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Philip Levine
Afternoon Seminar - October 17, 1996


Faulkner: We’re really pleased to have with us this afternoon, Philip Levine— one of the finest American poets of this, or any time. Philip Levine is the author of a number of collections of poetry, a winner of the National Book Award, and of the Pulitzer Prize as well. Among the books are, most recently, The Simple Truth, a book of prose, and now he’s turning out a memoir entitled The Bread of Time. Other past titles include What Work Is, New Selected Poems, A Walk With Tom Jefferson, Sweet Will, Not This Pig, They Feed They Lion, and 1933. He is a writer with a fascinating tone in his works. Oftentimes, to hear them orally, one almost loses the quick ease of the metric quality of the poetry, and one just gets caught up in the narrative form of the story. Some of the work is sharp and angry, some of it is dark and full of the hauntings of death, and others of his pieces are delightfully funny, odd, and full of wit. In all cases, there is a sense of story— a sense of something begging to be told, and we as readers find ourselves begging to hear it. With that notion, we are here this afternoon really to just talk about the craft of writing, broadly, and Philip is here to entertain your questions. We expect this to be something very informal, give and take, back and forth, for your edification and for ours, collectively. Please welcome Philip Levine.


Audience Member:  Why did you call that chapter “Entering Poetry,” if you remember.

Levine: Well, I called it “Entering Poetry” because in the end of the section that you read, I described myself, for the first time in my own experience, entering one of my own poems. I’m thirteen years old, as I recollect, and my poems— which were never written down, but which were always recited and memorized, and revised in my own head— had such subjects as rain, the night sky, the stars, and the seasons, but they were always outside of me. On that particular night, as you may recall, a mock orange bush that I had planted, had blossomed. I had broken off a branch of it, and put it in the middle of the table at which my family ate, feeling that everyone would be captivated by the beauty of it, and, of course, no one noticed it. So, I went out into the fields near where I lived, then into the trees, climbed my favorite tree, and began my night recitation to the stars. But, this time, for the first time, I, sort of fretted this blossoming branch, allowed myself a role. I suddenly viewed myself as a gardener. My main influences at the time were The Bible, and the preaching that I’d heard on Sunday mornings. Detroit was about a half-southern town at the time— that would have been 1941— and, we might call them the landless peasantry of America, from the South, in need of work and in need of a life, had come north, and to the great industrial cities of the North. Detroit was just producing great amounts of weaponry for World War II. I would listen to these southern fundamentalist preachers on the Sunday morning programs. I had never read the New Testament— I’m Jewish, it didn’t mean a thing to me— but the language was magic. I just loved the way they used language. So, I began, and I can’t recite what’s in the end of the middle of the essay, but I begin to say things like “and the Gardener did so-and-so,” and “it shall happen to the Gardener as it happened to the so-and-so,” and “I’m the Gardener, and as it happens to me it will happen to you.” I suddenly entered one of my own poems, which I had never done before. I had always kept myself out of my poetry.

Audience Member: [Something inaudible]

Levine: Yeah, this is a book. The other day I was giving a reading in Waterloo, New Jersey, and I held this book up and said “Who did this painting?” and there was a guy who got it right. He guessed Salvador Dali, which, it doesn’t look like it at all, does it? I mean, it’s so beautiful you can’t believe he did it. [Laughs] And it’s not cheap or anything.  
The second part of that essay is completely different. In the second part I try to depict how I sort of became the poet I am, as distinct from some other poet. But, yeah, you know, I say:


“For the first time a part of me became my night words, for now the darkness was complete. ‘These hands have entered the ground from which they sprung,’ I said, and tasting the words I immediately liked them and repeated them, and then more words came that also seemed familiar and right. Then I looked on the work my hands had wrought, and I said in my heart, ‘As it happened to the Gardener, so it happened to me, for we all go into one place; we are all earth, and return to earth.’ The dark was everywhere, and as my voice went out I was sure it reached the edges of creation. I was sure too my words must have smelled of sandy loam and orange blossoms. That was the first night of my life I entered poetry.”

[End Reading]

You know, I thought myself unworthy to be part of a poem. To tell you the truth, I didn’t read much poetry at the time— I was a lot like my present students at NYU. [Laughs] I mean, I wanted to write it, but I didn’t particularly want to read it. A lot of that had to do with how badly it was taught in the Detroit public schools. Most of the poetry we focused on was 19th century English poetry, and it was really very gentile, and some 19th century American poetry. The closest we got to the contemporary world was W.B. Yeats’ early, early poetry. Teachers just didn’t touch the 20th century. In another essay that isn’t in that book, I describe a moment when a particular teacher of mine in high school, a wonderful woman, read a poem to the class called Greater Love, a World War I poem by Wilfred Owen. At this time it was 1944 and I was getting ready to get drafted, and I had very mixed feelings about that. Actually, I didn’t have mixed feelings at all, I was terrified. [Laughs] I didn’t want to go get killed, and I wasn’t eager to kill anyone. Well, there were a few people I would have liked to kill— Hitler and Henry Ford. I could have got them both with one bullet.


