blackbirdonline journalFall 2012 Vol. 11 No. 2
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KATHERINE LARSON | Levis Remembered

A Reading by Katherine Larson
captured September 20, 2012

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Gregory Donovan: Good evening, I’m Gregory Donovan. I’m Director of Creative Writing here at VCU. I welcome you all to this evening celebrating Katherine Larson’s winning of the Larry Levis Reading Prize. First, I would like to thank the people who make this evening possible. First of all, there is a generous grant from the Levis family. Also, we receive crucial support from John Ulmschneider and friends of the Cabell Library. We also depend on the support of the College of Humanities and Sciences, and I am very happy and proud to say that our dean is here this evening. Dean Coleman is here. And of course the Department of English itself. We depend on the support of Barnes & Noble. And I want to especially recognize the work of our Levis fellows Katelyn Kiley and Emilia Phillips, both of whom participated in organizing the reading of the books that were submitted. This prize is for the best first or second book published in a given year, and in addition we have our own graduate students read, and I want to thank all of them who were preliminary judges for the competition. Another special thanks is owed to Mary Flinn and to David Freed. David Freed is the person who created this wonderful portrait of Larry Levis which resides in the Department of English and presides over this event this evening. And in addition to that ghostly presence, it’s my job every year to—since the prize was created in order to honor and to help keep alive the memory of Larry Levis—it’s my pleasure each year to offer some recollection or experience of Larry Levis and to invoke his spirit for this occasion. Perhaps I don’t really need to do a thing to keep Larry’s memory alive, since he has so utterly become his poems now, and as W. H. Auden once said of William Butler Yeats, he has become his admirers now, and “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities” since “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” The poems of Larry Levis have more admirers in more cities all the time and it is quite simply because of the strength, invention, clarity and grace of those poems. And yet there are a few locations where the spirit of Larry Levis may still in some sense especially reside and Richmond is one of them, and not simply because it was the place where he worked and where he died; it’s where he had great friends—a great fabric of friends, many of whom are here tonight again to remember him. And the other place of course which he was associated and where his spirit resides is the central valley of California, with its vast vineyards and orchards, the place where he was raised.

I can give you a direct personal report from that place, since my wife is making a documentary film about the life and work of Larry Levis and I’ve been helping her as a kind of filmmaker’s slave. I think they called me a grip or something, but I just hauled stuff around, and for hours I held a boom over my head until my arms ached. At the end of this past summer I spent some time there in the dust and heat of the central valley of California, and we joined a group of pickers at dawn in the nectarine orchard that forms what you could call the front yard of what was once the Levis family home, located just a little south of Parlier and a little west of Selma, towns along Highway 99 that stretches right down through the center of that other California where Larry Levis grew up, not the California of Napa and the fancy wines, not the California of San Francisco or the California of LA—the California of hard work and sweat. Larry Levis used to join exactly such a crew at dawn himself, swamping out fruit from the orchards on what he always called “the ranch,” using a Western term that once made me think of cows and pastures, but which I now can visualize clearly as a driveway lined with palm trees and a modest but pleasant white house set back from the road and completely surrounded by orchards. The place has been sold now, and the ultimate fate of the house is uncertain, though it seems likely that it will be bulldozed and another sort of house will replace it, one that will be ugly and modern and quite likely pretentious. The family farms and ranches and orchards all over America are dying and being erased, and they are vanishing in California, too, part of an inevitable process as farming becomes more industrialized and large-scale, something far more corporate than natural. There is an even greater division now between the landowners and the Mexican or Chicano people who work for them, an ever larger gap of attitudes and incomes. But when Larry worked in the orchards of his father’s ranch, he learned to identify with those workers and to admire them.

This is how he remembered them in his autobiography collected in The Gazer Within—this is a section titled “Laughing in Spanish.” This is Larry himself.

[“Laughing in Spanish,” The Gazer Within, University of Michigan Press, 2011.]

