Poetry In Conversation
Mark Pawlak with Michael Basinski
My Deniversity: Knowing Denise Levertov
(MadHat Press, 2022)
Michael Basinski (Rail): Your My Deniversity: Knowing Denise Levertov is part personal memoir and part homage. Could you talk about the whys and hows of the book and its structure, and what readers might find of use?
Mark Pawlak: Levertov had a profound influence on me as anyone reading My Deniversity will discover. She literally changed the direction of my life trajectory from aspiring scientist to poet. Writing the memoir was my way of understanding how I came to be who I am: poet, editor, and educator. But I didn’t sit down and write it straight out in one focused period, rather it came about by accretion over many years. I recorded the Glover Circle notebooks back in the mid 1970s, a time when I visited Denise almost daily. I lived a short ten minute walk from her Glover Circle home/office where I had an open invitation to drop in anytime. Then for about a decade, after I moved to another city, I jotted down thoughts and memories in no particular order but struggled with where to begin and how to give them shape. It was after reading Joe Brainard’s I Remember that it occurred to me I was overthinking it. Subsequently, I just wrote what came to mind without worrying about structure. That’s when I wrote the chapters about her life in Boston with her husband Mitchell Goodman the novelist and anti-war activist, describing their circle of friends and acquaintances and their combined influence on me. Denise and her Husband Mitch Goodman had on me. Publishing those sections in a journal was a breakthrough for me.
Soon after, Donna Krolik Hollenberg contacted me while doing research for her biography A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov. I shared my notebooks and my Levertov correspondence with her. She helped me see my relationship with Denise in the arc of Levertov’s life and work. In the process, we become good friends and eventually gave several talks about Levertov together: one at Harvard’s Woodbury Poetry Room; another at the Brooklyn Public Library. Following publication of her biography, Donna solicited essays about Levertov’s influence from former students and protégés. She encouraged me to write about the poetry workshop Denise taught at MIT, and included my essay in the anthology Denise Levertov in Company.
Over a period of many years, versions of most chapters have appeared in print in journals and magazines. When I finally sat down about two years ago to put it all together I realized there were some gaps and so added the necessary connective text to make it cohere. My Deniversity refers to Ezra Pound’s “Ezuversity” in Rapallo, Italy, where early American modernists such as Louis Zukofsky and New Directions publisher James Laughlin took informal instruction in poetry from “the Master.”
Levertov placed great emphasis on craftsmanship and so I borrowed the language of craft guilds—Initiation, Apprenticeship, Journeyman—as chapter headings to mark my progress in poetry. In a time when aspiring writers feel the need to become professionally credentialed by enrolling in an MFA program, some might find My Deniversity valuable in suggesting an alternative, independent pathway, provided you have an accomplished mentor to encourage and guide you.
Denise was an intense and complicated person. She could be encouraging one moment and fiercely critical the next. She was generous, spontaneously joyful, but also highly opinionated, often unfashionably so. We didn’t always see eye to eye. I wanted to address her complexity, and so, although My Deniversity is an homage, it is not a hagiography. I published a version of one chapter in spoKe magazine (“Hanging Loose with Denise Levertov”) about her contentious relationship with the editors of Hanging Loose magazine., whose editorial board I joined in 1980. Besides me, she was the teacher and friend of two of the founding editors of Hanging Loose and served as contributing editor for almost twenty-five years, but then parted ways on aesthetic grounds.
Rail: Your journey from working-class Buffalo and Polish American Cheektowaga, New York, to Levertov’s inner circle is a remarkable one. Did you ever feel out of place in the world of poetry?
