May 1999

Philip Levine

Philip Levine (photo by Frances Levine)   Philip Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1928.  Formally educated in the public school system there, he attended Wayne State University.  He later settled in Fresno, California, where he taught at FSU.  His many books include The Simple Truth, What Work Is, Not this Pig, They Feed They Lion, and his latest, The Mercy.  He has received numerous awards, most notably: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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Philip Levine's real audio greeting Philip Levine's real audio greeting 

On May 2, 1999, J.M. Spalding and I traveled to Philip Levine's new apartment in Brooklyn, New York.  He greeted us with a warm smile on the front stoop of his third-floor walk-up.  Limber up the steps, Phil was in top form—clad in his t-shirt, sweatpants, and sneakers.  It was good to see him back in the city.

After chatting briefly with Phil and his wife, Frances, we sat in his newly furnished living room—not quite as modest as he had mentioned over the phone.  The interview itself lasted just over an hour, with John and I taking turns asking a series of questions.  John focused on Phil's early years, while I explored his writing process.  He spoke at length about Robert Lowell, John Berryman, writing, teaching, jazz; and eventually, the interview evolved into a discussion.  It seemed the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. 

Approximately ten minutes of audio recorded during the interview is available for listening online in RealAudio, in addition to Phil's video greeting in RealVideo

—Guy Shahar

J.M. Spalding: You were in Iowa at the beginning of your career, where you've ascribed that your work really changed. What were the expectations going into the writing program knowing that Lowell and Berryman were there?

Philip Levine: I went there to study with Lowell, and I expected Lowell to be there for the whole year.  But, you know, for other reasons—extracurricular reasons—he wasn't.  I thought he'd be a fabulous teacher.  At the time, I thought he was the most exciting poet writing in the United States.  He was not a good teacher.  Partly, something we didn't understand.  He was right on the edge of a nervous breakdown, completely self-absorbed.  He was cruel.

real audio: Robert LowellI know one time I saw him on the street—I had been hit by a car, and I had a concussion, and my glasses were broken—and he could tell by looking at me that something was wrong.  He stopped his car and he got out.  I see this vague shape coming toward me, asking me if I'm alright.  It was Lowell.  And I was stunned.  I mean, the guy really had a heart.  And he said, "What happened?"  I said, "Well, I got hit by a car last night.  I'm not that badly hurt, but I whacked my head and my glasses broke, and I had gone to the hospital and I had a concussion and a terrific headache."  He said, "Is there anything I can do for you?  Can you afford new glasses?"  He knew I didn't have any money.  And I said, "Yeah, I can afford new glasses, okay."   But he was very thoughtful.  It was the one time I realized that there was a profound human being here, as well as a nut.  I admired his poetry so much—and I think all of us did who were studying with him—that we forgave his lapses.

J.M. Spalding: How did Berryman come into the picture?

real audio: John BerrymanPhilip Levine: Well, the second semester Lowell vanished, and shortly thereafter wound up in the hospital.  He chose Berryman to replace him.   I had met Berryman at Wayne University in Detroit.  I liked him.  He was one of the most eccentric people you've ever met.  For example, he was born in Oklahoma, didn't leave until, I don't know, nine or ten, then lived in Florida.  But he spoke with an English accent—complete fraudulent accent—and he spoke in the higher registers of his voice. Hello, Phil, how are you today?  That's the way he'd speak.  Oh you doing quite well, eh?  It's a screwy way of talking.  On the other hand, he put more energy and more time and more study into surveying our work and making suggestions, and encouraging us.  Although he'd be very tough on us, I thought, he was never cruel, because he was always looking for something to praise as well.  But when he didn't like what he didn't like, he didn't make any bones about it.

He demanded much more reading from us than what we were doing.  Pushing us back farther and farther toward Elizabethan poetry and didn't want us just preoccupying ourselves with the moderns.  For me, he was constantly pushing me to poets like Hardy for example, and Yeats.  And to leave Hart Crane and Lowell alone.

