Tag: Detroit

Philip Levine and the Importance of Poetry

Philip Levine, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, National Book Award winner, and a scribe who turned the monotony of our working lives into extraordinary forms, died on Saturday in his home in Fresno, California. His death closes the chapter on one of poetry’s most important American voices.

He has had such a tremendous effect that it caused Dwight Garner at the New York Times to write this: “Mr. Levine’s death is a serious blow for American poetry, in part because he so vividly evoked the drudgery and hardships of working-class life in America.” The Paris Review will be posting his poems this week in tribute, and David Post at the Washington Post had this to say about the man from Detroit: “His poems have a kind of simple power that frequently reaches real transcendence, and they are deeply and nakedly autobiographical – having read most of his published work, I feel like I know a great deal about his life and he’s like an old friend – without the nasty combination of self-love and self-pity that accompanies so much autobiographical poetry.”

What Levine is known most for is that he’s a working-class poet. He worked in factories and told the stories of the individuals he met in his hometown. He was a poet of the people, and he wrote in turgid, almost Hemingway-like sentences that captured such a stunning music and imagery that he placed you dead center in his moment, in the speaker’s world, in the tangible experience that great writing creates. If you don’t understand the power of his work, the ability of his poetry to connect to everyone that comes in contact with it, then listen:

So what about what Philip Levine is…was. Many writers and critics have already discussed the importance of Philip Levine and his impact on poetry, but to make this more personal, I want to talk about what Philip Levine is…was…for me. As someone who grew up in blue-collar town in Massachusetts with empty factories on Main Street, which was parallel to the bustling center of a plastic factory (almost a perfect dichotomy of the modern world juxtaposed to the past Industrial Revolution wasteland), Philip Levine showed me that my life, my hometown, the people who I have known, are all so beautiful. He showed me that my life could be art if I told it in a way that was authentic. I’m still trying to find that, but I’m positive that not only did he have this effect me; he had this effect on a generation of people growing up in similar backgrounds. This is what made him such a great American poet, because lyricism and the sublime belong to all people and not a select group who have the leisure time to become backyard Hamlets.

I didn’t grow up as hard as Levine did; but I know what work is. When I think Philip Levine dying, perhaps this is selfish or self-centered, what comes to mind are the people I have met in my life who Levine has shown me are worth writing about. For example, his real name isn’t important, but we can call him Stan. I worked with him in a computer warehouse, and he worked in the back room on the assembly line putting parts together for data centers. He would stand there with his screwdriver as the conveyor belt pushed more parts toward him, and he would screw the sections together that needed to be screwed together. That was it. I remember how he unloaded the trucks that showed up in the loading area as if he was Atlas trying to hold up the world, and I remember him staring at the clock when there were no tasks. I remember the calluses on his hands and his yellow fingernails and the stink of cigarette smoke from the breaks he would take next to the dumpster, a spot where he thought no one was watching. I remember how I would head down to the Nashua River on lunch breaks and sit on a rock and watch the dragonflies buzz around the ferns. I would see him, sometimes, wandering around the trails. When I left for good, he told me never to come back. He was being nice.

Then there was the carpenter in Massachusetts…Al. We worked together on a maze. (Yes, it was a corn maze.) I helped him build the wood structures around the facility. He lived close by in a home that seemed to fit the structural and design needs for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s serial killers, and he would always show up late…real late. He would pull down the door in his truck on the job site, and the beer cans would fall out. He would ask me to hold the nail for the hammer, and I would make up excuses or pray.

I remember living in Detroit. It was 2007 through 2008, and it was when America’s economy tumbled, and I was in the hub of its destruction. I remember meeting Len. He lived near me, and he was a fine-art painter who was out of work, too, just like me. He was almost 75-years old, and I remember him and his wife coming home late drunk and screaming into the blackness. At one time, he painted exhibits that were showcased at the Olympics, and to make money, he used to paint the billboards between the skyscrapers. Later, he would find that there was no need for him to paint the billboards, as machines could do it now. We ended up painting houses together until the winter came. We tracked my hours on a piece of paper, and I was grateful, so grateful, for the work, for knowing him, for witnessing his struggle and feeling the pain he felt.

