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Philip Levine, Poet Laureate, Tells Us About California vs. Detroit (and Curses a Lot)

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Thu, Feb 23, 2012 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge los_angeles_central_library_mark_taper_auditorium_1.7628698.131.jpg
"A poetry reading is like a painting," Philip Levine says in regards to his upcoming reading in downtown Los Angeles. "Somebody asks you, 'What do you hope to accomplish with that painting?' Come on." He starts to laugh. "You want it to be admired. ... I go there with my poems."

Levine -- the 18th poet laureate, and a part-time California resident -- will give a reading at the Mark Taper Auditorium in the Central Library tonight at 7 p.m. as part of the ALOUD series, and will discuss life, literature and his time in California.

"To be honest," he says, when asked about his plans for the reading, "I haven't even thought about it. A lot of it depends on the reaction of the audience. For example," Levine jokes, "if I read a funny poem and no one laughs, I say to myself, 'No point in reading another funny poem if these assholes don't get it.'"

Levine's straight talk and lack of pomposity contradicts the image of an ultra-serious academic poet. This is part of his appeal. Born and raised in Detroit, Levine worked several odd jobs, including long hours at Chevrolet and Cadillac. His blue-collar background doesn't match up with the formal and esoteric wordsmiths taught in high schools. You don't need a Ph.D. in literature to find emotion and awe in his lines. He focuses on the beauty in the unlikeliest of places -- waiting in line for work at Ford Highland Park, an empty bottle of gin, his fellow coworkers in factories.

From his humble upbringing, Levine became a highly decorated writer. He won the National Book Award in 1991 for What Work Is and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth, as well as many other awards and fellowships. He has published 20 books of poetry.

When asked if being dubbed the poet laureate has changed him, he says, "It's changed me in a sense that I'm doing more readings and getting larger audiences, but essentially, I'm doing what I've always done. ... If I thought it would change me, I wouldn't have accepted."

Levine, now 83, has taught at Cal State University Fresno for 34 years. While Levine's poetry often is exclusively associated with Detroit, California influenced him as well.

"Both locations, both environments, both landscapes, cityscapes, are so dramatic," Levine says before launching into a memory of flying into Detroit in 1968. "As the plane came in over the city, it was late afternoon, and it was getting dark. It was the fall. It almost looked like the city was on fire. There was so much smoke and fire. I was just stunned. I hadn't lived there in 15 years.

"But [before that] when I came to California, I drove here the first time. ... I came over the Sierra Nevada. And then I entered the Bay Area. I came across the Bay Bridge. The view and the landscape were so huge and momentous. And I think I internalized both places. One of the things it meant was, I didn't want to write decorative poetry. No matter how good or how bad it was, I wanted it to be large."

The bigness of California found a way into Levine's work. But California also entered Levine's poetry in social terms. Levine saw a similarity between Fresno and Detroit. In Fresno, Levine saw owners and serfs -- a fixed social structure. He saw the same financial disparity that so angered him in Detroit, between the people who work and the people.

"I've been in Fresno since 1958," Levine says. "That's over 50 years. Nothing has happened to change or ameliorate that hideous division between the haves and the have-nots. And I don't think it ever will."

click to enlarge Diego Rivera's mural in the Detroit Institute of Arts reflects the working conditions Levine writes about. - JOE LAPIN
  • Joe Lapin
  • Diego Rivera's mural in the Detroit Institute of Arts reflects the working conditions Levine writes about.

Levine wasn't able to write true or worthy poems about Detroit until he moved to Fresno. He talks about being so angry about his own exploitation and that of the people around him that he wasn't able to write about the city until he had some distance, in both geography and time.

He recounts the first time he started to write his now-famous poems: "One morning I woke up, having had a dream about working with a particular guy. In the dream, my buddy Lemon calls me from Bakersfield. Lemon's been driving with his wife and kid all the way from Detroit. ... He wants to know what he should do in California. I tell him about the things he ought to see in Los Angeles -- the Miracle Mile, Venice Beach, this kind of crap. I lay this shit on him. And in the dream, I can see him in the phone booth and the two people in the car. He says thanks and hangs up. In the dream I can see him walking to his car. He gets in. ... I know he's saying, 'That schmuck, why didn't he invite me up there?'"

Later that morning over breakfast, Levine had a discussion with his wife about the dream. She told him that it was a warning. "You can't become a professor in your poetic life or in your soul. You have to be who you are. Who your history is." Levine then went back to bed with a pad of writing paper and a pencil, and he started writing about Detroit while living in California. He wrote six poems in a week and published them all.

It's been a while since Levine has read in Los Angeles. But tonight, L.A. will have a chance to hear one of our greatest living writers read poems that show you the beauty in our working lives, that show something incredible is everywhere you look.

Mark Taper Auditorium at Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., downtown.; Thurs., Feb. 23, 7 p.m.; Free. (213) 228-7500 or lfla.org. Reservations are full but standby line begins at 6 p.m.

Follow @JosephALapin and @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.

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