A Conversation with Philip Levine

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Philip LevineSenior Lizzie Meier caught up with Poet Laureate Philip Levine in Brooklyn Heights, New York on May 8, 2012. The two talked about his year as Poet Laureate, his body of work, and his love of teaching.

Levine, the author of 20 collections of poetry, delivered this year’s commencement address at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

He published his first collection, On the Edge in 1963, went on to win the 1980 National Book Critics Circle Award for Ashes: Poems New and Old, the 1991 National Book Award for What Work Is (1991), and in 1995 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Simple Truth.

Selections from the interview:


On Being Poet Laureate
PL: It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve met a lot of interesting people that I wouldn’t ordinarily meet.

It’s also a lot of work.

I was all over the place and this last month—which was Poetry Month—I probably gave 15 to 20 readings. I don’t usually read that often, I usually read new work. But this has taken so much energy and time that there isn’t any new work.

So what I did is go back and read some [of my own] books that were 40 years old.

[Soon] I’m going back to being Phil. Charlie Simic, a friend of mine and a poet … I remember when he won the Pulitzer he told me this wonderful story when I got it a couple of years later. He said the phone rang and rang and rang and he talked to people [and] he talked to people. And he said about 10 days passed and one day at breakfast the phone rang and he started to get up and his wife said, “I’ll get it.”

She went and picked up the phone and she called her son, Phil, and said “Philip, it’s for you.” [Charlie] went back to looking at the paper and he heard Philip talking but he didn’t pay a lot of attention to him. Philip came back and sat at the breakfast table, he looked up at him and said, “Well Pop, I guess today you start being Charlie again!”

And he said that’s the way it worked, it all calmed down

A Normal Day – Pre-Laureateship
PL: I’m an early riser. I get up around six, and read the sports. I go into a room, here in Brooklyn. In Fresno, I have a room just to myself, and it’s a mess, but it’s very cozy, and I sit there and see what happens.

A lot of times I will read poetry, and a lot of the poetry I read is translation, because poetry in translation never tempts me to sound like it. But I’ll find things in it that I find inspiring. Just phrases, or I’ll find phrases or images that remind me, that reach back into my own experience, and I’ll get a poem started.

I go from different poet to different poet. The most recent one has been the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. Before that, for several years, I would read an Italian poet, Cesare Pavese. Pavese was a fabulous poet who was also a translator of American literature, Whitman, Melville, all kinds of people, and Dos Passos.

So he has a lot in common with American poetry, which he found very inspirational. And he wrote about ordinary people, in a demotic, ordinary diction. He’s been the best I’ve found in like the last 15 years.

Mostly if I look at American poetry, [it’s] somebody like William Carlos Williams, or Whitman; English poetry, D. H. Lawrence. For inspiration, I think he’s a great poet. Thomas Hardy. Edward Thomas, not Dylan Thomas, who I think is terrific, but he’s too infectious. These eccentric poets are bad to imitate, like Dylan Thomas, because they don’t leave you enough room to be yourself.

I often work on more than one poem at a time.  In the last 25 or 30 years I’ve become a much more patient writer. I’m in no hurry to publish anything. So I really sit on it.

In the afternoon, here in New York, I often go somewhere because I’m often very inspired by speech, by what I hear. I like meeting people. I just take a subway and go someplace and walk around. In a poem by Allan Ginsberg [he describes] a kind of busy searching for poetry, “A Supermarket in California.” 

It’s a lot easier to do here in New York than in Fresno. You can just walk out of the house and head in any direction and things kind of happen. I meet people. I go to a gym here that’s completely different than what happens in Fresno. Here, I meet interesting people.

I don’t think that much about the future though. It’s hard for me to realize how old I am. I mean, I don’t feel young, [but] there’s a way in which I’m just puzzled by being this old—because 84 is really old. It’s there, you know? And I don’t know quite what it means. It’s not something I much write about, but I see it sneaking into my poetry.

Looking Back on a Life of Work
PL: I did a thing here in New York in the Bowery, the Bowery Poetry Club. They have a program called Page Meets Stage. A poet like me is “Page” and I read with a young guy who improvises a poem, and the guy was terrific. He was just terrific. He was kind of a champion, young guy, 25, 26, he teaches high school here in Brooklyn.

