A Writer’s Insight: Julia B. Levine

Julia B. Levine’s poems “Ordinary Psalm in the October ER” and “Ordinary Psalm with Seizure” appear in the autumn 2016 issue of The Southern Review. In her conversation with The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer, she discusses the works’ origins, structure, and the role of nature in her poetry.

 

Megan Feifer: Both of your poems share the words “Ordinary Psalm.” Why did you choose to name these poems as such? Does a psalm lose its reverence when it becomes ordinary? Is that the point?

Julia B. Levine: I am currently at work on a (hopefully) book-length collection of Ordinary Psalms. In these poems I am interested in the idea that the ordinary, if deeply lived and carefully attended to, are valid entryways into sacred or reverent experience. As a child I attended a Reform Jewish synagogue and always disliked the prayer books, though I loved the Torah. The difference, it seemed, had to do with the formal and vague language of prayer as contrasted with the heroic, vivid, and oftentimes earthy details of the weekly Torah readings. On reflection, this tonal difference in language may be the primary reason I don’t feel any sense of reverence toward an Old Testament God, but I do believe in the transcendent power of myth and stories. So, in contrast to psalms that rely on a formal address to an anthropomorphic God, I wanted to create a kind of personal prayer book that uses the living language of everyday details and experience to name and praise those aspects of this world that, for me, embody divinity.

 

 MF: The concluding lines in “Ordinary Psalm in the October ER” are achingly beautiful. For anyone who intimately knows loss, they read as a sort of balm for thinking about some sort of final transition. These lines also appear to bookend the opening, in that “the argument the body goes on having” finally stops repeating. Why wrap up the poem in this way?

JL: Oh! That is a lovely observation. I wish I could take conscious credit for the “bookending” of the opening and closing lines, but I can’t. However, I can say that often I am completely awestruck by the kindness and social urgency of living creatures that, for me, embodies one facet of divinity. Watching the footage of elephants working together to save their youngest member was so moving to me, as are all the ways we give of ourselves to those we love because of, and despite, our helplessness. It is a reminder to me of the idea that together we are a wholeness; separated, we long for that original completion.

I did work a very long time on the ending of this poem. It was important to me that this was not just another poem about one individual’s illness, because I was more interested in the reverent pull we can feel toward one another as a recognition of our shared beingness. I wasn’t entirely certain of this ending, but it was the closest I could come. (You know that old saying that the poem is never finished, just abandoned?)

 

MF: In both poems, you draw a relationship between the natural world and the physical body. The descriptions of the seasons thread into those of the body in pain—be it animal or human. Tell us more about the relationships between meteorology and the corporeal.

 JL: This is a hard question for me to answer, but if I am honest, I’d have to say that I experience the physical/natural world as not only a living body, but it is something I feel connected to on a visceral level. And in terms of text, I think all religions rely on the map that the natural world provides to help us understand our own progression through time.

On a more personal level, I grew up in Michigan, but have lived my adult life in a primarily agricultural area in Northern California. Especially intriguing to me, is that here in the Central Valley, the mythic sense of fall/winter as a dying back and spring/summer as a resurrection, is somewhat reversed. Winter means rain, and rain is life in this valley. Summer means months of fierce sun and punishing heat. Maybe this, too, has contributed to an intense awareness of a multiplicity of particular details and possible meanings related to the seasons and weather in the natural world.

Finally, because I am a fervent nature-worshiper, the relentless advance of global climate change (and what it might mean for our one and only planet), is never far from my mind. As a child, seasons and weather felt far more predictable. Now it feels less so and, therefore, I think I am attuned to weather as a sign of disease/distress in the dynamic, living expression of the world’s corporeal body.

 

MF: The way in which the majority of a person’s days are described in “Ordinary Psalm with Seizure” as “a devotional on surrender” is fascinating to me. It’s almost a relief in some way. Why is the act of surrender so important in this poem?

