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A Kerry Leves memorial

kerry at katoomba - Jenni Nixon

A Shrine To Lata Mangeshkar Puncher and Wattman, 2007 (Shortlisted for both the 2009 NSW Premiers Prize and Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize)
Water Roars, Illusions Burn Vagabond Press, 2002
Territorial AnT Studios, 1996
Green, Poems 1971-78 Sea Cruise Books, 1978

It is with great sadness that we commemorate the death of Kerry Leves, poet, reviewer, man of great heart, spirit and intellect, and long-term friend and contributor to Overland.

In keeping with his open-hearted generosity, we have invited a few of Kerry’s closest friends to write here with their fondest personal memories and recollections. John Stephenson has kindly contributed an intimate and thoughtful obituary.

For me personally, I will never forget the cheeky intelligence of Kerry’s eyes and laughter, and the sweet warmth of his hug. I will miss him dearly.

We invite you to share your own memories of Kerry below.

Peter Minter
Poetry Editor

JS Harry

I first met Kerry at the poetry workshops at Sydney University in ’69/70. They were initiated by Jim Tulip, David Malouf and Phil Roberts who were lecturing in the English department there. I think the idea was to facilitate the development of younger Australian poets. Jim Tulip had given an introductory lecture on the ‘New American Poetry’ and was very enthusiastic about it.

Kerry had escorted Vicki Viidikas to the workshop. As he told me later, her husband had refused permission for her to go to the workshop, which would have involved crossing from Balmain to Broadway at night, unless she had an escort. Kerry had volunteered as he was keen to go and happy to escort Vicki.

My last memory of him was in the dusk of the evening before the day he died. Trish Dearborne had brought a poetry anthology into the hospice and had been reading to him some poems by Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. He read a little himself, aloud.

He was very weak as food and water had been withdrawn – he was well into the dying process by that time.

After Trish left it was too dark to read so I recited a poem I’d been working on, it was the only thing I knew by heart that seemed as if it might have been appropriate.

He smiled as I got towards the end. His whole face relaxed as if he was imagining from the lines.

He smiled the sweetest smile, murmured ‘nice’ very softly, lay back on the pillow and closed his eyes.

It was the last time I heard him speak.

This is the poem.

	In a Dry,  Dreaming

                                             Wheat farmers

                                             in their season,

                                             lands sowed

                                                                 waiting,

                                             all their money

                                             banked, if

                                             o
                                             n
                                             l
                                             y

                                            they could draw it

                                            d
                                            o
                                            w
                                            n     

                                            net black, in the balanced
                                            ledger :           no longer
                                                                   in the red:

                                             that thin
                                             white line

                                             still high  in the sky:

                                             cloud,

                                              their future bread.

Kerry Leves - Photo: Jenni Nixon

John Stephenson

It was fitting that poets attended round him in his last days. Kerry Dallas Leves, a fine poet himself and supporter always of Australian poetry, a literary reviewer of long-standing, particularly with Overland, whose work was unique in its succinct, appreciative constructivity alongside a pinpoint deftness in the occasional necessary critical dispatch, died on May 5th at the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst, Sydney, of lung cancer.

Leves hadn’t become a Catholic; his bedside encompassed a Buddha and a Hindu goddess picture as well as a crucifix; but he loved the caring treatment he received there and was loved by the staff in return. They came individually to farewell him.

He was sixty-three, born in Balmain to parents of contrary temperament though of intelligence and sensibility, not well-off; he was an only child, with his father a First War veteran. Leves grew up in Sydney through the baby-boom years, an alert, truly amiable, open-minded man, enriching that mind from all reaches of culture. To say his intellect was well-furnished falls as short as announcing that Versailles has varied décor.

He graduated originally in Italian and Fine Arts, and made an early mark in art reviewing. He spent substantial periods of time in the UK and in India, this last country having a deep influence on his poetry and spirituality. After returning to Australia he taught English superbly to foreign students, to migrants and to prisoners, and the art of instructing to work certificate instructors. His professional colleagues recognized him as a teacher’s teacher.

Yet literature remained his muse and even on his deathbed – inspirationally to all who witnessed it – he was close to concluding a magnificent doctoral thesis on the Australian novelist Randolph Stow. Four selections of Leves’ own poetry were published and his work included in many other collections. He had been listed to read new work at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May but his death intervened.

