James P. Leveque's Words Like Fire: Prophecy and Apocalypse in Apollinaire, Marinetti and Pound is published in Legenda's Studies in Comparative Literature series. Barbara Burns has this interview.

BB. The title of your book, featuring fire, prophecy and apocalypse, is certainly arresting. How would you describe the focus of this study to someone you just met?

James Leveque

JL. I guess I would say that it’s an exploration of three poets – Guillaume Apollinaire, F. T. Marinetti, and Ezra Pound – who try, in their own unique ways, to recover the religious function of poetry. They attempt this recovery in a period where the legitimacy of both religion and poetry was challenged by the advances and discoveries in technology, communication, and travel; individual and social psychologies; ethics and philosophy; urbanization, developments in working life, and nationalism – in short, the period of European cultural history that is broadly described as ‘Modernism’.

All three of these poets are associated with the radical movements within Modernism known as the avant-gardes. It might seem counter-intuitive for avant-gardists to appeal to religion in their work – and it’s true that they all had serious reservations about the presence of traditional religious views in the modern world – but most religions have some element of utopian thinking, where our redemption lies just around the corner. It’s partly for that reason that the Bible figures prominently in this book: it provides so many rich reference points for poets who frequently have their eyes fixed just over the horizon.

BB. What brought you from the US to the UK, and how did you get interested in this research topic?

JL. I had done undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in literature in California. My second degree was actually in Biblical Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. By the end of that degree, I knew that I wanted to do a PhD in Comparative Literature, but I didn’t really have a dissertation topic in mind. So, at the suggestion of a friend who had been studying at Edinburgh, I took a one-year masters in Comp Lit there. I was introduced to the work of Apollinaire (which often blatantly pilfers from the Bible) during the course, and that’s when I had the idea to try to work with Modernist and Biblical literatures as part of my PhD project.

BB. Which factors motivated you to settle on Apollinaire, Marinetti and Pound, and in what ways do you think their vision of society has an ongoing resonance in the twenty-first century?

Marinetti (left) and Pound (right) were both photographed by avant-garde friends in 1913 (resp. Emilio Sommariva and Alvin Langdon Coburn)

JL. There wasn’t really any formula that made these three poets fit together like puzzle pieces. They are all associated with the European avant-garde during World War I; they were generally aware of each others’ works; and each has writings that turned out to be very useful for the study but that haven’t received much critical attention.

As far as resonance in the twenty-first century is concerned, all three of these poets, to one degree or another, were sceptical of political solutions to the social and spiritual crises of the day – hence their adoption of the avant-garde tendency to trouble the distinction between art and politics. Pound believed that the basic reason for such crises was that Europe had lost touch with a transcendent tradition of beauty and morality; Marinetti wanted to push through the crises and embrace technology. Both variations have resonance with forms of conservative or reactionary thought today. Apollinaire is more difficult to place: he didn’t become a fascist like Pound or Marinetti, but he also wasn’t dedicated to left politics. I think – or at least I hope – that Apollinaire’s work is keeping alive the question of how an artist (or anybody, really) can maintain their integrity as an individual whilst also dedicating themselves to a community or people or nation. Because so much of his poetry is about having faith that there is a ‘we’ out there.

BB. You clearly needed detailed knowledge of the Bible for this project. Did you approach this material for the first time through formal study as an adult, or did you have a religious upbringing?

JL. I came to this material mainly as an adult. My upbringing wasn’t particularly religious, but I’ve always had some interest in spirituality. I did study the Bible academically, at GTU, and during that time, I also took a course in the sociology of religion. That course really influenced my later research – as you might have guessed from all the references to Weber and Bourdieu. I really started looking at the Bible through that sort of lens, thinking about what all of these literary-religious figures were doing for the wider society that was reading the Bible. It was also good preparation for looking at the Modernist avant-gardes, which were as much social phenomena as artistic.

BB. Could you give us a brief quotation from a poem that encapsulates the focus of your study?

JL. These are a few lines from Apollinaire’s ‘Sur les prophéties’:

Tout le monde est prophète mon cher André Billy
Mais il y a si longtemps qu’on fait croire aux gens
Qu’ils n’ont aucun avenir qu’ils sont ignorants à jamais
           Et idiots de naissance
Qu’on en a pris son parti et que nul n’a même l’idée
De se demander s’il connaît l’avenir ou non
Il n’y a pas d’esprit religieux dans tout cela

[Everybody is a prophet my dear André Billy
But for so long people have been made to believe
That they have no future that they are forever in the dark
           Idiots from birth
That what’s done is done and nobody has even thought
To ask if they know the future or not
There’s nothing religious in any of this]

These lines begin optimistically, as though Apollinaire is resuming a debate with his friend, suggesting that the latter’s implied point is overly bleak. Apollinaire is subtly recalling the famous lines from the Book of Joel: ‘I will pour out My spirit on all flesh; Your sons and daughters shall prophesy; Your old men shall dream dreams, And your young men will see visions.’ It’s an inspired thought, tempered by the pitiable view that Apollinaire presents of people in the here-and-now: deluded, defeated. This tension between the possibilities of modernity and the current state of affairs is something that the avant-garde is constantly struggling with.

Apollinaire in 1916, wounded by shrapnel; André Billy sitting for a more comfortable portrait in 1923. Billy ought to be a hero for all bloggers: he turned in 11,000 short newspaper articles over the course of his life, though he also wrote religiously-inspired novels

BB. What was the most surprising aspect of this research project?

JL. Seeing how interconnected so many vastly different literatures, spanning thousands of years, can be. I chose to focus on biblical literature as the intertextual ground to connect the works of these three poets, but I honestly could have chosen classical Greek or Roman literature, medieval European literature, or various non-Western canons, and still kept the same three poets. It would have produced a very different project, but one that was no less rich.

BB. Students tend to be afraid of studying poetry. Why do you think this is, and what teaching tips do you have to help students feel more comfortable with poetry?

JL. I suppose students are trained to see language as something that relates specific ideas, and poetry often doesn’t do that. Often students who aren’t used to reading or studying poetry ask, ‘What is this supposed to mean?’ and I don’t have a good answer for them because many poems aren’t too bothered about meaning in the sense that the student expects. What I’ve sometimes done when teaching poetry is have students describe the poem using the vocabulary of a different art form such as painting (shade, line, brush stroke) or music (tone, harmony, rhythm), just to show how reading poetry is a little closer to (but not totally identifiable with) making sense of a painting or piece of music.

Tools of the trade: the open mike and the lectern

BB. Are you involved in the contemporary poetry scene yourself? How would you describe poetry’s state of health today?

JL. I used to write a lot of poetry and do open mics when I lived in Scotland, and even in my hometown of Fresno, California, but have fallen out of the habit in the last few years. It was great. There was a lot of creativity and support. Poetry has been a marginal literature, compared to novels at least, for a long time now. But in my experience, that just didn’t matter. Nobody acted like they were marginalized. There were always new people showing up to see what the fuss was all about, bringing fun and interesting ideas. I never felt like I was carrying the dead on my shoulders.

BB. What do you do for fun outside academia?

JL. I’ve rediscovered an amateur interest in drawing and painting. I’m also slowly working on an historical novel about the Mexican Revolution and Apollinaire’s younger brother. I have a one-year-old daughter who keeps me very busy. Hopefully, I’ll get back into the habit of writing poetry, as well.

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