Meeting Philip Levine or the Working Poets
by Carlos Fidel Espinoza
I first met Philip Levine on “The Mercy,” a poem about his mother arriving to Ellis Island. “She remembers trying to eat a banana / without first peeling it and seeing her first orange in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman / who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her / with a red bandana and taught her the word / ‘orange,’ saying it patiently over and over.” Levine’s writing is synonymous with life on the border, the life of the working poor. His immigrants suffer the same humiliations, fears and discoveries that Mexicans crossing the bridge from Juarez to El Paso suffer. His working poor are courageous and noble. Levine’s poetry recognizes that a man willing to stand in line for hours, just for the possibility of work, deserves more. In an interview with Terry Gross, Levine recalled his experience standing in line for work at Ford Highland Park. He waited in the rain for hours. “They wanted to test you. You know how much crap can you take” (npr.org). When Levine got to the head of the line, the man sitting at the desk asked Levine what job he wanted. “I want your job,” Levine said (npr.org). And that’s the way Levine wrote, patient but honest.
I had the chance to meet Philip Levine in person. Levine was in town for a reading at the University of Texas at El Paso. The night before the reading, the Creative Writing and English faculty held a party in his honor. The scene was something out of Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal.” The academics were drinking booze by the gallons and some of the grad students were going over the poems they were to recite for Levine.
I looked for Phil Levine, hoping some somebody would introduce us, but no Phil Levine. I had no choice but to join in. I started drinking my heart out and pretended to care about Borges, and thesis deadlines, and literary crushes. My bladder couldn’t take it anymore. I searched for the bathroom, going from room to room until someone pointed out the restroom in the back of the house. In the back of the house, I found Philip Levine sitting on a metal fold-out chair. His shoulders hunched over and he was leaning forward. On the floor next to Phil sat Daniel Chacon. “This is Carlos; he’s a student in our MFA program.”
I shook Philip Levine’s hand and sat down next Danny. My bladder could wait. We sat in silence for a few minutes. I tried thinking of something smart to say. All I could focus on was this crumby metaphor of the three of us, each a writer in a different part of our life and career.
We watched people pass as they went to the restroom. Some would stop and gawk at Levine, smile then go into the restroom to take a piss, or drop a duce. A few people lingered but they would leave after a few minutes of silence. Eventually, a gaggle of professors came in and dragged Philip Levine to the front of the house where speeches were given and the entire party toasted Phil Levine.
After the toast, the battle royal began. A line of grad students formed in front of Philip Levine and read their poetry. I made my way to the kitchen, which was empty because everybody was still in the living room listening to aspiring poets of the MFA program. I downed some beers and returned to the living room. By then Philip was saying his good byes.
The next day, thousands of people showed up for Levine’s reading. We filled three of UTEP’s largest auditoriums and had to run a live feed to the screens of each of the rooms. After the reading, Philip Levine did a signing. It was my job to hand a slip of paper and pen to each person who bought a book. The idea was that they would spell out their names. The organizers wanted Phil to personalize a message in each book purchased from the University. Hundreds of people waited in line for Phil’s signature. It reminded me of the employment line in Phil’s poem, “What Work Is.”
After a few signatures, Phil said something like, “I’m not going to write all these god damn names. I’m just going to sign my name,” which he did.
I was sad to hear that Phil had passed away on Valentine’s Day, he was 87. He had respect for the working poor and immigrants, a virtue that is scarce in this country.