So my intention going into February was to highlight the lives of black women in particular, to hold space for the parts of black history that so often get left unspoken, or that have washed away in the waves of historical amnesia so prevalent in this country. This week, I intended to write a post about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, in part because it combines two of my most fervent historical interests: U.S. labor history and mid-20th century black revolutionary history. I thought too, that it might provide and interesting historical synthesis of my two previous interviews. I was working on getting all my thoughts together for that post, which will come later this month, and then dashed all of my intentions when I heard the news that Philip Levine had died. I know that I am writing amidst a sea of other writers, many of whom might have known Levine better than I, but I can’t help but feel obligated to honor his life and his work in this moment. Levine was born in Detroit in 1928, he began working in factories at the age of 14, the same age he began writing poetry. Though he hadn’t lived in Detroit in many years, much of his work centered upon his life in the city. He worked in Ford’s River Rouge and Highland Park plants & for Cadillac and Chevrolet among other jobs, and would often recite poetry to himself while working. I also grew up working class, but in a coastal New England tourist town in the 90s. My first job at 14 was at a pizza chain, so the thought of working in a factory is fairly alien to me. Much of what I can grasp of it comes through this image of a young Levine, punching holes in sheet metal and reciting Yeats' “Easter, 1916” to himself in a grey and screeching place where creative genius is subsumed by the necessity of making a decent wage.
There are very few poets whose work I admire in the way I admire Levine’s—like him, I adore the work of Yeats, even Eliot at times, but he had political savvy, dark wit, stylistic ingenuity, and a knack for focusing in on brutally human moments without lyrically obscuring them. To wit, I can’t think of another poet of his stature that placed so much significance on the American working-class. Some critics found his work tedious, or thematically redundant, but his narrative persistence and the stark precision of his honesty make his work consistently relevant, even in the light of American de-industrialization. In Levine, I find a template for the kind of work I aspire to create, because it touched the lives of my friends—poet friends, activist friends, and the working class friends I grew up with who could care less about most poetry. This isn’t to say he had a universal voice, or was relatable, which is a far too simplistic categorization for writing, but that he had a stunning balance of craft and purpose.
I met Philip Levine in September, 2014, a few days after it was announced that I had been granted the first Write A House. I had flown to Detroit from New York for a whirlwind 24 hours where I saw some of the city, been surprised with a Q&A with another Detroit-based Pulitzer Prize winner, Stephen Henderson and laid eyes on my current home for the first time. From Detroit, I flew back to JFK airport in New York, where I spent a dizzy five hours waiting for another flight to Madrid. From Madrid I would fly to Rome, and then to Palermo, where I would be driven to Erice, Sicily. I had been accepted to Bread Loaf Sicily from the waitlist a few months earlier, and had to quickly fundraise thousands of dollars in order to make the trip a goal, which I fell shy of, and put up a quarter of what I had earned over the summer in order to pay for travel. When I had first landed in Detroit, I sat outside the airport and dejectedly attempted to contact a live person at the unemployment office for the third time in as many days. I was the brokest jetsetter I knew, and it felt like everything was swirling. Through some mishap with the airline, I wasn’t allowed to board the flight from Rome to Palermo, which was difficult to deal with considering my shoddy knowledge of Italian. I spent a sleepless night in Rome’s Fiumocino airport, caught another flight to Sicily, fell asleep in the car to the hotel and then again for a few hours before my first workshop. All of what was happening felt not just surreal, but unreal—not to be believed by my rational mind. By the time Bread Loaf’s Michael Collier asked if I wanted to be introduced to Philip Levine the next evening, I was certain that I was dreaming.
I knew that somehow the news of my winning the house in Detroit had traveled quickly, which is why Michael went out of his way to introduce me to Philip and his wife Franny. Philip was the Keynote speaker of the conference, and had yet to give his talk. I was incredibly nervous as I approached them, but it soon dissipated as we began to speak. He and Franny asked where the house was, and I explained that it was just north of Hamtramck, and they then tried to recall the Polish restaurant they used to visit in Hamtramck, where Philip’s sister-in-law grew up. We chatted for about ten minutes, and both Philip and Franny were incredibly gracious, personable and encouraging. At one point, Philip said “I used to know poets in Detroit, but they’re all dead now. That’s what happens when you stick around long enough”. That’s when I first understood that his work wasn’t much different from his personality—grim, funny, blunt, even rascally at times.
