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Philip Levine

Philip Levine

Philip Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1928. He is the author of seventeen books of poetry, most recently News of the World (Knopf, 2009). His other poetry collections include The Simple Truth (1994), which won the Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is (1991), which won the National Book Award; New Selected Poems (1991); Ashes: Poems New and Old (1979), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award for Poetry. He has also published two collections of essays, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (1994) & So Ask (1997). Recently retired from teaching, he spends half his time in Fresno and half in Brooklyn.

Our Questions for Phil: An Interview

Tomas Morin: How has your circle of close readers changed over the years and how important have these friends been in helping you find the shape of your poems and books, and vice versa?

Philip Levine: In the beginning I had only my twin brother as a close reader, & he loved everything I wrote, which was encouraging. While still in Detroit I found a teacher at Wayne University who wrote poetry, Richard Werry, who was a sympathetic reader & several poets about my age, Bernard Strempek, Bob Huff, Paul Petrie, & Ruby Teague, who encouraged me. We read each other's poetry, but we were not tough on the poems, probably because we needed each other so much. I got what I needed—fellowship & encouragement. At Iowa at age 26 I took my first poetry writing classes & there I met Henri Coulette & Peter Everwine, & they were both constructive & tough & of great use & Peter still is. My wife Franny has always been a close reader, & she's gotten shrewder & more incisive over the years. Now she's essential. For twenty years or more Larry Levis was enormously helpful; he had a fantastic ear; he'd look at a passage & say, "You need a beat right there," & he was almost always right. Larry was my main man; now it's Franny. Ed Hirsch & Tom Sleigh are more recent readers, & both are very honest & useful.

David St. John: What has the landscape of California meant to your poetry?

Philip Levine: As you know, David, there's something gigantic & remorseless about the landscape of the Central Valley. The mountains can be terrifying—I found the same landscape in northern Spain and felt at home & scared there also. If you write in the Valley, you don't think by halves, you say to yourself, Create something to match the place! The majesty of that landscape is in some way commensurate with the massive industrial landscape that was Detroit. When I came West I found the proportions familiar. Both places urge you to go for broke.

Peter Everwine: Beyond the obvious, what draws you to jazz and the musicians who play it? How does this fit in with themes and concerns that are central to your work?

Philip Levine: When I was young I was frequently told jazz musicians were a bad lot, addicts, drunks, low-lifes, & certainly not artists. I believed none of that. When I was a teenager they were my heroes. I envied their cool, their artistry, their magnetism. Just the way Sonny Stitt carried himself, the way he clearly did not give a shit what anyone thought of him or his playing except the musicians he was playing with, that stance alone was thrilling. One night I heard him play alto, tenor, & baritone & wanted to kiss him. I can still recall being in a little jazz club on Grand River in Detroit when Lester walked in ready to play; for that moment I was at the center of the world. For me no one captured what it was like to be a young, confused, aspiring writer in America in 1948 as perfectly as Charlie Parker & the rest of the great Beboppers, Dizzy, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Fats Navarro, & later Clifford Brown & so many others. As the years passed I found jazz even more mysterious & profound than I did when I discovered it. Has anyone in the past 100 years written a poem as astonishing as Armstrong's solo on West End Blues?

Shane Book: Which four writers from any point in history would you want to be stuck in an elevator with for ten hours and why?

Philip Levine: I have a great curiosity about the personality of D.H. Lawrence, what he would be like to be with, to converse with, but ten hours with him would probably kill one of us. I've heard that Virginia Woolf was enormously entertaining, bawdy, witty, & of course she was from a classy background & beautiful to behold. What would she make of a slob like me? Most of the writers whose work I love I'd just as soon leave on the page. I'm satisfied with what I have of their presence. What if Keats turned out to be an anti-Semite or Ben Jonson a bully & Pavese full of self pity? In tennis they have an expression, "Don't get off a winning game."

Malena Mörling: In your essay called "A Non-Craft Lecture" in your book of essays, conversations and interviews, entitled So Ask, you refer to D. H. Lawrence's essay "Why Fiction Matters" in talking about trusting the self that creates, trusting the imagination over anything else. Would you say something more about that?

Philip Levine: I think that trust in the imagination is impossible to teach. For me to find it took years of writing both good & bad poems. Certainly that trust does not stop me from writing badly; nothing can do that, but when I've been at my best I've followed where the words lead, I've given in to what comes, I've questioned nothing. Later, seeing how bad or silly or trite much of what stared at me from the page was, I could erase, I could revise, I could even destroy & forget. I think without that trust there might have been nothing to erase.

Kate Daniels: Given how many people count a Levine poem among their favorites, which of your own poems are your favorites?

Philip Levine: I think my own favorite is "A Walk with Tom Jefferson." It took me more than two years to finish it—I was half way there & stalled for over a year. I don't know how good it is, but I lived with the incomplete version so long I began to think of it as a failure, & then one morning the character of Tom—the actual person who inspired the poem—popped into my head, I heard him & saw him as he was, wise, compassionate, deliberate, honest, a great unknown American, & a few days later I had the poem. It was a gift.

C. G. Hanzlicek: Would you talk about your passion for the Spanish anarchists? Is anarchism still a sustaining philosophy for you?

Philip Levine: It's hard for me to recapture the sense I had back in 1965 of the dedication & selflessness of those men & woman, the great Spanish anarchists—Buenaventura Durruti, Ascaso, Garcia Oliver, Federica Montseny, Ricardo Sanz, Cipriano Mera & others—their total faith in their cause which I believed & still believe was just & visionary. They wanted to bring into being a world without barriers, a world in which men & women were stewards of the earth & shared its riches & its burdens equally. For many years those beliefs sustained me, at times I even believed that some day such a world would be ours. During those years I believed life had a purpose. It was as close as I've ever come in my life to a sincere religious faith. I still derive inspiration from "the idea," as it once was called.

Unfortunately in the USA Libertarianism has come to mean ending all government restrictions on individuals & corporations so they can exploit unchecked everything & everyone.

David Rigsbee: Readers like to think that poetry sides with justice, however you construe that term. Do you, at this time in your long career, find that commitment to just partisanship is as full-scaled as you did as a younger poet—or during your middle years? Your latest work entertains a wish, perhaps unusual in a political poet of your credentials, to be free of history, of "all that."

Philip Levine: To be honest, I don't know what you're referring to. In one poem, "Burial Rites," in my new book, I speak of my name being released from me, & how free it would be, a tiny ethereal me. I'm referring to the notion of release from my personal history, all my short-comings, failures, fuck-ups.

I no longer possess the ferocity of partisanship I had forty years ago. I wish I did. My beliefs are the same, my angers the same, but my hopes have taken a beating.

Jennifer Wallace: What if anything over the years has changed about what you're "after" in a poem?

Philip Levine: When I began—at age 14—it was cadence, sonority, importance, resonance, which might have been inflated rhetoric. Once I discovered 20th century poetry, especially Eliot & Auden—at age 18—it became imagery. Then poets like Crane, Dylan Thomas, Yeats took me to a different kind of music, & I spent years seeking that music in my own work. Later poets of greater severity—Ben Jonson, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Louise Bogan made me want to be more concise & economical & shrewder. I suppose by the time I was thirty I began to write something I liked, & Williams & Whitman & Blake were there to inspire & guide me & later Pavese & Zbigniew Herbert. Today I just want to get some words down on a page that are pleased to be together, words that sing & still make some sense & maybe even tell a story or present a person or a place or both.

Book Review

David Rigsbee reviews
Philip Levine's new book
News of the World


Poets in Person:
Philip Levine