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Coming Close

Forty Essays on Philip Levine

Mari L'Esperance and Tomas Morin

Publication Year: 2013

This collection of essays pays tribute to Philip Levine as teacher and mentor. Throughout his fifty-year teaching career, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Levine taught scores of younger poets, many of whom went on to become famous in their own right. These forty essays honor and celebrate one of our most vivid and gifted poets.
Whether in Fresno, New York, Boston, Detroit, or any of the other cities where Levine taught, his students benefited from his sharp, humorous honesty in the classroom. In these personal essays, poets spanning a number of generations reveal how their lives and work were forever altered by studying with Levine. The heartfelt tributes illuminate how one dedicated teacher’s intangible gifts can make a vast difference in the life of a developing poet, as well as providing insight into the changing tenor of the poetry workshop in the American university setting.
Here, poets as diverse as Nick Flynn and David St. John, Sharon Olds and Larry Levis, Ada Limon and Mark Levine, Malena Morling and Lawson Fusao Inada are united in their deep regard for Philip Levine. The voices echo and reverberate as each strikes its own honoring tone. 

Contributors: Aaron Belz, Ciaran Berry, Paula Bohince, Shane Book, B. H. Boston, Xochiquetzal Candelaria, Colin Cheney, Michael Clifton, Michael Collier, Nicole Cooley, Kate Daniels, Blas Manuel De Luna, Kathy Fagan, Andrew Feld, Nick Flynn, Edward Hirsch, Sandra Hoben, Ishion Hutchinson, Lawson Fusao Inada, Dorianne Laux, Joseph O. Legaspi, Mark Levine, Larry Levis, Ada Limón, Elline Lipkin, Jane Mead, Dante Micheaux, Malena Mörling, John Murillo, Daniel Nester, Sharon Olds, January Gill O’Neil, Greg Pape, Kathleen Peirce, Sam Pereira, Jeffrey Skinner, Tom Sleigh, David St. John, Brian Turner, Robert Wrigley 

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

It is a mystery how projects like this one come into the world: something unnamable transpires in the confluence of inspiration, conscious intention, and opportunity—some might call it synchronicity—and the project is off and running. This anthology came to life like a spark set down in a field of September wheat ...

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pp. xv-xvi

We are immensely grateful to all the poets who contributed their voices and personal relationships with Phil to this shared effort. If time and space allowed, we would have included many more, as Phil has taught and mentored countless poets over the years, far more than our anthology could accommodate. ...

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Introduction: Their Invisible Great Good Luck

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pp. xvii-xx

One of the great privileges of teaching, of having students, is the way it puts you in people’s lives just as they are open to learning, and perhaps even open to how that learning might change them. Teaching the writing of poetry, as Philip Levine has done for decades, is a particularly intense version of this student/ teacher connection, ...

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A Laureate in Letters: Philip Levine in Correspondence, 1994 - 2011

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pp. 1-4

Philip Levine and I have exchanged almost 150 letters over the past seventeen years. I met him while pursuing a master’s in creative writing at New York University. He was the only professor there with the courage to publicly shred his students’ poems—shredded some of mine into oblivion, as I recall. ...

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Rhymes with Deer

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pp. 5-9

We were about three poems into the semester, and I wanted to see what the great man had written on my latest effort. I thought his words would provide me with some insight, tell me something I needed to know as an apprentice poet, and as someone more or less new to the concept of workshops. ...

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Philip Levine, Professional Wrestling, and Me

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pp. 10-12

I arrived in New York City in September 1999. I was twenty-three, set to begin the MFA program at New York University, and working full time as a secretary at the university to receive tuition remission and make rent on a tiny, shared studio. The enormousness and pace of the city, the very idea of being at NYU, were enlivening and overwhelming. ...

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Mine Own Philip Levine

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pp. 13-17

One ridiculously hot September I arrived at New York University not knowing what Philip Levine, who was to be my teacher that fall, looked like. I had seen only an old author photograph of him, possibly from the 1970s, in which he wears a tracksuit and necklace. ...

