In the Mood for Orange: An Interview with Lori Levy
by Neil Leadbeater
Lori Levy's poems have been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals in the U.S., the U.K. and Israel. Lori grew up in Vermont and raised her children partly in Israel and partly in Los Angeles where she and her family now live although one son and his family have relocated this year to Panama. She enjoys reading and writing and spending time with family and friends. Her poems are accessible, meticulously well-crafted and full of life. A wry sense of playfulness runs like a common thread through her writing as well as a good deal of warmth, understanding and compassion. We need them now more than ever in the tumultuous times we are living through.
Lori, tell us something about your background and how you first became inspired to write poetry.
I think I liked writing poetry even as a child. I still have two poems I wrote in second grade. My sixth grade teacher in Vermont, where I grew up, had us write poems for class. That got me hooked, and I started writing poems out of class, too, and never really stopped. Vermont is a beautiful state, so my first poems were mostly nature poems. I enjoyed creative writing classes in high school and college. I think my writing improved after I took several poetry writing classes in Los Angeles and worked one-on-one with a mentor. I've been in a Jewish women's writing group for many years, and that has been very helpful to me.
What do you see as the role of a poet and what does poetry mean to you?
Poets paint in words. They capture a moment, a situation, a feeling—what they see or what they imagine. They give us a picture of life, expressing for us what we may feel but not know how to put into words. It could be something beautiful and joyful or something painful and sad.
For me, poetry is therapeutic. It helps me get clear on what I think and feel about the subject I'm writing about and helps me reach a place of compassion. I enjoy playing with words, making something beautiful with them. If the reader identifies with what I've expressed or is touched in some way, that's an added bonus for me.
When you write your poems, where do your ideas come from?
My ideas come from whatever is occupying my mind at a given moment. It could be something troubling me or something I find beautiful or inspiring. Something around me sparks my attention, and that turns into a poem.
Describe for us your writing process.
After something sparks my imagination or gets me thinking, I put those thoughts down on paper—whatever comes to mind, just to get it all out. Then I start polishing the raw material, playing with the words, looking for the best ones to express what I am trying to say. I keep cutting, changing, rearranging until I feel that the poem is done. When I begin a poem, I don't know where it will take me in the end.
Do you have a favorite place in which to write?
I like to write at my dining room table where I can look out the window at trees and, usually, a sunny, blue sky. I need to be alone when I start a poem, but once something is down on paper, I'm always working on it in my mind no matter where I am or what I'm doing.
What would you say are the main influences on your poetry and how do they manifest themselves in your work?
I tend to write about family, friends, relationships, nature. Sometimes politics—especially divisiveness. Whatever is going on in my life or occupying my thoughts ends up coming out as a poem. When my mother-in-law was in the hospital and nursing home for two-and-a-half years before she died, that's what I wrote about. I am also inspired by reading other poets' work. It helps me develop my taste and get a better idea of what I think works and doesn't work.
Many of your poems are suffused with joy. Would you say that you have a positive view of the world?
Yes. I seem to have a need to see hope in every situation, so I look for it. I find it too depressing to think there's no hope. Sometimes I start from a darker place, but I keep writing until I break
through to a place of compassion. I like to explore other angles, other ways of looking at a situation. I like to raise questions instead of presenting a black-or-white view of the world.
From what I have read of your work, your poems often contain references to your family, to cooking and to traditional Jewish festivals and practices. To what extent would you say that these three subjects inspire and inform your writing?
Family and cooking—and maybe to a lesser extent, Jewish practices—definitely inspire and inform my writing. I don't like to cook, but I do like eating good food, so food comes into my writing often. I like poems that appeal to the senses, so taste and color are important to me. A lot of color.
You lived in Israel for 16 years. To what extent do you feel that that experience has enriched your poetry?
I visit Israel often because my parents and my two sisters and their families live there, and I have good friends there. Whatever I experience on my visits usually comes into my poems. After living in Israel for 16 years, Israel still feels like home to me, and that also influences my poetry. One poem I wrote is called, “Where is Home?” Home seems to be split in three for me: Vermont (where I grew up), Israel (where I lived for 16 years), and Los Angeles (where I've lived for 31 years).
Where can we read more of your poetry?
My poems appear in many literary journals and also in some medical humanities journals. Some can be found if you Google “Lori Levy poems.” Some are posted on an Instagram account my son started for me: @mymomspoem. Unfortunately, I don't have a book to offer—other than the remaining copies of a bilingual book of poems I published in Israel, “In the Mood for Orange.”
What lessons have you learned from writing poetry? Do you have any pieces of advice to pass on to other aspiring poets?
When I'm struggling with a line or a few lines in a poem, I've learned that I have to drop those lines and look from a different angle. Maybe that applies to any struggle in life. I've also learned not to be discouraged by rejection. The whole process is so subjective. A poem can be rejected many times and then suddenly find a home when it falls into the hands of an editor who is enthusiastic about it. If I believe in a poem, I don't give up—and don't think others should either.
But even if a poem isn't accepted at a journal, the joy of creating and being “in the flow” makes it all worthwhile.
Thank you, Lori, for helping us to get to know you better.
It’s been a pleasure.
No operas in my lungs today
or wild horses in my pulse.
No tight-lipped mouth or drooping frame.
No chin heavy in my palm.
Just arms laid lightly on the desk –
world in my window, blue and green.
Just these shadows on the lawn,
swan’s neck, rabbit ears.
Sun on a jade and white striped chair.
Just a leaf curled on the pavement, dead
and wires stretched across the sky –
like a staff waiting for composers’ notes,
or a line of birds.
Just a taking in, a letting be,
a day held gently on the breast.