Seeing Clearly

After sordid experiences with a megachurch's abuse of power, Levi the Poet has emerged with 'Cataracts,' an honest, clear look in the mirror

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You can Google “Levi the Poet” and discover more about the artist’s personal history than most of us would want from a cursory search of our name. Yet, the spoken word artist – wrapping up the first decade of his career – doesn’t mind the imposition. From discussing his struggle with the church to seeing hope in the midst of tragedy, he is truly an open book. His new full-length album, Cataracts, is an aggressively real and insightful perspective into the lives of himself and those that have inspired his work.

Despite a catalog that most would categorize as intrinsically forthcoming, Levi the Poet (born Levi MacAllister) took an hour to share why this particular project contains some of his most personal art yet. As he discussed his eventful year launching Cataracts, it became clear that this album is not just a contribution to his discography but a healing journey that starts with himself and – hopefully – reaches those who need it.


I heard you wrote for HM once upon a time?
Yeah, I wrote for them back in ’08 and for a couple years after but then started doing more of the spoken word thing. But HM was a part of that, too. This other intern that was there at the time really liked my poetry, so they ended up publishing something about it in Pick of the Litter. (Editor’s Note: When the magazine was in print, Pick of the Litter was a section dedicated to independent, up-and-coming artists.) That kickstarted my feelings, like, “Okay, well maybe this could be something cool for people.”

That was in 2008. A lot’s happened for you in ten years.
I know. It’s crazy. I started actually pursuing Levi the Poet in 2009, so it will be ten years next summer.

I’ve spent the last several days listening to Cataracts. I started listening and then doing research, and I started drawing some parallels. The first thing I noticed was – almost verbatim – from your open letter to Mark Driscoll* (former pastor and co-founder of the now-defunct Mars Hill megachurch) referring to “cataracts of faith.” Is that where this album was drawn from?
Definitely related – but not all of it. I didn’t even realize it until after the record came out, but that open letter’s blog title is called “Keep Forgiving.” I didn’t do that on purpose, to be honest, but a lot of what I ended up writing certainly came from that time in my life. I didn’t really want to write a record that was just about that, but it is hard for me to disconnect that experience from the stuff that I said.

(*Editor’s Note: Driscoll was accused of bullying and “persistent sinful behavior” leading to the dissolution of the Mars Hill church network. After the elders of the church approached Driscoll, the church would eventually reveal that “Driscoll quit rather than submit to a plan that would have eventually restored him to leadership.”)

Tell me about “The Fort Lauderdale Five.” Is that representative of your experience with Mars Hill?
Yeah, it is related. In the track right after, “Motion Made Visible Memories Arrested in Space,” there’s a part at the end that talks about standing in my Mom’s living room and talking to her. There’s this moment at the end of it where the lyrics are: “Equating the voice of God with the voice of these men / not knowing how to hear it once these men are gone.” I had that conversation a few years back, and, at the end of it, my Mom was like, “Huh, interesting. Your experience (with Mars Hill) and the way you processed that whole thing reminds me of this thing called the Shepherding Movement.” Which is where “The Fort Lauderdale Five” came from.

My Mom didn’t go through all of that stuff – I mean, it was more prevalent when she and my Dad were growing up – but my Mom sort of said that in passing and described to me why. It had a lot to do with this hard-to-pinpoint, vague uneasiness that also lent itself to a lot of fear.

I read this book called Damaged Disciples, written by this husband and wife that were a part of the Shepherding Movement. They got to this time where they were like, I don’t know that we can actually call this thing we were a part of a “cult,” but it sure has cult-like tendencies. And if we can’t use that phrase, it was, at least, an abuse of spiritual authority. I started looking into it, and it was so resonant. I’m reading about this thing people went through in the ’70s, and I’m like, Gosh, this is how I feel right now.

Levi the Poet

Levi the Poet

I thought that your reference to Patty Hearst was kind of cool, too. Again, I had no clue about her story because it was before our time but, reading it and seeing how you compared what you had been through to what she went through, I thought that was an interesting reference.
Yeah, the Patty Hearst thing… I went through this thought where I was like, “Do I have any discriminance whatsoever, then?” Because, all of a sudden, I was in this place where it’s like, Wow, all these things I was right about for so long are just crumbling. I remember the Stockholm Syndrome thing. I don’t know if you equate this with some sort of spoon feeding or brainwashing or whatever – I don’t want to be melodramatic about it – but there’s certainly aspects of her experience that were somewhat resonant.

