Max Linden-Levy

I was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1949. I avoided writing, if I could, for the first ten years or so of my life. I was, on the other hand, good at blowing things up, starting fires, jumping off garage roofs and sand lot baseball. I graduated from high school and celebrated my eighteenth birthday in June of 1967. I got a BFA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1977. I got an MFA from Goddard College in 1979. I spent three years working in the National Endowment for the Arts; Artists in the Schools Program in the late 1970s. I have been the editor/contributor of a half-a-dozen small magazines that nobody ever heard of but are in some libraries somewhere.

Making Art

S&TG:  Do you use the word artist, poet, etc. to describe yourself? Do you feel like you don’t “deserve” to call yourself that because you’re not paid, published, etc. or famous? Have you always thought of yourself as an artist?

If pushed, I will resort to “writer.” I can do that with some justice because I work in a variety of genres and I was able to earn most of my living writing. I wasn’t writing, for money, what I wanted to be writing, still there was something to be learned there. So I can say, with some confidence, that I am a writer. Some people, sometimes, have called me a poet.

S&TG: And what does it mean to you to be an artist, poet, etc? And have you always thought of yourself as one? If not, when did you?

I grew up just loving words and music. I read and sang (badly) and listened to every kind of music I could get my hands on. I so admired those works and the people who made them. I wanted to make beautiful things, too. I grew up in a very talented family most of whom never really did anything much with their gifts – my Aunt, my mother’s sister, was a coloratura trained in classic grand opera. She was invited when she was “freekin” seventeen to audition for the Met in New York – she lived in fucking Iowa for god sake and for some inexplicable reason she didn’t do it. She ended up an unhappy house wife in southwestern Iowa. My whole family was like that. I just couldn’t see it. I wanted something that belonged to me. Something inside myself with which I could build something outside myself. Something filled with words and music and that might just come closer to being a real achievement. Sometimes now, when I’m feeling good about myself, I might read some of my stuff and come away smiling, feeling as if I’d reached my hand down momentarily into a hidden treasure of diamonds and rubies and what all – for just a moment it feels like maybe I did something with my life, even if almost nobody knows about it. Of course the moment only lasts a moment. Last week’s news, not bad for a tenth rate presumptuous amateur, what have ya done for me lately, baby?

I started thinking about myself as a writer when I was ten or twelve. I had very romantic dreams about who I was going to become. Of course it wasn’t just going to be writing, it was going to be a writer/soldier/teacher. You know, suffer, have great adventures, tell the young people about it.

S&TG: How long have you been making art?

Well, it depends on what one calls art. Doing writing that I didn’t have to do for say school started when I was about ten or twelve. There were a ton of old college books in a root cellar in the basement of our house – Robert Browning, John Dos Passos, Stephen Vincent Benet, Homer, Steinbeck, all kinds of stuff. And there was a library of old 78 recordings, from all the great orchestras, of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and what all – symphonies, operas. There was also a collection of big bands. So, I started working my way slowly through it all. And that pumped up my need to write down my thoughts and that expanded into little experiments. I wasn’t all studious though, I did some pretty awful stuff with some of it – I was ten or twelve. You know those old 78s were made of very heavy graphite and with a cherry bomb taped underneath they made spectacular exploding Frisbees. I’m in some pain about all that now.

S&TG: Why is your art important to you? Why do you spend time creating when you could be doing something completely different and no one else would stop you?

Well, I don’t want to be holier-than-thou about it. I often spend time doing other things instead of my – I’m kind of uncomfortable with the word – Art. How about, instead of writing. When I’m working I’m working and that is just how it is. It can be as regular as clockwork and last for months on end, seven days a week. I work, I sleep, I work. When I’m not working I’m just not fucking working, period. The reasons for the work are the same as they have always been, those feelings that came to me when I was a kid and those feelings that come when I take that sometimes moment to look back at some of it.

S&TG:  What does it feel like to create? No, seriously, what does it feel like?

Well it is a magnificent kind of whole universe isolation. I’m not unaware of things going on outside me, but I find that I am so embraced by and embraced with the work that I don’t really need anybody or anything else. I have to remind myself to eat and sleep. Luckily going to the bathroom is something I don’t have to remember to do, that is a pressing need when it is needed. So I’m walking around with the “person” who is me and also an “other” and we make jokes together and have long conversations where we plan what is going to happen next. It is kind of like being in love, you know, a constant state of fascination, but without the desperate highs and lows. It is exhausting, but it is a state of excited contentment, like trusting yourself to run for vast distances along the top of a very narrow fence and doing it.

S&TG: What kind of art do you make? What excites you as an artist?

Well, I write. I write all kinds of things. Poetry, stories, written five novels, essays, do blog rants and letters to the editor when I become irritated. I’ve written all kinds of things for money: training manuals, technical manuals, text books, legal briefs, every damn thing. Been employed to write “official letters.” Written grants for arts and education enterprises. I play around on various web sites writing little bon motes just to play with words. A number of those are actually searchable under my name. An example: Those monkeys that emphatically deny even the possibility of some basic form of biological evolution have every reason to do so in-as-much as it is apparent that evolution some how skipped their family tree — something that should properly be blamed on god — which is now where they continue to abide.

