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The New, the Old and the Obscure 

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The New

“Prismatics: Larry Levis & Contemporary American Poetry” (2020) Edited by Michele Poulos and Gregory Donovan

The famed and often misinterpreted poet, Larry Levis, spent the last years of his career in Richmond, both as a writer and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Only 49 at the time of his death, Levis had recently published a collection of stories, “Black Freckles,” and a collection of poems, “The Widening Spell of the Leaves.”

In 2016, many poets and academics paid tribute to Levis in the documentary film, “A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet” which was directed by local filmmaker Michele Poulos, and produced by Poulos and her husband, poet and VCU English professor Gregory Donovan. The film, accompanied by music from the band, Iron and Wine, received rave reviews and was an official selection at numerous film festivals around the country, including the International Film Festival in Richmond and at the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Rafael, not far from Levis’ birthplace of Fresno, California.

Now, Poulos and Donovan have edited a collection of interviews from the film for their new book published by Diode Editions. These interviews tackle questions of faith and politics, and how one’s belief systems can be interpreted in their work. Levis’ work, along with the interviews in this book, complete a take on the poetry of friendship, love and loss that speaks to a time and place for the poet but transcends to the infinite as lyrical song for all of us, at all times, in the place of mind, body and spirit.

Award-winning poet and a professor of creative writing at the university, Kathleen Graber, says of Levis’ work: “I think Levis is juggling chain saws and flaming batons, simultaneously, and then with a bowling ball and a bowling pin – so, things of very dissimilar weight, size, gravity. … Levis sometimes feels out of control, but that’s the exhilaration of it, right? If there’s not a churning chain saw [laughter], you lose something. Three bowling pins are not as exciting.”

The Old

“Close Range” (1999) by Annie Proulx

Nearly 21 years since its publication, acclaimed author Annie Proulx’s “Close Range” still stands as one of the greatest contemporary short story collections in American literature. Proulx, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, “The Shipping News,” and was again nominated for this collection, demonstrates her mastery of character and place, both intertwined, dependent on the other for what is given and what is taken away.

Part folklore, part historical fiction, always original and heartbreaking, this collection challenges the reader with its realistic portrayals of families and lovers in peril amid a haunting Wyoming landscape.

Perhaps best known for the story “Brokeback Mountain,” which was adapted for the screen in 2005, each of the 11 tales here are extraordinary and offers readers the very best of Proulx’s literary talents, as she seamlessly manages to span time and generations in mere pages to great dramatic, and sometimes comedic, effect.

The Obscure

“This Quiet Dust and Other Writings” (1982) by William Styron

Though the author is certainly not considered obscure, later in his career, William Styron wrote a great deal of nonfiction, much of it collected in the original and, a decade later, expanded version of “This Quiet Dust.”

The writings contain essays, abstracts, and ruminations by one of Virginia’s most prominent literary figures. Most noteworthy are his brief tributes to literary heroes such as William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, as well as the title piece, which he focuses much on his roots as a Virginian and how he came about to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”

Other notable pieces include personal reflections on the James River, his time as a student at the Christchurch School, and a take on Richmonder Lewis Harvie Blair’s progressive 1889 book, “A Southern Prophecy,” which argues for equal rights among all races in the North and South.

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