In Karl Shapiro’s best book, The Bourgeois Poet (1964), there’s an excellent poem to Randall Jarrell. The last line of that poem goes, “I rush to read you, whatever you print.” That’s how I feel about Megan Levad. That’s how I feel, and that’s what I do.
We became acquaintances years ago in Ann Arbor. She described to me the manuscript she was working on, and I remember thinking it sounded like not at all my kind of thing. I don’t remember the details, but I know it was gonna be a set of connected lyrics, orbiting some dramatic historical incident. Years later, her first full-length work came out, and it had nothing in common with the book she had described. It was a bunch of thoroughly droll and inventive prose pieces, wherein she set out to explain (reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly) various complex processes and ideas—without doing a dot of research. Instead, she just used her own reasoning powers and whatever information one picks up from TV and high school. The resulting humor was so much to my taste that I renewed with her on Facebook or whatever it was, and we’ve been poetry friends ever since. Now her second book is out, and it’s a complete surprise once again. But it is not merely different from the other book. It’s more like the poet has grown a new head.
What Have I to Say to You (Tavern Books, 2017) is, in my judgment, one of the actually good poetry books of the last fifteen years. Best in terms of memorable lines and bold vision, and best in terms of being the kind of book one happily reads over and over. It took me twenty-nine minutes and five seconds to read the whole thing into a voice recorder. I have listened to that recording six times in the last week.
I decided to ask Megan some questions about the book.
It’s a book of love poems. Yet, as soon as I say that, I feel like it’s fatally misleading. Not because of any fancy footwork one could do—“the whole thing’s a metaphor,” etc.—but because your take on the concept love poem is something new. Speak to that.
Have you ever heard Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski’s story about the man who loved fish? It’s pretty simple: he loves fish because he loves to eat them. I think this is the problem—Rabbi Twerski would say of being human, I would say it’s exacerbated by capitalism—at the core of how we connect with one another. Love becomes something consumable, something transactional. We make lists of what we’re looking for in a partner, as though we are shopping. We negotiate, as though we are diplomats for two nations.
During a time that I was feeling heartbroken, the Academy of American Poets sent out William Carlos Williams’s “A Love Song” as the Poem-a-Day selection. “The stain of love is upon the world.” It made me think of how closely this kind of consuming, transactional love is related to “peacekeeping” and spreading “democracy.” The facade is much thinner when it comes to American imperialism, but this is the same delusion that we use to make excuses for how we manipulate and manage our loved ones.
That sounds so awful! But it’s underneath the poems in What Have I to Say to You. Which are, most simply, an attempt to write love poems that are honest. I haven’t read a lot of honest love poems. A lot of beautiful ones, yes, but we poets tend to get so wrapped up in beauty that we not only objectify our beloved, we then wander away from that object because it’s not interesting enough to us without our fancies memorializing it (see that good old junior high standby, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18). We use love as an occasion to contemplate language and memory, for goodness’ sake—and those are the good love poems! The ones I like! Ick.
You told me, a while back, that the love poems with which you feel the greatest affinity are Sappho’s. What, in your opinion, does she, as a poet, get right? I want you to make your sense of her merits explicit.
I like Sappho’s honesty. The poems mainly focus on the effects of love on the lover, how the beloved’s thoughtless charms create those effects, and articulating the experience of love, which feels so isolating, in a way that anyone can understand.
That last focus is fascinating to me, the implied turn outward. So, yes, they are among the love poems, if we are sorting, that are as much about language as they are about the beloved—but if all poetry is about language and the always-already failed attempt to capture experience, then love poems in the key of Sappho are about as close as we get to feeling what the poet felt. It helps that they were songs. When one is writing songs, one considers the audience more overtly, as well as the layers of persona that will go into performance. Philip Auslander writes extensively about this. I am merely applying his ideas to poetry.
There are many layers. The poet as the reader understands them—the “historic” Sappho. The version of the poet that is portrayed in the poem—Sappho eating her heart out. The poet as the performer of the poem, who is a slightly different version of the poet as the author of the poem—Sappho strumming the lyre and dramatizing her pain. And the reader, who is invited to be both lover and beloved, to identify with both the poet and the object of affection. The collapse of these layers is beneficial to poets—Eileen Myles performing as Sappho performing the blues.
This is perhaps why I don’t experience songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” or the Beatles’ “Run for Your Life”—which Nancy Sinatra immediately covered, by the way—as threatening.
I think every reader does this, though some more readily than others, and some are actively resistant to it. In my experience, that active resistance has a political edge that creates useful conversation about questions like For whom is this written? and Why am I being implicated in this? This comes up a lot when writers use the second person or assume universality, which is particularly dangerous in love poems—maybe love isn’t a universal experience. What about readers who’ve never been in love? Or never associated love with joy? Or, on the other hand, have never experienced pain in love?
Set aside the issue of the love poem. You have a non-standard take on love itself. There are poems in the book that speak up for things “we don’t say anymore”—the excessive, the “fast, adult, unpleasant” aspects of love and sex. Say something about that.
