Nation’s ‘poet laureate’, Philip Levine, welcomes new role

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 17, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Rest assured. Philip Levine readied himself for his inaugural Monday night gig as the poet laureate of the United States.

“I bought a suit,” Levine said. “It almost fits.”

The 83-year-old Levine remains comfortable in his own skin, whatever epaulets are added. His former students at California State University, Fresno, still know him as Phil. He answers his own phone; he sets strangers at ease.

This poet laureate business? It’s already a kick, though it’s only just begun.

“I’m loving it,” Levine said. “By the time I get used to it, it’ll probably be over.”

Monday night marked the formal beginning of Levine’s yearlong stint as what's technically called the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Congress, in the 1986 bill establishing the title, explained that “this position is equivalent to that of Poet Laureate of the United States.”

But don’t worry. Levine is not obliged to write O, Congress! odes. His official duties are limited, starting with the fall reading and book-signing Monday night at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress.

“I do these all the time,” a relaxed-sounding Levine said a few days before his Monday reading, though allowing that “I’ll probably be a little more serious than I usually am.”

Beyond the inaugural reading Monday, and a follow-up reading next spring, being poet laureate is largely what Levine makes of it. He'll help pick other writers for public readings, and introduce them. He has a small office on the third floor of the Library of Congress's Jefferson Building.

He'll be paid $35,000 and have at hand another $5,000 for travel, from a private fund established in the 1930s by arts benefactor Archer Huntington.

Levine doesn't anticipate hanging around Washington much. Instead, he and his wife will continue dividing their time between Brooklyn, N.Y., and Fresno, where he is a professor emeritus at Fresno State.

Previous poet laureates have undertaken projects that ranged from Joseph Brodsky's push to infiltrate poetry into supermarkets and hotel rooms to Rita Dove's combining children's poetry with jazz. Levine has some ideas of his own; they will ripen in time.

Levine will also be grazing among the speaking engagement offers that have been proliferating like mad.

Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and author of 20 books of poetry, Levine already had an estimable reputation before this year. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington called him "one of America's great narrative poets."

Levine said his market value, though, has "leapt up" since he was named new poet laureate in August. His agent is busier than ever, fielding paid speaking invitations.

"She'd like to make me rich," Levine said, "and then get 20 percent of my riches."

Levine has done about a dozen readings since August. Earlier this month, for instance, he said he was paid "a prodigious amount of money" to speak at a private school in Pennsylvania. In August, he appeared at the famed Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont.

"The audience was just immense," Levine said. "Everyone I knew who lives in Vermont showed up."

Other, less literary, opportunities have arisen. Seemingly "out of nowhere," Levine said, he ended up with an invitation to the U.S. Open. There, he enjoyed the luxury suite belonging to the president of the U.S. Tennis Association and the company of limousine-riding swells who looked, Levine said, like they belonged in the Hamptons.

“My wife and I were probably the only ones who took the subway there,” Levine said.

From the past, too, the poet laureate designation has pried open some surprises. At a reading at the Detroit Institute of Art, Levine ran into a man who, in December 1941, had first told him the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. He has reconnected with long-lost relatives and old high school friends.

In a word, Levine said, the whole poet laureate experience has been "terrific" even before his inaugural reading. He's ready for what comes next, new suit and all.

“Bring it on,” Levine said.

ON THE WEB

Library of Congress poetry page

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