On Feb. 14, 2015, Philip Levine died at age 87. One of the most highly honored and widely read American poets, Levine has been mourned worldwide by poets, writers, and friends in ongoing tributes and remembrances, showing that the former U.S. poet laureate’s influence as both a poet and as a teacher endures.
From 1958 to 1993, Levine taught poetry at Fresno State. Levine and his poet colleagues, Peter Everwine and Chuck Hanzlicek, formed the pillars of what is now the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at the university. Levine, Everwine, and Hanzlicek wrote and worked together in the Fresno literary community for more than forty years; each of them is recognized as a Professor Emeritus of English at Fresno State, and each of them is deeply connected to the MFA Program.
In an interview two weeks after Levine’s death, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Everwine and Hanzlicek about their deep friendships with Levine, how the three of them talked (and didn’t talk) about poetry, and how their teaching has left a lasting imprint on students at Fresno State and beyond.
Jefferson: To start, please tell me a story about when you first met Phil. Something interesting or memorable for you, about teaching or anything, from that time.
Chuck: I could tell you about the first day I met him. He volunteered to drive me around Fresno and look for an apartment.
Phil and Fran and the boys had just come back from a year in Spain. And that time really fueled his whole fascination with anarchists. He had grown up with that fascination before. But he went to the gravesites of all these anarchist heroes and all that stuff. So he was full of Spain.
They had bought a car in Spain and were having it shipped over, so he didn’t have a car yet. And the guy who was the [English Department] chair then, Russell Leavenworth, loaned Phil his Jaguar.
Chuck: So Phil drove us around in this Jaguar. It was the sedan; it wasn’t the XKE. But still, he was having so damn much fun driving this car. I mean he was cackling, and roaring around town. I did finally find a place. . . . But it was almost manic, you know, the way he was driving. It didn’t take me long to realize that he was just having more fun than anybody else.
* * *
Chuck: I played tennis with him, and he was the supreme trash talker on the tennis courts.
Chuck: Everything he did, he was all in. . . . He had this sense of life, and of comedy. He was so damn funny.
There was a beautiful piece in The New York Times the same day as his obituary, a piece in the arts section by Dwight Garner, who called Phil a “moral comedian,” which I thought was perfect. He loved to poke holes in authority. I mean, he was an anarchist at heart, you know. And a lot of his poems do that. They go after the pompous and the powerful, and cut them down to size.
Jefferson: Did you have a sense of all that, as you were riding around with him that first day in the Jaguar?
Chuck: [laughs] Well, I thought he was a little crazy on that first day. But I soon understood what was going on. He was just having a grand old time. Every little thing he did, he did to the max. He got as many laughs out of it as he could and as much joy out of it as he could.
* * *
Jefferson: Tell me more about the tennis. When you first played Phil, do you remember if you won or if he did?
Chuck: Oh, he always won.
Jefferson: Now, you’re not just saying that, right?
Chuck: No. He didn’t have a lot of power in his game, but he had this hinky serve that was almost impossible to return. It had so much spin on it. So he almost always won his service point. I could rally with him for a while, but I don’t think I ever beat him.
There used to be a group of players that played, either on the Fresno City College courts in the summer, when they weren’t using them, or at Roeding Park. [Phil played with them often.] So a lot of times they were just pick-up games, you know. You just showed up and played whoever was there. It was a lot of fun.
* * *
Jefferson: What were your first impressions of Phil as a teacher or colleague, or when you first met him?
Peter: I knew Phil before Fresno, in the middle 1950s. We were in the same graduate workshop at Iowa.
I’m not much of an anecdotal guy. I don’t remember anecdotes or tell them very well. But when Chuck said [Phil] was a little crazy . . . he was a little crazy when I met him. If by crazy, you mean a kind of intensity. Intensity that I never knew about poetry, until I came to Iowa.
I had read some poetry. I had decided, well, might as well be a poet, I couldn’t think of anything else to be. I had written a couple of really bad short stories that went nowhere, they had no plot to them, no mood.
Peter: And so I decided that I was a poet. But when I got to Iowa and after I met Phil, I had no idea that there was that much passion and intensity in wanting to write and be a poet. And he was a little crazy in that way, then. . . . What nobody, or really very few people, understood was underneath all that — he was very angry, he was very intense, which drew him toward social injustices and despair sometimes — he had an immense sense of focus and form in his work.
