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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Guy Shahar: I also want to talk about your writing process.  For instance, you've just completed your first draft of a poem, what's the first thing you do?

real audio: Writing a poem and making decisionsPhilip Levine: Well, I have to make a decision: am I going to keep it or throw it away?  I mean, I look at it, and I say, "Is there anything here?"  Maybe it took me two hours to do.  Maybe it's thirty-five, forty lines long.  Am I imitating myself?  Does this make any sense?  Is this worth a shit?  Then, let's say I say, "There's something here."   I type it up.  I show it to my wife.  She gives me her response—coded.  "Oh, this is interesting," means throw it away.  "This is pretty good," means work on it a lot longer.  "This is really good," means work on it longer.  "This is super," or "this is fabulous," means it's a poem—from her point-of-view.  She has missed. Sometimes she's been way off.  Usually, I then take it, and the next day I rewrite it, invariably, no matter what she says.  Unless I think it's crap, and then I throw it away—which I do half the time.

Guy Shahar: You mean, it goes in the garbage?

Philip Levine: Yeah.  Absolutely.  Ball it up.  You throw it out, the garbage man takes it away, and you leave no trace.

Guy Shahar: Are you kidding?  When word gets out, people are going to be trampling over each other just to look through your garbage! (all laugh)

Philip Levine: I'll start shredding it. (laughs) Well, don't kid yourself, I got plenty of crummy poems that I think I might use.  Even if I sit on it, and then go back and see where I can tinker with it and change it, sometimes the tinkering is a lot more than tinkering.  I mean, it's really an assault on the poem.

real audio: Phil's method of revisionMy sense of a poem—my notion of how you revise—is: you get yourself into a state where what you are intensely conscious of is not why you wrote it or how you wrote it, but what you wrote.  You just read it as a piece, as someone else might read it, and you see where it's alive.  If that voice that you created that is most alive in the poem isn't carried throughout the whole poem, then I destroy where it's not there, and I reconstruct it so that that voice is the dominant voice in the poem.

Guy Shahar: Do you know the voice when you start off or do you discover it?

Philip Levine: No.  No, I often discover it.  If I know exactly what the voice is, then it's usually a voice I've already used so many goddamn times that I don't need another poem that sounds just like it.  I think in the best poems I make a lot of discoveries about voice, about subject, about what my real feelings are.

Guy Shahar: Do you feel there is a point where the poem—after you've written enough—starts to tell you what you need to do to it?

Philip Levine: Yes.

Guy Shahar: Does that often come early on, or does it sometimes take months?

Philip Levine: Sometimes it does take months, yeah.  Sometimes even longer than that.  I have a fairly long poem called A Walk with Tom Jefferson.  It was written in two fits and starts.  I wrote the first hunk of it in two days.  It was 900 lines long.  Then, in three or four days, I boiled it down to about 300 lines.  It was going off in too many different directions the night before.  When I was done with all that, the poem just stopped at a certain point, and I didn't know how to go on.  So I said to myself, "What's the hurry?"  I thought the answer would come within a week.  Actually, it took over a year.  I would pull the poem out about once every two weeks and reread what I had and think about, okay, where do I go from here?  I realized exactly what I was missing.  I just knew—instantly: I'm missing Tom Jefferson's voice.  I don't have his voice in here. It's my voice that's dominating.  Now I gotta get Tom's voice in here.  (He's a retired black factory worker in Detroit.)

Once I realized that I needed his voice, I was on my way.  I finished the poem that day.  So my real virtue there was just patience and some kind of self-assurance: I'm gonna get this goddamn poem.  I didn't write all this for nothing.  It's gonna happen.  Just don't keep pushing until you get the right idea... and it came.   Maybe it was luck?  Wasn't prayer. (all laugh)

levine-brooklyn.jpg (12257 bytes)
Phil stands in front of his new place in Brooklyn, NY

Guy Shahar: Do you write a lot of poems, usually?  Do you work on six or seven or eight at a time, or is it one at a time?

Philip Levine: It's basically one at a time, unless it's a situation like the Jefferson thing or a poem called Burn that's in What Work Is—a poem that I wrote in pieces, knowing that I needed to have more and more and more... meanwhile, I'm working on other stuff, and when I get an idea for extending this poem, I go back to it.  Then I go back and work on other things.   But most commonly, it's one poem that I work on with a lot of intensity.

When I started writing, I wanted to be a fiction writer.  I wanted to be a novelist.  I was eighteen or nineteen years old, and I'd get these genius ideas for novels and try to finish then in three or four days without going to sleep.  And I realized that's not my temperament.  My temperament is not geared to that of a novelist.  It might be now.  Now, I have a lot more patience.  But back then, it was totally off.  I realized poetry's the thing that I can do 'cause I can stick at it and work with tremendous intensity.  Back then, I couldn't have left a poem a year and gone back to it.

