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July 15, 2019 by

Belladonna Founder Rachel Levitsky on Poetry, Politics, and What Comes Next

Rachel Levitsky calls herself a “lesbian, commie, poet, and polemicist who makes things.” And she does: Levitsky has written three full-length books and nine chapbooks herself, teaches undergraduates, and is the founder of the Belladonna Collaborative, a 20-year-old feminist avant-garde literary salon and publisher of experimental, multi-gendered, and linguistically bold titles.

Among Belladonna’s releases are award-winning texts from writers including LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs (Whiting Award) and Beth Murray, whose posthumous book of poems, Cancer Angel, won the 2016 California Book Award. Levitsky sat down with Eleanor J. Bader in Belladonna’s office.

Eleanor J. Bader: Have you always been a poet?

Rachel Levitsky: When I was a child my dad told me not to be a poet. Writing poetry was not an occupation in the Levitsky consciousness. I did not come out as a poet until 1994.

LevitskyEJB: Do you know why your father had this attitude?

RL: My parents seemed to value invisibility. My mother had been born in Germany and came to the US as a toddler in December 1939. Her uncle survived Auschwitz, but no one in my family was willing to talk about any of this and I always wanted to know more.

EJB: Is this why you became interested in history?

RL: Maybe. I was a history major as an undergraduate at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Albany and got a Master’s in American Social History. My focus was labor. My thesis looked at the way the cigar industry in Binghamton, NY became segregated by gender.

EJB: But you chose to pursue activism.

RL: I wasn’t interested in pursuing further academic study in History. I plunged into activism in New York City, joining ACT-UP and WHAM!—Women’s Health Action and Mobilization.

My job at the time was with the Home Program of the Bond Street Homeless Center run by Catholic Charities. Every night, five of us would load into a van and drive around Brooklyn trying to convince mentally-ill, chemically-addicted people to come to the Center’s drop-in program.

I did this work in 1991 and 1992, until I got a job teaching adult basic education classes for the Consortium of Worker Education (CWE), an educational organization that serves union members. In 1993-94 I taught English in Mexico. When I came back to the US, I returned to the CWE and eventually got a full-time job running an English as a Second Language program at the Painters and Finishers Apprenticeship program in Long Island City.

EJB: Were you writing poems throughout this period?

RL:  During my years in Albany, 1982 to 1988, I’d read and gone to poetry readings by lesbian feminist poets: Elly Bulkin, Hattie Gossett, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Pat Parker, Adrienne Rich, Linda Smukler. They were being published by small feminist presses, Firebrand, Aunt Lute, the Women’s Press Collective, and Kitchen Table.

When I returned to the US in October 1994, after my year in Mexico, I lived in a small, dark Manhattan apartment that a friend’s girlfriend’s parents were not using. I began being woken up in the middle of the night, fully-formed poems in my head. I think that learning Spanish—and having that dislocate certain formations, and being in the dark—made the repression of poetry impossible. I was no longer in control.

This led me to the Naropa Institute, now Naropa University, where I got a Masters in Writing and Poetics in 1998.

EJB: How was your political consciousness formed during all this creative foment?

RL: Perhaps it seems ironic today, since Zionism is associated with a digging-in to the right, but my first egalitarian political experiences, the place I first met left-wing radicals, was in Young Judea. The chapter where I grew up, in a suburb of New York City, promoted girls in leadership; for the first time in my life, I was rewarded for being outspoken.

It was later, on a one-year program in Israel in 1981 and 82, that I awoke to the facts of race, class, and gender. Israel is where my nascent feminism and progressive values developed, a reaction to the differences I saw in how European, Iranian, Iraqi, and Moroccan Jews were treated.I was volunteering in a Moroccan community in the projects of Tiberius, and the difference were literally articulated in the plan of the town. Seeing this seeded my lifelong radical, leftist, feminist politics.

EJB: What led you to found Belladonna?

