Dana Levin – Poetry & Persona

Dana Levin is the author of In the Surgical Theatre, Wedding Day, and Sky Burial, which The New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting.” Levin’s poetry and essays have appeared recently in The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, APR, Agni, and Poetry. A recipient of fellowships and awards from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting and Guggenheim Foundations, Levin teaches at Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Levin will be leading a workshop at the 2014 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference called “Poetry and Persona” (Register)

Persona comes from the Greek word for “mask.” In this workshop, we will explore use of two kinds of masks that have inspired poems for centuries: the persona poem, where the writer becomes and speaks through a character; and personification, a technique that animates the inanimate (like those Disney talking teapots). We’ll discuss persona and personification poems by Ai, Gregory Corso, Doug Anderson, Sylvia Plath, e.e. cummings, and others to see how they handle putting on the mask. Before the conference begins, Participants will be assigned and complete an exercise to generate a persona/personification poem for in-class critique.

As part of the Kenyon Review’s “Conversations” series, Dana Levin spoke with Kenyon Review Editor-At-Large G. C. Waldrep about a variety of topics. We were interested in particular in this exchange:

GCW: So how does the “you” operate in your work?

DL: Let me count the ways: a way for the split self to dialog; a way for the wise-self to instruct, goad, the fool-self. Of course, a significant effect of the second-person approach is that the reader too is instructed, goaded, implicated-and for some poems that has been an intention-but more often than not the “you” is in service to internal dialog: a way for one self to say to the egoic-self (especially the dissociated egoic-self), “Hey! Look at this! Tend to it!”

The ‘you’ also serves beyond orienting the self in experience (psychological, epiphiniac and otherwise). It’s a way to take myself (and the reader) on a journey (the Balkan poems “First Cradle” and “The Washing” come to mind); a way to guide myself (and the reader) through deciphering the image-as-message or move through a scene; a way to move characters around (inWedding Day, the city-dweller in “Cinema Verite” and the teens on acid in “Suttee”; in more recent work, the grad student in “Spring,” the pyro boy in “Pyro”).

I suppose the basic answer to your question would go back to my habitual split state. I walk around in the world as both I and You. There is a You (which is me) having direct experience and an I (which feels me and not-me) evaluating it. I often encounter trouble in drafting poems because of switching from I to You and back and still meaning a single person (who is me? hmmm. This self stuff is tricky) (then again, we can just go back to Uncle Walt and remember his self-multitudes. Or Ashbery, who I just said exasperated me. Oh well. He interests me with his slippery-self and then he exasperates me. Pax.) I suppose the second person poem lets me have an implied I and an explicit You, and so split identity can be retained and expressed, even if a by-product is that readers think the ‘you’ is them (now ask me about the Buddhist idea that we’re all each other).

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