Former Poet Laureate Shares Life’s Work

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

More than 1,000 people from the UTEP community and the El Paso region packed the Undergraduate Learning Center on March 12 to hear the 18th Poet Laureate of the United States read his work and discuss his life.

Levine delivered a talk titled “American Labor: Poetry for Whom There is No Poetry.” His speech was presented as a Centennial Lecture sponsored by President Diana Natalicio, UTEP’s College of Liberal Arts Honors Program, and the University’s Creative Writing Department. For many people who live in regions that have been traditionally underrepresented in American poetry, Levine’s words ring very true, not just due to issues of class but also because of the fundamental magic that lies in the poetic form.Philip Levine, former poet laureate of the United States, signs his books after speaking before a record-breaking Centennial Lecture crowd of more than 1,000 students, staff, faculty and community members March 12. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News ServicePhilip Levine, former poet laureate of the United States, signs his books after speaking before a record-breaking Centennial Lecture crowd of more than 1,000 students, staff, faculty and community members March 12. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News Service

“Young people read poetry and have the same experience I had when I was in my teens,” Levine explained. “You suddenly understand that somebody else lived your life, or one very much like it, with the same kind of joys and sorrows and puzzling experiences and endured the same kind of privations and humiliations of youth, and that you are really part of a family. You are not nearly as isolated as you thought. You are one of many. And in being one of many, there’s dignity in who you are.”

In 2006, UTEP Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Director of Undergraduate Studies Sasha Pimentel was awarded the Philip Levine Fellowship in Poetry while an M.F.A. candidate but had met the writer a year earlier when his wife allowed Pimentel to stay at their home after first moving to Fresno for school.  It was Pimentel’s idea initially to try and bring Levine to UTEP for some kind of presentation, which she brainstormed with Michael Topp, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Topp was thrilled to have this be the brand new Liberal Arts Honors Program’s first public event.

“Once we decided to bring him, and got a sense of his availability, we sought support from a number of difference sources, all of whom were immensely helpful,” Topp explained. “Without support from Creative Writing, the English Department, the College of Liberal Arts, the Offices of Student Affairs and Undergraduate Studies, and Ezra Cappell’s outreach efforts, it wouldn’t have been possible.

“And then convincing the President’s office to turn his talk into a Centennial Lecture — that was such a boon,” Topp continued. “In addition to the financial support the President’s office is able to offer, it also facilitates our efforts enormously to reach out to a very large audience.”

Levine was born in 1928 in Detroit to Russian-Jewish immigrants and is known as the poet of the working class. Author of 20 collections of poetry, some of his most notable works are The Simple Truth, which won the Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is, which won the National Book Award; Ashes: Poems New and Old, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Book Award; and The Names of the Lost, which won the Lenore Marshall Prize.

He has taught as writer and professor at universities including Columbia, Princeton, Brown, California State University Fresno and New York University. Over the years, he has been encouraged to see poetry’s reach expand beyond what he calls more “elitist” epicenters like the East Coast.

“American poetry has become much more diverse and democratic,” he said. “It’s coming from places it never came before … There is no longer a center of American poetry as there was when I started, which was New York. Now it’s everywhere. Now you find pockets of very gifted writers in places you would never dream of.”

Now 85, Levine was one of the oldest writers ever selected for the honor when he was named United States Poet Laureate in 2011. After all that he’s seen, from the Great Depression to the McCarthy era to the present, Levine is grateful to have been able to express it through his work and teach others how to do the same. Plus, the appointment as America’s foremost poet wasn’t a bad bonus.

“It gave me an enormous opportunity to say these things in front of very large audiences and I enjoyed it,” he said.

Topp is convinced that Levine embodies the ideal of what the Centennial Lecture Series – and UTEP as a whole – is all about.

“Not only is he remarkably accomplished and acclaimed in his field, but he has working class roots which should resonate with our students, virtually all of whom are working their ways through college,” he said. “And we wanted to expose our students, and especially LAHP students, to ways of seeing and thinking with which they may not be very familiar.  All of us need more poetry in our lives, and Phil Levine’s poems speak so powerfully about the dignity and drudgery of work — about what work is.”

Levine was a generous guest during his visit. He spoke with local media outlets in the morning and had lunch with a group of students from the Liberal Arts Honors Program before delivering his lecture to two standing-room-only auditoriums and an extra overflow classroom.

 “I didn’t know what it would really be like, but it was very natural and fun,” said senior Dance major Pamela Johnson Angeles of the opportunity for her and a handful of her Liberal Arts Honors Program peers to sit down to lunch with the renowned writer. “The gentleman is so accomplished, but he answered all of our questions so naturally. It was really exciting because you can’t help but have relatable moments in your own life. And even his description of working was poetry – it was great!”

After the evening’s lecture, Pimentel was overjoyed at the remarkable attendance.

“I think it’s a testimony to how much El Paso loves art and literature and how important they are to us,” she said.

Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Patricia Witherspoon added, “I never worried that we were not going to have a large audience. I am gratified and a bit amazed that we filled two rooms with another third room overflow.

“The world of poetry has many more lovers that represent areas beyond the liberal arts,” she added. “Some of us talk about Liberal Arts being the heart of this school and I think that this occasion is good evidence of that. Because of its diversity and size, Liberal Arts really is a microcosm of this community and it’s wonderful to have it shine at an event like this.”