from a Conversation with Jan Heller Levi


Jan Heller Levi

Jan Heller Levi grew up in Baltimore in the days of the peaceful atom, and returned to New York City in the mid-’70s. She landed at Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied poetry with Jane Cooper, Jean Valentine, and Thomas Lux. She did not go on to graduate school, but worked in publishing, and then became Muriel Rukeyser’s personal assistant from 1978 until Rukeyser’s death in 1980. She continued writing poetry through jobs in public relations, publishing, and advertising sales (at the New York Times), and edited A Muriel Rukeyser Reader (W.W. Norton, 1994). In 1998, she won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets for her first book of poems, Once I Gazed at You in Wonder. Since then, she’s published two more books of poetry: Skyspeak (Louisiana State University Press, 2005) and Orphan (Alice James Books, 2014) co-edited with Sara Miles, Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Copper Canyon), and co-written, with Christoph Keller, the introduction to New Direction’s re-issue of Rukeyser’s suite of poems, Elegies, originally published in 1949. She is currently writing, with the Swiss-born novelist and playwright Keller, who is also her husband, a biography of Rukeyser, and working on a new collection of poems. She teaches at Hunter College of the City University of New York.


Note: The following is excerpted from an 18-page interview.

Fox: Where do you derive your inspiration for poems?


Levi: I think now from everywhere. Something else that struck me as very true that Muriel Rukeyser said—while I was working for her as her assistant and she was having difficulty writing I asked if I could take the poems in dictation, and she said, “No, the poems come down the arm.” And even in this age of computers, I really feel that, and I understood that; it comes somehow down the arm. And so I’m going to say that inspiration somehow comes down my arm from something that I’m not always aware of. But there are other things that I am aware of, have jotted down in my notebook, like a dry cleaners on our street. All the dry cleaners these days claim they’re “green” cleaners, so there’s one on my block with a sign in their window that says, “No planets were harmed here in the cleaning of your clothes,” and I’m wondering—how do they know? A poem might come out of that, or a line. And the other thing is, Rilke said you always have your childhood and so I continually find—inspiration’s a funny word to apply to that, but I find that I return to childhood; it’s a great mystery to me so I’m always returning. 


Fox: Your childhood itself, or its influence on you now?


Levi: Both.


Fox: What are some of the themes from your childhood that you really return to?


Levi: Partly it is the actual … I’m going to say about ten things. One, I’m going to say again the mystery of childhood. When we get older, it’s hard to know whether our memories are accurate or not, and so there’s that great mystery. Two, there’s the mystery of our parents’ lives and what they tell us about their lives and ours, and what their myths are of what they tell us. You totally—or I feel like I did totally as a child—accept that. And now I think families are the biggest mysteries—they’re the beginning of the NSA; they’re the National Secrecy Association. [Fox laughs] They’re small pockets of people collecting secrets and taking your secrets and twisting them and twisting theirs. The secrets in my family and even the revelations were not so profound, but I find myself returning to them. I’m second generation adopted, not orphaned, although that’s a kind of being orphaned. My mother was adopted by her aunt and uncle. Her parents died in the flu epidemic of 1918–19, when she was sixteen months old. And then my mother and father adopted both my brother and me, when we were infants. And I have stories about her family, and I would hear non-stories about my family because I was adopted in a different generation than my mother, and in the ’50s, the other family, the biological family, didn’t exist. They were erased. So there was that mystery. And then later I learned that my parents had adopted another child between my older brother and me. I didn’t know that until I was 24 and my mother was dying, and she told me there had been another child—but there was something wrong with the child and they gave him back. 


Fox: Whoa.


Levi: I never knew that. The child was adopted before I was, and I don’t think I would have been adopted by them if Jimmy had stayed. One of the mythologies about adoption that was really current in the ’50s was “I love you like my own child.” It’s rare, if you love your own child, that you give that child back. When you’re an adopted kid, once you learn it, you say things like, “If I’m bad, are you going to give me back?” I didn’t know I was touching a chord. So all these things fascinate me, and I guess it’s a way of saying that what’s true and what’s not fascinated me from a really young age.


Fox: Do you find that you made certain decisions as a child that got buried and then as an adult they start rearing their heads?


Levi: I guess so. I think we do things as a child and as a teenager and as a young person that we don’t even think of as decisions. It’s just, “This is what I’m doing, this is what I’m becoming, this is who I am.” And later on we do see it as a decision that was formative in some way. It’s hard for me to answer that question any further, so let’s go somewhere else and maybe we can come back to it.


Fox: Well, I realized when I was in my early twenties that I had made a decision in my teenage years to not be as smart as I am because I thought people didn’t like me because I was too smart. What I finally realized was that they didn’t like me because I was too much of a smart aleck. 


