Philip Levine is the outgoing United States poet laureate. Before a conversation in Fresno-where he’s lived and taught for decades-about democracy in America today, he talked about his ugly artificial foot, why he won’t eat sushi, and the pranks he pulled growing up with an identical twin.
Q. What’s the ugliest piece of furniture you own?
A. My foot. I have this artificial foot that was supposed to be rococo, but it turned into something hideous. I bought it with good intentions, and it had no warranty.
Q. How did you celebrate your most recent birthday?
A. I wound up in the hospital. I don’t know what happened. Did I drink too much? I don’t know, maybe I didn’t drink enough. It was the worst birthday of my life. Actually that wasn’t my last birthday-that was the one before! My last birthday, I took a bunch of friends out to dinner here in Fresno. I spent money, and I was delighted to be able to spend some money on my dear friends because I was making a lot of money as the poet laureate.
Q. Where do you go to be alone?
A. I have a room in my house. Nobody bothers me. If I hear the phone ringing I don’t answer it. My wife doesn’t bother me. If the house were on fire she would. If my mother returned from the kingdom of the dead my wife would let her in my room. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.
Q. What’s something most people don’t know about Fresno?
A. They don’t know it’s in California.
Q. Who’s your favorite Beatle?
A. John Lennon. I think John was a genius. I think his songs are extraordinary. They’re the best I think. I liked his style too. In the films he always seemed both the brightest and the zaniest. Yeah, he was an exceptional man. That’s why he got killed. People without talent like to kill people with talent.
Q. What music have you listened to today?
A. Some film music for a Greek film with “Ulysses” in the title. It was exceptionally haunting. National Public Radio was doing a sort of elegy for a filmmaker who’d died, and they played a passage from this music, and I was so struck by it that on the computer I went to NPR, and I found out what the music was, and I bought it. It was fabulous. Ulysses something. [Ulysses’ Gaze, directed by Theodoros Angelopoulos.]
Q. What makes you impatient?
A. The subway.
Q. What’s your favorite constellation?
A. I don’t know. To me they’re all so far away and cold. They’re beautiful. They’re like movie stars. You can look at them, but you can’t touch them. I guess that’s why they’re called movie stars.
Q. What book have you re-read the most?
A. The Great Gatsby.
Q. Did you and your identical twin pull pranks together?
A. Oh yeah. Lots of them. For example I took examinations for him-because it wasn’t that he wasn’t as smart as I, he was just so goddamn lazy.
Q. What won’t you eat?
A. Raw fish. What do they call it? [Sushi.] And to quote the poet E.E. Cummings, “There is some shit I will not eat.” Probably the best line he ever wrote.
*Photo by Dalton Runberg.