Interview: Levi The Poet

After hearing Levi The Poet’s Cataracts, released earlier this year, I knew the four-year wait for between full-length records was worthwhile. I had been a fan for several years, although unfortunately, I missed his last Columbus show in November of 2017. I was fascinated by the subject matter in his music and his weekly newsletters, so I reached out about an interview.

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Photo by Ellie Jeffers.

Indientry: How was your break? You just went on a vacation, right?

Levi: Yeah, I did. It was nice! Me and Brandi have been going pretty hard on Levi the Poet stuff for the last six months or so. We got home from the Europe tour we did with the Listener guys and we got home for a few days, and then went and visited some friends. I have a friend out in southern California who took me to Coachella with him and his friends, so that was kind of fun, but- well, no buts, it was really fun, it’s just that Coachella is kind of ridiculous. I feel like it’s just a meme on the internet. *laughs* But it was rad. So I did that, and then me and Brandi went and visited a couple of friends that are living down south in New Orleans and Atlanta. It was really nice.

That’s good! How is Gilbert? That’s a personal question of mine.

He’s good! I’ll bring him in here at some point. He’s been sleeping in the same spot on the bed since I got up this morning at 8:30. He’s just… living the life – the life we all want, Gilbert is living.

Your performance is definitely pretty unique. Another thing that kind of goes along with that with Cataracts is that all of the tracks connect with the line “keep forgiving”. How did you go through that process of figuring out forgiveness of yourself and others and how difficult that can be? What did that look like for you?

Man, it’s open-ended. But it’s a good question! I think.. Well, a couple of funny thoughts that came through. The whole CD, I meant for every track to have that line, like you said, “keep forgiving”. I sent it out to some people for some album reviews, and someone wrote an album review that they posted online, and I went and read it. They were like, “oh, yeah, it says ‘keep forgiving’ in every track except for”… I think it’s “Big Business” with JGivens. It was so funny, they kind of flipped it and read into it, like, “maybe he didn’t put ‘keep forgiving’ in for this reason, or this reason”. I read the review, and I was like, “wait a minute! That- that song doesn’t have that line in there? I totally meant for-” *laughs* Literally the first time it registered in my brain that I totally left it out, when I- anyway, it was just really funny, ‘cause I was like, “CD’s done, it’s released, everyone has it, it’s distributed” and that’s the first time I find out that that lyric isn’t in the song. I totally missed it.

Anyway. It’s been such a process and it’s still a process at times. The Cataracts record… I mean, all of my work is personal to an extent; I think Correspondence was probably the thing that was the most outside of who I am, but obviously I’m still the writer and it carried aspects of who I am in it… Cataracts, I think, was as much of a good thing for me to have out as it was for, hopefully, other people to hear, it felt. And my wife sort of described it as a record that I needed to do for me as much as for anybody else. I think she’s right; in that way, I worked a whole lot out in that record… maybe that’s even part of it, part of that “keep forgiving”, a part of your question. Actually figuring out what needs to be forgiven… in me and in others. A lot of the record is sort of a critique of… I don’t know, evangelicalism, for lack of a better word. But at the same time I think that that idea… that amounts to part of my experience. At the same time, I think that that idea of keep forgiveness definitely extends beyond whether or not you can relate to some sort of church, or something like that.

I didn’t really want it to be that narrow of a record, but you can obviously go that direction a little bit. Ironically, that idea of “keep forgiving” sort of came from an experience… or, the pastor of this church that ended up coercing me through a lot of difficulty and things like that. But it was cool to take his words and apply his words to him and then to myself, too. He talked a lot of the time about how, potentially–at least for us–forgiveness isn’t a one-time thing, maybe it’s something that needs to happen over and over; being a person who follows Jesus and is following His teaching, and seeing the way that He talks about forgiving, seventy times seven, and all of these different things… it’s something that I’ve wanted to bring into a record that was largely critical so that that criticism can also be balanced, I hope, with some form of humility, but also recognizes that I’m in need of that forgiveness as much as anyone else is. I didn’t want to just write a record that was a finger pointed away from myself as though I bore no responsibility in the things that I was talking about. Did I shy away from your question?

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Photo by Ellie Jeffers.

Not at all! Along the lines of evangelicalism–and not to assign some meaning to your words that you didn’t put there–but it kind of felt similar to this idea of how people can misunderstand both Christianity and how Christians are supposed to behave or act like. I know you wrote a piece called “Fuck Death,” which was similar. Do you often worry about your words getting twisted and people taking them as something you didn’t intend?

It’s a funny question–I literally last night was having a conversation with my wife about recognizing the fear that exists inside of me and wondering how often fear is the place that I function from. That doesn’t really have to do with the question other than it’s something that I’ve been thinking about. The answer is yes, to a degree; it has been scary at times, articulating things in the way that I feel like are most meaningful, whether that’s to me or with the people that I most want to connect with in my audience, because my audience is bigger than just those folks.

And yet at the same time, like when it came to that “Fuck Death” piece, it remains probably my favorite thing that I’ve written, poetry or album-worthy or blog or otherwise, just because I finally felt… and it was circumstantial, too. During that time–and I talked about it in that blog–I was sitting, waiting for my mom to be remarried, following all of this horrible family stuff that we had gone through, and I really just felt like it was truly not for the sake of offense, but legitimately just the most redemptive thing that I had to say. It meant something substantial to me because of that, and because that’s not a way I speak publicly often, but I felt like it captured exactly what that Easter–which is when I decided to release it–meant to me.

In regards to fear, I was afraid, and some of my fears were warranted; I lost some support because of that and had people calling and writing. I had a lot of people deciding that it was just immaturity that drove that blog in the first place, and sometimes I wrestle with that, you know? Maybe someday I will agree with them. I’m fine with that possibility, but that’s still something I continue to be proud of.