 JL: In this poem, I used the many meanings of the word seizure to understand love and loss. The word seizure contains definitions that account both for the act of being taken possession of, as well as the act of taking possession of another, an object, etc. I think this is always at work in love and loss—you take possession of another as they take possession of you, and yet it is transitory: it will end. This realization, in itself, can lead either to a kind of frenetic reaching to hold on, or to a surrender. Neither is easy or consistently attained; it is a kind of practice to move back and forth between these extremes. But we can be sure the world will insist we repeatedly grapple with this profound tenet of being.

There is also an invisible story underlying this poem. I grew up with a father that was both cruel and loving. At times, he would seem possessed by a demonic rage and often would abuse me physically and verbally. As a child, I, of course, believed him that his treatment of me was my fault. He was also a neurologist who treated epileptics, among many others, so I was keenly aware of the medical meaning of seizure. When my beloved lab died of a brain tumor, it was made abundantly clear to me that we are not to blame for the suffering we endure in this world—but, in fact, that suffering is an essential aspect of walking consciously through this world.


Julia B. Levine has won numerous awards for her work, including the Northern California Book Award in Poetry for Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight, which inaugurated LSU Press’s Barataria Poetry Series in 2014. She received a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and lives and works in Davis,California.

 Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.

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A Writer’s Insight: Josh Foreman

joshforeman2016_resizeJosh Foreman’s essay “Age of Swine” appears in the autumn 2016 issue of The Southern Review. You can read the essay in the issue, or online at Lit Hub, where it appeared as “Everyone Used to Raise Hogs.” Read on to learn more about Foreman’s inspiration, research process, and his love of the Cheju black pig.

 

Kathleen Boland: The opening vignette in “Age of Swine” is of a ship captain and a hog making a bargain, shaking hand and hoof. Why begin with this surreal moment? Further, what is your stance about how “creative” creative nonfiction can be? What are the limits, if any, of nonfiction?

Josh Foreman: The simple answer is that I thought it was a funny, weird image and I wanted to include it in the essay somehow. After researching these animals and their relationship with the Europeans who brought them over, I was struck by what a good deal it was for both parties—the pigs basically kept those first settlers alive, and the pigs benefitted a lot from a whole new continent open to habitation. At the same time, the introduction of pigs (and Europeans) to the New World created a lot of problems. So, that scene sort of encapsulates that idea—a furtive, fateful deal between these two parties.

As far as pushing the limits on being creative in nonfiction, I think it’s clear that the meeting didn’t really happen. Thus, I don’t feel like I’m breaking any sort of contract with my reader. I had an interesting discussion with some of my writer friends recently about Michael Herr’s Vietnam War book Dispatches. Herr made up “composite characters” and dialogue, placed himself in scenes he wasn’t actually present for, and got details wrong. My friends and I agreed that as beautiful and “emotionally true” as his writing was, he had crossed a line, and his work could not really be considered nonfiction.

 

KB: What was your research process for “Age of Swine”?

JF: For a couple years I’ve been researching the life of my distant ancestor, who immigrated to Virginia in the early days of the colony. I became interested in pigs after a research trip to Surry County, Virginia, where my ancestor lived. People I talked to kept telling me about the pigs their grandparents raised in the county, the ham they ate as a kid, the famous ham maker who lived down the road. It became clear pretty fast that the pig was an important animal for these people. At the same time, the archival sources I was reading mentioned pigs a lot. In particular, my ancestor’s estate inventory, gave me a personal stake in the investigation. I found out he bred pigs, clashed with his neighbors over the animals, and died with several dozen roaming his property. From those interviews and documents, I started telling the story of pigs and their relationship with my family and Southern culture. I was lucky to have had a number of run-ins with pigs over the years and to live down the street from a heritage pig farm.

 

KB: There are a wide variety of locations throughout the essay: London, Virginia, New Hampshire, Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi, and more. Is this a product of research, or did you set out to tell a roving narrative? If so, why?