I think in a church setting and in a church family, that’s the place that you’re the most vulnerable, so making that parallel makes a lot of sense. Have you ever listened to an album and for whatever reason, the entire thing just made sense to you?
Yeah.

What album was that for you?
The Bright Eyes Fevers and Mirrors record. That one I remember just being like, Oh my gosh I love this. It’s so sad and feels so relatable. And then, maybe something like Underoath’s Define the Great Line, which literally saved my life at one point in time.

That’s really interesting; your album did that for me. When I looked at the tracklist, I couldn’t believe you had a song called “Dark Night of the Soul,” because I came out of that six weeks ago. It lasted for three years. It was heavy, and I didn’t think I was ever going to get out.
Oh, wow. Okay. That’s literally how it feels.

Yeah. I came out of this grayscale after three years and was seeing everything in color again and then David (Stagg, HM Editor-in-Chief) throws this album at me, and I was like, Whoa, this album describes what I just went through. It was so nice to know someone was able to articulate how that feels, because it’s so complicated and there are so many layers to it.
First of all, that’s fascinating because I have a friend over here – his name’s Donovan; he’s the friend I wrote about in “Dark Night of the Soul” – whose daughter’s name was Sparrow Gray, so there’s the correlation to “I saw one of the sparrows fall.” We were talking about it the other night, and he was like, “Dude, these are hard fought experiences and the people that get them, get them.” That makes sense to me. Are you familiar with Rob Bell?

I’m familiar with his work, yeah.
He has this podcast, and it’s one of the things that led to that “Dark Night of the Soul” song. I think it’s the second podcast he ever did; it’s called “The River and the Mountains” or something like that. (Editor’s Note: “The River, The Mountain, and You.”) You talked about being in gray and then seeing in color again, and that’s one of the things in this quote. It says, “At first the river is a river and the mountain is a mountain. And then the river is no longer a river and the mountain is no longer a mountain. And then the river is a river again and the mountain is a mountain again.” It was just fascinating to me. It seems like a long ass way to say something that could be said a lot shorter, but I love it because it’s basically what you just described, right? You see everything, you know everything, then you don’t, then you do again – but you do in a way that’s not the same. It’s… not just the constant agony that is the dark night of the soul.

The first time I ever heard anyone refer to that experience was Garrett Russell (vocalist, Silent Planet) on a podcast, and I was like, Wait, that’s what I’m going through. So I did some research.
That’s awesome. Good ol’ Garrett.

Have you guys ever toured or anything?
We haven’t toured; we’ve played shows together, and they stay at my place whenever they come through Albuquerque. It’s funny, I don’t even know what happened to it but we were talking about doing a track together on their last record. Maybe sometime it’ll happen, maybe this next one or whatever.

That’d be sick, I hope that happens. Back to your album, though. Tell me about “Big Business.” How did your experience in this industry inspire that song?
A couple of things led into it. One of them is that I read this book called “The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb.” The book was interesting to me because of Mars Hill Church and the world I’ve been in for the last however long – let’s say it’s a neo-Calvinist movement within the evangelical world – but, definitely in the more reformed parts of it, that whole abuse of power thing just keeps on happening. One of the things I’m fascinated about with Jesus is that He was a part of this world (and stayed a part of this world) even though he had critiques for this world. But he didn’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater; he remained there and continued to not excommunicate himself from the people that did that to him.

All that to say, these guys that wrote this book, they’re from that world. I appreciated that because it’s not just an echo chamber. Like, you have other people that are in this and desire good for it. And they also want to critique respectfully and point out where things could change. That book certainly resonated with my experience of, like, I’m a part of this megachurch thing, let’s get bigger and bigger and more and more powerful. Whereas their argument is, Well, actually, the way of the lamb – the way of Jesus – looked a lot different.

For “Big Business,” it was those thoughts juxtaposed with my church experience but also our country’s whole experience with the church. It was interesting having some political statements in there; I’ve never really had any of that in my work.

