Writers Series hosts documentary screening on American Poet

Students and public alike were invited to follow the brilliant life and sudden death of famed American poet Larry Levis Tuesday through a new documentary screened at Marshall University’s Smith Hall.

Poet and director of the movie Michele Poulos, alongside poet and producer Gregory Donovan, came to campus to present a screening of their new feature-length documentary, “A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet.” The event was presented by the A.E. Stringer Visiting Writers Series and the Department of English.

“A Late Style of Fire” trailed the life of Levis from his childhood at his family’s farm in California, then across his career as a troubled poet. The documentary features interviews by the poets who knew him, such as Gerald Stern, Philip Levine and Norman Dubie, as well as the friends and family of Levis.

“The most difficult part for me was the editing,” Poulos said. “We shot about 200 hours of footage.”

“We interviewed some of the greatest living poets in America,” Poulos said. “They don’t speak in sound-bites.”

As equally passionate about Levis and the documentary was Donovan.

“I’ve seen a lot of films about poets, and they’re never about poetry. They’re about something else,” Donovan said. “The makers of those films are doing those things because they think you’re going to be bored by poetry.”

The documentary often cuts to serene and natural shots of the Californian valley as relevant parts of Levis’ poems are read to the viewer. Musician Iron & Wine provided an original score for the movie.

“For me, as a poet, I’m really proud of what [Poulos] did,” Donovan said. “It respects the power of words, and that’s a hard thing to do in a film.”

Poulos said one of the motivations for directing the film was to get viewers to “go buy the books.”

“I really wanted the film to be an introduction to the work itself,” Poulos said, adding she also aimed for the documentary to be about “the cross-pollination between the work and the life [of Levis].”

Marshall professor and director of the Visiting Writers Series, Sarah Chavez, introduced the director at the beginning of the event.

“[The documentary] seems to be very much about that question of ‘do you have to be self-destructive?’ and ‘what does art need from you?’” Chavez said.

Levis’ later life was complicated by drug abuse and what could be seen as an unhealthy dedication to his craft, which was often reflected in his poems at the time.

“I feel like that is a really dangerous problem for young poets,” Chavez said.

Reception to the documentary itself was positive from Chavez, as well as others who attended the screening.

“I was blown away,” Chavez said, especially praising the scenes of Californian countryside that complimented Donovan’s reading of Levis’ poems.

“They really capture that area. The film, with the words, was just resonated so well,” Chavez said, herself a native of California’s Central Valley.

Equally praising of the documentary was Marshall alumnus Charles Childers, who called it “absolutely incredible.”

“I didn’t have any experience about [Levis] before watching the movie, but he wasn’t a conventional poet,” Childers said, “and I loved that, and I loved the fact that they were able to capture that while still doing justice to his character.”

Poulos said she is currently in negotiations to distribute the documentary to educational outlets, such as university libraries, but added they are working to make it available in streaming form “hopefully in the next few months.”

Austin Creel can be contacted at [email protected]