JF: The path that my ancestors took started in London and ended in Mississippi (where I grew up, as did my dad, my granddad, and a few more generations), so that geographic trajectory was in my mind as I wrote the essay. The pig’s migration route was similar—they thrived in the South, and that’s where populations really took hold. Research necessitated that I bring Florida and North Carolina into it; the Spanish introduced pigs in their territories, which included southern Mississippi, when they arrived; North Carolina was the setting for the infamous introduction of the Russian boar. New Hampshire isn’t really important to the story of swine in America, but it’s where I live now. I had easy access to the pig farm down the road here, so that’s how it got worked into the story. The pig theme is really what holds it all together…

 

KB: The essay is nonlinear and modular, with familial history interwoven with the history of pigs in America. Why did you choose to structure the essay as such? How do these different modules operate in regard to the content of the essay? I’m thinking especially of the “FRAME NOT INCLUDED” moment in the etymology printouts: What is the frame of “Age of Swine”? Is there one?

JF: Like I mentioned before, over the past couple years my writing has focused on my family’s history, and through that the history of the South. I kept stumbling on so much pig-related material while researching my family’s story that I decided I had to write a pig-focused essay. The structure of the essay is a reflection of the research I was doing—little tidbits here and there, vignettes that work together to say something.

A theme of my writing is the historical amnesia that many Southerners seem to have. I recognized it early on in my own life: I didn’t really know anything about my family beyond my grandparents’ generation. I hungered for a sense of identity growing up, to know where my family had come from. That “FRAME NOT INCLUDED” scene stuck out in my mind because it was so disappointing to have this paper in my hand that I thought could satisfy that, only to realize it was a vapid moneymaking gimmick that didn’t really tell me anything about my family at all. But it tied in nicely to the essay, because that old “scroll” my parents had did say the Foremans were pig farmers. I still don’t believe that document was insightful or even accurate, but I now know at least one Foreman was a pig farmer.

 

KB: Finally, what is your favorite breed of swine? Your favorite pork dish?

JF: This is going to come out of left field, but my favorite breed of swine is the Cheju black pig, which only lives on an island off the southern coast of Korea. I lived in South Korea for about eight years after college. The Cheju black pig is revered there for being particularly tasty. One of my fondest memories is from a hiking trip to Cheju Island I did with some friends. We spent a whole day hiking the volcanic mountain in the center of the island and were totally wiped out afterward. That night we splurged on a big meal of Cheju black pig. The server brought it out piled up on a platter, some of the black hair still sprouting out of the meat to prove it was authentic. We sat on the floor of the restaurant around a little charcoal grill drinking onion-infused soju, the favorite Korean liquor, and grilled the thick slices of pork. It was the kind of celebratory, life-affirming meal that doesn’t come around too often.

 

Josh Foreman’s travel and food writing appeared in Groove Korea from 2009–2014. He is a nonfiction writing student at the University of New Hampshire.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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The autumn issue is out: embrace your love

The other day I was talking to a friend who, upon seeing a crate of submissions in my living room, asked if I spend my whole day reading poetry. I said that on some days it’s most of the workday, but there’s also a lot of other things that need to be done. He was curious to know if I could tell right away if a poem is great, and I said, sometimes I’ll know immediately that it’s exceptional in its development of form or images or subject. I appreciate a skillfully executed poem, but, more than anything, I usually want some emotional heft to bolster the intellectual argument.

Eventually our conversation got around to his asking who my favorite poets are. That’s an impossible question to answer because, probably like every reader, I admire writers for different reasons. As I wrote in one of my first blogs, “Poems I’m Glad I Know,” back in April 2011, “I lean toward the long poem, but love the very short, poignant poem, as well.” My “favorite” list had “traditional forms and breaks from that and everything earnest in between.”

I had the autumn issue—just in from the printer—on my coffee table. I opened to the table of contents and said, “When I read this poem, I knew it was a keeper,” and I pointed to Bob Hicok’s “Standing up,” a poem about having a friend who is dying from cancer and loving that person so much that you hope you can help kill him when he’s ready to die. It’s sad and beautiful and painful in its understanding. When I first read it, I knew right away it was great; I knew it when I read the line “. . . And a bed shouldn’t be / the last thing to hold him. . . .” That line continues to stop me. Every time. The poem goes on to present one of those exceptional images I mentioned earlier: “I’ll get in / behind him, put my arms around his chest, / my right ear to the back of his heart, / and squeeze.” Hicok has recorded it for our audio gallery this season.

