AN EXCHANGE WITH ANDREW LEVY ON ARTIFICE IN THE CALM DAMAGES

by Susan Lewis

Susan Lewis: I’m excited to have this opportunity to talk with you about your magnificent new book! The heft of Artifice in the Calm Damages (Chax Press, 2021) is matched by its aesthetic range, which perfectly suits the way you have described this enormous undertaking, as a “geography of the imagination.” In addition to a luxurious plenitude of new poems whose style and layout will be deeply familiar and resonant for anyone who has read your work in the past, Artifice includes thought pieces on a range of personal, political, and aesthetic issues; poems (like “Much That Is Admirable”) framed as reviews of your own work; political calls to action; an excerpt by Walter Benjamin and another by Michel de Certeau; a vintage advertisement for handguns, and more.  

In Some Faulty Notions we are told: “The poem becomes richer for containing so many different living, breathing types.” Clearly, notions like “interexpression,” heterogeneity, and “mixing things that should not be mixed together” (Much That Is Admirable”) can be seen as an entrée to the ambition underlying this book’s poetics. In “Walking into the Ink,” you describe the starlings flying in their confoundingly complex flocks as your “poetic models,” whose mystifying organization can in fact be decoded by the surprisingly simple Reynolds algorithm. Can you discuss what this radical and expansive inclusivity means to you, and what kind of algorithms you hope the reader will employ in order to travel into and along with these poems “without crashing?”  

Andrew Levy: The granularity of tempos made conscious in the dissonant intermediary that lies between everything one tries to bring off and what does not come off, conditioned by the instrument one plays, completes its expression in a reader’s contemplation, wherein one flies with starlings in their complex and seemingly random flocks. For me, the inclusivity you’ve highlighted, “the geography of the imagination” (the title of an essay and of Guy Davenport’s 1981 book) privileges the development of the undevelopable. Davenport, in the third sentence, second paragraph of his essay, wrote, “Language itself is continuously an imaginative act.” I sit to think and write on the arrangements of that imaginative act which capture my style in the moment. I begin to rethink what each menu conjures, revisiting the space of so-called ‘origin’ and setting a table of alternatives with everything included: poverty, wealth, poetry, dance, the crippling economic environment, the intelligence, ignorance, impulse and virtuosity, along with the enfeeblement that has taken place in poetry and applied embellishments. My wish is that readers share an interest in and openness to a variety of things artifice may disclose, when it isn’t used to deceive and destroy, employing algorithms of their own design. What started from silence is recalled as spaciousness, a farewell to Navy submarines under frozen north polar seas. The “radical and expansive inclusivity” is an emotional invitation to speak the truth, to correspond to, as de Certeau says, “the real geography of meaning.”

Lewis: Can you discuss how this “table of alternatives with everything included” was set; how it developed and took shape, and over what kind of time period? Did you have a guiding concept from the beginning, or did it emerge as you added items to the burgeoning menu? The inclusive poetics informing this collection seem to be reflected even in its structure, such as the variety and asymmetry of its internal divisions. I’m thinking, for instance, of the fact that Parts I and II are marked by Roman numerals, while Parts 3 and 4 are marked by Arabic numbers, or that unlike the other three, Part I is not titled. And then there is the subtitle “Identity, Flesh, Songs of Innocence” (with its echoes of Blake), and the many subsections, including a Finale, which highlights the performative dimension of this book. Can you talk a bit about this book’s unconventional architecture?

Levy: Artifice in the Calm Damages evolved from 2014 through 2020. I note in the “Additional Acknowledgements” that the first section of the book, ending with the poem “Country of Lost Borders,” was published as a Chax chapbook in 2017. I made substantive re-arrangements and new additions to the manuscript through December 2020, as well as during the last month or two of proofing the book that was published February 2021. For instance, the 9-page “Tornado Poem” was a late addition. I’d forgotten it—it had been published years earlier in Trickhouse #14 (missed in the acknowledgements for the book!)—until a note from Charles Alexander, on a different topic, reminded me of it. Charles was supportive (most of the time) of whatever I changed in the manuscript; he’s very understanding.