And to a degree, I really feel like my work isn’t all that controversial, especially anymore. *laughs* Now people just say whatever the heck they want to say, and maybe that’s my own deterioration of conscience. I don’t know exactly what that means, but hopefully it’s not that. I still feel like I hold conviction about things… I try to be respectful and be honest, but I am not really that big of a stranger to folks deciding that I’ve gone too far, and that’s sort of been the case since I started this thing. It’s also something that I’ve generally disagreed with, and hopefully have seen the proof of, continuing forward in the vein that I always have in one degree or another.

I can get too up in my head about it, so cut me off at any time, but I do think that it can be difficult to navigate those waters, and that’s something that we’re called to- or that I feel called to- as a sort of tension, like… how do I love people well, but also how do I not bend to their wants and whims because of the fear that I feel? And, at some point, the pedestal that I can place other people and their affirmation on, when maybe those aren’t the people that I’m trying to talk to in the first place. I don’t know… it’s definitely a struggle, it’s a back-and-forth thing. I don’t think I’m alone or unique in that by any means. It’s there, I think, for any artist that’s trying to do something.

For sure. There’s this one quote that I want to refer to; In Motion Made Visible Memories Arrested in Space, you say “surrender is more than a verbal assent to the idea of surrendering”. In a lot of your weekly letters, you’ve talked about what these past couple years have looked like in terms of a change of mindset. Was that physical surrender part of that, and what did that look like for you?

Yeah, certainly. It’s funny; I feel like the word “deconstruction” is such a junk drawer word at this point in time, and it feels so overplayed and it almost feels like a sales pitch. And maybe that’s just my cynicism, because I’m not really frustrated with the idea of it. But things become cliche for a reason, right? It was my experience, and it may still be; I’m not certain at what point you decide, “oh, I’ve made it!” At the point you decide that you’ve made it, you probably need to start falling apart again. That’s sort of the idea of, like, God is the iconoclast. He’s always ripping apart your perceptions of Him and rebuilding them.

I don’t know that there’s a better word than deconstruction that I’ve found to describe what a lot of my experience has been over the last few years. I don’t know who enters into it willingly; we’re always pulled there whether through suffering or some sort of experience that pushes us in that direction. I do think that has been something I’ve experienced throughout the last few years. I think that that line in particular was sort of synonymous with a lot of what I felt like I was learning anew about what it actually means to have faith. Is faith just an assent to an idea that I can acknowledge and say, or does it look like something more practical?

I read a book called “The Sin of Certainty”, which is sort of a controversial book, but it was helpful for me and described some of the experience that I had coming out of the community that I was a part of. The author talks about how faith is more like a trust fall than just an assent to something. Certainly it might be both, but he was really sort of challenging the idea that you can just walk around and say that you think these things, or say that you believe these things, but are you willing to–you know, like in middle school where you stand up on something and close your eyes and then there’s a whole bunch of people with their arms out waiting for you, and you just hope that they don’t move away and you fall on the asphalt and die. You know? *laughs* That was his analogy, and to me it was really challenging because I had a really hard time allowing the Lord to move me past my comfortable, all-knowing, omniscient Levi place, which is… a dramatic way of saying it, but in a lot of ways it felt like, “okay, how do I learn to trust You again, even in all of this unknown when I thought I knew it all?” I’ve fleshed that out a bit more, like you said, in the LTP Weekly, and the Fraction and all of this other stuff that I do, records and all… It’s been a trust fall-y couple of years, which I’m sure is good, but has not been easy.

Your work is definitely pretty cathartic, especially live when you are so emotive and expressive. Do you think poetry will ever become less cathartic, or will it always be this emotional release, whether that’s on a stage or personally?

I hope it doesn’t become less cathartic or meaningful or valuable to me. I don’t feel… like it has yet. But I would be lying to say that I don’t struggle more to actually get stuff out that I like. At least recently. I don’t know, it’s kind of a weird thing to say, and it’s not something you should say as a person who’s doing this for a career. People go through seasons and I get that, people go through times where they love or hate whatever job they do–not that I hate this, but where they feel more or less capable of doing the things that they’ve been doing. I’m not exactly sure where that stems from.

I think I can get impatient with my work, because it takes me a really long time and I wish that I could just get to what I’m thinking about in a shorter amount of time. That would at least be freeing for me to be able to describe it better. I remember reading this quote from this writer who says that she hates writing, but she loves having written. I feel like that sometimes captures my emotion about it pretty well. To sit down and write is more often than not a really daunting task that kind of scares me, if you want to know the truth. However, when I am patient with it and when I sit down and find the words.

I remember reading Stephen King talking about what it was like to write, and he would describe it as archaeology, where they exist somewhere, but you have to uncover them. When I do that work, I love it. I love having done it. I guess that is the answer to your question, then: no, I don’t feel like that want will ever go away, because when that work is done, I’ve found something that is grounding, and that’s one of the coolest experiences. It’s like finding the last puzzle piece that your niece put in her mouth and then spit out underneath the couch cushion, and you haven’t seen it for God knows how long, but you’ve finally found it and the puzzle’s finally complete, and it’s such a satisfying feeling! You get to see this picture that was so hard to see while you were working on it, and it finally becomes something that you can take a step back from and think, “oh wow, I get it now, and maybe I can help other people see this picture too”. That’s the best answer I’ve got for it, but I really do enjoy it. I hope it never goes away.

I know you’ve definitely helped me see things better, and a ton of other people.

I’m glad! I’m glad that hasn’t stopped happening since Cataracts came out. I was worried it would scare people away, so thanks for being willing to listen. I always appreciate the folks who are willing to do a little more work and dig beneath the surface as opposed to just writing something that’s scary, straight-up. So thank you for that.

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