The following interview with Philip Levine was conducted by Donna Urschel, a Public Affairs Specialist in the Library of Congress’s Office of Communications, and originally published in the March 30 issue of the Library’s staff newsletter, the Gazette, available here. In the interview, Levine shared his thoughts on his tenure as Poet Laureate, the state of poetry today, the teaching of his craft, and his inspiration.
Q: What do you like the most about being the U.S. Poet Laureate?
A: I’ve met so many interesting people I might never have met otherwise. Many of them have stuck in my mind, and I hope will remain for the rest of the trip.
Q: How do you spend your time?
A: Largely I spend my days as I’ve spent them since I retired from teaching. I’m an early riser and the mornings are my writing time. In Fresno as well as Brooklyn, I go into a small room by myself in the hope that the right words will come. I have various ways of getting the process going, but they don’t always work. The hardest part is the waiting, but I’ve learned patience.
Around noon I have lunch with my wife, a small lunch, and if I’ve been working on a poem, I get back to it. If not, I answer my mail or read. I read both poetry and prose for many hours each day. At 3 p.m., I usually go to my gym, nothing fancy, and get my exercise. My cardiologist and my retinologist insist on this, and I’ve made it a habit.
Q: So you do continue to write poetry?
A: Yes. I write – often badly, sometimes well – because that’s what I do.
Q: What is your inspiration when you write?
A: My inspiration is our glorious bastard language. And my memory. And frequently the writing of others. Williams, Machado, Wyatt, Keats, Chaucer, Stevens, Whitman, Zbigniew Herbert, Edward Thomas and Cesare Pavese are some of the poets I go back to again and again.
Q: What is the most interesting thing that happened to you this year since you became the U.S. poet laureate?
A: First, I’d have to say, was a visit to Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. I didn’t know there were still little groups of people coming to college to learn how to make our society more equitable and democratic.
I’d thought of Georgetown as the home of basketball, the place where John Thompson and his son raised great centers like Ewing, Mutombo and Mourning.
It is much more, for the place has a powerful social conscience, and the folks there take their ethical and civic duties very seriously. This may be one side of Christian faith that we need more of, the side committed to hope, charity and humility – when those virtues are harnessed to intelligence, energy and willpower, you get something astonishing.
I went away asking myself if I were doing enough to enrich my community and help my fellow citizens. I was humbled.