blackbirdonline journalFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts

Portraits of Larry Levis

I ask myself, why do I sense a rapport between poets (words) and visual artists? Visual artists require materials and labor to present their thoughts. Poets, on the other hand, require only the human voice. But the relationship seems obvious. Please tell me why.

I met Larry Levis shortly after his arrival at Virginia Commonwealth University. Larry’s mentor as a young poet was Philip Levine, whose poems speak to me very strongly. (We came from the same part of the world.) I therefore first read Larry’s poems in expectation of a kinship there.

Larry also attended the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. My first contact with poets had been at Iowa when I was a graduate student, some time before Larry’s sojourn there. This experience gave us something to talk about, and he gave me some of his work to read. Although Larry certainly loved Levine and his work, I did not see an obvious influence in his poetry. Larry definitely had his own voice, and I really liked his work.

I told him that I had done some work in collaboration with Charles Wright and Steven Lautermilch. I suggested that I could get a grant from Virginia Commonwealth University, and we could do an “artist book” using his poems.

I did receive a grant that paid for the labor and materials for two projects using Larry’s poems: “Two Trees” (a broadside with a folder) and “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage (an artist book with two etchings).” They are both archived in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Cabell Library Special Collections.

During this period, I spent a fair bit of time with Larry, and I did several portraits of him. A large one (for me) resides at Virginia Commonwealth University’s English Department. I do a number of portraits, and I think this is one of my best. Larry contributed to it directly by writing a few lines from one of his poems on the image. The image is of Larry at full length, and under his heel is one of his cigarette butts.

One produces art from such accidents.  

Click any thumb to open a larger image in the slide show.



return to top