At any rate, I was enormously struck by this poem— by its power, and by its relevance to my own experience. It was the first time I encountered someone who was saying to me, through the agency of anything— in this case a poem—that, to not want to go to war is complete sanity, rather than cowardice, or insanity, or whatever other word you might attach to it. And so, from that moment on, I began to think about myself very differently. We didn’t talk about things like that. I mean, I didn’t talk about things like that with my brothers. I didn’t talk about things like that with anyone. You just did what you were expected to do. When you went to the movies and you saw men who had doubt about the war, they were terrible men. Like [Says something inaudible away from the microphone], all the women in the movie knew that, and women for eternity would never be attracted to them. [Laughs] Eventually they got what they had coming.

Faulkner: Can I ask you what— I think I should know—brought you from Detroit, where a lot of your poetry is oriented and based, to Fresno, and how you felt about living in what I would assume is a pretty significantly different environment?

Levine: Well, first thing, it isn’t significantly different. It looks different, the landscape is different. It’s Central California, there are mountains to the east of it— the Sierra Nevadas, huge mountains— and then there are the coastal mountains, which we refer to as hills, because they are only three or four thousand feet high. That’s California. But in another way, it was very familiar. It is a universe of exploited people with not the least chance of entering the class which exploits them. I mean, it is a society which is rigidly fixed, just as Detroit was. Here were people who worked in factories, they had children, and their children worked in factories. That’s when there were factories, when it was a booming industrial place. And, here were people who lived in a place called Grosse Point.  John DosPassos calls it, in U.S.A., the richest suburb in America. They ran the show, and it was frozen. Fresno, in that sense, although it was agricultural— it was/is the center of “agri-business” in America— farms so large they have airports on them. When I was younger I used to love riding motorcycles, off-road bikes. I used to go to those coastal hills and ride there, and I would ride half an hour through a single farm to get into the foothills, where I could maim myself and destroy nature.


It was a stupid thing to be doing, but I was giving myself the adolescence that I had been deprived of, because I didn’t have any money as a kid, and neither did my mother. My father died when I was very young. So, in my late 30s and early 40s I said “Well, if I’m ever going to be an adolescent it’s going to be now.” And I took my chances, got myself one of these motorcycles, and went out and maimed myself. So in that sense, it was very similar, and it was familiar. The students who came to the school at which I taught— California State University at Fresno— were very much like the young people I had gone to school with at Wayne University in Detroit, as it was called when I went. It’s now called Wayne State, but it wasn’t a state university, it was then the City University of Detroit. So, I felt a great sympathy for my students. I went out there originally from the University of Iowa, where I taught technical writing and the Bible as literature, because my second son had asthma, and the doctors said, you know, “You’ve got to get out of this ferocious winter” which Iowa City, Iowa contained. So I went west.

I got a writing grant at Stanford for a year I was studying a real crusty old poet and critic, Yvor Winters. I say “crusty old poet,” I love my use of the word “old.” When I studied with him he was twelve years younger than I am now. [Laughs] But, he talked incessantly about the fact that he was about to die, and it seemed an enormous effort for him, for example, to get up from a chair like this and go open a window. It was… I don’t know, back then people got older a lot quicker, or so it seemed. For one thing, everybody smoked, as he did, and as I did then, too. So that brought me west, and I spent a year with him, studying with him. He didn’t much like my poetry, which was OK by me, because I didn’t much like the poetry that he did like. For example, he preferred Thomas Sturge Moore— a poet you’ve never heard of, and don’t need to hear of— to W.B. Yeats. I thought that was an insane judgment. You know, I sat down with him more aggravated. I read him, and I… well, for Winters, Moore was a more moral man. Forget the fact that he couldn’t make three words happy in the same sentence, you know, just throw that away. [Laughs] I mean, Yeats is glorious, he’s an extraordinary poet. I mean, I don’t like his politics, and I probably wouldn’t have liked him. The only two people that I ever met who met him, didn’t like him, but by that time he was W.B Yeats the Nobel Prize winner, so he didn’t give a damn if anybody liked him, or not. At any rate, Winters was an odd cat, but I enjoyed working with him. I enjoyed it because there was a great need in him to be a true teacher, and if you asked him a serious question— he was a very serious man— like, “What’s so good about 19th century French poetry?” he would sit there with you for hours going over that work and constantly turning to you and saying “Do you see it now, do you see it now?” If you had question about Ben Jonson, who I love, or Donne, or a Hopkins— the poets he took to— then he was enormously useful. He had a class of two students. It started out with three, but he insulted one, so he left. Both of us were on grants, so without these fellowships he would have been the loneliest man in Christendom, except he was an atheist. [Laughs]