Levi: I see what you’re saying.


Fox: But I made a decision, you know, I just didn’t act too smart.


Levi: Right. And that was a question of your survival, because survival includes a need to be liked.


Fox: Yes.


Levi: Well, yes, I think I did that, like everybody. And some of them rightly and some of them wrongly and then they come back and you say to yourself, “Why have I been doing that for 40 years? Why have I been losing things for 40 years, why can’t I keep track of my papers, why can’t I keep track of the scissors?” And, in my case, it’s probably because my family was incredibly organized and that was my rebellion.


Fox: Ah!


Levi: So still I would say I spend half my life looking for things. 


Fox: That’s a good one. I’ll have to think about that, because my desk is always messy. Years ago I cleaned it up once, I kept it clean for nine months …


Levi: How did you keep it clean?


Fox: Force of will.


Levi: You mean you cleaned it at the end of the day?


Fox: Yes. And one day I left three papers on it, and I said, “Alan, this is the beginning of the end. Either take these three papers and put them away, or your desk will be back to the way it was,” and I said, “I’m not going to put those papers away.” [both laugh] I still haven’t really thought about what’s underneath that. 


When did you know you were a poet?


Levi: Lots of people say this, I’m sure, that they were always writing poems, poems and stories, but as to when I knew I was poet—I don’t think that concept was really even available to me until I went to college. I went to school in Wisconsin first, and then I dropped out because that’s what people did then, or that’s what I did then, and when I went back to school I went to Sarah Lawrence, which had this incredible creative writing program at the time; it was I think equivalent in some ways to what graduate programs are now. And there if you started taking poetry workshops other people would say, “Oh, you’re a poet,” like people who were taking dance classes were dancers, so the word got attached to me. Jean Valentine, who was one of my teachers, says she never called herself a poet, she just said she writes poems, and I feel a little bit of that too, you know—it’s an activity, it’s not a title.


Fox: How did you get the job with Muriel Rukeyser? 


Levi: I graduated from Sarah Lawrence, and I had beautiful teachers there, I was so lucky—Grace Paley was my advisor, Jean Valentine was my teacher; Jane Cooper was my teacher. One day, I was reading Field magazine, and I ran into Jane’s office and said, “Oh I just read these great poems by this guy Tom Lux.” She said, “Oh, he’s coming to teach here next semester.” And Tom became my teacher too. So there were fabulous people there. 


Jane Cooper was very good friends with Muriel—I call her Muriel now, I called her Mrs. Rukeyser most of the time I knew her. Right after graduating, I went off to work in publishing. Soon after that my mother died and I was working for one of those publishers that did bodice-rippers, so I said, “Life is too short for me to do this.” I’ve since realized that’s not really the issue, life is just very, very wide. I quit my job and Jane said to me, “Jan, Muriel needs an assistant. She’s been sick …” and of course she’d had a very severe stroke many years before. “She’s had a couple strokes, and she’s had eye surgery, and she needs an assistant.” I said to her, “If she’s too sick, Jane, I can’t,” because my mother had died maybe two weeks before. So Jane said, “Well, just go meet her.” 


I went to the door where she was living, and she opened the door—I’ve written about this—there was this sort of Sphinx-like monumental person with these very thin legs wearing a red bathrobe, sucking on a Rothman cigarette, and I looked at her, and I knew she was dying, and I knew I was going to work for her.


Fox: Wow.


Levi: So that’s how I met her. And I did work for her until her death.


Fox: I’m thinking that you go on your instinct a lot.


Levi: [laughs] Yes, I think so.


Fox: What good things have happened from doing that?


Levi: That. Both of my marriages. I’m still friends with my ex-husband and he’s a wonderful guy. In fact, he owns the restaurant where I’m having my book party tomorrow. And in fact, also, right after my mother died—Ken and I had been together for several years—the day after my mother died I called him and said, “Let’s get married,” and we did. I met Christoph, I’m embarrassed to say, at a writer’s colony—that’s the cliché, but I swear, never before had I ever, and I’d done my share of writer’s colonies. [Fox laughs] I just knew at a relatively early point that he and I were meant for each other, and once I knew I just knew, and there was no way around it. My poems I think, in the way I described, they’re written on instinct. I’m not so much a project poet, you know, as it’s developed in the last few years. What else have I done on instinct? Quit jobs, taken jobs, quit those jobs, tried drugs, given up drugs, smoked, stopped smoking. There are lots of other decisions in life—gone somewhere, taken a trip somewhere. One of the times I quit my job it was to—I looked in the bank account and saw how much money I had—it’s a very pitiful figure when I think about it right now but I said, “Well, I’m quitting my job and I’m going to travel, live in Italy for a year.” I didn’t quite do that, but spent nine months travelling around Italy and Spain.


