if you're troubled by being misunderstood

As far as people misreading, I don't much care. I remember a review I got, I think it was in the Village Voice, in which a woman wrote that one of my poems from 7 Years from Somewhere was very curious. The poem, "I Could Believe," is in the voice of a guy who has come back from the Spanish Civil War. This woman wrote something like, "Levine is an autobiographical poet, so it's amazing to discover that he fought in the Spanish Civil War, which ended when he was eleven." She mused over this, and then wrote, "Perhaps he's trying something different." Perhaps if I'd written in the voice of someone coming back from the American Civil War she wouldn't have missed it, but you can't be sure. If you're troubled by being misunderstood then you'd better not publish.

- Philip Levine, in interview with Harry Thomas' class at Davidson College, as published in Talking with Poets (Handsel Books, 2002). You can read the whole thing here.


"Let's pretend all this writing is poetry."

Todd Cabell: You mention in the first essay in your book, The Bread of Time, that anybody can become a poet, that we have democratized poetry, and then you mention creative-writing classes in colleges and high schools. I wonder, being a teacher yourself, what exactly do you view as bad in that movement?

Philip Levine: Nothing. I think it's a wonderful thing. When I started writing there was not the sense that everybody could become a poet. Chicano poetry did not exist, Asian-American poetry did not exist, such giants as Robert Hayden and Sterling Brown were not represented in the official anthologies. I'm having fun in that essay, and I'm also being serious because I do think there are too many writing programs and many are staffed by people who can't write themselves. I visit places where poetry writing is taught in graduate programs, and I can't believe the level of writing. Then I see the poetry the teachers write, and I know why. And you visit a class, and everything is praised: the MO seems to be, "Let's pretend all this writing is poetry." Once you create a program you require students, so you let everyone in and you keep them in by making them happy. I also visit writing programs in which real standards are operating, the students have talent and are reading and working like mad; the teachers are dedicated, demanding, fair, and they are gifted and productive poets themselves. There are two things you must have for a valuable writing program: first and most importantly, the right students. Then the teachers. You could have mediocre teachers if you had great students because the students will teach each other and inspire each other. The problem is great students rarely gravitate to mediocre teachers.

- Philip Levine, in interview with Harry Thomas' class at Davidson College, as published in Talking with Poets (Handsel Books, 2002). You can read the whole thing here.


bad poets are incredibly resourceful

Patrick Malcor: You said that there is no specific style of poetry right now. Do you think poetry is beyond the point where it can have a movement, a certain mass style, or do you think that it needs that?

Philip Levine: There will always be movements. We have one right now that began in California, the Language Poets. Do you know their work? [Blank looks.] You don't, God bless you. Young poets begin movements to have something to belong to, something potentially exciting: "We're going to change American poetry!"

Ever since I began writing I've noticed that certain movements are there mainly to help people without talent write something they can pass off as poetry. If you can't tell a decent story, denounce poems that tell stories. If you can't create characters, denounce poems with people in them. If you can't create images, write boring generalities. If you have no sense of form, imitate the formlessness of the sea. If you have no ear, disparage music. If everything you write is ugly and senseless, remind your readers that the world is ugly and senseless. Bad poets are incredibly resourceful. But those are movements that are easily forgotten. About fifteen years ago we had something called the New Formalism, and it seems to have vanished already. Very curious movement, a sort of nostalgia for the poetry of the fifties and perhaps for the decade itself, and it occurred at a time when the best formal poets of the fifties—Wilbur, Merrill, Hecht, Nemerov—were still writing incredibly well.

- Philip Levine, in interview with Harry Thomas' class at Davidson College, as published in Talking with Poets (Handsel Books, 2002). You can read the whole thing here.


poetry will make it without you

George Weld: I think now especially a lot of young writers feel a tension between the feeling that they need to be activists in their work for social change and a feeling that, as Auden says, "Poetry makes nothing happen," that poetry is irrelevant or elitist, and I'm wondering whether you feel this tension yourself.

Philip Levine: Well, frankly, I think that Auden is wrong. Poetry does make things happen. And I think that if a young person is troubled by the idea that he or she is practicing an elitist art, then he ought to do something else. I mean, if you have grave doubts about being a poet because you will thereby not achieve your social ambitions, then don't write poetry. Poetry will make it without you. And the question you have to ask yourself is, "Can I make it without poetry?" And if the answer is fuzzy and hazy, do something else. The answer had better be very loud and very clear: "I can't make it without poetry." Because there's so much in a life of poetry that can defeat you. And the apparatus for rewarding you is so abysmal, and the rewards themselves, aside from the writing of the poems, so small, that there's no point in doing it unless you're utterly confident that that's your vocation, that's your calling.
- Philip Levine, in interview with Harry Thomas' class at Davidson College, as published in Talking with Poets (Handsel Books, 2002). You can read the whole thing here.