So, that got me out there. Then I went down to Fresno, I looked for a job, and I was offered two jobs— one from Los Angeles State, and one from Fresno State— and at first, I decided on Los Angeles State, and then they said to me “But, you’re going to have to teach technical writing,” which I had taught at the University of Iowa, and I said “No, no, I did that for two years, I don’t ever want to do that again, I disliked it.” It seemed like a dead end, and I saw myself being type-cast as the guy who teaches technical writing. The other school said “Creative Writing?”— there was no one there teaching it— “Give it a try, see what happens,” and I thought “Great.” So I went there, and I liked my students enormously, and as the years passed— I was only 31 when I went there— some of them became my best friends, and I think it is friendship that has kept me there. In fact, my wife doesn’t want to stay there, and I may finally leave. She may finally persuade me. It has changed. It has gotten uglier, in any event, the way all of California has changed. The city’s population was 125,000 when I went there, and is over 400,000 now. There’s a lot of pollution, both of the water and the air— I mean, all of the chemicals from these agri-businesses leach into the soil and eventually make their way into the water, and there are just too many automobiles for a place which is essentially in a bowl— and there’s a lot of crime, too, a lot of drug-sponsored crime. Maybe that’s where everybody goes.

Audience Member: You said once that someone gave you the advice that “You’re in your late thirties, but spend the next fifteen years writing as hard as you can, because after that you lose some energy, or juice,” or something. Do you have any comments on that?

Levine: Yeah, the man was Tom McGrath, the poet who isn’t read nearly enough. I mean, Thomas Sturge Moore, if read at all, is read too much. But, Tom McGrath is a terrific poet, at times. In the first book of a long, you might almost say epic, poem, called Letter to an Imaginary Friend, you will find some extraordinary writing. You will also find writing about working class people, and the rural poor. That is very rare in 20th century American literature. He was on a travelling grant, and I was living seven or eight miles south of Barcelona, in a little bedroom community of Barcelona, and there was a guy there who was a translator. I don’t know whether to call him American or not— he was born in British Honduras, but of an American father— and he was utterly bilingual, in fact trilingual. I had met McGrath in California seven or eight years before, and this guy brought him to see me, and we had a fine time. I went south over the Christmas vacation, and I loaned my house to McGrath and his wife. When I got back, he had found a book of my poetry there and read it. His advice went something like “You are now technically able. You have formally equipped yourself to write poetry, and you have a real subject to write about. You’re thirty-six,” or whatever I was, and he said “the years between thirty-five and fifty are the years that you do. And so now you must do everything you can to buy time to write poetry. It doesn’t matter what happens afterwards, just buy time now.” I figured he knew what he was talking about, because he was over fifty. As the years went on, I realized that half of the advice was terrific— the half that said do anything to buy time to write your poetry— but the half that said it slipped from you at fifty was not true. But, when I saw Tom—he was about the age that I am now—he was totally wrecked, and I think that had to do with the way he lived, compared to the way I lived. He was a very heavy smoker, a chain smoker, and a very heavy drinker. He’s dead now. He didn’t write much in his last years, he had emphysema. So, the part of the advice that I took I think was good. I say that… [Momentary Pause] I don’t know what my kids would say. One of them has spoken to me about it, only one of the three. In something that I wrote I said that I thought I hadn’t been a very good father, that I had taken away too much time from my children for my poetry, and my son got very angry at me. He said that wasn’t true, and that I had been a good father. I don’t know whether his memory stinks, or if he’s just enormously kind and generous, or maybe he’s just telling the truth. Maybe I was good, I don’t know.

Question: As time has gone by, have any of your writing processes changed?

Levine: Yes

Question:  .. do you sit down..

