A while ago, I had some email interaction with Thomas Patrick Levy. He carried this conversation, as I was being a most awful interviewer. I first got to know his work when he appeared in the very first issue of ILK and taught me how you DO a prose-poem. Unsurprisingly, given the man’s straight up stellar talent, Yes Yes Books (aren’t they great?) have just published his first full collection I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone.
If you haven’t read it, just do. (Poems from it are everywhere, including my own stand-out, ‘IOWA,’ here) .
CC: I Don’t Mind If You’re Feeling Alone does some things. Actually, quite a few. But first, first of all, the concern with sequence jumps out at me. What makes something need to be spoken in this way?
TPL: I Don’t Mind went through several different phases. The portions, as in the sections, of the book we’re never intended to go together the way they did, at least not originally. I kind of squished the whole thing together in a word doc at one point so that I would feel as if I had a full-length collection of poems. And then the thing that happened was that I realized all the sections — which were sort of formless — were actually different parts of the same story. I Don’t Mind is a story. It’s categorized as poetry because that’s what Katherine (KMA Sullivan, the immense force moving the gears of YesYes Books) and I decided to call it. We were going to call it “lyric prose” and “prose poems” at different points in the development of the book, but ultimately rested on calling it “poems.” The category doesn’t matter really, as far as I’m concerned. And really, every poem tells a story in a way, so, in my opinion, a collection of poems can – but doesn’t necessarily always — tell a story in the same way a novel can. To me, I Don’t Mind is like a Tarantino film. Each touches on different parts of the story the whole book (hopefully) tells.
As for the order, the sequence as you put it, was very important to me when I began flushing out the collection more thoroughly. I think about a collection of poems in the same way I think about an album. That is, whenever I listen to an album, I listen to the album. I’m not one to buy the 99 cent single off iTunes. This is partially the snob in me — you know, the singles are lame you have to dig deeper into the album to find the real music — but it’s also partially because a band will put together the whole album, the dozen songs on the album are collected there for some reason, and they were collected in a specific order for a reason. I mean, maybe not, but I like to think there’s a reason. So I think poets do the same thing. I hope they do. In the case of I Don’t Mind the pieces are sequenced to tell the story as I thought it was most engagingly told. The narrative is not always clear, and this is partially intentional.
Damn this is wordy…
CC: The story seems spread really wide. But the specific moments are so pinned down and precise. The opening poem of ‘IOWA’ has this terrifying movement of woman connected to land. It’s beautiful but sad because I’ve never felt that connection. So I guess I want to ask you about how alone the poems are on the map.
Wow sorry about the delay, this one kind of stumped me…
I think that essentially I didn’t intend the connections you’ve made. I’m not sure exactly what I did intend. I think there is an interesting switch that occurs in a piece once it is completed. As a writer, there is usually a goal in my mind. I have an intention or a reason for writing something down. Once it’s all down on paper, I begin the editing process. Sometimes this process is as simple as correcting typos but sometimes it’s a complete rewrite. When I begin reading I start to understand what I wrote. In my opinion, if a piece is successful, my intentions are not clear to the reader. I think a poem, or any piece of literature, with obvious intentions is not very interesting to read. By intentions here, I mean if it tries to convey a message or moral of some sort. Drugs are bad. War is evil. Etc…
I don’t mean that one cannot write these messages into a piece, but these messages are most successful — again, in my opinion — when it’s not very obvious that the message is there.
The switch that happens, though, is when someone else reads a piece. It’s always interesting to hear someone’s interpretation of something I’ve written. I don’t feel I can ever say “you’re wrong, that’s not what that’s a metaphor for” or something like that. But rarely do they understand the poem in the way I intended them to, and that’s totally okay. It’s probably better that way. But that’s what art is all about, I think.
Bob Dylan said something in an interview or somewhere, along the lines of I don’t know what the fuck I’m writing about. That might be a pretty accurate quote, but I’m not positive. I also read a book about Doolittle, the Pixies album. And in the book Francis says something similar, along the lines of you can say “Monkey Gone to Heaven” is a song about global warming and the environment, but really I just was writing something that sounded cool.
I wont say exactly that I just try to write stuff that sounds cool. But I feel similarly. Essentially, I write about sex and love and in an attempt to not make these things boring I use things like corn and earth and diesel motors. These are all things that are interesting to me, so in my mind, these interests can be pushed together and be about all of them at the same time. I think.
CC: I didn’t mean to throw you with that one. I guess it was just weird because I was at my parents house (a farm) and reading that poem thinking ‘why doesn’t this happen to me? why can’t I be made of corn like them?’ And that is a strength of elemental stories. I don’t mean to transpose but it is possible. Leaving Iowa, and going into the arms of Scarlett Johansson. How is it having this sequence reinvented from chapbook to part of something larger?
Oh please throw me. It’s totally cool. The whole thing is that it’s awesome to hear how someone else interprets something.
I think when read alone — as in the chapbook – Scarlett reads very differently than it does in the middle of I Don’t Mind. That’s important to the story, because the Scarlett section, to me, is a sort of dream sequence the narrator moves through. It’s also, I think, a travelogue. I always pictured it as a way to convey the narrator’s wanting but also display the faults of the narrator’s lover. I think mostly the narrator is portrayed negatively, but in the Scarlett section the narrator is frequently the object of Scarlett — of the “yous” — aggression. There’s a lot going on throughout Scarlett. I’m not sure I’m explaining myself well.
CC: Oh god I got so distracted. I am the worst question-asker. We went all heavy and construction focused and the things I really should say are what is the one song that makes you do karaoke? And do you know the magical properties of ginger ale? Also prose poems. Are you still making them?
I don’t do karaoke because I think I either am too self aware or never drunk enough — however, I do sing all the time.
These little songs are generally variations of a popular song which I will make timely — as in to the moment — by replacing words with whatever is happening. Cat Stevens’s Wild World
is probably my favorite candidate, but there are many many more. Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard is great, you can replace Julio with any name and Schoolyard with any place. e.g.
Me and Caroline doing an interview — (right?) — dope.
I don’t know much about magical ginger ale, actually. I think it might be that ginger is magical. It’s crazy that ginger can make a tasty soda. That seems pretty magical to me. Nothing against ginger, of course. But let me give an awesome shout out to Ginger Beer – a mix between root beer and ginger ale — which I was just recently introduced to. Very exciting, yes?
I am still making prose poems. I dig them. Partly I think prose poems are a fuck you to poets and partly I think they are a really useful for me as a way of writing interesting combinations of words. I find rhythm to be so important in a poem, and the rhythm of language is very important, and for me, the prose poem is an awesome way to remove any artificial rhythm from a poem and allow the language itself to create all or most of the pauses and temper the speed. The Scarlett poems are a sort of experiment, for me, as they have no punctuation at all, yet when reading the poems I think it’s pretty clear where breaths and pauses are to be taken.
I could talk about prose poems all day, if you want, but I’ll stop there for now.