I grew up playing tennis and surfing in those days when municipal courts and parking lots were open and free. Home was the foothills and the beaches of Montecito and Santa Barbara. Movie stars and the ridiculously rich lived there but you did not have to be one to do so. My father worked as a radio DJ, my mother was a secretary for the public schools, yet we built our own home on a full acre in the foothills. I had no idea my life was charmed. I’d never heard of Fresno.
I attended Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and did much better in sports than in arithmetic, though I always completed my grammar homework for Sr. Julie. Switching from a Business Administration to an English Major in college, there was still little to indicate that I would become a writer. We were being drafted and sent to die in Vietnam for the political capital of Nixon and LBJ, Bank of America, Colt Manufacturing, Northrop Grumman et al. Out of college, I was focusing on staying alive, teaching tennis, working nights at a liquor store until the first draft lottery when I pulled a lucky number that meant I would not be compelled to risk my life for nothing.
I felt like I’d been given a free pass to life—I had. So I said, What the Hell, rolled the dice and enrolled in a M.A. program in creative writing. In my first semester of graduate school at San Diego State University I found myself again very fortunate, though I did not realize that right away. Glover Davis, my first workshop teacher, was one of the early group of poets who had studied with Philip Levine and Peter Everwine at Fresno State, and I’ve written elsewhere about how tough and generous Glover was. I’d had a very traditional English major education at St. Mary’s College in northern California, and so the first books of contemporary poetry I ever read were They Feed They Lion and Collecting the Animals in that first class with Glover, 1972. I soon discovered the anthology Down At The Santa Fe Depot and the poetry of Larry Levis, Luis Omar Salinas and many others. These books and poets, and Glover’s rigorous approach to writing, gave me my poetic life, though I had little idea where it was going to lead or if I’d ever get any where at all.
After San Diego State I entered UC Irvine for the MFA where I met Jon Veinberg and Gary Soto, both Levine students from Fresno, and to this day two of my best and oldest friends in poetry. However, it did not seem as if we would be great friends after our first workshop together. I had no idea who Gary Soto was, but he was the star poet in the workshop and had already published in places like The Iowa Review, POETRY, and The Nation, and so had more poetic medals on this chest than the rest of the room combined. In those days I carried a shoulder book bag that a friend had made for me from thick leather. It was big and beat up and somewhere Soto described it as large enough to house a V8! I pulled out the worksheet and a pen and jumped into the critique. Soto had a longer poem up first and I suggested that the next to last stanza should be cut. Soto clearly was not used to much criticism and looked across the room at me and said, “Maybe you just don’t understand the poem?” To which I replied, “I understand it just fine; that stanza is weak and has to go.” He was not pleased. Having had two and half years of graduate workshops with Glover, I shrugged it off; it was his poem, his funeral I thought smugly. We were in our early 20s, and no one was afraid to throw a few metaphorical elbows. After class though, Soto came up to me and asked if I would like to go get a “Coke.” “A what?” I said. “Hey, we’re graduate students, right? Not Boy Scouts,” I said. ? I knew there was a college bar across the street from campus called the Spritzgarden, and so I said, “I’ll go for a beer.” And Veinberg seconded that motion. It had been Jon who convinced Soto that my comments were well founded and would help the poem, and so that encouraged him to try and make friends, which we did, over a beer. Gary soon became known as “two-can Soto” due to his inability to drink more than two beers and remain cogent, so I think we talked stretching out a single beer.