Levine: Yeah, I do sit down. I was recently in Robinson Jeffers house and I was told that he didn’t sit down to write poetry, that he paced, and that there was this certain trail in this room that he wrote in, and in fact that his wife would be downstairs and when she didn’t hear him walking –there was also a cot there that he would lie down on—and she would take a broom and whack it – go back to work. I sit down. I would say from the age of about 26 to the age of 50 I tried to write every day. There were some years where I couldn’t, where the kind of work I had to do interfered. But when the work didn’t interfere with it, that’s when I would write. I mean I would write every day. Usually I would try to write in the morning from about 6 6:30 to about noon. And finally at Fresno State I got my schedule so I never taught before say one o’clock, so I had my mornings free. Also the very process itself changed. When I was young, not very young but somewhere in my middle twenties, having falling in love with the poetry of Dylan Thomas and W. B. Yeats and then Robert Lowell, I decided I would work with traditional forms. And I wanted to master formal poetry, rhyme, metrical poetry, from Chaucer to Robert Lowell. And I embarked on a study of all this poetry. I wrote it for – exclusively, that kind of poetry – for 5 or 6 years. And that kind of poetry came almost line by line. Once I had written a poem that I couldn’t see any mistakes in, it seemed to me, not a large or grand or great poem, but done so well that I wouldn’t change it-- isn’t that a great poem – I got bored . Now that I learned how to do this, then I began experimenting with other forms. There was such chaos in my life that it was comforting to have such a formal determination before me, you know what I mean? I’m a very sloppy person, I mean if you saw my desk, just heaped with unanswered letters and stuff.. but then the poems were just so – at a certain point I wanted to relax the thing so I went to a more experimental forms, syllabic poetry, still in rhyme, I still needed rhyme. My first book is mainly metrical, my second book was mainly syllabic. Then I began to say – one of the things I discovered was that nobody heard the syllables – you hear beat. You can hear the metrical poetry, but you don’t hear the syllables. They were there for me, the rhyming was so muted that nobody heard it. I muted it, soft on the rhyme. Then I thought, well maybe I’ll venture out into the great chaos of free verse. So then I started to do that. Now I write in all the forms. I mean I write free verses, still write syllabics, still write metrical poetry. It depends on how I feel and how the poem seems to be taking shape. But I was in no hurry. Don’t forget this was in the 1950s when I was doing my stuff and America was so indifferent to poetry that the idea of rushing it along seemed utterly wasteful.

Question: What about revision.

Levine: Now and then I write a poem that I don’t revise very much. I recently saw the manuscript for this thing called “The Hand of the Poet” in the New York Public Library, and I went to see it, and there was some stuff of mine and there was a manuscript of a poem I had written – first written by hand, then typed with changes. And I saw reading the manuscript that the changes were not radical, I mean I cut off the beginning, I mean I had a false start to the poem and then I got into the poem and then I wrote to the end. And both the beginning and the end pretty much stayed the same and then there were all sorts of what I would call “local” changes – you know another word or maybe a sentence chances. But what I’m more used to is writing something and looking at t first draft and seeing that in it are 6 or 8 lines maybe that are interesting and then throwing all the rest away, and following where those might lead. Sometimes they lead right to the waste basket and sometimes they lead to what I think is a poem. I think I’ve gotten much more efficient. I will revise the poem 6 or 7 times in one day – radical revisions. I’ve become much more efficient in the way I work. My energy isn’t so high, nor does it seem to me that my emotions are quite as intense, but I work with much greater efficiency. Those early rhyme poems came line by line and then the syllabic poems came really in passages. I would get a passage. When I really got into free verse, in about 1976 I remember for example writing 12 pages on a legal pad in one morning or one poem. And then I remember writing in two days 900 lines of another poem and then two days later I reduced the 900 to 300. That was the revision to carve this narrative out that worked. I had too many characters, they started to blend in. It’s a poem called “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.”  It’s about 650 lines long and I stalled it, at one particular point I just stopped half way through and a year and a half later I was talking to somebody about something and I remembered a little piece of what a man had said to me and it just stimulated the rest of the poem and I wrote the other 340 lines the next day. So I mean I did other things during that year and a half, I mean I ate, I dressed, I showered and wrote other poems. So what I found is that it’s important to stay at that desk or wherever it is that you write because if you don’t you may lose touch with the way the poems are going to come to you. If you go wandering off being a celebrity or whatever it is you might think you are, it may be that the whole process will change. And I’ve seen this happen to people, that they really lost touch with their poetry and never found it again. I think there is a reward for just that loyalty to the call, to the process. 

Question: Was there a person when you were first writing who had a major influence on you?