One of the workers mentioned in that piece who was well-known to Larry and his family was a man named Johnny Dominguez. Michele—my wife—and I had the chance to meet Johnny and his wife, quite unexpectedly, as well as his daughter and some of his grandchildren, in the small house he lived in at the edge of another orchard and a field of alfalfa. At the time we met him, last fall, Johnny was quite old and not at all well. Still, when he was asked if he could recall Larry Levis, it brought a smile to his face. I was glad to have had that chance to shake his hand, having met him before in the poetry of Larry Levis. When the farm was sold—the ranch—Johnny and his wife had to move away from that house and I am sad to report that we heard only a few weeks ago that both Johnny and his wife had died. But the power of poetry has strength, and it can keep alive the memory of a man whom others would have ignored or forgotten. It was, as you might imagine, a special mission for Larry Levis, and it was not something he took lightly, not a task he saw as mere artsy fartsy fooling around, and not some updated version of an Anglo “bwana” exploiting the “natives” in order to make a poem. So, in honor of the memory of both men, I’ll read this poem for them. This is from the book Elegy.

[“Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, CA, 1967” Elegy, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.]

Now, I’d like to introduce to you my colleague, David Wojahn, who will introduce our reader tonight. Thank you.

David Wojahn: That was great, Greg, thank you.

This is the fifteenth annual Larry Levis reading. Fifteen have preceded it. Each year the books that are submitted are first or second published books of poetry. This year I believe the number of submissions was a hundred and seventy-five, so it’s a remarkable process just to get the books read and a very, very stern competition and a painstaking process to get our winner. So, it’s a wonderful event for all of us here at VCU. And I should also add that Katherine will be doing a Q & A from about ten until eleven tomorrow at Hibbs 308, and you are all invited to attend that.

“Transfiguration” is not a word you find much in the contemporary vocabulary. The term has too many liturgical associations to be used in our current discourse. Even if Mitt Romney does somehow get his act together and wage a campaign that’s anything but a series of blunders, nobody is going to say that he will have “transfigured” himself. Yet, oddly enough, in the current issue of Rolling Stone, there’s a very long and very strange and even nutty interview with Bob Dylan, and in it he claims that after his famous 1966 motorcycle accident, he died but somehow got “transfigured.” The interviewer several times tries to pin Dylan down about what he means by this, but Dylan always eludes him. He just keeps saying he was “transfigured.” The same day I read that interview I came upon a passage in a new book by the philosopher Julia Kristeva, in which she says this: “if all art is a transfiguration, then it has political consequences.”

I’m still trying to deduce the meaning of the second half of that statement, but I suspect that the Larry Levis would know exactly what Kristeva is saying. And I suspect that Katherine Larson, in her wonderful debut collection, Radial Symmetry, may know this, too. For her prevailing concern as a poet is to investigate metamorphosis, transformation, transience, what one poem refers to as “landscapes tilting toward oblivion.” To say she is interested in change is to oversimplify her very grand intentions. It’s not change she’s writing about, but, well, transfiguration. And although this concern informs so many of the poems in her collection as to be an obsession, what is most striking is the number of means she employs in order to address that obsession. She has, after all, been trained both as a poet and as a research scientist. The natural world, particularly as we see it described in a long poem describing the writer’s voyage on a research vessel studying the marine life of the Sea of Cortez, is evoked in a stunning combination of acute observation and awe. But spiritual questing is just as important a preoccupation for her, and often the poems enter a kind of shamanistic landscape of dreams transubstantiated into reality, of the spirits of the dead awakening, if only for a meaningful instant. But there is a third key subject in these poems that compliments the other two, for how can transfiguration be accomplished without first celebrating our appetites, our senses, our erotic longings? These concerns make for a glorious triad: poems that describe so that we may see the known world more clearly; that summon up the unseen world so that we may know ourselves better, and celebrate the bodies we inhabit so that we may better know the fluency and essentiality of pleasure. Some poets work a lifetime and end up knowing very little about even one component of this trio. You don’t often find this accomplishment and wisdom in a fist book.

Katherine Larson’s Radial Symmetry was chosen by Louise Gluck as the 2010 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and was also chosen for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, and she’s coming to us from my old home, Tucson, Arizona, and it’s an immense pleasure to welcome Katherine Larson as the 15th annual Larry Levis Reading Prize winner reader.

