Tag: literature

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.




Roxane Gay, author of “An Untamed State” (Grove Atlantic), co-editor of PANK, and essays editor for The Rumpus, was in Los Angeles recently, and she stopped to talk to The Working Poet Radio Show before her reading at Skylight Books. Listen to Roxane discuss her “An Untamed State,” Channing Tatum, and why she is so fascinated with stories about survival. If you liked this podcast, you might also enjoy our interviews with Daniel Halpern, editor of Ecco Press, or Richard Blanco. Thanks to the Los Angeles Public Library.

Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy culture blog, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK and essays editor for The Rumpus. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. Her novel, An Untamed State, will be published by Grove Atlantic and her essay collection, Bad Feminist, will be published by Harper Perennial, both in 2014. She is at work on both fiction and nonfiction projects.

Episode 5: Natashia Deón on Dirty Laundry Lit and her life as an attorney/writer


On episode five of The Working Poet Radio Show, I talked with the fantastic Los Angeles writer, attorney, and community builder Natashia Deón. Check out our conversation about this Saturday’s show, Dirty Laundry Lit: Clothing Optional, at The Virgil and how she’s reaching people in the community through writing. Plus, she talks about the intersection of being an attorney and a writer. 

Natashia Deón is a Los Angeles attorney, writer, and creator of the reading series Dirty Laundry Lit. APushcart Prize nominee and named as a “most fascinating person for 2013” in L.A. Weekly’s 2013 People Issue, she has recently completed a novel which is currently being shopped by her agent, and is working on her collection of essays,This Is How I Let You Go. Her work has appeared side-by-side with Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Yousef Komunyakaa in The Rattling Wall, has appeared in B O D Y, The Rumpus, The Feminist Wire, You. An Anthology of Second Person Essays, and other places. A 2010 PEN Emerging Voices Fellow, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship recipient and 2011 VCCA Fellow, Deón has taught creative writing at Gettysburg College, for PEN Center USA, and 826LA. She loves pastor tacos and pretty much anything with Sriracha on it.

18 L.A. Literary Figures Pick Their Favorite L.A. Novels

Over the last few months, I’ve been collecting short essays, blurbs, whatever the hell you want to call them, from L.A. literary figures on their favorite L.A. Novels. I spoke with some fantastic writers — David L. Ulin, Matthew Specktor, Nick Santora, Natashia Deon — and other amazing people surrounding the book world. One of my favorite  responses came from Bonnie Nadell, a literary agent in Beverly Hills who represented David Foster Wallace. She recalled working at Simon & Schuster when Less Than Zero came in as a manuscript.

So check out the full list of responses. I was blow away with the answers. Click here: 17 L.A. Literary Figures Pick Their Favorite L.A. Novels. Oh, and by the way, my favorite L.A. novel is Ask the Dust by John Fante. Followed closely by Bukowski’s Post Office and Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.


My Favorite Books of 2012 — Five to One

Yesterday I posted my favorite books of 2012 — ten to five.  It wasn’t a list that attempted to define the best books of 2012 or the hippest or the best buys.  It was basically a list of my favorite books.  So to recap: 10. A Scanner Darkly 9. Concussion and Our Kids 8. Hey Fudge 7. Empty the Sun. 6. True Confessions.  It’s interesting to look back on the books I’ve read, because sometimes after I finish a book, I seem move on without taking the time to reflect on what I learned or what I enjoyed.  So it’s nice to look back.

And what I have noticed is that the books say a lot about where I am at in my life, personally, and as a writer.  For example, many of the books on my list are L.A. books.  Well, I live in L.A. County — soon to be moving — and a lot of them are noir mixed in with a book from my home state, Massachusetts.  Also, I have some science fiction novels on the list.  It’s funny, almost three years ago, I would never have even talked about science fiction — chalking it up to nerd fiction.  But I can’t get enough of it now. Next book I’m going to read, after I finish a Daniel Smith book and Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology, is Ender Games.  So now, enough preamble, finally, my top five favorite books of 2012.


5. Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

It’s pretty shameful that I hadn’t read Burroughs’ classic memoir before this year, but I’m glad that I finally came to the book.  I believe that books come to us or appeal to us at certain times in our life for certain reasons.  Maybe I’m talking about fate.  Maybe I’m talking about coincidence.  Why not both?  But this year, as I began to revise my book, reading Burroughs has proved to be of tremendous importance.  It’s about a young kid struggling with a mentally ill mother in Massachusetts.  And seeing how a writer handled this narrative, the characters, even the setting, proved to be extremely important.

The line between normal and crazy seemed impossibly thin.  A person would have to be an expert tightrope walker in order not to fall.

I understand that above line very well.  What I loved most about this book is the way Burroughs handles structure.  Of course, it’s in chronological order, but there is something about the way it holds together that I’m still trying to figure out.  How the hell does this book come together and still provide a satisfying ending?

Ham on Rye

4. Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski 

So far, Ham on Rye isn’t my favorite piece of writing by Charles Bukowski.  I love Post Office, Hot Water Music, and Love is a Dog From Hell (Ecco selected poems), but Ham on Rye is a good book.  I think of it more as a memoir, now, than I do as a novel.  That’s what it basically is, and I think maybe the book would have been more respected as a memoir, because it’s basically a chronological structure with very little plot.  Memoirs can get away with loose structure and plot — in my humble opinion — because the emphasis is more on the writer and the character.  I love Ham on Rye, because of the origin story of the great Henry Chinaski, but also because I get to see a pre WWII L.A.  There is one scene where Bukowski — I’m sorry Chinaski — is riding his bike to the beach that is unforgettable.

I could see the road ahead of me.  I was poor and I was going to stay poor.  But I particularly didn’t want money.  I didn’t know what I wanted.  Yes, I did.  I wanted someplace to hide out, someplace where one didn’t have to do anything.

Stolen Air

3. Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam translated by Christian Wiman

Stolen Air is by far my favorite poetry book of  2012.  Not just because it’s published by Ecco Press and has an incredible introduction by Ilya Kaminsky, but because it’s stunningly beautiful and so far different from the poetry I usually read.  Most of my favorite poetry is narrative — Philip Levine, Denis Johnson, Frank O’Hara — and I often find lyrical poetry esoteric and purposefully pretentious.  There is just something about Mandelstam — the persecution in Russia, the passion for freedom, the incredibly tight images — that just blew me away.  Take a poem like Godnausea, which was written on April 4, 1931:

By torchlight bewildered with purpose/ Into the cellar of the six-toed untruth:/ Well, my pretty, she says,/ Lifting the hairy turnip of her head:/ Are you hungry, or are you dead?

There is something hardboiled, rugged, grungy about Mandelstam that I love.  And the collection that spans Mandelstam’s poetry comes together in stunning harmony.

Thrilling Tales

2. McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales Edited by Michael Chabon

For my money, there is no better collection of stories that blends a literary bent with thrilling and amazing adventures that this one.  And that’s what I love about reading books in the first place — adventure.  I love the feeling I get when I read Twain, Hemingway, London — as if the whole world was able to be discovered and conquered.  And each one of these stories has that certain feel — even though a lot of it ends bad.  The book features Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Aimee Bender, and Jim Shepard.  But the list is endless of how many great writers are included in the anthology.  But my favorite, the absolute most thrilling story in the collection, is The Albertine Notes by Rick Moody.   Honestly, this novella-length story is by far the best story I have read in years.  It blew me away in terms of the way he manipulated time and how it linked into the overall premise of the story: the main character was investigating a new drug that injected pleasant memories to the user who lived in a present-day dystopia.  The writing was just incredible, and it’s a book I suggest you go out and buy — right now!  After reading this story, Rick Moody became one of my favorite writers.


1. L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

This year, it’s hard to find a novel that captured me as much as L.A. Confidential.  I have learned so much from reading this book — about my city, about writing, about plot and timing — that I’m almost tempted to recommend this book just on what you will practically take away as a reader and writer.  Well, I don’t think I need to recommend this book, actually, because it’s a classic.  And it’s worth that label.  It’s a dramatic triumph that builds to Oedipus like proportions.  I’ve already written a lot about this book in the last couple weeks.  But let me leave you with one of the last lines from the book (Sort of a spoiler alert):

Some mean get the world, some men get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona.  You’re in the former, but my God I don’t envy you the blood on your conscience. 

Until next year…