Levine:  Yes. It was in my second semester at college. I took a course in essay writing and the poetry was something I did secretly. The first essay I remember was a scholarly footnoted paper, I don’t remember what the subject was. We were supposed to write two long papers, each one typewritten. And the second one was a personal or informal essay and mine was a kind of anarchist vision of what the world should be, a world without jails, a world without a natural wall of people following their own natural goodness. I was very naïve perhaps or idealist, I don’t know how to describe it. At any rate these were things I believed in. And I handed it in and my teacher asked me to stay after class – his name was John Sinclair – and after class he said to me, he was holding the paper and I didn’t know what he was going to say about it, and I saw there were little red marks, the way he would make little corrections with his pen. And I thought, uh, oh. And he said to me, we were sitting in this temporary building, it looked like a barracks where they would put up all the post-war students who were coming back to college – and he said to me, Mr. Levine, you should become a writer. And I said ,You really think so? He said, Oh, yea, you should become a writer. You write much better than I do. I said, I write better than you do? What are all those red marks? And he said, Oh they’re nothing, there just you misspelled that word, you put a comma instead of a semi-colon. That’s stuff you’ll learn, you’re learning already. That’s nothing. But you have a gift here. I couldn’t write – he said by the way, I hate your ideas, politically I’m a Republican, I’m very conservative. I hate these ideas, they really disgust me in a way. But you state them so beautifully. And he began reading passages to me. I can’t tell you how intoxicated I was by this praise. Somebody was authenticating a deep belief that I did have something to say.
And then I suppose the second person who mattered in that same way was John Berryman.  I was 18 the first time and at age 26 I went to the University of Iowa and I took two poetry writing classes – I’d never taken a class in poetry writing. They weren’t offered at Wayne.  I took a class first with Robert Lowell who was on the threshold of a terrible nervous breakdown. So he didn’t really have the attention to our work He just sort of drifted through the classes, vaguely drifting probably thinking, “Why don’t I cut my throat.” Who the hell knows what he was thinking. It would have been horrifying to know what he was thinking. If it could have been like a cartoon and there would have been a bubble over his head, it would have been awful, poor man, because a month or so after he was in a mental institution after the class. So little wonder that he paid very little attention to us. And then Berryman came and for some reason he just took a terrific – I had been fairly ambivalent to my poetry – Berryman just took this incredible liking to what I was writing. He just thought it was terrific. And that was all I needed. I mean I needed more. I got it from my friends, I got it from my equals. One of the good things about Berryman was, at the end of the semester he made it very clear that the semester was over. One more time, in a year and a half or so, I want you to send me 4 or 5 of your lousy poems and I want to see  -- the letter he wrote back is displayed by the way in the New York Public Library. It begins something like, It’s nice to see you’re selling your lousy poems to stupid editors – something like that. But it’s the only way he knew how to praise. And then he talks about how he’s going to get ready physically for a visit from me. We had had our difficulties. Mix the drinks and we had a great time. It never happened unfortunately. But that too authenticated me. The thing was, I sent him the poems, and he sent them back and it was over. He wasn’t going to be my teacher anymore. And what he was also saying was, you don’t need a teacher anymore. You had one hell of a teacher, me. That’s what he was saying. You couldn’t get a better one. He was right. He was the best teacher I have ever seen. He was a fabulous teacher. He was inspiring, he was demanding, he was tough, he was fair. And he was resourceful. I don’t know what else you could ask. He was at times even tender. At times he wasn’t, he could be harsh. But we were pretty tough. What he was telling me was find a group of friends. I found a group, Saul Bellow, Robert Lowell, he had a different group, Delmore Schwartz, they were his buddies. Now I had to find a group. So I found people my own age and at my own level. Because he was a much better poet at that time than I was. He didn’t want to fool around being my teacher. I found my equals.

Question: Who were they?

Levine:  They were Robert Nessy (?), who doesn’t write poetry anymore.  Henry Collett, who’s now dead and who didn’t write much poetry after he turned 40, 45. Peter Everwine, who was the most gifted person I ever came across who wrote two great books of poetry and stopped. And so a point came where I had to find, because I’m not Emily Dickenson or Walt Whitman, I’m not that kind of credible poet, I had to find people to help me with my writing, people to read it and give me some feedback and I found those people among my students. I’m going to take that back. I found that person among my students. Unfortunately he died, in May. His name is Larry Levis – fabulous American poet – he was in his late 40s when he died. And so I’m going back to this guy Peter Everwine.  I didn’t show him any poems for many years because I knew he wasn’t writing and I thought it would be cruel. But this summer he knew I was working on a particular thing and he said, Let me help you. And I did. And he was just as sharp as he ever had been, and he seemed to enjoy, to really miss participating, even in my poetry.