These are the type of people Levine seems to encourage writers to explore. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Philip Levine when he was poet laureate. When I called him up, I was so nervous. Levine is kind of my hero, and I prepared for this interview as if I was researching ways to convince Peter to allow me into heaven. I wanted to know so much from him. I wanted to know how to write poetry. I wanted to know how to tell stories. I didn’t get that from the interview, but I was able to find something just as special. I remember him talking about how he first decided to write about Detroit. He was living in California at the time, and he was trying to find his voice. This is an excerpt from the piece at the LA Weekly:

[Levine] recounts the first time he started to write his now-famous poems [about Detroit]: “One morning I woke up [in Fresno], having had a dream about working with a particular guy. In the dream, my buddy Lemon calls me from Bakersfield. Lemon’s been driving with his wife and kid all the way from Detroit. … He wants to know what he should do in California. I tell him about the things he ought to see in Los Angeles — the Miracle Mile, Venice Beach, this kind of crap. I lay this shit on him. And in the dream, I can see him in the phone booth and the two people in the car. He says thanks and hangs up. In the dream I can see him walking to his car. He gets in. … I know he’s saying, ‘That schmuck, why didn’t he invite me up there?'”

Later that morning over breakfast, Levine had a discussion with his wife about the dream. She told him that it was a warning. “You can’t become a professor in your poetic life or in your soul. You have to be who you are. Who your history is.” Levine then went back to bed with a pad of writing paper and a pencil, and he started writing about Detroit while living in California. He wrote six poems in a week and published them all.

What I will take away from Philip Levine is the knowledge that drudgery, work — the minor moments of life that create your existence — can be poetry. I will forever be grateful to Philip Levine for showing me what work is and how it can be lyrical and beautiful and transcendental. May you continue to inspire future Americans long after your death.

The story of Hendrix and Detroit

The path to becoming a writer has been — and still is — filled with surprises, twists and turns, and entirely new cities. In 2007, my wife, Heron, and I moved to Detroit for her work, but we picked the city together because I thought it would serve for great writing experiences. Well, I could probably write a whole book about my experience in Detroit — fights in the YMCA, wandering around Detroit and rotting buildings, my downstairs neighbors who were victims of the languishing economy, my search for work and fulfillment during the beginning of The Great Recession — and I’m thankful for those memories. In the end, though, the greatest thing that came out of Detroit was Hendrix.

Hendrix Noodle Gif

The story I’m about to tell you is probably not the Hendrix you were envisioning. In fact, the Hendrix I’m talking about isn’t even human. It’s my dog. And he’s traveled the country with my wife and me several times, sticking his head out of the car as we drove through West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and into California. Or the times we drove back and forth from Detroit to Florida — through the hills in West Virginia and the flat lands of Ohio. He’s been with us through rejection and the first couple months of freelancing; he’s been there in the hottest days in Miami when we didn’t have air conditioning; he’s been there during our wedding planning; he’s been there for the last six years, serving as my writing buddy.

When I first met Hendrix, Heron and I were living in the top floor of a house in between Royal Oak and Ferndale in Metro Detroit. We had a little backyard that we shared with the downstairs neighbors. I had just moved to Michigan after traveling in Europe for two months, and I was looking for work. It was tough. So one day to get a break, I drove into Downtown Detroit and stopped at the  Michigan Humane Society.

For some reason, I thought getting a cat would make Heron happy. She had grown up with cats, and I could tell she missed home in Florida. I wanted to get her a present to make her feel more at home. So I decided on a cat — even though I was allergic to cats.

