After taking care of his child’s 2 a.m. feeding, David Livewell would put on a pot of coffee and sit at the kitchen table writing poetry, followed by a little sleep, and then he’d drive to his job in Philadelphia. The regimen paid off: Livewell, a 1989 graduate of La Salle, has received the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. He still writes late at night, but starts earlier. “I’m getting older,” says the 44 year-old Livewell.
Livewell’s manuscript of 60 poems was selected as the best from 450 submissions. Truman State University will publish his work, called Shackamaxon, this fall.
“The full realization that a book will appear has not registered yet. I’m still numb,” he said. “I’m very pleased that these poems will be gathered in one place and may gain a few more readers.” His poetry has appeared in such journals as Poetry, The Threepenny Review, Light Quarterly, The Formalist, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, and The Yale Review.
Sandra McPherson, the judge for the 2012 prize, said, “David Livewell has an affectionate way of collecting his thoughts, the poems’ impulses, his personal and shared history. In the book’s beginning he collects “Philly Things”: at the summation he and his loved ones collect together. He writes with a formal “at-homeness,” with classic rhythm he warms with imagery of the environment he shares with local and national history. Wasps on a baseball diamond, “flame-cast shadows” singeing walls: Livewell’s poems glisten with surprises of light. Through listing the abundance of his interests, he concludes, “The breathtaking and painstaking are one.” It is a book of marvelous acceptance.”
It was at La Salle that Livewell turned serious about writing poetry, inspired by the legendary English Professor Claude Koch, himself a successful writer and poet.
Livewell submitted 22 pages of his verse to Koch, who later pointed to two sentences from among the pages and said, “These are the only two lines of poetry,” and threw the rest of the work into a trashcan.
“He tried to discourage you until he knew you were serious,” said Livewell, “then he became your greatest reader and gave you all of his attention. It was an interesting tactic.”
“If not for La Salle and a few of my professors, I never would have written poetry,” said Livewell. “Claude was a beacon to all of us interested in imaginative writing. He took time with my work and fine-tuned my ear to the history and complexities of verse. Even after graduation, he continued to critique my work and encourage me.”
Koch even wrote a poem for Livewell and his wife as a wedding gift.
Other La Salle English teachers were influential, too.
“John Keenan, Br. Daniel Burke, Richard Lautz, James Butler, Stephen Smith, John McCann, John Seydow, Joe Meredith, Kevin Harty, and other professors encouraged the craft of writing as well,” he said. “I also met many fellow students who have remained friends and readers.”
Stephen Smith, now director of Graduate Studies for La Salle’s English department, recalled that, “David was my student, along with Ed Pettit, who has distinguished himself as a local Poe expert, in a Contemporary Poetry class that I taught back then. I remember Dave and Ed as a pair of students who always seemed to be together, engaging in lively discussions of art and poetry, the craft of writing, before, during, and after class. I loved both of them for their enthusiasm for poetry, their constant reminder that, yes, art does make a difference in our lives. I did not guess at the time that Dave would develop into an incredibly gifted poet whose mastery of just the right image to convey feeling and meaning makes his poetry so impressive to me. Looking back, I am not surprised; even then, he was an extremely precocious student in that he could articulate what makes a poem ‘work.’”
Livewell has also been an adjunct at La Salle teaching poetry writing. “I enjoyed it immensely. Teaching helps you to define and articulate your own feelings about poetry and writing in general,” he said.
Livewell is an editor for a non-profit cancer research organization, but the poet in him is constantly at work.
“I don’t believe much in inspiration,” said Livewell. “Lightning might strike once or twice in a writer’s career, but the rest is deep reading and observation. I do believe in staying alert and paying attention to possible metaphors, linguistic surprises, and anything in life that might lead to the start of poem. The collection will contain miscellaneous poems from the last 15 years. There are many poems set in my old North Philadelphia neighborhood but also poems about love, fatherhood, and other things that caught my attention or puzzled me.”
“Part of poetry is about creation, but the other half is about discovery,” he said. “One wants to end up in an unexpected place when the composition is complete.”