Tape ends abruptly…

…in terms of structure. Also he’s been helping me steadily now with the terrible task of editing this guy Larry Levis’s  last book. He left an unfinished book. He called me a week before he died and said he was coming to see me. He comes from just south of Fresno—Selma California—the raisin capital of the universe. And he was going to come back and visit his mother and we were going to go over this manuscript and put it together. Then he died. So I got the manuscript, but I got more – I mean I got a box about that long with his poems in various drafts. So that was in July that I got it, and  I’m just about done with the publisher. About a year from now, next fall when he was supposed to…

Question: Why did he stop writing?

Levine: That’s hard to say. One of the things he said, I’ll quote him, “I have a fragile talent,” he said. I don’t buy that.  I think one of the things that he found very difficult was putting it out there and having it rejected. He didn’t have the – I think you have to be pretty tough; you have to be willing to take the knocks. And his second book wasn’t as well received as his first one and I think tender spots got bumped there. He didn’t pursue it. For example a couple years ago the editor of the New Yorker --poetry editor --Alice Quinn, she just loved this guy’s poetry. So I went back to Fresno and I said do you have anything to send her? He sends her one poem. She takes it, she publishes it. He sends her a second poem, she writes back and she says—it was about poetry – she says we have a policy, we don’t publish poems about poetry. He’s never sent her another poem. He’d been rejected. I said, Peter, for Christ’s sake there are people who would kill their mothers to get published in the New Yorker, and you – no, I’ve had it with that woman.  I don’t know. I think a lot of it is that he didn’t have a hell of a big story and he told the little story that he had in the two books that he published. They are very perfect. He’s very much a minimalist, the poems are very short. I read an interview with him once that never got published. It was a very interesting interview. It was very revealing, things that he had never said to me. One of the things he said was, The poets I like best in the world are Antonio Machado,  Juan Ramon Jiménez, Louise Bogan, and Johannes Bobrowski, an East German – well now just German. And I started thinking about these poets. None of them produced very much, except Machado. When you look at the poems they are very small, perfect, delicate, gorgeous poems. And he so boxed himself into this perfection – and I kept saying, Why don’t you write in a longer line? Why don’t you open it up? Why don’t put garbage cans, waitresses, and paratroopers, and skunks and chipmunks and sparrows and Buicks, and refrigerators. Why don’t you get America into your poetry? Why does it always have to be dawn and three guys out waiting for ducks to land and it’s you and you’re 12 years old and it’s you and your uncles. Why is it always where you’re in a room with the light coming through and there’s a beautiful dark-haired woman and pretty soon something interesting is going to happen between the two of you but the poem will end before it happens. Why is it always such a pure world? Why can’t it be the messy one we live in? And he says, that’s the world you write about, Phil. And I said, yeah, but it’s also the one you live in. He said, Yeah, but I don’t like living in it. I want to live in that other one.
I remember once I was at a thing with Joyce Carol Oates. We did a conversation six years ago at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, New Jersey. Somebody asked “What does it take to write a poem; to be a poet?” I said it takes verbal talent just as a sprinter needs foot speed. You need persistence, drive, commitment to keep you there year after year, and you need luck. What I mean by luck is; say you marry a beautiful man or woman, and that man or woman couldn’t care about poetry. When you’re at home writing poems they want to go dancing, or they complain about driving a Chevette instead of a Lexus. They will blame your rotten poems. If that person you decide to live with, that man or that woman, doesn’t take that enterprise as serious as you do, you’re in trouble. That’s luck, because getting a good husband or good wife is just luck. You’re sexually nuts and don’t know what you’re doing, maybe if you get married at forty and you got a brain. Otherwise it’s not your brain that’s directing you. If it works out you’re a lucky dog, so don’t go telling people how smart you are. I’m done describing all this and Joyce says, “You’ve forgot something Phil, you’ve forgot something you need to be a poet.” I asked her what is that and she said, “You need a story.” She is right. There has to be something there that you have to tell. Rilke tells us in his Letters that we all have the story, and it’s the magic of our childhood blah, blah. Ok he is right, but most of us lose contact with the magic of our childhood. It’s Orwell who talks about his childhood memory of his father as a large man who smelled of cigarettes and said “No.” That is not going to give you too many poems.

Question: Henry Ford poem?