From that time forward, I became Soto’s main poetry editor, helping him with all of his poetry books except Junior College. While we were in the MFA program, I began driving up to Fresno and spending weekends and holidays at Jon’s—the first time in spring, all the almonds, crepe myrtle and plums blossoming—what a wonderful place I thought. I still recall Gary and Carolyn Soto’s wedding there near the end of our time at Irvine. A large outdoor affair in late spring, a perfect almost beatific light filtering through the stands of eucalyptus, the sensational chicken mole and Spanish champagne, Veinberg in his rented Best Man’s tux and his usual gold Converse tennis shoes. Gary in his tux looked like the leader of a small time Latin Orchestra. Tim Sheehan, Jon, and I had driven up to share in the celebration. At Irvine, we had complained consistently enough about the same in-house workshop teachers quarter after quarter, that they hired Peter Everwine to drive down once a week from Fresno while he was on leave with a Guggenheim. He taught our last quarter there and so rescued what had been—aside from Diane Wakoski visiting and teaching our first quarter—two years of a moribund program. Peter especially helped me keep my head above the metaphorical waters . . . I was not writing well by the end of my time there and he had me reading new poets and thinking in larger terms of voice and strategy, and that kept me from wasting my time on failed poems.
I began teaching part-time at several community colleges around Orange County—all composition, no poetry. But when Prop 13 passed and the budget cuts hit, the jobs dried up and I moved to Fresno. I had good friends there, there was an amazing community of poets, and there was part-time teaching at Fresno State. Composition classes at 8:00, 9:00, and 11:00 am, MWF, students nodding off in the first row in the 8:00 class despite my intriguing lectures on parallel construction. 75 essays to correct each weekend. Baseball got me through the papers along with a huge armchair from the Salvation Army with large flat arms on which I stacked the essays—the Cubs, Giants, and Braves usually on one channel or the other as I sat there all day Saturday and Sunday. If the Dodgers won, the grades were usually a bit higher. But I had a job, was getting by. Burning the candle at both ends and in the middle, I wrote add copy to pay the bills and somehow managed to write a few poems as well. I was young and grateful. I wasn’t paid much; but there were bonuses.
I was 29 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 who had published in the better journals. I was feeling a bit left behind in the dust, with my three early morning classes of composition to teach. But soon—as I said at the memorial held for Phil on the campus of Fresno State in February 2016—I received the major poetry award of my life: I was assigned to share an office with Phil. For a couple years then I sat at my desk correcting papers, waiting for Phil to arrive in the afternoon, 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 future.
“You’re telling me life is not fair?” Phil said to one day when I was complaining about some mediocre book winning a contest. He didn’t let you feel sorry for yourself. His advice and care were essential in getting me through those early years—he emphasized the value of work for its own worth, patience, fortitude, modesty, dedication, and honesty, especially with regard to yourself. And there was no who gave so much of his time, gifts, insight and experience. Over the years, Phil was incredibly generous, something I can never adequately repay, and I expect many feel this debt. I also befriended Chuck Hanzlicek there. I still remember the day he was assigned to observe one of my composition classes and wrote one of the , most witty and irreverent reports I’ve ever read that put the whole process in true perspective; it opened with comments on the student in the front of the class applying lavender lipstick while I was assiduously declaiming the pitfalls of the comma splice. There were other rewards. Peter Everwine and I wrote a grant proposal and received money to keep a poetry reading series going and to bring in poets for a few semesters and that kept the energy up for the whole local poetry community.