Leves was a man with a great gift for friendship, connecting immediately with those around him from all areas of life. The chaplain at his Hospice was moved to say that Kerry Leves was in a small band of palliative patients he had observed across the years: those who gave more than they received.

Leves spent many years in the Blue Mountains. The local shopkeepers, the tradespeople, even the professionals that he consulted may not have realized the occupations of this friendly, affable, hospitable man. To encourage the region’s poets he organized reading events and collectives with enjoyment and humour. He reviewed and assessed voluminously, and knew the perils of this as well as the pleasures. Once, he liked to recount ruefully, he wrote a private negative comment inadvertently on a magazine submission piece rather than on his own sidenotes. He learned of his error when the offending phrase was shouted irately at him across a Katoomba street, and then repeatedly for another block.

In his last weeks, with his hair that was still auburn combed back from his gaunt brow, his red-grey beard and piercing blue eyes that were beginning to look to another country, his final resolved sweetness, he continued to delight in any amusing intelligence brought to him by his close friends. In his last hours he was supported by his closest friend, herself one of Australia’s most eminent poets, and a small group of other poets and writers.

Pam Brown
I became aware of Kerry Leves in the mid 1970s when I read Green, a large format collection of his poems published by Sea Cruise Books (Ken Bolton and Anna Couani’s press).

Later, when I met Kerry he became an ‘instant friend’ such was his gregariousness, his intense interest in poetry and talking about poetry, and his magnaminous spirit.

During my time as poetry editor for Overland (1997–2002) we needed someone with an open-minded attitude to all kinds of poetries to write short reviews as a kind of regular survey of current Australian poetry. I thought Kerry Leves was the obvious person for this task. He willingly undertook it. He had a generous approach and was able to suspend his own preferences and tastes in order to canvass the poetry before him. His reviews were intelligent and original. Kerry was, as anyone who ever met him can attest, an afficionado and a great talker.

Recently, I lived for a few years in Blackheath in the Blue Mountains. Kerry Leves had moved to Katoomba, a town about 10 kilometres to the south, in the 1980s. I came to know him better in that period. If he joined my carriage on the train to Sydney our conversation would make the often- arduous two hour long trip zip by in what seemed like a few moments.

Kerry was a bisexual man, unafraid to identify as gay, reading poetry annually for a time for the Sydney Mardi Gras and other events. He was an incredibly engaging and warm person. He knew many local people in Katoomba and, once, I went to a Xmas afternoon at his house and met the neighbourhood as well as poets from Sydney and the Mountains. His eclectic mind integrated, besides poetry, a knowledge of cinema, Indian spirituality and religion, and French and other literary theory. My partner, Jane Zemiro assisted Kerry with French translation and they talked together about structural theory when he was writing his PhD thesis.

Both Jane and I will miss Kerry Leves.

Jenni Nixon

I met Kerry through Vicki Viidikas in 1976 when I rented a spare room in Arthur Street, Darlinghurst, before they travelled ‘festooned with typewriters’ to India. He worked for the School Magazine and changed my life forever. He encouraged and inspired me, passionate about poetry and people, music, movies, he was enthusiastic, critical, informed about everything and wouldn’t tolerate racism, sexism or petty bureaucracy. At St Vincent’s Hospice the staff chastised Kerry for his untidy bed filled with books as he sketched, took copious journal notes, worked on his thesis and read poems aloud, entertaining visitors. Some say he was in a global village and knew everyone. Not long before he died, we rehearsed at the Hospice for the Harbour City Poets reading at the Sydney Writers Festival. He was in a wheelchair, leaning forward, pages in hand, a strong voice dramatising his words in Constant Companion. We hoped he’d be well enough to attend. I remember him the year before rushing from event to event with glee, his lanyard ID and charm gaining entrance into even closed events. Maybe that’s why I didn’t hurry in to see him one more time; he was so ‘alive’ on the phone, or at the Hospice filled with curiosity and pleasure despite the pain.

Kerry Leves - Photo: Jenni Nixon

Joanne Burns
Extract from a tribute to Kerry Leves at his funeral, 12 May 2011

I have a vivid and enduring visual memory of Kerry from the time I met up with him in India in late April 1981. For me this image is very Kerry – a part of his spirit and essence.