So I walked inside the pound, and there were a bunch of people standing around the reception area. There was a woman, and her three-year old boy was standing next to her. On the counter of the reception area, she had placed a pit bull puppy. Man, it was the cutest thing you would ever see in the world, and I knew, then, that a puppy would be the thing that made Heron the happiest. I changed my mind on this quickly.


What I learned was that the woman at the counter was trying to give the puppy up for adoption. But what they were telling her at the desk was that they can’t accept pit bulls. I deduced that the dog would be put down if it was turned into the pound.

“Are you giving the dog away?” I asked.

The woman looked at me and then down at her son. “Trying to. You interested?”

“How does it work here?” I looked down at the young kid, and he looked up at me with the saddest eyes I had ever seen. It was worse than the puppy.

“Twenty dollars and he’s all yours.”

“Let me think about it,” I said. “I probably will take him. I will let you know.”

Something about her asking for money weirded me out. So I sat down on the chair and watched the puppy playing with the boy. The boy’s shorts were too big for him, and he seemed to trip over them when we walked.

That’s when the door burst open to the pound, and I saw something that I would never forget. A woman was holding a leash, and on the end of that leash, there was a dog who ran right towards me and jumped in my arms. His tail was wagging; his tongue was hanging out; and he gave me a kiss. He jumped off my lap, and then he rolled over and presented his belly for a rubbing. I rubbed his belly, and when I stopped, he popped up and went to say hello to everyone else in the place.

I talked to the lady with the dog, and she was saying that she had to drop him off for adoption. She said she was moving out of town, and she had to give him away. She felt awful about it.

“You want him?” she asked.

“So you’re just leaving,” I asked, “that’s why you’re getting rid of him?”

“He’s mostly been in the basement. Never had any attention.”

I looked down at the dog — whose name was Ed — and I swear to god he was smiling at me. A freaking smile.

“How much?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “I would have to pay to drop him off here.”

Suddenly I had the dog’s leash in my hands, and I had a dog. I brought him outside, and his tail was wagging like crazy, and I put him inside my Buick LeSabre. And I was about to drive away when I remembered the kid and the pit bull.

They were standing outside with the pit bull puppy. The kid was crying.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the mom. “I can’t take your dog.”

That’s when the strangest thing happened. The little boy reached back his hand, and what seemed to take place in slow motion, he punched me in the leg. A little kid, seriously, punched me in the leg. He was crying.

“I hate you,” he said. “I want puppy. I want puppy.”

I always felt bad about not taking that puppy. I always felt bad for that kid. But there was something else going on there — what type of kid knows how to punch at that age? — and I couldn’t have more than one dog. I wish I could adopt them all and give them all good homes.

Detroit 5

I drove away with Hendrix, still called Ed at the time, in my Buick Lesabre. I don’t know if it’s fate; I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence; but sometimes I think the whole reason I was in Detroit, besides learning some hard lessons about life and America,  was Hendrix. I never saw it coming.

Three Great Lessons I Learned from Detroit

After I graduated from Stetson University in 2007, I didn’t know what was next. I was dating my current wife, Heron, and we wanted to stay together. Well, I wanted to travel and see somewhere new, but she had to find a place that made sense with her work. So we looked at the options of where she could go, and we decided on…Detroit, Michigan.

Detroit 5

Neither of us knew anything about Michigan, but we moved there anyway. My heroes — Hemingway, Kerouac, Twain, — all said that if I wanted to be a writer, then I needed to travel to know places. So I figured, no matter what, Detroit was a new place, and I would surely be able to write about it one day. Yeah, I would find some job, and I would write at night — or even when I was at work. What did I know?

We moved to Detroit in the fall of 2007, and the presidential elections were underway. I can still remember McCain saying the fundamentals of the economy were strong, and then the economy suddenly fell off a cliff. Of course, the recession then pillaged the rest of the country, but what I found when we moved into Ferndale was that the recession was already there in Detroit. It was very hard to find work, and I ended up working at the desk of a YMCA, teaching guitar, and working as a substitute teacher in some rough schools. Now, I’m beginning, finally, to start to write about that experience. So here is a list of the greatest lessons I learned from my year in Metro Detroit — a city that I hold close to my heart.