Pawlak: My Deniversity grew out of a broader writer project in which I attempted to understand the trajectory of my intellectual coming of age. Arriving in Boston to study physics on scholarship at MIT from blue collar industrial Buffalo and Cheektowaga was a culture shock. Adjusting to cosmopolitan Boston and Cambridge, becoming a college educator, poet, and editor, my life has the trappings of a middle-class professional, but at heart I retain the attitudes and values of my blue collar background. I have often felt, indeed, I still feel, from time to time an interloper. Those complicated feelings extend to the world of poetry. Training to be a scientist, I also read poetry and took literature courses, but never intensively studied poetry the way English lit majors or poetry MFAs must. I had a lot of catching up to do, which frequently made me feel out of place in conversation with other poets. Levertov’s mentoring and her enthusiasm for my first poetry collection The Buffalo Sequence, in which I addressed head on my Buffalo childhood and my bifurcated life as a blue collar soul dressed in professional attire, gave me the confidence to believe in myself as a poet. In “Letter to Marek About a Photograph,” a poem she dedicated to me, Denise Levertov recognized and appreciated my effort to write about my working class roots and to give voice to those from similar backgrounds who lacked the opportunity or ability to speak for themselves.
Rail: You mention Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and poetry. Could you define how mutual aid functions and how this notion functions in poetry?
Pawlak: Levertov introduced me to many of the great Russian poets and novelists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the anarchist Prince Kropotkin. His treatise Mutual Aid, takes issue with the idea of survival of the fittest through competition. Instead he documented the countless examples from the natural world of species surviving through cooperation. He extended his scientific studies to human society emphasizing the advantages of mural aid over social Darwinist competition. Adapting Kropotkin’s ideas to poets and poetry means celebrating the fellowship of poets as a tribe. This idea was central to Levertov’s relationship with her contemporaries and her practice in leading poetry workshops. When she published an anthology of poems by her MIT students in Hanging Loose magazine in 1970, she introduced the selection by writing “My hope was that [the workshop students] would feel themselves, however ephemerally, a community of poets, and never as competitive aspirants for approval.”
Rail: Levertov participated in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era. And in part her activism had an effect on her writing and her being a part of poetry. Do you see anything like “the movement” in today’s realm of the poem?
Pawlak: When I first met her in 1969, Denise was already very active in the anti-war movement, participating in Poets Against War readings alongside Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Muriel Rukeyser, Grace Paley, Galway Kinnell, and many others. She and her husband Mitchell Goodman figure prominently in Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer winning “non-fiction” novel The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 anti-war march on the Pentagon in support of draft resisters. Mitch, along with baby doctor Benjamin Spock and others, was indicted by the Feds in 1968 for counseling young men to resist the draft. The “Spock Trial,” as the media referred to it, was the first Vietnam era conspiracy trial, preceding the “Chicago Seven” trial by several years. As the ’60s became the ’70s, Denise became obsessed with ending the Vietnam War by violent actions if necessary. Also, she and Muriel Rukeyser toured North Vietnam in 1972 at the height of the war, which some thought a treasonous act. Vietnam and antiwar activism became the subject of many of her poems at that time and led to the break with her longtime friend and correspondent Robert Duncan on aesthetic grounds. And, not just Duncan—she severed her ties with many poet colleagues calling them “genial poets” for their lack of militancy in opposing the war.
Levertov also anticipated the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The chapter titled “Praxis” in my memoir documents the time in 1970 when she called out white liberals for mourning the students murdered by National Guardsmen at Kent State but ignoring the murders of black students on southern college campuses and the assassination months earlier of Black Panther Fred Hampton by Police while asleep in his bed. Certainly “Black Lives Matters” is a contemporary movement that has found a national voice both in the streets and in poetry. Environmental activism and Ecopoetics will, I expect—and hope—grow in militancy. And I fully expect a renewed groundswell of activism and poetry about women’s lives and women’s bodies to follow the anticipated evisceration of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court.
Rail: Levertov is gathered with poets labeled Black Mountain. Her relationship with Duncan is documented. Did she ever talk about being part of the New American poetry or her Black Mountain peers? Did she ever comment on Charles Olson?
Pawlak: Yes, she was lumped with the Black Mountain poets in Donald Allen’s seminal New American Poetry anthology. She was very close to Cid Corman, Bob Creeley, and Paul Blackburn and had poems in both Origin and The Black Mountain Review. She was introduced to Olson’s poems and his poetics through Creeley, who was a college friend of her husband Mitch. But she didn’t like labels. For instance, although a feminist to her core, she bristled at being called a woman poet when the Women’s Movement tried to enlist her. She was a poet, she insisted; gender had nothing to do with it. Ever the contrarian, she similarly insisted on her uniqueness among the Black Mountain group even though she was their comrade in arms in the 1960s “poetry wars,” and shared with the others many aesthetic ideas and practice. She just thought Black Mountain was an anthologist’s convenient but hardly descriptive label.