There’s a lot of other terrific poems in the autumn issue, including sprawling narratives from previous contributor Dana Roeser (“Poem Starting with Dry Cleaning”) and Kate Gleason, a voice new to our pages, whose “Single Twins” weaves together astronomy and vanishing twin syndrome. In contrast to the long poem is David Curry’s “Honeycrisp,” which is five lines of vibrant images. Marilyn Nelson has three wonderful poems about women artists that she also reads in our audio gallery: “Plautilli Nelli,” “Otagaki Rengetsu,” and “Andrea and Claudia de Mena.” Additionally, there are works in the hexameter, sonnet, and villanelle forms, as well as much in between.

This issue also has two related works by David Middleton, a poem called “The Break-In” and an essay called “In Allen Hall: LSU, The Southern Review, and Baton Rouge.” I’m particularly fond of Josh Foreman’s essay, “Age of Swine,” about his family’s history in Virginia and, well, hogs; and Anna Journey’s essay, “Modifying the Badger,” about her experiences with taxidermy and teaching poetry.

The art this autumn is by Joel Kelly, a New Orleans–based artist who also teaches high school science. He describes his paintings of figures and landscapes as “layered and shifting” with an aim for the viewer to be able to “wander unhinged.” They are lovely with their muted palette and intimate subjects. You can view them and read more about the artist here. I’m seeing now, looking at the copy of the journal, which is now on my desk, that his painting Death and the Maiden is of a man and woman embracing, the woman behind the man, his back against her chest and her arms around his, holding or squeezing.

So this is where my meandering blog circles back and usually comes to an end, and so it will. Be sure to embrace your love: poetry and people. Tonight my daughter (yes, dear reader, I know you were wondering when I would mention her) will perform for her first time with her school’s drama troupe. They will be doing a number from A Year with Frog and Toad; but she’s eight, and, when she dances, she embodies the spirit of Edward Albee’s Honey and will most certainly wander unhinged, doing her interpretative dance, as everyone should. It’s bound to be spectacular, and I can’t wait to put my arms around her when it’s over.


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A Writer’s Insight: Anne Valente

Anne Valente’s story “Who We Were” appears in the summer 2016 issue of The Southern Review. “Who We Were” is an adapted excerpt of Valente’s debut novel Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins (October 4). Hear Valente read from “Who We Were” in our audio gallery here; read more about her process of crafting the story and novel below.

 “Who We Were” is a harrowing story about a terribly tragic event, a school shooting. Out of that context, however, I’d argue that the story’s structure and language are remarkably playful: the first person plural narrator, the multiple tense changes (past, conditional, future), the frequent use of repetition and lists. How do these craft choices relate to, interrogate, or reflect the larger themes of the story? Why have so much narrative play in such a heavy story?

In general, I’m a writer who enjoys narrative play—I love repetition and listing, and any other mode that experiments with linear storytelling. But beneath the surface of structure, I also contended with what narrative mode would best tell this particular story. So much of this story—and so much of the novel—is about memory, and how each character attempts to reckon with this tragedy. Neither memory nor grief are linear: both double back, both take loops and turns, both obsess and repeat, and both follow maddening paths that are anything but straightforward. To best reflect the process of grieving and memory, I chose a structure that mirrored the ways our brains attempt to make sense and move on.

One of the more astonishing aspects of this story, to me, is how expertly the narration guides the reader through the school. We also shift between the points of view of Lewis and Clark’s yearbook staff members: Christina, Zola, Matt, and Nick; and there are shifts in time, toggling between scenes before, during, and after the shooting. This creates a chorus-like effect, further underlined by the use of the “we.” Could you talk about why you chose to write from this point of view, and how it might influence the telling of this kind of trauma?

