A Conversation with Lynn Levin
By Laura Liu
Lynn Levin is a poet, writer, translator, and teacher. She is the author of seven books, most recently a poetry collection, Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press); a translation from the Spanish, Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press) by Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales; and, as co-author, the textbook Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press: first edition, 2013, second edition 2019).
The recipient of fourteen Pushcart Prize nominations, Levin has published poems, stories, essays, and translations in Ploughshares, Boulevard, The Hopkins Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Connecticut Review, Rattle, andVerse Daily; Garrison Keillor has read her work on his radio show The Writer’s Almanac. She teaches at Drexel University, where she has received the Adjunct Award for Teaching Excellence; for many years, she taught creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Her website is www.lynnlevinpoet.com.
I was fortunate enough to sit down and ask Lynn some questions. Read on for the result!
Laura Liu, Interviewer: To begin, what poems have you read lately that have had an impact on you? What about this work did you especially enjoy?
Lynn Levin, Writer: I have been reading a lot of Walt Whitman lately, rereading some poems and discovering many I had not read before. So many parts of “Song of Myself” make me cheer and say, “Walt, way to go!” Whitman boasts that he and his soul are huge and at one with the universe and all humanity. Does he have a big ego? Sure. But he is stoked with love for himself, love of others, love of America, and love of sheer being. The poem springs and jumps mostly for joy, but with some dark passages. Whitman wrote the first version of the poem when he was in his thirties, when he was in his prime and in awe of his physical and spiritual existence. Really, in awe of everything.
I also go back to “The Sin of Pride,” a quieter and far more contained poem by the contemporary American poet John Koethe. I came upon this work in Poem-A-Day, an online series from the Academy of American Poets. Koethe’s poem is about the life of the mind and the practice of poetry. He refers to a poem as “O Small/Room of Myself, where everything and nothing fits.” As grand and expansive as Whitman is, Koethe seems the opposite: humble and modest, even self-effacing. Koethe calls poetry a sin of pride because it makes “self-absorption seem heroic.” He says that we want to think we’re unique, but we’re very much alike. Come to think of it, that observation reflects Whitman’s ideas about the commonality of everyone.
Liu: I saw that you are a Spanish translator—your book, Birds on the Kiswar Tree by Odi Gonzales (2Leaf Press, 2014, distributed by the University of Chicago Press), is translated from Spanish. In what ways has being a part of the Spanish and English worlds of poetry affected your own writing?
Levin: I principally translate Peruvian Andean poetry, and I mostly translate the work of Odi Gonzales. Gonzales’s style is terse, compact, and marked by leaping associations. I’ve learned a lot from him about concision, the value of using fragments, and how to make rapid switches between ideas and images.
Liu: To build off of the previous question, what do you find is the greatest challenge of translating today? Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring translators of poetry out there?
Levin: One of the greatest challenges facing translators today is figuring out whom to translate. To do that you have to do one or more of the following: travel to international writers’ festivals where you meet foreign writers and discover new work that you want to translate; specialize in a specific foreign language, genre, and era so you know who or what you’d like to translate; read widely in foreign publications in your language(s) of competency and find material that way; or have colleagues recommend that you explore the work of a specific person. If you are an established translator, you might be assigned translation projects by a publisher; in that case the work comes to you. But for many of us, it’s a case of finding the writers in the first place…and then getting the proper permissions (from the writer and the writer’s publisher, etc.) to translate and publish the work. If you work on writers who are deceased, you need to get permission from the literary executor. Oh yes, and then you have to do the work of translation. And submit your translations to journals and presses.
Many people assume that a translator has to be fluent or bilingual in the source language. That is not true. You have to be competent in the source language and really good in the target language. The translated poem has to read like a poem in its own right.
Liu: You’ve also co-written Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets. The first edition came out in 2013, and you’re coming out with a second edition in 2019. The book offers prompts that help shape and inspire poems, and it is also a help for those struggling with writer’s block. What’s your favorite prompt from the book, and do you have a personal remedy for writer’s block or a way to become inspired?
Levin: I love the paraclausithyron, a lover’s lament before the beloved’s closed door. I find that the people who use the book really like exploring this classical motif. That prompt opens a lot of poetic doors!
How do I get inspired? Often, I randomly come across a phrase, image, or situation which has enough torque or strangeness to grow into a poem. If I find myself in a poetic dry spell, I either work on something else like a short story or a translation or read more of anything—poems, essays, the news. Sometimes, I give myself an assignment. For example, I might assign myself the challenge of writing an ode in the manner of Pablo Neruda or a poem with a specific set of rhymes and refrains, such as a rondel. With poems, sometimes the ideas or words come first; at other times the prompt comes first. Prompts can be playful and fun; they can provide ingredients for a poem; and they can provide a shape for your thoughts.
Liu: Aside from being a writer and translator, you are also a professor at Drexel University and have also taught creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania for many years. How has pursuing academia changed your approach or understanding of writing?
Levin: Teaching has made me a more careful writer, taught me the vocabulary of style, and has definitely propelled me to broaden my knowledge of contemporary writers and writers from the tradition. There is a certain amount of pressure to write and publish when you teach at the university level. You see what your colleagues are doing. There’s some competition, I think. I have great colleagues at Drexel and Penn; we read each other’s work, give advice, share teaching strategies.
Liu: Finally, the rise of technology has made it easier to write and publish poems. Do you prefer to write on paper or on the computer? Do you have any other quirks or habits while writing?
Levin: When it comes to poems, I always start with pen and paper. When I have enough lines down, I type up the poem-in-progress and print it out—only to discover that a number of my scintillating ideas are incomplete, ungrammatical, and/or nonsense. Then I put pen to the print-out to cross out and write new lines. I repeat that editing process many times. I compose prose on the computer…but at certain points I print out the prose drafts and edit by hand. I do use a lot of paper, but I always use both sides of a sheet of paper, and I am a scrupulous recycler.
Laura Liu is a senior at Conestoga High School, and has been writing her entire life. As an editor for her school's literary magazine, The Folio, she is always looking for ways to help herself and her peers develop mastery and voice in writing.
Laura is a 2019 Merit Award Winner for Writing (Poetry) from the National YoungArts Foundation, and has won top prizes in competitions such as the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) Student Contest, and the Central League Writing Contest. She was also published in NFSPS' annual poetry anthology, Encore, in 2017.
Header Image: Lynn Levin.