I did not have a “guiding concept,” so to speak, toward the idea of a book when I began writing the poems. The guiding concept was the poetry itself—its constellation of a diverse/inclusive poetics, along with all the homages and tributes, integral to an exploration of the personal, political, and aesthetic issues mentioned. And yes, the structure of the book in its various and asymmetrical geography, literally and figuratively, is intended but was not intellectually determined. It was dictated by the poems, prose-essays and detritus that allow the book so that it and the reader can breathe. I like the idea of Roman numerals for some sections and Arabic numbers for others. You’ve reminded me of William’s playful subversion of structural divisions in Spring and All, and of his reflections on artifice in his poems “how easy to slip / into the old mold, how hard to / cling firmly to the advance–” I’d say that the unconventional architecture is emotive, it’s integral to the multi-layered directionality of poetry experienced over six years of life lived within a crudely repressive environment.

Lewis: Your description of the book’s architecture as emotive rather than “intellectually determined” preserves the notion of intentionality in a way that seems to jive with its ambition to “speak the truth, to correspond to, as de Certeau says, “the real geography of meaning.” Can you say more about any preference you might have for the emotive over the intellectual; its basis in your thinking, and even, perhaps, in how you view the political and social manifestations of that dichotomy, currently and/or historically?

Levy: You’ve asked large questions relative to the social-historical context of one’s life and work. I don’t know how or why one could keep the intellectual and the emotive separate when considering notions of intentionality. I prefer to focus on the writing, that is, the real geography. A basis for that in my thinking in Artifice is the love and respect I have for the written word, imparted by my mother and family, and my education in a Reform Jewish Synagogue. I don’t see the dichotomy you’ve referred to as operating in the poetry, but I do see multiple divisions between ideas and people in America’s current and historical narrative.  

Lewis: Your earlier remark about “granularity of tempos” brings to mind your other métier, drumming. Can you talk about how your poetic practice is influenced by your music-making, and vice versa?

Levy: The best compliment I’ve received from a musician was by bassist Paul Imm who following a jam session told me, “You have ears growing out of your asshole.” We were working together in a free-improv quartet with a multi-reed player and saxophonist, and a classical bassoonist who was moving toward free and structured improvisation (Braxton was a major influence at the time); she would go on to work and tour with Anthony Davis. My writing is akin to my approach to music in that it begins by hearing something that for one reason or another has arrested my attention, and being prepared to hear it, too. I’m interested in the delay of resolution and its duration, the emotional demand made in dialoguing with mind and perception in their entanglements, in the way memory works, crisscrossed with connections and correspondences which govern the selection and re-selection of events / notes as well as guiding the over-all pacing in the present moment, the main impression of which is one of continuous development. Occasionally, one has the pleasure of playing with another person whose thoughts are complementary and you merge as one voice and instrument from the directness and dignity of soloing and dialogue.

The drummer who has most influenced my approach to playing with other musicians and in how I listen, compose and edit, is Elvin Jones. There are many other great drummers I love—including Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Paul Motian, and Gerry Hemingway. When I first heard Jones lay down his polyrhythmic/cross-rhythmic play with Coltrane, a style of playing which opens songs and improvisation to a simultaneity of possible metrics and paths, I understood that Jones’ approach to the trap-set was homologous to how I might arrange the plenitude and the syntax of styles and voices, personas and speakers in poetry. Jones “talked” with the main improviser in whatever constellation of musicians he worked with. And, he literally talked when playing; I heard Elvin live in the mid-70s when his quintet performed at the Village Vanguard. Jones plays on Sonny Sharrock’s beautiful album, Ask the Ages, 1991. In the background of the mix one can hear Jones’ improvisational and tactile voice.

Lewis: Your approach to music- and poetry-making captures the essence of the poetic process: in which attention springs from “being prepared” to pay attention, and art is made from “the delay of resolution and its duration, the emotional demand made in dialoguing with mind and perception in their entanglements, in the way memory works, crisscrossed with connections and correspondences.” But I gather from your reference to “the enfeeblement that has taken place in poetry” that the so-called poetry world might not always exhibit that kind of integrity. Can you elaborate on that enfeeblement, and share some of your critiques of contemporary poetry, and where it seems to be going?