Fox: It sounds like all that really was a way for you to expand your horizons as a person and be exposed to a variety of cultures.


Levi: I think so, but that sounds like I’m very brave, which I don’t necessarily think I am. I think I teach on instinct too, I mean, I always have a plan but the plan … I think I’m doing this interview on instinct. [laughs] 


Fox: Well, they say life is what happens while you’re making other plans. What was your working relationship with Muriel Rukeyser like, and how long was that?


Levi: It was eighteen months, and it was everything from taking letters and dictation to sometimes accompanying her to a reading, sometimes accompanying her to Grand Central Station because she was going to get on a train and go to a reading—it was unbelievable that she could get herself to a reading at that point in her life, her health was so compromised and yet she was so powerful at the same time. I would read mail to her. I remember at that time here we had something called CAPS grants, I think, which stood for Creative Artist Public Service, and I read those manuscripts to her. Her eyes were bad then, and so I would also take her poems when she was giving a reading to this place where they would be enlarged so that she could read them. And then some more intimate things when she got ill, and when she was having a bad patch. 


Fox: It sounds like you really care about people …


Levi: Of course. Of course. You go to be somebody’s assistant and you know their work—although I wasn’t the biggest fan of her work at the start; I liked some things and I didn’t like others. But she was a very kind person. She was very generous and very powerful, and also very much in need. I think anybody would want to help that person. 


Fox: It’s unusual for someone who’s powerful to also be in need. Was it difficult for her to accept help?


Levi: Well, yes, and she had a temper, too. I used to say, if her health hadn’t been so poor she would have killed me. She could be impatient; she could snap at me because maybe I was treating her as if she were old. And she wasn’t old; she died at 66—that’s young. I remember once I was working for her when Three Mile Island melted down. It was really scary, and there was also a meltdown in Harrisburg, or some leakage, and she was looking up the window of the apartment on 50th Street, and she kept saying she was in Pennsylvania, she was in Pennsylvania. She had moments of incredible lucidity and other moments when she, I think, answered to a higher authority. And I said, “Oh, Mrs. Rukeyser, why do you feel this is Pennsylvania?” And she said, “It’s not that I feel that it’s Pennsylvania, Jan, it is Pennsylvania, don’t use psychology on me.” [both laugh]


Fox: When and how did you come to really enjoy or respect her work as much as you do? 


Levi: While I was working for her, her Collected Poems came out—I just rediscovered this conversation recently in something I wrote when she died—I read the Collected beginning to end, and I was just amazed by it. She’s kind of like Ginsberg in her brilliance. There are individual brilliant poems, but there are little bits of brilliance in everything, all the way through. That was a big revelation for me. I came in to work and I said, “Mrs. Rukeyser, I read your whole book over the last few days, and it’s just amazing.” Her early work was really not read then. People were reading The Speed of Darkness and everything after the ’60s, but not so much her earlier work, and it was just amazing. So I told her that and she said, “Read them next year; they’ll be better.” And as I’ve been writing about her now I see, well, that’s true. 


Fox: How important is it for a poet to be recognized and appreciated when they write? 


Levi: In one way I don’t think it’s important at all. In one way I think that if we’re writing, that’s the thing we do, we have to do it, and you can’t let our sense of the value of that come from how it’s responded to by the press or by awards. In some ways I think it’s not important at all. Not as simply as we used to think of it, but in a complicated way, Emily Dickinson is an example of that. I truly believe that I don’t worry about whether I’m known or not. Because also in writing a biography of Rukeyser, which is what I’ve been doing for a long time, I can name a lot of poets who were very big in their time, and nobody reads them now, at least not to the extent that they used to. And these were times when nobody was looking at Rukeyser. So you never know what’s going to happen; you never know where your poems will go, especially in the age of the internet. You never know how your poems might end up in front of someone who finds them meaningful. And you never know how they’ll extend into the future. 


In another way, though, I think it’s very hard. It’s very hard for people to dedicate their lives to poetry, to have difficult careers and to be sidelined and marginalized. I don’t want to negate the psychological ramifications of that. In a way it was worse before than it is now, because in the world of poetry there are so many ways to reach people. There are so many ways to build a community now, of writers that read you, and there are so many schools—I think everybody has a better chance of finding an audience. 


Fox: It seems to me that one large purpose of poetry is to connect with human beings on a deeper level than in normal life. 


Levi: I absolutely agree with that. 


from Rattle #48, Summer 2015
Tribute to New Yorkers

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