The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What was the reason that you separated “Numbers,” “Decline,” and “Reminder” which have a related theme and subject, into three instead of making it one whole work?
Michael Levan: Let me begin by saying thank you for inviting me to take part in this interview. I hope I can do justice to these great questions.
To answer your first question, I did so for practical and content-related reasons. For the past three summers, two friends from graduate school and I have held each other accountable to write a new draft every day of June. They don’t have to be good or polished, but we email some new page by the end of the day, however we define it. (4:30 AM, for instance, if you’re me and you’ve put it off for other reasons like spending time with your family or, more often, laziness.) These three pieces—and the couple hundred that accompany them because I decided to continue writing into early September for as long as my family and teaching schedule allowed—were all written out of that self-imposed assignment. In one sense, then, they’re separated because of that.
However, what I also wanted to capture was how moment-to-moment these periods in our lives were. My wife was going through this terrible sickness twice, which was nearly unbearable, even though she knew what gifts we’d be getting. Hyperemesis gravidarum made my wife question constantly how she was going to survive and had me wondering how I could ask her to make this sacrifice for us. It’s difficult to see beyond the present when your love is suffering that much. Writing in these short bursts, I hope, captures that sense.
RR: You have published works in both poetry and nonfiction. What are some of the challenges you face in shifting between these two genres? Are there ways that your experiences writing in poetry can influence in your nonfiction work, or vice versa?
ML: By no means is it unique to see little difference between nonfiction and poetry, but I’ll continue to argue for the similarities, especially the way in which I’ve written these pieces. I’ve always had the tendency towards the prose-y when it comes to my poetry—perhaps the biggest insult we can offer in poetry workshops—, so writing this manuscript has freed me from worrying too much about that “weakness.” The manuscript demanded a narrative bent, but writing in sentences also didn’t quite seem to fit. There needed to be even more internal conflict, which is why I added the slashes that operate as line, or more aptly, syntactical breaks. I don’t think I struggled with shifting between the two, formally.
What I’ll add is that I think my nonfiction helps me be riskier when it comes to writing poems. A poet can hide behind personas; a nonfiction writer, largely, has to confront the reality of the situation head-on. Part of that confidence comes from maturing as a person and writer, but I think moving between genres can help that process along too.
RR: You’ve read some of your lyrical works for the Sunflower Reading series. How much does sound shape your writing? How does reading works aloud shape the essay in ways different from its appearance on the page?
ML: I make this comment often in my creative writing classes: “Never trust a writer who doesn’t love music.” I say it with tongue-in-cheek, of course, but paying attention to the way lyrics and music come together has been a big help to me. I’ve listened to a lot of music, and that’s certainly trained my ear to recognize when something doesn’t sound or feel write in a given line or sentence. I don’t know that I can always nail the reason down exactly, but reading a piece aloud to myself, or in my mind’s ear if I don’t want to wake anyone else in the house in the middle of the night, I know I can feel a difference between the wrong word and the right one. I like to think I’m pretty good at this, but it’s one area I need to be more consciously aware of as I continue to grow as a writer.
Taking part in the Sunflower Reading Series was a great experience; the editors at Beecher’s Magazine who produced it were so generous and encouraging of the work, but I was certainly nervous about the opportunity. It was also the first time I’ve read those pieces aloud to anyone else, so I wasn’t sure they were going to sound as right as I wanted them to. I think they translate pretty well, though. At least I hope they do. Many of us, I’m sure, have had the experience where a writer we admire is not the best performer of his/her work. Writing well is one skill, and reading aloud to a group of strangers who don’t have the words in front of them while still keeping their attention is quite another. Writers aren’t always the best rockstars (and vice versa; I’m thinking of you, Billy Corgan and many others), but hopefully at a reading, we can transport our audiences someplace new just as much as they can be at a great concert. Still, it all starts with the words on the page.
RR: There are several instances throughout the pieces where “the boy” is brought up. Could you expand upon your choice to use that phrase in place of a name or more familiar way of identification?
ML: Throughout the manuscript, I use “the boy,” “the man’s wife,” and “the man.” The choice was born out of needing/wanting to create distance, but not distance for the sake of escaping anything. The phrases were necessary if I wanted to be honest with what my family went through, me included. I didn’t want this to be a “woe is me” or “look how admirably I behaved” story because I didn’t handle everything with grace. I didn’t respond to the needs of the rest of my family as well as I would have liked to. If this was “my son,” “my wife,” and “I,” I don’t think the manuscript would have been an accurate reflection of what this sickness does to a family.
And while we went through this struggle as a family, there are many others who endure it too. “The boy” is a stand-in for every son (or daughter, for that matter) who’s had to live through his/her mother’s battle and father’s feeling of frustration and helplessness.
RR: What’s the best thing you read this past year? Why has this work stuck with you?
ML: I’ve read a lot of good books and poems this past year as a teacher, a book reviewer, a lover of words who’s had to turn off my teacher-ly and reviewer-ly tendencies in order to enjoy what I’m reading. I love Richard Siken’s latest collection, War of the Foxes, and I can’t wait to read Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, which I heard a portion of at a reading on my campus recently. But what’s stuck with me most lately, which has made me really jealous because I didn’t write such beautiful words, is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. So much of it is a meditation on what it means to be a father, which is a theme that’s a significant part of a lot of my recent work. I tried to tell my students how perfect so many of the passages were, both in how the man celebrates his son and also how he describes his limitations in communicating any sort of wisdom to his son through what he’s writing. The students didn’t quite get it, but maybe in ten or fifteen years when they have families of their own, it’ll be a book they’ll revisit and feel as strongly about as I do.