Thursday, February 19, 2015

Philip Levine: A (Second) Tribute

Philip Levine died this week. He was my favorite poet, a man whose work not only inspired my novels, but a man who helped me out when the mechanism of the publishing industry got in the way.

I wrote Snap Hook, a novel featuring a dyslexic protagonist, in 2001 just after discovering Mr. Levine's work. When the copy of The Simple Truth arrived, I flipped to the first page, began reading, and did something I had never done before (or since) with a collection of poetry: I read the entire book through, cover to cover.

My father owned a garage, and I had spent time working in it. Levine was writing about people I knew and had known. Of course, he was writing about the men and women "of Flint...the majors of a minor town," as he eloquently describes in "Among Children." But I fell in love with those poems and his work.

This came at a time when I was directing a visiting writer series in northern Maine. (Stephen King had donated funds to launch it.) So I invited Mr. Levine to visit. He lived in Fresno, Calif., a place where he long resided, and said he was too old to travel. But we spent a half-hour on the phone one afternoon -- me trying to convince him to come, he suggesting other feisty poets. I had just had my second daughter, and we talked about fatherhood and children, he told me stories about his grandchildren. And while we were on the phone, I told him of an idea I had, which he was very much in support of.

Not long after that conversation, I was finishing Snap Hook. And I had added a character trait to Jack Austin, my protagonist: He would read a Philip Levine collection in each book. In Snap Hook he was reading The Simple Truth, the title poem to which offers the lines:
          Some things
          you know all your life...
          it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
          you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
          it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
          made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
          in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

These lines appear on the final page of my novel. What better denouement? (Perhaps, now, what better epilogue?) My editor liked the final page and called after reading the manuscript (I had already signed a two-book contract), and asked where the permission form was for those lines.

"Mr. Levine and I spoke over the phone. He knows I'm using them and likes the idea," I said. (Everyone starts out you, so work with me; I was in my 20s.)

"Random House owns those lines. You need to pay for them."

I was writing for a university press at the time. If you don't already know, university presses don't pay a lot. When I called Random House and got the rights people on the phone and heard their fee, I nearly dropped the phone: They wanted three times my advance for the book.

I did the only thing I could think of. I called Mr. Levine again and told him the situation. He dropped several expletives and said to send him $50 so he could take his wife to lunch. He wanted mystery readers to see his work, saying my books could open up his to a new audience.

A short while later, I got an e-mail from Random House with a contract I could afford. And Jack Austin went on reading Philip Levine poetry.

My books were – I sincerely hope – on some level tributes to Mr. Levine. And I will offer one more here. Take a moment today to read "Among Children" in which he concludes with:
          I will be gone into smoke or memory,
          so I bow to them here and whisper
          all I know, all I will never know.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

John, this whole permission to quote thingy is like a quagmire. I'm acquiring permission to publish photos right now and I'm out of my league.