INTERVIEW WITH JUDY KATZ-LEVINE
by Holly Guran
HERE IN THE ROOM
"you could be anywhere. but you're here in the room. don't turn your back. wait. there are possibilities still with us."
from "Mortality", the opening poem in Judy's recent collection, When Performers Swim, the Dice Are Cast.
When did you begin writing poetry? Can you identify what motivated you?
As a child I was surrounded by loving, dynamic, creative individuals. My mother loved to read, and I believe I was
inspired by her to become a writer. I began writing in an elementary school class with a Mrs. Lingren who wrote
children's books, and I met the writer Ilo Orleans in her class. So I began writing in elementary school and remember
doing a lot of drawing, flute-playing, and running and swinging on vines. I was a very active as a child in the
landscape of an intensely creative family: my grandmother for instance played classical and stride piano at all our
family gatherings; and my brother, cousins and I always performed; my father was a very sensitive man with a great
sense of humor and a flair for art. Both parents had stunning, vibrant, theatrical personalities. My father was a
map-maker during WWII. My brother Paul played piano starting at age four, and we would sometimes play music together.
My brother Larry is an athlete and inspires with his grace. So the music and family life around and inside of me
inspired my poetry even at an early age.
How do you integrate writing into a daily life filled with other demands?
I am an extremely determined person. I swing between being emotionally supportive of family members, doing household chores,
being an office support for my husband's acupuncture business, and taking care of other family obligations, and creating poetry
and music. I attempt to do this with fluidity which has been enhanced by meditation and tai chi. I will attend to a chore
or emotional situation, then return to a deeper mode of writing poetry with great intensity. I do not let anything stop me
and have written under some very trying circumstances.
You've talked about studying with Denise Levertov. How did she influence your work? What was her style of teaching?
Denise was a great force and river of influence in my writing life. I know her work extremely well, and have read and reread her
collected poems, books such as The Freeing Of the Dust, Tesserae, Life in the Forest, and The Sorrow Dance, over and over again.
She emphasized an organic approach to writing poetry, with the poem growing out of an intense impulse to create, rather than an
academic exercise. Although, I have often favored the prose poem due to my study of French in college, she emphasized an organic
line. She also had spiritual gifts, and would often use an I/thou approach, gleaned from the philosophy of Martin Buber, in her
poetry and in working with people. She had a beautiful, spiritual gaze. As a teacher, Denise emphasized friendship and community,
and especially at the time I studied with her was involved in protesting the war in Vietnam. She at that time freely gave me books
to read, such as the works of Jules Supervielle, and paintings by Zen masters preserved in books, and once cooked me a currant pie.
She had her poet friends over for dinner and favored a spontaneous form of teaching, with great honesty and musicality placed in high
regard in the poem. "A Tree Telling of Orpheus" is one poem of hers which celebrates musicality in poetry.
What other poets have impacted your writing significantly?
As a poet, I have a great variety of influences, and look for startling images, clear and simple language, and intense emotional
force, in the writings of other poets. Therefore, I have loved the work of Neruda, Lorca, Levertov, her friend Muriel Rukeyser,
too, the Zen poet Ryokan, Blake, Vasko Popa, Paul Celan, Rodnoti, Yannis Ritsos, Rilke., Georg Trakl, and I have to say that jazz
has been "A Love Supreme" (to quote John Coltrane) and formative for my poetry.
I also like mystical poems of Tagore, the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and the Tales of the Chassidim by Martin Buber.
How did growing up in New Jersey play a role in your work? Are there other themes growing out of your family, your beliefs,
your personal struggles, that you identify as important?
My father was an insurance agent in New Jersey. I saw him struggle with his career, and knew I wanted to build on his struggles
and open my life to the world of art. He was a creative man caught in a hard business. Though my family wasn't very religious,
I always have had mystical leanings which I associate with my early childhood in New Jersey. The landscape of forsythia in spring,
for example, brought on a formative mystical experience at age four. William Carlos Williams, also from New Jersey, in the
books Paterson and Kora from Hell, also inspires a love of place, in this case New Jersey, in my work.
I actually have always struggled with my health to some degree since age twelve when I was diagnosed with an auto-immune
disease of the thyroid gland. This awareness that life ís precious has made me very wary of using my time in any way that
is not creative and positive. I have other health issues, too, and have had to work hard to maintain my energy to be a
positive influence on our son and in my marriage, and believe also in the development of profound friendships as part of
a writer's life.
How do you approach publishing your work?
Denise Levertov supported funding for my first chapbook, The Umpire, and Other Masks. Firefly Press published two chapbooks,
Carpenter and Tending. I self published Speaking With Deaf-Blind Children and it was very successful. I had a grant which
helped to support the funding for my first full-length collection, When the Arms of Our Dreams Embrace. This a was
collaborative venture in nature, and I helped to distribute the books for that one, and also for my recent collection
Ocarina. The publisher also distributed and publicized the books. My newest chapbook, When Performers Swim, the
Dice Are Cast with Ahadada books, is also collaborative in nature, meaning that the publisher helps to distribute the
books and provides some funding, or subscribers volunteer funding. In these times, I have been very fortunate to be able
to continue to publish my work via the small press, internet, and magazines such as Salamander, The Sun, The Bitter Oleander,
and Origin 2008. My friend and publisher Drew Stroud (Saru Press) who had a stroke about a year and a half ago, tragically,
was instrumental in publishing Ocarina and When the Arms of Our Dreams Embrace, and I am indebted to him for his guidance.
Do you experience writer's block? If so, what do you do to move away from it?
I actually do not experience writer's block. If I have trouble, I play music, the blues or a simple jazz piece, then return
to writing. I play jazz flute almost daily, and it inspires deep moods. I am very disciplined, and try to get something
down on paper every day.
What advice would you offer writers who are at the beginning of their writing lives?
I think any aspiring writer should first acknowledge to herself/himself that she/he has something special and unique to
contribute as a writer. Roots are important, as Isaac Singer emphasized at a conference I once attended. Also, read
voraciously. Discipline is a hidden must, and mystery.
Holly Guran, author of River Tracks, and Judy Katz-Levine have worked together for many years and have collaborated on a
series of pantoums. They know each other's work well.