He looked at one of my poems and he said,"Oh, you borrowed Cal's Old Smith Corona."  That's the kind of witticism you'd get from him.  I laughed, and he said, "No.  Don't.  Come on, Phil."  That was his attitude.   "You can't imitate those guys; they were too eccentric.  You need to root yourself in a voice that has much greater possibility."

He also taught a lit. class.  Lowell did, too, but Lowell's lit class wasn't very much.  It was mostly gossip.  Not Berryman's.  Berryman's was lectures, you know, really carefully constructed lectures.  The Whitman lecture also included a reading of the entire "Song of Myself" with commentary.  It took four hours.  I mean it was just overwhelming.  It was the most awesome presentation of poetry I had ever heard in my life.  Nothing that I've heard since has come close.   The students were just, "this sonuvabitch works!"

He didn't write.  He did not write during the semester.  He told me later, "I couldn't. I was too busy with you."  It was the only time in his life, by the way, that he taught creative writing.

J.M. Spalding: You had some rather interesting classmates who would later turn out to be quite noteworthy.  Could you talk about that class?

Philip Levine: Yeah, Donald Justice was in it, W.D. Snodgrass, Donald Peterson, William Dickey, Henri Coulette, Janey Cooper, a woman whose name I forget—Shirley Eliason, a guy named Paul Petrie, Melvin Walker Lafollette, Fred Bach.  That's about what I can remember from the class.  There were twelve or thirteen of us.

real audio: Berryman as mentorThe most advanced poets in the class were Snodgrass and Justice.  They were a bit older than the rest of us, say three years older.  They were already finding the voice that they would carry into their mature poetry.   For Lowell, Snodgrass was it, and then Justice.  For Berryman, curiously enough, I was it, even though I was much cruder.

He liked what I was doing more than he liked what they were doing.  I didn't know this at the time, it was only since I published an essay on Berryman, that Jane Cooper said, "Well, one of the reasons you loved him so much, is he loved your work so much."  And I thought, yeah, she's probably right.  He liked the kind of variety of humor and seriousness, and also the anger of a working class person.  I was sort of connected to his politics more than the other men.

I remember he admired Donald Justice's technique enormously; he said that this guy writes with a perfection that is mmm.  He wasn't crazy about Snodgrass.  I asked him, "Is there anybody in America who writes better than Justice, at Justice's age?"  He said, "Yeah, there's a guy I met at Princeton named Merwin."   They were kids, yet I mean, he could see talent when he saw talent.  And he said, there was another young fellow named Hecht.  I mean he was picking up on young talent. He was forty at the time.

J.M. Spalding, Editor-in-Chief, with Philip Levine on his new couch
J.M. Spalding with Philip Levine on his new couch

J.M. Spalding: So you had quite a few contemporaries and a lot of friendships.  How much do you think it affected your writing?

Philip Levine: Like any good workshop experience, it saved me a couple of years.  I got pushed toward doing the reading I should have been doing, especially by Berryman.  I got promoted in the sense of being authenticated by somebody as good as Berryman, and even Lowell, for that matter.  So I got over some of my own self-doubts.  I made some friendships.  Mainly with Henri Coulette, who for some years became my best critic.  I also met a guy there named Peter Everwine who is still probably my best critic.

J.M. Spalding: Briefly, I want to ask you about the Fresno scene with Everwine and DeWayne Rail and some of the other folks out there.  What do you think of where it's going and why do they all seem to write so many elegies?

Philip Levine: Well, I think the elegies are because so many of them have died.  One of the most promising young poets there, a Mexican, Ernesto Trejo, wrote in both languages, died about five years ago—cancer.  Michael Maguire who'd been up at Cape Cod.  He died that same summer.  Charles Moulton died about two years ago.  So I think the elegiac thing is rather recent and comes out of these experiences.  These guys were very close... and then Larry Levis died.  So suddenly, bingo, bingo, bingo, and we've lost four poets.  I think that's where the elegiac thing comes from.