Levy: There is a cartel-like quality to arts foundations, organizations and their programs, inside and outside of academic institutions, in that not only do they not want to be observed themselves, but they don’t want to observe others, and they don’t want to hold others to account; it’s unpleasant. Concomitantly, algorithm-driven social media rewards the controversy of those whose reputations reside on algorithm-driven social media, which generates buzz, which attracts fans who may lure you further out onto the fringe where an army of trolls reflexively nurses its own surveilled excrescence. The dilemma of desire on algorithm-driven media is something that virtually every poet on earth experiences. Exposed to greater scrutiny, there’s a lot of activity inside of a lot of poetry ‘business’ that’s pretty troubling. There have been articles in the academic, arts, and mainstream press on the self-dealing delusion of well-known arts foundations and venues implicating their Board of Directors and individual administrators (artists and poets) consumed by partisan divisions in various forms of institutional malfeasance that have warped their missions. Articles have provided analyses of inequity and inequality based on disability, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, and forms of compensation that further class division and the decommodification of labor.

On enfeeblement… If there is one notion that virtually every successful administrator on earth agrees on, it is that one’s own institution’s economic growth is good, necessary, the proper end of activity. BODs, by insisting on bureaucratic solutions to diversity problems and others’ financial precarity, have empowered administrations at the expense of staff and the community of artists and writers served. Scattered and spinning around to captivate one’s precise demographic yields an ill dialectic, another surface in the center of one’s screen. But who owns the production of meaning? Where does growth end? The “star maker machinery” behind the popular, what Joni Mitchell sang about on Court and Spark, is today the casualty of a proliferation of, for example, awards and contests. There seems to be no end to and no defense against the remotely controlled. You can’t ignore it. The once wild spaces in American poetry are no longer ungoverned.

Lewis: Despite this disturbing commercialization of the American poetic landscape, is there anything about the way the poetry world(s) have developed over recent decades from which you take hope or perhaps even inspiration?

Levy: There are more poets and literary presses working independently from manufactured poetry cliques and practices. The poets with whom I’ve long corresponded are writing and publishing the best work of their lives. Many of them are unaffiliated with particular poetry movements, schools (and universities), or popular trends. The writing is a composite of styles and tools that the poet has combined and mined in her own way. It seems there is a developing “outsider” economy, so to speak, that’s evolving. Over the past six months, 30 new books have arrived on my desk, from an almost equal number of independent literary presses, which I can’t wait to read. Something else that’s inspiring is that many more black, indigenous, and people of color, women, and LGBTQ are publishing their work, editing journals, and curating public events than was the case circa the late 80s. We’re living in a veritable orchard of animating practices and collective knowledges.

Lewis: Your invocation of this redemptive multiplicity of voices brings to mind “the homages and tributes” you mentioned earlier, and which are plentiful in Artifice. Can you talk a bit about how those function for you, creatively, and about the web of influence that supports your life as a practicing artist?

Levy: The homages and tributes are to the people who I was in correspondence with during the six-seven years in which Artifice in the Calm Damages was assembled and written. Some of my friends are very frank when it comes to making a recommendation, by suggesting that I edit this or that line, or in some instances that I consider deleting a line or two entirely. Others invoke and give voice to emotive non-technical matters, and everyone provided permission to keep feeling my way down the hallway and into the ether. Every poet that I’ve dedicated a poem to lives in an orchard of collaborative spirits. They’ve shared their writing, critical thoughts, philosophical musing, and sometimes meals, too. The tributes are part of a dialogue integral to what supports. Without these relationships the writing would have had no purpose, it wouldn’t exist.