At the time he and Vicki [Viidikas] were staying at Gopalpur-on-Sea on the coast of Orissa state, just below West Bengal – during a time when Kerry was earning a few rupees reading palms on the beach. I was to travel by train from Madras some thousand kilometres away, to meet up with him. I’d sent him my travel details by mail. There was no telephone contact assurance to rely on. It was a long, long train trip. Hot and dusty. The train was due to arrive at my destination, Berampur, eighteen ks from Gopalpur, some time after midnight. Towards the end of the journey I started to get a little anxious that he might not be there. The train was running a little late.

As the train pulled into the station the platform was swarming with people. And then suddenly there he was coming into the foreground: glowing and radiant with his blonde curls and beaming smile, bearing an aura of gold, and swathed in an aqua blue and gold threaded scarf. An image of Kerry I’ll always treasure.

Colleen Z Burke

Friendship and conversations – in memory of Kerry Leves

I first met Kerry Leves in 1970 when I’d sent some poems to a workshop run by New Poetry. As temporary workshop convenor he was enthusiastic about one of my poems. We met up and became lifelong friends. I admired his erudition, without pretension, his enthusiasm for poetry, literature, for life, for teaching. He recently described our friendship as ‘an ongoing conversation continued, as though there had been no interruption, whenever we met up.’ Our friendship deepened during his time in the Sacred Heart Hospice. Despite his terminal illness he continued to be interested in everything around him. During visits, topics of conversation were wide ranging – we discussed my children, grandchildren, books, his thesis, my memoir, ideas, even workshopped poems. We sparked off each other even if he was in severe pain and I was tired. There was always a tumble of books around his bed. As well as being a practicing Buddhist, and interested in Hinduism, he also became intrigued by Catholicism, regularly attending Sunday Mass. Brought up as a Catholic I had ceased to believe, but respected his curiosity, his ongoing spiritual quest. And now as I type these words, my computer’s on a small wooden table that he gave me many years ago, I miss him, miss our inspirational conversations. My world is a less vivid place without Kerry in it, but I cherish the time we spent together, the rich kaleidoscope of memories.

Margaret Bradstock
I’ve known Kerry since the early 1980s, bumping into him at poetry readings and book launches, exchanging information and news. He reviewed two of my poetry collections for Overland. However, it wasn’t until 2006, when I first convened Harbour City Poets (known earlier as Poems in Conversation), that I began to know Kerry closely, working with him in a group of six poets, creating and rehearsing programs for public readings. One such was at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, another at an ASAL mini-conference at Sydney University. The group has performed three times at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, including 2011. During that time I found Kerry to be a very fine poet and critic, a good team-player, and a riveting performer who always reached his audience. Throughout this year I visited him regularly in St Vincent’s Hospital and then the Sacred Heart Hospice (as did many others), and the friendship deepened as we discussed all aspects of poetry and began to prepare for this year’s Festival reading, ‘Sydney: Endless City’. Kerry wrote two excellent poems while in the hospital, and we had one group meeting/practice session there. All along, he’d hoped to be with us at the reading on 20th May, albeit in a wheelchair, but it wasn’t to be. He was deeply touched that we’d be reading his poems for him. Amongst his many talents, I admired Kerry for his courage and fortitude, his capacity for friendship, and his great sense of humour.

All photos courtesy of Jenni Nixon

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Peter Minter is a leading Australian poet and writer on poetry and poetics, and Overland’s outgoing poetry editor.

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Comments

  1. Kerry was, among many other things, one of the participants in the famous Woy Woy Blockma Surrealist Poetry Reading at dawn in midwinter 1983. I drove up there in a car with him, Vicki Viidikas and Adrian Rawlings. I’m the only one of that carload left.

    Vale Kerry: a perceptive critic, a fine writer and a good human being.

  2. I was shocked to hear of Kerry’s death. I didn’t know him well. We met at a reading in Norton Street Leichhardt. Afterwards, we exchanged compliments and I was struck by his humble and friendly presence. I will miss not getting to know him better.

  3. Kerry was a very special man; In a stange way, he taught me what poetry is. How to believe, to resist, and in the bustle of our writerly routines, to show a little humour and compassion. His interest in Indian philosophy and culture was not at all ego-driven. For him, there was no desire to colonise the exotic; he embraced differences for themselves, a rare gift. Kerry left us somewhere in the heart of autumn, with its golden, falling leaves.

