Pandemic Poets: A Conversation with Tess Taylor and Dana Levin

JENNIFER ACKER talks with TESS TAYLOR and DANA LEVIN

On October 21st, 2020, Editor in chief Jennifer Acker moderated a brief reading and conversation between acclaimed poets Tess Taylor and Dana Levin on the importance of place, resiliency, and writing during the pandemic. The virtual event, which served as a fundraiser to celebrate The Common’s 10th publishing year and launch the place-based magazine into its second decade, was streamed live via Left Bank Books in St. Louis. Below is a transcript of the discussion that followed the readings. 

JA: We are in three different time zones here—one thing that this cursed, digital time has brought us is the ability to bring multiple places together at once. I was just thinking about what you said, Dana, about place being in the form of your poems. And Tess, I was thinking about how all these partially hidden histories—human and geologic—come up in your book. So I’m thinking about the twinning of place and time. Is there a particular form or place setting of a poem that encourages you to go back in time when you’re writing a particular piece? Does the inspiration to draw from the past come as you’re writing, or is it part of your original inspiration? Do you think it has something to do with the form of the poem?

DL: That’s a really interesting question because…I turned 50 five years ago. And it’s as if my whole orientation pivoted. I’d spent my whole life looking ahead, and when I turned 50 all of a sudden it was like I turned around and started to look back. And I know I’m not the only person who has this experience, but I bet that it’s startling for every single person who has had it, because it was certainly startling for me! 

As a younger person, I read a lot of essays that talked about how poetry is the art of time, and how poets love to write about time as a theme. And I just don’t think I cared that much about time. I mean, I cared about the wounding of childhood. But time wasn’t really a topic for me. And I’ve just been fascinated by how much it really is, now, a topic for me. Time is a place! [laughs] I mean, it’s our fourth dimension; it is its own place. I think, you know, with COVID, I’m still in lockdown. I don’t do much: I went to the doctor today. But time just expands, and I’m in my mind a lot. 

TT: I think I’m different. Both my parents are historians, so they were always measuring things in terms of time. My mother was the kind of person who said that Cornwallis, when he left the American Revolution, sailed right to India so America and India are a part of the same colonial story. She was always measuring things in terms of generations and empires. My dad isn’t a practicing historian anymore, but he’s always talking in [terms of] time, like: “This time next week, we’ll be on a plane,” or, “Think [about how] this time last year, we were there.” 

I didn’t want to be a historian, but I do feel like one of the technologies of poetry is to deal with time, like, Heaney goes: “I look back 20 years and find my father’s digging in the potato bed.” And that’s a line that you quickly write in a poem that manipulates time. It’s meant to suspend time, like when Frost goes, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, and I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep…” The repetition puts you in this trance where you know you’re in a suspended time as opposed to just [writing], “I’m going home from the woods now.” The way that language suspends time, or leaps across time, feels really important to me. I love poems because they have this weird way of breaking through linearity and unsettling us and making us either slow down or speed up in ways that are really productive to our imaginations.

DL: You’re making me think about two things: I’m thinking about Brendon Hellman’s wonderful poem, “Styrofoam Cup,” which takes the first line from Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and starts to dismantle it. But it’s called “Styrofoam Cup.” So it’s a whole meditation on immortality, and asking: Is that good? Are a styrofoam cup and a Grecian urn the same? There’s the idea, in Keats’s poem, that the figures painted on the urn are trapped in the moment of what they’re doing, and they’re never ever going to move beyond that place. And then, linking that to a styrofoam cup, I just think that’s so fascinating. 

The other thing I was thinking about was Allen Ginsburg, and how he talked about poetry being like a time machine—he talked about how a poet’s consciousness transcends time by coming to us through this language, through these books, through these poems. I love thinking about poems that way; I love thinking about poems as being wormholes or time machines that are transmitting consciousness.

JA: And I think part of what draws me to place as an organizing principle for the magazine is the potential to stretch across time. There’s also nostalgia. To me, every place holds a memory. I think poems are particularly valuable for doing a quick back and forth in time, and for many layers of time.

TT: I think the question about place is really interesting, too. When you say every place holds a memory, I think places have these different things that build up there. For example: I felt like I understood St. Louis so differently when I read Kevin Young’s book, “The Grey Album,” about the history of modernism. He pointed out that T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore are from there, but that there was also this incredible jazz era thing going on; he thought of it all as a fulcrum of modern modernity, and that the high, poetic modernity and jazz were inextricably linked to each other in making America new. I would have been excited to go to St. Louis anyway—but I really wanted to feel that feeling of being at a crossroads, in the middle, you know? [laughs]

DL: Yeah, I moved to the naval of the nation. I really feel like that.

TT: I was like, “Converge upon me here, you great city; I want to feel your great convergence!” [laughter]

DL: It’s a fascinating, fascinating place. I have this big, long poem, which I could not read here, called “Two Autumns, Saint Louis.” You can find it at the Kenyon Review. The poem is all about first moving here, and my various kinds of encounters. 

 One of the things I did was say, “Let’s go find T.S. Eliot’s childhood home.” And when you get there, it’s a parking lot with a chain link fence around it. And there’s this giant medallion that’s like, “Home of T.S. Eliot,” and it’s a wasteland! [laughter] I don’t even think there were cars parked in it.

