Mark Pawlak was a working-class kid from Buffalo when he arrived at MIT to study physics. He writes that he was “a physics major interested in poetry,” but not yet a poet himself, when he signed up for a class taught by the already-prolific poet Denise Levertov.
“I was always a very curious person. I had no intention of being a poet when I first encountered her,” he said. “But I really became intrigued.” Pawlak left MIT and left physics, partly out of worry that an advanced physics degree would end up making him complicit in the building of weapons — “I made a conscientious decision not to do that,” he said.
Today, Pawlak can boast four decades as an educator, editor, and poet — he’s published nine volumes of his own verse — and his latest book traces the influence of Levertov on his trajectory. “My Deniversity” (MadHat Press) is part memoir, part tribute: Although the events unfold over the three decades of their friendship, the book’s primary focus is on the Boston area in the 1970s, a time of antiwar activism and do-it-yourself literary production.
Levertov’s influence on him, Pawlak said, “was profound. I was a precocious science student, but other, worldly things I knew nothing about. It was a heady time.” The poetry scene Pawlak recalls in “My Deniversity” was one filled with “lots of small, independent bookstores,” he said. “Writing was seen as a connected to social progress, social justice issues, and antiwar issues. Poetry readings to raise funds or to draw attention to particular issues were commonplace at the time. And Denise was very much part of that.”
Above all, Pawlak added, Levertov conveyed crucial ideas about how to pursue life: “Having the persistence to believe in yourself, to read and read deeply, and engage in conversation with people in a critical discourse, is really what leads to be being an artist.”
Mark Pawlak will read 7 p.m. Wednesday, in person, at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square. The event will also be live-streamed. For more information visit www.grolierpoetrybookshop.org.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at email@example.com.