blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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My Teachers

One book from a small press or a Pulitzer Prize deep into a substantial career—whatever level of celebrated accomplishment or unsung private satisfaction—almost no one gets there alone.

Along the road, you develop friends and fellow writers who, if you’re lucky, are candid, rigorous with their response. But what brings you fully to face and embrace your life, to risk the real possibility of failure, the lack of rewards, and a lifetime of thrift-store shopping, is a good and generous teacher. For what little the world cares about a book of poetry, the humble life most of us are fortunate enough to make in the endeavor to write it, we wouldn’t have even that modest portion of it if not for dedicated and gifted teachers.


When I arrived in the MFA program at University of California Irvine in my early twenties (the Punic Wars had recently come to an end and we’d just sold off our swords and shields) my great good fortune was to have Gary Soto, Jon Veinberg, and Gary Young in my workshops, all who became lifelong friends in poetry. Most of us were struggling, just beginning to find a voice, the sense of a line, but Soto had already found his style and subject and was publishing in places like POETRY, The Iowa Review, and The Nation, journals the rest of us only dreamed of. Veinberg was writing distinctive and consistently engaging poems, both students of Levine and Peter Everwine at Fresno State. I was writing just well enough to be the last one into the program as the door closed—no grants, no TA. Skin of my teeth.

However, almost entirely due to Glover Davis, my teacher at San Diego State, I had the poems that got me through the gate. Glover had been an early student of Levine’s at Fresno State in the ’60s, and he ran a rigorous workshop. Nothing weak got by; no one was patted on the head and told they were special—no participation trophies were handed out. He’d learned that fierce and rigorous sense of craft from Levine. And like Phil, Glover was generous. He had long office hours, and back then in the early ’70s there was always a line outside his office, five or six students waiting to go over rewrites of their poems. (There were large audiences for poetry in the early ’70s; I remember Montezuma Hall on campus being filled with 350–400 people to hear both Philip Levine and Gary Snyder.)

My first semester in graduate school, I managed one finished poem and Glover must have seen fifteen drafts of it over as many weeks. But I had at least one finished poem and was grateful for that. Did students appreciate the help? Some did. In my first semester’s workshop there must have been twenty poets, most writing better than I. Up to that point I had not read contemporary poetry or worked with a poet; I was, like many, self-anointed and my “work” was likely influenced by the Moody Blues or Crosby, Stills, & Nash. But one afternoon, walking out of the building after workshop, Glover paused and actually talked to me about writing, something I did not expect. The thing that resonated, that stuck, was advice he passed on from his teacher: most beginning poets will not risk failure. You needed to be “all in” as the poker cliché now has it. That saved me. That, and the required books for the workshop: They Feed They Lion by Levine, Collecting the Animals by Peter Everwine, and the anthology Naked Poetry by Berg & Mezey. I was not writing well or with any real facility, but I was committed to doing the best I could each week, and Glover took the work seriously and suffered my tireless rewrites—no guarantees.

I spent two and a half years with Glover before heading to UC Irvine for the MFA, and I recall a day in the last week I was at San Diego, waiting outside Glover’s door to have him take a final look at a rewrite. A young woman was in his office, someone I had never seen in class or at a reading on campus or in the community. She was a sorority type—expensive dress, styled hair, etc.—and she was there complaining that the last poem she had turned into an undergraduate workshop had not been duly appreciated by Glover. Likely, she had chosen a course in poetry writing to fill in electives, assuming, as many did, that it would be an easy A, no midterms or research papers. Glover reminded her that she had not turned in a poem until halfway through the semester, and then had submitted five at once, none which worked or had been rewritten; moreover, the poem in question did not really start until the middle stanza and then went rapidly down hill from there. “Perhaps you just don’t understand the poem,” offered the young woman. I’d made my mind up to go into teaching after grad school, but her comment and attitude gave me pause.

