PT: Congratulations on recently being named the US poet Laureate. Can you share a little bit about what this new role or title may mean to you at this point in your career?
Levine: That's a hard question to answer, because while it cheered me up and cheered my wife, and because of it I sold a ton of books, I don't honestly think it changes the way other people think of me, and it doesn't change the way I think of myself, because it's like getting the Pulitzer Prize. You look down the list of who's had it, and there's some wretched poets who've had the Pulitzer Prize. I'm not going to say that about the Poet Laureate, cause I don't think any wretched poets have gotten it, but you know that accident or good fortune or something else is operating here. You also know that the people who make this judgment may not really know poetry that well and certainly may not share your own values and your own vision of the world. It's nice to get. As they say, I wish my mother were still alive, cause she would take such joy in it. She was alive when I got the Pulitzer Prize. She was able to tell all the neighbor ladies, "My son the Pulitzer winner is coming to dinner tonight," and that was a gas. I was happy to be able to do that for her.
I remember reading a biography of one of the other really good Michigan poets, Theodore Roethke. His mother had died shortly before he got the Pulitzer Prize, and I remember reading it in the biography, and I thought it would be nice to get that damn thing. My mom would be so thrilled, and my brothers, especially my older brother, had just taken so much delight in it. My twin brother, I sent him this thing that The Onion published. Did you see it?
PT: I didn't.
Levine: Yeah, and he just loved it, and so I sent it to my older brother, and he loved it. I mean it's a gas. It's fun, but is it really that serious? No.
PT: You're known as the American poet who helped us all to think about work. How does your trajectory from having been a "working man" in the auto industry in Michigan and then moving your work into the world of poetry, what does work mean to you? And as a poet, does work ever stop for you? Are you ever engaged not in your work?
Levine: Oh yeah. There are many times when I'm not engaged in my work as a poet or at least I don't think I am. There's a line in Giinsberg's poem about the supermarket in California where he says he's gone into the market, and he says he's busily shopping for imagery as well as bananas, because that's what poets constantly do. They shop for imagery, and that's always happening. I can be anywhere. I can be in a restaurant and see a particular face or hear someone say something, and the language would have some kind of resonance for me, so there is a way in which I'm constantly alert for that as long as I'm sober, and I rarely get drunk. Not more than once a year and I’m usually celebrating something -maybe the defeat of George Bush for example. It was hard to stop drinking that night.
So that's always going on, but as far as people thinking of me as a poet of the working class. I'm not in the working class. I haven't been in the working class in a long, long time. I stopped doing that kind of heavy manual labor at the age of 26. I determined that I was going to try to live by my words. Already my back was getting tired, and I'm not a big guy, and some of the work I did was very heavy. It was exhausting, and then I'd come home. I had a vision of trying to be a poet, and I was continually reading poetry and learning what I could. My fear was that this work would soon deplete me, that I would never have the energy or the time to be the poet I could be. I was wrong. Thank god. I was really wrong.
PT: What would you say then was the period that you would consider your greatest work? If you had to pick an era where you feel like you were really in your groove as a writer, when would that have been?
Levine: About the age of 50. Between 50 and 60 I think I wrote my best work. I think in my late 40's, maybe even a little earlier, I hit a certain stride. I maintained it for a long time, although my poetry changed a lot, but I still had remarkable energy and commitment.
PT: What do you think contributed to --what came together in that time to help you reach that stride?
PL: One thing was having the time. One of the things I did was to teach as little as possible, and I took a job. I was teaching at Fresno State where I taught four courses a semester, some of them freshman composition. You know, exhausting. 95 students that write these god awful papers and etc, etc, but I'm old fashioned in the sense that if I take money to do something I'm gonna do it. So I never wanted to short change my students. I didn't skip classes, and I tried to be truly alert to what was going on. Instead what I started doing was to look for another job, and I found it. For 7 years I taught at Tufts. I only taught two courses a year. I only taught in the fall. I was full time technically, but I only taught in the fall. They couldn't give me tenure, so they gave me a 10 year contract, and if people said do you have tenure? I'd say I've got 10 years, and they wouldn't understand what I was saying, but it paid a lot. By this time I had published a good deal. I'm sure that that extra time that I suddenly had, made a difference. I learned that in Spain when I was living on essentially savings and some grants that I'd picked up here and there. I suddenly realized how much poetry was in me if I wasn't distracted by other needs. When I was in the states to get the extra money to go to Spain, I had to give readings everywhere, and I did; then suddenly I'm there in Spain, and I got the whole fucking day to do what I want to do—to write, to think, to walk around the city of Barcelona and fill my head with fantastic imagery, to read about the history of Spain, to learn the Spanish language and discover Spanish poetry and let that enrich me. So that was the reason, time. I had the time, and I was fortunate. I had the creative energy.
