June 7, 2015 / 4:09pm
How to Remain Human (opening this Friday, June 12) is the second in a series of exhibitions by MOCA Cleveland focused on artists connected to our expanded region. The show is characterized by romance, humor and rage, full of artists who connect passionately and critically to the world in which they live. Some of the artists in the show do this by looking outward, while others make work that is deeply personal and autobiographical. Thick use of materials — paint, words, lube, cacti — is everywhere. Early in the planning of the exhibition, the Cleveland poet d.a. levy’s work shaped our thinking about these themes, as an artist who chronicled everyday life in a way that was both deeply personal and political, laying out his anger and passions in an open and uncensored way.
Born in 1942 on the West Side of Cleveland, levy graduated from James Ford Rhodes High School in 1960 and then spent an unsuccessful stint of seven months in the U. S. Navy, based in San Diego, before returning to Cleveland where he lived until his death in 1968. In an incredibly short amount of time, levy produced an enormous body of work. His impassioned, prolific output — and support of other poets through alternative platforms — made him a pillar of the underground literary community in Cleveland during the 1960s. The spirit of his work — rebellious, ardent, and raw — railed against the status quo of society. He lived with few possessions, little money, and without a permanent address for long periods of time. levy was arrested and charged with obscenity after reading a poem, Black Revolt (Hough, July, 1966), written by a teenage boy from Shaker Heights that praised the Hough Riots of 1966, as well as his perceived incitement to drug use (his poetry contains many references to LSD and marijuana). The charges were eventually dropped by the city, but had a long lasting effect on levy.
An aspect of levy’s practice that struck a chord was his generosity in supporting the work of other poets and artists. The idea of artists supporting artists, being a part of communities, and creating networks outside of art world centers, is common to many of the artists in How to Remain Human. The extensive network of poets, artists, and publishers that levy left behind through his tireless correspondence still exists today. When it came time to choose a title, we turned to levy’s poetry, eventually alighting on a line from Suburban Monastery Death Poem, his epic poem finished a few weeks before he died. It is a thick, layered poem in which he rails against the state of things in the city of Cleveland at a time of intense political upheaval:
as a poet i try to learn
how to remain human
d.a.levy, Suburban Monastery Death Poem, 1968
An incredible resource on all things d.a. levy is the Cleveland Memory Project, developed by the Michael Schwartz Library at Cleveland State University. Here you will find links to many scanned original manuscripts, as well as further readings and research.
--Elena Harvey Collins