DAVID ST. JOHN | Levis Remembered

A Reading by David St. John
captured September 22, 2010 at Levis: A Celebration, a conference marking the acquisition
of the Levis papers by the VCU Libraries & presented here as part of Levis Remembered

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David Wojahn: Hello everyone, I’m David Wojahn. I’m a member of the English Department in the Creative Writing Program here at VCU, and I want to welcome you to this very special event . A three day celebration of the poetry of Larry Levis, who is a poet who has made an enormous impact on American poetry and on many, many of the people in this room, and over the next several days we are going to celebrate his legacy. It’s a very important legacy. Before I introduce our reader tonight, David St. John, I do want to thank a plethora of organizations and individuals, all of whom have come together to celebrate Larry Levis’s legacy. Too many really for me to mention right here, but a couple of them tonight really require special mention because they have been so essential in getting this event going on. I especially want to thank Mary Flinn, who has done so much, so much to foster Larry’s legacy and so much to make this event possible. Ditto my wonderful colleague, Greg Donavan, who has also been instrumental and finally a third person, John Ulmschneider,the head of the University Libraries who has been instrumental in helping to purchase Larry’s papers for VCU and to make this event possible. Finally, I want to thank Sheila Brady and Buck Levis who have come heremembers of Larry’s family who have supported the Levis Prize for many yearsand thank you very much for your presence here too.

David St. John is our premiere reader tonight. He’s been a presence on the literary scene for some thirty-five years now, since the publication of his first book, Hush, in 1976. He is one of our most ambitious, one of our most elegant, and one of our most searching poets. A great colleague of Larry Levis, a great presence in our literary culture for several decades, and we thought it would be fitting that David be the person to open these events.

Thanks very much everyone, I’m really pleased you’re here.

David St. John: I was talking to Phil last week just about how difficult it’s been in these past couple of weeks thinking about being here and thinking about Larry. I met Larry when I was eighteen. I was a freshman at Fresno State and he was a senior. And we’ll be talking some about Larry during those days. But I enrolled for the very last class that was listed in the Fresno State schedule of classes under English, and it was called “Cross Cultural Expressions of Contemporary Man.” It was the sixties, remember. And what I didn’t know was that it was open only to seniors. It wasn’t open to freshmen like me. But I got there and found out it was not really a class—it was six weekend retreats at different places up in the Sierras. There was no way you were getting me out of that class, all right. So José Elgorriaga, the wonderful Spanish teacher and at times cotranslator from the Spanish with Phil, let me stay in, and it was there that I met Larry and Bruce Boston, and it changed my life. And I remember there was a dance at the Rainbow Ballroom in Fresno, an end-of-the-semester dance, and Larry came up to me, kinda in his Larry way, and said, “You know, Phil Levine’s teaching an introduction to poetry class in the spring.” I said, “No, I didn’t know that.” And he said, “And you’re going to take it.” And I did. And that changed my life. When we were in Iowa City, I went to Iowa to get an MFA when Larry went to get a PhD. At one point as his life was changing, he moved in with me and lived with me ‘til the end of his time there. He was my closest friend in or out of poetry.

I’d like to start with an early poem that’s an elegy for my grandmother. And as epigraph, her name and dates are given: Vivian St. John, 1891-1974. What you need to know was that she had this extraordinary two-acre landscape garden. Not far from where Phil and Franny live. And when she bought the land, it was fig stumps, it is an area of Fresno called the Fig Garden. And I once asked her, I said “How did you get all those fig stumps out? Did you get a tractor and have somebody haul the stumps out?” And she said, “No, no, no. No, no, no. No. Dynamite.” And I said to her, “You had somebody come and dynamite every one of those stumps?” And she said, “Well, why would I pay someone to do it?” She was a formidable woman. The prize of her garden were her iris beds. And they were spectacular, and this poem is called “Iris.”

[“Iris,” David St. John, Study for the World’s Body: New and Selected Poems, HarperCollins, 1994.]

So, one of the first people to ever see that poem is here tonight, and it was Stan Plumly. I showed him two poems: a poem called “Hush” and this poem “Iris.” He said, “Get back to work.” 

One of Larry’s and my friends at Iowa was the poet Norman Dubie. And Norman and Larry and I, after we had all gone our separate ways, would check in with one another just to see what the latest stories being told about us happened to be. We’d say, “Ah, man, guess what I heard about you.” I mean, many of you here know that poets love to gossip. I mean love to gossip. The fact of it being true or not is completely irrelevant. Invention and the imagination, of course, are the most important things in gossip. My old student Liam Rector—Liam used to call American poetry “Deep Gossip.” So this is a poem about my own response to that gossip. And it’s called “Gin.”

[“Gin,” David St. John, Study for the World’s Body: New and Selected Poems, HarperCollins, 1994.]

This is a book called Prism. This is a book of poems and photographs, and the photographs are by a wonderful poet from Fresno named Lance Patigian. And Lance went to University of Arizona and became enthralled with the photography center and moved from poetry to photography. This is a book that he and I dedicated to Phil and Franny in gratitude for everything that they have given us. It’s a book of fourteen-liners, with only one or two exceptions, and I’m just going to read one of the poems. But they’re meant to be really breathless. Michael Collier, who’s here, had invited me to come to Middlebury, to Bread Loaf, one summer. And I was having a great time—James was there, forcing me to misbehave. And the Fellow from my workshop was the fabulous Terrance Hayes, who has become a good friend. And so I was just having such a great time that I actually began to write. I mean, it just seems, to me now, inconceivable I could be that happy. But, you know, I started writing the poems in this book Prism. This poem, all of the poems you need to know, have as their title something that indicates a particular color. The first poem in the book is white. It moves through the spectrum in lots of variations, and the last color is white. This is a poem that cheats, because it actually, as you’ll see, involves two colors. I lived in Rome for a year and this takes place in Rome. The main drag up the center of Rome is just called the Corso. I think that is all you need. The poem is called “Bumble Bee.”

[“Bumble Bee,” David St. John, Prism, Arctos Press, 2002.]

I’d like to read some new poems from a manuscript called The Auroras, and then I’ll end with a poem from my last book, The Face. This is called “The Aurora of the New Mind.”

[“The Aurora of the New Mind,” David St. John, unpublished.]

About six months ago, I started writing a group of poems that were somewhat different for me. They were more stripped down. They all had specific landscapes, western landscapes. I’ve only read some of these one other time, and so I wanted to hear how they’d sound. This is called “In the High Country.”

[“In the High Country,” David St. John, unpublished.]

And this is called, “From a Bridge.”

[“From a Bridge, David St. John, unpublished.]

And this is called “Hungry Ghost.” It’s a Buddhist concept of the Hungry Ghost, but this is a more particular Hungry Ghost.

[“Hungry Ghost,” David St. John, unpublished.]

And one more of these. This is your two-poem warning. There’s a bar in Kingston, Jamaica called Creque Alley and we know it because that’s where John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas wrote the song “Creeque Alley,” although he spells it differently than the bar. There’s also, as you’ll discover in the poems, in San Francisco, a strip of clubs and bars called Creque Alley because it’s all Caribbean and African clubs. And this poem is called “Creque Alley.” I tried to call it “Paul.” It’s like George Harrison—they asked him what he called his haircut and he said, “Arthur.”

[“Creque Alley,” David St. John, unpublished.]

And one last poem. This is a section of this book called The Face.

[“XXVII,” David St. John, The Face: A Novella in Verse, Harper Perennial, 2005.]

Thank you.  end