The Cortland Review


Miriam Levine
An interview and poetry. J.M. Spalding talks with poet and writer Miriam Levine.

Douglas Thornsjo
Writers on Writing 2: Four More Authors You Should be Reading.

Miriam Levine

Interview | Poetry


Miriam LevineMiriam Levine's most recent book is "Devotion: A Memoir." She is the author of three collections of poetry and "A Guide to Writers' Homes in New England." Currently she is at work on a novel set in Paterson, New Jersey, where she was born. Levine teaches writing and literature at the state college in Framingham, MA.

I enjoyed speaking to Miriam Levine about her life as a writer and found her upbeat, intelligent and kind. I like her openness. As you read the interview (regardless of whether you are familiar with her work or not), I hope that you will gain more insight into Poetry. Levine reflects on the written word and, among other things, her life as a poet growing up in New Jersey in the cities of Passaic and Paterson. She gives us the interesting little story of William Carlos Williams as the Rutherford, New Jersey pediatrician who treated her cousin. Enjoy!

J.M. Spalding


Interview with Miriam Levine

to page 2

J.M. Spalding
: Miriam, could you talk a little about your early years?

Miriam Levine: When I was born, my family was in trouble. My mother's sister, who lived with us, had lost her mind; my mother was close to it with what they now call "post partum depression." My father was ready to leave. So there I was, in Paterson.

My mother and father abandoned that Paterson house. It was torn down years ago. The bank repossessed it. There's a weedy lot where the house once stood.

My new life started in Passaic, near my grandmother, when I was less than a year old. I lived with my family in a small apartment on the first floor. I lived in the close, dense life of that apartment full of immigrants. (I've written about all of this in Devotion: A Memoir. The past is over, isn't it?)

I'm interested in your first experiences with the written word.

My mother didn't read books to me: she read the comics. I loved "Prince Valliant" and the "Teeny Tiny People." They lived in nut shells. A half of a nut shell would hold a family. The words floated inside what I thought were balloons. Words: my mother would recite "Into the Valley of Death rode the four hundred. Canons to the left, canons to the right..." I'm not quoting accurately. My father would sing "Put on your old gray bonnet with the blue ribbon on it and we'll hitch old Dobbin to the sleigh." (Or was it "shay"?) They both had left school, first generation Jews. The word "experience" means to suffer, to live through. These words I lived through came with pictures. Pastel pink and blue pictures in the Dick and Jane reader. The gloss of the page. The big b's with their little tails. The round letters like the round happy faces of the children. I could go from word to word. There was so much space inside the letters. The words opened up for me. I could hear without saying anything. I was charmed by the pastel world. I wanted to to have the clothes the children wore in the pictures.

Another experience, later. My father's newspaper: the large black inky letters, "Daily News." Below, a picture of a woman hanging by her heels, her black hair hanging down. Black holes in her body. I didn't read the few lines of print under the picture. Shocked I turned the picture upside down to right her face. This was the "Daily News." Years later I realized who it was: Mussolini's lover, shot with him. Memory is tricky. Now I remember my father telling me who she was.

Who are some of your favorite poets, and could you tell me how they influence you?

On my table is a wonderful poem of Frank Bidart's, "The Yoke." There's so much space in the poem. The voice is heartbreakeningly tender, distinctive. The line breaks break just right, "when I hear your voice there is now/ no direction in which to turn." He gets the strangeness of waking in the night, alive and talking to the dead.

I'm also reading Jane Hirshfield's anthology, "Women in Praise of the Sacred." Let me get it. From Rabi'a who lived in the eighth century in Persia, now Iraq:

I am fully qualified to work as a doorkeeper, and for this reason:
What is inside me, I don't let out;
What is outside me, I don't let in.
If someone comes in, he goes right out again—
He has nothing to do with me at all.
I am a doorkeeper of the Heart, not a lump of wet clay.

Another one from the the 8th century, from Lakshminkara, begins, "Lay your head on a block of butter and chop." The great one, Mirabai is here too. I like the ecstatic, bhakti poets. I think in the West, in poets like Plath, in the late poems, we have the ecstasy of the suicide. For years I read Akhmatova every day. The Bulgarian poet, Blaga Dimitrova, I like almost as much.

What was your parents' reaction to your becoming a poet. What did that mean to them?

I came home during or just after my first year at Boston University. I was nineteen years old. I had written my few poems. I must have told my father that I wanted to be a writer. I was up late watching a film about Edgar Alan Poe on the Dumont TV, small screen, black and white. There it was. His drinking, his drugs, his madness. The film played up the romantic doomed writer. My father must have come into the room without my hearing him. Now I heard him all right. "That's what you like?" he asked. He had a powerful voice, "that's the kind of thing you're interested in?" I fought for Poe against a father who must have been afraid that his Mimi (that's what he called me) would end up like Poe. My eighth grade teacher, Miss McCloud had recited "The Raven," as she gesticulated with her large hands. Of course I got into trouble. But it wasn't the fault of poetry.

