The first time I ever heard of Philip Levine, I was living in the mountains of Spain in a tiny little town called Monteagudo.
I found a copy of the Los Angeles Times while shopping in one of the nearby, larger towns. It was the first time in months I had read something in English, and I devoured the articles.
As I read, I was amazed to find a piece about Fresno. I wasn’t into poetry at the time. But the article was about Fresno poets and the amazing writing coming out of my hometown. I felt so proud of Fresno, and I showed everyone the article, from local farmers to priests. I showed them the snippets of poetry that summed up my home so well.
Levine, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fresno poet and Fresno State professor emeritus, who died Feb. 14 at the age of 87, was one of the poets interviewed in the article. I showed everyone those lines of poetry, shared the words and pictures on the page. I still have that yellowed newspaper article to this day, taped to the wall above my work desk.
Years later, I took a California State University Summer Arts workshop. It was a weeklong session of poetry writing at Fresno State. I was lucky to be able to work with many great poets, including Peter Everwine. The last day of the workshop was with Levine.
As that day approached, there was a lot of anticipation.
He was such a presence. He was retired by that point, but I’d still heard many stories of his time teaching. Some were horror stories — of ripping up papers, telling poets to take up other careers, and more. I was nervous, but excited.
His writing had been a guide for me. I was late to poetry. But as I learned more and more about it, I kept coming back to his books. His poetry was a big inspiration for me, drew me to poetry. His words spoke about my own experiences with Fresno. Hard work, being poor, and using my words to capture that.
The few hours I spent that day with him were priceless. He only workshopped a few poems, but I learned so much about my craft in that time.
He was tough, no nonsense. He made the writing of poetry like work, like a craft. You learn your skill, sharpen it, and then use it.
He was quiet. Sincere. It was like he tasted the poetry. He would say a line from a poem and then savor it, think over the words, eyes closed, lips pursed. And when he didn’t like a line, it showed, a bitterness on his face. But he was fair, and his tips were spot on.
I walked out of that class shaking, but inspired. I felt ready to get to work on writing.
But I think I’ll remember him most by the time I spent with him while I was working at the library. He was a regular at mine, the Fresno County Library Gillis branch. You really get to know someone through their books, what they are going through in life. Books on cooking, law books, essays, fiction. I always keep those selections private, personal.
He was a voracious reader. I loved talking to him, hearing his suggestions, his insights on what he read.
And I loved just asking him about the weather. He would always pause, take it in, and say it was beautiful. Rain or sun, heat or cold.
The day he was announced as poet laureate of the United States, he came into my library to pick up his weekly books. I congratulated him, asked him how he was doing. He looked weary.
He told me he had done several interviews the day before, two that morning, and another three were lined up for that afternoon. I was amazed. I told him it was a heavy lineup.
He nodded, said that it was. And then he smiled.
“But it’s for Fresno,” he said. “Got to do it for Fresno.”
It was that line that made me decide to apply for the city of Fresno poet laureate position in 2013. I didn’t want to at first. But that line kept coming to me. And I did it.
In my first week as our city’s poet laureate, I went to five events — in one week. And in my first year, I attended more than 80 events. It was all about promoting poetry, spreading the word of all the great poets, to the point of exhaustion many times. But I just kept hearing Levine’s words in my head. I still do.