Prose from Poetry Magazine

Q&A: Dana Levin

by Dana Levin

Is “At the End of My Hours” a cautionary tale? In other words, should we stop the environmentally questionable practices of “keep[ing] time alive /inside a tomato” and so forth? Or do you see the poem as more of an allegory for the speaker’s state of mind?

Oh, well, I think we’re always on the verge of another Frankenstein moment: Killer soybeans! Monster corn! Mutant flu! But any caution in the poem just arose out of the primary wish: to write an End Times poem. And End Times, apparently, according to the poem, is the experience of collapse—whether by global warming or nuclear war or some other man-made catastrophe, it does not say. The bees die, the seas rise; later there is famine and sickness, war and the collapse of civic order; and then, by section v, there’s some kind of aftermath where the speaker has survived (barely), lives in a cave, entirely canny and nostalgic, perpetually hungry and insane—a poet perhaps, when there is enough to eat—rambling in a fugue.

“The seas rose up/to say Fuck You”: this is such a vivid moment in the poem. Could you comment on it?

The poem just... arrived there. And then it seemed the right way to be cursed by an outraged sea, bringing its retribution hammers down. And then it seemed right to have this crass, blunt diction friction up against the loveliness afoot in other passages of the section (“tales/of a gratitude for water”): the linguistic equivalent of devastating Paradise.

I’m struck by how many foods are in the poem, and the fantasies about fruit in particular: “expecting cherries,” as well as “trying to conjure peaches” in the end. What should we make of that?

Yeah, I was struck by that too. I would have thought I’d be more inclined to rhapsodize about bacon. But the poem has a logical intelligence: no bees, no fruit. The first to go in the slide toward famine. I would miss peaches immensely as I scrabbled for ants. Deepening down into the project of rendering End Times led to these questions, which became central to the poem’s concerns: what did I love, while I was alive? What will I miss, when the old world is gone?

Could you talk a little about your formal choices for the poem? Why did it need to be a sequence? Why do the sections themselves eschew stanza breaks and periods?

While I was still mulling (and not drafting) “Hours,” I had an architectural flash: five long columns, one to a page. This is often how overall structures hit me: in a flash, visually, very early in the compositional process. Five sections felt like a good number; in retrospect, I see it offered an expansive field with a seeable limit, which somehow allayed my compositional anxiety.

I like sequences because I like working modularly, thinking in terms of blocks I can move around. As I got more deeply involved with the poem, I saw that the sequence form was helping me string the poem out along and in time: both in terms of composing something long, and in terms of rendering the timeline—this, then this, then this — that the central plot of collapse follows.

Attending this architectural flash was a strange new drive: to banish any pacing markers but the line break, including my ubiquitous em dash. I couldn’t quite maintain the prohibition against punctuation and ended up amending my assignment, but overall perhaps I needed to destroy the very poetic structures which had over time become so comfortable and familiar, in order to intuit and build in a new way — my structural post-apocalyptic scenario.

Murray the cat is the only delineated “character” in the sequence. His name seems to humanize him, but he also epitomizes the animal cycle, or the inescapable “wheel of appetite,” in your words, that drives the poem’s obsessions. Could you say more about Murray and his role?

Appetite’s what’s going to do us in in the end—personally, collectively. And here at home, Murray and I are fiddling while the world burns, he with his “seafood medley” and me with my tacos de lengua and salt-dusted chocolate bars. He’s the loudest, most persistent feed me caterwauler around—but I’m an empty belly too, a meat- sack with another meat-sack for a pet. I cuddle up to a creature with fangs and claws; I eat next to him with a knife and a fork. We love our pets to pieces, but if pressed by desperation we’d eat them in a second — and they us. To hunger is to be a destroyer, a thing destroyed.

There’s an elegiac nod to the role of poetry in section v, as the speaker laments “what poems built their houses for/once, in a blindered age, teaching us /the forms we felt, in rescue.” Does this refer to the way poems teach us in our own age? And if so, are poems now endangered, much like certain animal species?


                                                                 Look at
                                        what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
                   despised poems.
                                      It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                   yet men die miserably every day
                                      for lack
of what is found there.
                   Hear me out
                                      for I too am concerned
and every man
                   who wants to die at peace in his bed
                                      besides.
William Carlos Williams

Originally Published: December 4, 2012

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Biography

Poet Dana Levin grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and earned a BA from Pitzer College and an MA from New York University. Levin’s collections of poetry include In the Surgical Theatre (1999), Wedding Day (2005), and Sky Burial (2011). Selecting Levin’s manuscript for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, Louise Glück praised the work as “sensuous, compassionate, violent, extravagant.” In the Surgical . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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