Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

April 12, 2013

Former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine coming to Valdosta

VALDOSTA — Philip Levine, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former United States Poet Laureate for 2011-2012, is coming to Valdosta Wednesday, April 17.

Levine, who often writes what critics call “blue-collar poetry,” will be giving a reading at 7:30 p.m. in Whitehead Auditorium at Valdosta State University.

Growing up in Detroit in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Levine spent his teens and early 20s working in automobile plants, which, along with the people who worked in them, would become common fixtures in his work.

“They were kind of terrific people,” said Levine. “More interesting, more courageous.”

Although he started writing poetry while working in plants, it would be some time before his poetry turned to hard labor and the workers who do it.

“I needed to get some distance on it. I was kind of an angry guy; I had a sense I was being misused, exploited.”

After the publication of his first collection in 1963, “On The Edge,” Levine spent a year with his family in Barcelona, Spain where he noted the similarities in blue collar workers in Detroit and Barcelona.

“Most of the workers doing the worst jobs were from south of Barcelona, like how in Detroit, most workers were from the southern United States,” said Levine. “In both places, they were looked down on.”

In his second poetry collection, “Not This Pig,” roughly a third of the

poems were about Detroit and blue collar workers. It’s something he still writes about now, almost 50 years later.

“I never set out to become a ‘work’ poet...becoming a poet was day by day. It’s not like in the movies: a poet can’t write, sees something that inspires him, writes everything down in a flash...the art you have to master is patience. You really have to become patient.”

The process changes from poem to poem for Levine. Sometimes he writes in a meticulous fashion; other times he just “spews it out,” writing everything he can think to write on the page, and then going back through it to get a sense of it, find a structure, find out what needs to stay and what needs to go.

“I’m very aware of landscape and cityscape in my poems...there are four cities now I write about: Detroit, Fresno, Barcelona and Brooklyn.”

Surprisingly, for a man who has won a Pulitzer Prize and served as the United States Poet Laureate, Levine seems almost surprised to find how much people get out of his poetry.

“I’m amazed at how much pride my sons have in what I’ve done...when I was Laureate, I went to read for a labor union. The head of it, an ex-coal miner gets up and introduces me and starts quoting from my work from memory, no notes in front of him.”

Levine was also delighted at how much his older brother enjoyed his collection, “The News of the World,” which contains a couple of poems about him.

“He was thrilled to find himself in there. He’s blind now, but his wife read it to him...everybody should be warned: Don’t get too close to me or you might end up in a poem.”

With over 20 books and five decades of poetry under his belt, Levine is still fascinated with it, even talking about releasing a new book.

“I never know in advance. I look at my work and I ask, Do I have a book here? I’m still not bored, still haven’t mastered it. That’s the best part about poetry; there’s always more to learn, always more to say.”

And on April 17, 7:30 p.m. in Whitehead Auditorium at VSU, Valdosta will have a chance to hear what he has to say.

“Don’t come expecting a somber evening. If I don’t make you laugh, I’ll feel like I let you down.”

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