Julia Levine: Winner, 2020 BLR Poetry Prize
Ordinary Psalm with Near Blindness
BLR: The speaker in this poem seems to need nature to confirm her own being, but also desires to confirm nature still exists. Can you speak to your relationship to nature as a poet?
Julia Levine: That is an interesting take on the way nature functions in this poem. As I worked on it, this poem felt to me like a meditation on one particular dilemma of near blindness: that is, in the absence of a clear visual image, how the mind fills in, and what relationship this kind of seeing” has to spiritual notions of “vision” as opposed to a medical/anatomical definition of “sight.”
To explain further, there are some absences of visual perception that I actually like: I don’t see how dirty my house is, or whether or not my clothes are covered in blonde dog hair, and my friends and family all look very beautiful to me since I cannot see their wrinkles or whatever else might be considered “flaws.”
But I have loved the natural world since I was a small child and it is my inability to see it accurately that pains me. So, in the poem, I am interested in both how to understand what I do “see” as a amalgam of my own mind and memory, plus the relational construction that primarily my husband lends to me, and finally, what I can actually perceive. The result of this perceptual construction can sometimes feel like an important “truth” as opposed to visual fact.
BLR: In “Ordinary Psalm with Near Blindness” you expertly interlace grey and black text, deploy section breaks to mark time, and the poem itself doubles in size to occupy the page in the latter half. All while propelling the poem’s momentum forward. What comes to you first: content or form?
Julia Levine: I think content and form are so interlinked. Often I write a poem after studying a poem I love and attempting to copy its form. Both were true for this poem. I had read a beautiful poem about stuttering (sorry I can’t remember by whom!) in which the form (which looked a bit like the second part of this poem) interrupted and repeated and interrupted itself, enacting the speaker’s experience of trying to converse with a stutter. So I was intrigued to try and write something using this idea, and what emerged was the back and forth I often have when my husband tries to help me see things I can’t physically perceive on my own.
But then again, many times I write the content of a poem and spend a great deal of time revising and looking for its form. That is probably true for the first section of this poem. The couplets felt right to me finally as the chance to argue with myself about loss and how much could I allow, how much could I bear?
BLR: What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
Julia Levine: I have studied writing informally for so long. It wasn’t until I was 60 and working on my fifth book (Ordinary Psalms, LSU Press, March 2021), that I decided I wanted an MFA. I received so much helpful advice and support from the faculty at Pacific University. But honestly, the best advice I ever received was my own obsessive wish to READ! READ! READ! Most of what I think has formed me as a poet, if I dare to call myself that, is the work I devoured and still love and want to read and want to emulate.
BLR: Which writers have influenced you? What are you currently reading?
Julia Levine: Oh no!!!! So many!!! And such different poets at different stages in my life. For example, I loved A.A.Milne and Ogden Nash when I was a small child. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Dorianne Laux, Lawrence Raab, Rumi, and Yeats when I was a teenager and in college.
Since then, I have loved so many: Brigit Pegeen Kelley, Louise Gluck, Aracellis Girmay,Yannos Ritsos, Jon Anderson, Ralph Angel, Neruda, James Wright, Deborah Digges, Yehuda Amichai, Adam Zagajewski, Frank Gaspar, Belle Waring, James Galvin, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman and CD Wright, to name just a few!!!
Right now I’m rereading all of Brigit Pegeen Kelley and Jorie Graham’s works, and reading, for the first time,13th Balloon by Mark Bibbins, Nobody by Alice Oswald, and Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz.