Everything is Required: A Normal Interview with Michele Poulos by Ronald Dzerigian
In her poem, “The Golden Age of Herbalists,” Michele Poulos writes: “…alone in the meadow, he knew everything / he caught sight of was in the dying / and would die before he would, yet he held / in his hands a garden. …”
Before she had chosen to direct a documentary on the late poet Larry Levis, her work already carried with it an understanding of our brevity in this world. In the new film A Late Style of Fire, Poulos paints a lyrical portrait of Levis—a native of California’s great central valley, who died in 1996 of a heart attack at 49—in a way that leaps beautifully from image to word to recollection. She accomplishes, in the film, an aesthetic reflective of Levis’ poems—an acceptance of loss, the profundity of the ordinary, and the knowledge that we live parallel with the dream. This is an accomplishment to be noted, especially in a debut filmmaking feature.
Poulos mentions: “Writing and revising poetry was great training for (her) editing of the film, and vice versa.” Thanks to the efforts of Poulos and her collaborators, we earn further entry into the area inhabited by Levis—a place where verse, what Philip Levine referred to as “the impossible art of poetry,” lives hand-in-hand with a farm boy from Selma, California. The film saw its world premiere in October at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and it has also played at the Virginia Film Festival. A Late Style of Fire makes its Central California premiere on Nov. 18 in Fresno.
Michele Poulos is an award-winning poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker. She earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from Arizona State University as well as her MFA in fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University. It was in Richmond, VA where she encountered the lingering influence of Larry Levis, which has remained since his passing. Black Laurel, her first full-length collection of poems, was published in March 2016.
Ronald Dzerigian: Your film premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 15. What was it like to share the movie for the first time with a big audience?
Michele Poulos: To be honest, I was terribly nervous the night of the world premiere because I’d never seen the film on a big screen before. Weeks earlier, I’d sent off an enormous electronic file of the film to have the “digital cinema package” (DCP) created by a company in California—and that was the version of the film we saw that night. It was literally my first time seeing the film in that format, so I was quite terrified that we’d find an error or a glitch or something. So, while I loved seeing it with full surround sound and with distinct visual clarity, I was still all white knuckles and short breaths.
Plus, earlier in the day, I’d met our film’s composer, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, for the first time. He had not seen the completed film before that night, and so I was very nervous about his reaction—another thing to worry over. Then of course there were all the other layers of terror including meeting family members of Levis for the first time, meeting famous poets and writers, and on and on. But setting aside all that terror, it was a deeply enjoyable, amazing experience!
RD: Were there any significant reactions from those people in the audience who had experienced Levis and his poetry for the first time through your film?
MP: The questions we fielded during the Q&A session were all quite sophisticated. I realized there had to be some writers in the audience because they asked questions such as: How did you determine what sections of poems to include in the film, and how did you structure the film? Perhaps one of my favorite statements responding to the film was from a woman who simply said, “That was the most profound film I’ve ever seen.” A number of people admitted to having never heard of Levis before, and one viewer sent me an email a few days after the premiere and thanked me by saying, “It was great to be introduced to Larry’s poetry—I’m amazed and somewhat chagrined that I’d never encountered his work before.”
RD: How did you decide how much, or how little, of Levis’ poetry you would include in this film?
MP: When we began editing, I thought I’d try to impose a structure on the film: I’d include three entire poems, featuring one at the beginning, middle, and end. However, once I really started to look at what we had, that structure felt too artificial, too forced. In the end, the sections of poems we selected for inclusion were all determined by the themes that had emerged during the interviews and the later editing process.
I had spoken with some of America’s greatest poets, and so naturally I took my lead from them when I could, and I let their astute comments guide the shape and structure of the film. For example, several of Levis’ friends brought up his wonky relationship to money. Poet Gerald Stern mentioned that “he gave all his money away.” Mary Flinn, Senior Editor of the journal Blackbird, said, “We used to laugh because he thought he had money so long as there were checks in the checkbook.” Those remarks led me to include a section of the poem “Some Ashes Drifting Above Piedra, California” from the book The Dollmaker’s Ghost: “We will never have any money, either, / And we will go on staring past the sink, / Past the curtain, / And into a field which is not even white anymore, / Not even an orchard, / But simply this mud, / And always, / Over that, a hard sky.”
