Response to Questions About d.a.levy

by Dan Waber


1. What was it about levy’s work that first drew your interest, and what was it about the work that distinguished him from other poets you had read?
2. What has kept you reading him (if you have been doing so over a long period of time), and/or why do you think his work will continue to interest you in the future?

Possible additional questions:

3. How has levy influenced your own work?
4. How has his work affected your sense of the work of other poets and/or of poetry in general?

These read to me as much the same question, or all answerable within the same piece, so I think I’ll just plunge in here and attempt to address each of them in the process of pulling together my thoughts on levy’s work.

Which means I want to talk about the work, first. Not the man, not the myth, but the poems. Because that’s where I started with levy. I wasn’t quite two years old when he died, so I can’t speak from the point of view of a collaborator, a friend, or even a cultural peer. I can only speak from the point of view of a poet who writes lexical and visual poetry, a publisher, and a self-publisher.

“Whatever levy was or wasn’t, he was emphatically not simple.”—Karl Young

As a poet who writes lexical poetry, I find in levy’s work a directness of speech that is consistently—even to my over-read sensibilities—startling.

yes, $20,000 is a fair fine for
a jaywalking ticket, sorry, i
was thinking about fucking &
i didnt see the light
you can have my drivers license too
i cant afford to park in this city

I love this for the detail of not just “HELLO JUDGE”, but “JUDGE ADAMS”. I step inside this for the cadence in the “sorry” set off by commas. I can see the traffic light the speaker in the poem says he cannot, because I can imagine thinking about fucking while crossing a street in a city I can’t afford to park in.

This skill of his at plain talk is modulated by an unusually deft sense of touch in phrasing which allows the unsaid to resolve itself in the reader’s imagination as the implied dots are connected.

unread skin magazines to be cut up
for collages

What a complex image this creates. A stack of skin magazines (the visual of color oversaturated fleshtones on advertisingly glossy stock), unread (implies a lack of ability to provoke), sit waiting to be cut up (a hostile act, but the line break postpones the precise nature of the hostility), and then we find it’s for collages (to make art with, to provoke others with).

Together, these two characteristics of levy’s writing work to deliver tight combinations of effective one-two punches:

i just wanted to be like everyone else
& everyone i knew was taking drugs
everyone i knew was reading the P.D.R.
& developing psychosomatic illnesses
just to get pills
any pills

what else was there?
jacking off to the commercials
the old lady nibbling yr fly
during the food commercials
the television nibbling at yr fly
until the old lady returns

This passage reminds of William S. Burroughs talking about the so-called “War on Drugs”, and how absurd it was for anyone to imagine that drug use could be stopped by going after the sources of supply instead of the causes of demand. We should know better. Where there is sufficient demand, there will always be people willing to risk being the supplier. But the question of why large numbers of a country’s citizens would be attracted to recreational drug use is a Hard Problem, and as a society we really don’t want to know those answers. levy says it better and in fewer words.

Who hasn’t wanted to be like everyone else? Look at the chant-like repetitions of everyone everyone everyone, taking reading developing, and, get pills any pills. I love the question “what else was there?” because levy answers it himself with the act of making the poem. What else, indeed. And inversion of images is precisely the right literary device to illustrate the inversion that occurs “nibbling at yr fly”.

As a poet who writes visual poetry I recognize in levy’s work an engagement with his means of production that was intimate enough to create a style that is simultaneously exploratory and confident. That bears repeating, exploratory and confident. This is the combination of qualities that separates “dirty” (as it’s been termed by others) visual poetry from the merely careless. From books whose covers were made from cut apart paintings, to intentionally over-inking mimeo stencils for specific effects it’s clear that levy entered into collaborations with the materials he was working with. I never get the sense, from any of levy’s work, that what I’m seeing is the will of one artist imposed upon a surface. I feel like I’ve been invited to share in the experience of how marks are made.

Much of levy’s visual poetry is cacophonic, all of it benefits from closer examination. I formulated a line in my mind to go here, and then thought I better let it simmer for a couple of days to make sure what I was saying was accurate. After three days, I believe it is. I can think of no type of visual or lexical element that would be out of place in a levy composition. There’s no style he couldn’t successfully appropriate, no icon of sexuality or religion or politics he couldn’t leverage to his own ends. The whole huge onrush of material that constitutes experiential reality was fair game. I simply do not get that sense from other visual poets. I could see levy pleased within Birney’s single font work, but I can’t see Marinetti so subtle. I could see levy using Cobbing’s techniques, but I can’t see Denker using them. I could see levy slip easily into bissett’s spelling unconventions, but never Young or Dutton.

From a purely technical standpoint, there are aspects of many of levy’s visual poems that pull my attention in and get me to consider the problems of how did he do that? From pieces of criticism and recollections of levy written by others I’ve learned that he often improvised visual effects during the actual printing process. There are aspects of many pages within The Tibetan Stroboscope, for example, that I would be at a loss as to how to replicate in a new work.

