Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Philip Levine

Philip Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1928. He is the author of seventeen books of poetry, most recently Breath (Knopf, 2004). His books have received many awards, including the National Book Award in both 1976 for Ashes: Poems New and Old and in 1991 for What Work Is, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth. He has also published a collection of essays, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (1994), edited The Essential Keats (1987), and co-edited and translated two books: Off the Map: Selected Poems of Gloria Fuertes (with Ada Long, 1984) and Tarumba: The Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines (with Ernesto Trejo, 1979). Levine has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry, the Frank O'Hara Prize, and two John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowships. For two years he served as chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, and he was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2000. Levine lives in New York City and Fresno, California.


When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He's tired,
a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives
nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.
The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided
what to become. The traffic light at Linwood
goes from red to green and the trucks start up,
so that when he says, "Would you like to eat?"
she hears a jumble of words that mean nothing,
though spiced with things she cannot believe,
"wooden Jew" and "lucky meat." He's been up
late, she thinks, he's tired of the job, perhaps tired
of their morning meetings, but when he bows
from the waist and holds the door open
for her to enter the diner, and the thick
odor of bacon frying and new potatoes
greets them both, and taking heart she enters
to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke
to the see if "their booth" is available.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no
second acts in America, but he knew neither
this man nor this woman and no one else
like them unless he stayed late at the office
to test his famous one liner, "We keep you clean
Muscatine," on the woman emptying
his waste basket. Fitzgerald never wrote
with someone present, except for this woman
in a gray uniform whose comings and goings
went unnoticed even on those December evenings
she worked late while the snow fell silently
on the window sills and the new fluorescent lights
blinked on and off. Get back to the two, you say.
Not who ordered poached eggs, who ordered
only toast and coffee, who shared the bacon
with the other, but what became of the two
when this poem ended, whose arms held whom,
who first said "I love you" and truly meant it,
and who misunderstood the words, so longed
for, and yet still so unexpected, and began
suddenly to scream and curse until the waitress
asked them both to leave. The Packard plant closed
years before I left Detroit, the diner was burned
to the ground in '67, two years before my oldest son
fled to Sweden to escape the American dream.
"And the lovers?" you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
of spent breath after eight hours of night work.
Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write?
Why the two are more real than either you or me,
why I never returned to keep them in my life,
how little I now mean to myself or anyone else,
what any of this could mean, where you found
the patience to endure these truths and confessions?

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem was written—that is begun—in the early spring of 2000; in Fresno often spring arrives in February. I believe it started with the weather, the notion that spring was here & not quite here; one day the forsythia is budding out, the violets are in full bloom, & the next a cold rain is ruining everything. But of course the poem is set in Detroit, a place that’s still alive in me. I don’t know why that particular street corner—Linwood at Grand River—haunts me, but it does. When I was very young, fourteen or fifteen, I got a job just south of there at a used auto parts place, a grease shop. Later one of my brothers had a shop near there. I didn’t recall a diner on that block, so I moved one there from the East side.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

This poem required several drafts, however to the best of my recollection the bones were there on the first morning. (I don’t have the early drafts of the poem, so all this depends on an old man’s memory.) In fact I thought it was done rather quickly, but then the next day I saw the pacing wasn’t right—perhaps I should say I heard the pacing wasn’t right & that I was trying to hustle it to the finish line—if such a thing exists. I slowed it down & even distracted myself with the passage about the cleaning woman. I knew that woman, she’d worked on a job I had & although she was a lovely person almost no one spoke to her, perhaps because she had such a heavy middle-eastern accent it was a chore to understand her.

I’d say more than six months elapsed before I finally got it right or as right as I’d ever get it.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Yes, I believe in inspiration. This poem was “received” because I was there waiting for it, & I had a notion of what to do when it arrived.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

It achieved its final form when I stopped making it worse. 

