When Larry Levy reads his poetry, I am transported into the ambiance of the time and place he reveals through his words. Larry has been a friend and mentor for many years, and I am honored to have him as my guest today. Welcome Larry.
My poems often begin with a phrase or a line. Usually it’s about something I have seen or heard or recall. Many of my poems begin in memories. Sometimes it comes in a dream. But they almost always begin with words that seem “right” or on target. I do not know for certain where the poem will lead, but if a line arrests my attention, seems important, reveals rather than explains, then I want to follow and play with it.
Of course, I want to know your process. When a poem comes to you, how do you work it, shape it?
I believe in beginnings, in getting that first line down and seeing if another line will follow, and then another. I hear lines in my head, sometimes more than one, and some seem trustworthy, seem to rely on a telling detail. I never want to force a poem. I very much believe in Robert Frost’s notion that “you cannot worry a poem into being.” Over the time I will bring a starter back to my desktop and read through it, adding, substituting, rearranging, and often tightening. Almost all my first drafts are longer than the later versions. I am seeking something economical, where each word and line matters and contributes, where nothing is wasted. Anything that seems affected or dishonest has to go. I value simplicity but believe it is not simple or silly or shallow. I distrust any writing that seems belabored or obtuse. I have no clock, no deadline. A poem sort of tells me when I have taken it as far as it wants or needs to go, or at least as far as I can take it at that time.
How do you determine the form your poem will take? Some of your poems rhyme, most don’t, some are conversational. Does that happen in the first penning?
I never force the form, whether rhymed or in free verse. Sometimes I will hear a second, third, fourth line that echoes an earlier line and establishes a pattern. But even in the patterned poems I enjoy off-rhymes and syncopated rather than regimented rhythms. And in the less patterned poems I still enjoy an echo or strong repetition. I want sounds to surprise, awaken, or delight. I want them all to sound something like ordinary rather than artificial speech—but “heightened,” if that makes sense.
Do your poems spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus?
My poems do not spring forth in full battle dress like Athena. Sometimes they put their socks on first. Even the easiest poem I have written, whichever one that is, usually sat on my desktop for weeks, where I would call it up, re-read it, hear something—sometimes obvious—that I had not previously heard, and make a small (but not trivial) or larger change. I try to be patient, as if I am casting for two pound fish using one pound test line. I believe there will be a hit. I just don’t know when, and I don’t want to reel too fast. I try to remain open for possible surprise.
The themes in All the Dead are Holy range from the sorrow of the Holocaust to the joy of meeting your wife, Cheryl. How did you decide which poems to include in this collection and where to place them?
When I first approached Nick Courtright, my editor at Atmosphere Press, I had a tall pile of poems. I was unsure about the title and the arrangement. As you note, the book seems to be about many subjects and tones.
Nick and I had a long phone conversation where he diplomatically mentioned the poems that hit him hardest as well as several he thought I should hold onto “for my next book.” Fortunately, he liked many and wanted to publish them. Also fortunately, over the next few months, we went back and forth discussing possible titles and arrangements and revisions of individual poems.
Nick was an astute and unfailingly encouraging reader. Even if I disagreed with one of his suggestions, I always respected what Nick was after—the best book possible, one that would attract and hold readers.
We went through several possible titles before deciding on “All the Dead are Holy.” I attempted several arrangements before finding the three sections of the book. The sections work, I think, if arbitrarily. Probably some poems are more appropriately placed than others. I’ve already had a reader suggest that one poem belonged elsewhere in the book, and he had a point.
You lost your brother Edgar recently. The poems about your relationship with him are delightful and poignant. Did you write them when he was still alive?
“Sidekick,” one of the older poems in the book, may have been written more than ten years ago. “Elegy for Chooch” began last summer when we were on a plane to visit Ed after his surgery. At that point, the book was already taking shape, Nick and I having agreed which poems should be included. When Ed died, I reworked the poem and slipped it into the latest book draft, hoping it was not a problem for Nick, which it was not. I read both of these poems as part of my eulogy. Since this book has come out I’ve been writing regularly, including an odd poem about Ed that a few weeks ago came to me in a dream.
Elegy for Chooch
A slight bleed on the brain
said the nurse, but really none
is slight. Your right arm gone.
Gone your omelette puns,
your sunny side. The yolk’s
on us, my brother-in-disguise.
One of your script’s outtakes,
your Creator cracking wise.
How many summer days
with bat, mitt, ball,
the neighborhood guys?
The banter was all.
Now under a summer sky
chirp one hundred birds,
but when will you and I
play catch with words?
Do you share your poems with the people you write about?
“In the L & K” I shared with Cheryl, as she was there about 48 years ago when something like this scene happened. Likewise, “Friday, Walking Home” I shared with our granddaughter, who has it framed and hanging over her bed. I recently mentioned “Survival Training” to the speaker in that poem, who has asked to see it. “Winning Season, 1964” is about a real person who starred on our high school basketball team. I stumbled back in touch with him last year and sent him the poem, which he liked well enough to frame.
Winning Season, 1964
Though under six feet tall,
he jumped center for our team,
rising impossibly for a loose ball.
Teachers and students knew his name—
it hung in rafters for every game.
They chanted it the morning after,
woofing, rapping in clever rhyme
over the school PA, to much laughter
and hand jiving—he had it all,
our champion, our soul mate,
the only black kid in the school,
everyone’s brother, no girl’s date.
“In the Neighborhood” and “Goddess in 7th Grade” are about two students of mine in the early 1970’s at Frederick Douglass Junior High School (as it was then called) in Rochester, New York. I have no idea where they are now.