Levi the Poet

Levi the Poet performing his single “Anxiety”

Are you wanting to continue in that direction, or are you wanting to back it up and do something that’s less personal next time around?
I would say that, as of where I am right now, I feel more inspired to create than I even was with Cataracts. The Cataracts thing was almost like a need. My wife even describes it that way, like, “You just have to get this shit out of your system.” But, now that it’s out, I feel like I can breathe easier. So, to be honest, I’m not sure. I put out three records that were each personal, then I put out a fiction, and then I put out Cataracts, which is even more personal and abrasive, I think, than anything I’ve done before. I’m kind of okay with that being my M.O. or whatever.

Maybe this is too melodramatic or whatever, but you talked about three years of the “dark night of the soul.” I don’t know how you felt during that time, but I think this season – or whatever it was or is I’m slowly coming out of (I hope) – it’s been like five years of this thing that felt paralyzed. Not just in life or faith or spirituality, but artistically and relationally. There’s just such a block or a wall I hit through all of this unknown. To be fair – I gotta clarify – some of that is just growing up, and I get that; some of it is just coming of age. But, in relation to all of this stuff, I don’t want it to be four years before I put out another record, which is what this was, just because I had no idea how to speak let alone what to say. After something that was as exhausting as Cataracts was, I think it’s wonderful to do something that’s just more fun. Honestly, that looks more like fiction or, at least, something that’s a little further outside of myself than Cataracts is.

“I simultaneously wanted to create this reflective critique of all of these things that either myself or my friends are going through, but I also knew for sure I didn’t want to just make a pissed off, vindictive record to perpetuate the anger that already exists.”

One thing I wanted to mention was that every single track kept saying, “Keep forgiving…” You placed it well enough that when your mind as a listener is going back to the negative things in your own life, you’re like, nope, forgiveness is the important thing. I really like that that thread continued.
Thank you. I simultaneously wanted to create this reflective critique of all of these things that either myself or my friends are going through – I wanted it to be that – but I also knew for sure I didn’t want to just make a pissed off, vindictive record to perpetuate the anger that already exists. That last track that’s titled “Keep Forgiving” summarizes the whole thing; all of my indictments return to me, all of this stuff comes back to me. I can see all of these things in my own reflection as well, and so, however people end up interpreting it, at the end of the day, sure there are correlations to some of these things (and they’re supposed to exist), but this is about the person that I see when I look in the mirror in the morning, and it can’t just be a finger pointed away from me.

I wanted to ask you about some of the stuff that’s been going on for you creatively. What’s the best thing that’s happened to you lately, and how has that affected your art?
Hmm. A really cool thing is that we got to do this European tour in March. It’s been such a ridiculous year. I had this vinyl limited release, a bunch of new songs in January, announced Cataracts February 1, put out Cataracts February 25, and then flew to Europe and did a full month there with the band Listener.

They’re so rad.
Yeah, they’re amazing; they’ve been really good friends of ours for a long time. That was the first tour that I’ve ever done. We’ve gone out of the country on some stuff in the past, but I’ve always wanted to go over there and tour, so they took us out. It was cool because they also just put out a record, so it was their album release tour and I just put out a record, so I guess it was my album release tour as well.

I don’t know the answer of how exactly it’s impacted my creativity. I will say I value travel more and more, whether that’s for tour or whether that’s for just personally getting out and experiencing a different world and a different culture. Not trying to be there to critique it and decide what I need to bring to it or what’s fixable or wrong with it, but being in it and observing. I think that has played a large role in the way that I write and in the way that I go about trying to articulate things, I hope more universally. Or, at least, I hope with a little bit more awareness about my own cultural biases.

Is there anything that you’d like to say to anyone reading this who may or may not have heard your music?
The first thing that popped into my head is: It’s all worth living for. I wrote this piece last year called (the same thing) for To Write Love on Her Arms – and it was maybe a precursor to Cataracts – and it’s a lot of what I was working through at the time. The worst years of my life. They were just horrible. But I’m thankful for them; I think it’s part of my story. I think “it’s” a necessary evil or a necessary good. I think it’s worth sticking around for. I know that people have experiences and things that are beyond what I could ever comprehend, so I get that you can say really nice things that come across as, “Hey man! God works all things together for the good!” And that’s great, but no one that’s in a shitty spot wants to hear that. But recognizing that I’m still very much in the middle of a lot of this stuff and yet still see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel… I feel like there are some really dark, dark places, and I think that there can be healing still. I think that’s true for me, and I hope it can be for other people, too.

Levi the Poet was posted on September 6, 2018 for HM Magazine and authored by .