I had rented an old clapboard house on Arthur Street with a backyard and a garden where our crew of young poets spent a lot of time. I had two old hibachis and often times huge dinner franks from Hestbecks Meat Market or some skinny chicken legs sizzled on the grills. When I could afford to, I picked up hard biscuits, sweet butter, and some Caragane from Piemonte’s at $2.50 a bottle, which was the ceiling of the wine budget then. Omar Salinas especially liked those biscuits with the butter. Often the group of poets would gather at my house late afternoon for a beer. As the light began to fade, we’d start thinking of dinner as I did not always have provisions on hand. We’d then start peeking into our wallets to see who had any money and count up our collective cash. We needed $4.95 a head plus tax and tip to hit the chicken dinner at the Santa Fe Basque Restaurant. Usually we had to count down to the change in our pockets to cover Omar and Leonard. If things totaled up favorably, we headed down town to the best dinner we knew. Half a perfectly cooked chicken, but first all the extras: bread, a plate of celery, carrots, olives and salami, then salad with shrimp and potato salad, or if it was Friday, the rice and clams, my favorite, (tongue on Thursday’s, Veinberg’s favorite) then soup, then the huge half of chicken. We ate everything brought to the table and were often full by the time the entre arrived, and so most of us left with a white plastic “doggie bag” of chicken—no money left to be waylaid by the long beautiful bar and a snifter of Fundador—looking like thieves in the night, bags in hand slipping out the front door into the night. But that only happened if Veinberg was truly full, for no one cleaned a chicken bone like Jon, not a scrap of meat, skin, or gristle remained as the bones stacked up on his plate in a kind of ziggurat and glistened like porcelain. Once it was such a perfect radiant pile that Adame pulled out his camera and took a shot. No one made any money from poetry then; most of us hardly made any money full stop. But we had poems and our camaraderie to share, and sometimes we managed to feast, it seemed, like successful novelists.
Veinberg, Leonard Adame, Omar Salinas, and Soto would regularly come by, Ernesto Trejo often, sometimes Gary Young and Tim Sheehan over from Santa Cruz. Some might have new poems to pass around and we’d talk about them before adjourning to pitch bocce ball and sip beverages through the afternoon and into the warm evening. I ran a long extension cord from the house to the back yard and plugged in my small portable TV on top of the picnic table, adjusted the rabbit ears, and we watched baseball or on occasion a heavy weight title fight. One fall evening I remember our rowdy group assembling inside before the old TV to watch Live from the Met, a production of Carmen. We were silent, captivated absolutely as Carmen and the cigarette girls chorused and sashayed across the stage to the habanera in stunning black and white. Nearing 30, we were, against our instincts, beginning to acquire cultural predilections.
October of 1979 I had a packed living room after purchasing—on a payment plan—a portable color TV, the first color set any of us owned. A postage stamp screen by today’s standards, but six or seven of us pulled chairs in a semi circle five feet away from the 12” screen and enjoyed each game, most of us supporting Pittsburgh. After four games, Baltimore, with over 102 wins that season, was leading 3-1. Leonard Adame thought he saw an opportunity for an easy buck and offered to bet me $10 on a Baltimore victory. Baltimore had the pitching—Jim Palmer, Steve Stone, Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan, easily superior to Pittsburgh and needed only one more game to close out the series. Leonard never had any money, but he felt he had a sure thing if I took the sucker bet, which I did. I just had a hunch. Willie Stargell ended up hitting .400 with seven extra-base hits and Clemente hit safely in every game; the Pirates won in seven, all of them tight pitching match-ups. I think that was one bet Leonard actually paid off, though he still owes me and others on a number of other bets. Veinberg is still waiting to be paid $20 for the Ali v. Holmes fight in October of 1980. Ali, at his age, had no business fighting; he was long past it and records later showed he was in the first stages of Parkinsons. Jon hated to bet against his idol, his favorite, but Leonard kept goading him and Jon took Holmes finally just to shut him up. Ali’s corner threw in the towel in round 10 of a scheduled 15 round bout. It was sad. Jon had his empty hand out as Leonard left through the front door.
I managed to keep the bills paid supplementing my teaching salary working at Soto’s brother’s Graphic Design business. Time away from my own writing, but I was lucky to have the work. I would meet with Rick and his clients and work up ad copy for the newspaper and magazine ads he designed. It was trying work sometimes, but the extra check now and then kept me afloat. Rick did excellent work and we tried to keep the copy fresh. Nevertheless after a few very nice adds for the Olive Advisory Board that were featured in Cuisine and Bon Appetite, they did not hire us for more, and went with some firm that trotted out the old Kraft Foods cliché, “Simply Delicious.” I remember the owner of Baldwin’s Jewelers not caring what we wrote as long as there were enough arrows pointing to the promotional Mother’s Day cake in the ad. You could never tell with business men.