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

It did not appear in print until two years after I stopped working on it. I generally sit on a poem for at least six months or so before I send it out; some poems I sit on for years simply because I’m not sure they’re done or worth a damn. Right now I have poems I wrote several years ago & haven’t sent out & may never publish. My practice varies: if I believe the poem is as good as I can make it & it’s a decent poem, I’ll send it out. I’m in no particular hurry.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The facts. There was a Packard plant on Grand Boulevard; in fact the building is still there. Only Packard isn’t. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that line, “We keep you clean in Muscatine.” There was a traffic light at Linwood & Grand River. You could say those are facts. The Packard plant did not close years before I left Detroit although I thought it did. Do I care I got that wrong? No. Also, I believe in invention; the characters are inventions, but the emotions the poem hopes to convey, they’re mine. That’s a fact.

Was this poem always in the third person? Would you care to address any general advantages of using the third-person point of view in a poem?

Was the poem always in third person? I began it in third person, but at a certain point it just changed into first person. So now there is a guy talking in the poem, one who might be confused with me. I began the poem planning to complete it in third person. Only in third person could the poem know what was going on in the hearts & heads of the characters. Then it jumped into first person, & the “know-it-all-writer” got involved. So there is a little surprise there. Back to facts: it’s also a fact my oldest son went to Sweden to escape the draft for the Vietnam War. Why is that there? I think anyone who likes the poem will know why.

Is this a narrative poem?

Sure, it’s a narrative; it puts a series of events in a time frame, & then it plays around with its sense of time. The story, what you might call the narrative, evolved as I created the characters, as I recalled just who they might be. I didn’t begin with a story in mind. I began with a feeling, that weariness that comes after eight hours of night work, exhaustion mixed with relief—you did it again, it’s done! You never forget that sense of meaningful, meaningless accomplishment. What have you made? Nothing but money & not a lot of that.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I don’t recall who I was reading at the time. The one influence I’m sure of is the English novelist Henry Green. In his books the characters rarely hear each other; Green was partially deaf & thus had a heightened sense of missed connections. About the time I wrote the poem I’d lost most of the hearing in my left ear, so of course I stopped hearing a lot of what went on. In my early thirties I got a broken jaw in a fight I lost, & for seven weeks my jaw was wired shut & it was difficult to talk, so I shut up. During that time I truly listened to people, & I came to realize that I was often the only person in a room who was hearing what was said. I found it exhausting, & as soon as I got my jaw unwired I started talking again & stopped listening.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I’m sure there was a time when I had a specific reader in mind, but I believe that was before I had any actual readers. There was also a time when a lot of my poems appeared in The New Yorker, & I would imagine an affluent man or woman on the afternoon train from Manhattan to Connecticut opening the magazine. I wanted to make that person uncomfortable, to push into her face some working slob—someone out of my earlier incarnation—and make her think, “That is a real woman! Where did she get the guts I lack?”

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I know I showed an early draft of this poem to my wife; in fact I show her everything I’m pleased with. I used to show my work to Larry Levis, the poems I wanted help with or the poems I thought would please him, & he did the same with me. I taught in Houston one semester maybe twelve years ago; Eddie Hirsch was still there, & I showed him my work, & I was writing a lot. Eddie was a great help; he’s was both critical & enthusiastic—he must have been a great teacher. This poem I showed only to my wife.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s about exhaustion, about how exhausting loyalty can be, & it’s about romantic love gone wrong in a world that needs it badly but makes almost no room for it. I rarely write about romantic love; maybe I’m scared I could get too gushy, maybe I find it too much of a puzzle. There are so many poems on the subject that I doubt anyone will miss my failure to write more of them.

What is American about this poem?

What European or Asian or African poet can you imagine writing a poem with these people in it & this diner? Neruda or Vallejo might have found room for them, but then they were great American poets.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

For sure it was abandoned, but it might also be finished.

NOTE: Some questions have been adapted from Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process, edited by Alberta T. Turner (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1977).


  1. On the last question and Philip's answer -- I am in the business to fix old buildings and I was told a story by a woodworker friend about an old man that refinishes antique doors. My friend would visit the shop of the old man on business. Each time he was there the man worked on the same set of large double-doors. My friend each time looked. They did not look any different to him than the last time he had visited. The old guy worked away, slowly, but worked. Eventually my friend's curiosity got to him. He asked the old guy, "How do you ever know when the doors are finished?" The old man responded, "Well, eventually someone comes and takes them away."

  2. Some excellent answers to the questions in this one. I especially like the bit about listening.

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