Interview: Dana Levin and Amy Pickworth discuss Banana Palace

Amy Pickworth: Okay, so I really loved this book and it scares me. Can we just jump right in?

The title suggests we’re in a palace, but it’s unclear exactly where or when—things keep shifting—or if there’s a singular leader present. Royalty does pass through: we meet up with Lady Xoc, a Mayan queen consort associated with sacrifice and the supernatural, and the Greek princess Cassandra, who has the gift of prophesy but because of Apollo’s terrible curse no one believes her. We’ve “watched monks change sand into a Palace of Time/ wheeled through an age of unpardonable crimes.”

Why were you drawn to the image of the palace? As a writer, what opportunities did that set up for you?

Dana Levin: You know, this is the first time I’ve ever thought about the palace and royalty as a persistent presence in the book, which is utterly ridiculous considering the book’s title! So thank you for the question. My first thought is linguistic: the connotations of “palace” being magnificence, the exotic, the grand, the antique, perhaps even the magical; the place you enter after saying Open Sesame! But here I can’t separate “palace” from “banana,” whose connotations are decidedly not grand, magnificent, or magic. A banana is pretty funny, pretty phallic, shaped like an old-timey phone receiver—and a fruit on the edge of extinction, factually speaking. I feel like the whole book takes place in Banana Palace, this circus tent of the inflated and the ridiculous, the magnificent and the absurd, the eye-delighting and the imperiled: in other words, on Earth, in 21st-Century America.

AP: But from the first page of Banana Palace, the immortal, the deeply wise, the very female is also present: “She had traveled a long way through the four dimensions / to be with us. // From someone’s mouth to someone’s ear.”

DL: I love that you bring this up. I thought a lot about our female oracles as I wrote this book. At one point I thought my social-media handle should be I Am Your Cassandra, because I didn’t think anyone would “believe,” or want to pay attention to, my words. It’s hard to look End Times in the face. But women do it, all the time: we have to, as patriarchy plunges madly on, in order to get our wits about us. It became important to me that the majority of the oracular voices in the book, from the dream figures in “Morning News” to the “aftermath” on the subway grate in “En Route” to the speaker of the poems “Banana Palace” and “At the End of My Hours” (I imagine the same speaker for both of those poems), be female. We endure, but we survive, Fury Road.

AP: And clamoring over this knowing female voice are all these voices of not knowing, of the awkwardness and anxiety of end times. (The title poem is addressed to a “future person: star of one of my complicated dooms —.”) The result is this heartbreaking layering, enabled by figures like Guglielmo Marconi and Dmitry Itskov, whose presence signals our misguided hopes for redemption through technology.

You’re pointing out these profound disconnections of contemporary life. The first lines of the first poem, “Across the Sea,” are “We used our texting machines/ to look up the definition of soul.” That line killed me. (My teenage son recently quipped that someday we’ll watch nature documentaries like divorcees watch their wedding videos, and “Watching the Sea Go”—which presents a speaker filming the ocean, creating “the most boring movies ever made”—also feels very much in tune with that idea: “just under the water— / the sea, / over and over. / Before it’s over.”)

Would you talk a little about technology, and your own relationship—as well as our current collective relationship—to it?

DL: I love what your son said! An apt analogy.

In terms of tech, since Nov. 8, I’ve really been thinking again about social media. I’m as addicted to my phone as anyone else, ambivalent, enslaved. We’ve just elected our first Selfie president, for whom brand and “likes” matter more than anything, except maybe money. Being engaged with social media means contending with the feeling that we have to brand ourselves and sell our brands (which are ourselves) under the aegis of “sharing”—a complete commodification of self, that often doesn’t involve the selflessness and giving nature of true sharing. “Friend” is now a verb and doesn’t mean real friendship most of the time. Since Nov. 8, I feel a call to the local and the real: real communities of people in a real place. I think these may be the only true sites of successful resistance to what’s coming down the pike.

At the same time, I’ve been mourning, really, how my attitude about and engagement with social media is changing. I’m single, and I live alone; many people I adore, and share a profession and a calling with, live far from me. Social media has really kept them close in a way not possible even ten years ago. In the wake of the election, I have FB friends who have deactivated their accounts, who are spending less time there: I think the constant input of collective reaction to Trumpism is overwhelming and hard to contend with all the time. Social media works inherently against peace and silence, against the psychic space required for contemplation and inspiration. I currently yearn for this space.

So: perhaps we will engage in some kind of collective correction to how this very new technology—social media—has affected our personal and collective lives. Fake news is an outgrowth of it. Isolates of aggregation are too. We can now each live in a personal echo chamber, which is a disaster for democracy, for the polis, as we are beginning to see.

AP: Let’s talk a little about the size of the elegy here. This book examines the largest loss we can try to wrap our brains around—the end of a healthy planet—as well as loss felt by the individual. “Melancholia” parses masculinity and “the spirit of the father,” and some of its parts remember earlier narratives about the speaker’s (presumably your) father.

Our whole conversation could have radiated from “Melancholia,” but can you tell us just a little about the revelations and shift in scale in this poem? Was it surprising to write, or difficult?

DL: Elegy, yes. “Melancholia” was sparked by the suicide of a cousin, which coincided with a long year of my sister and I really processing how much mental illness afflicted my father’s side of the family, and our own experiences growing up. My father was bipolar, untreated for most of his life. After my cousin died, a flood of memories about him surged—stories I often told about him—and for the first time I wrote them down. With speed. I didn’t imagine this material would find a place in Banana Palace: I couldn’t see the thematic link, and the book was nearly complete.