RL: It became apparent to me early on in my study of poetry that there was a separation between avant-garde and feminist poets. Some of the poets I was reading, clearly feminists, were not being published by feminist presses. I didn’t understand it. As a new poet, my reading expanded to poets like Lyn Hejinian, Nicole Brossard, and Erica Hunt. They were being published in avant-garde, but not feminist contexts. 

While I was at Naropa, I tried to create a bridge between the two, and started the Left Hand Reading Series at an anarchist bookstore. I wanted it to be a place where avant-garde and left, intersectional, and feminist poetry would meet. There are traditions of this in the rest of the Americas—in Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America—but not in the US.

Belladonna got birthed in the apartment of Cindra Feuer in 1999. I’d met Cindra in 1992, on a bus traveling to a pro-choice march in D.C.  Her roommate was Katherine Welsh. Katherine had just leased the space that became Bluestocking Bookstore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I nervously asked her if I could start a feminist avant-garde reading series in the store; I envisioned it being about language experimentation. I wanted to bring in feminists who were not being published by feminist presses. It was to be an all-woman series, with both emerging and established poets and an open mic. Katherine agreed to let me do it. The series started slowly, but over time people started to show up. Later, we began going to someone’s house after the readings to continue the conversation and eat—the Belladonna salon!

EJB: And the name Belladonna?

RL:  It can mean beautiful woman and dangerous, medicinal plant. The idea of kill/cure worked for me.

EJB: How did Belladonna go from readings at Bluestocking to becoming a press?

RL: I met David Kirschenbaum   when I was in school at Naropa. By the time the reading series started, David was living in New York and coming to our readings. One day he told me he could make chaplets for events. I thought it sounded like too much work. I had a fulltime job, was trying to write, and was organizing the series, so I didn’t want to do it. But David said he’d make the PDFs and would copy everything at Wholesale Copies. They charged us two-cents a page, and with just a staple to hold everything together, we could print 50 copies for $25. We still do this, but the print run is now 125 for our chaplets. I’m grateful to David and Bill Mazza, who’ve given us their labor for years.

Still, even with the growing number of chaplets we were producing, for a long time, Belladonna was just me pulling readings together. It was not an organization. Actually, for 20 years, Belladonna was basically held together by an idea.

This morphedin 2001 when Erica Kaufman contacted me and asked to be an intern. Between 2001 and 2009, she got us into the Council on Literary Magazines and Presses and helped us get our first grants. We used this money to publish Argentinian poet Lila Zemborain’s Mauve SeaOrchid and Marcella Durand’s AREA

Erica left Belladonna in 2009 to pursue a PhD. What was now a large project was too much for me alone as a volunteer; I didn’t want to manage people. I wanted to be a writer.

Still, it was our 10-year anniversary and I wanted to publicly mark all the thinking and making that we’d done. Erica Kaufman was in school at the CUNY Graduate Center and a group of us organized a conference, held there, called Advancing Feminist Poetics and Activism. It was meant to be a swan-song. When it was all over, I really needed a break. I thought it was time to shut down but people kept approaching me with project ideas so I gathered folks in my house to talk about Belladonna’s future. This is when we became the still-all-volunteer Belladonna Collaborative.  

EJB: What do you see as Belladonna’s biggest achievement?

RL: I am proud of publishing people whose first books came out when they were in their 40s and 50s.

Belladonna is a beautiful community. Sure, there is sometimes static, but we’ve somehow managed to survive for 20 years without becoming institutionalized. I’m also proud that I was able to step back and decentralize myself. People now do things for Belladonna that I know nothing about.

 EJB: Any disappointments or regrets?

RL: It’s more of a frustration, but I hate that people shy away from fundraising. Without a paid staff, we need everyone to participate. It’s an ongoing process, but we are basically a $200,000 organization that functions on about $50,000. We need benefactors.

EJB: What’s on your current to-do list?

RL: Aside from teaching and writing? I go to Jewish Voice for Peace meetings and want to do more Israel/Palestine work.

The legacy of poet Akilah Oliver (1961-2011) is also on my mind—and I want to do a big project on fun, but I’m not yet sure what form it will take.