Levine: Henry Ford, in his life, was viciously anti-semitic, hated blacks and did everything he could to divide the working classes so they could never form any unions. Ford hired these goons. I knew one of the goons who had been patrolled from Jackson State prison. He was also a painter. My grandfather thought he was a good painter. He was an awful man and he was a labor spy. So if Ford heard anybody talk about unionizing he would fire them. He also printed the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in his Dearborn Independent newspaper. He made sure who the mayor of Dearborn was. There wasn’t a single black family living in Dearborn, but there were thousands of black men and women working his plants. There was a way in which he confirmed your worst suspicions about who owns America. You could look at him and say what a shit; what an incredible powerful totally compassionless human being. What could be uglier than somebody with that power and no compassion? I’ve just described Ronald Reagan to you right? except Reagan didn’t have the brains to invent the automobile, or build an empire. The energy of my anger toward those people who were making me dislike myself, because I didn’t like myself as a guy working in factories. I thought, “Is this the best you can do?” What a shmuck you are, you went all the way through college. There is an expression in Yiddish which means, for this you went to college. I remember telling my grandfather I was going to become a poet and that’s exactly what he said. Then he started telling about when he grew up in Russia, in the Ukraine actually, where there was an old Jewish guy who went house to house to recite his poems and then they’d have to feed him. My grandfather said, “You don’t have to go to college for that.”  I told him it was a little different and he said, “Well do what you want.”

Question: Would you read your poem “On the Corner,” and tell us about your inspiration.

Levine: This poem is about Art Tatum. Art Tatum was a great jazz pianist. The trouble with Art is there isn’t enough keys. If you hear Art you do get that sense that he wishes there were more keys on the damn thing. I went to see him once. He was blind by the way. That’s something you have to know, I think, to get the poem. I was shocked to learn what would have been his eighty-sixth birthday was last week. I listen to Phil Shaft on a station from New Jersey playing Tatum saying today was his birthday. I was shocked to discover that when he died he wasn’t even fifty, but when I saw him I regarded him as an old man. I saw him several times. He used to come to Detroit every summer and play.


“Standing on the corner
until Tatum passed
blind as the sea,
heavy, tottering
on the arm of the young
bass player, and they
both talking
Jackie Robinson.
It was cold, late,
and the Flame Show bar
was crashing
for the night, even
Johnny Ray
calling it quits.
Tatum said, Can’t
believe how fast
he is to first. Wait’ll
you see Mays
the bass player said.
Women in white furs
spilled out of the bars
and trickled toward
the parking lot. Now
it could rain, coming
straight down. The man
in the brown hat
never turned his head up.
The gutter swirled
their heavy waters,
the streets reflected
the sky, which was
nothing. Tatum
stamped on toward
the Bland hotel, a wet
newspaper stuck
to his shoe, his mouth
opened, his vet
drawn and darkening.
I can’t hardly wait, he said.”

[End Reading]

I had seen them the night before. I had gone to the Paradise Theater on Woodward Avenue to see Art Tatum. His flight was delayed and they offered us our money back, but they said he was going to come. Erroll Garner was there instead playing until Tatum got there. Erroll Garner ran out of “Misty” after an hour. He played “Misty” beautifully. Garner is a wonderful pianist, but he has a limited repertoire. He had no bass, no drums, he was doing it himself, but there were one hundred of us who stayed. The place seated about eight hundred, but most the people left.  At about eleven thirty in comes Art Tatum. There was no bullshit, he was delayed in his flight from Chicago, and somebody said there were one hundred loyal fans there. He played till about four in the morning. He loved us because we loved him. A day or two later I saw him on the street with the bass player. I went over to thank them and I heard them talking. I was sure they would be talking about Louie Armstrong or something, but no they were talking about Baseball. When they weren’t working they were just shmucks like me. They were real artists. They had the same dumb concerns as the rest of us. Here was a man who couldn’t see, but still loved Jackie Robinson’s speed to first base.

Question: Did the --- really happen? (perhaps this is the title to a poem)

Levine: Some of it did happen, that is to say, I did read to those girls. In Providence, Rhode Island I gave a poetry reading in the school to a group of girls from a private school done up in uniforms. They wore blazers with crests, pleated skirts and white socks. They looked like they had just stepped out of one of the world’s worst movies. They were polite and paid attention. I did receive a letter from a woman, but not from Chicago. It was a California letter because it was about a reading in L.A. The letter said something about our souls and how she had heard me read. We were kindred souls and all this business and how when I was giving the reading she looked up at the ceiling and saw our auras intertwining, and that we must become more intertwined. The second paragraph began, “By now you must have guessed; I am a dancer.” There was no way of guessing that because the letter was so nuts, but I thought someday I have to put this into a poem.  The elements are there but very few of my poems are autobiographical. It’s open house; time to invent. I’m with Aristotle I’m very Aristotelian when it comes to poetry. He says, “Poetry is truer then history.” What he is really saying: what we invent must pass a more ridged test then what really happened because what really happened is governed by accident and forces we don’t understand, but within the structures we create nothing must seem accidental. It’s seen necessary and in that sense poetry is truer then history.

