A R D E N L E V I N E
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: We’ve read and admired so many of your poems: “Offering,” “The First Sunday after Thanksgiving,” “Fortune,” “Miss Jacklyn Analyzes Love.” Is “Second / Grace [A Requiem for Two Voices in 2020]” a one-off departure in form? Or does the poem represent a larger formal interest?
Arden Levine: Very grateful for your exploration / admiration. While I sometimes enjoy being really deliberate about form, I prefer to let the poem and its characters tell me what they form want, like an architect trying to bend and blend a structure to a surrounding landscape while fortifying its design; to wit, “Second / Grace” was a poem that I took direction from. (More on that later.) Also, interestingly: Every poem you’ve mentioned here is a love poem, in its way. Residual (or resurrected?) passion for a nearly-former lover. Protective (but fallible) parental affection. A teacher’s deep fondness for a pupil. A baker’s passion for the craft and creation that saves her. And, in the case of “Second / Grace”, the tenderness that becomes amplified in the context of trauma and relief, mourning and gratitude. All of these poems take different forms, but each one tunes the poem-instrument to the expression of love conveyed… maybe that act of knob-turning/string-tautening reveals something about my formal interest (such as it is!).
COMP: Your poem’s associative movement: the silence of its white spaces, the dialogue of its left and right margins, the music of and in its language. How did you discover the intuitive logic of “Second / Grace,” the artfully restrained way in which cohesion is produced?
Arden Levine: Lately, I’ve written more with music in mind, jamming on questions of what musicians do with poetry and what poets do with music; this acute interest may track back to my having taken daily headphone-enhanced early pandemic walks, an activity that contributed to this poem’s storyline and its logic. So, what looks like an intentional approach to the poem’s shape is actually a more intuitive one, the visual leap of notes on a staff, the A-G and 1-7 an unanticipated reference to key signature or scales. I also consider Nick Drake a co-author and duet partner in this poem: his use of blank audial space and verbal economy in the song and album “Pink Moon”, and on the song “Second Grace” (the source of the poem’s title, from the album Bryter Later) telegraph out resonant lessons for poets on how to get the job done in as few moves as possible. (An aside: I’m writing these answers on the actual day of the 2022 pink moon; it’s almost too apt!)
COMP: We’d love for you to discuss your remarkable chapbook, Ladies’ Abecedary (Harbor Editions, 2021). Congratulations on its publication! How did this project arise? What were some of your influences—Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary? Djuna Barnes’ Ladies Almanack?
Arden Levine: Thank you! Unbelievable that Ladies’ Abecedary is nearly a yearling. And the Mullen and Barnes books are certainly part of this chapbook’s ancestry (great grandbookmothers?); I am in awe of their authors. Influences, about which I gush in another interview, include (and we hear music again…) Tori Amos and Annie Leibovitz; these artists in their respective expressions attempt to capture an essential aspect of womanhood (“essential” as both intangible and indispensible). But I had an earlier influence: My first poetry book was an abecedary. (Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies Alphabet, gifted to me by the great poet Jacklyn Potter; she was my kindergarten teacher, as well as the “Miss Jacklyn” of the earlier-mentioned poem and the chapbook’s dedication.) So, I guess the link between alphabets and identities is formative for me. Mostly, though, the project reflects a devotion to telling women’s stories. Leigh Camacho Rourks, in a review of the chapbook, described subjects that are “loved by their narrator”, and I’m moved by that observation. To bring it all the way ‘round: Perhaps these poems, too, are love poems, in their way.