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Conversation with James Schevill: reflection on false dreams, words and real stories

By Adam David Miller
Monday March 19, 2001

Recently, I was privileged to spend several afternoons visiting with James Schevill, esteemed friend and poet, Berkeley born and bred. I would like to share something of our talks about his life and work with Daily Planet readers 

His literary publication spans more than half a century, from Tensions, 1947 to New and Selected Poems, Swallow Press, 2000. His work includes other volumes of verse, a novel, plays and two biographies.  

Our talks meandered. 

“I wrote my first poem after Kristallnacht, the night in 1938, when Nazi storm troopers went through the country destroying Jewish properties and desecrating Jewish cemeteries,” he told me. In Germany studying music, he happened to be in Freiburg visiting a friend. When he saw what havoc the Nazis had wrought, and that they had built fences to conceal their desecrations, he was profoundly moved. 

A developing political consciousness infused his work thereafter. 

Of his Stalingrad Elegies, 1964, a critic wrote in the summer 1965 Virginia Review Quarterly, “Schevill does more than reflect on his time; he recreates his time as an emblem of all times.” 

The Complete American Fantasies, 1996, is his favorite work. “We have no myths, except that we’re a democracy,” he says. Schevill’s poetry exposes the collective fictions and false dreams that we in the United States live. We do not live in a white country, he says. 

He allows his mind to go where it will, and come back and tell us where it’s been. Not travel pieces, but poems that give us his sense of what he’s seen and experienced in such places as Haiti, U.S.S.R., Mexico, Europe, and many regions of the United States.  

Your music study accounts for the musical quality of much of your work, I suggested. “Yes, several of my pieces have been set to music. Poetry has to have music, and rhythm. It’s always been that way. You can even look at today’s rappers.” I agreed. 

Howard Nemerov says of Schevill’s verse, “The excitement of language depends for him on its jaggedness, its eccentricity.” In The Buddhist Car and Other Characters, “the marvelous and the mundane rub shoulders.” Schevill admires “the constant transformations” in the Armenian poet Balakian’s work. “It’s death to the poet when you lose the impulse to experiment,” he emphasizes. 

Schevill, who has also written a novel and a biography, is Professor Emeritus of Literature at Brown University. 

One of his strengths: as poet and dramatist is his ability to so thoroughly imagine the lives of his characters that he can evoke them for us in their voice. His work in theater shows in his verse, much of which is dramatic monologue. 

Schevill likes theater for its immediate response from the audience. When you’ve produced a play you know whether it’s a success or not. The audience tells you. 

Throughout his life he has worked not only as artist, but to support the community of artists. He was an early director of the San Francisco Poetry Center. He presented plays at San Francisco’s Actor’s Workshop, an experimental group and served on its board of directors.  

His proudest moments: “When I do my best work.”  

One of the aims of his work is to restore people to poetry. In restoring people to poetry Schevill lets his characters tell their stories. 

As we continue telling our stories to each other, we are led inevitably to talk of our advanced age and its losses. “Our friends’ dying reminds me of my own mortality,” he says. 

Followers of his work will be happy to hear that he is continuing to write, after a crippling stroke suffered February a year ago. When I ask what he is working on now, he answers without hesitation, “I am working on poems and a new play.” 

“Be sure to tell them about my most recent book.” New and Selected Poems represent what Schevill thinks are the strongest pieces from his books of verse. 

William Butler Yeats wrote some of his finest poems when he was 80. If James Schevill, born in 1920, continues to write at the level of the new pieces in New and Selected Poems, he will do the same. 


Poet Adam David Miller is the author of Land Between and Apocalypse is My Garden.