'I began writing in mystery'

Nov 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

For Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and poet Philip Levine, the small details of everyday life have always been newsworthy. From the awkward stumble of coming of age in a blue-collar town to the dirt-under-your-fingernails reality of factory labor, he's paying attention to lackluster circumstances and spinning them into gold. 

Levine was born in Detroit in 1928. And he spent part of his early adulthood working in an auto plant, where he was first inspired to write. He now lives in Fresno, Calif., and Brooklyn, N.Y., but in this, his 17th book of poetry, he still draws from that experience, as if it was indelibly stamped into his memory and sensibility. His poems are sensitive and restrained, even as they slip from poetry to storytelling like a dreamer moving from the dark drift of sleep into the vividness of dreams. 

Metro Times:
It's been many years since you worked in a Detroit auto plant, yet poems like "Dearborn Suite" are so vivid and immediate. What is it that keeps this theme alive in your poetry? 

Philip Levine: Detroit was the arena of my boyhood and young manhood; it was where I found poetry. I'll carry it with me as long as my memory lasts. It was also a very vital and turbulent place, and I truly loved it.

MT: How did you start writing and how did being from Detroit influence you? 

Levine: I began writing in mystery, and it's mystery that's kept me writing. I felt and still feel that there should be a place in American writing for the people I knew in Detroit, for so many of them were amazing and bountiful. I saw that as a part of my job.

MT: When was your last visit to Detroit and what was it like? 

Levine: My last visit was a few years ago just before the World Series the Tigers dropped. My wife and I stayed at a bed and breakfast near Wayne State, just east of Woodward in what had been a very elegant home. The university looked wonderful, Greektown was alive, but much of the city looked like the aftermath of the London blitz. I gave a reading at Wayne that was decently attended and met also with students and faculty. I spent time with my brother and his wife, and that was a delight.

MT: How do you feel about the way the city has been portrayed in the media in the past few years? 

Levine: It's identified with the stupidity and collapse of the American auto industry, and it's more than that. Much of it has gone to ruin, but you can say that about so many American cities. The media has chosen Detroit to beat up on; it's an easy and cheap shot.

MT: You've written 17 books of poetry and additional prose. You've won numerous awards including the Pulitzer in 1995 and the National Book Award in 1980 and 1991. How have achievement and recognition affected your sense of self as a writer?

Levine: My mother was still alive when I got the Pulitzer, and it meant a lot to her. Sure, the recognition helps, but it doesn't mean I'm a poet whose work will last nor does it mean I should rest on my laurels. But it is fun to win.

Norene Smith writes about lit and poetry for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]