Another reason I find it easy and pleasurable to slip into both roles, the lover and the beloved, even the rapacious lover and the consumed beloved, is because it’s a good space in which to court negative affect, to feel all of the ugly things that come along with love and desire. Possessiveness, jealousy, affront, sure—also abjection, erasure, I-wanna-be-your-dog. A lot of love poetry is I-wanna-be-your-dog.
This is a way in which the poet or lover wanders away from the actual beloved, eats the fish. When we take more pleasure in our submission than in our beloved, we’re still using them. I am reminded of a personal essay in Vogue that I read when I was in high school. Sitting in the public library’s orange vinyl mid-century lounge chair with the floor-to-ceiling afternoon light slanting in, reading about a woman who found that the timing of her affair coincided with her best mother-wifing. She’d never fed her family so well, kept such an immaculate house!
And yet the affair did not sound like much fun. The first time she and her lover had sex, it was on a blanket under a tree during a drive in the country—what a trope—and I remember that she wrote it was “as pleasurable as the rooster’s entry must be for the hen” or something like that. When I read this, I had no personal knowledge of such things. But the idea that she felt compelled to do something hurtful, destructive, confusing—and that it wasn’t even pleasurable for her—is still interesting to me.
I think it’s oversimplification to call it self-destruction. I think sometimes we want to do something for what it means, not how it feels.
You told me that you found no occasion to break the formal rules you set up for yourself in the making of both books. Everybody else—certainly everybody in workshop—thinks the only reason to set up rules is to secure the satisfactions incumbent on breaking them. I know you reject that line of thought. Say why.
Well, regarding the motivations of meaning and feeling, I think form is often about feeling when it ought to be about meaning. Sure, poets can explain how different forms function and why the one they chose perfectly conveys their meaning, but writing in a certain form gives us a certain feeling which I think is wrapped up in identity. “I write sonnets.” Stylish hair, clipped speech, expensive beverages. Or, I am an athletic poet, a poet who is willing to wrestle sestinas!
And those feelings are very attractive when one is forming one’s poetry identity. But then of course we don’t want to be categorizable, so we must break the form. It’s related to the way I’m thinking about love—when we choose a form in order to align ourselves with whatever we think that form means, and then break it in order to show our individuality, we’ve made it all about us instead of about the poem. We might say that the poem wanted to be broken, but that’s a silly way of saying that we couldn’t get across what we wanted to get across while using that form.
There are three kinds of poems in the book. Normal lyrics—for example, I am A, I think about B. Brief, direct addresses to the reader, often provocative. And poems that begin, Such-and-such turns to me in such-and-such random place, says … And then the person says something completely surprising.
I want to know how in the world this particular solar system of elements came into being.
So the forms that I chose for What Have I to Say to You are, loosely, the aphorism, the address, and the anecdote. The lyric poems are working through what love poems are all about, what the lyric is about. It seems so Western-capitalist to me, so individual, the unique song so unique it can never really be captured—see above. And yet, regardless of how much room I want to give readers, if they don’t identify with the feelings described in the love lyrics, I think most of us have those feelings at some time or other. Which is why people like love poems, even sentimental, self-aggrandizing ones. Maybe because when we’re in love, there are times we feel sentimental and self-aggrandizing. In addition, lyric poems have long seemed pretty self-aggrandizing to me. The pronouncements of how things are! Good grief.
It’s fitting for poets to make pronouncements in performance poetry or songs or big readings. The connection is already magnified. But since our reading culture in the U.S. is generally the individual alone with a book, to make pronouncements to one person, who is essentially sitting with you, listening to you pour your heart out? That’s gross. So the addresses to the reader magnify that grossness. My discomfort with the lyric required it.
The anecdotal poems were originally a way to describe the beloved without describing the beloved, an attempt to get an outside but still intimate perspective. Then I realized that because they’re episodic, anecdotal, they needed an arc. But what would they arc toward? What would happen if instead of a narrative arc or character arc they had a sort of argumentative arc?
Which made me think about what the book was arguing, and it seemed it was arguing that since we mostly experience our lives viscerally, emotionally, immediately, no matter how much we might worry or talk about the apocalypse—whether zombie, nuclear, environmental—what really feels like an apocalypse, the worst that we experience, is loss. Loss of a relationship. Romantic, familial, friend, belief, otherwise. That connection. Even when we experience trauma, it manifests for most people, it seems, as problems connecting, problems with relating and relationships.
But at the same time that we so desperately want to connect, we fill that need with small talk and activity and maybe ideas. Which is pleasant! But not exactly what we’re going for, right? So I revised those scene-poems to imply that our relationships with abstract concepts are as present as our relationships with people, and often more important. Especially since some of those abstract concepts, such as the agricultural-industrial complex and systemic racism and military hegemony and America, have terrible, concrete impact.
Those poems also made it clearer that the book is also about how when you’re heartbroken, or in love, everything in the world reflects that feeling, right? Sappho thought so. Williams thought so. And we’re going to keep writing poems about it anyway.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.
Megan Levad is the author of Why We Live in the Dark Ages and What Have I to Say to You. A summer 2017 MacDowell Fellow, her poems have appeared in Poem-a-Day, Tin House, Granta, Fence, and the Everyman’s Library anthology Killer Verse, among other publications. Megan also writes song lyrics—her first opera, Kept, with Kristin Kuster, premiered in May 2017.