yes, and since my writing that last question and responding to it there’s been still another school shooting, in Parkland, Florida. This doesn’t happen anywhere else but here, where it happens all the time, and there can be no doubt whatsoever that the lunatic availability of guns is the cause. And yet American politics absolutely prevents ending this madness. Insofar as Artifice condemns and confronts this, it is, sadly, a powerfully necessary text.

(By the way, what you just said [“I’m never going to get over it”] happens to be the last line of the next poem in the book, “War of Life.”)

The poem “No One Goes Away and then Comes Back” ends with several phrases that bring out what looks to me like the other pole of these poems — the religious and philosophical pole. “we always want more, / and demand the infinite from the finite.” “an infinite emptiness drenches the people of the earth.” “reality as groundlessness.”[1]

 I cite these but there are others here and there in the poems. What’s the connection for you (if there is one!) between this metaphysical sense of the difficulties we find ourselves in and the horrendous social and political backdrop of these poems?

Levy: I’ve been inspired my entire life by writing that I feel draws connections and correspondences between the social and political and the religious, spiritual, and philosophical. I’d trace that impulse to the influence of my parents and my religious schooling from kindergarten through the age of sixteen. The writers who early on influenced my work in that direction include Stein, Stevens, Williams, Hughes, Oppen, Niedecker, Mac Low, Spicer, Defoe, Dorn, Basho, Keats, Rilke, Sontag, Mayer, Acker, Silliman, Kafka, Rumi, Blanchot, Benjamin, Buber, Celan, and Cixous, among others. I think of your writing, and Steve Benson’s improvisational poetics complemented by the work of physicists David Bohm, Carl Sagan, Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and other Buddhist, Jewish, and Sufi teachers and scholars. Philosophy allows one the distance and quietude necessary to reflect on the difficulty and the pleasure of what appears incomprehensible, on what’s too close to one’s face, and it assists in helping one decide whether something is intentional or not. I think my poetry has always been engaged in confronting the relationship between the metaphysical and the social and political. For me, engagement in such a relationship is what poetry as a medium of thought provides. The challenge when writing is to remain open and unafraid in the midst of an existential fragmentariness which today seems to have overlaid both the discrepancies of experience and the scrutiny with which poetry equips writers and readers so as to read memory and experience in meaningful ways. The religious and philosophical pole, so to speak, is integral to the work of the writers and thinkers who have made the most sense of the world, in my opinion. Those who have looked and listened to that “infinite emptiness drench[ing] the people of the earth,” who have experienced “reality as groundlessness.” I love writing that questions every page, every one of the connections it would make.

The demand upon the finite to deliver the infinite seems an inescapable aspect of human culture and society. Perhaps especially among poets. That demand can be destructive, as in the further extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Still, the infinite (as in the infinity of the cosmos) is something searched for every time we compose — what might the experience art and language provide deliver this time! I wonder if that isn’t our only ground, and one worth standing on. In On Dialogue, David Bohm writes, “Thought is very active, but the process of thought thinks that it is doing nothing — that it is just telling you the way things are.”[2] In our social world and on social media where everyone smiles, frowns, or scowls at everyone, we’re stunned by the constant chat and ersatz intellectualism. An idea I draw from “No One Goes Away and then Comes Back” is that our attention and our lucidity put us in a class of our own, which, as Bohm would say, “is a problem.”[3] Thought produces results. If your soul is a work in progress, the interconnections between the spiritual-philosophical and the political are continuous and unfolding. It just so happens that people make mis-takes. That’s why, one notices, for instance, that the poems in Artifice in the Calm Damages are in dialogue with one another. It is both in the reconceptualization of lines from one poem to another, for example, and vis-à-vis the recontextualization of these qualities, through which the poem is performed.

[By the way, you’re right about my taking the last line of “War of Life” to be the last sentence in my response to your previous question. I had the Artifice book open when I was replying to your question. That line in that poem expressed my idea more clearly than anything I could write.]

Fischer: Thanks for that thorough answer, Andrew. Right. I guess everything is there in it, the point of trying (and failing! I’d say) to make art and the terrible problem of thinking and being human. This is all a far cry from the daily news and Netflix. As is Artifice. And a reading list to last anyone a lifetime! Actually, I feel like with this last statement of yours the interview is over. It is long enough, and says important stuff. But I can’t resist a few more points, having to do with the book’s “Coda.”

First — and this is personal — one of the Coda’s poems, “Country of Lost Borders,” is dedicated to me, and designated as having been written on maybe, or, anyway referring to, the date 9-11-15. 9-11. Terrible numbers at this point. The justification for so much horrible stuff (the surveillance helicopter pilots in the first line of the poem, for instance). My question has to do with dedicating poems to people, which we all sometimes do. We’ve already discussed the relationship of Julie Patton to the poem dedicated to her. What about this one? Why is it dedicated to me? What were you thinking?

