Episode 5: Larry Levis and Philip Levine

Poet Larry Levis reads in Fresno in 1984. (Screen shot)

Editor’s Note: This is Episode 5 of the Fresno Poets Archive Project. It features Larry Levis and Philip Levine, recorded in August 1984 at the Wild Blue Yonder nightclub. Background research and closed captioning for this video was conducted by undergraduate student Makenna Huffman in Fall 2016. A native of Fresno, Makenna is a senior studying English Education at Fresno State. Her favorite authors include Ernesto Trejo, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Frost. She enjoys studying and writing poetry, and she writes the Organized Memories Blog. Makenna plans to pursue a career in the healing arts.

By Makenna Huffman
For the Fresno Poets Archive Project

For those who know Fresno poetry, Larry Levis and Philip Levine require only a minimal introduction.

Levis was born in 1946 in nearby Selma, California, and he earned his BA in English from Fresno State. He grew up on his family’s farm, and he spent his younger days driving tractor, picking grapes, and pruning vines. He taught at four different universities, including at Virginia Commonwealth from 1992 until his death in 1996. He was the author of eight collections of poetry and two prose books. Among his many awards, he earned three fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Levine was born in 1928 and grew up in Detroit, Michigan. He taught from 1958 to 1992 at Fresno State, where he retired as a Professor Emeritus of English and helped establish the university’s thriving Creative Writing Program. Levine served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2011-2012, he won a Pulitzer Prize and too many additional honors to mention. Some fun facts about Levine: Fresno State has a reading room inside the Henry Madden Library with his personal collection of books, as well as a national poetry book contest, a creative writing scholarship, and even a special wine blend named after him.

Researching and captioning this video was interesting to me because the atmosphere felt a lot more casual and laid back compared to most poetry readings I’ve seen. Both Levis and Levine create a comedic atmosphere because they keep cracking jokes and making side comments about the pieces they are reading. It seems like the audience really enjoyed both of the poets’ playfulness because there is a lot of laughter and applause. I enjoyed watching, because it shows that poetry readings themselves don’t have to be overly serious, even if the poetry is.

I also liked watching these two poets recite their work because they both use everyday language. When they read their poems, it feels more like they are having intimate conversations with me. (Levis, in fact, maintains eye contact with the audience during most of his reading, barely glancing at his poetry on the page.) The fact that the language is easy to understand makes the poems more accessible and enjoyable for me. I can just sit back and listen; that’s versus when I read other poems, I sometimes find that I need a dictionary to fully understand what the poet is saying. I think this everyday language shows that poetry isn’t about knowing all sorts of long, extravagant words. To be a poet, you just need to have an imagination and a drive to write.

Seeing great poets like Levis and Levine come out of Fresno gives me hope for my own writing because it shows that if someone wants to write and publish poetry, it doesn’t matter where you come from, whether you grew up on a farm or in a big city. Realizing this makes me feel hopeful and excited about my future in writing poetry, helping me realize that anything is possible.

The tape cuts off at the end, just before Levine’s reading of his poem “To Cipriano, In the Wind.” That cut, and some occasional sound difficulties, is the only downside to the recording of this historic reading.

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