* * *
Peter: I don’t know whether he told me this or whether he told it to somebody else or just told it as an anecdote, but somewhere along the way he said, you know, you don’t have to write like a prince. You don’t have to have the language of a prince. He kind of mocked that kind of language.
And what he did, and sometimes it’s hard to realize, looking at his earlier work, is that he chose syllabics. He would choose the odd number of syllables in a line. Seven, nine, eleven. So he wouldn’t fall into a metrical pattern. And that meant he would break a line at a word like “be” or “and” or — you know, nobody was doing that. You’re supposed to save important words for the end of a line. [chuckles]
And he did it, I think, to get more of that colloquial voice into [the poems], and the speed of narrative, and the strange intimacy that was always in Phil. Even in his very early, formal work, before he went to Stanford [to teach], he just kept going more and more intimate. And that’s really part of what I loved about his work, that intense interest in the poem, that passion in the poem, that focus and discipline.
Jefferson: Could you identify that focus and discipline at the time, is that something that maybe you just sensed, or did the recognition come later?
Peter: Oh, I knew he was working in syllabics, and I couldn’t do it. I found myself counting. I’d say, how in the hell do I get to ten?
Peter: And I looked at it and it would be an iambic line, and so I never understood that. Because basically, syllabics is, I think, mostly useful for the poet. You can’t hear syllabics. You can hear an iambic line, or you can hear a pentameter. You can’t hear syllabics. But it gave Phil something to hold that voice and that kind of intimate relationship you get in the poem where he could write and almost talk to you at the same time. He was always breaking off the poem and talking to you.
* * *
Jefferson: Did you ever ask him about the syllabics, or some other talk of craft? Did the three of you ever have workshops or discussions about poetry or your poems together?
Peter: You know what we talked about? Good small restaurants. The kind of wine you could get there. The wonderful places you could find in Italy or in Spain. We hardly ever talked technically [about poetry]. We hardly ever talked about what we were doing as work. We sometimes saw each other’s poems or manuscripts, and we commented here and there.
Phil used to delight — and this is part of that crazy — he used to delight in standing up at a reading, here in Fresno, and saying, “I’m going to read this poem. Pete doesn’t like it, but I’m going to read it anyway.”
Peter: And it would be kind of like, sticking it to me. [both laugh]
Chuck: He was still doing that a year ago.
Peter: He did it! Every time he was here, every time he read. “Oh, I’m going to read you a poem. Pete doesn’t like this poem. But oh, it won a prize in poetry.”
Peter: He didn’t quite say that, you know. But he would just love to stick it to me from the stage.
* * *
Chuck: We did not have workshops of three, to answer your question. [both laugh] Specifically, we never did.
Jefferson: Why do you think that is?
Chuck: Well, you spend enough of your time worrying about poetry, so when we’d get together it was more as friends, you know.
Peter: If we wanted to talk about poetry, we’d gossip, right?
Chuck: Yeah. [both laugh]
Peter: We’d gossip about poets. And that was fun. [both laugh] Because, whew! Phil, not only was he funny, he could be funny and twist you at the same time. We had fun together. We enjoyed each other.
* * *
Chuck: [to Peter] Phil encouraged you to apply here, right?
Peter: Not only that, I think he got me the job here. He encouraged me and then he kind of pushed hard for me to get in.
Jefferson: Phil was first, right?
Chuck: He was first. By what? Three years?
Peter: Yes, about three years. He came here first, from Stanford. He went to Stanford in probably about ’57. I think I went to Stanford in ’58.
Chuck: This was the Stegner Fellowship.
Peter: So, I went back to Iowa to teach for two or three years, and then I came here.
Chuck: And then when I was looking for a job, Peter and Phil were so popular with students in the department that they actually advertised for a poet.
Chuck: A lot of people who were looking for writers would make sure that their ads went to Iowa, you know. But of all the ads I saw, they were mostly looking for writers to come and teach composition. They just knew that writers knew how to write.
Chuck: But the Fresno job was advertising for a poet. I mean, that was the only listing I can remember where they were actually asking for a poet. So, I came here, and I got to teach a workshop fairly quickly, within the first year.
