John Amen: Interview with Philip Levine

JA: I´m excited to be featuring you in this issue of The Pedestal Magazine. Let me begin by asking you: You have written and published a few hundred poems. Are there poems or books (of your own) that, for you, represent significant milestones? I mean, do you have favorites among the poems or books you´ve written? And, why do these particular works stand out for you?

PL: There are a couple that I thought were breakthroughs, in the sense of handling what I´d been trying to handle in a much better way than I´d ever handled it before, or in some cases, doing something I´d never really done before. Those poems tend to stick in my mind. There are a couple of poems in my first book. One was called “Small Game," and another was called “The Horse." “The Horse" was a poem that came out in a way no poem of mine had ever come out before. I liked what I was doing there. Then, when I was putting together my second book, I was suddenly able to write about my life as an industrial worker to a degree that satisfied me. I was getting something I had never been able to get before. I had always been too enraged; suddenly I felt Wordsworthian, that this was emotion recollected in tranquility. That was enormously exciting. I felt very calm in the face of what I was doing, rather than overwhelmed. I really felt like I was an artist rather than a screamer. The poem that was the most surprising poem I ever wrote was “They Feed They Lion." Then I made the mistake of trying to duplicate it and discovered that I couldn´t. Within six months I said, I'm not going to do this again. I did it once, I´ll never do it well again.

In my early forties I wrote a number of poems I was very confident of but didn't understand: most of them are in the book Red Dust, which was written about the same time as the Lion book. In a letter, I believe it was, Joyce Carol Oates congratulated me for being able to live with poems I didn't understand. I thought at first, I do understand them, but when I sat down and took a good look, I had to agree with her. Many years later, I gave a reading with a San Francisco surrealist poet, Philip Lamantia. He read first, for perhaps half an hour, and I was wowed by the force and originality of his language. I enjoyed the reading immensely without really knowing what he was doing. I had with me this long poem I'd never read before, one that was quite baffling to me. When I read, I told the audience that I felt emboldened by Philip's reading, and I too would read a poem I didn't comprehend. Philip looked at me in this quizzical way as though to say, Levine, I know what I'm doing. It's you who don't know what you're hearing or doing. He was right.

Somewhere between the ages of forty and forty-five--I wasn´t aware of it at the time--I came to understand that in order to write my poems I would have to commit myself to the flow of language in a way I hadn't before, and that I could always go back and make changes. I began to write in larger chunks. The poems did not come out line by line in the original draft, but in longer passages, and I found it enjoyable. A poem that surprised me in many ways was “A Walk with Tom Jefferson." It started with a great rush, maybe nine hundred lines in two or three days, this huge mess that held something I wanted. I changed the form several times, and finally, a few weeks later, I had half of the poem, and I was exhausted. I put it aside and waited. I would pull it out every few months, read what I had, and wait for lightning to strike. I was absolutely sure I'd finish it one day, and there was no point in prodding it. Maybe eighteen months later I looked at it, and I knew what was missing, and I finished it in two days, wrote over three hundred lines. At age fifty-eight, I discovered I was a patient man.

JA: It's very interesting that you mention "patience." Could you speak a little bit more about that-- the role of patience in your writing?

PL: Well, at one point it was very unpleasant to walk around with an unfinished poem. Then, much later, it no longer became unpleasant. I began to look at it as a natural occurrence. It´s a job. It´s your job to finish this poem. And if it´s not finished, ok, you´ll finish it. Unless you get hit by a truck tomorrow, there´s no reason why you won´t finish it. Take your time, and do it right. For the last twenty years, I haven´t been in any hurry to bring out books. I´ve often finished a book and sat on it for a year or more. Right now, for example, I´m putting a book together, and I realize I´ve waited too long. There´s so much work here that I´m going to have to leave half of it out in order to give it some sense of unity and variety, which is what I´m always after.

JA: You´ve mentioned that you actually discard many poems after writing them, deciding that they´re not workable. What is the role of revision for you? How do you go about deciding that one piece should be discarded while deciding that another has potential?

