In My Own Words
Dana Levin '87
‘Permission to choose poetry as life-work’
It was 1985, spring semester of my sophomore year. Miroslav Holub, famous Czech poet and chief immunologist at the main hospital in Prague, requested I come see him for office hours. Holub was on campus as a visiting poet, teaching writing workshops, and I was in one of them.
I entered his office and sat down, a little intimidated, a little curious. He got right to it: Leaning in so his face was only inches from mine, he declared, “You are a poet. The other people in the class, maybe they are not poets, but you are a poet.” Feeling pretty pleased and pretty smug, I started to lean back in my chair when Holub pointed a finger at my chest. Eying me sternly, he said, in his heavy Slavic accent: “And you have an ab-so-lute responsibility with this gift. Don’t sit in a café all day with a beret on your head writing about sitting in a café with a beret on your head. This is prostitution! Prostitution of your gift! You must work, have a job, engage with the world, for this is the only place from which poems come!”
I left his office a little dazed, when I ran into Professor Barry Sanders coming up the stairs. He put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Y’know what Miroslav told me? He thinks you could really do this.” “Do what?” I asked, confused. “Be a poet!” Barry exclaimed. “Really! And you should, you should think seriously about your gift for poetry, about taking it seriously and developing it.”
At the time, I nodded. I looked blankly at the wall. I knew something important had happened, but I didn’t really know what. I came from a first-generation American family, granddaughter of Russian Jews not that far from the oppressive fields of Belarus; an artistic life was alien to my family’s conception of a secure and prosperous adulthood. That poetry could be more than a hobby, a side act, had never occurred to me. Sure, I was reading famous writers all the time, but I never imagined I could be permitted to live their lives.
The encounters with Holub and Barry weren’t about experiencing praise as much as they were about men I admired and respected lifting a curtain, so to speak, revealing a path for a life’s work. And, as my student life at Pitzer went on, Barry, Holub, Professor Jill Benton and philosophy Professor Jim Bogen were instrumental in shaping the way I viewed what a life in poetry could be: inherently interdisciplinary because it chronicled engagement with the world.
Sitting in Barry’s office talking about the shift from oral-based cultures to literate ones, studying how Dr. Holub’s poems made metaphoric connections between the human body and the body politic, or being introduced to the work of unfamiliar poets by philosopher Bogen, showed me that poetry was not owned by English departments but held a vivid place in the lives of all different kinds of people; and that the poetic art could, and should, incorporate information from all disciplines and life experiences: In short, poems expressed life.
Even now I bring such sensibilities to my poetry writing and to my teaching at the College of Santa Fe (CSF) in New Mexico. Currently I’m working on poems that respond to Aztec and Tibetan Buddhist theology and iconography: some anthropological and art historical research for this former English major. The challenge is to express the personal passion for these subjects in the poems, to express a very personal engagement with “objective” material: something I experienced daily in the classrooms and offices of the Pitzer faculty. As a college professor I am part of a group of faculty who revised CSF’s liberal arts core curriculum into an interdisciplinary model. During that arduous process, Pitzer was always in my thoughts, as a model for what a splendid and challenging college education could be.
Perhaps most importantly, it is the sense of permission that my Pitzer professors instilled in me that has most affected my life and my teaching: permission to choose poetry as life-work, permission to think and research outside the bounds of my “chosen field,” permission to be wholly myself on and off the page. I try to instill such permission in my own students. In this way, the Pitzer educational experience lives beyond its own physical borders, and informs a larger world.
I was tracking the stars through the open truck window,
my friend speeding the roads through the black country —
and I was thinking how the songs coming from the radio
were like the speech of a single human American psyche —
the one voice of the one collective dream, industrial, amphetamine,
and the stars unmoving —
the countryside black and silent, through which a song pumped serious killer
over and over —
and I could feel the nation shaping, it was something about the collective dream
of the rich land and the violent wanting —
the amphetamine drive and the cows sleeping, all along the sides
of the dark road —
never slowing enough to see what we might have seen if the moon rose up
its pharmaceutical light —
aspirin-blue over the pine-black hills what was rising up —
mullein or something else in the ditches their flameless tapers —
world without fire the song heralded a crystal methedrine light —
while the sky brought its black bone down around the hood of the truck
the electronic migration —
we were losing our bodies —
digitized salt of bytes and speed we were becoming a powder —
what we might have seen, if we had looked —
The Kenyon Review
New Series, Volume XXVI Number 1