Peter: Yeah, there wasn’t really a hierarchy for the workshops. We shuffled them around.
Jefferson: I imagine that was really great for the students too, because they got to connect with different styles and voices and personalities.
Peter: Yes, sure. Yes.
* * *
Peter: You know, you read the Festschrift and so on. . . . Phil had to have been an absolutely marvelous teacher, because he was marvelous in person. He had a kind of charm, that even when he was telling you your poem was dog shit, I mean, you know, you kind of liked it.
Chuck: But ooooh, what dog shit! [both laugh]
Chuck: Somebody, I think [former student] Adam Hill, told me once that Phil was so funny, he could get by with anything. Phil used to have students memorize a poem. And so, each class would start with one student reciting a poem. And so, he came in one night and he said, okay, we’re going to have the recited poem before we get to your toy poems. [both laugh] He could get by with it because he was so zany.
* * *
Jefferson: I recently spoke with poet Kathy Fagan Grandinetti, and she told me that when she was a student of Phil’s that he would talk about the contrast between his experiences teaching on the East Coast vs. teaching at Fresno State. I asked her about how Phil’s teaching had impacted her teaching, and how she had translated his style into what has become her style. She said something like, maybe the only place a teacher like Phil could have gotten away with that tone and that style may have been a place like Fresno State, because of the kind of first-generation, working-class student there.
Chuck: Kids who aren’t afraid of work.
Jefferson: That’s right. And so, what were your experiences with that, in terms of Phil’s teaching or even your own? Why did this tone and style work here?
Chuck: It had to do with the students. Phil said about Brown and Tufts and Princeton and places like that that the kids there had never failed at anything. And the students we had here had to have all failed at something.
Chuck: They were just much more willing to work and not inclined to complain. You know, I came out of the working class. My mother had an eighth-grade education. My father worked in a tool factory. He had a high school diploma, but he worked in the factory.
When I first went to university, I was pretty intimidated. There were a lot of students there from the East and all that. It was a rough go for me for a while. So, I’m very sympathetic to kids who come from a non-literate background. And Phil was the same way. Peter’s the same way. We didn’t grow up in literary households.
Peter: No, not at all.
Chuck: So, we were a good fit for the students here, I think, in that we were willing to let them make mistakes and learn from that.
* * *
Jefferson: Did the three of you ever have conversations about teaching or your tone and style with students in the classroom?
Chuck: I never did.
Peter: About teaching? No. . . . Talking about East and West again. I don’t know about how Phil got along with his students in the East. I know a lot of them respected and admired and even loved him. So he must have made some contact.
Chuck: I’m sure he did.
Peter: I think it was less a matter of education than just watching Phil, after a while, because he could say outrageous things. He could say things that really hurt people’s feelings if they weren’t — or even if they were — attuned to it. [laughs]
Phil was very blunt. He was very funny. I think he could get away with a lot of stuff that I would never dare say. I was far too polite and genteel.
Peter: Phil wasn’t. I don’t think there was a genteel bone in his body. [laughs]
Chuck: No. He was a barbarian. [both laugh]
Peter: I couldn’t get away with that. I was nice cop. And then there were bad cops like Phil. I don’t think Chuck could get away with it either.
Peter: We just didn’t teach that way.
Chuck: But we all had the same end product in mind, just a different way of getting there.
Jefferson: Which is, what?
Chuck: For them to write one good poem. If you could get somebody to write one good poem, then they knew. They got the feel.
Peter: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
* * *
Jefferson: I heard one poet and teacher who admired Phil compare him to a surgeon reading and interpreting an x-ray. That’s how he was to a poem, they said. He could read and interpret the draft of a poem and zoom in on an item that was really great or had potential, or was, as you both described, dog shit. What would be your observation of that comparison?
Peter: My observation is, Phil loved to rewrite poems. When I showed him drafts of my poems, he loved to rewrite them. They ended up more like Levine poems than Everwine poems, so I had to un- rewrite them again.
Peter: But he was very good. He was very good at picking out stuff. I mean, useless words or superfluous words or redundant words. He was very good at spotting stuff that went on inside a line or inside the language. I was never that good at that, frankly. I could talk about the structure or how the poem moved and jelled. But he could actually look at spots and change things and rewrite.