PL: Well, there are a number of things. One is, I´ll look at something and ask, Does this look like something I´ve already done? That´s half of what I throw away. I´ll think, Shit, you´re just writing to be writing. You´re just marking time so you can walk out of your workroom and say, Oh, I did something. Another reason is that the language just isn't interesting enough to me. I think the first thing that would say to me, Save it, work on it, is the language. Is it interesting language? There was a time when I would have said imagery. But I think today it´s language. I´m much more interested in the language I use than I was twenty years ago. It´s very hard for me to bury something in which I find the language exciting. I say, No, I'll save it, I´ll see what comes of it.

My process of revision is fairly simple. I look at a first draft, and I say, Where´s the life here? What's alive here? Maybe it´s the day after I wrote it; maybe it´s an hour after I wrote it. I´m much more efficient as a reviser than I was in my forties. Often I have to drop down to line twenty. I´ll say, Here´s where I really stopped marking time and got alert. Sometimes I´ll see that I was alert to start with and then dropped off.

JA: In an interview I recently read, you spoke about the solitary nature of the writing life. You said: “I´ve had friends tell me, younger poets, that when they came back from their early reading tours they´d get very depressed. I guess they were waiting for applause as they picked up pen and pencil. But there is no applause." I was wondering, Could you speak about that a little more-- the idea that “there is no applause?"

PL: Well, there´s no applause in the sense that there is applause on a reading tour. On a reading tour, you become a performer, and you´re really judged as a performer. But then you go back to your workroom, and you can be disappointed in the silence, although it was silence, or seeking work in silence, that helped you create those original poems. These are the two aspects of my being a poet. One is the performer, one is just a writer. When I´m working alone, I do have an inner sense of applause, a sense that I did it, I got what I was after. As rewarding as it is to give a good reading, it doesn´t compare with the feeling of getting a poem right. Or to feel that I´ve got it right, because sometimes I can fool myself. But there is a kind of inner applause, and I think that that´s what keeps me going.

JA: You are someone who, at different times, has taken a great deal of interest in political issues. Some of your poems have political themes (“They Feed They Lion" comes to mind). Do you see yourself as a political writer? I was wondering if you would be interested in offering some of your views on current world and/or domestic situations?

PL: Recently I was invited to that poetry bash Laura Bush was going to have at the White House; before I could even write the letter declining her invitation, it was canceled. The list of those invited must have gotten out because I suddenly began getting these calls from newspapers and radio stations, and I was glad to be able to talk about why I wouldn't attend. The reason was very simple: The people presently running the American government have done nothing to deserve our poetry; they have no regard for the great truths of our poetry or--for that matter--truth in any form. OK, I didn't have a chance to say that in the White House, but I gave some readings last spring, and so I spoke to various audiences. In San Antonio there was a Q&A after I read, and this guy starts talking about the justifications for war. I waited until he got to the Holocaust and asked him if he had a question. He just went on bloviating, so I cut him off and told him everything he'd said was irrelevant. He started up again, and I said, Shut up, you're stupid. I felt bad about this and asked people later if I wasn't rude. They loved it. Claimed they were too polite in San Antonio. In Santa Fe I read an anti-war poem--not mine--and spoke against the war: the reception was fabulous. Vanderbilt was patient with me. In May I lost my temper in Gold's Gym in Fresno. I heard Bush laughing on the radio, joking about the burning of the Republican Guards in Iraq. You don't joke about burning people up, so I start yelling, There's our mother-fucking wind-up toy of a president laughing about death. This big guy says, You be quiet. I don´t want to hear that kind of talk. Forgetting that I´m seventy-five and this guy is a kid and eighty pounds of muscle larger, I tell him, No, I'll say what I want. He walks over and stares at me. I tell him Bush has TV, radio, the press; I only have my own voice, and I'll use it whenever I want. What's he gonna do, hit a seventy-five year-old poet? The Bushies are out to derail as many social programs as possible for as long as possible, so they love these huge debts. To them, a government that cares about raising the standard of everyone is Communism. Bush talks a lot about his Christian faith, but it's obvious he and his people hate the poor. For them, wealth and character are synonymous. The greatest threat to world peace is our war machine; the greatest threat to American tranquility is the misnamed Department of Justice.