the pathetic sigh of the self for itself

I think a lot of writing that passes under the name of poetry is actually self-indulgent, and too self-satisfying, and kind of profiles itself in a flattering way. You can hear the pathetic sigh of the self for itself, which is the voice of the decade or of the times. Much that is being written doesn't place enough scrutiny upon itself; it's not aware of the demands which are there in the art. On the other hand, having said that, poems have absolutely no ethical duty to stand between the goalposts of history and save all the balls that are flung at them. They can stand and be umpire and watch them go past, put up a flag, or they can turn their back. But the poem has to know at least that there is a game going on. The poem has to understand its place and its placing, even if it is a poem of total harmony, total beauty, and apparently total innocence.

- Seamus Heaney, in interview with Harry Thomas' class at Davidson College, as published in Talking with Poets.


we are in a new world of understanding and character

Courtney Robertson: Last year I was studying a University College, Cork. I took a poetry course, and your name came up a number of times. We were talking about the idea of women as nature and men as culture in looking at "Digging." How do you respond to that critical argument?

Seamus Heaney: Well, it's a critical language, it has a new approach. Patricia Coughlan has written an article, a polemical article, about that. And it's necessary that those inherited tropes be interrogated. Nevertheless, poetry isn't just its thematic content. Poetry is in the musical intonation. What is missing in a lot of that criticism is any sense of the modulation, the intonation, the way the spirit moves in a cadence. It deliberately eschews the poetryness of poetry in order to get at its thematic and its submerged political implication. That's perfectly in order as a form of intellectual exercise and political protest, but it is not what the thing in itself is. Within this new critical dispensation, Rilke's "Sonnets to Orpheus," you know, could be taken to task for silencing the little girl who is the occasion of them - the child who died. You could see a fierce political point being made against Rilke for this, At the same time, the Sonnets refuse the terms of that argument. This is the old argument between, if you like, truth and beauty, put in another way. Or between the Puritans and the playwrights. That criticism is very Puritan: extirpate the mistaken because we are in a new world of understanding and character. This is a pattern that keeps repeating.

- Seamus Heaney, in interview with Harry Thomas' class at Davidson College, as published in Talking with Poets (Handsel Books, 2002).


do something that the reader didn't already have

Bad art does what you expect. To me, it's not truly a poem if it merely says what most intelligent, well-meaning people would say. In the other direction, total surprise is babble, it's meaningless; I don't mean to say that one is on a quest simply for novelty. But your responsibility is, even if it's only to versify something you perceive as truth, to put that truth or homily into a rhyme in such a way that you are transforming it. Your job is to do something that the reader didn't already have.

- Robert Pinsky, in interview with Harry Thomas' class at Davidson College, as published in Talking with Poets (Handsel Books, 2002). You can read the full thing here.


Pulp Literature Issue 5 Now Out!

As I announced back in September, a very-short-story of mine, "Here I Lay Down My Heart", won PULP Literature's 2014 Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction.

This is just a quick note to say that the issue is out, and there's lots of good stuff in there, especially silaron favourite Daniela Elza's story "Waiting for Twilight".

You can pick it up online (print or e-book) or in a bookstore near you.

Thanks, PULP!


Three Poems in Cascadia Review

Cascadia Review is a wonderful little online magazine devoted to poetry from the Cascadia bioregion.

I was very happy, last week, to be a featured poet on the site. I bucked tradition a bit and sent them three poems from Africa (two new ones from our recent stay in Zambia, and one from Ghana which die-hard silaron fans might recognize from my 2008 chapbook, Child of Saturday).

I also wrote a short (well... long) "statement of place", in which I did my best to explain why I sent a bunch of Africa poems in to a magazine devoted to the "Pacific Northwest".

You can read all three poems, and the statement of place, in one place here, or individually here:

The bucket is blue and deep and brims with cool water
At Makola
Statement of Place

As my "Statement of Place" suggests, the timing of this publication was perfect, as Marta and I had just returned from a short trip through Wahshington and Oregon.

Thank you to Cascadia Review for running my poems, and for bringing all of us in Cascadia a little closer together!


A TOSOO Review + a nice note to boot!

It was a lovely surprise, 3.5 years after publication, to receive a review of The Other Side of Ourselves, courtesy of poetry review blogger Michael Dennis.

His "Today's Book of Poetry" site covered my book on December 23rd, and was a great early Christmas gift. You can read the review here.