  4. I was greatly saddened to hear of Kerry’s death. The tributes, above, certainly portray a Kerry I remember: a beautiful writer, an extroadinarily generous critic and member of the Australian literary community,always looking for the best in others, honestly and open-mindedly trying to understand their individual creative projects, and full of encouragement without ever succumbing to sycophantry or fatuousness. His genuine care for and interest in others always shone through: he was seemingly without egotistical competitiveness. A pleasure to work with. And a lovely man.

  5. Kerry Leves was buoyant, spiritual, poetic – a joy to know. I had known of him for a long time while living in Sydney but only since leaving there and especially during the last three years came to know him a little better. I live in the bush in Victoria these days so distance and the pressured circumstances of his life in recent times restricted our contact to occasional phone calls and emails. I regret not getting my act together to visit him in his last few months.
    Though our contact was limited he did, like a good poem, add value to my life and I’ll miss the chance for a longer, deeper friendship. John Donne was right about the bell.

  6. Dearest Kerry…I loved to read, just now, of you saying ‘nice!’,as you lay back on your pillow….so you have left… my dear friend… endless cups of delicious home brewed tea and gourmet snacks we shared in your little Katoomba house…we could talk away for hours…I can hear your voice, so clearly, right now, in my mind…you would show me your poems, your works in progress, your drawings… we were close for a time, for many years, and you were a dear dear friend, what can I say…. fly safely my dear Kerry

  7. I didnt know Kerry well but he made a tremendous impact in my life. As a troubled youth attending an alternate youth school in 2000 Kerry was my math teacher. I remember a gentle and friendly spirit. Never a discouraging word from his mouth even though im sure we wern’t the most compliant group of students. Thankyou Kerry for your love and compassion, non judgemental attitude towards us not many could have done that job takes a very special person which indeed you were. When i heard of your passing i was deeply saddned. RIP Kerry xx

  8. I am Kerry’s oldest friend. We met at Fort Street Boys’ High in 1960 and became close friends after competing with each other in writing the lewdest possible parodies of fairy tales, Sexorella being an example. Throughout school we shared an intense, perverse sense of humour, often creating mythological characters from people we met. And humour was the glue of our friendship – then and up until our last phone call in early May this year. Over 50 years and still going strong.
    Kerry was never reluctant to praise as well as criticise and as such he had the greatest positive influence on my life.
    His sheer love of language affected me deeply and permanently.
    He was eminently sociable, brilliant as a teacher and a superb poet.
    Even though I have lived in Europe for forty years, seeing Kerry on my occasional visits to Sydney meant continuing our close friendship. I have always referred to him as ‘my closest friend’.
    Adieu, my love.

  9. I am sad I did not get a chance to maybe make my peace with Kerry. I am a trans women living in Blue mts. When I met Kerry I was still living in a male gender and met him working as a artisit model . He was always a gentle man polite and totaly non sleazy . I had an over dose of herion and after that kerry distanced him self from me and told me he had been through all that before and didnt want messy people in his life. We had been friends a few years reading each others poetry and having cuppa’s in his kitchen . i resented his labeling of me becasue i had never infringed my sex work drug life style on him . Now so many years latter I have a house and I am together and healthy and once when i saw him in the street a few years ago i still felt angry and annoyed at him for his foppish niativity and optermism and also what i felt was his attitude to me. Durning my early years of transitioning many people ifelt where friends dropped me and I put Kerry in this Category I once met his mother in 1984 , her name was May and she was the sweetest little old lady I ever met. . I felt he never related to me in my female gender or approved and that he had become middleclass and conservative. but I always found him sweet sometimes sickly from my hardened little heart but a good man and now i am so dissapionted I did not get a chance to say good bye to him because i actually liked kerry secretly…

  10. Kerry and I decided to write a Mills and Boon and spent many hilarious hours together concocting a schmaltzy story. I told him I would do it if he wrote the sexy bits which he did very well. We got a rejection letter and were told that it had \too much plot.\ It seemed to us that it barely had any plot at all and gave up the notion of continuing. I remember those times with great fondness and Kerry as a brilliant man who could make you laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.

  11. I knew Kerry at school and followed his career with through his poetry. His death is terribly premature. He was an engaging and intelligent fellow with a wicked sense of humour. He was a very decent man.

