A faculty member at the former College of Santa Fe (now Santa Fe University of Art and Design) once said of my advisor and Creative Writing Department Chairwoman Dana Levin, “When Dana’s in her office, people just feel like they need to be here.” Levin is currently the Joseph M Russo endowed chairwoman at University of New Mexico, and is one of the organizers of the Muse Times Two poetry series at Collected Works Bookstore. She will return as acting CWD chairwoman at SFUAD this fall. “I really love living here…and I feel very grateful that things worked out so I get to stay here,” Levin says. “The spirit of the place helps me write.” Levin’s third poetry collection, Sky Burial, was released March 1 by Copper Canyon Press. The collection represents a period in Levin’s life during which she was confronted with the deaths of three close family members in a short span of time. The poems eschew traditional elegy form, instead incorporating forensic anthropology research, Tibetan Buddhist and Aztec mythology, and dream elements. Levin gives a book signing and reading 6 pm Thursday, April 21 at Collected Works Bookstore. This week, SFR asked Levin to reflect on a few poems from the collection.
SFR: ‘Ghosts that Need Reminding’
DL: Many of the poems that came from dreams were recorded in prose, like in a dream journal, and I just let them stay that way…I think, I don’t know, maybe the expectations, the expository expectations of prose, in tension with the fact that the actual poem was dealing with products of the unconscious and the imagination, maybe that had an interesting relationship.
‘Among the Living’
I think what’s so hard for people who are left behind when significant people in their life have died is they have to reorganize and re-establish their relationship with the living, with life. And I think people that are really locked in grief are just as much ghosts as perhaps the spirits of the dead ones themselves.
That poem enacts the sky burial ritual…I had always been very fascinated by that ritual and had wanted to write about it, but just in the general. Then, after my parents died, I began to realize that I had a way to write about it. And what was surprising about the poem was that it became an alternative burial rite for my mother, that the body that is being ritually dismembered and disposed of is the body of my mother. And because I made that connection for myself while writing the poem, even though it’s not totally apparent in the poem itself, I don’t know—I actually sometimes felt nauseous working on the poem, and that was intense. I’ve never been physically so affected by something I was in the middle of writing, but it just felt like I needed to do it for some reason.
‘Five Skull Diadem’
It was really hard to figure out what to do with that poem, and part of my worry was, I wasn’t interested in preaching, but I really wanted to talk about those wrathful deities and Tibetan Buddhist impermanence, and I just could not figure out how to do it; I couldn’t find a vocabulary or a structure for doing it that made me comfortable. And then, duh, I was like, ‘Well, you know, this all kind of got started by visiting that Circle of Bliss show in LA, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, so why don’t I just go back to the source and try to take a reader through that experience in the way that I sort of experienced it—moving through the museum, engaging those images and the other people at the exhibition—and just kind of let that try and tell the story?’
I guess what I would say is that birth is hard and death is hard, and apparently arriving and departing from this life involves difficulty and suffering, and that just seems to be a fact, whether we like it or not…The Bardo is the place between, right? And so it’s just about, you know, sort of at the beginning of the poem, there’s the broken heart, and this you is told to move through it, move through this broken heart. And once they enter the broken heart, then they are in this winter landscape and that’s where the dead mother is found, and it’s sort of a poem about being lost—both the soul of the dead being lost and the soul of the survivor being lost.