The Cortland Review


Miriam Levine
An interview and poetry. J.M. Spalding talks with poet and writer Miriam Levine.

Douglas Thornsjo
Writers on Writing 2: Four More Authors You Should be Reading.

Miriam Levine

Interview | Poetry


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Interview with Miriam Levine

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I find that setting almost always has an effect on the poet... Pound writing in Paris, Eliot in England, Merwin in France and then Hawaii, R.T. Smith in his veritable reliquary of objects, near The Shenandoahs, I suppose, and in Ireland, Philip Levine in Detroit and Fresno... I am rambling here... but tell me a little something about your cities... the ones you've lived in (like Paterson and Arlington etc.) how have they affected you, inspired you... and, if at all, had a negative effect on you?

Places—Arlington (Hills Pond); Miami (South Beach); Paterson, Passaic, Boston, Provincetown, Rome, London (Hampstead); Maine (Swan's Island.)

When I'm home in Arlington, where I do most of my writing, I walk to Hills Pond most mornings. I need to feel myself moving into a place that is open to me. Hills Pond feels like that, the ledge and the woods, the path around the pond. This neighborhood too—with sidewalks. (The car-dependent areas of town are dull, sterile.) Some houses open to me, some rooms. I like to cross the threshold, go in, go out, into a place that seems to be waiting for me. I like to find the horizon.

Northern Jersey is in me. The industrial landscape, the meadowlands, the death of nature that is not dead. The names are in me. I grew up hearing them. Early I heard Bayonne, Hoboken, Newark, Pulaski Skyway, Jersey City. The rivers were the Hudson, the Passaic. I crossed them. I still do.

The look of things, the weather of all these places stays with me.

If you could live anywhere at any point in history... where and when would you live?

Here. Right now.

YES! We spoke (in a phone conversation) about how you had first heard of Williams, and I was very intrigued by how you did! Could you talk about that experience, again?

I heard of him from my mother who told me that my aunt had taken my cousin—when he was a small child—to Williams because she was concerned that he wasn't eating. Williams reassured her. Told her that my cousin was fine. I don't believe that she took his advice to heart. We didn't read Williams at school in Passaic. He was the doctor, not the poet.

How much of the poet's life should the reader know to understand his/her work... does one really need to know, in your opinion, that Williams was a doctor, or that Stevens was an insurance salesmen, or that any particular poet is a teacher?

No, the reader doesn't have to. But the more a reader can bring to the poem the better. The poem exists in history. Personal history and recorded history come together. There is much the reader can get without knowing certain things. But readers' knowledge deepens the reading.

Now, you've taught Williams' "The Use of Force," could you weigh in on that story, and how surprising the student response to it very often is?

Williams writes about a doctor's forcing a metal spoon and a tongue depressor down a child's throat. I'm shocked by how so many students dislike the child who resists the doctor/narrator. At first they are on the side of force. I hear such things as "For her own good." They call her a "brat." They call her "spoiled." They accept the beating he gives her, justify it by the doctor's having to save her life. Usually they slide over the most violent passages. Williams' deliberately gives the "examination" a sexual meaning. There is usually a minority of students who disagree, who sift out the difficult subtlety of the narrator's point of view. They will read outloud these violent passages in which the narrator shows the reader how he has lost control and just longs for physical release. I leave the students to discuss their differences. I myself like brats, though they have driven me crazy.

Who are some of the younger poets you admire, that you feel comfortable knowing that they will one day be carrying the torch of poetry?

Edward Nobles. He writes a strange lyrical surreal poem. His recent book is "Through One Tear." Alan Shapiro—I think he's young. Amy Osbourne—I don't think that she's publishing yet. She's getting her work out at poetry slams.

Your work has an earthy feel to it... and the reader gets the impression that he/she is being spoken TO not AT... do you ever sit and write with a particular reader or group of readers in mind?

