Human rights solicitor Stewart Levitt spends his career speaking up for others, but in a new poetry collection he proudly tells his own story. He talks about the well-versed life that inspired his latest chapter.
Stewart Levitt showed promise as a poet from an early age. While in primary school in the 1960s, his headmaster read a collection of poems that Levitt, now a prominent human rights solicitor, had penned with a friend. The teacher was so impressed that he sent the collection to Norman Lindsay – the decorated artist and author of The Magic Pudding.
“I have been writing poetry since I was a child and so when I was at school, in Year 6, my headmaster sent off my poetry book,” Levitt tells LSJ.
“Norman Lindsay reviewed my poetry book and my writing, and he gave a very glowing review and said I should make a contribution to Australian literature. So, I decided to keep at it.”
At age 16, he won a spoken poetry award at the former Phillip Street Theatre, which was located not far from the current Law Society of NSW headquarters. But very soon after this victory, a life in the law beckoned and he was admitted as a solicitor in 1979.
In a one-hour conversation with LSJ in his paper-shrouded office, where he kindly and frequently offers water from one of several bottles scattered over the desk, Levitt tells stories from a legal career spanning appearances and victories in courtrooms the world over. It’s a career that has taken him from NSW and Australian inquiries to landmark matters in Hawaii and South Africa.
But his love of chapter and verse never waned.
“I just wrote casually over 20 or 30 years,” he says.
“If somebody was having a birthday party or getting married, I would write a ditty that could be read out or be part of a card. I probably started to write more seriously in the late 1990s.”
Levitt writes up to 50 poems a year and jots them down “when I’m sitting at a pub, or travelling somewhere, or don’t have much to do”.
Upon publishing his first poetry anthology in 2005, a penchant for perfectionism galvanised him to write a second collection.
Norman Lindsay reviewed my poetry book and my writing, and he gave a very glowing review and said I should make a contribution to Australian literature. So, I decided to keep at it.
“I was really upset about it because I didn’t proof it properly and there was one poem where I used two Afrikaans words about Nelson Mandela and it was pointed out to me that I had misspelled them,” he says.
“I was determined not to make the mistake again, and [also] there was some material in that collection that I wanted to revisit.”
Levitt’s latest collection, Too Soon to be Late, features illustrations by acclaimed artist Geoff Todd. The title carries a two-pronged meaning; one offers a comment on present global instability.
“It’s not too late for the world to focus and change. So, in a sense, these ideas [I am sharing] are not too late, there is still time,” he says.
“The second meaning is a play on words; I am not ready to die. I am not ready to be the late Mr Levitt,” he says.
He adds that at least part of the title could be an ode to his tendency for tardiness – a trait that emerged despite the best efforts of his mother who was renowned for turning all clocks in the house forward 20 minutes to assure punctuality.
Within Too Soon to be Late are dozens of works spanning a tapestry of topics, including Middle East politics, his childhood and life up to 50, the treatment of Indigenous people in Australia and the senate confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a US Supreme Court judge even after the testimony of his alleged sexual assault victim, Christine Blasey Ford.
“When I decide I want to write, I program myself to write. I am still writing now,” Levitt says, with preparations underway to publish the collection in the US.
“I have a certain lack of confidence in the sense that I treat everything as though it was a one-off and if I have achieved something, I have always doubted whether I can repeat it. So, what I do is I repeat it and repeat it to keep on proving to myself that I can do it.”
Too Soon to be Late can be purchased from toosoontobelate.com