|| Philip Levine's real audio greeting
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 formclad 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 roomnot 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
||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
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
reasonsextracurricular reasonshe 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.
one time I saw him on the streetI had been hit by a car, and I had a concussion, and
my glasses were brokenand 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 muchand I think all of us did who were studying
with himthat we forgave his lapses.
J.M. Spalding: How did Berryman come into the
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
accentcomplete fraudulent accentand 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
Philip Levine: Yeah, Donald Justice was in it, W.D. Snodgrass, Donald
Peterson, William Dickey, Henri Coulette, Janey Cooper, a woman whose name I
forgetShirley 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.
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 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
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
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 agocancer. 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?
They 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
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
So that's why I went to Fresnoand 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
Columbiaall over the place. I've never found students that I enjoyed as much.
Guy Shahar: Did you find that teaching
poetryparticularly with students who are so eager to discover new workactually
made your writing better?
Philip Levine: I'd have to say yes and no. At firstno.
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
My 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.