Sometimes, when I gave him poems that I was unsure about, and he gave me lines to cut or to rewrite, they were good ones, you know. He made them better.
Peter: Not always, but a lot of the time they were better. He had a sharp eye.
Jefferson: Chuck, did you have this same experience?
Chuck: Well, I never showed him my poems until they were in a book. [all laugh]
Jefferson: And why is that?
Chuck: That way, he couldn’t re-write it. They were already out there.
Chuck: But I always wanted to know what he thought of the books.
* * *
Peter: We didn’t much show each other poems.
Jefferson: That’s fascinating to me, with MFA programs and workshops set up as they are. Obviously, there have been poetry workshops long before MFA programs. But I guess with professors, or when you’re no longer in the student role, you pick your feedback peers more carefully, right?
Chuck: [to Peter] Well, in the last twenty years, I’ve sent you everything, by email, that I’ve written.
Chuck: [to Peter] I’ve bounced everything off you.
Jefferson: You’ve become a workshop of just two.
Peter: Yes. It’s not even a workshop. It’s two friends talking.
Jefferson: Exactly. Did Phil ever send either of you poems in progress of his?
Peter: Oh yes, he sent me some. And like I say, he sent me some that he was preparing for a book, and I told him to take them out of the book.
Jefferson: Did he do it?
Peter: I think maybe he took one. In all of the time that I remember, he may have taken one piece of advice. And I knew him for over fifty years. [laughs] He was pretty well stuck to what he did.
* * *
Peter: I think Phil must have worked a lot of drafts of his own, to get to where he wanted to be. And when I say he worked. . . . I’ll tell you an anecdote. I’ve told this anecdote before.
We used to try and get him to go out hiking. Phil was very urban. I mean, he didn’t give a shit for nature. He wrote the names of flowers in poems, but I think he looked them up or asked a friend what they were. I don’t think Phil knew anything about flowers. He didn’t care.
Chuck: That happens to people from Detroit. [both laugh]
Peter: He knew a lot of things about cars and Buicks, you know. But we tried to get him to go hiking once. Bill Broder [a novelist and, like Phil, a Detroit native] came down from Sausalito and Phil said, maybe I’ll go. Come by in the morning and I’ll see. So we came by. It was dark, early. Waking up early, you know, up to the mountains. His house was dark. Knocked on the door; no answer. We looked at each other: He wasn’t going. [laughs]
He never went. But he had to appease us somehow and say, stop by and maybe I’ll go. He wasn’t going to go. He sat home that day and wrote poems. We worked our ass off trying to walk up a trail, and Phil was sitting at home, writing poems!
Chuck: Every day, except Sunday.
Jefferson: That was Phil’s writing routine? Every day, except Sunday?
Chuck: He went to his study every morning, except Sunday, and came out at lunch.
Peter: That’s true.
Chuck: So, everybody who knew him knew that you didn’t call the house in the morning. That was work time. I’ve never known, even fiction writers, who were as disciplined as Phil was. He put in the chair time.
* * *
Peter: And when he was young, he worked at night too. His lights would burn late.
Jefferson: That discipline is inspiring.
Peter: He was not only trying to write, he was teaching engineers about how to write English. They weren’t even English majors. They were majoring in engineering.
Jefferson: Early on? Composition classes for engineering students?
Peter: Yes, and Phil would go teach those. And then at night, he worked on his poems.
Jefferson: You can’t teach that kind of discipline, right?
Chuck: No, you have to have that ethic. Phil said sometimes he just sat there and straightened and re-bent paperclips all morning. But he felt if he wasn’t there and the poem was in the room, he would never get it.
Chuck: He was superstitious about writing too. He was. That was one reason he always came back to Fresno because of that house on Van Ness had been very kind to him in terms of producing poems.
And he — you know, half jokingly, but also half seriously — would say that certain pens had poems in them and other ones didn’t. And the ones that didn’t, he would just give away. And the good pens produced a lot of work.
Peter: He collected pens. And he would give pens to friends. And he would say, maybe there’s some good poems in this pen. And Chuck’s right, I think he halfway believed.
Chuck: Yeah. They didn’t have poems for him.
Chuck: But maybe they’ll work for you.