My first quarter at UC Irvine, Diane Wakoski ran the workshop with a similar focus. At the time, she was writing regular columns for APR that addressed overall attitudes about poetry, concepts, strategies, approaches to different poets and poetries. In workshop though, she was a very specific line-by-line editor and she was a great help to those of us who did not let our egos get in the way of solid critiquing. Wakoski could as well tie in her specific suggestions to the larger picture of the poet’s intention or the culture of ideas, the overarching traditions of poetry, old and new. As well, she was very generous and supportive, especially for someone as popular and in demand as she was then. Diane regularly would take some of us to dinner at restaurants we could never have afforded, and often she invited the workshop to her house for dinner and wine. Those days, I cooked a lot of spaghetti dinners and tuna casserole surprise; they were the “gourmet” meals I shared with my mates, so Diane’s kindness and generosity supported body and soul. She was there for only the first quarter of our two years at Irvine, but she remained a mentor over the years, responding to poems and corresponding in letters—a teacher who continued to take the time to support her students.

Our last quarter at Irvine, we demanded a poet of some national reputation and accomplishment, as, after Diane, the department simply recycled the faculty poets whom we had already seen a couple of times and who were deeply uninspiring. One reason you went to Irvine was the list of celebrated visiting poets who they advertised taught the workshop each year. The other reason, of course, was Charles Wright. Our great misfortune during our two years at Irvine was that Charles Wright was gone both years—one year on a Guggenheim and one on a visiting position to Iowa. A group of us made forays into the Chair’s office to lodge our protests until, amazingly enough, he listened.

We were in luck as Peter Everwine was on leave with a Guggenheim during that time and was persuaded to drive down from Fresno for ten weeks to lead our last workshop. The reason Fresno poets had developed a substantial reputation was that Peter was teaching there as well as Levine. I was not writing well and poems I submitted for workshop would not have been much improved by specific editing. I seemed to have lost focus, something the modest talent I possessed could not then rescue. Think of those scenes of train wrecks on the evening news—boxcars scattered cattywampus along the side of the tracks . . . the last couple quarters’ work like that. Peter spoke to me about poets I should be reading, the way I should be thinking about voice, my understanding of what a poem was, and this saved me from despair. I threw away most of the work of the last year and half. I was aided in this by my friend and fellow poet Jon Veinberg, who, after my first-book manuscript had come close at a big contest and I was talking about the title I’d come up with for my second book, put me back on track; he said I should use that new title for my first book, that I needed to toss that first manuscript. I reviewed it and saw he was right. So Jon, one of my peers, was a teacher for me as well.

There are many ways to learn of course. I became friends with Charles Wright after I finished the MFA at Irvine, and he was a great teacher of mine though he never saw any of my poems in drafts. I just read his books, every one of them, again and again. It was inspiring and disheartening both, as it turned out that we shared a similar approach to a mix of metaphysics and doubt—to the cosmos. I was never going to write as well as Charles. A quick and easy realization. He did not leave much meat on the bone for those of us who came to the table later with a similar take on experience. But he was a supreme example of what you might aspire to, and each of Charles’s books suggested new ways to approach my subject. There was high and exceptional imagistic translation of the metaphysical quandary, inventive language that soared combined with a hip and popular lingo and an existential irony, and yet a sober glimmer of hope—an incredible mix. Then I was reading The Southern Cross, The Other Side of the River, and China Trace. As with Philip Levine’s work, I had to keep myself from “borrowing” too obviously from Charles. At San Diego State, I had Glover Davis to do that for me in the workshops: “Buckley, you can’t have that; those are Levine’s lines.” Imitation, the sincerest form . . . etc. But though I kept having to revise the endings that I “shared” with Levine in my poems, I learned a lot from all of the close reading and the brilliance and fierce music of his voice. The same with Charles’s work.


Over the years, in addition to specific help with some poems, Phil gave freely of his time and spent a lot of it talking to me about poetry, poets in the tradition, contemporary poets, how to approach the vagaries of writing, the lack of rewards, the important work that is the writing itself. I was twenty-nine when I came to teach at Fresno State. I had friends who had already won book awards, money prizes, who had tenure-track jobs and had published in the better journals. I was feeling a bit left behind in the dust, with three early morning classes of composition to teach. Up early to stand in front of a class clamoring for more information about the dangling participle, I suffered the two or three nodding off in the front row despite my energetic declamations. And I had to be observed to be sure I knew what I was repeatedly talking about. I was fortunate here in that Chuck Hanzlicek, one of the poets on the faculty there, was assigned for the observation. He wrote a short and hilarious report about my best efforts lecturing on the comma splice while a student was applying her best shade of lavender lipstick just one row back. I learned something from Chuck about collegiality in that, as well as a good reminder about the value of the pure clear word which his poems exemplified.