Michael offers up a warm, positive assessment of the book, along with three sample poems (which happen to be three of the oldest in the book - which leaves me wondering what he'll think of my second book, if and when it comes). My favourite note of his is his last:

Another thing that we here at Today's book of poetry really liked -- Rob Taylor confidently tackles the big issues -- God, love and morality. But he isn't preachy, he leaves us to draw our own conclusions.

Today's book of poetry can only conclude that this is finely tempered poetry, strength built from being held close to the flame.

Since finding out about Michael's blog, I've quite enjoyed following his reviews (which come at a feverish pace). Think about doing so yourself.


Michael's review wasn't the only unexpected present to pop up on my screen this December. I also received this really lovely... I don't know what to call it... life review? Internet hug? Nice thing? from Vancouver's most dreamy-eyed poet, Mariner Janes. The... whatever it is... includes a shout-out for silaron, which is always appreciated!


Thank you to Michael and Mariner, for your time and attention, and for thinking of me as the holidays rolled around. I appreciated it a great deal!


Lemonhound New Vancouver Poets Folio

Although I've been feeling old as hell lately, it turns out I'm still young enough to be a "New Vancouver Poet" (for a few more years), something for which I'm deeply grateful as it means I get to be in some excellent company in Lemonhound's "New Vancouver Poets Folio".

My two poems in the folio are "Naked" and "A Jack Gilbert Poem". In them I have a bit of fun with poetry's high-seriousness - both in my own work and in Jack Gilbert's. You can read them here.

The list of contributors to the folio is long and impressive, and includes a good portion of my favourite local poets, many of whom have been featured on silaron or at the Dead Poets Reading Series in recent years: Raoul Fernandes, Kayla Czaga, Mariner Janes, andrea bennett, Sugar le Fae, Kevin Spenst, Chris Gilpin, Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Elena Johnson, and many more.

I'm slowly reading through the poems. Early on my favourites include Raoul Fernandes' "An Ache in the Knot" and Kayla Czaga's "The Braggadocios". But please, I encourage you to get reading and find your own favourites!

Thank you so much to Lemonhound/Sina Queyras and folio editors Daniel Zomparelli and Dina Del Bucchia for making this happen!


I recited egg. I said said. I said bed. I hurried parties. I jangled. !!!!!

Thanks to a prompt from PRISM international's web editor, Clara Kumagai (did you know the PRISM website posts weekly writing prompts? ), I learned about The Deletionist, an automatic erasure poem generator.

It's a "Javascript bookmarklet" which, with one click of the mouse, "erases" (in reality, just switches the font colour to match the background) most of the text on a given webpage, turning it into one giant erasure poem.

I thought it would be fun to see what it came up with when unleashed on some of the poems on my website. My favourite result was for "The Party".

The original:

The Party

I sought this guy out at the party
to thank him for the joke he’d told
at last year’s party, which had served
as my icebreaker at every party since.
He vaguely recalled the party, me,
but the joke not at all. I recited the joke
and watched his confusion tumble
into a bottomless well of joy –
an Alzheimer’s patient discovering
his own hidden Easter egg. Good party,
I said. Good party, he said.
Good party, I said to the hostess,
my hands excavating the mound
of coats on her bed. I hurried home
almost satisfied, rain lashing down on me
as it does after parties. I jangled my key
into the lock and the neighbour’s dog
sprang up – I’m here! I’m here!
I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!

The auto-erased:

The Party

I sought this guy out at the party 
to thank him for the joke he’d told 
at last year’s party, which had served 
as my icebreaker at every party since. 
He vaguely recalled the party, me, 
but the joke not at all. I recited the joke 
and watched his confusion tumble 
into a bottomless well of joy – 
an Alzheimer’s patient discovering 
his own hidden Easter egg. Good party, 
I said. Good party, he said. 
Good party, I said to the hostess, 
my hands excavating the mound 
of coats on her bed. I hurried home 
almost satisfied, rain lashing down on me 
as it does after parties. I jangled my key 
into the lock and the neighbour’s dog 
sprang up –  I’m here! I’m here! 
I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!

I think it might be better than the original. Especially those exclamation marks.

Try it yourself, and let me know your results!


Dead Poets Reading Series - Tomorrow!

The first DPRS reading of the new year will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on January 11th, 2015, from 3-5 PM. It will feature:

Catullus (84 - 54 BC), read by Sugar Le Fae
Philip Larkin (1922 - 1985), read by Steven Brown
Galway Kinnell (1927 - 2014), read by Diane Tucker
Isaac Rosenberg (1890 - 1918), read by Kevin Spenst
Edith Sitwell (1887 - 1964), read by Daniel Cowper

Yeah, death dates from 54 BC up until 2014. We're really going for it this round.

You can RSVP via Facebook here, if ya like. Regardless, just come out tomorrow!