Of course, it is the writing itself that excites me and, as well, the presentation to other people hoping they will also be pleased and excited. Of course that is something I chose consciously to forgo for a very long time. Now that I’m starting to bring things that I do out in the open air again I am very excited. An old friend of mine, a writer, asked me about what I was doing now and how I felt about it and I told him, I’m the old boxer in the room now, an aging pug, but how I love the stink of the sweat and the bruise and sting of the canvas. You know, as an “artist,” as a human being, I love to play and all this is ultimate meaning of the universe play for me. I love it.

S&TG: What’s your creative process? Do you follow a routine?

Well I do, but it is so routine that I’m mostly not aware of it. Even to answer this question I’m going to have to tease it out. There are a series of recognizable steps, but naming them is pretty general because they are the result of forty-fifty years of just doing it and refining it as I go along. I live in a world of ideas and sounds and words and events and so, I suppose as habit, there is always something cooking in the brain pot, thousand of ideas about things, little lines and phrases that come and go, vivid thought representations, an enormous library of bits and pieces swirling around and then bang either something happens outside of me that jars some of the bits and pieces into something larger or some of the bits and pieces simply cohere because they are related but strange – kind of a nuclear assemblage – and I think, I want to do something about that. So I start making lists. For shorter works the list, like slowly inflating a balloon, becomes the work. In that respect, for shorter works, things happen pretty fast and most of the planning and execution takes place on the run. Larger works go through a much more formal, but essentially similar, process. The bigger the work, the more I want to know about it as I begin to crawl into the guts of it. When I’m working on something it is all I really think about. Even when life demands other things, I’m still thinking about it. Sometimes consciously – I can walk for hours just thinking through where I’m gonna go next down to the choice of individual words and even review, without a manuscript in front of me, where I need to go back and fix something so that what I’m gonna do next and what I’ve already done will fit to one another. Often unconsciously. I might be in the middle of some mundane task or involved in a conversation, or watching a movie, and some idea about the work in progress will work its way to the surface where I note it and even begin to review it even while I continue to be involved with whatever I was already doing. Physically, I bang away at it until I’ve reached some kind of unitary emotional marker in the work and then stop my forward motion and go back and start reading and changing what I’ve just done. Iterations. I do that until I absolutely have to stop because my nervous energy has reached critical over load and I can’t slow my thinking down enough to write. I do not sit comfortably when I write. I sit on the edge of the chair and unconsciously flex my legs and and stomach muscles and rock back and forth unconsciously creating a physical rhythm for the work as it goes along. When I an working with atonalities and dissonance it’s kind of like I’ve got St. Vitus Dance. So I’m pretty burned out when I’ve finished for that session. When I’m working on short things, there is no real timer on the session. When I’m in a long work it kind of settles down to a measured work period, say five hours a session. At the next session I do what I refer to as a “jump-off.” I go back and review what I did in the last or the last several sessions making fixes and changes and notes – it is kind of like getting in character again – until I reach the edge and then jump-off into what is next. When I get to a place where the piece is physically whole, I continue to pound at it for a while until I get to the point where I am uncertain about changing or not changing things because I am so close to it and so involved I no longer have any kind of dis-passionate appreciation. Then I put it away and move on to other things. I will come back to it some time when I have gotten a distance. So times a few weeks or months. More often years.

S&TG:  Are there habits or places that help you create or get you inspired?

Well, I’ve always liked being in love. That’s good for the creative juices. No, seriously, what I do is about everything and comes in all sizes. I like a nice messy, but roomy workspace, but don’t need it for anything that is relatively short. I need a certain amount of stability to “compose.” Depending on the size of the project I need appropriate blocks of time. I need to be feeling good about myself which means, essentially, no conflicts dealing with who is right or wrong, who gives the most and who is a bastard, why don’t I pay my bills (I take the phone of the hook), etc. etc.

S&TG: What have you learned about your art that’s surprised you?

Well, over time, whether I’m recognized or not, that I’m good at it. Very good at it. And that there is often more to it, more levels of complexity/meaning than I had first supposed. I often find myself looking back at something that is at a distance and wondering, how in the hell did I do that?

S&TG: Who are your creative heroes?