1. Libraries and piano stores are safe havens. 

I was out of work in Detroit for a bit, and it was tough to find a job. I thought because I had a degree from an excellent school in Florida that everyone in the city would want to hire me. Well, it’s difficult when everyone else is looking for a job, and they already know people there. So I had to find a headquarters to set up and look for a job, and it ended up being the Royal Oak Public Library. Every morning, I would drive over to the library, find a table, and look for work. I had no idea how to find a job, but I kept at it. And on breaks, I would read short stories by my heroes and search for an answer.

Detroit 2

But what I noticed was that I wasn’t the only one who had this idea. There was free internet at the library, and the computers were always swamped with people. Homeless men and women from all over the city would be waiting for the library to open so they could use the computes and the bathrooms. I’ll never forget walking in with them in the morning. I had a cup of coffee in my hand; they held their change of clothes in a plastic bag. I really empathized with them. Of course, my circumstances were infinitely more stable, but I also felt like I didn’t have a home. And the library became a place of comfort for the lost and wandering.

I would also go on walks at lunch breaks, and I wanted to find a place to hang out where I didn’t have to pay money. What I found was that piano stores were a great place to relax. I would walk in and play the piano for twenty minutes, and then I would walk out and head back to looking for jobs. So no matter what happens to me in my life, I know I will always have piano stores and libraries.

2. Work is beautiful and can be art:

Many people don’t know this, but the Detroit Institute of the Arts is one of the best museums in the country. It might just be because of their amazing mural painted by Diego Rivera. It’s scales four massive walls, and it depicts men in the car plants, creating the machinery as the mural morphs to reveal that we are all also machines created by a similar assembly line. Seeing Rivera’s mural has proved to be one of the greatest artistic experiences of my life. That’s one of the first times I understood that work was art.

Detroit 3

Back home in Clinton, Massachusetts, I worked some jobs doing manual labor, and I knew very early on I needed to find a way to use my mind instead of my back. But while I was going through this process, working at a farm or picking stones out of the Earth, I met so many people who made this their life. And I don’t know how to articulate it yet, but those people who worked with their hands were beautiful. They seemed to be at peace with something that I wasn’t.

Philip Levine writes such beautiful poetry about work in his collection What Work Is, and his poetry has inspired me beyond, well, I can ever express. He is a true “working-class hero.” I was lucky enough to interview him at the LA Weekly.

Detroit 4

And now I remember seeing that Van Gogh had painted people working in the fields. I remember the people wandering around in the cold in Downtown Detroit, the snow covering the cars and the streets, when I drove into a hip restaurant to apply for a job waiting tables. I remember working in the YMCA, watching gym towels spin in a washing machine. I remember the snow outside of the high school where I was a substitute teacher, right off of 10 mile in Ferndale, or some mile, way beyond the reaches of my consciousness. I remember that I gave out all my books to my students, hoping they would find solace in words.

3. It wasn’t going to be easy.

Probably the best lesson I learned from Detroit was that it wasn’t going to be easy…being a writer in this world. It was a shock to find a city that wasn’t opening their arms to me, because I thought I was some hot-shot. It was a shock to find that securing a real job after college was not guaranteed. It was a shock to find that when I went to apply for teaching jobs they laughed at me and my American Eagle collared shirts. It was a shock to find the darkness thicker than the snow, thicker than the memory of night back home.

Detroit 1

I was just a kid who thought that I could wander into a city and become a writer…or a teacher, but no, Detroit said, nothing is handed to you. You need to work for it. You need to bust your ass. And you need to be thankful for your job at the YMCA or a substitute teacher. You need to be thankful that you can teach guitar. You need to be thankful that you can see this part of the world, no matter how tough it is.