JA: Part of what I enjoy about your poetry is that it reflects a fascination with human stories. You offer glimpses into lives that we would not otherwise know. Could you speak a little about this? I mean, do you have a genuine interest in people, in their stories, their lives? And is that part of what leads you to write, the desire to give voice to the human condition?

PL: Well, that phrasing is a bit too grand. It´s a fascination with people. I don´t really know much about the human condition; I just know people. For example, there was a guy I worked with once. I´ve never been able to write a poem about him. He was a little skinny guy who was paroled from Jackson Prison for armed robbery. He worked with me. He was the laziest, most shiftless son of a bitch I´ve ever come across, but he was immensely interesting. He loved to tell stories of his crimes. He would entertain us at lunch. He was so outrageous in his stories. I don´t know what he really went to prison for, who knows, because he was such a liar. But he was priceless. And unless the boss was looking at him, he did nothing. He was so extravagant, in a way, and I´ve just never been able to capture him. On the same job was this guy named Cal. He was gay. He liked to talk about his gay experiences. I found it fascinating. I didn´t know anything about that world, and he would tell me all these things, and I do believe I got him in a poem.

JA: Do you still find yourself trying to write that poem, the one about the skinny guy you worked with?

PL: Oh yeah, I've written it several times and just never gotten it right. I can´t somehow find the tone. There was something touching about him, also something mean and nasty. He was far more complex than the comic-book character he presented. And I don´t want the comic book character, I want the complexity, but I just can´t seem to get it. There were a lot of women I worked with, too, who entered into my poems. There were some very interesting and touching women. It was the first time that I encountered women outside of my family whom I could love without there being any erotic connection. They were so generous and warm-hearted and maternal, without mothering me. Many of them were, in fact, mothers, and they were helping to support families. They worked hard and didn´t complain. In my home, if you did hard work, you complained. Maybe they complained when they went home.

JA: I´m wondering if you could speak a little about your background and its influence on you as a writer? More specifically, is Jewishness part of your identity as a writer? Do you find that your Jewishness, in some way, helps to define who you are as a poet?

PL: I´m sure it does. I think of it as part of my identity as a person. A lot of the people I´ve written about were Jews. And I think a lot of my sense of what is valuable in the world has come from Jews, people who took that sense of intense religiosity and moved away from formal worship to an arena of social justice. I grew up with people who were relatively uninterested in the forms of religion that were presented to us, but who were, in a different sense, deeply religious. All the Jews I knew had grown up within the Jewish faith, but all of them had moved away from the daily formalisms of observance and tried to fulfill their religious needs through the pursuit of something more like social justice. For example, I went to school with people who were Polish, Irish, Italian, black-- the whole notion that to eat pork was to break some covenant with God was utterly absurd. I was thinking that all this observance was pathetic. The older I get the worse it seems to me. I have never changed my mind about this. I grew up in a Christian--Catholic--city. And a lot of those people voiced the same kind of complaints about their own religion. As if these petty observances would bring one closer to God.

In my thirties, I began to meet people whom I respected, who embraced religion in a more traditional sense. They went to church. I thought, They´re nice; they´re smart; what the hell are they doing in church? I was very short-sighted and unaware that some people required what I didn´t require. I didn´t know smart people went to church.

I see some people I know--especially the Catholics I know--going through terrible difficulties right now. They believe in Christ as a redeemer; they believe in the Catholic church as a route to Christ, yet they see the church involved in terrible things-- cover-ups, what have you. And the whole industry of religion. I mean, I may have gripes with these churches, but that´s nothing compared to the wounding that these churches have inflicted on their own people. There are people who are just infuriated with their churches, but where are they going to go? I mean, I´m infuriated with my country, but I´m not about to become Icelandic. I think it´s probably easier to change the United States than it is to change the Catholic church; actually, it´s probably a toss up.