In the end, I think we used selected lines from twenty-two poems. The intention is that the film whets one’s appetite for poetry itself, and the viewer will go buy, and read, a book of poetry—by Levis, of course, or by anyone.
RD: I feel that your film carefully addresses the tumult of Levis’ life in a caring and considerate way while maintaining honesty. Did you find that identifying and maintaining this delicate balance to be challenging?
MP: It was very challenging. A balance was absolutely essential to me because, first of all, many of Levis’ relatives and friends are alive. His son is alive, as are all of his siblings, so I not only needed their approval to green-light the film, but I needed their involvement, enthusiasm, support, and guidance. No one knew some of the details about Levis better than his family, and they needed to be totally on board. So, some of the darker themes revealed in the film—his drug use, for instance—needed to be handled as delicately and sensitively as possible.
On the other hand, I’m a filmmaker, and I would prefer a large, general audience to see the film, not simply a specialized one, and so the film also needed to be entertaining and full of energy and passion. There’s a moment in the film where we see Levis’ death certificate, which lists the cause of his death. We intentionally show that image over the voice of David St. John who says, “It would be easy to say, and highly romantic to say, that, like the great rock stars that we love, that the whole idea of live fast, die young, die young, stay pretty would be fitting of Larry, but it’s not true. …” Painful and rather shocking information is being delivered, and yet that delivery is coupled with an argument that perhaps softens the blow, or at least offers a counterbalancing perspective.
RD: In an interview for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, you mentioned that the idea for your film came from a voice in a dream that stated that you would “make a film about Larry Levis.” So much of Levis’ work takes the reader into the dream-state. Tell us more about your dream.
MP: The idea for the film came to me in a dream I had in 2009. I was already a fan of the poetry of Larry Levis when I moved to Richmond, Virginia in 2005 to study in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. Levis had been a faculty member there until his untimely death in 1996. You couldn’t walk down the street without bumping into someone who had known Levis—or even seeing graffiti about him—and the stories people told were fascinating, as savory and tangled as his poems. Hearing about the man behind the poems, I began to wonder why there was no comprehensive biography about this artist of such tremendous talent and reach. It was at that point I had the dream—and in it, a disembodied male voice told me I was to create a film that would have the excitement and artistic quality of the work of the man himself.
RD: You are the author of two collections of poetry: Black Laurel (Iris Press, 2016) and the chapbook A Disturbance in the Air (Slapering Hol Press, 2012). I’ve looked closely at your poems “The Golden Age of Herbalists” and “Lures” and feel that your poems share a lyrical kinship with Levis’ work. Did you feel that, while making this film, you could have been in dialogue with him—perhaps, even, through visual verse?
MP: Thank you for the compliment about seeing a lyrical kinship between my poetry and that of Levis. When I made the film, especially when filming in California where Levis grew up, I felt as though I were in a heightened state of awareness or existence, and part of what made me feel fine-tuned to the landscape and environment and people we interviewed was Levis’ poetry. I very intentionally went to California having fully absorbed his words (poetry and essays) so that I could try and capture the essence of what I imagined had nurtured him and still held him.
One of the more obvious obsessions Levis had were horses, and every time we saw a horse while driving, I yelled at our producer to pull the car over, and the cinematographer then ran out with the camera rolling. But more than capturing an image, I was really going for a tone or a temperature. For example, during the opening sequence, there’s a shot of a house on a hill, and we see heat waves undulating up from the road below. There’s nothing specific connecting the house to Levis himself, but the heat waves make the scene appear almost magical or otherworldly and that visionary effect reflects, I think, a quality to be found in his poems.
RD: Some viewers see your film as a lyrical telling of Levis’ story. Do you feel that poetry can inform us when making a film?
MP: The arts, for me, feed one another. Writing and revising poetry was great training for my editing of the film, and vice versa, though it’s true that poetry, as Norman Dubie states in the film, was “there when we were dressed in furs and carrying fire on our backs” and thus poetry greatly predates cinema.
