Philip Levine, Poet Laureate

Philip Levine won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1995 for his 15th collection of poetry, The Simple Truth, and now, at age 83, he has been named the next U.S. Poet Laureate. Levine is widely known for his poems about working-class people and the need for economic and social justice.

He and I exchanged letters while I was researching celebrated writers and poets (when he was a mere 68), for what eventually turned into the book Writing in Flow.

What follows is Levine's part of our conversation about his creative process. My initial question was whether, while writing, he had ever entered flow, a state of mind in which time seems to stop. Responded Levine:

HE DOESN'T FLOW, HE FIRES

I don't care for your phrase "the flow" because of certain implications that aren't true for me. I use the term "fire," as horse racing maniacs use it (I was once one): a horse is said to fire when suddenly it finds all the speed it's capable of.

We then went on to discuss his daily schedule, what he does to induce his writing to happen more fluidly, and at what point he considers his audience. His replies:

I sit down to write at least four mornings a week; when I was younger it was six and sometimes seven mornings, but as I've aged I've allowed myself to recover from intense bouts of writing; I've learned from experience I work better by not pushing myself all the time.

I eat a small breakfast. I read the sports section of the paper. Sometimes I take a walk, sometimes I don't before I sit down to write. Often I put on a tape of music I know so well I don't hear it; I use it to keep out other sounds. I don't remember ever "entering the flow"; I remember "firing." I don't know what I was doing before I fired aside from sitting on my ass in a comfortable chair and writing with one of my special pens.

I don't recall--on that last occasion I truly fired--what was going on in my head before. I do recall that it happened quickly, maybe less than ten minutes after I started scratching on a legal pad. I noticed no physiological changes; in fact I didn't notice a damn thing; in fact a few hours later when I had a first draft of a poem I had no idea so much time had passed.

I didn't consider an audience until I began to revise, and in fact that audience was an audience of one, for on that occasion I was writing the poem for the ears of one of my favorite poets. The firing seemed at times to lessen, about half way through the poem--which is maybe 80 lines long--, and then I got hot again and the language began to cook again. I crossed out a few dull lines that came while I was wondering where the poem would go and hustled after my pen.

NO COMPUTER, NO BLOCK, NO MUSE

Like many writers, Levine sticks to certain rituals, from using a favorite pen to accepting those times when "nothing comes."

I never write on a computer, and even if I used one for other tasks I would never write poetry on one, though I almost always write revisions on a typewriter and with a pencil, but first drafts always with a pen unless there's no pen around.

As for the typicality of the experience, I'd have to say it was not; I don't achieve that level of total concentration very often.

I don't like your phrase "enter the flow," for it suggests that something is going on, perhaps going on outside me, and I suddenly get in touch with this something, this flow. I have never had that sense.

I don't know what keeps me from firing; it feels often as though there were a lead door between me and my deepest self or even between me and my most articulate self, and then on another morning it happens. I have been lucky in that I've never experienced an extensive writing block. I once stopped in the middle of a poem to take my family to Spain; three weeks later, more or less settled in at a friend's house near Malaga I decided to stop celebrating my reunion with my friend; I got up early the next morning and went back to work on the poem--a long one of several hundred lines--and finished it within a week.

When I'm getting nothing I accept getting nothing because I know that getting nothing is what you do when you're not getting something; it is an essential part of the process. Or so I believe.

I believe the state which we call inspiration does not depend on any outside force, the muse, etc. We may feel the power of another force, but I believe the power we're feeling is the power of the presence of the total self. We feel like someone else because we are so rarely totally ourselves.

Philip Levine audio and video links and bio here.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry

 

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