PT: You mentioned that you stopped doing hard labor or working in that way relatively early, yet you went on to write your poem “What Work Is,” an often taught poem. There is some association that you have brought the voice of the working person into the world of poetry. Why do you think that was important for you to keep exploring that part of your life although you'd left it?
Levine: It made an indelible impression on me for so many different reasons. At the age of 30 I had not written one half decent poem about work. Not one. I was in the mode of Dylan Thomas. I was seeing Herricks. I was seeing a bucolic scene. I was seeing the sky. I was seeing the stars. I was seeing rain. I was even writing poems about biblical figures. I was ridiculous. I kept trying to write about Detroit. I was rational enough and not so egotistical that I couldn't see these poems stunk, so I was writing them, and I was throwing them away. Thank god I throw them away. You can't find them in print. You can find other bad poems in print, but not poems about working life in Detroit in my late 20's or 30's, or any in my my teens when I began writing, and I just felt this poetry doesn't exist. I don't find it in American writing. I don't find factory life, even in prose, although there was some there I didn't know about, but there was very little. I don't find it in American writing. I don't find it anyone's writing. Later I did. You suddenly got Alan Sillitoe for example in England, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, working class writing, and there were a couple of English playwrights who appeared on the scene about that time—the Angry Young Men, remember them? Anyway, I just had so much of this imagery, and my attitude gradually began to change, my attitude towards those years.
When I went into an English department, or in fact a good many of them, I did not meet very many people of the powerful character and decency and humility and generosity in academia as I met in factory life or hard working life. I met people in factories who had nothing to back them up, and if they got treated like shit, they were willing to risk their jobs, go out on strike, lose their pay, what have you. These people had so much courage, and they were so welcoming to me. They knew I wanted to be a poet. We'd talk, and they would discover this poetry. The two poets they seemed to know were Edgar Allen Poe or Rudyard Kipling.
PT: They were supportive to your poetry? They were interested to talk to you about poetry?
Levine: No. They tolerated my face in poetry, my ambition. Some of them even chuckled. I remember for a long time I was working for an outfit called Railway Express. It was the UPS of the stone age. The stuff was not flown. It was taken on train, and there were two guys I would ride with who couldn't drive, because their license had been taken away for drunk driving, so I had to be the driver. They were both bigger than I, so they did the heaviest work, and we talked, and you know you're driving around the city talking about things. You talk about what happened yesterday, how is your marriage going, your girlfriend, and one of them was really an interesting man. He was a staff sergeant in the US Army in Italy and had been part of the forces that liberated Rome, and he had these marvelous stories. The way he'd screwed up his life. The other guy was totally nuts; he’d lost his life. They were both inspiring in a way, cause they both loved talking, and I learned a lot about them, and I liked them both, although the one guy, not the soldier, but the other guy, scared me sometimes, because he would drink on the job, and he'd get a little nutty, and he had a bad habit of trying to seduce every woman that came within a thousand meters of him. The way he talked about women was idiotic, but he was another sort of person. Anyway they didn't ask me about why or what. Nobody ever asked me to read to them or recite some of my work. You know, hey, that's what he does. I love bowling. He loves bowling. I didn't judge them, and I don't think they judged me on my obsessions. I did judge the one guy on his obsession with women, because he was crude about it and insulting to the women.
PT: There was a quote from Peter Drucker who said that "work is an extension of personality...It is one of the ways in which a person defines himself, measures his worth and his humanity." What do you think about that? Can we measure our humanity by our work or is that just a little heavy handed there?