And, finally, just to get you to comment on the final piece in the book, “Acknowledgements,” which is anything but the usual nod to mags and publishers and friends and helpers. It runs from fairly straightforward statements about funky social science and religion (which of course I found particularly interesting, that the idea of “religion” as a phenomenon separate from other aspects of life, is actually odd) to the sudden all-in-caps statement that ALAN DAVIES IS THE ONLY LANGUAGE POET WHO HAS EVER HAD SEX[4] to comments about Wallace Stevens, Thomas Jefferson, the internet, and taxes. And ending with a camping trip in the Berkshires. You are acknowledging what here?

Levy: I think it’s worth noting here the time that’s passed, at times, between your questions, my replies, and vice-versa. You sent the above questions April 2, having just returned from Paris, and as you mentioned, immediately having to produce a Seder. And you note that “we did it in complete silence. it turned out to be really profound, maybe the best seder ever. … and tomorrow off again to desert camping with our son Aron and his two kids. … so … only now getting to the interview, your response almost by now a month ago.” So, I’m very interested in hearing something on how your silent Seder happened to come about, and in what sense the silence contributed to “the best Seder ever.” I would have loved to have attended it.

I wrote “Country of Lost Borders” on 9-11-15. I immediately sensed that I should dedicate it to you. I don’t have access in this moment to correspondence we may have exchanged that fall, but the poem speaks, I believe, to many of the subjects and themes threaded throughout the much longer Artifice manuscript, as it does alongside the pieces in the Chax chap (the fact, for instance, that the United States in its constant projection of power culturally, and economically vis-à-vis corporate and military conquest, behaves as Sovereign of the World, that what belongs to others is really ours). You were a close and supportive reader of the work in Artifice long before publication, and though I don’t recall a specific exchange we may have had around September 2015, your presence was felt as I worked. Metaphorically, I’ve long felt that much of your poetry speaks from a position after the Garden, so to speak. The Garden of Eden is referenced twice in the poem. I like the idea that I was speaking with you when composing it. I hope that makes sense? 

Yeah, the “Acknowledgements” … those two pages at the end of the book received some lively comment from more than a few people. What was I acknowledging? As many soulful and thoughtful people have pointed out, we are living in a society divided into two parts. Yesterday, I read a brilliant analysis culled from an interview with Noam Chomsky published at Jacobin online in which he says, “One group is sometimes called the ‘plutonomy’ (a term used by Citibank when they were advising their investors on where to invest their funds), the top sector of wealth, globally but concentrated mostly in places like the United States. The other group, the rest of the population, is a ‘precariat,’ living a precarious existence.” I’m employed as faculty at BMCC-CUNY, one of the several two-year community colleges in the CUNY system. A significant number of students on the campus I work at are living a precarious existence, and some very precarious. Further, a not insignificant percentage of adjunct faculty (upon whom CUNY relies to teach the majority of its undergraduate courses, as does most other public and private institutions of higher education) belong as well, economically, to what Chomsky defines as the precariat. At CUNY, faculty are fighting to provide our adjunct brothers and sisters with a living wage, and many people are debating breaking New York’s Taylor Law which prohibits public sector unions from striking, pushing for adjunct pay of $7K per course. So, what am I talking about relative to the “Acknowledgements”?

It seems to be a kind of performance, a performative text in a way different from the poems in the book moving toward a feeling of an encroaching and collective dystopia and or melancholia, addressed in a prose assembled of fragments in thought and feeling that relish the disjunctive you’ve noted vis-à-vis the collage of several diverse subjects. Placing these “acknowledgements,” fragmentary and incomplete, at the end of the book seemed a good fit with the questioning I hope the poems raise for the reader. Whose reflections are these? If fragments have pierced our bodies, will we be able to staunch the bleeding? Why do taxpayers fund discrimination against other citizens and noncitizens with whom they disagree? Who are we polarizing our thoughts and our feelings about things for? You’ve noted the absurdity of separating “religion” as a phenomenon from other aspects of life. That’s as absurd, I’d think, as the idea that poetry and activist politics don’t match up either. Who gets to decide which borders are porous and which are not?

Note that the acknowledgements section ends not with a camping trip in the Berkshires, but with ever advancing dust clouds that leave everything covered with a silt-like deposit of dust. That image reconnects, for example, to the poem “A Great Blue Wet World of Thought,” and others in the book, regarding mankind’s disregard for the environment, and so: “the merely / economic attitude toward the great blue wet world / we have half a mind to kill.”[5]

Alan Davies’s poetry and prose essays have moved and inspired me for over thirty years. That sentence was something I couldn’t resist. And I’m glad that you’ve mentioned it as it provides me with the opportunity of acknowledging my source. No one is more an antiauthoritarian than Alan. The publisher’s press release for Alan’s ODES & fragments (Ellipsis Press, 2013), includes a three-paragraph introduction by Steve Zultanski that begins with that sentence, all in CAPS. He summarizes the matter of Alan’s work, that it’s about “how words sexualize everything they touch and don’t touch.” My wish is that Artifice in the Calm Damages deliver similar pleasures.

1. Andrew Levy, Artifice in the Calm Damages (Tuscon, AZ: CHAX Press, 2017), 12.

2. David Bohm, On Dialogue (1996, repr., New York: Routledge, 2008), 10–11.

3. Bohm, 11.

4. Levy, 29.

5. Levy, 23.