Kevin Riordan: A writer finds poetry in Kensington

David Livewell won a poetry prize for "Shackamaxon." The title is a 17th-century name for the Kensington area.
David Livewell won a poetry prize for "Shackamaxon." The title is a 17th-century name for the Kensington area.
Posted: February 16, 2012

David Livewell found poetry in Kensington long before downtown artists discovered that rough and resilient Philly neighborhood.

"As a poet, you're always looking for that right word," says Livewell, whose fondly remembered childhood in a Master Street rowhouse inspired many of the poems in Shackamaxon.

His manuscript won the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize from Missouri's Truman State University Press, which will publish the book in September. Shackamaxon takes its title from the Kensington area's 17th-century name, and many of the poems are enlivened by deeply felt scenes of the city.

A "flattened Schmidt's can," facades of Flemish-bond brickwork, trolley tracks reemerging from under layers of asphalt, the El - Philly-centric details permeate "The Fire Plug," "Panes of Gold," and other poems.

"Growing up in the '70s and '80s, I experienced a neighborhood that was changing very quickly," recalls Livewell, 44, an editor of medical journals who lives in West Deptford with his wife, Michele, and their two children. "I was seeing the last of something."

When potholes gape, they flash

A trace of vanished hooves or hobnail soles

He watched friends and neighbors move farther into the Northeast or to Jersey, factories fall silent, and drugs and gangs lay waste to the streets. The future author of "Stickball at St. Mike's" and "Sheet Metal Shears" took it all in.

Livewell's family had been part of the neighborhood for 80 years, and he felt connected to "layers of history you could peel back." He loved the voices on the streets; "they had a certain musicality and a very distinctive sense of humor."

The youngest of six children born to a sheet-metal worker and a homemaker, Livewell lived next door to his paternal grandfather, who spoke with "a certain lyricism."

The ductwork jottings Grandpop pressed and hid

Behind the flesh of Center City towers

Livewell was introduced to what he calls "serious literature" by Northeast Catholic High School teacher Francis J. Ryan, who became a mentor and is now an American studies professor at La Salle University.

"He was by far my best student," Ryan says. "He had an eye and ear for poetic language . . . a real feel for the nuances."

At La Salle, where Livewell earned a degree in English in 1985, he studied with fiction writer Claude Koch. An O. Henry Short Story Prize-winner, Koch inspired Livewell to write about the city he knew so well.

"He was a true man of letters . . . and a lot of his stories were about growing up in Germantown," Livewell says. "It gave me a template."

Livewell devoted himself to mastering the craft of poetry, and after graduation he entered Rutgers-Camden to work on a master's degree in fine arts. He founded and edited a literary journal, eventually leaving school because of family responsibilities.

But he didn't stop writing poetry, sometimes scribbling a line "on the back of an envelope or whatever I have handy."

Livewell got married, moved to Jersey, started a family, and continued writing. He was first published in a journal called the Formalist in the 1990s and has since placed about 20 poems in literary magazines.

She propped a folding table near the plug

to scale the gutted bluefish in the sun

In 2010, he self-published Woven Light: Poems and Photographs From Andrew Wyeth's Pennsylvania.

Shackamaxon was chosen from more than 400 manuscripts submitted to Truman State for the T.S. Eliot Prize.

The poet Sandra McPherson, who made the final selection, says Livewell's poem "Philly Things" drew her in immediately.

"It was to my surprise, because I live way out west and have no relationship with Philadelphia," says McPherson, who lives and works in California. All of Livewell's poems, she adds, "have that power to fascinate."

Livewell is pleased to see the emerging arts scene in Kensington. "It would have given me a lot more to do as a teenager growing up there," he says.

And he's tickled to think that he could someday read from his book near the places where he once played stickball.

Our broomstick swung at strikes,

As the church tower's shadow draped each pitch

And evening dimmed Good Friday's stained-glass story.

Kevin Riordan:

For video of David Livewell reading from "Shackamaxon," his prize-winning collection of poems, go to

Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845,, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at

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