Lewis: There is a generous intimacy with which this book invites the reader into that integral dialogue, and along on its journey into the ether. In particular, your consistent, and persistent, stock-taking of the self in relation to social reality in relation to art taps reservoirs of gravitas, irony, outrage, and melancholy. You confront us with just how damaged and diminished the self has become: that the “artifice felt cascading through all vessels of common and private good creates a calm within damage so extensive that one no longer knows it to be anything other than oneself” (“Faulty Writing”) – until “[s]peaking for myself, having never been the size of a bear or bull, I hope the continuing diminishment will not utterly destroy my deer-like self” (“The Ground Around the Figure”). You seem to carry that lamented diminishment to its logical conclusion in your observation that Alvaro de Campos’s notion of interexpression is “possible only for those who are fully aware that they express the opinions of nobody” (“Faulty Writing”). What do you see as the source of that damaging artifice, and its relation to the artifice at the very root of art itself? How are these insights related to your wistful imagining of a “get out of the way machine” to produce the “attention machine” (“Faulty Writing”) we so desperately need?

Levy: That “damaging artifice,” that’s the price of admission for participating in society. It’s getting locked into identities, that “stock-taking of the self in relation to social reality in relation to art,” that are churning zonal and meridional circulation to ashes. Damages accelerate, the stability and resilience of our poetry is in peril. Everything is made more difficult. At the same time, there’s humor, be it dry, in “speaking for myself” regarding “my deer-like self.” A “lamented diminishment,” the root of art being one’s soul, makes me laugh. There is little you can do to stop past emissions which haunt one’s deep-rooted behaviors. Regarding one’s sense of self, there’s interexpression that has to do with technical issues—for instance, how one edits one’s material—and when one can get out of the way, a transformation that’s more than aesthetic.

Lewis: After living with this book for many weeks, I am haunted and intrigued by many of its tropes. I find one in particular — the recurring references to “the baby”— as powerful and resonant as they are mysterious. Any comment on that image and how you would like it to function?

Levy: Right, there’s a broken-up sequence, so to speak, of what I refer to as the “baby poems.” I’d thought at one time of culling those poems from the book and publishing them as a small volume unto themselves. In most relationships, everyone at some time wants to know what they’ve done wrong. But that possibility is premised on a shared empathy, and we live in a time when, it seems apparent if one does nothing more than occasionally check in with broadcast news), empathy is in short supply. The limits to which it can be extended are purposively diminished — some blame neoliberalism. We’re egotistical greedy and thuggish babies, struggling to keep our filthy diapers up. People work so hard for things that land poorly, and on the wrong note. America’s benevolent clusterfuck of fossil fuel and sugar abandons its children and those of other nations. The baby outs babies as suicidal gunslingers ready to take the planet down with them. The section of 7 pieces beginning with “Twin Reflecting Pools” gets into all that pretty well. Babies are complicated.

Lewis: As are your poems! Is there anything else you would like me to ask?  

Levy: When will you be back in town? Let’s have dinner.

* * *

Andrew Levy is the author of Artifice in the Calm Damages (Chax Press, 2021), Notes toward a Supreme Fiction 2029 (Past Perfect, 2020), Artifice in the Calm Damages (Chax chapbook, 2017), Don’t Forget to Breathe (Chax Press), Nothing Is in Here (EOAGH novella), and ten other collections of poetry and prose including Curve and Values Chauffeur You, both from O Books. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous American and international magazines and anthologies, most recently Poetics-for-the-More-than-Human-World An Anthology of Poetry & Commentary; Light Abstracts the Smallest Things: The Aesthetics of Basil King; The Canary Islands Connection – 60 Contemporary American Poets; and Resist Much, Obey Little – Inaugural Poems to The Resistance. His writing works on the intersections of class and the ecology of commerce, and experimental music and the digitalization of freedom. A drummer, he works in collaboration with musicians and writers on readings and performances. Levy teaches journalism at BMCC-CUNY.



Susan Lewis (susanlewis.net) is the Editor-in-chief of Posit (positjournal.com) and the author of ten books and chapbooks, including Zoom, winner of the Washington Prize (The Word Works). Her work has appeared in anthologies such as Walkers in the City (Rain Taxi), They Said (Black Lawrence Press) and Resist Much, Obey Little (Dispatches/Spuyten Duyvil) as well as journals such as Agni, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Conjunctions online, Diode, Interim, New American Writing, and VOLT. She was interviewed by Stephen Paul Miller about Zoom in the May, 2019 issue of Dichtung Yammer.

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