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Changed Utterly

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pp. 18-24

Poetry builds the blood and transforms us. It can save lives. At least that’s been my experience. I would never have had anything approaching a full life, would never have taught literature and writing or edited magazines or presumed to write poems, probably would never have survived into my sixties without Philip Levine’s poetry, friendship, and tutelage over the past forty-six years. ...

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On the Teaching of Philip Levine

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pp. 25-29

I imagine there is a spectrum of poets. At one end are those who can pen lines effortlessly, the words practically leaping out of them as they describe a new cafe or light sifting through trees. And at the other end are those who can’t believe they are writers because the writers they love seem like geniuses, whose words become light sifting through trees. ...

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It's beautiful whether or not you let it be

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pp. 30-36

I’ve flown back from Thailand for the funeral, suburban Philadelphia. The afternoon before the interment, we drive to the church three, maybe four times, delivering lilies, depositing and retrieving aunts and cousins, standing at the lectern imagining the nave full of family and strangers. ...

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They Feed They Lion and Me

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pp. 37-38

It was David St. John who got me in my first workshop with Philip Levine at Fresno State. I was scared shitless. My roommate, an English major too, and already teaching high school, had told me—several times over—all the horror stories about how tough a teacher Phil was. ...

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A Real Fact

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pp. 39-43

In a 1974 interview with Wayne Dodd and Stanley Plumly, Philip Levine refers to Yvor Winters as “my teacher,” and then, responding to a confirming follow-up question, “Winters was a teacher of yours?,” he has a second thought: “That’s an odd word. He was an acquaintance.” ...

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Trust the Poet: Reflections on Phil Levine at Three Universities

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pp. 44-46

“Trust the poem, not the poet,” Phil Levine told our poetry writing class that spring, years ago, when I was his student at Brown University. “Why would you believe the poet anyway?” ...

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Birth in a Poetry Position: On Philip Levine

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pp. 47-52

The first time I heard Philip Levine read his poetry was at the University of Virginia, my alma mater, in the early 1980s, where I had recently been hired as a lecturer in creative writing. Levine’s national literary reputation was just beginning to rise, and he read to an overcrowded group in the auditorium of the biology building. ...

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What We Were Doing Was Work

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pp. 53-55

I don’t know how one gets so lucky. There you are, having a not-so-good life in Madera, thinking that it’s always going to be that way: not so good. Little by little, however, poetry invades your life. It starts with DeWayne Rail, one of Phil’s old students, in an American Literature class at Fresno City College in the spring of 1989. ...

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Homage to Mr. Levine

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pp. 56-60

Once a year or so, when I seem to forget myself and say something incisively critical about a student poem in class, bluntly, sometimes humorously; when I state with conviction what’s “wrong” with a poem, or missing from it, or messy with it; when I joke about a bad move a poem has made, teasing it a little bit, ...

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pp. 61-64

“Clare’s just terrific!” “Isn’t that a terrific poem?” In a quick conversation under the deadening fluorescence of the AWP Bookfair, over the phone at a faculty prereading dinner (and how many of these, with strangers, semistrangers, almost-friends, and the occasional true friend and fellow poet has Philip Levine had to endure in the course of his public career?), ...

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A Light Inside

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pp. 65-68

I think about Phil Levine nearly every day, whenever I sit down to write. He said something to me once—I assume he wouldn’t remember, and if he did he wouldn’t know the long-lasting effects his words had on me—but these few words set me—my life, my writing—off in another direction than the one in which I was headed. ...

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Thirty Years from Somewhere

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pp. 69-72

Detroit, 1982. I was thirty-two, had just published my first book, and was teaching at Philip Levine’s alma mater, Wayne State University, which, as he once said, “wasn’t trying to be the Harvard of Shitville, it was just trying to be what it was,” a concrete campus for commuters, a school for the city. ...

