In 1996, I was about to start my second year of study in the graduate creative writing program at New York University. Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell were my professors, and when I told Galway I wanted to work with Phil Levine as my thesis advisor, he looked at me with the straightest face possible and said, “Well, he’s not as crass as he used to be.”
Crass? Really? My first thought was, “I thought you two were friends?” Once I picked my jaw off the floor, I wondered if I was about make the biggest mistake of my life. Was my skin thick enough to stand up to Phil’s legendary critiques? Would he make me cry?
Known primarily as a working-class poet, Phil’s poetry exhibits a range of human emotions and failings, as he holds everything up against the complexities of everyday life. He’s considered a poet’s poet, writing much in his early- to mid-career about life in Detroit, He is a craftsman in the artless art of making the ordinary extraordinary. Yet he’s known to keep a student’s feet to the fire. If you make a bold statement in your poetry, in Phil’s classes you needed to have thechops to back it up.
For me, Phil was the first poet I had read who made the working life poetic. I mean, he made the grease under one’s fingernails poetic. He made Detroit everyone’s hometown. Who knew universal joints could be poetic? His gritty style gave a certain dignity to factory life. And his mastery of poetic forms is an aspect of his work often overlooked. Two of my favorite books by Phil are What Work Is and his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, The Simple Truth.
Phil’s straightforwardness in addressing the reader has always endeared me to his poetry. If poetry has a “fourth wall,” as in stage acting where the dialogue is spoken directly to the audience, then Phil attempts to hook the reader in and truly bring him or her into the poem.—something I’ve always strived to do in my work.
Well, Phil did not make me cry. He did what any dedicated teacher does: he makes his student better. While Phil was a tough critic, he was generous with his time and his words. He cared enough to tell me if I was going in the right direction or simply writing a piece of junk. And he did that more than once. It was important for me to work with someone whose strengths were in areas I thought were my weakest. He also urged me to read more outside of class, so I could become the poet who would be ready to write a good poem at a moment’s notice.
Studying with a talented writer is a real gift, no matter how famous or how many books he or she has published. Phil was more than a mentor. He was a physical representation of how I wanted to live in the world as a practicing poet. He gave his time to my classmates and me, encouraged us to experience life in the real world, and pushed us to question everything. I knew that to be the kind of poet I wanted to be, a part of me had to change to practice this vocation.
In other words, Phil taught me it was OK to make an ass out of myself.
Through the weekly routine of wringing every last ounce of experience out of my poems, Phil taught me persistence. He told me that if I stuck with writing poetry—because so many creative writing students go in other directions after graduation—I’ll probably write a few hundred during my poetic lifetime. But I should look for the occasion to push myself into an uncomfortable space to do my best work. I need to make myself available to the process when those occasions occur.
Thirteen years later, I found myself in a position to write to him and share some good news: my first book, Underlife, was being published by CavanKerry Press. Finding a publisher can be a soul-crushing experience. But here I was, about to publish my very first collection. And Phil was right—the further away in years I was from grad school, the less confidence I had in my abilities. Sure, I could write, even publish a book. But those years away from NYU without the safety net of having a regular routine, making a space for poetry, I felt lost. It really wasn’t until I connected with virtual writing groups that bloomed all over the Internet in the late 2000s that I found the courage to write and share poems again. Now I understand that writing a good poem is about more than craft or technical proficiency or blind love of the word. It is this, and it is more.
I wanted Phil to know all of that.
In late 2009, I mailed a letter to Phil with a copy of Underlife. When the package dropped over the mailbox door, I felt this huge sense of relief. Closure, maybe. At the risk of being crass, to use Galway’s word, I’ll share excerpts of my letter with you. Some moments are worth sharing, and receiving this letter was certainly one of those moments.
January 22, 2010
Dear January,Thanks so much for sending the new collection. I do remember several poems from either the class or your thesis. …It was wonderful to discover what you’ve been up to since you left NYU; I knew you’d become a mother, but I hadn’t know that that fact and the child had worked their way into your poetry. I truly believe that becoming a parent adds something to what we write; until that moment we can allow ourselves to be our own children, but the fact of that child ends all that. For a mother I’m sure it’s more powerful than for a father; I take that back—I’m not sure at all. Both roles are mysterious.
…You know, I’ve finally retired, but I had so many marvelous classes, so many wonderful young poets. What a lucky man I was. People ask me if I miss it, & of course I do … I just thought it was time to go. …And I just turned 82, so enough.”
So much for 82! Being chosen U.S. Poet Laureate is a well-deserved honor for a man who has devoted himself to perfecting his craft. I’ve known Phil to be the consummate writer who takes pleasure in the process of creation, and ultimately creating a new way of seeing an object, or an event, or even a person. And if you don’t think so, “then you haven’t heard a word.”