JA: Well, that seems appropriate. [laughter]

TT: I think you, Jen, said that every place has a memory. But I also think that different places suggest different memories to us. And they’re not always just our own memories, if that makes sense. Like, the memories of places do sort of seep up there, and we feel them. And of course, as a poet, I kind of feel like I’m specially authorized to have those feelings on the behalf of a culture or on the behalf of a place; I got no problem doing that. But I think it’s something to be open to. I mean, I think that’s why we love to travel, because we feel these memories and essences, you know, microminerals and ecotones—they just come up within us, you know?

JA: I have a question about your writing processes in regards to place in this time [of COVID]. We are all so much in one place—like, I have been in this room everyday for many hours, for months, just like so many of us have. And I just wonder if you could say how that isolation is influencing your writing process at the moment. Are you finding it difficult to imagine other times and places because there’s been a lot of sameness in our lives? Or has the sameness made you feel even more free to explore places in your mind?

DL: Oh, my mind started to turn as you were asking this question. What I can tell you is that, through our conversation, I’ve just even more confirmed that time is a place. The main thing that has been helping me get through this time period is a sense of history. Because I know that human beings have gone through pandemics; because I know that human beings have suffered under governments that don’t serve them; because I know that human beings have activated against injustice in the past… I look at what we’re going through right now, and it helps calm me down. I know that there has been endurance, and I know that human beings have been able to come out of these [situations]. And I know that moments like this also set the stage for later flowerings. 

The problem is that I don’t know if I’m going to get to see those flowerings. I hope so! But, for instance, the pandemic made me realize that from post-World War II until February, we were living in a kind of medical miracle moment. If you had access to health care, you had antibiotics, you had all sorts of drugs; nobody was getting 19th century-sick in the way that, you know, someone would catch a cold in a 19th century novel and then they’d be sick for like six months. We were not having those experiences the way that our ancestors used to. And then something like the pandemic comes along and you’re like, “Oh, we were living in this little blip of being well-cared for by our drugs and our medical situation.” And now, we have to remember that was just a little blip.

TT: I feel the same way in terms of just looking to these big, arching moments, which can be very grounding. My grandmother lost her mother in the 1918 epidemic, and I ended up writing a poem about grieving my grandmother’s mother. My grandmother was 102 and passed right before this started, and I was so relieved that she had passed away at a moment when people could still visit her in the hospital and sing to her, and hold her hand as she died. But thinking of my grandmother living in the window between pandemics, it made me think about her, and about time in a much bigger way.

On the other hand, I wrote this book (Rift Zone) about the town I grew up in, in my home state, and I was going to be on tour in 42 cities for six months in four countries, and that was just wild; I was going to be on a plane basically all of the time. And instead, I’m actually in the place that I wrote about. And I’ve noticed so many things in detail. Right now is monarch butterfly season, and I’m seeing the migration. It’s really just a tiny thing, like four butterflies a day. And then the caterpillar is on this plant called milkweed, eating the milkweed and making a chrysalis, and I am attuned to them.

I think we also lived in an era of enormous joys. Like, if we were lucky we’d say, “Let’s take a trip here or there.” Some of us were jetting around the world at a rapid fire pace, and my point is: the amount of sustenance I can feel in seeing these monarch butterfly caterpillars is also enormous. I’ve been trying to think about what it means to write about small things. And not in a way that’s cloying, but just in a way that acknowledges the enormity of the pleasure that you can take in that kind of space. I think literature’s really good for accomplishing that. A complicated syntax actually models behavior for living through complicated times, if that makes sense. And so in some ways, literature is really a great companion for this moment when we’re living through a rupture in time. 

I’ve also just been reading hard books a lot: books that feel like they’re not for pleasure, not for sale, just for nourishment. Books that are going to make my neurons go a little bit wild. And that’s maybe partly to deafen the pain of this time. But also because I really, really feel sustained by it.

JA: I think that pleasure that you can find in the caterpillar and the monarch butterfly is infinite; it can be very, very soothing and full of a lot of promise; I hope to continue to pay attention to those small moments.

TT: I want to say one thing on behalf of just being so delighted to be here: we made a joke that we would pretend that this is an old school telethon. It’s why I wanted to show you my mustard-colored rotary phone, and just model the act of saying like, [picks up phone receiver, mimics talking into it] “Hello!” 

JA: The internet is standing by for your donation. And we are on the end of it! We really are. [laughter]

TT: We’re really grateful because these relatively small donations that we make to arts organizations go a long way supporting writers and editors and the future generation; Jen cultivates tons of emerging writers at The Common. And when you support a magazine, you are supporting a place and a time and a community, and a way of forming conversations that will bring us back together when we get to have our wine together in-person. Imagining the world that we want to see on the other side just feels really important to me. 

JA: Thank you, Tess. I’m grateful to you; grateful to you, Dana, and for your work. The whole reason for starting a magazine was, yes, to think about place, but also to create community, which can be rooted in a particular place or span multiple places. And I’m really grateful for the community that we have here tonight.

 

Jennifer Acker is founder and editor in chief of The Common, and author of the debut novel The Limits of the World.

Dana Levin is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Banana Palace (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), which was a finalist for the Rilke Prize. She serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in Saint Louis.

Tess Taylor is the author of five acclaimed collections of poetry. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland for the Poetry Society of America’s inaugural chapbook fellowship, and The San Francisco Chronicle called her first book, The Forage House, “stunning.”  Her second book, Work & Days, was hailed as “our moment’s Georgic” by critic Stephanie Burt and named one of the 10 best books of poetry of 2016 by The New York Times. Last West, Taylor’s third book, was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art as part of the Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures exhibition.

Pandemic Poets: A Conversation with Tess Taylor and Dana Levin

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