I then took on the Area Coordinator’s job for the Poets In The School program. I’d meet with teachers and administrators in high schools and junior highs, and pitch the advantage of classes in poetry writing as a support for language skills and the arts. It worked most of the time and I taught workshops with the MGM (advanced) students as well at the Title 1, seventh graders who were reading at 3rd grade level. The seventh graders especially perked up and enjoyed writing with the Soto poems I brought in as models as they saw they could write about their own lives in pretty much their own language. I lived month-to-month, little if anything left over at the end. But what a great two years. I shared an office with Phil; Peter Everwine and I hosted visiting poets; Veinberg and I traded help with poems almost every week. Ernesto Trejo came to town when he wasn’t working in Mexico City for the government as an economics advisor. I still remember Ernesto coming over to the house on Arthur Street with his first child, Victor, bald and bundled up in a white blanket, looking like a small Pope as he reached a hand out to bless a bunch of us who had been sitting in the living room going over our new poems. Ernesto was a wonderful poet and one of the sweetest people you could ever meet. And Omar Salinas who usually lived with his aunt and uncle in Sanger, moved into town for a while and Jon and I helped him find an apartment. He stopped by at all hours, and each time I would take him in my study and put him in front of my large Royal office typer and we would work on his new poems and rewrites, the scraps in his pockets, as he chain smoked KOOLS. I’d open the window to the street and put a box fan on behind him to flush the smoke. We got a lot of work done writing and typing up Afternoon of the Unreal and Prelude to Darkness. It was then that I unconsciously signed on as Omar’s main editor and secretarial assistant, a relationship that lasted the rest of his life. Omar, moved in with Jon for a while on Brown Street and worked pre-fabricated construction for a couple weeks on the night shift, but it proved too much for him finally and he moved back with his relatives. His real and only job was writing poetry, and he would show up on weekends usually, and we all would sit in the back of Jon’s house—cheap beer and chicharones on the picnic table, sausages on the grill—and take notes as Omar extemporaneously recited odes to the apricot tree, Jon’s dog Moses, or his exploits as a Romancero, a buccaneer of love.
For two years at Fresno State I taught three miserable sections of composition a semester, a full time load for which I was paid part-time, but I was happy—writing a lot, living among the fog and fruit trees, the sycamores with leaves the size of dinner plates, among so many wonderful poets and friends. Then, a full-time position came up at UC Santa Barbara, and I took it and moved back home. It was good to be by the sea, to escape the scorching Fresno summers and the barely efficient swamp coolers; but it wasn’t long before I was driving back up to Fresno, sitting out into the night under clear skies, visiting with my compadres, comparing drafts and metaphors beneath the porch light and the stars.
There is an old adage which says that sometimes, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn, and so it happened for Jon and myself. I had finally landed a creative writing position (not without two sections of composition still attached) at Murray State in Kentucky, and Jon was working mental health at one Fresno hospital or another in 1983. Back in graduate school we had dreamed that if we were ever lucky enough to receive NEA grants, and further lucky enough to get them at the same time, we would drop what we were doing and head to Europe. Soto, who had been a judge that year, gave us both a call when all the awarding was over and told us the good news. To Gary’s credit, he is rigorously honest in these matters and recused himself when our mss. came through. Jon’s was approved unanimously, and mine just squeaked through, thanks, he said, to a senior woman poet speaking up for it. Nadya was teaching art at Murray, and had simply had enough of the south and the good old boys there; she quit her job having saved up a little money, and planned on returning to her loft in New Jersey. I had only been there a year, but with an NEA I could take leave without pay. So together with Jon, the three of us set off with only a general itinerary; we were still in our early 30s and figured we could move about and travel as easily as when we were in our early 30s, which did not prove to be the case.