Question: How do you decide what you are going to write about?

Levine: I don’t decide. When I was young I made real decisions. I would say, I’m going to write about working with these guys in this place, or I am going to write about these women that I worked with in that place, but as I got older I would just sit down and write whatever came to me. I was so gratified that something came to me, I would just follow it. Where it led I would go, and it seems to me that’s what happens to most writers who are successful. I don’t want to go back and write about my parents again or write about my grandparents again. I don’t even want to write about those factories again. This summer for example, I began to think about a guy that I had worked with who was one of the biggest bull-shitters I had ever met. He didn’t do any work at all. We were building US-24 from Detroit to Toledo and I doubt he did any work. He was paroled to the guy who ran the job. We were doing the culverts that ran along the side of the road putting those big pipes in the earth, and he would just sit there and entertain us with unbelievable lies. Lies about bank robberies he committed, and love affairs he had. He was a very skinny ugly guy. You would know it was all lies but it was wonderful. Then at lunch he would just lay there and make up more tales. Little Jerome and what a wonderfully entertaining man he was, totally dishonest but so ripe and generous with his bull-shit. There he was, so I had to write about him. Why I suddenly remembered him on that day I have no idea? Why his memory was dormant all those years because I had written a poem before about that very job, but I had written about another man. A man I worked with who was gay. A very powerful looking man; powerfully built and powerful strong; he was a black man. One day he was very sad on the job. At lunch he would be reading [Shobha?] or Immanuel Kant; he was a real intellectual although also a brute physically. One day he was sad so I asked him what was the matter and he said he had argued with his father because his father had finally discovered – caught him with his boyfriend. I asked him what he said to his father and he said, “Dad if you don’t want to see don’t look.” It was the kind of phrase you never forget. I had written that poem twenty years before, but when Jerome came back to me I thought I had to write about him.

Question: How do you feel your focus stays from periods it doesn’t and how you to transfer in and out of that?

Levine: You look back and see there were periods where you were really hot. You have a lot of material coming to you and the work was really rich, and other periods where the best you could do is kid yourself. For example: the spring before last I was at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I was working every day and I probably wrote twenty poems there. There is only one I still like, and would put in a book. All the others were garbage. It was just a dead period. If you stick with it you will find that will happen and you just learn to live with it. It’s part of what you know. Nobody guaranteed you anything. Nobody knocked on the door and said, “Write poetry Philip please.” It was my idea so I take responsibility for it, and when it doesn’t happen – it doesn’t happen. I think my greatest strength as a writer is my patience. I have been patient through these periods. I have never had what’s called “the writer’s block.” Dashiell Hammett says in one of Lillian Hellman’s books – at one point she is talking about having writer’s block—he says to her, “There is no such thing; if you would just put your ass on the chair you would write.” That’s exactly the phrase he uses, but of course she is busy being a celebrity. Her plays are on Broadway, she’s being a star -- they’re making films out of things of hers. She is much too busy being Lillian Hellman.

Question: (?)

Levine: I’ve learned the things I can do to stop myself, but not the things I can to do to start myself. I know that if I’m a liar – I’m not going to want to hear my words. I know that if I drink too much that the next morning I’m worthless. There are a number of things, that if I do, I’m going to stop myself, but what I can do to start myself I don’t know. I don’t believe that any kind of meditation will do it, drugs will do it or any of this stuff. I’ve tried them, not extensively, but I have tried them. They didn’t do a damn thing. The one time I took acid the only thing I discovered was that the room got aggressive.


I don’t think there really is an answer. I think each of us finds the things we can do that can stall us, and then we learn to be patient. We learn to accept our failures; that’s the thing I see with my students. The ones that can’t accept their failures – forget it – they are going nowhere. They are judging themselves by standards they don’t deserve. Nobody deserves those standards. Walt Whitman wrote badly and he’s our greatest poet. Emily Dickinson wrote badly, and she’s damn near our greatest poet. If our greatest poets can write badly then why can’t we? Of course we can write badly, and if we won’t extend ourself that freedom and that generosity we will stall ourselves. We will just stop. We have to accept that, and I’ve done that for myself. I say, “Phil, you can write really badly.” Now you know that – and when you do it just try to write. It’s relatively harmless. A few trees suffer, but they recycle that shit now anyways.


Faulkner:  Thank you very much

[Audience applauds]