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Hats Off to Larry

VCU pays tribute to a poet who left a legacy of words.

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Larry Levis likely had no intention of contributing to Richmond's long literary tradition by becoming a permanent resident. Born in Fresno, Calif., he grew up on a farm picking grapes alongside migrant workers and attended a one-room schoolhouse.

By 1992 he'd become an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, but died from a heart attack in May 1996, about a mile from the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. He was 49.

His death left a hole in his students, friends and all who loved his work. They'll have the opportunity to honor the award-winning poet's life and art at a three-day poetry conference Sept. 22-24 in Richmond. The conference also marks the acquisition of Levis' papers by the university's James Branch Cabell Library.

“Over the years since his death,” says Mary Flinn, the senior literary editor of Blackbird magazine, “it's clearer and clearer he has become one of the significant voices of the baby boomer generation as far as poetry is concerned, in terms of writing about the times that we lived in, in terms of mirroring the kinds of ways that people wrote through the period and particularly for developing a wonderfully rhetorical and musical poetic voice of his own that speaks very well for our generation.  He's holding up as a dead poet.”

David Wojahn, professor of English at VCU and an award-winning poet in his own right, says that “what he could have done if he lived another 20 years beggars the imagination.”

A remarkable roster of Levis' contemporaries as well as members of the latest generation of poets inspired by his work will participate in the conference, including Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine. He'll be the keynote speaker at the Grace Street Theater on Sept. 23. “Philip Levine is one of the two or three premier poetry writers in the English language right now,” Wojahn says. “It's an incredibly intriguing sort of situation where you can explore his interaction with Larry Levis, who was his student and who he came to regard as his equal, but also it's just an opportunity to see one of our very finest poets who very rarely reads because of his age.”

The conference also includes an evening featuring poet David St. John and presentations by panels on Levis' work as well as readings of his poems. Concluding the event is the Annual Levis Prize Reading, featuring this year's winner, Peter Campion.

“I think people will find their spirits well fed if they come to the events connected with this conference,” Flinn says. “We're in a transactional culture for the moment, and have been for a while. And one of the great releases for me in poetry is the fact that it is never going to be commercial. It is something of the spirit and something of the heart. We'd be a pretty poor culture if we didn't have some things that just spoke to the spirit and the heart.” S

View information on the conference at go.vcu.edu/levis or by calling 828-1331.

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