Levine: It's untrue. That's the problem with it. I mean, yes, some people. Jascha Heifetz, James Levine conducting the opera here, Pablo Picasso, EI Greco, Homer, Shakespeare, but people working in factories? That work in no way defines them. Now and then I would see somebody doing a job. I was struck when I was very young by this one guy who had an enormous influence on me. I was working as a delivery guy for cleaners and dyers, and this guy was a presser. He'd press suit coats and trousers and dresses and what have you, anything that was dry cleaned there, and when I would watch him doing his work he did it with such flare and elegance in his motion. He was not a tall man. He was about my height, about 5'10" and very slender, and he would take his shirt off. He just wore what they now call a wife beater from the Marlon Brando in Street Car Named Desire. He had this wiry body, and his motions were so elegant. I'd be fascinated by his motions, almost cat-like, and in that cleaning and dyeing place the two guys who ran it were both tailors. They were both Italians from Italy, and I didn't know what they thought of this Spaniard, but they were his bosses. I realized that it was his way of granting himself a certain kind of dignity, by acting the role that he was assigned, almost overdoing it with his beautiful movements. I thought these cats are marvelous. So I think it can be done, but if your work is as heavy as it could be . . . . Don't forget, the factories were not automated then. Everything was done by hand. It was truly manual. You might do it fairly elegantly for the first 17 minutes, but then you were just hoping to get to the end of the fucking 8 hour shift. Now, I mean I don't know that. Who's the guy who said that?
PT: Peter Drucker.
Levine: I'm amazed he's so full of shit, but you know what he's doing? He's defining work for a certain class, not the working class. A doctor, yeah. A lawyer, yeah. A teacher, yeah. Professional people, he's right there, but for peons? Give me a break.
PT: I have one more question for you. What is it that you'd say you want to be remembered for in your life and your work?
Levine: There are number of things I'd say that I'd want to be remembered for. Who would remember me? Well my children would remember me and my grandchildren, and I would want them to think that I was generous, that I was funny, that I was good company, that I was loving, that I was understanding and sympathetic even when they did stupid things, that I'm helpful. Who else would remember me? People who've read my work. I would want them to think it was moving. I got a letter the other day from a 25 year old guy who lives somewhere in Pennsylvania who has been teaching himself to become a poet, and he came across my work when he read in the paper that I had gotten the Poet Laureateship, and he bought one of my books, and he read the poem called, "You Can Have It", which is a poem really about my brother and me. He said he read it to his mother, and when he finished reading it they were both weeping, weeping with a kind of joy, because of the love that was expressed in the poem. It was one of the most touching letters I've had in years, . . . and I thought, good, I did what I wanted to do. I talked about brotherhood in a meaningful way and love, and here's a mother and son, and the guy in the email said he had never felt that close to his mother before. He's 25 years old. I thought, well, if you do that ten times with ten different people, that's a worthy thing to have done . . . .
Levine : Ford Highland Park was once the second largest Ford assembly plant. I don't know what it is now. It's empty. It's probably a warehouse of some kind. Highland Park is actually a city within the city limits of Detroit. There are two cities, Highland Park and Hamtramck. They are not part of Dante's vision of hell by the way. They're just little cities. What Work Is? We stand in the rain in a long line waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work. You know what work is—if you're old enough to read this, you know what work is, although you may not do it. Forget you. This is about waiting, shifting from one foot to another. Feeling the light rain falling like mist into your hair, blurring your vision until you think you see your own brother ahead of you, maybe ten places. You rub your glasses with your fingers, and of course it's someone else's brother, narrower across the shoulders than yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin that does not hide the stubbornness, the sad refusal to give in to the rain, to the hours of wasted waiting, to the knowledge that somewhere ahead a man is waiting who will say, "No, we're not hiring today," for any reason he wants. You love your brother, now suddenly you can hardly stand the love flooding you for your brother, who's not beside you or behind or ahead because he's home trying to sleep off a miserable night shift at Cadillac so he can get up before noon to study his German. Works eight hours a night so he can sing Wagner, the opera you hate most, the worst music ever invented. How long has it been since you told him you loved him, held his wide shoulders, opened your eyes wide and said those words, and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never done something so simple, so obvious, not because you're too young or too dumb, not because you're jealous or mean or incapable of crying in the presence of another man, no, just because you don't know what work is.