In the end, I feel that I had grown a lot in Detroit, and I didn’t even have it that tough. I love that city, because there will always be a part of me, a young and naive part, still wandering into piano stores and libraries, trying to kill time.

Time Management, Gin, and Reading at Stories

One thing that I’m learning about freelancing is that time management is so important.  At first, you think you have all day, and you can work on certain projects as much as you want.  But then you start getting work while you still need to look for more work and it suddenly builds up and up and you feel out of control…whew!

Detroit, Joseph Lapin

That’s kind of how I felt today…powerless to outcomes.  Will someone respond to my pitch?  Will an ad agency respond to my query?  Will someone hate my writing or like it?  Well, those questions are out of my control, and, as soon as I remembered that, I felt better, which is what they talk about in the rehab center I used to work at.  Oh wow, I almost started to write about the serenity prayer.  But I’m going to stop myself.  It’s obviously a great thing, but it seems somewhat intimate.

And I have to remind myself one way to help with the feeling of powerlessness is to keep a schedule and follow that schedule.  Even when you can’t finish your work completely, remind yourself there’s always tomorrow.  The sun also rises.  (What an amazing title that was.)

So to change the subject, I was on twitter, and I started talking about my top five poems with another poet.  One of the top five was “Gin” by Philip Levine.  I wrote a bit about him yesterday and how he finds beauty in work.  Well, Gin, that’s an incredible poem.  It’s about the first time the narrator, a young boy, drank gin.  He couldn’t figure out why people drank that stuff.  He said it tasted like hair tonic.  Continue reading “Time Management, Gin, and Reading at Stories”

Has My Master of Fine Arts Prepared Me for a Career as a Writer?

It’s been about a year since I graduated from my Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Florida International University.  Life has taken unimaginable turns.  So, last night, I started to think about where I was four years ago before I applied to MFA programs.  Was I actually better off now with my degree?

Four years ago, I was living in Detroit, Michigan, substitute teaching in the Ferndale Public Schools and working at the front desk of a Royal Oak YMCA.  While I was lucky to even have a paycheck back in the beginning of the Great Recession, especially in D-Town, the jobs were unfulfilling.  So I told people I was going to be a writer.  A famous writer.  I believed if I started to say it, to own it, then my pride would never let me stop until I was a writer.  So I wrote on breaks, scribbling down lines and ideas for stories.

Well, I had no idea how to write a story, let alone become a writer.  Creating a novel seemed like an impossible journey.  I had no idea what was next.

I started researching continuing my education, and I ran into a lot of writers and graduate students who raved about MFA programs.  And I remembered my college poetry professor talking about MFA programs.  So I started to apply, thinking I had nothing to lose.

Then the rejections started to roll in.  I remember, one morning, after receiving two rejections in one day, staring into the washing machine at the YMCA.  Part of my job was to wash the dirty gym towels.  I remember the water swirling around the towels as I scooped in the detergent that stung my hands.  I was measuring my future by the number of hampers full of dirty gym towels I would wash.

Finally, I was accepted into FIU.  And after some polite begging, I was awarded a teaching assistantship, which meant I would receive a stipend and a tuition waiver.  I was set free from Detroit.  I packed up my books, my clothes, my dog, and my lady, and we moved to Miami.

I was so happy to be out of Detroit that I didn’t even think about the loans I took out for living expenses.  I didn’t even think about the career opportunities that would be available after graduation.  I didn’t even think of the probabilities of being successful as a writer.  I only thought about my goal.

Three years have gone by, and my book is still unpublished.  I don’t have some cozy teaching job at a private university where my students worship the ground I walk on.  And I don’t have an agent ready to take my phone calls whenever I have an issue.  So, was it worth it?

Yes!  Without a doubt.  Yes.  Let me give you five reasons.  Just five.  Even though there are plenty more.

