Alumna’s new film examines the life and work of influential poet and professor Larry Levis
November 8, 2016
When Michele Poulos came to Virginia Commonwealth University in 2005 to pursue a creative writing M.F.A. in fiction, she did not know much about the poet Larry Levis, a former VCU faculty member who had died in 1996 at age 49. She had read a handful of his poems but was unaware of his biography or wide-ranging influence at VCU and on contemporary poetry. Soon, however, she began to hear stories about him. She met his former colleagues and students and heard the admiration and love in their voices. She began to read more of his poetry, which she found powerful. She even dreamed about him.
One night, while Poulos slept, a voice urged her to make a film about Levis. Poulos, who had studied film at New York University as an undergraduate student, resisted at first. It was a voice in a dream, after all, and she knew the filmmaking process would be arduous and long. However, she could not shake the idea, which was bolstered by the formidable presence that Levis continues to maintain in the English department in the College of Humanities and Sciences years after his death.
Eventually, Poulos deferred to the voice’s wishes and fully embraced the project. The result is “A Late Style of Fire,” a feature-length documentary that debuted in October at the prestigious Mill Valley Film Festival in the San Francisco Bay area. The film had its Virginia premiere in November as part of the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville.
“A Late Style of Fire” is the product of five years of hard work by Poulos and a team of contributors, including many with ties to VCU. For the film, Poulos traveled around the country to interview Levis’ family and friends, as well as a remarkable ensemble of some of America’s most renowned poets, including Philip Levine (who has since died), Charles Wright, Carolyn Forché, David St. John, Carol Muske-Dukes, Norman Dubie, Colleen McElroy, Gerald Stern, Stanley Plumly and VCU professors Kathleen Graber, David Wojahn and Gregory Donovan. Poulos herself is a poet whose first collection, “Black Laurel,” was published this year. The film features an original score by Iron and Wine, the stage and recording name of accomplished singer-songwriter Sam Beam, a former VCU student.
The impressive cast of characters signifies the enduring respect Levis’ fellow poets hold for him and his work. Levis, who taught at VCU for six years, published five poetry collections and a book of short stories. His work appeared in publications such as the American Poetry Review, the Southern Review, Field and the New Yorker. His poetry grew increasingly ambitious as he aged, achieving “an almost symphonic breadth,” Wojahn said in 2010 before a conference at VCU about Levis’ life and work, all the while confronting “the dark elements of human existence.” Already highly regarded in life, Levis’ reputation and influence has only grown since his death, achieving a cult-like following — “In the best sense of the word,” Wojahn said.
Levis’ continued presence at VCU is more than just an ethereal one. The English department presents an annual national poetry award, the Levis Reading Prize, in his memory, and VCU Libraries is the home of the Levis Collection, which includes his personal library, a number of personal items and 15 linear feet of literary manuscripts. VCU Libraries is a sponsor of the Levis Prize.
Among Poulos’ closest collaborators on the film was Donovan, a longtime member of the English faculty at VCU and Levis’ friend and colleague. Donovan served as producer. Poulos and Donovan, who are now married, are editing a book-length manuscript collecting the rich assortment of interviews they conducted.
VCU News spoke to Poulos and Donovan about Levis and the making of the film.
Can you talk about the impetus for making this film?
Poulos: I really connected with Levis’ poetry and still do. There is a poem of his called “Winter Stars,” and I’ve been reading his work for 10 years, made a film about him, met his family and friends and mentors, and I still get very emotional and teary every time I read “Winter Stars.” It’s a poem that is primarily about his relationship with his father, and I, of course, can’t help but think about my father when I read it. His work really does move me.
My connection to his work was one of the main things that inspired this, but also it was realizing I was in this literary community and becoming more and more aware that I didn’t want the stories I heard about this person to be lost. I did one of the last interviews with the poet laureate Philip Levine, who was Larry’s teacher and mentor, before he died, and that was really heartbreaking for me because he was one of the people I really wanted to see this film. He and Larry were lifelong friends and brothers in poetry. So there was this awareness that the people who had been really close to Larry were getting older and I wanted to capture those stories while I could.
What has been the response to the project?
Poulos: When I was just starting it, I kept telling myself, “I’m not really doing this. I’m conducting interviews but I’m not really making this.” That changed when I started the Kickstarter to help fund the film. I started hearing back from Levis fans all over the country who were excited about it. They were donating their money, telling me their stories. They couldn’t wait for the film. That’s when I thought, “Oh, no. I’m really doing this now.”
When I went to Arizona State [to pursue an M.F.A. in poetry] and people heard I was making a film about Larry Levis, they wanted to meet me and talk to me about him. He’s got so many huge fans. I would go around the country and would run into people who were really excited to hear about my connection with him. He goes far beyond being a local hero.
Donovan: It’s clear a lot of people have been waiting for this film. It really is a tremendous celebration for Michele and for me and for anyone who cares about poetry and about the work of Larry Levis.
How open were Levis’ friends and family to speaking about him for the film?