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Philip Levine: The Proof of My Patience

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pp. 73-77

It must have been 1972, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Phil had read for scholarships, and I received one. And of course Phil took the time to send a letter to Edith Jenkins, the teacher at Oakland’s Grove Street Community College who’d written me a reference. “You must be a poet,” Phil wrote to Edith, ...

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An Exquisite Simulacrum

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pp. 78-82

It was a late evening in the fall semester of 2007 when I first met Philip Levine. New York University’s Creative Writing Program had recently moved out of the literature building on University Place, where the classrooms with their long narrow tables and drab colors seemed to have been made for executive board meetings, ...

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The Surprising Chill

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pp. 83-84

The entire line was, is—“The surprising chill of a September morn”—by poet Carol Howard. But it was recited by the teacher, several times—with the grace and gestures of a conductor—before he wrote it on the board in his elegant script. Ah, yes—the flow . . .

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Philip Levine and My Pursuit of a Life in Poetry

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pp. 85-88

In the fall of 1996, the start of my final year of graduate studies in the Creative Writing Program at New York University, I sat anxiously at a long table in a shabby conference room for my poetry workshop with Philip Levine. I was about to come face-to-face and study with a poet whose reputation for being tough, hard-nosed, and candid preceded him. ...

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Philip Levine: A Resonant Presence

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pp. 89-93

Phil Levine was my teacher on the page long before we met in person. When I came to writing poetry, I was nearly thirty—late by some standards—and discovering Phil’s poems for the first time (in adult continuing education classes, following dull days at office jobs in downtown San Francisco) ...

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Winter, 1985

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pp. 94-100

It is unlikely I would have gone on to live my life in poetry, for better and worse, had I not taken a class with Philip Levine in 1985. I was nineteen at the time. I had never met a published writer, or an artist of any kind, and although I had read a small amount of poetry that had moved me deeply— The Waste Land, Howl, a few poems of Wallace Stevens, ...

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Philip Levine

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pp. 101-107

To attempt to be at all objective about my friend and my first teacher Philip Levine is impossible for me. For to have been a student in Levine’s classes from the mid to late 1960s was to have a life, or what has turned out to be my life, given to me by another. And certainly then, at the age of seventeen, I had no life, or no passionate life animated by a purpose, ...

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Worth Fighting For: An Essay for Philip Levine

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pp. 108-112

The reason I wanted to go to New York University to get my Master of Fine Arts in Poetry was so that I might get the chance to study with Sharon Olds and Philip Levine. Sharon Olds’s poems came to me in high school and nearly gutted me without warning. Levine’s poems came to me two years later when I worked at my local bookstore, ...

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Phil Levine at Houston: My First Teacher

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pp. 113-118

In the late 1990s I knew I’d had enough of New York. Done with stuffing myself inside my tiny studio apartment, set like a Lite-Brite peg inside an anonymous building grid; done with my MFA, but not yet done with school, I was clearly ready for a change. ...

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The Capricorn's Pedagogy

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pp. 119-123

Great names were whispered throughout the newly renovated townhouse on West Tenth Street. Occasionally, a name became flesh as it dashed out the door and into a taxi or on foot to the grand literary life it led—or so I assumed. The house was a jewel and I was one of a small group of people privileged to share it ...

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The Simple Voice of Philip Levine

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pp. 124-128

In the fall of 1998, with an undergraduate Spanish degree in my pocket, I began my first semester in the PhD program at Johns Hopkins University. If everything went according to plan, five years of studying and dissecting the writers I revered would have me walking in a polyester robe to “Pomp and Circumstance,” ...

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High above the Atlantic

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pp. 129-132

Certain people have appeared in my life as if they were angels. They have always arrived at times when it was critical for me to turn a corner or to navigate a particularly difficult stretch of road in order to travel on toward more fruitful and rewarding experiences. When I look back at the events that make up my life, ...

