Thursday, February 24

Q&A: Philip Levine goes two for two

Interviewer: Do you know your own poems by heart?

Levine: No, I make an effort not to learn them by heart. I know a
lot of people memorize their poems and give readings from memory,
but I try to forget mine. I find that makes the readings more interesting
for me; I'm often actually surprised by the phrasing, really quite
delighted by it. Also, I don't want to sit down and write my own poems
again; I want my mind clear of them. At my age the big danger for
a poet is that he's going to rewrite his own work. One can feel very
secure doing another version of what already worked.

Interviewer: Do you feel a split between your life as a political person
and your life as a poet?

Levine: I'm cowardly. I should stop paying my taxes. I know that the
government in Washington is full of terrible people with terrible plans.
They will murder people here and abroad to gain more power. Those
who have dominated our country most of my adult life are interested
in maintaining an empire, subjugating other people, enslaving them if
need be, and finally killing those who protest so that wealthy and
powerful Americans can go on enjoying their advantages over others.
I'm not doing a thing about it. I'm not a man of action. It finally comes
down to that. I'm not so profoundly moral that I can overcome my
fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I'm a contemplative
person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do? I guess
we can hang on and encourage each other, dig in, protest in every
peaceful way possible and hope that people are better than they
seem. We can describe ourselves as horribly racist people, which
we are, as imperialists, which we have been and are, but we can also
see ourselves as bountiful, gracious, full of wit, courage, resourceful-
ness. I still believe in this county, that is can fulfill the destiny Blake
and Whitman envisioned. I still believe in American poetry.

fr. Paris Review 107, Summer 1988/

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