  12. Poetry workshopping -there is always the ‘right’ word. Sorry Kerry, this time there is no ‘right’ word. You left us too soon and are too much missed.

    Kerry and his work embraced all levels – whether reading at Varuna, the Parakeet or Winter Magic Festival, Kerry was unstinting with his time and friendships with many, despite a demanding work load in the daily grind.

  13. On many occasions Kerry took part in poetry readings put on by The Feminist Bookshop in Sydney, usually around Mardi Gras time. He was a much loved member of the group, we called ourselves Queer Poets and the event became the quite famous Perverse Verse. Kerry’s performances were always brilliant and memorable. Many members of the group have contacted me to express their sadness on hearing the news that he has gone. A lovely lovely person, and will be greatly missed. RIP Kerry.
    love
    Gail Hewison

  14. Of Kerry Leves poetry in \A Shrine To Lata Mangeshkar\ in 2007 I wrote: “The western traveller in Asia is a familiar theme, but it is tackled here with fresh insight and a welcome sensitivity…”
    I didn’t know Kerry Leves personally, so I write here as one of his readers and simply give thanks for the gift of his work.
    Sara Moss

  15. Like a lot of others, I fondly remember long and wide-ranging talkfests well into the evening over tea in your little Katoomba kitchen, cobbling together dinner on a bench covered with poems, papers, magazines, teaching notes, review copies of the latest books by newly-discovered poets from which you’d read aloud with shining eyes and swoon as you re-read your favourite lines.

    For a time, too, you were my lifeline, offering sympathy, suitable outrage, advice, a hug – whatever the occasion required – when I rocked up to your doorstep with life dramas, petty or otherwise. Yet by the time the night ended, you always managed to make me feel like I’d helped you in some way – I hope I did sometimes.

    Regretfully, we lost touch about seven years ago when I was moving around a bit. I recontacted you about a year ago as I really missed talking to you, and we were going to meet up. But I let the usual excuses get in the way and I wish I hadn’t. Miss you, my friend.

  16. Kerry loved to talk. He loved to listen. We talked gossip, we talked literary and we talked movies … his charm, his seriousness, his eidetic memory and his mensch stay with me. On occasion he’d pause and say, ‘How do I seem?’ ‘Wondrous’, I’d say … just one of the many ways I’ll always remember him, with love.

  17. Pingback: The Beautiful Dead – THIRTEEN POEMS FROM THE DEAD by Rae Desmond Jones | Rochford Street Review

  18. I asked the college where Kerry was teaching to see if he was available to conduct a seminar but instinctively I also googled up to see if Kerry had a website only to find through this site that he is not with us. Kerry was truly a teachers’ teacher, I’ve attended his teaching sessions and also organized a corporate presentation class which Kerry conducted. We learnt a lot from Kerry and his memories still linger in our hearts. We miss the man! Kerry!

  19. My greatest regret is not catching up with my dear old friend Kerry Leves when I was in Sydney in 2010 – as I had in 2000. Like others here, I met Kerry through Vicki Viidikas in 1983. For the five years that followed he was the most loyal, generous, funny, caring and interesting person in my life. Whilst doing the graveyard shift at the post office – aka Bukowski – he seemed to be everywhere when he should have been sleeping or something normal. But Kerry was not normal he was inspired and interested and wasted none of his or anybody else’s time. Above all he was incedibly patient and compassionate when it came to the weaknesses of his friends because he was also willing to share his own weaknesses with those he loved. Sorry it took so long to find out Kerry but then again I only found out Vicki had passed away more than a year later. Au revoir mon ami je ne cesse jamais de penser de toi. Michael O’Leary, Sete, France.

  20. Many years ago, – early 60’s – Kerry Leves & I worked together (Lindsay Nance was a colleague.)
    I was struck by Kerry’s intelligence & frankness, and, particularly, by his huge and hilarious humour.
    Years after we had fallen ex contact, I rang his mother, who reported that Kerry was at that time in Central?Australia, somewhere anyway that said ‘incommunicado’ to me. To my regret, I didn’t make any subsequent attempt to contact Kerry, and discovered only today that Kerry died some time ago. I am glad but not surprised that Kerry was & is so well and widely loved. Suzanne Sg

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