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Conference Celebrates Larry Levis, Late Poet and VCU Professor

When Avery Beckendorf arrived at VCU in the fall of 2008 to enroll in the M.F.A. program in poetry, she was unfamiliar with the work of the late poet Larry Levis, a former member of the VCU creative writing faculty. Soon, however, his influence at VCU became apparent. Instructors routinely referred to him in class and frequently assigned his poems and essays. The more she read, the more Beckendorf wanted to read. And the more she understood the reverence for him in the English department.

“His work is amazing,” said Beckendorf, now a third-year M.F.A. student.

Levis, who died in 1996 of a heart attack at the age of 49, taught at VCU for just six years, but his impact was large and enduring. Both his poems and his tenure as a teacher and colleague have left an indelible impression on the Department of English, especially on the creative writing program.

“There’s an aura he left here,” said David Wojahn, professor of English at VCU. “There really is.”

In recognition of that influence, the VCU Department of English and its M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program are hosting a three-day literary conference from Sept. 22-24, titled “Larry Levis: A Celebration,” which will feature a remarkable collection of award-winning poets. The renowned poet Philip Levine, who was both a friend and mentor for Levis, will deliver the conference’s keynote reading. The conference celebrates the life and work of Levis and marks the acquisition of his papers by the James Branch Cabell Library at VCU. All conference events are free and open to the public.

Trailer for "My Story in a Late Style of Fire," a film by VCU alumna Michele Poulos about Larry Levis

Participating poets, writers and critics include Levine, Wojahn, Peter Campion, Michael Collier, Ed Ochester, Stanley Plumly, David St. John, Dave Smith, Sam Pereira, Nicky Beer, Gregory Donovan, Matt Donovan, Mary Flinn, Kathleen Graber, James Hoch, Julia Johnson, Anna Journey, Alexander Long, J. Randy Marshall, Elizabeth Seydel Morgan, Ron Smith and Amy Tudor, among others.

The list of participants serves as powerful proof of Levis’ lasting personal and literary legacy, organizers said. Many of those who will be in attendance were close to Levis, such as Gregory Donovan, associate professor of English at VCU, who said “a number of us who knew Larry still feel a great loyalty to him and to his writing.” Others who know Levis only through his words feel a genuine attachment to him.

Levis already was a very highly regarded poet at the time of his death, but his reputation and influence has noticeably grown in the subsequent years. Wojahn said Levis’ work has attracted a cult-like following “in the best sense of the word.”

“He’s a very important poet,” Wojahn said. “In fact, he’s one of the most important poets of his time.”

Wojahn said the respect that Levine showed Levis is a testament to his status.

“Levine is one of the three or four greatest poets working in the language today,” Wojahn said. “And he said he always thought of Larry as an equal.”

Levis published five poetry collections and a book of short stories during his life. 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, all the while confronting “the dark elements of human existence.” Beckendorf notes that “he always seemed to be challenging himself” in his work, writing unconventional poetry that remained resolutely accessible to readers. And even as his poems addressed dire topics – such as his take on the end of the world in his much-loved poem “Boy in Video Arcade” – his poems were “very beautiful and striking and imaginative,” Donovan said.

As a professor at VCU, Levis was a demanding but supportive teacher who encouraged his students to take chances. His example also proved inspirational.

“His devotion to his writing helped his students catch fire the same way,” Donovan said.

Belying the dark nature of his work and his disciplined approach to it, Levis also was lighthearted and mischievous, endearing him to colleagues and others.

“He was a lot of fun,” Donovan said. “He had a great sense of humor and a lot of personal warmth. He also loved being wicked, which certainly made him appealing to be around.”

Donovan said many poets and aspiring poets still associate VCU with Levis. He hears from students who see Levis’ time at VCU as a selling point for the graduate writing program. Levis, a California native, taught at several schools before arriving at VCU, but Richmond proved a particularly fitting home for him. He lived in Church Hill, often walking to work. He was a student of the city’s history and embraced its eccentricities. VCU presents an annual national poetry award, the Levis Reading Prize, in memory of Levis.

“He was only here for six years but he really ended up in the city that fit him in so many different ways,” Wojahn said.

Wojahn said the purpose of the conference is simply to remember Levis and remind people of his work – “to say his name and tell people to read the poems.” Reading the poems, organizers said, is the most important thing.

“You will be very fortunate if you discover Larry Levis,” Wojahn said.

 

About the Levis Conference and the Levis Collection

Levis Conference

“Larry Levis: A Celebration” is a three-day celebration of Levis and his work featuring a host of readings and panel discussions. The conference starts with an opening reading from David St. John on Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. in the Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St.

This celebration is made possible by the generous support of Carole Weinstein, the Levis family, New Virginia Review Inc., VCU Libraries, James Branch Cabell Library Associates, VCU Friends of the Library, VCU College of Humanities & Sciences, VCU Department of English, VCU MFA Creative Writing Program, Blackbird, VCU School of the Arts, VCU Honors College, WCVE, Barnes and Noble@VCU, David Freed, Joan Gaustad, Myron Helfgott and Mamma Zu's restaurant.

For a complete listing of the conference program, visit http://www.has.vcu.edu/eng/resources/levis_prize/levis_conference.htm. For more information, contact the Department of English, (804) 828-1331.

Levis Collection

The Levis Collection at the James Branch Cabell Library forms a comprehensive portrait of Levis’ literary life and features nearly 600 volumes of poetry, short stories and other literary works – many inscribed by their authors – that comprised his personal library. The Larry P. Levis Papers, which total 15 linear feet of literary manuscripts, form the core of the collection.

University Library John Ulmschneider described the collection as an “invaluable resource for students, scholars, poets and poetry enthusiasts and a unique and insightful window into the literary life and work of Larry Levis.”

Larry Levis
Larry Levis