And then I received the major poetry award of my life, one you could not apply for: I was assigned to share an office with Phil whose office mate was out on medical leave. I taught at 8:00, 9:00, and 11:00; Phil did not come in until the middle of the afternoon. For a couple years then I sat at my desk correcting piles of essays, waiting for Phil to arrive, at which time I’d ask a question about a current poem or poet or journal, and my tutorials in poetry and life would begin. He gave great advice not just about poetry but about how to keep my head on straight through all the vicissitudes, present and to come. His insight and advice helped me keep my head above water through those spare early years. I complained about a book prize awarded to yet another less than mediocre talent and Phil said, “Oh, life is not fair? Just do your work.” He emphasized patience, fortitude, modesty, dedication, and honesty. Our discussions always came back to the point of doing the work and not betraying your talents. Whatever I learned, however slowly, about what it takes to be a poet, a writer, an ethical and democratic human being, I learned from the time Phil spent talking with me. There are many forms of instruction.

In the forty-three years I knew Phil, I think he actually looked at/helped with four, maybe five poems. Again, I learned from reading and rereading his poems, and from talking with him about contemporary poetry. Phil was absolutely amazingly generous with his time, which is one reason I did not dun him with poems for help all the time. He had many students who, after graduating and moving on, still sent work, and there were many people who asked for help who had never been his students. The price of fame. I never “studied” with Phil and the only time I was in a classroom with him was at Bread Loaf when I was a fellow one summer and assigned to work with Levine and help with the contributors.

My favorite memory of Phil helping with a poem goes back ten years or so. As I said, I rarely asked, wanting to save up grace for times when I was really in trouble with a poem. Moreover, I had bothered Phil for letters for twenty some years, those letters you must have for grants, for academia, for fellowships. He wrote for me at least twenty times, perhaps more, until I received, finally, the Guggenheim. When I got the news, I called him immediately to say I had good news for us both: I received the fellowship and he would not be asked to write any more letters! So, the poem “Poverty.” Gary Young and Jon Veinberg had each taken some whacks at the four-page poem, had cut it down, suggested shifts, slashed and burned. I had written my usual twenty-five to thirty drafts. But I knew who would not pull any punches and bring it to heel if, that is, it could be made to do so. I sent Phil the most recent draft and took a yellow highlighter to about twenty lines near the beginning that I felt were still suspect, different in voice. Phil wrote right back saying, Yes, most of those lines should go. He tweaked another couple and then, saying the ending was not quite right, wrote in new lines to finish with. I went through the poem, rewriting, cutting, tightening up, feeling back to the original voice. I sent back the revision and Phil responded that Yes, this was more like it, but the ending still needed work! He rewrote the ending yet again and sent it back. This one was even better. I did not let my ego get in the way, smart enough by that point in time to know a gift when I’d been given one. I sent the final version back to Phil and he approved, saying any time I had a poem this good to feel free to send it to him. No pressure there. I sent it off with a couple others to the fine journal Five Points for their James Dickey Prize and it won. The phone call was a real surprise, however, as you try lots of contests and never hear anything. But then, when I thought about it, about the help I had received, it was not so farfetched. I owed Phil a good bottle of wine. I owed him much more than that.

An obvious testament to the excellence and importance of Philip Levine as a teacher is found in the four anthologies of his students from Fresno State and elsewhere. In addition to Down At The Santa Fe Depot (1970), which showcased the early group of Fresno poets, there were two other anthologies of poets who had come through Fresno. Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets (1987) was put together by former Levine students Gary Soto, Ernesto Trejo, and Jon Veinberg, with Trejo and Veinberg doing the actual editing. How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets (2001) was edited by David Oliveira, M.L. Williams, and myself. Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, edited by Mari L'Esperance and Tomás Q. Morín, was published by Prairie Lights Books/University of Iowa Press in 2013. While the previous anthologies were a tribute to Levine mainly through the quality of the poems presented, Coming Close is a collection of essays acknowledging Levine as teacher and mentor from students and friends, older and younger. There has been no one over the last half century who has given more to students, to poets and poetry, than Phil.


