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An Interview with Philip Levine
Philip Levine has authored sixteen books of poetry, most recently Breath (Knopf), published in 2004. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize (The Simple Truth, 1994), the National Book Award (What Work Is, 1991), the National Book Critics Circle Award (Ashes: Poems New and Old, 1979 and 7 Years From Somewhere, 1979), the first American Book Award in Poetry (Ashes), the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (The Names of the Lost, 1975), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry, the Frank O'Hara Prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships.
He has also been the editor of numerous books, and the author of a collection of essays, The Bread of Time: Toward An Autobiography (1994). He has served as chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.
Philip Levine lives concurrently in New York City and Fresno, and teaches at New York University. He is Professor Emeritus at the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at California State University, Fresno.
He will be reading his poetry at the Fresno Art Museum this Thursday, February 1, 2007 as part of the Fresno Poets' Association's monthly reading series. Readings take place on the first Thursday of the month at 7:30PM in the Bonner Auditorium at the Fresno Art Museum, located at 2233 North First St., (just south of Clinton next to Radio Park on the west side of the street). Admission is $5.00 ($4.00 for students, FPA members, & seniors).
29 January 2007. Fresno, California.
I just got my copy of Roxane Beth Johnson's Jubilee last month, which was the winner of the Phil Levine Prize [a national poetry book contest through Anhinga press and California State University], for which you were the final judge. I was very surprised, looking through the pages, when I saw all these short prose poems which run from margin to margin. Which is really different from how we know your poetry: short lines that pull down the page. Can you speak to that a little bit?
P.L.: Well, you know, when you go to judge something, you're best off not approaching it with a notion of what the winner has to look like. I'm not particularly interested in finding someone who sounds like me, because I'm already there. So what I'm looking for is what I find most fascinating and most interesting, the freshest, newest, the best use of language, and the most emotional power. And clearly, this book was very powerful emotionally. Also, it did something that I rarely expect from a first book. It took me to a world I didn't know.
What do you mean by that?
P.L.: The world of a black, young woman growing up in America. How much do I know about that? Very little. Especially growing up in a Christian society, because there was a great deal of poetry about the church and her training in it, her growing up in it. These are things that are totally foreign to me. I mean, I know nothing, really, about that. But I learned a lot reading her book; I didn't read it just once, I read it several times because there was another book that was very strong also. The fact that it was prose poetry, which I'm not crazy about, I forgave it.
Would you say it had a cultural voice?
P.L.: Voice? I don't know what a cultural voice is. It had a personal voice. I think, after reading that book, if I were to come across a poem of hers, somewhere else, I would recognize it immediately. It had a real identity to it. It seemed very original too.
Yes, I like it very much. It's a good book.
You've been through a lot of trends of poetry, and you've seen the Confessionalists rise and fall, and in our [California State University Master's of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing] classes in poetry, we've been talking a lot, lately, about where our place is in the conversation of post-confessionalism. And we've been talking about truth and poetry, about situational truth versus emotional truth. As someone who's seen the arc of that, what do you have to say about that?
P.L.: I myself was never that taken with confessional poetry. And I'm not sure why. To some degree, I prefer to keep most of my private life private. I think it had a lot to do with my models, the poets I grew up loving. I loved Coleridge's personal poems, but they're not confessional: they're personal. They have to do with the way he sees the world, and the way he sees childhood, and the way he sees his own moods, his sadness, his dejection, his melancholy... his hopes for the future, his hopes for the future of his son. I was rereading him recently and was struck by how powerful these poems are. In spite of how remote the diction seems, I mean, it really is turn of the century (the 19th century was just beginning, the poems were written in 1798 to 1806), I think those are my favorite poems by him.
As far as truth is concerned, I think it's a real mistake to confuse facts with truth. I was reading a thing by Saul Bellow, the wonderful American novelist, and he made an interesting remark. He said "facts smother the imagination." That is, a kind of overriding loyalty to fact, is a way of ruining poetry. There has to be room for the imagination to heighten and to lower things.
In Aristotle's Poetics he talks about poetry having a greater truth than history. In all order to make the poem convincing, you have to go beyond what actually happened, into what must have happened. What must happen given the circumstances you create? I don't think we're in competition with journalists, for example. I don't think we're in competition with documentary filmmakers... That's not who we are.
And then there's the kind of naive take connected with the notion that we know what truth is anyway. Not emotional truth: I know how I feel about X. But do I know what happened on the day of so-and-so, even though I was there? You know, I've been a witness in courtrooms, and I've seen how eight different people have said eight different things. And we each go away with our own version. And even at your age, and you're young, but you know from experiences you've had with your family, how each member saw things differently, and took away from the same event a different truth. And the poem that you write about the event will be based on the truth that you took away, but not on truth. Right?
P.L.: So the whole notion of truth is sort of a... a misguided search. Forget it. As a writer, forget it. When you sit down to write a poem, the fewer things you put between yourself and the page, that blank, frightening page, the better off you are. You know what I mean?
