This interview originally appeared in the Fall 1968 edition of the Michigan Quarterly Review and is available via our archives.
E.G. Burrows: Denise Levertov is the author of some seven volumes of poetry and I think, without question, one of America’s leading poets today. She has also been very much involved in recent years in an organization called RESIST, and on behalf of the defense of her husband (her husband being Mitchell Goodman) and others indicted for assisting in resistance to the draft. Perhaps, Denise, you could fill us in on what RESIST is, and I will ask you how this has affected your life in recent years.
Denise Levertov: Mitch and I have been involved in anti-war activities for three or four years, but RESIST has only come into being during the last year. How it started is more or less like this: its origins occurred spontaneously and unconnectedly in several places at the same time. For example, in New York, Grace Paley and Carl Bissinger and some other people associated with the Greenwich Village Peace Center started an organization called SUPPORT IN ACTION, which is now the New York local of RESIST. They started that about a year ago to support local New York draft resisters. This time last year, my husband was in Stanford for ten weeks teaching in a special program called the VOICE project, and while he was there he met some of the young men who for reasons of conscience are resisting induction and opposing the whole selective service system, not merely seeking conscientious-objector status but refusing to cooperate with the selective service system at all. He was very impressed with them. There were some active people on the staff of the faculty and in the Bay area who were also forming adult support organizations in connection with these young men, people who felt it shouldn’t be the young that take the whole brunt of the struggle but that if these young men were going to be put in jail they were going to be the people standing up with them and saying “we aid, abet, and counsel these young men and what befalls them must befall us. We’re not going to let them disappear alone into jail, we’re going to put our bodies on the line to the fullest extent of our ability.” And he became during that period of two months or so very active with this group. When he came back East, he was expecting that a similar movement would spring up in the big eastern colleges as it had at Stanford and Berkeley, but nothing seemed to be happening. So in the middle of the summer he and I and a summer neighbor in Maine, Henry Braun, who is a writer and poet and teaches at Temple University, Philadelphia-we got together, in our kitchen as a matter of fact, and sat around and wrote (Mitch did most of the writing, Henry and I made suggestions, offered our support and collusion) a kind of Call to professional people above draft-eligible age to form a support-group of this kind. We got this reproduced at a local printing shop, and we sent it out to a mailing list of about 300 people we sort of summoned out memory and our own address books. In the meantime (we were rather isolated there in the country), a group of Eastern intellectuals-people including Dwight MacDonald, Noam Chomsky, and Seymour Melman-got out the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority, which was printed in The New York Review of Books and in The New Republic and one or two other places. The content of this Call was almost identical with ours. The content was identical, the wording was slightly different. So we got together with them instead of duplicating our efforts. My husband felt that we should have some specific action which would be coordinated with the planned turn-in of draft cards across the country on October 16, . The first action we planned was to be on October 16. Then he went down and talked with Coffin at Yale and with one or two other people. Instead, they came up with the idea of doing it a few days later so that we would have time to collect all those draft cards that had been turned in across the country on the 16th, and that a group of very eminent and respectable people from various professions should take these draft cards to the Justice Department. And that’s what we did. We added our little mailing list to the large mailing list that RESIST had already accumulated, and we asked people to come to Washington on that day. Six hundred people from all over the country, including many heads of departments for example Donald Kalish from UCLA, head of the Philosophy Department-several Nobel prize winners in the sciences-I think Albert Szent-Gyorgy is one of those and many clergy, doctors, teachers, mostly college teachers but also quite a number of high-school and possibly even some elementary teachers-a number of very well-known writers including (as you know by now) Norman Mailer and of course Robert Lowell, who was very supportive throughout-quite an imposing array of people, including Dr. Spock-went to the Justice Department where we had secured an appointment with an assistant attorney general, man name of McDonough, I think, and a delegation of these people, plus some young representative resisters from different places in the country, took the thousand draft cards, which at that time had been gathered, in to this man and had their interview with him. Meanwhile the rest of us had a meeting on the steps outside. The organization, RESIST, which is the adult support-group to distinguish it from “The Resistance,” which is the organization of young men of draft age, at that time was extremely loosely knit and had a sort of temporary office in New York, and subsequently developed a steering committee and a regular office with a full-time secretary in Cambridge, Mass.