Olson was already a towering figure among the post-WWII literary avant-garde when Levertov was coming into her own as an American poet—remember, she was British born and raised. Olson was a presence whose work and ideas she needed to come to terms with as she defined her own aesthetics and praxis. Projective Verse and composition by field were practices she pushed and pulled against; nevertheless, she considered Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay and Pounds “A Few Don’ts” to be foundational texts that she used in her teaching. She referenced to both repeatedly in conversations with me over the years.
Rail: You mention in My Deniversity the notion of permission. Could you elaborate?
Pawlak: This goes back to my feelings of being an interloper in the world of poetry. As a geeky charter member of the 1950s Sputnik generation, I naturally created my personal Pantheon of admired great scientists. But I didn’t feel initially that I had license to do the same in poetry. It felt like I had crossed a border into a new territory and I needed authorization. Observing Denise Levertov closely, how she worked as a poet, what she read, and most telling, her relationship to certain dead writers who, although no longer living, she seemed to be in constant conversation with. As I wrote in the memoir: “Observing Denise’s relationships with the likes of Keats, Chekhov, and Rilke and seeing how they informed her life and her poetry was a revelation to me, one that gave me permission to discover my own pantheon of writers and over time to become intimate in my own way with their words and thoughts.”
Rail: Do you see yourself in the tradition of the New American Poetry? If yes, how so?
Pawlak: Yes, certainly. My poetry lineage runs through Pound, Williams, and Olson lineage to the New American Poetry. I would add the Objectivists, too. Doc William’s Kora in Hell, Spring and All, and The Descent of Winter are Ur texts for me, and I frequently return to the poems of Charles Reznikoff and Lorine Niedecker for inspiration. In addition to the Black Mountain poets, and the Beats, the New York School poets have also been important influences, especially James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara.
But Levertov taught me to look abroad for inspiration, too, as she herself did. She introduced me to the Russians Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, and Mandelstam and to the early Soviet poets Mayakovsky and Esenin. As part of my Polish heritage, I immersed myself in the poetry of the great twentiethentury Polish poets Miłosz, Herbert, and Szymborska. Bertolt Brecht, another European, was a big influence on my political poetry, as were the Central and Latin American poets Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Ernesto Cardenal, and Roque Dalton.
Rail: You still edit Hanging Loose. Tell us about the magazine.
Pawlak: The first issue appeared in 1966. The magazine began as part of what’s termed the “mimeograph revolution.” Poems, back to back, were mimeographed as loose pages then collated and inserted into an envelope with graphic art on the front, so the magazine, in the parlance of the times, hung loose. In the ensuing years, it was printed on multilith presses and saddle stitched, then perfect bound and now, fifty-five years later, it is a four-color, perfect bound volume of about 128 pages with a featured artist’s work on the front and back covers plus an eight page portfolio inside. We’ll have published over 10,000 pages of poetry when issue #112 go to press shortly. Including a regular section in each issue featuring poems by high school-age writers. The next issue of Rain Taxi features an interview with the editors about our history promoting these young writers and launching the careers of future New York Times best sellers.
In the 1970s, Hanging Loose Press began publishing collections of poetry, primarily by authors whose work already appeared regularly in the magazine. To date, we have published over 250 titles. We’ve published many older poets, whom we feel deserve a wider audience, but we’re most proud of our track record publishing first books by young poets. Robert Hershon, one of our founding editors, who died in 2021, liked to say “What’s the point of small independent literary presses if not to discover and promote through publication new young authors.” We’re proud of our track record publishing first books by the likes of Sherman Alexie, Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, Cathy Park Hong, Kimiko Hahn, Jiwon Choi, Hayan Charara, Joanna Fuhrman, Yolanda Wisher, M.L. Smoker, among many others.