Poet Philip Levine, winner of the Pulitzer Prize [in 1995, for The Simple Truth], was born in Detroit in 1928. His eighteenth book of poems is The Mercy (Knopf, 1999). He is interviewed here by Sally Dawidoff.
SD: You once told a classroom of graduate students in poetry writing that poets should take the subway. What did that mean?
PL: Well, it means that they should take the subway. It also means that they should share their lives with the people of New York, if they live in New York. If they live somewhere else, they should share their lives with the people from there. And also as poets it's probably a good idea not to get used to too much luxury, because you're not going to be earning much money for a long time, and you're never going to make much on poetry. . . . Get down with the real folk. And also learn to live on little. You'll live longer.
SD: You've written, "The truth is we form a family with all the poets, living and dead, or we go nowhere." Can you explain that?
PL: I think that a poet like Emily Dickinson was just a kind of natural eccentric genius. But for someone who's not an eccentric genius--someone like me (or even if I'm eccentric, I'm not a genius), I need to find among the living poets some ear for my poetry, someone who can help me.
SD: You've also written, "Today anyone can become a poet." Can anyone become a poet? How do they do it?
PL: Yeah. I wasn't serious. What I was talking about was the fact that according to the ads--you know, I'm talking about the little things that used to come on match books: "Draw me and you can become a great artist." Essentially, that's what the creative writing programs are saying: "Come here, and you'll leave and you'll write the world according to you, and they'll make a movie out of it." Or you'll be the next W.S. Merwin. But anybody who's taught knows that that particular person who enters your class and is undeniably a poet is a very rare person. You're lucky if you can just get somebody who's got oomph and some gift. And some of those people surprise you. . . . But there are people who just have no talent.
SD: Do you tell them?
PL: I have told a few people over the years, "You're wasting your time." . . . I haven't done that in some years, because it seemed to cause too much pain. And it didn't deter them. They stuck at it. I know one guy who's still writing, and it's still shit.
SD: Who are some of the students you're proudest of?
PL: Well, the two that I'm the most proud of died already, which is a terrible thing. Seven of my poets have died, all in about the last five years. I thought they'd all outlive me. And the last one that died, a Mexican-American, Andres Montoya, a brilliant man, I don't even think he was 30. Larry Levis died at 49. He was the one student I thought was certainly going to be a better poet than I. I'm not sure he wasn't already, period. I'm not talking about the future. But the other was a woman named Sherley Williams, who was also a novelist . . . . Ernesto Trejo. Gary Soto, a Chicano poet. . . . A woman named Roberta Spear. . . . A guy from Canada named Shane Book and a young woman from California, her name is Xochiquetzal Candelaria, Chicana, very smart and very dedicated. . . . And Malena Morling, I think [hers is] a wonderful book; it's like nothing anybody else is writing. [Morling's first published book of poetry, Ocean Avenue, was selected by Philip Levine for the 1998 New Issues Poetry Prize. Ed.]
SD: What are you working on now?
PL: Another book. I can't even begin to describe it. I have never been able to describe any of my books until I got to the end of them and saw what they were about.
SD: What's your daily writing schedule like?
PL: It's so simple and uniform. I get up, I eat a very light breakfast--somewhere between something and nothing--drink a cup of decaffeinated coffee, read the sports section. I certainly never read the front page. By 8:00 I go into that room, and I'm there for some hours, and sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes something that seems promising happens that turns out to be not promising. Sometimes the real thing happens. And I do that regularly. In Fresno I'm in the room faster, because the paper's thinner and duller.
SD: Do you read your reviews?
PL: Sometimes by accident. I was staying at someone's house who had a subscription to The New York Review of Books and thus I read the review Helen Vendler wrote of me; it actually didn't bother me because I already knew she was tone deaf. [Dec 17, 1981? Ed.]
SD: So what's your advice for poets starting out?
PL: Read. And when you're done reading, read some more. Read a great variety of poetry. . . . And I guess my second piece of advice is: Write everything that occurs to you. . . . In every style they can think of. And not try to find a voice. Avoid an eccentric individual voice, because it's a trap. They haven't even found their subject yet. They're 22, 23 years old--they don't even know what their life obsession is yet.
SD: Should any subjects be taboo?
PL: Of course not. But that doesn't mean that young poets shouldn't avoid certain subjects that have been written to death.
SD: You said in the Hopwood Lecture, 1997, "one of my central characters is named Philip Levine, he is a poet from Detroit," etc. You've also said, "None of my poems are autobiographical." How is your work a record of your life?
PL: Some of my poems lean heavily on autobiographical material, but I never feel obliged to stick with what I think happened. As I've said to many of my students over the years, Why be yourself when you could be someone interesting? My imagination is the source of my writing, and my task is to follow where it leads.
[Sally Dawidoff lives in New York City, where she teaches writing to adults and children. Her poetry appears in the May issue of the magazine. This interview, conducted in December 1999, first appeared on iuniverse.com. It is reprinted with the permission of Mr. Levine. Ed.]
BOOKS BY PHILIP LEVINE
Newspaper says the boy killed by someone,
don't say who. I know the mother, waking,
gets up as usual, washes her face
in cold water, and starts the coffee pot.
She stands by the window up there on floor
sixteen wondering why the street's so calm
with no cars going or coming, and then
she looks at the wall clock and sees the time.
Now she's too awake to go back to bed,
she's too awake not to remember him,
her one son, or to forget exactly
how long yesterday was, each moment dragged
into the next by the force of her will
until she thought this simply cannot be.
She sits at the scarred, white kitchen table,
the two black windows staring back at her,
wondering how she'll go back to work today.
The windows don't see anything: they're black,
eyeless, they give back only what's given;
sometimes, like now, even less than what's given,
yet she stares into their two black faces
moving her head from side to side, like this,
just like I'm doing now. Try it awhile,
go ahead, it's not going to kill you.
Now say something, it doesn't matter what
you say because all the words are useless:
"I'm sorry for your loss." "This too will pass."
"He was who he was." She won't hear you out
because she can only hear the torn words
she uses to pray to die. This afternoon
you and I will see her just before four
alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box
of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee,
a naval orange secured under her arm,
and we'll look away. Under your breath make
her one promise and keep it forever:
in the little store-front church down the block,
the one with the front windows newspapered,
you won't come on Saturday or Sunday
to kneel down and pray for life eternal.
~ . ~