LeVan D. Hawkins
A Portrait of an Artist
Writer, poet, and performer LeVan D. Hawkins grew up in Robbins Illinois, a suburb south of Chicago. Established in the early 1900’s, Robbins is 95 percent African American and according to LeVan’s work, filled with an array of citizens from society matrons to thugs, from those with no ambition to extraordinarily proud and driven people. LeVan has also spent over two decades in West Hollywood, California, a city at that time, close to 90 percent white. The exposure to these polar opposite communities has given him a perspective that is rare and that will be on display in his memoir, What Men Do, which he is currently shopping. The memoir documents LeVan’s return to Robbins to live and addresses his intense relationship with his recently-met twenty-seven year-old nephew. Robbins and West Hollywood are as vibrant as the main characters in the book- where the reader gets exposed to the good, the bad, and the ugly. Through e-mails and text messages, LeVan was gracious enough to reveal some intimate details about his work as an artist and the influences that define his writings and performances. The Q&A was edited for length.
What inspired you to bridge poetry and performing art together? Would you say your poems can’t exist without the performance element applied to it?
I’ve been performing in front of audiences since I was a child. I started at church. I did forensics as part as a speech team in high school. My degree is in theater from the Art Institute of Chicago. There are performing elements in pretty much everything I create. Some of the pieces are meant to be read, others are meant to be seen and heard but anything I write, I can turn into a performance. It’s all coming from the same place. I would say, though, I am more interested in theatrical poetry. Poetry as theater and drama.
Obviously, your upbringing has influenced your work. Is there any other thing besides your personal life your creativity is inspired by?
Saying I’m inspired by my personal life makes me seem sort of self-absorbed or more self-centered than I am. I’d like to think I’m not. Once a reviewer called my work “personal yet political.” I like that description. I’m trying to figure whether I take something that happens in my personal life and expand on that or whether I take something political, social and find some way to make that anecdotal. I want to say the latter but I don’t know if that’s totally true. Perhaps I use something in my life when I believe it makes a much larger point. Sometimes I think of myself as an evacuation project and I’m just digging to see what’s there, what has made an impression. Every artist has their upbringing and experiences. I believe the personal is in their work even when the work is at its most abstract. Most of my work is in first person so it’s a little more obvious. It’s not always totally true though, it reflects me by being something that fascinates me.
I spent the first three months of 2016 reading the essays of James Baldwin. He was quite emphatic about not being a sociological symbol. We are human beings experiencing sociological problems – racism etc. Currently, I am my mother’s primary caregiver. This has been going on nine years. Dealing with my mother is my human experience and it and my sanity and health take precedence over me being more involved in the world or having anything resembling a social life. That being said, I do a lot of reading and pondering. Most of the pondering is done in private with a few close friends. I try to keep with what’s going on in the world and I ask myself, ‘How do I express all that I am, all that makes its way to my gut, in my book?’ I see my book as my contribution to the world. Have to get it done!
Could you explain the creative process you undergo when creating a new piece?
A lot of pondering, a lot of note-taking. Then some free association. Sometimes, nothing comes up right away but if I keep at it, I know through experience that something will come up. These days, I’m concerned with quieting my mind, slowing down, digging to find out what’s there. I’m always thinking and though my body is present, sometimes I’m just not there. I’m thinking. Every now and then, something occurs and I am intensely present. I pay a lot of attention to what attracted me and what I see.
I am very interested in multi-media. I would love to collaborate with a visual artist. I did a satire on black male identity called “Black Stuff” with actor and writer Alexander Thomas with visual art from visual artist, poet and performance artist Pat Payne. I loved that experience. My work in that was influenced by rap records, with samples, skits, blunt subject matter, and the aim of “keeping it real.” I often think of making a record and album when I’m putting a show together. What else? I watched the PBS documentary on “Hamilton” and my brain felt like it was going to explode from inspiration. Research, metaphor, contradiction, facing truth. YES! But I don’t know what’s going on in the creative world the way I would like. I’m aware I don’t. Sometimes I lament that. I try to read a lot of reviews and articles on new art and visualize them.
