Friday, July 27, 2012

Talking with A Very Funny Fellow: An Interview with Donald Lev

KIRPAL GORDON: Donald, first let me say congratulations on the recent publication of your new collection, A Very Funny Fellow, your fourteenth book of poems, as well as your appointment as the Northeast Poetry Center’s Distinguished Visiting Poet for the summer of 2012. What will you be doing, when and where? Are you on a book tour now? When did it come out? What’s going on?

DONALD LEV: The book came out in February, and since it’s a pretty substantial collection put out by a good publisher in my 76th year, I thought I’d give it a shot. So I set up a sort of mini-book-tour. Not being much of a traveler the tour took me only as far north as Albany and will end up on August 13th at its southernmost limit, the Princeton Public Library. I’ve read as far west as, I guess, Woodstock.

KIRPAL GORDON: Raymond Hammond at New York Quarterly Books did a fine job putting together 92 of your short poems which are wry, quirky narratives on the foibles of being human. The only thing that bugged me was the story behind its title, A Very Funny Fellow, but I may have missed the joke. When Marguerite Harris called you around 1971 to tell you, “You’re a very funny fellow, but you are no poet,” what was she thinking? Is she hung up on formalism all these years after William Carlos Williams’ variable foot? The achievement of the book---and of your style---is the exact sound of your mind and mouth in print; the poetry’s in the event, not how much poetic language you can scaffold on to it. Like:

A Man and His Clone

I am on a westbound train, sitting at a white tableclothed table playing casino with my cloned son Robert.
Robert’s not too bright, but he’s goodhearted, or wants to be.
He is beating me more often than not at this game I’ve taught him, which my father (of whom, unfortunately, I’m no clone) taught me.
I think we are in Oklahoma, or maybe New Mexico---one of those gorgeous western states speeding past as we play our cards.
I would ask Robert where we are, only I know he wouldn’t know if I don’t.
We are on our way to California, where a man and his clone may feel reasonably secure. I once had a premonition I would die there; that was 1965. It hardly matters now.

Why can’t she call you funny AND a poet?

DONALD LEV: Well, Maggie was this very opinionated old battleaxe (I don’t think they make those anymore) at the time and was certain she knew (She wasn’t the only one. I wish she was.) what a poem really was. She was kind of old fashioned, but, in a way, genuinely majestic. I liked her, actually. I didn’t mind what she said (I  had a certain confidence in my work), I just thought it had a kind of stylishness and kept it in mind all these years.

KIRPAL GORDON: What about economy of language? What better gift to give the reader and what better image painted than when told with not one extra syllable. Like your elegy to Ira Cohen:

The Return

All sounds stopped. The instruments muted.
If birds there were, they were unheard.
And every soul sat cross-legged on the ground
intoning eternal ohm to energize
ailing poet, home at last from his travels,
head bowed under his large hat
like sleeping mexican under sombrero
on my mother’s cookie jar.

It’s all there, Donald. What do you say to that?

DONALD LEV: The poem was written some years before Ira Cohen died. I was present at a reading he gave at the Colony in Woodstock and the poem is pretty much reportage. I try to be succinct whatever I write. Once a poem has completed its message I try to stop. Of course there are many kinds of messages. Mine just happen usually to be brief. The cookie jar really existed.

KIRPAL GORDON: Lawrence Bush nailed it when he called you “America’s great taxi driver, telling stories so rich, observant and personal that you forget all about the running meter and the appointments you need to keep. This collection has a huge, comfy back seat.” You drove a cab back in the day, what, for twenty years?

DONALD LEV: I’m the last victim of the great newspaper strike of 1962-63. We were out so long the strike funds ran out, then after more waiting I got unemployment. There was no work around, so when some friends were going out to California I went with them. I couldn’t find work there either and Gov. Rockefeller decided I no longer deserved unemployment. But I was in San Francisco, and when the strike ended I wasn’t quite ready to go back. When I did, the Times informed me my job no longer existed. So I got a hack license. Other glamour jobs I did were dish washing and foot messengering. And some time in the 80’s after I moved to Brooklyn I threw commercial plates on my hatchback and became a courier. And wound up distributing publications I told myself were of “cultural interest” beginning with the New York Poetry Calendar and ending with The Aquarian. A good swath of the 70’s I spent messengering for the display ad dept. of the Village Voice, where I was also publishing a lot of poetry and prose poetry at pretty good rates.

KIRPAL GORDON: You also worked in the wire rooms of the Daily News and the New York Times and you’re in one of my all-time favorite-films-on-a-desert-island list, “Putney Swope,” directed by Robert Downey, Sr. You play the part of the poet in a film that is a work of poetry, I mean the ad agency head dies on the spot and a token black art director gets voted CEO---it’s a total hoot and send-up of Madison Avenue’s invasion of our skulls, a celebration of words and a retaliation against the jingles that sell us soap: the Beat Generation Meets the Black Arts Movement, and the script is hilarious. And those two repeating phrases---“How many syllables, Mario?” and “Putney says the Boorman Sixth Girl has got to have soul!”---I still hear people say them on the street.  What were these experiences like?