This brings me to Larry Levis—Phil’s most exceptional student. The voice of genius in my generation was Larry. Hands down. He was a teacher for many of us. Each time Larry had a new book out, it was an event; every poet I knew would be talking about it, would be energized and inspired with the new and imaginative moves Larry was making in poems, the risks he was taking—from “Linnets” in The Afterlife to “Winter Stars” to “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex” in The Widening Spell of the Leaves. There were always new rhetorical strategies, inventive images, and yet the poems were always anchored in experience and accessible. And Larry helped me become a good teacher. One of my best poetry students ever, Alexander Long, found his way in poetry through Larry. After a semester or two of rigorous critique of Alex’s early efforts, I put him on to Levis. From there on in, Larry became Alex’s teacher and Alex found his voice and realized his vision of Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, where he grew up, and became a good and true poet publishing books, winning contests. All I had to do was show him Larry’s poems.

Yet despite his immense talent, even Larry did not succeed on his own; he had Phil and Peter early on at Fresno State. And later, Larry became a critic, a teacher if you will, for Phil as the years went on. Over time, Phil and Larry exchanged many poems, and Larry suggested changes and edits for Phil’s poems as Phil did for Larry’s. A substantial portion of the letters they sent each other regarding their poems over the years is in the Berg at the New York Public Library.

I was editing a book for the University of Michigan Press’s Under Discussion Series—On The Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing (1991). These volumes on senior poets regularly collected the published response to the body of work, but I also wanted some essays commissioned just for the book that offered more substantial appreciations. Larry was the first poet I called to ask for one. The result was his essay “Philip Levine,” which is one of the most poignant and entertaining essays I know about the education of the poet—a loving tribute to the value of a true and great teacher, Phil’s dedication, his rigor, his humor and practical advice which helped to mitigate the critiques. It was first published in a small literary magazine, Pacific Review, from San Diego State where a student of mine, Chad Oness, was editing the magazine and studying with my former teacher and one of Phil’s early students, Glover Davis.

Larry’s essay alone is worth the price of the book. He recalls Levine’s classes from the ’60s at Fresno State—specifically capturing Levine’s wit and amazing sense of humor. But the essay goes far beyond that. The complete essay can also be found in A Condition of the Sprit: The Life and Work of Larry Levis that I edited with former student, Alexander Long. Here is a bit of what Larry has to say about the value of a great teacher:

. . . to have been a student in Levine’s classes from the mid to late 1960s was to have a life, or what has turned out to be my life, given to me by another. And certainly then, at the age of seventeen, I had no life, or no passionate life animated by a purpose, and I was unaware that one might be possible. . . .

It isn’t enough to say that Levine was a brilliant young poet and teacher. Levine was amazing. His classes during those four years at Fresno State College were wonders, and they still suggest how much good someone might do in the world. . . For in any of these fifty-minute periods, there was more passion, sense, hilarity and feeling filling that classroom than one could have found anywhere in 1964. . . .

Whenever I try to imagine the life I might have had if I hadn’t met Levine, if he had never been my teacher, if we had not become friends and exchanged poems and hundreds of letters over the past twenty-five years, I can’t imagine it. . . . I cannot see myself walking down one of those streets as a lawyer, or the boss of a packing shed, or even as the farmer my father wished I would become. When I try to do this, no one’s there; it seems instead that I simply had never been at all. All there is on that street, the leaves on the shade trees that line it curled and black and closeted against noon heat, is a space where I am not.

The essential value of teachers. So who was Phil’s teacher? John Berryman, at the University of Iowa. Phil’s now famous essay, “Mine Own John Berryman,” is a wonderful and candid testament to the good that a hard working and conscientious teacher can do, and it is found in The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography. Phil also mentions Robert Lowell with whom he had a workshop at Iowa. At that time, Lowell was easily the more famous poet, and Phil notes that while Lowell was not much help in the classroom, he was kind and supportive on a personal level. But it was Berryman who gave of himself, who took the time, did the detailed preparation and work of responding and inspiring, who instilled the rigor and direction the writing life would demand. I can’t recommend that essay highly enough.

Peter Everwine was Phil’s best friend lifelong, and Phil turned to Peter consistently over the years for edits with poems, for evaluation. Timothy Geiger directs a fine letterpress at the University of Toledo. A few years back he printed a very handsome oversize limited edition chapbook of seven of Phil’s prose poems, The Language Problem. Phil dedicated the book to me as I had nagged him about getting the prose poems out in the world, and he sent me one of the first copies he received. When I turned the page to the poem “Islands,” I found that the middle of the poem, about nine lines margin-to-margin, had been crossed out in blue ink, and I recognized the fine point nib of Phil’s favorite Pelikan 800 fountain pen. At the bottom left of the page there was a handwritten note from Phil: “Revision suggested by Everwine, taken by Levine.” This was no joke. When the trade Knopf book, News of the World, was published, that middle section was missing from the poem. We rely on our friends, we continue learning.

