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Living Poetry

An interview with the winner of this year's Levis Reading Prize at VCU.


When Corey Van Landingham was five and not yet writing, she walked into the kitchen and announced to her mother that she needed her to write a poem down for her.

She then rattled off her first poem, a self-described “treacly bit about sunrises, barns and, yes, unicorns, but also strangely addressed to someone I referred to as my love.”

Van Landingham attributes her desire to write poetry to a childhood spent listening to her mother read from the anthology “Silver Pennies: A Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls” from 1925. “Included in those pages were Yeats, Sara Teasdale, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Emily Dickinson,” she recalls. “The illustrations accompanying the poems were magical, full of fairies and moons and children sleeping. Opening that book felt like stepping into another world.”

Van Landingham was chosen by Virginia Commonwealth University to receive the Levis Reading Prize, which honors the memory of poet Larry Levis, a VCU faculty member at the time of his death in 1996. She will read from her two poetry collections, “Antidote” and “Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens,” as well as “Reader, I,” which is forthcoming in 2024, on Oct. 18 at Cabell Library.

How she got started

The poems swirling around in her head before she could read or write developed, she thinks, because it was a sense of sound’s pleasure that first spoke to her. She soon realized that it was more than pleasure and more than sound that made a poem resonate. “I think it’s because both my parents loved music so deeply, and I could see how sometimes it was almost agonizing, my father writhing to Joe Cocker, my mother belting out Otis Redding,” she says. “They were experiencing something because of the merging of sound and sense that I, as a child, couldn’t yet. I wanted to access that.”

Despite beginning college as an international affairs major – her intention was to work with global women’s reproductive health initiatives – she also enrolled in a literature class called history of the lyric poem. Her professor, the poet Jerry Harp, approached poetry with his whole being. “It lived and breathed in him,” she says. “Before winter break, I switched my major to English and took all the poetry writing classes I could.”

After her father died during her senior year of college, Van Landingham began approaching reading and writing with a new sense of purpose and intensity, partially because she started to look outside herself. Her professors that year helped her unlock a way out of solitary, private grief. During her last semester, she had the poet Mary Szybist for advanced poetry, appreciating her attention and time like a benediction. “She took all of us seriously, and her attention was like a lamp,” she remembers. “And I realized I wanted to help students feel that way.”

Today, Van Landingham feels fortunate to do that through teaching in the M.F.A. program at the University of Illinois. “I came to extending my writing life through the desire to teach it, to live alongside language and have it fill up my days,” she explains. “Wanting to write a book, to publish, came later.”

Immersion technique

Her writing process begins by reading. She creates what she thinks of as a poem “playlist” of books, depending on the world or mood of the poem she’s working on. Her goal is to immerse herself in the sound, syntax, and strangeness of poetry before she begins writing. “It’s ritualistic, I guess, clearing the space between the mundanity of the day —making coffee, watching Netflix and sending e-mails— and the magic of a poem,” she says.

That process used to be more internal, trying to limn deep but nascent feelings, but these days she finds it’s much more external. Her husband, Christopher Kempf, is also a poet, and she sees one of the most important things he’s taught her in their life together, on and off the page, has been how to “see the poem” in the world. “That is, how to spot the conflict, intrigue, mystery, connections around me, to see their poetic potential,” Van Landingham explains. “In its pure form, but also in its transformation in artistic form. ‘What a poem,’ we say almost daily, on a walk after dinner, at a football game or about something our niece says or does. It means that this speaks to something beyond itself. And a poem is a vehicle for trying to figure out both what that something is, and what it might be.”

She advises aspiring poets to read voraciously and omnivorously and to read the influences of their influences. To find out what they like and read more of that, but also to read against their tastes. And read writing about writing. “Some of my biggest poetic breakthroughs have been because of essays about poetry, not poetry itself,” she says. “Also, early on, try not to think too much about publication. Try to cultivate some space for yourself before you dive into and worry about that world. It’s freeing to experiment and make mistakes and learn from them when you don’t have the pressure of so many other eyes on your work.”

Levis Reading Prize Night with Corey Van Landingham will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. at Cabell Library, 901 Park Ave. Registration is available here.