Film nevertheless continues to employ a number of techniques that I can find in poems that are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years old. For example, in a poetry workshop, Tom Sleigh read a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost (originally published in 1667). In Book IX, there’s a passage where the serpent approaches Eve. The syntax embodies the divided mind of the serpent as well as the process of the mind as it experiences division, and this effect is created not only by word choice, but also in the way the words are placed vertically up and down the page. That combined effect creates a lot of tension that is similar to editing in filmmaking, where one can experience quick cuts between scenes that ratchet up the emotional impact. In addition, punctuation acts like the focusing mechanism of a camera: commas and semi-colons create anticipation and suspend action and tension as the serpent moves through the grass, and the focus of the “lens” moves up and down the serpent’s body, from his “circular base of rising folds” to his carbuncle-colored eyes. It’s a wonderful poem to study as a filmmaker; it instructs as well as entertains.
One of my favorite filmmakers, Werner Herzog, creates films that strike me as visually realized poems, exhibiting the same sort of psychological sensitivity, instinctive intelligence, aesthetic sophistication, informing insight, and casual genius that I find in the poetry of Larry Levis. Great art inspires great art, and all great works of art have in common characteristics that result in our being fascinated, delighted, assaulted, and amazed.
RD: Herzog certainly comes to mind when I consider a direct relationship between film and poetry. I hope he eventually gets a chance to see your film!
Out of personal curiosity, did you write any poems during or after the making of this film? If so, how do you feel about those poems?
MP: I wrote very little during the editing of the film, but I have written some poems since we finished editing. (I worked with a brilliant editor from Costa Rica named Gloriana Fonseca Wills.) My newer poems are a bit more experimental. Editing the film gave me permission to take even more chances than I’d already taken writing and editing poetry.
In documentary filmmaking, the shaping of a story really takes place in the editing room, so there’s a necessity for play and experimentation. If you’re uncomfortable with not knowing what the outcome of your project is going to be until the bitter end, then documentary filmmaking might not be for you. I’d say that I’ve taken those lessons with me back to writing poetry; I’ve learned to embrace, as Keats would say, “being in uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts.”
RD: What advice would you give to independent filmmakers beginning their first project?
MP: Choose your idea very carefully, especially if you’re making a documentary, because you’ll be living with that material for a very long time. Make sure your idea will sustain you over the course of one, two, even ten years. After that, make sure that both the audio and visual elements get equal attention. A lot of first-time filmmakers forget about the importance of good audio. Finally, try to make as much time as possible free for working on your film, even if that means giving up your apartment to rent a room with a friend so you can work “the day job” a little less. Filmmaking requires a lot of time, and money, but that’s another question.
RD: What do you want people—who are or aren’t familiar with Levis’ work—to glean from A Late Style of Fire?
MP: I hope the audience walks away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of poetry, especially Levis’ poetry. The film is really an introduction to the work itself, and I hope people go buy a book and read the poems with enthusiasm and with a feeling that they know something about how to engage with that reading. I hope viewers make their own connections between the life and the work, and discover how one informs the other. This will be one of the most exciting aspects of the film for viewers, I believe: to see where the life and the poems blend and dissolve and reflect and refract one another.
Also, the film serves as a kind of argument for the importance and necessity not only of poetry, but also of the arts more generally. In the film, Norman Dubie states that, “When nations become privileged, they suddenly have a tolerance for the arts, and they support the arts.” I also think artists of any kind will find something meaningful and quite challenging in it. The film sails right into the question: “What is required of those who make a serious commitment to a life in art?” The answer for some, as it was for Levis, is: everything.
Ronald Dzerigian resides in a small farming community just outside of Fresno, California, with his wife and two daughters. He received his MFA from California State University, Fresno. He has been a recipient of the Academy of American Poets’ Ernesto Trejo Memorial Prize, and the C.G. Hanzlicek Poetry Writing Fellowship. His poems can be found on Poets.org, in the Santa Ana River Review, and forthcoming in RHINO and Prairie Schooner. He is a writing consultant for the Graduate Writing Studio at Fresno State.
Michele Poulos’s first feature-length documentary film, A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet, will be making its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October. She is an award-winning poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker. She holds a BFA in filmmaking from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, an MFA degree in poetry from Arizona State University, and an MFA in fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her first full-length collection of poems, Black Laurel, was published by Iris Press in March 2016. Her screenplay, Mule Bone Blues, won the 2010 Virginia Screenwriting Competition, and it made it to the second round of the 2015 Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and the second round in the 2010 Austin Screenplay Contest. She just completed co-writing a feature-length romantic comedy about a stand-up comic.