At the suggestion of Peter Everwine, who knew the territory, we spent a week in Lerici and Cinque Terra on the northwest coast of Italy. Peter said it was the best Italian seafood we would ever eat and the white wine, which never traveled out of the region, was wonderful. He was right on both counts. We found the best small restaurant in Lerici, the Il Parma, and basically walked around the town and up and down the coast until it was time for lunch; then we walked some more until it was time for dinner. Somewhere in there we were making a few notes, but not really trying to draft poems; we were enjoying the experience knowing we might not be able to again. At Il Parma, we had everything on the menu, and at lunch especially always loved the zuppa de vedura with the Genovese touch of garlic and basil. Still I think the best restaurant I have ever eaten at. On our last day in Lerici, we were sitting in a bar waiting for opening time for lunch, nursing a Cynar, a bitter liqueur made from 13 herbs and plants. Predominant among these is the artichoke. Cynar is brown, has a bittersweet flavor, and is among a group of digestivos knows as Amaros. For poor writers and artists, folks from Fresno, Santa Barbara, and Hoboken, we were becoming quite the connoisseurs, though we knew these were no habits we could sustain. Sitting there, looking at our watches, the owner of the Il Parma was heading over to us; having seen us twice a day for over a week he knew us and sat down to ask if we were waiting for the restaurant to open. We of course said No, we were just enjoying an early Cynar, which was only half a lie. He said he thought he was going to disappoint us as the restaurant was closed for a private wedding reception. We missed our last best meal and made do somewhere else that faded instantly from memory. I wished then that I was a restaurant or travel writer as the menu at Il Parma was worth several pages, if not a poem or two.
We soon figured out that we could not stand up to so much traveling, and then planned to spend a month in Castelldefels, the beach community near Barcelona. We were there just in time for the off-season to begin and hence the good rates. The best thing was that Phil Levine had stayed there on one or two of his trips to Spain and recommended the people and the company that rented apartments, said to mention his name. Which we did. The man running the company remembered Phil very fondly and gave us great rates and loaned us a typewriter for free for the time we were there. We rested up, read, Nadya did some drawing, and we wrote up our notes for poems. We developed a taste for Fino in the afternoons along with olives and peanuts on the veranda, the light blurring through the pines along the seafront. We were doubly lucky as the exchange rate for the dollar stretched our grant money, and when we moved to Paris in November we received twice the rate in Francs that the dollar usually fetched. We still dressed like grad students and unknown poets, but we ate and drank like minor princes.
Through the late ‘80s and well into the ‘90s I was sentenced to teach in Pennsylvania at a fourth rate state college for my sins. But every chance I had, I stretched summer and Christmas breaks with un-paid and underpaid poetry readings in California—I’d take anything to get back home. My wife Nadya and I would escape the snow and land in Palm Springs to stay with my mother. We’d then borrow her car and drive to Fresno. I would go along with Jon on Saturday mornings to Sanger to take Omar out to breakfast, something he did without fail until Omar’s passing. When I finally managed to land a job back in southern California, I’d still drive up to Fresno every few months and sit out with Jon, drinking a lite beer and recalling the great poets we’d lost—Ernesto Trejo, Larry Levis, Chuck Moulton, and Omar among the others. We’d visit with Phil and Franny, Peter, Chuck and Diane Hanzlicek, walk through the Tower district praising the old pines and grand houses, and stop into Piemonte’s for a sandwich, for the rich nostalgic air of good times already gone.