Unfortunately, anyone who has died, including my parents, would not have read any poem mentioning them or any of these poems. However, I know they would be pleased by this book. So much of my interest in language and print began with their voices, humor, and insight.
So often I am jarred by the last line of your poem, for example in “Winning Season, 1964,” where the truth of the poem lies in the last few words. How do you get there? Did you set out to write a poem about racism, or did you remember a great basketball player and as you wrote about him, the truth slipped out onto the page.
Although all the lines are true to the experience, those last three words happened very suddenly for me while writing. Once they appeared—originally in the second-to-last line—I realized they had to be the last words, the truest epiphany. Frost wrote that poetry “begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” and I think that is what I am seeking—the delight of remembering some particulars that define a person, event, or moment and the realization or insight that sparks from it.
The poem, “All Brides are Beautiful,” ends with the line that is the title of your book, All the Dead are Holy. Why did you choose that line as your title? At what point did you know it would be the title?
“All the Dead are Holy” went through several sizes, shapes, and directions as well as three or four titles before finding this final shape and title. It comes from an old yiddish proverb: “All brides are beautiful; all the dead are holy.” It has an essentially yiddish perspective and tone—worldly wise, knowing, beyond pretense. It has also a kind of humor without being especially funny, as is true of a lot of Old Country yiddish sayings. I think the book as a whole, even the many that have nothing particularly Jewish about them, have—I hope—an insight that, pleasant or unpleasant, is true and disarming without being cynical or snarky. I am pleased that several of the pre-publishing reviewers use the word “compassion” to describe the book’s tone. I am not always compassionate, but I respect it in others and strive for it in most of my poetry.
What advice do you give aspiring writers? (Besides “Siri Spell Checks My Poem”)
I suspect my advice—what has worked for me—is very similar to advice I have read from other writers: (1) read; (2) read especially what pleases you and seems significant; (3) write—find which times, places, and mediums encourage you. At this point in my life I seem to do some of my best writing while sitting in a coffee shop with my laptop in the mid-morning or early afternoon, I do not hear the noise. Somehow I focus better. Whatever works, do it. (4) Play with your writing—don’t abandon it too early, don’t assume it is finished until it is. Even then, even after it appears in print (if you are that fortunate), it may still profit from revision. (5) Read it out loud. Even in those coffee shops I find my lips moving while re-reading. (6) Show it to others. Maybe they will offer a worthwhile suggestion. Maybe not. Assume another pair of eyes and ears can see or hear something you are missing. (7) Send your work to possible publishers. It’s OK to start small and local. Seeing your words in print is a boost. Hearing a response from a reader is a big deal. Getting rejected is part of it. Try not to take it personally or to lose faith in the piece that was turned down or in yourself.
“Siri,” by the way, was turned down by “The New Yorker.” They kept it for about eight months, so I thought it had a chance, even with the long odds that any poem will be accepted there. Anyway, I still like the poem.
Siri Spell Checks My Poem
That word is not in my dictionary.
Got a modifier more vivid than very ?
Your quatrain rhymes lines two and four—
Really? Who uses rhyme anymore?
Capitalize the first word in a sentence.
Is your theme guilt ? Consider repentance.
This cliché is for the birds.
Are you seriously using indented words?
Why the italics? Why boldface?
Think you’re cummings, mr. lower case?
Shouldn’t Cummings be capitalized?
Perhaps everything should be revised.
This stanza may be unnecessary.
That word is not in my dictionary.
Poets who explain have a circle in Hell.
The way to heaven? Show, don’t tell.
Quit nudging me to think or feel.
Are you trusting details to reveal?
Are you rewarding your reader with surprise?
This choice—do you think it wise?
Do adult readers want melodrama?
Would it kill you to use a comma?
Your whole approach is reactionary.
That word is not in my dictionary.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
One of my first breakthroughs was a poem that was not only accepted for publication but also won a prize. When the magazine appeared, I sent a copy to a wonderful teacher I had in graduate school. He wrote back “Just remember—it was good before it won the prize.” Years after that, when one of my Delta College students won first place in an essay contest for a piece that began with many drafts in her composition class, I wrote the same words to her. The prize did not make her essay good; it already was good. It’s important not to confuse the writing with its reception.
All writers need to hear that pearl of wisdom. Who are your favorite poets?
It might be more accurate to speak of my favorite poems, and there are many: Robert Frost’s “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” “Acquainted With the Night,” “Desert Places,” “Stopping by Woods; Emily Dickinson’s “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,”and “Because I Could Not Stop For Death”; Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” “The Meadow Mouse”; Ezra Pound’s translation from the Chinese titled “ The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”; Seamus Heaney’s “Early Purges,” “Follower,” “Midterm Break,” “Personal Helicon”; Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” “A Sight in Camp at Daybreak”; Randall Jarrell’s “The Truth”; several of Shakespeare’s sonnets and passages in his plays; certain passages in the Bible; William Blake’s “The Tyger” “The Poison Tree,” “The New Jerusalem,” “London”; Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider my Cat, Geoffrey”; Yevtushenko’s “Babiy Yar”; Garcia Lorca’s “Romance Sonambulo”; Billy Collins’ “The Iron Bridge”; Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes” “Wild Geese”; Peter Porter’s “Mort aux Chat”; some of Jacques Brel’s lyrics, as well as those of Woody Guthrie, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg, and other Broadway lyricists. And many, many more. Heck, I didn’t include something by Keats, Wordsworth, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dylan Thomas, William Stafford and so many more.
Though different in obvious ways, all of these poems have something in common. They remind me of Emily Dickinson’s famous remark about how poetry arrested her: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”
Larry’s books are available at