Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Outtakes from an interview with Philip Levine

When I called the home of Pulitzer-winning poet and Vermont-resident Galway Kinnell in July, I expected a brief conversation with the 87-year-old. I left a message that I was writing a story about the upcoming celebration of his work.

I heard back not from Kinnell but from his wife, Bobbie. She told me that he had difficulty with words and conversation. “That’s why we’re doing the event now.” (Kinnell died Oct. 28th.)

I asked if there was some one else I might speak with to get a sense of who Kinnell was and what was important to him. I expected to speak with family members. Instead, Bobbie suggested that she could put me in touch with some of his friends, but she would have to check with them first.

I said, “Great! Let me know.”

Never could I have predicted whom she had in mind. Within a few days she provided contact information and I lined up phone interviews with three Pulitzer Prize winners — C.K. Williams, Donald Hall and Philip Levine. The latter two also served as U.S. poet laureates.

I feared making an ass of myself and spent several evenings leading up to the interviews reading the poet’s biographies online and a book Bobbie sent me of transcribed interviews with a younger Kinnell.

Levine, 86 at the time, was up first. In my research, I read that Levine was known for blunt criticism in poetry workshops. I steeled myself for a prickly interview, but that was unnecessary.

I liked Levine immediately. He was self deprecating, warm and generous with his time. We spoke for a solid half hour about Kinnell and their friendship. About playing tennis and the Vietnam War.

“We were both really anti-war,” Levine said in our July 25th interview. “Especially Vietnam. Our students and former students were being drafted to die for corporate America. That was what sort of sealed the friendship. Anti-war and protests.”

We talked about Levine and Kinnell teaching together at New York University and at Squaw Valley writing workshops in California. Levine readily acknowledged the reputation that preceded him.

“Galway was a far more gentle teacher than I,” Levine said. “I told him, ‘When you tear their poems to shreds they laugh.’ He had a solemn approach. ‘If I’m tough on their poems, I make them cry.’”

We also talked about his studies at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His Iowa connection turned up in my research, and I told him that I too had lived in there. He told me about showing up to start his studies a year late. By that time, his scholarship was gone. He ended up attending classes unofficially. He didn’t pay tuition. Just showed up. I guess that he was talented enough to get away with that.

Levine shared another story of finding success despite turning his back on convention. When he was named U.S. poet laureate in 2011, he remembered that Kinnell said he was surprised. Levine asked why?

“Because of your politics. You're on record as an anarchist,” Levine remembered Kinnell telling him.

When we finally hung up, I felt some relief but mostly gratitude. 

Levine died of pancreatic cancer on Valentine’s Day, according to a Detroit newspaper. I learned of his death on Monday night, nearly a month late. It was mentioned during a writer’s group I attended. Everyone else seemed to already know. My eyes must have grown big because there was a moment of silence.

“I just talked to him for a story,” I said.

He was so alive. Pieces of our conversation have returned to me in flashes.

Today, I sifted through my work files to pull up the notes I had taken during our interview (which I’ve quoted throughout). I wanted to remember it all. And to share the wisdom that Levine spoke. Toward the end of our conversation I asked Levine about aging. He said:

“Some people can do it gracefully and some people can’t…I’m aware that I’m not very good looking anymore. The best looking women are not going to sit next to me. It doesn’t bother me at all.

“I’m happy in my life, and I’ve had a good life. I’ve had more success than I ever would have dreamed of.”

And here are a few final words that I think the world should read:

“When you’re writing, you’re just trying to get the words to be happy together.”