THE FIRST BOOK of contemporary poetry I ever read was Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion, in 1972, my first semester in graduate school at San Diego State. Lion had just been published by Atheneum, the biggest publisher for poetry at the time after Wesleyan University Press. Wesleyan had published Levine's Not This Pig but turned down Lion, which went on to see many printings.
My teacher in the M.A. program at San Diego State was Glover Davis, a then younger poet who had been one of the first students to come through Fresno State College, where Levine began teaching in l958. Other early students then were Larry Levis, Bruce Boston, David St. John, Roberta Spear, Greg Pape, along with many others. It was Glover who ordered Lion for our class and I was hooked immediately by the power, righteous anger, and invention of Levine's poems.
I met Philip Levine on a tennis court at SDSU. It was 1973 and poetry readings in those days drew substantial audiences. Levine read the poems that would go in his next book, 1933, in Montazuma Hall to 350 people. I had, during the summers, continued to teach tennis in Santa Barbara and was weighing the offer of a full-time job at a club there against the precarious prospects of becoming a worthwhile (read, “successful”) poet — a sure thing vs. the longest of shots. I had a good idea of the odds.
In the seventies everyone was playing tennis — Johnny Carson, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, businessmen, professors, students, and even administrators. Phil was an avid player and while he was in town he wanted to get in a couple sets, and Glover asked me to hit with him. I couldn’t believe my luck. What I then knew about poetry could be written on the back of a gum wrapper, but I knew who Phil was. He was staying at Glover’s house, and had Pablo Picasso walked out of Glover’s kitchen, it would not have impressed me more. I let Phil have what we called back then a “courtesy game” or two each set, moving him side to side, feeding him an occasional forehand volley put-away. Phil returned the courtesy the next day by mercifully passing quickly over my miserable poem in the special workshop, while others were held to more rigorous account. (A few years later, Phil seemed to have remembered our meeting a bit differently; he gave me a copy of On the Edge and Over and inscribed it, “For Chris, who lost 6-0, 6-0, with grace, under pressure, Phil.”)
Later, I was invited to a small reception at Glover's house which Levin attended, where I said hardly anything. Just into my twenties and struggling to finish one or two poems a semester, it didn't occur to me that I might see Levine again, much less become his friend.
From San Diego State I went to the University of California Irvine for the MFA and began to write reviews. The first I published was of 1933. No one seemed to notice that I was still a kid in my mid twenties, and I placed that review and others without too much trouble. At Irvine, two of my best friends were poets Jon Veinberg and Gary Soto, both from Fresno and former students of Levine's. I started visiting them in Fresno and occasionally we would drop by Levine's for a chat or drink, though I was not entirely comfortable doing so.
After Irvine, I taught part time at several community colleges in southern California until Proposition 13 cut the funds from the colleges and put the money in the pockets of big real estate ...read more