My mother did not fight me about my writing. About other things, yes. She left me alone about it—a gift. She was the more daring one back then. She still is daring. Poetry means for her—life and death, feeling, drama, culture. Yet she had so little of high culture.

They both wanted me to succeed. I did well my first semester at college. My father carried my grades in his beat up wallet. It was often unbearable to have him so proud of me. Academic success meant so much to him, not the poetry. He was still alive when I started to publish. I hadn't destroyed myself.

As is true with all artists, you must have dealt with uncertainty... that is the big uncertainty of not knowing for sure whether or not you were really a poet. One that has plagued every poet and non-poet. How did you deal with it?

I want to think about two ways of "being a poet." The first is the inward state. People who never write a poem feel "poetry" inside them. They dream poetry as they sleep. They gaze out windows and feel poetry. I'm not being sentimental. The lyrical impulse is not sentimental. This inward state is not pretty. Don't most adolescents experience this inward state? (I agree with Thomas Gray when he imagines "Some mute inglorious Milton" buried in a country graveyard.) So there's the poet in all of us. Well maybe not in Stalin and Hitler. (I'd love Art Spielgelman who did the great Maus books, to draw a cartoon of Hitler as a teenager having a poem-moment.)

So in this sense, once I felt this state of loss and longing, etc., I was sure that I had poetry in me. No uncertainty. Not once.

The second way of "being a poet" has to do with the composing of poems. Here I felt and often feel uncertain, afraid. I don't like to think of poet with a big "P." I like to write in my notebook and see what happens. This wasn't always the way I worked. When I was younger I would often beat the hell out of a poem. Those sessions dried me out. Now I like to jot—sometimes when I wake in the middle of the night—to write in pencil I'm more self-forgetful now. Some poems work, some don't. Sometimes a few lines will work, or a phrase. Taking action dispels fear. I also like to write prose. Get out of the box. Prose isn't prosaic. I've also gotten help from my poetry group.

Insecurity? Depression? I'm human aren't I? I'm mortal. Forgive me. I'm going to quote myself. Here's the beginning of "Saturday Morning":

Maybe it's because I can do anything
I want in my sleep that when I get up
I feel like the fish the ice fisherman
dumped on the snow-coated ice.

John, how about you? I'm tired of listening to myself. What do you feel about being a poet?

Well, I am very sensitive about how my work is received. However, at the same time, I am very eager to share it. In a recent poem "Landscape," I write about a Blue Jay who comes to my porch (the narrator's porch, that is) to die, and I write about the Blue Jay making his presence known in this, his final landscape, I suppose.

How do I feel about being a poet? I am in love. I believe poetry to be inside everyone... which, obviously, is why it gets read. Neil Bowers made an interesting comment in his book Words for the Taking about how poets capture the essence of a thing (in the case he spoke of, it was a sunset) and relate it to the reader.

The Slant is, I believe, what R.T. Smith calls the 'poet's injection of self into the poem.' I even remember Smith telling me (both in our interview, and through letters) something like "I write the truth, with a slant..." which, if I remember rightly, is how the poet is often included in the poem (a poet's slant, hopefully unique, is his signature.)

I believe I have found my slant... my signature! I like being a poet. Now days, I find inspiration from living poets... such as Merwin, Heaney, John Kinsella and R.T. Smith...

Who are some living poets you admire and find inspiration from, Miriam?

Frank Bidart is still alive. I like his work for the reasons I mentioned. I'm also interested in work of Sharon Olds. Bly always does something interesting. I've been reading a young poet, Edward Nobles. His book is "Through One Tear." Louise Gluck's work. Mary Oliver. Bishop and Swenson are still alive to me.

Tell me about your experiences with their work, please.

When I first read Bishop, I pulled away from her poems because I thought she was too much of a lady. Now I admire her for the modest voice she has created in the poems. She doesn't make great claims (well only rarely, as in The Fish, with those last lines that jump to the metaphysical). That modest voice took enormous hard work to create. I'm also struck by her life, how she found a way to live. She was resourceful, with all her problems. Technically, she's terrific. Like Swenson, whose voice is also quiet. She and Bishop get the details. So many fresh surprises. I like the details of daily life. Bishop's still life about her writing table. Swenson, unlike Bishop, finds ways to write about sex. She balances regression and control. She writes about the human body without getting into Frankenstein horror. Both of these poets kept on working. I think of that as I get older.

You mention that Robert Bly always does something interesting... could you expand on that?

"Silence in the Snowy Fields" and "Sleepers Joining Hands" are important books to me. That big cold landscape out there. The poet addressing it. His poems about solitude and nature. I also like him in person. He shows himself. And I don't just mean as a showman and performer. The older Robert Bly shows his vulnerability. I first found Mirabai through Bly's translations. He is a generous and attentive reader and translator. Some people call him a fascist because of his men's groups (drumming in the woods, sweat lodges, etc.) I don't agree. If they start marching, then I'll watch out.



� 2002 The Cortland Review