I'm in a situation now, and I have been for ten or fifteen years, where there's no point in my being in a hurry.  Let's say I live to be eighty—I'm seventy-one now—nothing I do between now and eighty is going to change the way people think about my poetry.  I mean, I've been writing it fifty goddamn years, so it's largely done.   Maybe I'll add a couple fairly good books.  Maybe I'll add the best book I ever wrote.  Who knows?  But, you know, it seems silly to suddenly get a little hysterical about it.

Guy Shahar: You once told a story about how you wrote all of your Detroit work poems after you had had a dream, in which you turned your back on a worker you once knew in Detroit, when he called you on the phone.  After you woke up, you realized that it was only a dream, and took it as a kind of a warning not to forget the people you knew when you were working there. Can you elaborate on that?

Philip Levine: Those were my first good Detroit work poems—the poems in Not this Pig in 1968.  I'm not sure exactly when that event occurred, but I would guess it was probably around 1964.  I'd certainly been ignoring that world and looking elsewhere for material.  Not trusting it, I guess.   Not trusting my own life, my own experience.

I did have this dream where this guy called me and wanted me to show him California—I mean, what he really wanted was an invitation to come and visit me, and I didn't invite him.  Then I felt I had betrayed him.  I realized of course it was only a dream, and I didn't have any control over what happened, and that it probably was a warning that I should welcome back into myself all those people that had meant so much to me, and write about them.

real audio: How Philip Levine learned what work isIt's ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was twenty six, my sense was that the thing that's going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I'm doing this crummy work.  I mean, there are guys at Princeton and Yale and Harvard, and they're just sitting there writing their poems.  You know, R.P. Blackmur is sitting there saying to Merwin, "William, I think you ought to shape your poem this way.  Blah.  Blah.   Blah."  Maybe Ashbery is at Harvard, and MacLeish, and they got these terrific teachers—and I got nobody except my classmates and the few people I know who sit in Detroit and write poetry.

I thought, I'm going to fuck up because what am I doing?  I'm going to work every day.  The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry.  But I couldn't see that at the time.  And it took me another ten years to wake up to it.  That I had a body of experience that nobody else had.

Guy Shahar: How and when did you come to accept Detroit back into your life?

Philip Levine: When I turned fifty, I was coming to New York to teach at Columbia and Princeton.  I stopped off at Detroit, and I had a birthday party.   I had my fiftieth birthday with my twin brother, and we got drunk as hell.   Drove all over the city the next day.  It was his car.  He was sliding on the snow.  I didn't give a shit.  Let him smash it.

real audio: A "Detroit-size" poetWhen I got to New York, I realized I was lucky.  New York baffled me at that time.  Couldn't figure it out.  Detroit was just a Levine-size town. (smiles) It was two million people.  I knew every goddamn street.  I knew what everybody did.  I could walk down the street or drive down the street, and say, you know, this sonuvabitch is a CEO at Dodge.  This bastard designs cars.  I could tell just by looking at them... this guy's a cop.

In New York, I didn't know where the hell I was.  I had a son living here at the time, and he was sort of squiring me around, saying, "Hey, Pop, you don't want to go in that neighborhood.  You'll never come out alive."  You know, I was a kid again there.  I said to myself, "Detroit is your city. Honey, you are so lucky you inherited it.  It's just the right size for your talent. You are a Detroit-sized poet."  I was overjoyed.

J.M. Spalding: I want to ask you about Harry Ford, who recently passed on.  You've said that Harry Ford was like a brother to poets, and someone who believed in you.

Philip Levine: He allowed me to pursue poetry and never give a thought to the idea of a career.  I mean, I just didn't have to think about it.  He took my first book without seeing it.  He did not read it before he accepted it.

Guy Shahar: On what did he base his—?

Philip Levine: On reading two other books.  He read On the Edge and Not this Pig. They Feed They Lion got rejected about eleven times.  By Wesleyan twice, even though they'd published Not this Pig.  They didn't like the title; they didn't like the title poem; they wanted me to change it; I wouldn't change it.  So I sat down and said to myself, "Who would I like to publish me?"  I thought, there were two editors: James Laughlin of New Directions and Harry Ford who was at Athenium.  So I wrote each of them a letter.  Laughlin said, "I don't feel good these days. I really feel weak and sick, and I don't want to take on a new book..."  I get a letter from Harry Ford.  He says, "I love your work.  I don't think you'd write a bad book.  I'll take your book."  That was it—1971.  And he was my editor all the way until six weeks ago, or so.