  1. Time.  For three years, I had the time to write without interruption.  I had the time to read poetry, psychology essays, stories, novels, novellas — any book I could get my hands on.  I had the time to ride my bike through the streets of Miami, contemplating Theodore Roethke’s North American Sequences.  I had the time to think about myself, write about myself, and figure out who I wanted to be.  I had the time to write a novel, a collection of poetry, and songs.  I had the time to try out the life I had always wanted to live, and I found that I loved it.
  2. Teachers. At FIU, I had the most amazing teachers. I used to arrive at the creative writing department office about three hours before my teachers, and I would sit in one of the empty rooms, writing and reading.  Then I would sit by their offices about thirty minutes before they showed up to make sure I was the first in line.  And I wouldn’t leave.  I asked them every question I could imagine, and every single one of those questions were somehow related to—“How do I become a writer?”  My teachers gave me their time, too.  They listened to my ideas for stories; they encouraged me; they told me the truth no one else would tell; and they pushed me until I was a better writer.  They taught me how to build stories and poems the way architects create plans for buildings.
  3. Work Ethic. During the first year at FIU when I sat down to write, I became overwhelmed with anxiety.  What was I supposed to write about?  Would anyone care?  Is this a waste of my time?  And in the beginning, I would walk away from my journal or computer, declaring that I just didn’t have it that day.  Well, that thought is crap.  I was in my own way.  Writer’s block is a lie; a fiction created by the inner ego.  To overcome this, my pedagogy professor introduced me to freewriting, and my writing teachers taught me how to work.  I’ll never forget one of my teachers telling me he once stared at a computer for eight hours until he could write one sentence.  Even that was work, because he wasn’t leaving the table.  He wasn’t running from writing.  He was tackling it head on.  I have learned to sit and work, to fill up journals after journals, to write pages after pages, because I no longer work in fear.  I write to discover, to understand, and to learn.  I am comfortable with the struggle.
  4. Community. People have real problems — paying bills, relationships, cancer.  Most of those people don’t want to hear that you can’t figure out your character’s want or what is missing in your plot.  But other writers do.  That’s why having people around you who are going through the same struggles is extremely important.  During my MFA, I was a part of an open-mic night at the Luna Star Café.  Once a month, we would gather together and have a new member of the program read.  We would drink, play music, share stories and poems, and just simply be together.  We were all wanna-be writers, and at least in numbers, it’s harder to feel lost and confused.  There were people out there just like me with the same dreams and goals.
  5. Preparation for Reality. After I graduated in May, 2011, I packed up all my clothes, my books, and my menial possessions, and I moved to Southern California to live with my lady.  I had no real prospects for a job when I left.  I did, however, have opportunities around my school in Miami.  But I took the chance to leave anyway.  Several agents were reading the novel I wrote as my thesis, and I checked my e-mail every second, waiting for that glorious acceptance into the writing world.  Well, that e-mail hasn’t arrived yet.  Plus, it was difficult to find a job.  At first, I blamed my degree.  Who would want to hire an MFA?  So I started to think outside the box.  Finally, I found a job teaching and tutoring at a rehabilitation center.  (That is a whole different story.)  But here is the greatest lesson I learned from my MFA program.  I learned how not to quit.  I learned how to find internal motivation.  I learned how to see every rejection as not a failure but as a chance to learn how to succeed.  I’ll never forget saying goodbye to my teachers, my role models, my fellow classmates.  It was truly an amazing chapter in my life.  When I left, however, I was so convinced that my book was going to get published that I couldn’t see anything else.  And when the rejections started to pour in, I was prepared.  My thesis director had been prepping me for the real life of a writer, for the rejections, for the journey, and I didn’t even know it while she was teaching me.  She told me that in this business, there are many ups and downs.  You can never see what is coming.  And the ones who last are the ones who never quit.

In the end, I have a higher degree, memories, and several stories and poems I send out every day.  Plus, lessons from my teachers that are just starting to hit me.  My thesis director told me the lesson of story takes time to sink in, even after the program.  I’m starting to figure it out.  And I’m grateful for the push my program gave me.  Even if I’m not sure what direction that push is sending me.