Katherine Larson: Thank you so much for that lovely introduction. It’s actually pretty overwhelming, especially coming from a poet whose work I so admire myself. I woke up this morning among saguaro cacti at about 3 a.m. and I find myself here this evening listening to some wonderful excerpts of Larry’s work and celebrating both his life and legacy, which is just a tremendous thing. I’m so happy to be here to celebrate it, and I’m so grateful to all of you—to the graduate students, and the staff, and the faculty that have made this award possible, and also to you all for taking the time to be here. Thank you so much for being here. I also want to say, to just take a moment and say that this award means a lot to me in a very personal way. It’s truly a tremendous honor. I’m very humbled by it, and both the kind of tangible and intangible benefits will allow me to continue my work, and that’s just such an amazing gift, so thank you.

I read from pages these days actually because I’m still not used to the way the poems look in the book. I’ve spent too many years with them on the page. As I was flying in over Richmond I saw the tops of the trees just barely changing into the cusp of autumn, so I think I’m going to start off with this poem “Crypsis and Mimicry.” The other nice thing about having these in pages is that I don’t overwhelm you with my love for the cephalopods; I can sort of pick and choose.  

[“Crypsis and Mimicry,” Radial Symmetry, Yale University Press, 2011.]

This next poem started out as actually this giant project. I had read some letters of Gauguin to Theo van Gogh and there weren’t many translated into English at the time so I had found a book in French and started to sort of translate on my own, and of course only a very small portion of that ended up in the poem. I do reference symmetry in this poem and it’s actually bilateral symmetry, which is the symmetry of the octopus, not the radial symmetry which is the title of the book. So you know, just the geek in me wanted you guys to know that.

This one’s called “Study for Love’s Body.”

[“Study for Love’s Body,” Radial Symmetry, Yale University Press, 2011.]

This next poem started out in a couple of different ways. My husband is actually, was born and raised in Germany, and we were visiting his father who lives in Bonn. He was very excited to take us to this incredible exhibition. A group of French underwater archeologists had basically dredged the harbors of Alexandria and come up with these treasures, these sort of bygone treasures of sphinxes and columns—just an incredible kind of exhibition. And on the way back I was reading a paper done by a group of people that was looking at how, basically in the process of butterfly metamorphosis, how memory is possibly maintained. It turns out that certain memories, like certain responses to odors, can actually be maintained, which is kind of remarkable given the fact that this entire transformation, the whole reorganization of the neural system, is done. So this poem kind of coalesced with this, and there’s this lovely book called Nabokov’s Butterflies that’s basically a collection of Nabokov’s sort of lepidopterist writings and field experience.

This is “Metamorphosis” and it begins with a quote from that book.  

[“Metamorphosis,” Radial Symmetry, Yale University Press, 2011.]

And this next poem comes from the long poem sequence in the book “Ghost Nets” which I wrote as a result of a really profound and wonderful experience I had with working and living at a field station at the edge of the Sea of Cortez. It’s a desert sea and has a really high rate of endemism, which means that the creatures that are found there aren’t found anywhere else in the world, so it’s a really magnificent landscape. And these poems actually had their genesis in a collaboration I had with an artist friend of mine.

So this is section seven.

[“Ghost Nets,” Radial Symmetry, Yale University Press, 2011.]

Okay, more cephalopods. “Love at Thirty-two Degrees.”

[“Love at Thirty-two Degrees,” Radial Symmetry, Yale University Press, 2011.]

I should mention to you the Aurvandil’s actually a Norse myth of a demigod that was carried across the icy waste in a basket with his big toe sticking out and it got frostbitten so they broke it off, and Thor actually broke it off and actually threw it up into the heavens to become a star, so—the frostbitten toe.

Alright, this is a new poem forthcoming from Orion. It’s called “Chromatic.”

[“Chromatic,” Radial Symmetry, Yale University Press, 2011.]

I’m going to read one more poem. This poem is for my husband, Alex, who’s probably currently putting our crabby baby to bed. She’s getting her molars in so she’s had a tough couple of days. This one’s called “Risk.”

[“Risk,” Radial Symmetry, Yale University Press, 2011.]

Thank you so much.  end

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