Dana Levin, Zacharis Award
Ploughshares is pleased to present Dana Levin with the tenth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for her collection of poems,
In the Surgical Theatre (APR). The $1,500 award -- which is named after Emerson College's former president -- honors the best debut book by a
Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between poetry and fiction. This year's judge was the poet John Skoyles, who is a
Ploughshares trustee and the chair of Emerson's writing department.
Dana Levin was born in 1965 in Los Angeles and grew up in the high-desert town of Lancaster, California. "Tumbleweeds, alfalfa farmers, and aerospace engineers," Levin describes it. The family was active in Lancaster's tiny Jewish community, the rabbi coming often for Shabbat dinner, and during his visits, he played word games with Levin, her two sisters, her father, who was an attorney, and her mother, who sold real estate. Language was central and important in the Levin household, where the women once almost came to blows over the proper use of the word
Levin's teachers also pushed her toward reading and writing. "In the eleventh grade," she says, "my English teacher, Mr. DuPratt, assigned a poem to each student in the class to write a college-level lit-crit paper on. I got
The Wasteland! Took it home and read it, aghast. The next day I asserted the absolute impossibility of understanding the poem, to which DuPratt gave me very simple advice: 'Find a single image, and trace it throughout the poem. That will tell you a lot.' My first intro to close reading."
Other influential teachers included Barry Sanders, Levin's undergraduate mentor at Pitzer College, and later Charles Simic, with whom Levin informally studied from 1987 to 1990 while living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and working at a video store. "Charlie was incredibly generous with his time. I showed up at his office at UNH one day out of the blue, knocked on his door. He brusquely invited me in. I said, 'I don't want to go to school here, I've already been to school, but I was wondering if you would work with me on my poems.' He stared at me a few seconds -- I must have seemed quite audacious -- and then ran down a list of all these other classes I could take with other instructors. When he was finished I looked at him and said, 'But what if I want to study with you?' He leaned back in his chair and blinked and said, 'Okay.' "
After three years Simic convinced Levin to go to graduate school at NYU ("Every poet should live in New York," he said), and she enrolled in the master's program in 1990, working with Philip Levine, Gerald Stern, and Galway Kinnell. "Galway was an amazing workshop leader -- insightful, firm, kind. By example, he taught me how to teach." Most of Levin's post-graduate employment has been as an instructor, from teaching English to Russian refugees in Manhattan to lecturing on art history to seniors in Burlington, Vermont, where she lived from 1994 to 1997. "I've taught poetry in my living room, in classrooms, community centers, you name it."
Levin's first real publication was in
Ploughshares in 1992. "I remember vividly how hard I worked on that poem, like a constant shaping of clay. It was quite a wonderful surprise when
Ploughshares accepted it. It was the only poem I'd put in the envelope." Yet over the next three years she would be able to publish only one more poem -- in
Ploughshares again. Finally, in 1995, she saw an ad for a new magazine out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, called
Countermeasures, and she submitted "In the Surgical Theatre's Personal History," which she admits now was "an impossible poem to publish -- six pages long, surreal, graphic." Jon Davis, co-editor of the magazine with Greg Glazner, called Levin personally to accept it. "Jon said, 'You're that poet we've been looking for!' And indeed Greg and Jon saved me from all-consuming discouragement -- they supported my work unequivocally. For the next two years,
Countermeasures was the only magazine that would publish me." Levin was also hired by Glazner to teach in the creative writing program at The College of Santa Fe, where she is now an assistant professor.
Since 1997, Levin's work has appeared in magazines such as
Boston Review, APR, VOLT, Prairie Schooner, and, again,
Ploughshares. Furthermore, she has received a Pushcart Prize and an NEA fellowship. In 1999, her collection,
In the Surgical Theatre, was chosen by Louise Glück for the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. The book has gone on to receive the Witter Bynner Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Prize.
In the Surgical Theatre for
Ploughshares, Susan Conley wrote: "The poems move swiftly and seamlessly from the literal drama of the operating room -- its stark lights and surgical knives -- to the larger domestic theater of family abuse and emotional bloodletting. . . . The 'future of the body' is in question here, and the rich symbolism of this corporeal and spiritual investigation supports this volume in a complex architecture."
John Skoyles, in choosing the collection for the Zacharis Award, added: "The poems contain a true linguistic originality, a freshness and oddness of language that is constantly surprising, going beyond all expectations, building a world within each poem, phrase by stunning phrase. There is a touch of the macabre in the book that comes from Levin's unyielding gaze into human nature, its spiritual and physical aspects. These poems are fully realized, dramatic pieces, intelligent, emotional, and visceral."
In the Surgical Theatre grew out of Levin's time at NYU, doing work-study in the slide library and projection booths of the Institute of Fine Arts. "I fell in love with fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Netherlandish religious painting, with its enameled surfaces, clear boundaries around each object, its detailed attention to things. It was the numinosity of the spiritual coupled with the literally brilliant renditions of the everyday world that drew me. I was also fascinated by the impassive expressions angels and religious figures wore in the paintings, so at odds with the intense stories of suffering, ecstasy, and revelation the paintings told. I went back again and again to the images. One day it hit me: the angels looked like scientists! That was that. I wrote a poem -- later abandoned -- called 'The Autopsy,' where the angels were lifting the soul out of a dying man."
As the poems for
In the Surgical Theatre developed, Levin began to move beyond the pain of the body to psychological and societal suffering. "I began to see that my obsession with suffering was really compelled by trying to understand why we experience it, how to heal through it. In such a televised, narcotized culture as our own, with its many material distractions, we tend to gloss over our own pain, explain or medicate it away -- or exploit it, à la TV talk shows. Either way, suffering is not really felt and integrated, but rather avoided or inflated. But suffering is a great teacher. Feeling it and moving through it is intensely resurrective."
Levin is currently at work on a second manuscript called