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A Love Supreme: Notes toward an Appropriate Gratitude

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pp. 133-137

I can’t lie. That August afternoon, when I heard that my teacher had been appointed United States Poet Laureate, I felt the way one does upon hearing any big news concerning a loved one. Proud. You know what pride is. If you’re old enough to read this, you know what pride is. Your mother gets a long overdue promotion at her job. ...

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An Apprentice's Tale

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pp. 138-142

When was the first time I saw Philip Levine? I’m pretty sure it was the first day of classes at New York University in the fall of 1995, out in the lounge with ratty couches, on the second floor of 19 University Place. He sat next to Gerald Stern. They talked about the food in New York and the great poets of Cleveland. ...

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Reading Philip Levine in 1972

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pp. 143-145

When I first read the poems of Philip Levine, I knew I was in the presence of something brand new and very important. I hadn’t read anything like them before. (I was maybe about thirty years old, a wife and mother, living in New York City, who had grown up in California, written a lot of stories and poems as a child and a teenager, ...

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So Enough

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pp. 146-148

In 1996, I was about to start my second year of study in the graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University. Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell were my professors, and when I told Galway I wanted to work with Phil Levine as my thesis advisor, he looked at me with the straightest face possible and said, ...

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Finding Levine

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pp. 149-153

I started classes at Fresno State in the fall of 1964. I had the vague idea that I would study law. My first class as a pre-law English major, Business Law 101, met at 8 a.m. in a large, crowded auditorium. The instructor lectured with a microphone, and the sound of his voice hissing and popping through the faulty sound system ...

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On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca

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pp. 154-155

It’s the late eighties. I’m with Gerald Stern and Phil Levine in the kitchen of the house Phil’s renting for a semester as a visiting professor at Iowa, where I’ve either graduated or I’m still enrolled. It’s a painter’s house, somebody I haven’t met who’s gone somewhere else to think and work. ...

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Jabs, Undercuts, and Kindness: The Humanity of Philip Levine

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pp. 156-159

People fall into various categories when they think about and discuss moments of epiphany. There are those who create a daily documentation of these moments, and it almost always involves God in some way, shape, or form. There are those lacking such moments, and these are generally far too busy trying to stay afloat ...

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Permission to Be: Philip Levine at Columbia, 1978

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pp. 160-164

On the first day of our workshop Phil asked, “Are there any geniuses in this room?” No one raised a hand or said a word. “Good,” Phil said. “I have nothing to teach a genius, and a genius doesn’t need this class. Also, I am not a genius. If I were I wouldn’t be teaching. I’d be writing genius poems. ...

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To See What It Was Worth

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pp. 165-167

When I first met Phil Levine almost thirty years ago, the sun coming into the window was the weak pale sun of spring in Boston. We were sitting in a parlor room that looked vaguely Victorian, vaguely Yankee. Phil was teaching at Tufts University one semester a year, and this was the house that the university had given him: ...

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Philip Levine and the Hands of Time

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pp. 168-172

Among those poets who have been Philip Levine’s students at some point in their lives—and I am assuming that includes almost all of the poets in this collection—there is a clear consensus that there simply was not and is not any more passionate, wise, hilarious, useful, fearsome, brilliant, loyal, ...

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The Poems We Carry

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pp. 173-177

As part of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, I’ve deployed to Iraq and taken part in numerous missions for several months. I’m a sergeant and an infantryman. I’m also a poet. When the late-night raids conclude, the depositions are filled out, and the prisoners are turned over to the military police, ...

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A Walk with Philip Levine

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pp. 178-182

My first thought, on being invited to contribute to a collection of essays in celebration of Philip Levine, was a kind of delighted surprise. Delighted because there’s no poet alive I’d rather celebrate, and surprised because I was never one of Phil’s students. Not formally. ...


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pp. 183-192


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pp. 193-194

E-ISBN-13: 9780985932534
E-ISBN-10: 0985932538
Print-ISBN-13: 9780985932527
Print-ISBN-10: 098593252X

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1st ed.

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