Much in the same way that memory circulates in nonlinear ways around trauma, I think that point of view is also so difficult to pinpoint around a tragedy like this. One of my leading questions while writing this was: Whose story is this? I think we’re accustomed to stories of tragedy belonging to the media and news, and it’s one of the only ways we access information about mass violence. Broadcasts bring such authoritative voices, and I didn’t want a singular voice to own this narrative. The news is only one voice, and I imagined whether trauma like this belongs to everyone, or to each individual who experienced it, or to some gray space in between. I wondered if this kind of tragedy would bring a community together—a township, a high school, an entire city—while also splintering the collective apart, since no one experiences grief in the same way. By shifting the points of view between the collective and the individual, I wanted to explore the ways in which trauma is communal but also singular.

Unfortunately, school shootings like the one featured in “Who We Were” are all too common. How did current events and politics influence you while writing this story? Moreover, why set it in 2003, rather than, say, 2013 or 2016?

I began writing this in early 2013, just after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I’d been a junior in high school at the time of the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, and a college instructor at the time of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. I couldn’t believe in 2013 that as a nation we still hadn’t found a way to prevent mass tragedies like these from happening. Though gun violence occurs every day in America, something about mass shootings—maybe because they are almost always carried out by men—suggested to me a fixation on power and a perceived threat to that power. Though this isn’t explicitly explored in “Who We Were,” I set the book at the time of George W. Bush’s presidency and the search for weapons of mass destruction. The audacity of that search, as well as its need for power and answers when there weren’t any, felt like the right backdrop for a community seeking answers where grief so often provides so few. I also wanted to set this at a time when we as a nation hadn’t yet grown numb to so many incidents of mass violence.

“Who We Were” is being published in 2016, a year that feels marked by an excess of gun violence. These incidents, as well as so many that occurred after I finished writing the book in 2014, have further saddened me about the state of violence in this country—mass shootings, including those in Charleston and Orlando, but also police brutality in Ferguson and Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and so many other cities in America. I don’t know what to say about so much violence, other than that I hope we continue to stay vigilant to not grow numb, and to continue speaking out and fighting against brutality, gun violence, and excessive force.

This story is the first chapter of your forthcoming novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. Why or how is “Who We Were” a beginning, structurally, tonally, or otherwise?

I think “Who We Were” sets a tone of interrogation of memory; that in the wake of trauma building an archive is not only an objective but also an impossible task. For the yearbook staff members, the project of building a book after this kind of tragedy is both a diversion and a compulsion—a project that helps organize and funnel their grief, but a project that is essentially intolerable because of the material it forces them to engage with. I also wanted to begin with an account of the shooting so that the novel explores the aftermath—what we so often never see after television cameras and newscasters move away. Our media tends to focus on shooter and motive, and not as readily on how a community does or does not move on. “Who We Were” addresses the shooting immediately, but through the prism of four points of view, so a new narrative can unfold considering how these points of view process grief.

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down is also your debut novel. Congratulations! You’ve published dozens of short stories, including two collections. How did your process change while writing a novel? Did it change? What advice would you give to someone shifting from short stories to their first novel?

Thank you! I did write only short stories when I first began writing, and I still write short stories now. To write a novel, I extended what I knew of short stories to a much longer form—that there still needed to be conflict, rising action, everything that a short story required, but outlined across multiple chapters. My process didn’t necessarily change, though I’d say that writing a novel required far more mapping of events, of timeline, and of the background of 2003. I built a big visual map above my desk to keep me on task. It also required more devoted time to stay within the world of the narrative, so I made time to write every single day.

For someone shifting from short stories to a first novel, I’d definitely suggest creating concentrated time each day so that the world of the novel stays fresh and immediate. In terms of more abstract advice, however, what was most helpful for me was to hear that a novel can be an enormous umbrella for many ideas. Whereas so many of my short stories tackle a single narrative across fifteen to twenty pages, I’ve found that a novel can contain even the kitchen sink. Part of the fun of the novel was drawing connections between fragments of ideas I’d kept but not known where to place: gun violence, but also astronomy, swimming, memory, cicadas. I found ways of exploring these ideas through character development and setting within the novel. Constellating ideas together is a big part of my process, and the novel provided a bigger playground for drawing connections between different strands of thought than short stories.

 

Anne Valente is the author of Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins, and the story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names. Her stories and essays have appeared in One Story, Ninth Letter, and the Washington Post. She teaches creative writing at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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