DONALD LEV: I used to live in Forest Hills, Queens, where Bob Downey also lived. He used a number of us from the neighborhood in some of his films. And sometimes I’d be driving crews to different locations. Robert Downey Jr. and I both made our film debuts in his father’s film “Chafed Elbows,” he in his mother Elsie’s arms (Elsie was a wonderful actress and comedienne in her own right) and I getting thrown off a roof in Burns Street, Forest Hills. How I and my poem “HYN” got into “Putney Swope” was thus. I was giving my first featured reading in a place called Olivia’s Atelier East, which was attached to the old Broadway Central Hotel, at the same time Bob and some of my musician friends were performing some music that was supposed to go into “Putney Swope” nearby at the Bitter End. Anyway he came over and caught my reading and said he wanted to use my poem “HYN” in the film. Which happened. I got paid $75. $50 for reciting the poem and $25 for milling around in the picket scene. I was told it was “union scale.” My apex in the film industry. And to this day, I guess HYN is my most widely distributed poem. And aside from all this it is a great film, isn’t it? I think now some of Downey’s humor might have rubbed off into my own work.

Home of Home Planet News
Home Planet News The Independent Literary Review

KIRPAL GORDON: Yikes, talking with you takes me back, lad, to the first time I saw Home Planet News in the early 80s. It was a big hit with my creative writing students, both in college and in prison. I think the young as well as the incarcerated appreciate its candor and lack of pretension. I enjoy the tabloid newspaper look, the no-frills approach, but more, the poems and reviews move me. Sometimes it’s hard to find a magazine that makes me want to read all of the contents, but HPN gets my vote. So what’s it been like doing this project since 1969? You also ran a bookshop called the Home Planet News?

DONALD LEV: The Home Planet Book Shop was in 1970 or ’71. I had already launched my first mag, HYN Poetry Quarterly & New York Muse, A Yellow Journal of the Arts, which ended its life titled HYN Anthology with its 4th issue published in 1975. It was just a storefront I paid too much rent for on  E. 9th & Ave. C that I moved to because my girlfriend of the time was bored on University Place (we lived in the Albert Hotel) and wanted to live somewhere more exciting. So I threw some books in the window, kept a big urn of half Maxwell House, half Bustelo going, and had poetry readings practically every night for company. Anyway I was sharing a loft at 334 Bowery with a photographer named Paul Henning when HYN died, and I began work as editor on a newsprint literary magazine called Poets, published by a mad genius named Mike Devlin, who had an office on Union Square in which were half the files of a publication called Poets & Poetry he published formerly (the other half of the files became Dodeca and then Contact Two). I got Enid, who I knew from an organization called The New York Poets’ Cooperative, to come in as an associate editor. She and I got together at editorial meetings, moved in together, and when Mike disappeared with the boards of Poets #6 under his arm, Enid and I got hold of an electronic typewriter and launched Home Planet News. What’s it like? Well, it doesn’t get easier.

KIRPAL GORDON: I remember the first time I heard you and your life partner, Enid Dame, give a reading together in Staten Island in 1983. What has stayed with me was the rapport the two of you built with the audience. You both work different sides of the street as poets but the compliment of talents proved to me that a skillful line-up is greater than the sum of its parts. Now that she has passed, I’ve seen you read a few times on your own, and you’re still building rapport with the audience. Talk about the art of reading your work in front of others.

DONALD LEV: I broke the public reading ice in 1967 (long after I started writing and publishing my poetry) on Gansevoort Street Pier in the Village where they had open readings Sunday afternoons started by poet/actor Ed Blair sometime in the early 60’s. A lot of people weren’t there for the poetry and it was noisy, and there was no mic! So you had to learn to project. Which I did. I guess there’s just something about projection that’s enjoyable, because I’ve been projecting ever since and enjoying it.

KIRPAL GORDON: Tell us more about the Madeline Sadin Award from New York Quarterly you were given as well the Lifetime Achievement Award you received from from the Catskill Reading Society/Outloudbooks.

DONALD LEV: The Madeline Sadin Award used to be awarded for the best poem in each issue of New York Quarterly. Mine was for a poem called “Wilderness” which appeared I think sometime in ’73 and was about God getting arrested. The Catskill Reading Society is Bob Richards and his family who live high on Red Mountain near the Ulster/Sullivan border. For many years they used to host the Outloud Literary Festival (which at first happened in their barn. They did some publishing too, including a book by Mikhail Horowitz and two or three by a wonderful Connecticut poet named Hugh Ogden, who met an untimely end in a freak accident. Bob published four of my collections including a Selected Poems in 2008. They gave me the award (I don’t know why) in 2003. Enid was still alive. Some of the last photos I have of her were taken at that event.

KIRPAL GORDON: How do Giant Steps Press blog readers stay in better touch with all that you do?

DONALD LEV: Subscribe to Home Planet News. $12 will get you 3 issues. Address is P.O. Box 455, High Falls, NY 12440. I’m stubbornly a print guy, but we have a website,, which runs selections from each issue.

Donald Lev

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful interview. I especially love the image from the Ira Cohen elegy "head bowed under his large hat/
    like sleeping mexican under sombrero
    on my mother’s cookie jar." What a great sense of the absurd!Some of his prose pieces remind me a bit of Russell Edson, another poet I greatly admire.