JA: In an interview I recently read, you were speaking a little about twentieth century poetry, and you said: “As for Keats, I think he inherited an aesthetic that only allowed him to write about lovely things. Whereas Lorca inherited an aesthetic that allowed him to write about anything-- even what he didn´t understand. And that was one of the wonderful things that I got from him, and later got from Pablo Neruda-- the idea that you could go after these very powerful centers of feeling in you, even if you couldn´t parse them." Could you speak a little more about that?

PL: It´s hard to talk about. When I read Lorca or Neruda--two poets I admire a lot--the way they influenced me was not to write like them, but in the sense that you could respond musically and tonally, using language in that way, rather than just making rational sense. Especially if you were faced with circumstances that weren´t rational anyway. You find yourself living in a very irrational world full of contradictions; to put them all in some careful narrative or logical structure would be to deny how they impinged upon your own experience. When I read Vallejo I know what he´s talking about. I understand the kind of rage he feels. I understand his despair, his sense of powerlessness in the face of alleviating human suffering. I understand all these things, and I´m enormously moved by his expression of them, and it strikes me that that´s enough. When you respond to this work, you are inspired to rededicate yourself to trying to build a world where things like this aren't our daily bread. I mean, our daily bread is poisonous today; everyday we eat the products of other people´s despair. When you read Vallejo, you feel inspired to do everything in your power to change that. It´s an enormous moral force.

JA: Let me ask you this: What is something related to the creative or compositional process with which you still struggle?

PL: The wall I knock my head against is my inability to bring forth language that interests me and feels fresh. Robert Lowell once said to me, It´s very hard to make sense and keep the music. At the time he was looking at a poem of mine, and by music I think he meant both the formal rhythm and the liveliness we think of as poetic language, which my poem was lacking. Sometimes Lowell could be a very nice man and a good teacher, and he was that day. He was telling me that even for him it was hard to keep the story going, the images coming, the argument coherent, and keep the music, make the writing live. Reading contemporary poetry, I so often notice how the poems sag, grow slack. So many of the poems I read are too long. They go on because they can, because the poet has acquired a voice and likes to hear it and has the technique to do so. There are other things I can't do, but I don't give a shit about not doing them. Can you imagine me writing a philosophical poem, using "important" diction? I can't.

JA: At this point in your life, as a poet, are there themes or issues you feel drawn to that were not as pressing or relevant when you were younger? Could you speak a little about these themes or issues? And, more generally, How is you writing continuing to evolve?

PL: Well, I think I´m faced with a struggle in which I have to stop myself from expressing the natural gloom of old age, because it contradicts what I want to feel, or how I want my poems to be, so I find my poems slipping into a darker vision than I consciously feel. Clearly, as I´m running down--I mean, if you think of me as a wound-up creature, the electric power is draining out of me--I often see the poems shifting into that, a darker mood, darker than I want. On the other hand, if that´s where my poems are going, I also feel an obligation to follow them. In the later Yeats, there´s much less imagery, and the language is more general. The poems are very musical, but they don´t hit me like his earlier poems did. I don´t think my own poems are getting general in the way that his did; I still think they retain a lot of physical imagery and specificity, which is what I love in poetry, so I´m glad that those things are there. As far as developing, I don´t know. I´m more interested in language than I ever was before. There was a time, when I was young, when I thought language was such an extraordinary thing, device, gift-- that it could say almost anything. Now I feel its limitations more; maybe because I feel my own limitations. But it´s a theme I see intruding into my poetry, that while poetry may be the best we can do with language, I´m not sure if it´s good enough. On the other hand, it´s given me an enormous amount of pleasure, limitations and all.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title John Amen: Interview with Philip Levine Type of Content Interview
Criticism Author John Amen Criticism Target Philip Levine
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 Feb 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Pedestal Magazine
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Interview
Average Rating 0/100
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media