Poet Laureate Philip Levine on the Kalmanovitz Initiative and Georgetown University

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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.

Along these lines, I was deeply moved by those I met when I read for the AFL-CIO. I expected 12 retired secretaries in a large closet assigned to endure me and not report back, but President Richard Trumka has turned their headquarters into a house that welcomes artists of every shape. I had a marvelous audience made up of the counterparts of the people – imagined and real – who inhabit my poems.

I also loved visiting a writers group in Harlem, a “rainbow coalition” of sixth graders who were totally serious about pursuing lives as writers. They inspired me – as did their teachers, who were taking time from their own lives to foster the group – and I hope I inspired them.

In Ottawa, Canada, I was treated like a true poet and met a Mexican poet I will never forget: Pura López-Colomé. Marvelous person and poet. I also met a poet I’d been corresponding with for 14 years, the Canadian poet Tim Bolling, a man much younger than I but someone who came to poetry much as I did from a working-class background and a poet who’s been able to place those experiences in his poetry.

Q: You first began composing poems when you were 14. What brought you to poetry?
A: It was almost magical. At age 14, I lived with my mother and my two brothers, one older and the other my twin. The four of us could make noise – I was as bad as the others. And when my grandfather, who lived nearby, came over, it got louder.
For some peace, I would go out into the undeveloped blocks near our house, and once within the little forest, commune with the universe, and soon I was speaking to someone or something I was sure was listening. (Of course I was the only one listening, so it was a good preparation for the many years ahead when no one read my work.)

I did my best to polish these talks or poems that took their cadences from the King James Version of the Bible and the Southern preachers I heard on the radio. I was trying to do Whitman without reading Whitman, whom I’d never heard of.

Any thoughts on how poetry should be taught in the early school years, in high school and in college?

The reading of poetry and the writing of poetry should be taught together. Poetry must not be crammed down anyone’s throat. There will always be people who don’t care for it; let them not care for it.

With your students, focus attention on the words themselves and the shape and music they make. The teacher must be able to read the poem both properly and clearly aloud and not be afraid of it; the teacher should illuminate – through the reading – the quality of the language and the patterns the language takes.

Let the learners go from there. Never try to teach poems that have no interest for you; what you will communicate is your lack of care.

Q: What is the current state of poetry?
A: Poetry is very healthy today. Like Manhattan, it seems to be bursting with overpopulation and too few homes for so many. We poets come in all sizes and shapes, and the variety of what we produce is amazing.

Yes, there are schools of poetry that no doubt have contempt for other schools: The Language poets and the New Formalists pretty much define the great range of these schools or camps, and the rest of us are somewhere in between, often utterly on our own. This is better than having a single style and a czar.

The situation invites a great deal of bad work, but then bad poems have always outnumbered good poems by at least 100-to-1. We do lack giants – think of 1946 when I began seriously writing and reading my contemporaries, including Eliot, Pound, Frost, Williams, Stevens, Moore, Rexroth, Bishop, all of them active and publishing. It meant the world to me when I published in Poetry in the same issues with Williams and Stevens.

Actually, a new generation of giants may be just breaking into print.

Q: Do you think the Internet and social media have any effect on poetry?
A: I love what the Internet can do. I remember typing in a mysterious line from a poem by Henry Reed, a line he quoted, and right away I found it in Rimbaud. That led me – just as in a library – to poems by Henry Reed I’d never seen before.

The ’net means also I can travel without books and find much of what I need almost anywhere. We also have these online literary publications like Blackbird that are as good as anything in print.
I can nose through the 100 years of Poetry and the old issues of Kayak I foolishly gave away.

Q: April is poetry month. Any suggestions on how people can celebrate it?
A: For me, every month is poetry month. For those who aren’t poets, perhaps the best way to celebrate the month might be to find a poet from your city or – if your town has no poet – the poet from the town you’d like to be in and just discover what’s there.