P.L.: Don't weigh yourself down with a bunch of obligations, or you won't write a word. Just see what happens. And if what you get seems true to the way you feel, then rest happy with it. Especially if the language is interesting, and imagery is engaging and fresh... why ask more of it? You can't walk away from a poem and ask Is it true? True to what?
I've never trusted confessional poetry. It's like trusting your friend when your friend and his wife break up. Your friend comes to see you and he tells you 18 reasons why he had to leave Dora. Then Dora comes over and tells you 19 reasons why she had to leave Jim. And you have two different worlds here. And in confessional poetry, you just get one.
You read Heart's Needle by W.D. Snodgrass, and you just get one version of a difficult marriage and a child being left there. You read Anne Sexton, you're always getting one version. I think the best of Sylvia Plath is not confessional.
It's the form-driven poetry.
P.L.: Yeah. And Lowell. Lowell has such a sense of humor in Life Studies that there's always this sense that he's sort of laughing at himself. He's laughing at the events, he's laughing at the seriousness with which he was hypnotized by what took place. I think without a sense of humor, confessional poetry's hopeless. It's like Dora and Jim telling you about their horrible marriage.
I've always felt very free to imagine, and re-imagine. And my own poetry, when I write about my own family I always disguise them. I have sisters in my poems but I don't really have sisters, you know. But I have relatives...
I really like what you said about, when you go into a poem, having as few things between you and the poem. And I took a class with Sharon Bryan, [a poet, the MFA Program in Creative Writing's Visiting Distinguished Writer in Spring 2006], you remember her.
P.L.: Yeah, sure.
She was telling us, which was really interesting to me, she was telling us that she always entered a poem with sound first, with the language, rather than an idea. And this is kind of framed in the discussion that, she didn't understand.. [for example] for me, coming into poetry post-imagism, I didn't knew how to read scansion or meter, I never understood it until later, in formal study. So I didn't have that sense of sound.. and she always talked to us about listening to the radio, and having that from the very beginning, entering with that into her poetry. So she always told us: don't enter poetry with a concept. Enter it with language first.
P.L.: I think a lot of times I don't enter with language. A lot of times I do. Sometimes I enter with a visual image. Just a strong visual image. Maybe a bird in a field. I remember reading a poem by an Italian poet, Cesare Pavese, whose work I love, and he had an image of a bird in a field, that's all. I mean the poem was about many other things, but one little image was about a bird in a field, and I thought, why is this sticking in my brain? What is it about that bird in that field?
And I went back into my memory, and I remembered a certain place in this valley, with a seagull, and my wonderment [was]... how the hell did that seagull get-- what's it doing here, and how unhappy it must be, in Fresno, in the summer, instead of being at the sea, you know? And I wrote a poem. But the poem came from that, it came from the visual image that I got.
My early poetry did come, like hers, from the radio. From listening to the radio. And then when I started reading poetry, of course I started reading poetry in meter and rhyme, and it's what we read back then. And so yes, I had that strong sense of how I had to make the sound, the music of the poem, work. I still do.
P.L.: But I wouldn't set a rule. Although I doubt I've ever written a poem from a concept. I mean, I'm just not interested.
Right, right. That's what I keep telling my students. Because, you know, they fight. They fight me on images... I told them, this world is such a nebulous world. How can you get any of this to someone else if it's not an image, or concrete...
P.L.: We're bombarded by that other language anyway. We've grown immune to it.
Who are you reading right now? I know you read a lot.
P.L.: Well, I did go back and reread... I was reading Wordsworth and Coleridge this morning. I guess those are the poets I've been reading of late. Who else... what other poets... I was re-reading this Italian I mentioned, Pavese, who I like a lot. I was reading Galway Kinnell, because his 80th birthday is coming up, February 1st, the night I read [at the Fresno Art Museum, for the Fresno Poets' Association, at 7:30pm] he will be 80. And he's a very close friend. And I was reading his early poems, which I like a great deal. And I was re-reading my old student Larry Levis. And Peter Everwine's work, I was looking at some of his older poems. But I'm always reading.
The best book I've read lately, is called A Woman In Berlin. And it's a diary of a woman in Berlin like, 10 days before the Russians conquer Berlin in World War II, and it goes on for about four weeks afterwards. It's just a diary. But it's bravely written. By a woman, and it's anonymous-- she didn't want to put her name on it.
And I've never read a portrait of war from a woman's point of view like this. And it's just incredibly moving. And funny. She has an incredible sense of humor. She writes brilliantly, she was a journalist and an editor, and the book is very well written. When it first came out in Germany in 1953 it didn't have any life whatsoever because the official response was: our women wouldn't behave this way. In other words, they wouldn't have sexual relations rather than get killed. Or, to get food to feed their children, or what have you. Everybody was starving to death. And the narrator, the writer of this diary forms a relationship with an officer in the German army, who's educated like her, speaks French like her, and keeps her alive. He gives her enough food to help her friends who were starving.
But [readers at the time] rejected it. Then it was republished a few years ago and that prejudice against how women must behave, or would behave, was gone, and the book was a huge success. And the translation's terrific. I mean, it really feels like our language, the translation. It's really terrific.
That's the best book I've read in the last several months.