Photos: Mike Danko, Kevin Hulse
We had our chance to speak with Philip Levine at the National Book Festival. Where do you begin with a man that’s won multiple Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was last year’s selection for U.S. Poet Laureate?
In a review of his collection Breath, Publishers Weekly wrote of his style: “Levine writes gritty, fiercely unpretentious free verse about American manliness, physical labor, simple pleasures and profound grief, often set in working-class Detroit (where Levine grew up) or in central California (where he now resides), sometimes tinged with reference to his Jewish heritage or to the Spanish poets of rapt simplicity (Machado, Lorca) who remain his most visible influence.”
With a man showing so much sensitivity to his own nature, with such a strong, passionate bond with working class America, and a devastating grip on the power of language, which rabbit hole should you go down with a man so intelligent and well-versed in the dialogue of prose and poetry? Obviously you take your chance to talk about Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music project, Cruel Summer.
BYT: You were the poet laureate last year, what have you been up to since then?
Philip Levine: Oh, what I’m always up to: writing poetry, reading, traveling. Women.
What was your favorite part of the experience as laureate?
Meeting so many different, wonderful people that I would have never had access to–
As in… other poets?
Oh [psshhh's and guffaws]. Oh no, I know them all. I don’t care about them. No, just people, everywhere. I read for OCEIA (Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs), local unions, a writers group in Harlem that was full of eleven year olds. And a year was plenty, but I loved the outreach.
What subjects have you been writing about for your new poems?
Oh, I don’t view them as subjects that I’m going to write about. It’s more meditating, and waiting for the language to come to me, and it works or…it doesn’t and I just have another fucked up poem. It’s all about having patience.
I was wondering since you have such a strong bond with Detroit, if there’s any sort of message that media misses or doesn’t talk about?
Yeah, I mean, fuck, what don’t they talk about? I suppose how it was abandoned by capitalism. It’s one of the victims of capitalism. We don’t talk about that as much as we should. It was easier to dump these unions and flea to Mexico, or Siberia–you know, like,”Who gives a shit about Detroit?” If the city dies when they leave, they don’t care.
Speaking of problems with the country, did you take part in the discussion about Chik-Fil-A and their CEO’s open contempt for homosexuality?
Oh yeah. That happens in America. It’s the American style to hate gays. We’ve been fucked up like that for a while.
It’s also in style to hate Kanye West.
Who’s Conway West?
He’s a rapper everyone loves to hate, hates to love. That sort of thing. I was wondering if you’d want to play a game called “Poem or Verse From Cruel Summer?”
…I don’t know.
Great, let’s do this:
- “Now that my afro’s as big as Shaft’s / I feel a little better about myself / … / Bullet after barreling bullet / fist-fights & car chases.”
Philip’s guess: Cruel Summer (incorrect)
Answer: “Shafro” by Terrence Hayes
- “Can’t wait to get that black American Express / So I can show them white folks how to really pull the race card”
Philip’s guess: Cruel Summer (correct) [ed. note: he laughed at this line]
Answer: “The Morning,” by Pusha T ft. 2 Chainz, Common, CyHi Da Prince, D’Banj, Kid Cudi & Raekwon
- “Our vernacular-vision, the way we walk the talk and talk the walk, is its own page-lip-palette of lyric-fixins’… a new infinite alphabet pours from the pores of the poor”
Philip’s guess: Poem (correct)
Answer: “Presidential Blackness” by Thomas Sayers Ellis
- “I’m living three dreams: Biggie Smalls’, Dr. King’s, Rodney King’s / We can’t get along, no resolution / Till we drown all these haters.”
Philip’s guess: Cruel Summer (correct) [ed. note: I think the word "haters" gave it away.]
Answer: “New God Flow,” by Kanye, Pusha T, and Ghostface Killah
- “I made him bend his back for me, / listened to his screams break like waves / … / The bitch goddess probably got a real kick out of that.”
Philip’s guess: Cruel Summer (incorrect)
Answer: “Medusa” by Patricia Smith
- “Break records at Louie, ate breakfast at Gucci / My girl’s a superstar all from a home movie / Bow on our arrival, the UnAmerican idols”
Philip’s guess: Cruel Summer (correct) [ed. note: Philip said,"There are too many brand names in this. I doubt it's a poem"]
Answer: “Clique,” by Kanye, Big Sean, and Jay Z