Chuck: As far as I know, Phil wrote everything in longhand with a pen before it was typed up.
Peter: His hands started to go a little haywire at the end, so he gave up writing by pen, the drafts.
Chuck: Too much shaking.
Peter: But before that, it was all by-hand stuff.
* * *
Jefferson: Even though I am not a poet, I feel the presence of Phil here, being a part of the Fresno writing community, living here, working here, writing here. I’ve been thinking that I can’t imagine not being able to trace a line back to the three of you, with so many poets who become instructors who become mentors for other poets and writers. I wanted to ask you both about those lines that grow out from the three of you. What are you thinking about all those connections?
Peter: Oh boy. My feelings are very ambiguous, frankly. . . . When I was young and interested in starting to write, there was only one workshop to go to and that was Iowa. That was pretty much it. And now there are workshops in practically every school in the country.
Chuck: A hundred MFA programs or more.
Peter: Which means, it’s turning out a hundred poets who then become teachers of a hundred poets.
Chuck: Diane Wakoski said it was a pyramid scheme.
Jefferson: A poetry pyramid scheme?
Peter: I pick up now, rarely, these semi-professional magazines about writing. And there are articles on this and articles on that. And it seems to me that it’s a proliferation of an academic kind of world that turns out a lot of highly competent work. If by competence, you mean a certain skill at manipulating words and so on. But the damn things don’t say anything. They don’t say anything.
Jefferson: There’s no guts? Or, something else?
Peter: They are amusing or they are virtuous. . . . I wonder what they talk about. What do they talk about when they sit in the workshop? Do they talk about how this word is a nice word to go because it sounds pretty much like this word? What do they talk about? I don’t know.
So I say, well, workshops can’t be bad because I came out of workshop. I mean, I loved the Iowa workshop. I loved being there. And I learned so much. I didn’t know what it was to be a poet until I went to Iowa. I thought I was a poet. But I didn’t know a damn thing. And now I see all these articles. “How to advance your writing.” “What publishers are good for you,” you know. Jeez.
Chuck: The poems are products.
Peter: Yes, products. And I say, there’s something unfortunate going on. You can’t mass-produce so much. It’s factories.
* * *
Jefferson: So how does that all fit into the context, then, with what the three of you experienced in building the Fresno State creative writing program together in those formative years?
Chuck: We were not pushing products.
Jefferson: What were you pushing? What were you making?
Chuck: Something with some soul to it, some passion to it. And sometimes, the only thing you could accomplish was to make a student a better reader. But that was an accomplishment too, I think.
In all the years I ran the Fresno Poets’ Association series, at the Fresno Art Museum, I was always proud of our audience. Writers would tell me time after time that the audience laughed at the right place every time. They got every line, and that doesn’t always happen when you’re reading. A lot of students are trained to think of the poem as some sort of puzzle. And so, they’re not even listening, in a way, because they think they can’t get it anyway.
Chuck: And our students were never like that. They were never intimidated by the poems. They knew how to read a poem.
Peter: I remember walking into an intro to literature class, looking at a class full of people and saying, we’re going to study literature and we’re going to start with poetry. And I remember a student in the back of the room saying, “Ohhhh. My. God.”
Peter: Like, this is the end of the world. How did I get here?
Jefferson: They’re running for the doors now, right?
Chuck: I am never gonna get a B in this class.
Peter: I’ll never forget that. I thought: How many others feel that way? But it was so revealing. He didn’t do it to show off or anything. It was just a gasp. The whole notion of walking in to a class and finding out he was going to have to study poetry first thing in the morning.
* * *
Jefferson: To close our conversation, do either of you have something that you would want to say about Phil’s teaching, Phil’s work, your relationship with him, or anything at all about him and his passing?
Peter: He was the elder brother I didn’t know. Never knew. I miss the hell out of him.
Jefferson: Thank you.
Chuck: I sort of said it in the interview for his obituary in The Fresno Bee: It was a life well lived. In terms of his poetry, he accomplished everything he set out to do. And he did it with the sweat of his brow. Nothing floated down from heaven for him. It was just hard work and determination and really wanting it. It was a life well lived.
Jefferson: I thank both of you.
Jefferson Beavers works as the communication specialist for the creative writing program. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the program in creative nonfiction.