And Phil was rigorous with himself, throwing away many poems that he felt did not come up to his standards, keeping many poems in the drawer that did not fit into a new book thematically, not placing everything published in magazines in his books. Over the years, Phil told a few variations of the story of the writing of the long poem, “A Walk with Tom Jefferson,” but essentially patience and rigorous standards were the bottom line. He had written half of the over six hundred-line poem and then hit a wall. Actually he had written six hundred to nine hundred lines and cut back to that first three hundred-plus half. He put it away and many months later came back to it with an idea to complete the poem—the work of two years or more. He never let himself off easy. After the publication of New Selected Poems, 1991, it occurred to me that there were many fine and memorable poems left out. Together with Jon Veinberg, I talked Phil into publishing a book that collected those poems. Gary Young at Greenhouse Review Press liked the idea and together the three of us published the book. Phil came up with the title Unselected Poems (1997). My main idea was to make available most of the rest of his work, but during the process, Phil whittled away at the overall selection, wanting only the best of what remained. At one point he agreed to include “The Sierra Kid”—a long tour de force syllabic poem from his first book On the Edge, one of the best syllabic poems in contemporary poetry. But finally it was cut. Phil did include a small selection of new poems all of which made it into subsequent books; the poem “Ascension” was printed on the broadside handed out at his memorial tribute. Phil had a judicious sense of a “book of poetry” and saw the poems working together on a theme and variation strategy, a specific emotional strategy or vision, or so it seemed to me. So many fine poems were left in the drawer and have yet to be collected into a book. Ed Hirsch, Phil’s literary executor, is working to go through all of the poems that were unpublished to see which might contribute to a collectedat some point.


We have become a bit thin on the ground, the Fresno group. We lost many way too early: Ernesto Trejo in 1991, C.W. Moulton in 1995, Larry Levis in 1996, Sherley Ann Williams and Andres Montoya in 1999, Roberta Spear in 2003, Luis Omar Salinas in 2008. My brilliant and wonderful friend and poet, Jon Veinberg, died of a stroke in early 2017. It was Jon who had me reading the variety of eastern European poets when we were just starting out. I learned something about craft and imagination every time I showed Jon a poem, all the way through our sixties. Arthur Smith died at the end of 2018, and there are others. . . . And recently, the last of our first teachers. The most recent grief and loss is Peter Everwine who died at the end of October 2018. Peter saved my poetic life back at the end of grad school, and over the last twenty or so years we had become especially close; I drove to Fresno a few times each year to visit with Peter and Jon. Over the last few years I had started to rely on Peter as well to help with drafts of poems, to continue teaching me. He was so modest, and would say that he hoped we would still be friends after I saw what he had to say about the poem, as, when it came to responding, he was rigorous in cuts and edits, strategy, sections to be dropped—he saved several new poems for me.


Here I am then, retired from teaching, remembering the tribute and memorial held for Phil on the campus at Fresno State a year after his passing. Hundreds of family, friends, colleagues, and many of his former students attended and testified to his genius, generosity, and importance to their lives . . . remembering the memorial reading for Jon Veinberg in 2017 with Soto, Gary Young, Timothy Sheehan, and myself—all mates in our twenties from grad school—almost too shaken to offer our eulogies. We have now done the same for Peter Everwine this last April 2019. Mercy on us all. . . .

Somehow, I have a selected poems from the University of Pittsburgh Press . . . Larry’s press as I often think of it. It’s a slim volume, as the press prefers—not near what I came to know as a Selected Poems as a young man, a book a good inch and a half thick, something you could drop from a balcony and crack the sidewalk with. But I feel fortunate indeed, never sure that I would have even this much. And celebrity being what it is, there were few reviews—Oprah did not call. But it represents a life, a life in poetry I have been blessed to have—a life that, without the selfless efforts and support of great friends, great teachers—almost all from Fresno—I would never have had.

Note: an older and shorter version of this essay appeared in Innisfree Poetry Journal several years ago  

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