I had a plan. I wanted to complete my book and branch out from there. I’ve been pretty disciplined at that. My memoir incorporates storytelling, poetry, solo performing, public speaking, and performance art and places that voice on the page. I’m interested in expressing me and my interests. I’ve seen a lot more art lately. I recently visited the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. I’m more up on that world but if you asked me to describe what’s going on – I wouldn’t know how to articulate it.
I’m fascinated with the artistic decision to create metaphor versus creating the literal. Turning experience into metaphor and deconstruction. Who knows? That could be my objective and still, the work will come up sounding like me. Perhaps I will only move a millimeter and I will be the only one aware of it.
Is writing poetry and memoir therapeutic? If so, what rewards you gained from them?
Well, with the memoir, I’m learning about myself, how I feel about things, getting a better handle on what has occurred in my life. I also find myself empathizing with behavior that I had disapproved of. In myself and others though, I find I’m much kinder to others. I think it’s good to ask what made this person behave that way and really examine the possibilities.
With the poetry, I receive messages from poems I’ve written. They’re fully formed when I write them but I don’t always get their messages until I need healing. It’s like they are waiting to teach me lessons. Last week, I received a message from this performance poem I wrote about killing the young me whose freedoms and lack of inhibition caused me too much trouble. The piece is about Aretha Franklin and sexuality. At the end of the poem, the old me rises and declares:
My love is oblivious to decorum
My sex is slurred and unpronounceable
My hurt is hummed and immeasurable
But my belief is all-powerful and inescapable:
I cannot be ignored
I forgot that the old me rose. I tried to kill the old me. The old was free and would NOT die. I needed to remember that.
What other poets, dead or alive that inspires your work?
I started with an anthology called Black Voices. It had tremendous impact on me. The idea of I could write about my life. I found it while I was attending a College Bound Program at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. I spent two or three summers there. I discovered Langston Hughes – his Harlem world was so Robbins and he was accessible. My high-school at that time was in Robbins and they had the most wonderful library and librarians. Lots of African American literature. I remember an Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee album of them reading Langston Hughes. I wore that out. I devoured James Baldwin’ s fiction. “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is as close to my life as any book. I wasn’t confined to poetry. I just read. I run into my high school’s librarian every now and then, usually at a funeral. She cared about the students and spent a little more time with students like me who she felt had promise and was interested in learning. My heart leaps when I see her; I am once again fifteen. In that library, I learned about Amira Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Don Lee. Somewhere along the way, I discovered Robert Frost, and Anne Sexton. Sexton appealed to my emotional struggles of feeling unloved and struggling with my identity as a man who loves men. James Baldwin put that identity in context and inserted it into a world like Robbins. I recently visited the Robert Frost Museum in Vermont. Still pondering that experience and attempting to articulate all that I got out of it. At that time, I felt it was life-changing. I’m looking for my notes to see why.
Where, in the future, you would like to see poetry and performing art heading?
You know I have no idea. I don’t really know where things are. I am not up on things as I was in the late nineties, early aughts when I attended everything and read and performed almost weekly. I still have the curiosity. That thirst burns within me. Get out and expose yourself to as much as possible. Don’t have limitations. I started in poetry and I went to three or four readings a week. I loved the World Stage in Leimert Park and the Hyperpoetics Series at the Rose Café, both in LA. They were more literary venues. I went to others but those two had an effect on the way I thought and wrote. I have featured at the Stage quite a bit and I was asked to feature at the Hyperpoetics Series but they closed before I could do it. I considered those invites an honor; I had learned my lessons well. Though those places focused on poetry, they affected all my writing. Then I started performing at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica and it became another home for me. I was taking everything in. I brought all I had experienced, what I saw, what I learned, what I was going through to my performance work.