But my way has always been to see in the personal life, the life of the unconscious, the seeds of our collective experience. I began to think about fathers in general, and patriarchy, particularly how patriarchy has birthed the Anthropocene; the drive to conquer, to exploit, to objectify (to invade, to pillage, to rape) are the modes of patriarchy unchecked by the more open and softer human impulses. My sister says Banana Palace is, at base, a book about the unhealed father-wound!

And then to add a bipolar element to these thoughts, the way the climate has been pushed to swinging extremes, the way America has become so deeply split into hostile opposites politically and culturally—well, I began to see that the bipolar father-god required a central place in my book of Apocalypse.

AP: “At the End of My Hours” is also written in parts, but it’s a different kind of elegy. It doesn’t look back, it faces what’s coming. It’s fragmented and ruminative, repeatedly bringing up the banality of everyday life and the horror of losing it, chewing on that idea again and again, because horror is hard to digest. “I couldn’t quite / quit some ideas—trees and chocolate / I couldn’t stop yammering / over devastated Earth.”

When I first read this poem, before the election, I associated it with the more extreme climate change we’re likely to see, and the unrest that soon will surely accompany that. Now I’m rereading it with our new political landscape in mind and I find it frightening in new ways.

DL: On election night, I couldn’t bear to watch the returns; when in distress, I turn to Bob’s Burgers! So I was watching that. Sweetest show on television. But around 8:30pm I glanced at my phone and saw Trump ahead. And I started to tremble uncontrollably, to the point where my mind said, “Wow, you’re trembling uncontrollably!” I felt totally dissociated, but walked myself into my bedroom to pop an anti-anxiety med. I’ve heard others describing similar reactions: big reactions, beyond disappointment that Clinton lost—reactions in the body, which is the animal that knows most deeply. In retrospect, I think I felt the world change in that moment, I think I felt the literal turn of time. The American Century was over. American Democracy as I understood it was over. And now we are in the Great Uncertainty, which we are filling up with nightmares that seem more probable with every cabinet appointment and Trumpian tweet.

This might sound crazy, but what I really think is this: I think the earth is completely stressed from global warming. I think we are feeling it feeling it feeling it. I think we react to it in all sorts of ways; I think we think the anxiety is due to a lot of other things, but we cannot discount the fact that the stress is coming up through the soles of our feet as we walk this ground. And Trump’s developing administration feels like a suicide-squad government, intent on getting theirs and then blowing it up. A giant middle finger to the young, to women, to people of color, to workers, to intellectuals, to artists, to mystics, and to Earth.

All I can say about this in relation to Banana Palace is that I have never written with such felt urgency before: the poems wanted out. I am usually a very slow and plodding writer, but many of these poems—it was like Jack Kerouac was in my psyche, yelling Go! Go! like he did at Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl.” Something was yelling Go! I marveled at it, while it was happening, didn’t completely understand it. It made me nervous, frankly, since many of the book’s central poems, like this one, seemed to be trying to see into the future. I suppose a central solace “At the End of My Hours” offers is that there are “the sons and daughters of someone tough” trying to survive, to begin again.

AP: Do the poet’s responsibilities shift in times of political upheaval, or are those responsibilities ultimately always the same?

DL: The current meditation for many of us now, I imagine. In general, I’m allergic to “should” where art is concerned—and yet…

AP: Can I ask you to finish that sentence? You don’t have to.

DL: Well, extraordinary moments in History demand response. But not all writers have a gift for true political art. I don’t want to forget about making art in the drive to respond to our moment. And I would be disappointed if the literary world got locked into a mode where writing that directly engages and protests against this moment is seen as “better” or “more crucial” than work that seems or is apolitical in impulse. We don’t know what may spark a reading heart to thought and action: a poem inspired by looking closely at the texture of tree bark could become a great environmental statement, even if the poet had no conscious aim to make one. We need all voices, all world views. And we need authentic art, not art driven by guilt (unless guilt is the authentic drive for one’s expression).

AP: Whose work do you think we should be turning to right now?

DL: Whatever work brings us calm and encouragement. The work I read most recently that really offered me personal solace was Illocality, by Joseph Massey—a book that doesn’t seem to have a political bone in its body. And yet: it felt entirely subversive to me, post-election, in the way it seemed driven to record the smallest moments of perception and feeling. We will need such poems in future, as we always have. Protest is crucial, yes, but so is remembering what we fight for: the freedom to freely think and dream and see. For me, Dr. Williams always offers the cure for Waste Land.

I’ll end with a quote from the first poem in Illocality, “Parse”:

          All a world can do
          is appear

          The window

          A room
          whose walls

          warp with sun

          What’s seen
          is dreamed

          We think
          ourselves here


Amy Pickworth’s poems have appeared in journals including Dusie; Forklift, Ohio; The Great American Literary Magazine; H_NGM_N; Ink Node; New Ohio Review; Smartish Pace; and Two Serious Ladies. Her book Bigfoot for Women (Orange Monkey, intro by Matt Hart) was released in 2014. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

Dana Levin in author of In the Surgical Theatre (1999), Wedding Day (2005), Sky Burial (2011), and Banana Palace (2016). Levin’s honors include awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Witter Bynner Foundation and the Library of Congress, the Lannan Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Whiting Foundation. Her work has been widely anthologized and has won several Pushcart Prizes. She lives in Santa Fe and teaches at Maryville University in St. Louis, where she serves as distinguished writer in residence.