Dana Levin Reading
On the night of March 7, poet and former Santa Fe University of Art and Design Creative Writing and Literature faculty member Dana Levin read from her latest book of poetry, Banana Palace. The audience, filled with Levin’s past students and colleagues, seemed eager to tuck in and experience her writing come off the page. Her reputation definitely precedes her, as even students who never took a class with her have heard from other students and professors that she’s a force. In the weeks before the event, CWL students were buzzing with excitement.
The reading started with Levin reading something new. She explained that the Poetry Society of America asked her talk about the poem “Fortune Cookie” from her new collection. It reads, “You will never get death / out of your system.” She shared the piece she wrote about the poem. “I decided I liked this piece and I wanted to use it. So I plagiarized myself, sort of.” Levin says. The piece addresses the inevitability of death and apocalypse. “You! You and Death! Lovers who just can’t quit. That’s how we make the future.” This opening smoothly brought the audience into the world of the book, which explores change and uncertainty.
Though these themes may sound heavy, Levin expertly chose to read poems in an order that kept the audience’s attention, sharing personal anecdotes and explaining mythological figures in between. “This book, Banana Palace, is about anxiety about the future. I started writing it five years ago, I had no idea.” Levin says, eliciting chuckles from the audience. Before reading “Across the Sea,” she talked about an experience she had while teaching at SFUAD, about how it felt to see her students on their phones, looking up the definition of “soul.” “And they’re doing this while there’s an actual, physical book [“Averno” by Louise Glück]…that features a figure, Persephone, who comes from a pre-literate culture,” Levin says. “You know, those myths were once oral tales before someday decided to write them down. So in that moment, time and space just kind of collapsed and the poem happened.”
The rest of the reading went on like this, with both the quiet, thoughtful moments and the loud, comedic ones proving to be equally important and equally authentically “Dana Levin.” She also offered advice, telling the audience to keep all of their failed poems. “And then one day, you’ll just look at them all and you’ll start to cut them up with a scissor and move stuff around. And all of a sudden you’ll have a poem.” She says that’s the way her poem, “A Debris Field of Apocalypticians—A Murder of Crows ” was constructed. It begins:
The fact of suffering is not a question of justice.
Belief in God is not a disease.
Our father projections met and disaster ensued.
Earth is our only time machine.
It was refreshing to learn that such a connected piece was put together in such a way. Levin proved how natural she is at being both a masterful writer and teacher, inspiring students of all ages in the audience while she read. Her subjects continue to be interesting and thought provoking, such as her piece “Talk Show,” in which speaker is interviewed about simple processes such as breathing. She performed with attention to what each poem says, skillfully creating a different mood for each piece throughout the reading.
Levin says her book’s title poem began in response to an image she saw on Facebook, which she wanted to explore without writing about Facebook, “which seemed a terrible subject for poetry.” But the image wouldn’t leave her, even a year later, and she had to figure out how to write about Facebook. “Alright, well, who needs to know about Facebook?” Levin asked herself. “Somebody who doesn’t know what Facebook is. Well who doesn’t know what Facebook is? Obviously somebody who has survived the apocalypse, or actually was born after the apocalypse and doesn’t know anything about the world before.” The poem ends: “Cross-section of a banana under a microscope / the caption read. / I hunched around my little screen / sharing a fruit no one could eat.”
After the reading, Levin answered any questions the listeners had for her before signing books in the lobby. Julia Goldberg, CWL faculty, asked if Levin feels directly impacted by current events when she writes, to which she responded, “This is a very difficult time to be writing in, because the pressure is going to be that you have to write your big protest poem. And not all of us are going to be good at doing that.” She says her reaction was writing poetry that was “aggressively apolitical.”
“I am somebody who believes that there is through line from the personal out into the collective,” she says. “And I have now written some things that are more topically oriented, but I’m really wanting those things to just happen naturally. At the same time, you have to sometimes push yourself into arenas you may not be comfortable in.” She talked about reading Illocality by Joseph Massey after the election, and how it was solacing to reading about “minute acts of perception, like watching the shadow of a branch on the wall.” Levin described moments like these as a sort of protest in themselves. “What more subversive thing can you do in this moment than slow down, pay attention, and watch a shadow on a wall? I mean, that’s political at this moment, to me.”
She goes on to speak to those writers who might not like protest poems, or not even know how to write them. “You have to trust that whatever your response is will speak, that you have a vision, and you’re going to offer something that is going to matter. Even if, on the surface, it doesn’t seem like it’s fitting all of the rules about the kind of poem you’re supposed to be writing.”