Anyway, we agreed that we each would do a poem by the other person, so he picked one of mine, and I picked one of his. But when he read my poem, he had the audience laughing, and I realized, ‘this is a funny poem’. I had never thought about it that way, but it really was funny. He got the humor in there that I didn’t see, and it was a better poem. His version was better than mine.

Some poems I had underrated I think, I look at now and I think, that was better than I thought it was. So it’s a mixed bag.

I went through some old books that had gone out of print and the first one I read I thought, ‘I don’t want it back, I’m glad it’s out [of print]’. Maybe it’s 28 poems long and there are probably a dozen that I think are really still very good. It was published in 1963, but it’s largely written say from 1955 to 1960, maybe a little earlier. And it was a different me. A lot of them were written when I was single, no children, a different person, a different view of life.

On Teaching
PL: I began teaching when I was about 30 and I quit when I was 80, but there were great periods in there when I didn’t teach. I retired from Fresno State in ‘92 and I never taught full-time after that. In fact I never taught more than one course a year, and I did it in a number of places. NYU probably 10 [years], Vanderbilt, North Carolina, Houston, Iowa, wherever there were fancy writing programs, or programs that wanted to be fancy.

In a way, I liked teaching. I got good at it. Like everybody, I was scared to death when I started, and thought of myself as a fraud, till I realized that the students knew even less than I did, a good deal. Of course, I was young when I started, but I was well-read. I mean, I had been reading ever since I was a kid because my mom was an avid reader and there were a lot of books in the house, good books. And there was a close library. I liked teaching and I had some marvelous, marvelous students, just fantastic.

There were a lot of things [I wanted to communicate to students]. It depended on what kind of class I was teaching. Say a literature class, I wanted to present a vision of what made poetry ‘poetry’. And I did.

In a literary poetry class, where the students didn’t write, I stayed away from politics. But on the other hand, 19th and 20th century fiction in France, England, the U.S., is enormously concerned with social injustice. I mean it’s just there.

Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Balzac, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. There is a depiction of the world as a very unjust place and it’s just there, it’s a reflection of what the world was. But poetry goes off into song so often, just the beauty and mystery of language, the mystery of learning and living.

But novels are so powerfully based in a vision of actuality, naturalism as they call it. If I felt political, I remember, there was a course I taught, the Literature of Protest, where I would teach somebody like Orwell.

Advice to Young Writers
PL: I think these MFA programs can be an enormous help. I have an essay in my book The Bread of Time called “Mine Own, John Berryman,” which is about the best class I ever took. There were three of us in that class of 13 students who won the Pulitzer Prize, it was an amazing class and he [John Berryman] was an amazing teacher.

There is so much conflicting advice about what you ought to do—write about what you know, use your own life, or be inventive. I think in the beginning those kinds of generalities are useless.

In the beginning you know what you want, there is a sense of what you want, how you want it to sound. Follow that, follow it and see what happens, whatever occurs to you to write, write, but don’t cling to it too hard. Be willing to massacre it. Don’t fall in love with what you’re writing too quickly.

I think the greatest virtue you can develop is patience, patience with discipline. You have to discipline yourself. In order to do that you have to read and you have to find the forms that you enjoy.

Especially in the beginning, because when you’re writing free verse you don’t know what you’re free from . . . from formal verse. And the only way you can learn that is by reading it and imitating it. Imitation’s not at all bad in the beginning as long as you know that’s what you’re doing. Not at all. And when you’re imitating, what you imitate is the form, the tone, the sound, the level of diction.

There were three people, maybe even four, out of that 13 who were writing better than I was. But I was also aware that, given time, I would write better than all of them. And I did. I had the confidence in myself, I’m not sure where it came from, I just had it. And I was very lucky to have that confidence.

I’ve never doubted my ability to be a good poet. A good poet—not a great poet—but a good one. I’ve never doubted that. From the age of 20, I pushed my talent very hard by working very hard at poetry.

View Philip Levine’s Commencement Address