“My One Great Teacher”
Of the numerous poets and writers I’ve had the privilege to call my teachers (including Simone Di Piero, Peter Everwine, Ken Fields, Terry Hummer, Cynthia Huntington, Denise Levertov, Jim McMichael, and Michael Ryan on a long-term basis and Joseph Brodsky, Thom Gunn, Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Kizer, Robert Pinsky, and Derek Walcott on a short-term basis—all talented teachers), my one great teacher was Philip Levine.
Phil’s greatness stems partly from his incredibly demanding criticism in a poetry writing workshop; he understood that because poetry matters, poets should put tremendous demands on their work. He emphasized to his student poets that they should never settle for what they can do; rather, he spurred generations of ambitious bards to strive for what is always beyond their reach. And his laser-like criticism was often delivered with the kind of memorable humor that could sting the thin-skinned among us—but the effect was well-intended: We never forgot what point he was making, for he knew that we learned from our peers’ less than ideal creations. But if Phil liked something in a poem, he was also quick to praise; if one earned praise from Phil, one walked on clouds for weeks. His criticism and his irreverent nature spurred me to study with him for five semesters over a number of years (the last time I took his poetry workshop I had already used up all of my repeatable units for his course: the time I spent in his classroom was my reward). He was just a blast to be around.
I was also one of several poets of color who considered Phil to be one of their primary mentors: Leonard Adame, Lawson Inada, Victor Martínez, Andrés Montoya, Luis Omar Salinas, Gary Soto, Ernesto Trejo, and Shirley Williams were among Phil’s undergraduate students at Fresno State. When I consider Phil’s gift as a teacher—to say nothing of his amazing poetry—and the fact that he spent most of his teaching career at Fresno State (what some consider an Ag Tech at best), I realize just how fortunate we were to study with Phil: Most people would have to attend a prestigious, world-class university to study with such a teacher. I know that Phil once applied for a teaching position at a nearby UC campus early in his teaching career, but they decided not to hire him because he didn’t have a Ph.D.—Phil has an M.F.A. from Iowa—that UC campus’ decision was a blessing for students of color at Fresno State.
Robert Vasquez was the inaugural final judge of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. To learn more about him and his work, visit: California Poet.
Lines for Hard Times
Philip Levine reads his defiantly hopeful “They Feed They Lion” and “What Work Is” with commentary by Edward Hirsch.