When asked what his favorite poem of his was during a Q&A session, he swiftly replied “Easter, 1916”—he said even though he hadn’t written it, he claimed it, that it belonged to him now. My notes from the session are spotty, probably because I was too wrapped up in what was being said that I forgot to take much down. At the bottom of the third of a page I used, I wrote “Detroit—ask Levine” which seems more like something scribbled on a notepad in a film noir than something a serious poetry student might jot down while listening to a titan of the craft. And yet, something about that note strikes me as important. I spent a good portion of my free time in Erice talking to reporters while dreaming about swimming in the Mediterranean. I used the spotty internet connection for emails and Skype, had calls sent to my hotel room’s landline to answer a number of questions about Detroit that I felt like I had no business answering. The three word note might as well have read: Detroit? Ask Levine. As a matter of fact, ask anyone who isn’t a recent or soon-to-be transplant, their opinion matters more than mine.
I still feel this way, and rightly so. If you read Philip Levine’s 1988 interview in The Paris Review he describes going back to Detroit in the 80s and seeing the toll of decades of aftermath after the 1967 rebellion, and a regeneration that didn’t occur—and in many ways he describes a landscape that mirrors the present moment, as well. And still, as much as I admire the man, his perspective on the city was skewed—he left when he was young and didn’t return to live in the city. When I asked him about it, he said he got back once a year or so to visit his brother. In fact, some of my favorite poems of his—“They Feed They Lion” and “Coming Home, Detroit, 1968” reckon with this conundrum precisely. He returns to the city after the ’67 rebellion and faces the reality of what is happening and what he represented in light of the racial tension and political strife. For me, and I wonder if Levine would agree, questions about what Detroit is or was are better put to those who have been here and stayed. I oftentimes feel myself thirsty in the quest to hear their stories, to understand who belongs to this city and whom this city belongs to. Philip Levine’s connection to Detroit is inescapable, and it was serendipitous and strange to have met him on my journey to making it my home.
During the week, I had read a poem at the contributors’ reading, outdoors amidst a violent and persistent wind. I felt lucky to have a background in slam poetry that day, because I could project enough for the whole audience to hear me. It was, like much of that week, a bit off-putting. Beyond the tenacious wind, I found that I had absolutely no grasp on the audience of my peers and teachers. I read a poem that begins with excerpts from a Virginia slavemaster’s diary. This was the only time I’ve ever read that piece when the audience laughed. On one hand, it was refreshing—they understood the absurdity of William Byrd II’s mundane routine juxtaposed with his matter of fact descriptions of the violence he inflicted upon those he enslaved. On another hand, I was one of three people of color at the conference, and was younger than most of my colleagues and I found the response jarring at best. I was surprised later in the evening when so many people praised the work and my reading of it, but I was floored our last night in Erice when Philip Levine left his table of luminary authors and approached me.
I was honored that he sought me out considering he had heard me read a single poem, and had no obligation to even pay me any mind to begin with. He was kind enough to offer to connect me with a poet at Wayne State who he knew, and vigorously encouraged me along my path. It meant more to me than I can describe in words, in part because I knew that he was not the kind of person to do or say such things if he didn’t completely mean them. As he walked away, I overheard him say one of the kindest things anyone has ever said about me to one of my colleagues. I’m not bold enough to repeat it here, but suffice to say it was a moment that I will never forget. I cannot recall it without tearing up because he made me feel like I belonged where I was, that I deserved something more than what I had.
I know what I’ve written here is a particular and privileged kind of experience, but if you read Philip Levine’s work, I think that’s the feeling he wanted to convey to all us working class kids—that we are seen, that we have a place, that we deserve a voice, that we are more human than machine, more beautiful than our labor, or perhaps more beautiful because of it. His voice will be missed, and his work, his words, will live on for generations to come. My deepest condolences go out to Franny, his family, friends and students. It’s been a wild journey coming to Detroit, and I am so grateful to have met him along the way.
Inaugural Write A House Recipient