EGB: Did the actual indictment of the individuals follow very quickly after this?
DL: No, it didn’t. That occurred-the March on the Pentagon was on the 21st of October, so our thing was the day before and the indictments didn’t come until the fifth of January . In fact, in Mitch’s case at least, the actual envelope with the official letter of indictment didn’t arrive until considerably after that time. The first we heard of it was when some TV and news service people called up and asked for interviews. They all arrived one after another the evening of the fifth, but we had received no official notice at all. Then, as you probably know the arraignment took place in Boston on the 29th of January, and then a period was allotted for the filing of motions, thirty days to the defense and thirty days to the prosecution…. My husband welcomed the indictment, even though it’s a plaguey thing to be mixed up with. But when he undertook the actions which led to his indictment, he knew what the odds were. He knew what he was doing could cause him to be indicted, and he knew what the penalties were. He welcomed it because the trial has seemed a valuable opportunity to publicly air certain issues.
EGB: Denise, you’ve been traveling around the country speaking on behalf of this organization as well as doing poetry readings. Has there been a decided effect on your artistic life from being involved in this sort of activity?
DL: In some ways it’s the other way around. I have found myself as a poet, long before this particular involvement, saying things in poems which I think have moral implications. I think that if one is an articulate person, who makes certain statements, one has an obligation as a human being to back them up with one’s actions. So I feel that it is poetry that has led me into political action and not political action which has caused me to write poems more overtly engaged than those I used to write, which is something that has happened to me, but that is just a natural happening. I’ve always written rather directly about my life and my concerns at any particular time.
EGB: What is it that happens to some writers who become so heavily involved in espousing causes that they become merely propagandists? What do you see as the reason for this?
DL: I think that that can happen when an artist is involved in some kind of political ideology that has a party line which he follows. I don’t think that this happens in the peace movements in this country, where so many poets in the last two or three years have been increasingly writing poems overtly concerned with war, because the peace movement in this country is not an ideology, is not a monolithic organization with a party line, which a person enters and gives up his own conscience and thought and becomes subservient to that ideology. The peace movement in this country is just an agglomeration of individuals. Some people say that this is a weakness, that it would have more power or more efficiency if it were better organized. I think that would be only a very temporary and superficial advantage. I think its great underlying strength is that it is composed of individuals who do whatever they do-do their thing-because their own conscience leads them to it, and the proliferation of organizations within the peace movement is a reflection of that fact. I think it’s basically a strength. And I think that artists who get involved with it are not affected in that way that you described, for that very reason.
EGB: The key might be-when issues touch the individual, then he can react authentically as an artist, but when those issues are on some…
EGB:… level, and don’t really concern him as an individual, then he becomes simply a propagandist.
DL: Yes, I absolutely agree. I think there is no abrupt separation between so-called political poetry and so-called private poetry in an artist, who is in both cases writing out of his own inner life. It’s like you were saying.
EGB: You spend a tremendous amount of time giving readings-and now, talking on behalf of this organization, do you wish on some occasions that this weren’t so time consuming?