J.M. Spalding: Do you think you may have had a hand in it?

real audio: How to get a good educationThey all claim that it wouldn't have existed without me, and I think that's probably true.  I came into what was really a second-rate school, at very best.  Fresno State was a rather crummy school.  A lot of those men and women who became my students did not go there with the intention of becoming poets, or even writers.  They heard that there's this lunatic over in the English Department who's a lot of fun and knows what he's doing.  So I got a guy like Greg Pape.  He came to be a potter.  He didn't like the Art Department and he drifted into poetry.  I don't know what (DeWayne) Rail came there to be, I really don't know.   But there he was in poetry.  A guy named Herb Scott who teaches in Western Michigan... he was a fiction writer.  He gradually got into poetry because I didn't teach fiction.  You know, with a second-rate or third-rate school you make the best deal you can with the faculty that's at hand.  If some sonuvabitch is teaching biochemistry and making sense out of it, you say, well, shit, I'll become a biochemist, I don't have to be a painter.

J.M. Spalding: So you had some good times with Chuck Hanzlicek and Everwine.  Are they still there?

Philip Levine: Hanzlicek was a great help to me.  I think he's been terrific. Pete Everwine was terrific.  I think Hanzlicek is still there, but Everwine's retired, and we got some terrific young fiction teachers there: Steve Yarborough, Lisa Wilde. I think they're going to take over the writing program and direct it towards fiction.

Guy Shahar: I want to ask you:  I know you just got the place here in Brooklyn, and you're going to be shuffling back and forth, but why Fresno?

Philip Levine: I was in Iowa teaching technical writing there when my second son was born, and he had a childhood form of asthma.  My wife and I took him, at least once every three weeks, to the hospital.  They put him in an oxygen tent so he could survive, and finally the doctor said to us, "Get him out of the Midwest.   This is killing him."  So I applied for a grant at Stanford, and I got a year.  The entire year over there, he had one minor incident with asthma.  So I looked for a job in California and found Fresno.  I could have went to Los Angeles State or Fresno State.  I didn't have a doctorate and those were the two choices.   At L.A. State I would have had to keep teaching technical writing for engineers.   Whereas, at Fresno State, I could teach literature, so I said, "Hell, I'll take that."

So that's why I went to Fresno—and then I got to like it, the students especially.   For me, they were the rural counterparts of the same young people I had gone to school with at Wayne University in Detroit.  They came out of the same social classes.  They had the same lack of sophistication that I had, the same needs to write, the same kind of anger, motivation, doubt.  They were fun to teach because when you opened the book of literature to them they said, "Oh, wow, look at this shit.  Can you believe this?  Other people have been down the same road we've been down."  I've since taught at places like Princeton and Brown and Tufts and Columbia—all over the place.  I've never found students that I enjoyed as much.

Guy Shahar: Did you find that teaching poetry—particularly with students who are so eager to discover new work—actually made your writing better?

Philip Levine: I'd have to say yes and no.  At first—no.   Because I was teaching four or five courses a semester and it was too much.   It was exhausting me.  In 1965, (I started in 1958), I took a year off, and went to Spain.  And I made up my mind when I came back that I'm going to teach less, and I did.

real audio: How teaching affects the writing processMy wife once said to me, "You know, you're your own best student."  I said, "What do you mean by that?"   She said, "Every year when you start teaching, the person who really starts writing a lot is you!  You get so excited about the presentation of poetry and talking about poetry and introducing poetry that you get this sort of renewed interest in it, a rededication."  I think in that regard, it's been very helpful.

A guy like Larry Levis, for example, turned into a very close friend.  Also a fabulous critic for me and a guy who inspired me.  I think my work inspired him. I know his work inspired me, and I hope mine inspired him.  So it turned into a terrific thing to have been doing all those years. 

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Philip Levine (1/2): Interview by J.M. Spalding and Guy Shahar
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SevenThe Cortland Review