I am always, it seems, planning a trip to Fresno, staying with my friends and fellow poets Jon Veinbeg and Dixie Salazar. For several years, my wife Nadya and I would go thrifting with Dixie who was a regular at all the best thrift stores, and we’d return home with the car full of tables and lamps and imitation Leopard collar jackets and such. Dixie is a painter as well as a poet and she has a big studio down town—Fresno now a place where artists can afford space in the old central area. Nadya, also a painter, is always interested in Dixie’s latest work and we head down for a private showing and then cross the street to Emerald Thrift and a couple adjacent stores. Jon usually finds a chair and observes the mental processes of the shoppers. And not long ago there were trips to celebrate Philip Levine’s appointment as U.S. Poet laureate, and a short time later his 85th Birthday—spectacular and energy-filled occasions among friends of many years. The speeches were smart, funny, appropriate, and mercifully short. At his 85th luncheon Phil stood to say a few words in thanks after the speeches, and, looking around the room at many people he had known for forty years or more, said, “Sitting here for the last half hour I have been wondering—Do I look as terrible as all of you?” And the room roared in laughter. Most of us see each other regularly, or we might not recognize one another? Sharp, witty as ever, Phil and over sixty of us had a wonderful afternoon celebrating his generosity and genius centered for fifty years or more in Fresno.
A ritual for the last few years and one of my favorite things to do in Fresno, is a visit with Peter Everwine. Jon rounds up whoever is in town, and we all go out for a nice dinner together and visit afterwards at Jon and Dixie’s for a drink. But usually beforehand, on a Friday or Saturday afternoon, Jon and I drive a few blocks over to Peter’s house. I save up my best bottle of pinot for these occasions and Peter matches it with something he has turned up and the three of us sit in his living room and relive the past, laugh, tell lies, and read an occasional poem to one another as the sunlight streams through the sycamores with its approval and support. So much good will and friendship, it is almost beatific . . . at least as close as we are likely to come on earth. And where else are we headed? Fresno—as silly as this may sound—is something like a spiritual home to me—home of the best people, poets, and poetry I know.
Here I am then, recently retired from teaching, a few weeks back from 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. Here is the core of what I had to say that day.
We are of course preaching to the converted when it comes to the importance and accomplishment of Phil’s poetry—for the last 40 years or more he was our preeminent poet. No one like him ever. Phil’s poetry of Work emphasized, in blazing detail, the dignity of the worker, of the individual, & was singular in American letters. But it was maybe half of what he accomplished. The media articles for his appointment as Poet Laureate, followed later by the many obituaries, pointed only to this. It is important, however, to remember the poems of the Spanish Civil War, the lyric narratives cherishing family, the translations from the Spanish, & the incredible long poems throughout his career—no one, I mean absolutely no one, wrote as many inventive and brilliant long poems over the last 50 years. And finally, often overlooked, are Phil’s metaphysical poems, those unique poems in which he forged a secular spiritualism envisioning hope for our spirits and our lives and praising our collective being. The poem “Ascension” on your broadside keepsake today is a great example. We are grateful for the entire range and genius of all of his poetry.
But we are even more grateful for the man; our friend, comrade, father, husband, and mentor. There was no one more generous with his time, gifts, insight and experience. There are 4 anthologies of his students who went on to publish and have careers in poetry. As I look out today, I see a lot of talent, so much so that perhaps some could have gone on to realize their accomplishments and careers without the inspiration and mentoring, the brilliant teaching and support Phil gave them. I certainly could not have. There has been no one over the last half century who has given more to students, to poets and poetry, than Phil. With scant exception, every one of us has a life in poetry, and hence a life, because we knew or studied with Philip Levine, no one more generous.
The most notable name on that list of students is Larry Levis, the genius of his generation, and Larry gives full credit to Phil. When I was editing the Univ. of Michigan Press book, On the Poetry of Philip Levine Stranger to Nothing, I asked Larry to write an original essay for the collection, and the result was “Philip Levine” an essay which is the hallmark of the book, a remembrance at once hilarious in recalling Phil in the classroom in the ‘60s, and poignant in its tribute and testament to the value of great teachers. Speaking to Phil’s generosity, how essential he was to all of our lives, Larry of course says it better than I ever can:
“To attempt to be at all objective about my friend and my first teacher Philip Levine is impossible for
me. For 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. . . .
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. . .