I am aware of the fact that many readers connect with levy’s work on the basis of its spirituality, but this is not a connection point for me, nor is it a hindrance. Themes of religion and the search for enlightenment/god regularly occur, and certainly contribute to the overall sense of voice that I draw from the work, but, in the same way I don’t need to have seen “that spot of light / on Euclid Ave” to benefit from a trip there with levy as tour guide, I don’t need to have the same ultimate destination in mind, either. Humans of all belief structures can identify with:

when leaving the body
  one does not look back
when leaving the body
  one goes to the
  Lotus of a Thousand Petals
  getting there one must cross
  his own mountains
  Everyone gets there

As a publisher and as a self-publisher of poetry I need to acknowledge a debt to levy. His example was one of three that got me involved in publishing others, and changed my world-view of self-publishing, which is two ways of saying that his example changed what publishing meant to me. Publishing is not a system that rewards quality, it is a means by which individuals are able to postulate, argue for, and defend ideas.

levy’s publishing was a call to action, through action. It was absolutely leading by example, not by exhortation alone. “Samizdat” means, literally, self-publishing. When levy recognized that mimeo put the power of mass duplication within even limited financial means he helped make the act of self-publishing more politically dangerous than it had ever been. Mimeo made it possible, for the first time ever, for a single individual to make widely available their commentary on events that were still unfolding. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Assume for a moment that a government agency could be corrupt. Now imagine a poet responding to their corruption by reading poetry in public which identifies their corrupt actions. It’s not too far of a stretch, at that point, to imagine the poet being brought up on trumped up charges and two days later quietly whisked away to, oh, say, Gitmo. But it becomes much more difficult (though, sadly, not impossible) for that kind of whisking away to happen if in the two days between the charges and the whisking away the poet can crank out 200 copies of what’s going on and have them in the hands of the general public, or even the courtroom spectators. That’s the kind of shift in power distribution that causes upheaval.

I also gain from levy’s publishing efforts the ability to recognize in publishing what I’d previously learned in a career in the restaurant industry. What I learned on the line during the rushes was that there are three ways to do everything. There’s a right way, a wrong way, and a right NOW way. You can get buried if your drive for artistic perfection is untempered by a passion to get it finished. The right way is theoretical, the wrong way is a disaster, the right NOW way is what gets urgent work done. The right now way sees a need and doesn’t – no, it's more accurate to say and can’t – wait for all the stars to line up, for all the perfect materials to be in hand. The right now way sees what needs to be done and asks: how can we make what we have do what we want done? When the question is phrased this way action is implicit and cannot fail to happen.

Lastly, I would like to talk a little bit about what I know of the archetype levy has come to represent to a lot of people, and about the role of the avant-garde artist in relation to the established order in general.

The events of levy’s life can be mapped in a way that makes some of the mythologizing seem, if not justifiable, at least understandable: charismatic underdog and multi-talented rebel dies young with no witnesses. To my way of thinking, though, that is so wildly over-simplified that it’s meaningless, and I don’t find it consistent with what levy himself would have wanted. I think levy wanted to turn people away from apathy, and hero worship doesn’t do that. Hero worship more often than not is just another form of passivity, an excuse to do nothing but watch if the hero is alive, or an excuse to do nothing until another one like him comes along if he’s dead. levy wasn’t about waiting around for something to happen, he was about the urge to make things happen. When levy says “im tired of being the instigator” I hear Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke saying “Get out there yourself. Stop feedin’ off me.”

The establishment doesn’t like the avant-garde, but, the avant-garde doesn’t like the establishment, either. It’s a symbiotic relationship in which each feeds off of the other, requires each other. The establishment is responsible for the codification of culture so that it can be efficiently transmitted to society at large. Institutions are inherently conservative, the avant-garde is anything but conservative. Institutions depend upon the avant-garde to keep culture moving, the avant-garde depends upon institutions to have something to push against, to push off from, in order to expand the bubble of knowledge.

So, it might seem like it’s a moot point to talk about the status of levy’s work within the establishment. If all things avant-garde are simply going to be assimilated by the establishment over time, anyway, why get all worked up about it? Because not all things avant-garde get assimiliated. The inherently conservative nature of institutions makes them prone to nepotism, cronyism, and agenda-based exclusionary practices. The voice that says:

you can watch the ones who didnt move fast enough
they are dying
& they are called     Poets
people used to be afraid of poets
now they dont listen anymore

is never going to be welcomed, with open arms, into the canon. In the interest of keeping a watch on the watchers that’s a fight worth fighting, but for myself, I think levy’s place in history is assured by the work itself. If that particular place turns out to be at the edges, poking the snarling dogs we are with a stick, well, serves us right, we need it.

they are waiting for me in the future
but then, ill be someone else


All passages quoted above are from levy’s “Suburban Monastery Death Poem”, except the one which begins “when leaving the body” which is from his “The North American Book Of The Dead”.


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