J.M. Spalding: Do you think you'll write an elegy for him, or have you already?

real audio: Writing the elegyPhilip Levine: It's a tough question.  I can't answer it.  I feel... I ought to.  I guess I hope I do.  I hope I do.  But sometimes you don't.  For example, in The Bread of Time, there's a woman in the essay on Yvor Winters called Marie-Louise Koenig.  My wife kept telling me for years, "Why don't you write about Marie-Louise?  She meant so much to you.  You never put her in a poem.  Come on, write about her!"  I'd say, "Honey, it's not like going to the grocery store and you say, 'I'll get two cans of corn.'  You just don't order it around."  Finally when I was writing that essay, I was so happy because I thought, shit, now I can write about Marie-Louise and I can really put her in there.

levine-pointing.jpg (7887 bytes) Meet some people who care about poetry the way you do.  You'll have that readership.  Keep going until you know you're doing work that's worthy, and then see what happens.

J.M. Spalding: Phil, if your work were going to be set to music, what would it be set to?

Philip Levine: If I had to choose?  Bill Evans.

Guy Shahar: The piano player, not the saxophone player.

Philip Levine: Exactly.  I would choose Bill Evans and I suppose early Miles, Mingus on bass, and Lester Young.  I wouldn't want too aggressive a drummer.  Elvin Jones is a very good drummer, but he'd make a little too much noise... Max Roach!  Or else I'd just do it solo with Bill Evans, or with Lester Young.  They're my two favorite jazz musicians.

Guy Shahar: Absolutely.  Bill Evans all the way.  My favorite pianist by far.

Philip Levine: Mine too.  Mine too.

Guy Shahar: How much jazz do you listen to and who else?

Philip Levine: I listen to jazz about three hours a day.  I love Louis Armstrong.  I mean, I think West End Blues is like unbelievable.  There were so many great things he did.  I think Coltrane at a certain point was fabulous, and then he sort of went off into wail and shmail, and you know, you can have it. My Favorite Things I think is just incredible.

J.M. Spalding: Do you listen to anything when you write?

Philip Levine: Not really.  I started listening to music when I wrote when I had three sons at home.  I would turn the music up loud enough, so I couldn't hear them beating the shit out of each other. (laughs) What I used then was Indian music, ragas and crap like that because it didn't mean a damn thing to me, it was just noise that shut out noise.  Now I can play stuff that I know so well that I don't hear it.  The crucial thing that I play over and over and over and over again is Evans at the Village Vanguard.  I must have heard it three-hundred times, so I don't hear it anymore, but it shuts out the other noise.

J.M. Spalding: Okay, now we have a few quick ones. What's your favorite drink?

Philip Levine: Irish Whiskey.

Guy Shahar: Nice.  What brand?

Philip Levine: Black Bush by Bushmills.

J.M. Spalding: How Many?

Philip Levine: Well, I used to be able to drink a whole bottle.   But today, I just don't drink that much.

J.M. Spalding: If you were stuck on an desert island with Rod McKuen, what would you do?

Philip Levine: I'd wake up. (all laugh)

Guy Shahar: What's your favorite curse word?

Philip Levine: Favorite curse word?  Philip Levine's favorite curse word

Guy Shahar: Phil, do you think they'll write an elegy for you, and who would you want to have write it?  It can be any poet, living or dead.

Philip Levine: (long pause) I don't want one.  If I had to have one, it'd be Ben Jonson, because he wrote some beautiful elegies for some young poets.   But I'm too old to be written about as a young poet. You know, I'm not even going to read it.  I'm going to be dead. (laughs) What's the difference?  I mean, does Yeats care that Auden knocked his ass off to write a pretty good elegy?  Probably doesn't give a fuck.

Guy Shahar: Finally, do you have any words of advice for young writers?

Philip Levine: Yeah.  A guy came up to me the other day—he's maybe twenty-four or five and writing seriously.  He didn't know whether or not he wanted to go to a writing program.  He wanted to be a poet.  I said to him, "A writing program might save you time.  You might meet some terrific people there.  And there are three or four of them in the country that are probably worth going to."  He said, "Name them."  I said, "Well, there's Houston.  I taught there; I thought it was terrific.  There's NYU. There's Oregon... Michigan."  Then I got kind of stuck.  I said, "I think there are four that you could go to that would be good."  And he said, "Well, what would be good about them?  That you would make connections that would help you publish?"  And I said, "No.  No."  I said, "Let me give you a little piece of advice about publishing.  If you can live without publishing—that is if you don't have a job that depends upon publishing—then just wait as long as you can.  Wait as long as possible... until you're thirty, thirty-five.  And don't publish all that crap, and don't get involved in that whole world of connections and ass-kissing, networking and all that shit.   Stay away from it.  Meet some people who care about poetry the way you do.   You'll have that readership.  Keep going until you know you're doing work that's worthy.  And then see what happens.  That's my advice.      

Interview with Philip Levine
Conducted by J.M. Spalding and Guy Shahar
The Cortland Review - Issue Seven - May 1999

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