DL: Well, I don’t spend that much time doing it. Actually, last year I was teaching. I was teaching part-time at Vassar and I had two days a week that were taken up by that entirely, and I had some reading engagements during the year, which either were you know-just a few bunched together so that I wasn’t away more than five days, so that I could meet my schedule, or else I think a few of them were during periods when Vassar wasn’t having classes, you know-a reading period or vacation or something like that. I didn’t spend a great deal of time giving readings last year, and this year I am not teaching. It was going to be a year off. We were going to do some nice things, which we didn’t get around to do, because it was obviously not the year to lead a sybaritic life on the beach somewhere. So in December I went on a tour like this, which was a poetry reading tour, basically, and, in each place I went, I made contact with peace groups and spoke with them, too, and sort of made myself a double schedule, and I’ve done that this time, too, and it is very time-consuming and takes up a tremendous amount of energy, but in December I was away only a little over two weeks, actually. This time I am going to be on the road the whole month of April, and I’m sure I will be exhausted by the time I am through, but then I don’t have plans for going on doing it the rest of the year.
EGB: Have you noticed or detected any new attitudes arising from either audiences or the sponsors for some of your appearances, by the fact that you are involved in this extra-poetic-shall we say-activity?
DL: Well, I try to be very… I’ve only been doing the extra-poetic activity this winter, you know. It’s true that in my readings last year I read some poems about the war, and I made my position clear, but I didn’t do the kind of thing that I did in December, and that I’m doing now; and I’ve been very careful to meet my English-department commitments satisfactorily-not to take time from them-and to do all that I was asked to-was being paid to do. So I haven’t had anybody feel that I was using an invitation for other purposes. Some of the English-department people under whose care I have been at different places have been really very sympathetic to my point of view and have encouraged me to bring in the discussion of the war and the draft. At other places, they are neutral, but they have never been hostile. Some audiences that I have spoken to in the last week, not whole audiences but some people in some audiences, have been offended by my political point of view. I spoke to high-school teachers in Minneapolis on Saturday morning, sort of an “in-service” series course of readings and discussions like the one they have here in Detroit, which you probably have heard about. (They have poets come and talk to the high-school teachers, and they also have young poets come read in the schools.) And… there were some… I felt a certain coldness, perhaps hostility, from some members of that audience.
EGB: I can imagine that there are still individuals who feel that a poet shouldn’t be involved in political or whatever kinds of activity. I think they’re becoming fewer and fewer as the years go by.
DL: I think there are. Although, if one goes to… I was in Mankato College in Minnesota, and that place is full of hawks. It’s largely apathetic, and it has a tiny number of anti-war people. It has an increasing number of McCarthy supporters, but they are liberal more than radical, you know, as many such are, and it has quite a sizable number of people who are quite hawkish, and there some people walked out on my reading, they didn’t walk out noisily or make a big fuss or anything, but I think that they were antagonized by the fact that I had dedicated my reading to the memory of Dr. King, and because I stopped and spoke about some of the issues in the course of talking about the poems.
EGB: Since you brought Dr. King into it and the fact that we have been going through a difficult period and I am sure we have more difficulties ahead of us, how do you feel all the radical problems and the urban problems in this country may conceivably affect the anti-war and draft resistance movements?
DL: It’s very difficult for me to answer the question in the way that you framed it. It would be easier to say something about… you know, if you reversed the question and say, “What is the possible effect, what is the relation of the anti-war movement to the racial question.” I think I could give an answer to that one, but I’m not….
EGB: Let’s rephrase it.
DL: Well, I feel that as long as billions of dollars are being spent on war-I don’t just feel this and I think we all know it. There are very many essential priorities here at home which are being increasingly neglected at a time when they should be increasingly attended to, and if all the money that is being put into this war-if these fantastic, fantastic sums of money were put into housing, schools, health, non-military economic development, we would have a very different racial situation here. People say, “Even if you improve the economic situation of black people in this country, you’ve still got the white people with deep-rooted prejudices.” True, but I think that a better educational system in this country, one of the things that it would do-it would begin to educate white people, too, and work upon their prejudices, and so it’s all part of one thing. One can’t consider these things separately. The moral climate would be changed, and this would affect the prejudice, and even if it didn’t affect it deeply (the prejudice of people who are now middle-aged), it would very much, I believe, affect the attitudes of young white people in communities where there is a lot of prejudice. They would begin to change. There would be a different generation.