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Literature | In Capital Letters

Questions?

  • Literature
    202-885-2971
    Fax: 202-885-2938
    lit@american.edu
    Battelle Tompkins, Room 237

    Rangel-Mullin, Rebecca
    Sr. Administrative Assistant

Mailing Address

Amelia Cohen-Levy, Fall 2009

ICL: What authors/poets/books/poems/stories/writing do you return to again and again?
ACL: I tend to return more to subject matter than to specific books/authors. Subject matter includes: mythology, fairy tales, random religious & philosophical texts. While my shelves are full (to the point where I am not allowed to buy any books until 2011), when I do return to specifics, it is usually because I have something stuck in my head that I haveto solve or it is based on mood.

ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?
ACL: I love prompts—writing to them or away from them. I love close analysis of a work—the idea that if I spend all this time on every detail, that someone, someday will explore what exactly I meant by “,” I am always surprised when the words come from tohu va vohu, the shapeless, gooey, cobweb-strewn mess of my own brain. My favorite part is when I can not only access the words, but articulate themwith mild logic. I am constantly challenged by the need to have something make sense outside my own head. For example, how can I write about the Holocaust without using the words Holocaust, Auschwitz, 1943, etc. and still have the audience get on board? The specific words damn the poem before it begins, but without them I end up getting notes that I am “cryptic.” I will resolve it—I hope.

ICL: What was the first piece of writing you ever wrote, and when?
ACL: 1988, by a lake in Bruceville, Texas—a poem that may have used the words “decaffeinated” and “life” in dangerous conjunction.

ICL: Are certain techniques central to your writing?/Are certain themes central to your work?
ACL: These two questions are difficult to answer independent of each other. A sense of the seemingly random (see challenges, question #2), my background knowledge and experience base (see question #1), alliteration and musicality (stemming from opera training more than from Bay Area throwbacks), and the things in life that I think should be valued by art regardless of the risk that they have been written into oblivion repeatedly and by better minds (love, relationships to God, the world, each other). 

ICL: How have those themes changed over the years?
ACL: Hopefully, they have gotten less trite, cliché, and precious while still engaging in a cynical optimism. Or, they haven’t changed at all and I am really deluding myself—a distinct possibility.

ICL: How do your stories/poems come to you? For example, is it by an image, character, line, phrase, idea?
ACL: Robert Graves’ The White Goddess has a great quote, something about how when the muse is upon you, there is a prickling at the back of your neck, and while you may not know if she is there to murder, sting, enlighten or redeem you, there is no choice but to write. Each time is different—some poems haunt me for days, some wake me up in the night, some I scribble while driving (yes, while driving—no human casualties to date), some I just blurt out and regret later, and some just fail before they begin (but I waste the paper anyway). When they come, I just do my best to keep up and not disrupt the urgency.

ICL: Do you have a set writing schedule/any writing rituals?
ACL: That would really help, wouldn’t it? I know that my ritual usually involves decaf coffee (see question #3) and being outdoors. Otherwise, I have found through years of trying to distill my process into a set scheduled ritual that when I consciously put aside time to write, I am blocked. If anything, my ritual is to avoid the block at all costs. It isn’t about an inability to write something, but more about the knowledge that as I am writing, I am also judging the work. Which is not good.

ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
ACL: “C’est si bon” –Louis Armstrong

ICL: Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know.
ACL: Three out of four grandparents had the same last name.

ICL: What projects are you working on right now?
ACL: [bats eyelashes] My thesis, of course—nothing but my thesis. [insert “ting” of forming halo] I am moving to a new house, so packing, painting, replacing drywall, and cleaning. Visual art—photography, collages, oil & watercolor. I am creating a publicity action plan for work, including an archive and a newsletter. And I am simultaneously writing five different articles that I hope to have published.
 
ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?
ACL: This is a tough question. I structured my life so that I could try to focus on writing. Then, life disagreed, citing the need to pay bills and buy groceries and stuff. In fact, the past three years represent the longest period in my life where I have not been able to focus and devote myself to writing. Irony aside, if I wasn’t here, I’d be: at Harvard Divinity School; PhD in Classics; growing “medical” marijuana in Ashland, Oregon; PhD in Literature; or serving as a Psychologist for some three-letter organization.

Amelia Cohen-Levy