Next Big Thing
Thank you, Susan Elbe, for kindly tagging me to answer ten questions about my writing. Here’s Susan’s self-interview, posted at her website:
What is your working title of your book or work in progress?
Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine is an anthology I’ve co-edited with poet Tomás Q. Morín. We each have essays in it, too.
As for my own work: since my first full-length poetry collection The Darkened Temple (University of Nebraska Press) was published in September 2008, I’ve been sporadically writing poem by poem, although I don’t know where it’ll eventually lead me; mid-20th century Japan figures in some of the poems thus far. Also, in late November my husband and I relocated from our long-time home in the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles, for personal and professional reasons, and already I’m sensing internal shifts in response to the change in place, culture, and people. I’m curious to see how these shifts manifest in my writing, now that the flurry of moving is finally subsiding.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
In late November of 2011, Tomás contacted me to say he had the idea to put together an anthology of essays by Phil’s former students and mentees, going back to Phil’s early years in Fresno, and invited me to work with him as co-editor. Phil had recently assumed his post as U. S. Poet Laureate and Tomás and I agreed the time was ripe for a tribute that acknowledges Phil’s 50+ years of teaching and mentoring younger poets. We wanted to include contributors who had studied with Phil in the classroom, as well as those who’d benefited from Phil’s mentoring via correspondence and friendship.
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Maybe Ernest Borgnine, if he were alive and played tennis. But, really, no one can play Phil Levine like Phil Levine, and I don’t think anyone wants a dramatic rendition of Phil — in this case, only the real thing will do.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
These heartfelt tributes convey how one dedicated teacher’s intangible gifts can make a profound difference in the life of a developing poet.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published in May 2013 by Prairie Lights Books and distributed by the University of Iowa Press. This is a synchronistic and meaningful collaboration, on several levels. Jane Mead (one-half of Prairie Lights Books, along with her business partner, poet and longtime bookseller Jan Weissmiller) was one of my earliest poetry teachers up in the Bay Area, before I went off to graduate school in New York. While I was Jane’s student, Phil selected her first book The Lord and the General Din of the World for Sarabande’s inaugual Kathryn A. Morton Prize in 1995. Then there’s the Iowa connection, as Phil himself studied at Iowa many years ago, and Jane and Jan are both graduates of the Writers’ Workshop. That’s all to say: many intersecting threads led us to this book!
When Tomás and I were inviting potential contributors, we asked Jane if she’d like to write an essay for the anthology. Ever modest, she politely declined, saying she didn’t feel she had a “true” student-teacher relationship with Phil to merit an essay, even though he’d been a tremendous influence and they’d had sporadic contact since he’d chosen her book. But a seed had been planted, and several weeks later Jane wrote to ask if she and Jan could review the manuscript for their new press, and the rest is history. Jane’s written a fine introduction to the anthology as well.
This is a story of the best kind, when all the pieces come together nearly seamlessly and it’s a win-win arrangement for all involved. Tomás and I are so pleased to usher this collection into the world—for Phil, for his legions of students and readers, and for poetry.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Tomás and I began putting out feelers to potential contributors in November 2011 and submitted our manuscript to the press in late May 2012. Amazingly, all forty essays came together in about six months. A very small handful had been previously published, including Larry Levis’s widely known essay about Phil, but most of them were written for the anthology. We only wish we could have included more contributors, as Phil has taught and mentored hundreds of poets over the years.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
In tone and intention, it bears some resemblance to A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations (2004 W.W. Norton & Co.).
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Phil, of course, and all that he’s given to us as a teacher, mentor, poet, and human.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Readers who don’t know Phil beyond his poetry might be surprised at how intimate many of these essays are, and at how much time and consideration Phil gave to his students, their poems, and even, at times, their personal struggles while he himself taught, wrote and published his own work, and raised a family.
Born in Kobe, Japan, Mari L’Esperance is a poet, writer, and editor who lives in Los Angeles. Her poetry collection The Darkened Temple (2008 University of Nebraska Press) was awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize. An earlier collection, Begin Here, was awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize. With Tomás Q. Morín, she’s edited Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, published in May 2013 by Prairie Lights Books and distributed by the University of Iowa Press. You can read more at www.marilesperance.com.