Yes. Some of my poems are like letters and are written to specific people, alive and dead. I usually dedicate those poems. Sometimes I have to talk to myself. Thoreau talks about "doubling off" from himself. I do that. I write with a small audience in mind.

Moving on now, What do you think is the potential for Poetry on the WWW?

It's there. A way for writers and readers to get to each other. The quantity could be overwhelming.

What are some of other the publications you like on WWW?

I'm a beginner. My first and only experience is with The Cortland Review. I'm open to others but have not really explored.

What are your thoughts about Poetry in REAL AUDIO?

An advantage. I had fun recording and even more fun listening to The Cortland Review writers. The voices came though and became part of the experience of connecting to the poem. I hope that you will continue to use it. I like the immediacy. I also like hearing the varied accents.

We love doing this. I sometimes sit down with a beverage and a cigarette and just listen. I feel very good right now.

Could you talk a little about your first experience with the words of Allen Ginsberg?

He opened things up for me. Especially "Kaddish." I had left Jersey when I was eighteen, came to Boston. Read Robert Lowell not Ginsberg. When I finally got to "Kaddish," I thought, Oh, you can write about New Jersey, you can write about Jews. You can write about anything you want to write about. Ginsberg and the Beats really did change things. Later I found out that Lowell had been inspired to write "Life Studies" after he had heard Ginsberg. When Ginsberg's father learned that Allen was gay, he told him that he should kill himself. Good thing he didn't listen.

How about the form of Ginsberg, or rather, the lack of form. What are your thoughts on his style?

Doesn't bother me. There is form, those long lines. Sometimes he gets incoherent, so does Whitman. The whole of the work carries it.

Moving on... In "At the Piroska Cafe", a poem we've published, you start off with the "Sublunary pleasures I love!" and end speaking of the joyousness of a simple visit to the cafe... while at the same time, the narrator is grieving. I liked the poem a great deal because you have taken something like "sipping coffee at a table near the window" and you exude its great pleasures. I sometimes forget the simple pleasures of drinking coffee in a cafe, as a free man in good health. Watching the occasional children, noticing the clouds, the shapes of clouds... even something as simple as a coffee stain from whoever sat here before me... the irony that I will only know of that person what the coffee stain reveals... which, isn't a hell of a lot, or is it? If I am clever ... I can find the flavor of the coffee from the stain, perhaps look at how they left the chair... was it pushed in under the table? Did they leave napkins strewn about? Wait, I am rambling... getting back to your poem.. what are some of your thoughts on my take, and of course, in reflection, what are you thoughts on the poem?

I agree with your take on grief and joy, though I want to be careful about "simple" pleasures. I want to avoid a cliche. I believe that you can know in the passing moment. But what does the narrator really know? The irony is that the narrator in the poem is the watcher. The narrator never speaks to these people, yet appreciates them, is tender with them.

How has the NEA Creative Writing Fellowship been of help in your writing?

The news of the grant was exciting and filled me with energy—the surprise of it. Totally unexpected. Energy always helps me to write. The money will be of use. At the end of July I go to a writer's colony in Switzerland. I'll pay for my flight out of NEA funds. The thought of travel and release makes me happy.

What poem, that you have written, is your favorite... and could you quote a line?

Here's a line from Candlewood:

There is no difference between your breath and your dear life.

How do you want to be remembered?

I'm not dead yet. I want people to think of me as a human being who took responsibility for her actions and her words.

What is your favorite color? Why?

Yellow. I always have trouble giving reasons for what I love and what I hate.

What kind of tea do you like?


Favorite drink, alcohol and non-alcohol?

Currently a red wine, petite Shiraz.

Favorite Curse?

The one that will hurt the most.

Favorite Season?

In New England—the beginning of fall. But I wouldn't want to lose any of them.

Any final thoughts?

Yes, thanks to The Cortland Review.

Interview with Miriam Levine
TCR July 1998 Feature


2002 The Cortland Review