Donovan: Naturally, people are protective of their dear friend, but they trusted Michele. She’s a poet, too, and a charming interviewer. She knew many of the principals involved. Doors kept opening that had formerly been closed.
Poulos: It felt like people no longer felt as though they needed to protect his reputation. They could finally give up being a custodian for Larry. And I felt like 20 years had passed since he died and people were more free to talk about things they really thought about what was going on in his life.
Donovan: Their portraits were still loving and caring and positive but at the same time they were honest and fully considered.
Did you find that there was a thread that connected the memories of the people you interviewed about the way they felt about Levis?
Poulos: A lot of them did echo some of the same qualities about him. They all mentioned his sense of humor, and they all mentioned the fact that he was oddly double jointed. Everybody mentioned that, in fact. And the way that he would hold his hands was something they all mentioned. They also all seemed to mention that they were worried for him. A lot of his close friends and family saw the downward slope he was on. Philip Levine even says in the film that he tried to intervene when he saw that he was acting recklessly. Others said they tried to intervene, too. Some others expressed regrets that they hadn’t.
Were there moments or other components of making this film that surprised you?
Poulos: There were some stories that were revealed in the story that I had never heard and was quite shocked to learn about.
Donovan: I was learning new things all along. Going to his childhood farm was very revealing and sad. It became about the death of his family farm, which was known as the Ranch. The Levis family was among the original settlers of Central California. In that way, this wasn’t just Larry’s story. He was part of a larger story.
Those California landscapes were central to him. That’s something he said in essays, that the landscape he returned to again and again in his poetry and in his imagination was the landscape of the Central California of his childhood.
At the core of this film is an exploration of Levis’ devotion to his work and the sacrifices that were a part of that. Why was that important to address?
Donovan: The work of Larry Levis manages to be both philosophical and hard-hitting and sophisticated and full of generosity toward people who are marginalized. He grew up among Mexican-American field hands and that and his Catholic upbringing taught him and encouraged him to have a generous spirit toward other people. In the film, Gerald Stern refers to him as a caregiver. A caregiver takes on the burden of others. Larry was willing to take the risks of being generous toward others in his life and in his work and he also took risks to make sure he was fully committed to his art. As the film’s description asks, “Are self-destructive impulses necessary for a serious life of art?” The film raises that question and allows many different people to give their answers. And it doesn’t come up with an easy answer itself.
Poulos: In fact, it doesn’t come up with an answer at all.
Donovan: Phil Levine’s comments in the film are central as he discusses that balance between destructive impulses and the impulses affirming life. He felt that Larry put himself in the heart of that tension because it was necessary for his writing.
How did Sam Beam of Iron and Wine get involved?
Donovan: One of Michele’s teachers at Arizona State was the poet Norman Dubie. He and Larry were close friends at Iowa — Larry and Dubie and David St. John were all at Iowa at the same time. After Larry’s death, Dubie and St. John interested themselves in the legacy of Larry. Not just out of friendship but out of respect for his work. Respecting Larry’s work really is a way of respecting poetry itself. So one of Norman Dubie’s big fans is Sam Beam, and Dubie facilitated Michele being able to reach out to him. Beam was enthusiastic right from the start.
Poulos: [Beam] was absolutely incredible. He was already a fan of Larry Levis and just a huge fan of poetry. “Ghost on Ghost” [the title of Beam’s fifth album] was taken from a James Wright poem, and he’s cited poets like Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, Wright, Dubie and John Berryman as influences. He was totally on board and wrote an entire album, 11 songs. Nobody’s heard them before. So people are really interested in the music. When we’ve had sneak peaks, people have always asked, “Can I buy the music?”
“A Late Style of Fire” highlights selections of Levis’ poetry throughout. How challenging was it to integrate his work itself into the film?
Donovan: One of the things that we’ve noticed about most documentaries about poets is that they don’t actually feature their poetry. Michele’s film provides a fully dimensional look at what it takes to be an artist, but most prominently it features the actual words of Larry Levis through his poetry.
Poulos: The structuring of the film was the most difficult part of the whole project, including figuring out how much poetry to include and where to include it. I really struggled with that. The poems that ended up in the film were chosen after the essential themes of the film were pulled. We started with 200 hours of film and whittled that down to seven hours and then chunked that into loose themes like childhood, the work itself and relationships. From there, I went through the work, the poems, and I pulled portions of the poems that were somehow related, whether through an image or through the music or through the language. I was pulling out poems to speak to the themes that we’d selected.
How big a role did VCU play in this film?
Poulos: There were all kinds of people at VCU who were critical. We borrowed equipment from the Department of English and the Robertson School of Media and Culture, who were very generous. Tripods, cameras, battery packs, microphones. VCU Libraries offered many kinds of helpful assistance, including crucial support from Cabell Libraries Special Collections and Archives and from the great people at Innovative Media. People have been incredibly helpful. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the film would not be what it is — it might not even exist — without VCU’s help.
I enjoyed the experience of being in the Levis archives. The library is my home away from home. I enjoyed the people over there so much. They were so helpful, as was the collection itself.
A version of this article by Tom Gresham was published by VCU News.