Christopher Levenson was born in London, England, in 1934. Apart from three years at Lancaster during the war he grew up and attended high school in suburban London. After leaving university in 1957, he lived and worked mainly outside England—in Holland, Germany and the United States—before emigrating to Canada in 1968, where he taught English, Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at Carleton University, Ottawa, until his retirement in 1969. He has also lived for shorter periods in the former Yugoslavia, Russia, and, especially, India, and has travelled widely in Europe, SE Asia and Australia.
His first book of poetry was published in 1959. Of the subsequent ten volumes, the most recent is Local Time (Ottawa, 2006). He was also co-founder and editor of Arc magazine for its first ten years and co-founded the Harbinger Poets imprint of Carleton University Press. Apart from travelling and writing, he takes a keen interest in the arts, especially painting, music and architecture. He is married with four grown sons and has lived with Oonagh, his Irish wife, in Vancouver since moving there in the summer of 2007.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
No. Like many people who at least start, and sometimes continue, to write poetry, it was my first falling in love that started me writing, at the age of fourteen.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
I’m sceptical about the whole idea of inspiration, at least as it’s usually been understood since the Romantic Movement. It’s more a matter of being continuously prepared to write and giving a potential poem time to find its own shape. But I do recognize that in my case travel and living in new places (most recently, Vancouver, after living for thirty nine years in Ottawa) tends to make me more observant and receptive. This was certainly true the first time I visited India for in 1986. Because of the ‘culture shock’ I wrote twenty six poems in the ten weeks I travelled there, a rate I had not equalled since my teens. As I age I am also increasingly prompted to write by memories of people or events from earlier in my life and by exposure to works of art and architecture.
What is your writing process?
I do not have one writing process. Each poem is a new start, and for me at least the idea of setting aside time specifically for writing poetry seems unrealistic. Except perhaps for long poems or sequences that involve, say, sociological or historical research, poems cannot be methodically planned or written to a schedule. Being prepared to write means having at least one pen and one piece of paper to hand at all times, on the bus, in the bathroom, at a dinner party, wherever. My poems rarely come from ideas or feelings, but from words and phrases, and the objects that evoke them. Being in the right frame of mind, or heart, to write a poem is like being a magnet: images, cadences, words are attracted like iron filings and the basic process of writing a poem involves sorting them out—seeing what patterns certain sounds make, following up on the nuances of certain words, expanding some phrases, rejecting others—until some meaning emerges. Sculptors sometimes speak of carving a piece of wood to see what shape is within and then work towards that. One of my favourite quotes is from the 20th century American poet Theordore Roethke: “I learn by going where I have to go”. A poet should not know what a poem has to say until he or she has finished it.
What is your revision/editing process?
Revision, which is when the poem really gets written, is just as much dependent upon the right mood or atmosphere as was the original impetus for that particular poem. In my case, I always carry with me a ring notebook small enough to fit into a jacket pocket but with pages large enough to accomodate the first draft of a poem of twenty to twenty five lines. After two or three revisions in this format, if I feel fairly sure that the result will indeed become a poem, I combine these handwritten drafts into a first word-processor version, which I then revise further whenever I get ideas for changes, expansions or omissions, most often as a result of discussing the poem with an individual or with groups of fellow poets.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
Yes, I wrote what I thought were poems, far too many, from the age of fourteen and even a year or two later started a poetry group with fellow poets of my own age or slightly older. I also attended, and contributed poems to, a school writers club and submitted poems to the (staff-run) school magazine. After a talk by an older, published poet to the school’s literary club, and my subsequent submission of manuscripts to him, I was finally convinced by him that I was a poet, and that the affliction was indeed chronic, not just a passing phase.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
No. For the purposes of this poem my memory is my web-site. Although I did in fact revisit some of the villages where I had worked in 1953, and have a number of books and photo albums of that, I am even now only semi-competent on the computer and since the poem deals almost entirely with my own feelings and memories and what I could see and hear around me, no research would have been relevant.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
That poetry depends above all not on beautiful thoughts and feelings or supposedly ‘poetic’ topics but on the play of language in all its facets, and that even if the initial impetius to a poem was highly emotional it still needs to be revised, i.e. re-seen, preferably with input from others, if it is to be more than just a personal keepsake. For despite talk of inspiration there are no quick fixes in poetry.