If you mean people whose lives I want to base my life on, no. I had those kinds of heroes when I was a kid. If you mean people whose work I admire, I suppose, but I don’t think I would use the word hero. If you mean people whose work I find seminal in my work and who inspired me, then I can speak to that, but only briefly because I study everybody’s stuff as it strikes my ear and mind – I listen very closely to some of the stuff that comes out here at the Show and Tell Open Mic. It’s a matter of trying to figure out how something that intrigues you was done. I regret that I can’t get copies of poems or cds of music with liner notes that include the lyrics so that I can listen and read. Not the first time through, of course, but on repeated exposure to things that intrigue me. But as to formative “heroes” a short list would have to include both the Dylans, Walt Whitman, Kazantzakis, Ginsberg, Barth, Cummings, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Joyce, Poe is in there, really way to many to do justice to such a list. I’ve been very involved with Salman Rushdie for about 10 or 15 years now. He writes beautifully. And it just goes on and on like that. A better answer would probably be which pieces of work have I admired and which have had some kind of formative effect on me. But that list would have thousands of entries, as well.

S&TG: What are your dreams?

To find an audience for my work. To keep getting better at what I do and find some recognition for that. I suppose to have somebody want to publish my stuff, something I can hold in my hand, something that people want to read. I want to do lots more readings. I love live performance. I suppose at some hazier reach of fantasy, I would like to teach again. I’ve learned an awful lot and would like to share it.

S&TG: What kind of support system do you have?

My daughter lives here in Portland. She feeds me frequently and takes me to a movie when she can. And when I’m broke she finds me a few extra bucks. But basically, she is happy to see me and that is more important than food or money.

S&TG: What’s the most important lesson that you want to share with a beginning artist about how to be creative?

Two things I think. The first is that it is not magic. You have to work at it. Which leads to the second thing:

The creativity a person has is innate, it’s already there. But there is a not so subtle relationship between ego and creativity – which is the double edged blade. Without some present ego, individuals might find their creativity and yet be persuaded by their own negative feelings or the feelings of others that that creativity isn’t valid. There are always going to be conflicts between one’s creative needs and the other aspects of one’s life. Finding a balance is not easy. Finding that balance is a matter of creativity, as well, but it takes an enormous amount of honest effort. The good news is anything you learn about yourself, other people and life in general fosters your art. It is not a smooth interaction, but it works.

The other side of the equation is that ego also prompts arrogance and isolation. I know a young poet who told me that he was not going to investigate any other poet’s work because he wanted to be completely original, not influenced by anybody else, not be derivative. Of course, he was missing the big picture. Everything human beings do is derivative. The question is how well and with what freshness they can take what is already there and create something new. Before art comes artifice. That is often held to be a bad word, but in this case it means craftsmanship. If you don’t understand the tools of your craft you can’t possible know what can be made, let alone make it.

Making a living

S&TG: How do you pay your bills? Etc.

I have a small, finite income, which doesn’t allow for much beyond rent and Romen noddles, that will disappear in exactly three years and four months. I should have done what I am doing now five years ago. But conscious life transitions are difficult at any age.

S&TG: How does the way you make a living right now either support or complicate making art?

Well, I’m doing what I intend to do. Everybody’s life complicates how they make art. Whether they are sitting on a pile of family money or living under a bridge. Everybody has to make choices about what they really need and what they only want – the rationalist philosophers Jagger and Richards have explained, “If you try sometime . . .” etc. You know if there are plays and films and books or master work with somebody whom you respect and you don’t have the bucks, well then you got to be creative. Once, along time ago, I wanted to watch a couple of performances by a traveling troupe of the Royal Shakespeare Company – had no bucks, so I went and found out everything I could from anybody I could and found out they needed drivers to cart the actors around. I could drive. I got to watch the performances from back stage. It was very cool.

S&TG: What’s the most important lesson you want to share with an artist about how to make a living?

If you have no obligations to anybody but yourself, then it really doesn’t much matter how you, legally, get money. I did stupid things like selling blood and signing on to day labor when I was broke to unload box cars in 90/100 degree heat. But I got lucky and was able to find some money close to the world I wanted to be in – I got to teach some as an undergraduate assistant, get other jobs around the university. The student assistant stuff led to a few years in the Artists in the Schools programs. It is a good idea to involve yourself, if you can, in the local world of the arts, to meet people and you never know that there won’t be a few gigs that can keep you going. You’ll, at least I did, still have to drive cabs or school buses or work in packing houses or foundries once in a while (or coffee shops and day care centers), especially if you live someplace that has serious winters.

If you have financial obligations beyond yourself, well that’s one of those great life watersheds. If you’ve made a good home for yourself in the world you want to live in, then it is very possible to take on additional responsibilities and continue to live in that world. For a number of reasons that was something I wasn’t able to do, but a lot of the writers and artists I was coming up with did. So I spent about 25 years “working for a living,” but I never stopped writing, I just did it in a self imposed exile.

S&TG: Do you hope to make a living doing your art one day?

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

S&TG: Do you feel having to make money limits your creative life?

No. In the last couple of hundred years, in most cultures, artists, to a great extent, came out of the middle and upper classes. But that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Poe was from a middle class family. Van Gogh was from a middle class family. Art is about life. If you are going to do art you have to do it without any preconditions and whatever you have to do to stay alive becomes fodder for your work. Besides, as Lao Tzu would have said, you never know how these things are going to turn out.

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