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WHY POETRY? Reviews/Interviews with Poets #1

DONALD LEV, A Very Funny Fellow, NYQ Books, 2012

 Rebecca Schumejda
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 Rebecca Schumejda
WHY POETRY? Reviews/Interviews with Poets #1
by Rebecca Schumejda  FollowFollow
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Rebecca Schumejda is now on the pickle diet, so she can fit into her skinny jeans sometime in the next millennium. www.rebeccaschumejda.com
WHY POETRY? Reviews/Interviews with Poets #1
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I HAVE BEEN WRITING REVIEWS for a while now, sometimes Pro bono for small press publications, other times as compensated side jobs, but I have always felt hindered by guideline restrictions. Reviews have their relevance, but as an avid reader; I have never solely purchased a book because of a written review. This bothers me, so does the fact that there are so many amazing writers that do not get the attention that they deserve. All of this is building up to some sort of explanation, so please bear with me.
A few weeks ago, I was at a diner with a bunch of local, Hudson Valley, writers in the process of planning the annual Subterranean Poetry Fest at the Widow Jane's Mine in Rosendale, New York, this upcoming August. Anyway, I sat down next to Donald Lev, mainly because I have to admit that I just love the man. During the course of the meeting while ideas were being bounced around about all different ways to make this event “epic,” I became increasingly pensive about the solemn tone, as I perceived it. Granted,  I have anxiety issues and was nervous that they were going to ask me to do some sort of strange interpretive dance while poetry was being read. My stomach started to turn just like it did when I was in graduate school during those weird awkward silences in writing workshops before students began commenting on the work presented. At one point, I became so uneasy that I actually considered pretending to go to the bathroom then sneaking out the side door. Of course my imagination was going wild because the group of writers at the table, all of whom I have great admiration for, would never dream of making me do anything uncomfortable. Thankfully, Donald broke the tension when he began mumbling a bit about this and that, adding a few down-to-earth comments that calmed me down.
Anyway, I am writing this convoluted introduction to explain how Donald Lev actually inspired me to pursue this column and write about poetry on my own terms for Red Fez. I intended to review his new book A Very Funny Fellow (New York Quarterly Books, 2012) regardless, but I want to give him the respect that he deserves, not only for being an accomplished writer, but also for all of his contributions to the arts. I intend to do the same for other writers who inspire me. Ironically, the first question I asked Donald was: Why poetry? His response, “I don't have enough imagination to do anything else.” My thought was, bullshit Donald! In my life time, I hope as far as the arts are concerned, to achieve half as much as he has. And by the way, I will tell you right now, if you haven't already figured it out that I am writing this from some sort of bias; C'est la vie!

On the Eve of Friday the 13th, I invited Donald over for dinner, opened a bottle of white wine for myself and a bottle of red for him. I made meatloaf because I thought it was a safe choice; however later on when my husband ate some, he asked me if I thought his life insurance would pay out if they called it suicide by meatloaf. Oh well, Donald, most likely out of kindness, said it was “pretty good,” and yes, I am quoting him on that response. Anyway, let me give a little background on Donald, before I go on. Donald was born in New York City in 1936 and spent most of his life there until he bought a house with his wife, Enid Dame (1943-2003), in High Falls, New York in 1989. The couple traveled between the city and upstate until after Enid's passing when Donald ended up making High Falls his permanent residence. During our interview he referred to the Hudson Valley as a magical place, and I cannot agree with him more. Many of his poems, pay homage to the area, including one of my favorites in the collection. “BIRDSNEST” is a short piece that describes a bird' s nest, on the ground in front of his house, becoming visible as the snow melts, the last two, one-sentence, stanzas are brilliant: “Perhaps I should, haiku like, leave it at that./ A flawed symbol of spring.” With a gregarious chuckle, Donald confessed that when the snow disappeared the nest turned out to be a piece of a broken ceramic pot.
When Donald moved to the Hudson Valley, he brought Home Planet News (http://www.homeplanetnews.org), the literary independent review, with him. Founded in 1979 by Donald and Enid, Home Planet is a spin off a publication called Poets. Donald was the editor and Mike Devlin was the publisher. Donald invited Enid aboard, who he had met at the New York Poets Cooperative, because he knew that she had the organizational skills that other staff members lacked. Prior to Enid being aboard, Donald said, “I am actually surprised we ever got anything done because no one was ever sober.” Nevertheless, they did manage to publish five issues before Mike Devlin suddenly disappeared and Donald and Enid became a couple. Don't worry, Devlin did end up resurfacing eventually, but in the meantime, Donald and Enid bought an electronic typewriter and started work on their kitchen table. Donald named the publication after a bookstore that that he had owned in the Lower East Side during the 70's while he was working for The Village Voice. For awhile, Donald was also The Village Voice's semi-official poet for several years. Prior to Home Planet News, Donald founded HYN anthology in 1969.
In addition, Donald worked in the wire rooms of both The Daily News and The New York Times. He drove a taxicab for twenty years and when I asked him about this he mumbled something like God bless my soul. I didn't ask him to elaborate, as I felt that his initial reaction was enough. Donald not only played the role of the Poet in Robert Downey Sr.'s classic Putney Swope, but also wrote his own lines. Also, Donald enthusiastically supports poetry. He attends, supports and reads at countless events and treats all writers with the dignity that they deserve, even if he doesn't particularly like a writer's style. This trait makes him magnetic in the circles that he travels, whether he realizes it or not.
So, now let me talk a little more about the writing that Mr. “I don't have enough imagination to do anything else” does. In “ON THE EVE OF EARTH-DAY,” another short piece, Donald juxtaposes his day-to-day life with national events, a technique that he often utilizes successfully. He writes, “As locusts fell on Australia/ Icelandic volcanic ash/ fell on western Europe/ I stood on Highway 375/ approaching Woodstock/ surrounded by smoke emanating/ from under the hood of my stubbornly/ inert Ford Taurus.” The way that he ends this piece, in my humble opinion, is a testament to how he sees and celebrates life, “Such is the world and in some/ obscure way,/ I am grateful to be part of it.” It amazes me that his often laconic style can be so rich and witty. He does this again in “A Black Refrigerator” where he talks about historical events that occurred the day that he bought a black refrigerator, ending the piece with a word to the wise, “The point is, never buy a black refrigerator.”
The unique way that he delivers humor is captured in the title itself, which was part of a quote from a telephone conversation that he had with Marquerite Harris in 1971 when he volunteered, being the most dependable and mentally stable of the group, to give a ride to his roommates that were featured readers at an event hosted by Harris. Apologetically, she said to Donald, “You're a very funny fellow, but you are no poet.” That comment stayed with him for over forty years and when he decided on a title for the collection, A Very Funny Fellow was the perfect fit. I absolutely concur with the funny fellow part, but not the latter. Both Donald's story telling and poetry are memorable as seen in the poem “FEBRUARY 22nd,” where he compares his mother to George Washington, as they share birthdays and “They weren't pleasant people either of them./ George had those painful plates in his mouth./ My mother had a mouth.”  As the poem acknowledges, his mother gave him a unique personality, one that I must add transcends the page and comes to life.
A few years ago, I had a party at my house and I was sitting at my kitchen table with a bunch of people, some of which were poets, Donald being one of them. I have continually disagreed with Donald about the work of a particular poet that I admire greatly and Donald doesn't particularly like. Anyway, the poet's name came up and he said something and then I countered. God knows exactly what we were saying; I was, by that time, completely inebriated. So, one of the poets at the table said that the poet's work, in debate, was going to be translated and without skipping a beat, Donald said, “Well, I guess it would be pretty good in Portuguese.” You may have had to be there to get the full effect of his impecable delivery, but regardless his sharpness is part of his charm on and off the page.
Donald's poem, “DYLAN THOMAS IS THIS POET,” prompted me to ask him about how he writes. In the piece he writes, “ “Dylan Thomas is this poet,” my friend Charlie Barton/ told me (God, was it fifty years ago?), “who just got stinking/ drunk and wrote this great poetry.”/ That's for me, I thought. / Long afterwards I discovered/ Thomas only wrote when sober, two lines at a sitting,/ mostly hung over, then raced for his eye opener as soon/ as the pubs opened./ But the first myth was enough. I found my calling.” His response to my question was that he writes early, usually before having a drink. He said, “I like to make a sacred place before I begin to write. I count down from 100-0, kind of like a prayer or meditation, before I begin typing. When I was younger, I would make a cocktail roach, you know put a little pot in a camel cigarette, just a little, for inspiration. You know you go through phases. I don't think drinking has anything to do with my writing.”
His response was an impeccable segue into another question I had involving how his spirituality influences his writing. With titles like, “BAPTISM,” “THE SERPENT,” “EAST OF EDEN,” “GOD'S GIFT,” “THE BUDDHA,” “PASSOVER,” and my personal favorite, “GOD IS A RED PEANUT,” how could I not ask? In “GOD IS A RED PEANUT,” he says how in jest his “black protestant” atheist friend said that, “God is a red Peanut,” then goes on to say, “But I just heard at a poetry reading--/I awkwardly don't remember the/ identity of either the poet or the poem-- /that the Aztecs saw God imbedded in a pea,/ and could not conceive of the notion of a/ God Who is everywhere. He said that, “religion is buried in the human psyche, no matter what.” To shorten a lengthy conversation, he discussed the inspirational aspects of Transcendentalism, said that he admired the Unitarian faith because of its tolerance, and the Roman Catholic for its poetry. He believes in the God of Israel. Needless to say, he is not actively practicing any one religion, but summed it up when he told me that, “I believe in the religion of poetry.” He does, however, still consider himself Jewish and wishes to be buried alongside his parents and soul mate Enid Dame.
Family isn't necessarily a common theme in Donald's work, but some of the pieces that I admired most in this collection touch upon the familial. The sarcastic tone of his piece “FAMILY IS EVERYTHING” greatly contrasts with poems like “LINES IN WINTER” where he tenderly pays respect to Enid and how much he misses her, the last stanza ties up the piece nicely, “Something's vanished. / Nothing has taken its place.” His gruff satire is lovingly countered with crisp sentiment. Although it is difficult for me to pick a favorite poem, I believe that “MY FATHER” resonates most with me. Donald talks in detail about seeing his father on a fishing trip then ends the piece with, “I never saw him bait a hook, yet he might have; I was never there to see.” This is only one example of this uncanny ability to conclude poems causing a haunting effect.
A Very Funny Fellow is an excellent collection and available through amazon, Barnes and Nobles, SPD, and Powell's Books. You can check out more of New York Quarterly Books at http://nyqbooks.org/  including a lovely tribute to Enid Dame titled for Enid, With Love, edited by Barry Wallenstein.

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