Remembering, honoring Poet Laureate Philip Levine

Philip Levine

~ By Jefferson Beavers, Communications Specialist for the Department of English, reprinted from

California State University, Fresno continues to find new ways to honor the late U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor emeritus of English, more than two years after his death.

In May 2017, Fresno State dedicated the new Philip Levine Reading Room inside the Henry Madden Library, a room that now houses Levine’s extensive collection of more than 2,000 books. Levine’s wife, Frances, donated their personal library, a gift made to inspire future generations of poets and readers.

The reading room’s opening is the latest in the University’s work to honor Levine and his contributions to poetry and to the working-class writers of the Central Valley:

  • Philip Levine Prize for Poetry — This annual book contest with national and international reach is staffed by graduate students in the Master of Fine Arts program, giving them professional publishing and editing experience. The contest, which began in 2001 and featured Levine himself as final judge four times, offers a $2,000 prize and publication by Anhinga Press.
  • Philip Levine Scholarship in Creative Writing — One scholarship is awarded each fall to a deserving student based on compelling writing and artistic potential in creative writing, with preference given to a third-year student in the Master of Fine Arts program. The scholarship was established in 2012 and became endowed in 2015. Three graduate students have now been directly supported by the endowment.
  • “Picaresque” wine blend — Levine and wife Fran worked closely with Fresno State winemakers to create a limited edition wine blend, in honor of Levine being named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011. Levine chose the winning label design from a contest involving graphic design students. Proceeds from the wine helped fund the Levine scholarship, and they also benefitted the Department of Viticulture and Enology.

After his retirement in 1992, Levine remained significantly involved in the graduate Master of Fine Arts program, which was established in 1995, according to English Department faculty Corrinne Hales. She said he was always willing to visit a class, attend readings, talk with students and teach mini-courses. His early work fundraising for the scholarship in his name has left a particular impact.

“The scholarship endowment helps to support a third-year MFA student during the thesis part of the degree, and I’m certain Phil would be thrilled to see the work these young writers are able to do with this extra support,” Hales said. “The Levine scholarship is both a huge honor and a practical necessity for our students, and it’s one of the many ways that Phil continues to contribute to the education of Fresno State students.”

Levine’s longtime colleague Peter Everwine, a fellow poet and professor emeritus of English who taught alongside his Iowa Writers’ Workshop colleague for decades at Fresno State, said Levine took particular pride in making the wine blend that would generate the early proceeds for his scholarship.

“Phil received great pleasure in having a wine named after him,” Everwine said. “He had many national honors, but only Fresno State named a special bottling for him, and that delighted him. A wine from this Valley, one he helped to blend. What a splendid honor that was to a wine buff!”

Upon releasing the wine in 2012, Levine said: “Some things in life are a pure joy, and the creation of this wine is one of them.”

Hales said Levine also cared deeply about the success of the poetry prize that bears his name, consulting from the contest’s beginning by serving as final judge four times, offering his expertise and advice to contest coordinators and the publishers, and always attending the publication readings for the winners. She said Levine was particularly pleased to lend his name to help a new collection of poems get out into the world.

In 2015, there were a record 915 Levine Prize submissions from all over the world; in 2016, there were 805 submissions. The 2017 contest is underway now, with a deadline of Sept. 30. The latest winner will be announced in January 2018.

“For the poets who enter this contest, and especially for those who win, this is a major literary connection with one of our greatest poets,” said Hales, who now coordinates the prize. “I never forget that the contest carries Phil’s name, which brings with it high expectations of integrity and excellence, and helps to keep the contest process focused on what mattered most to Phil: the writing.”

And the writing lives on in the new Philip Levine Reading Room, not just in the books that are housed there, but also in the writing being crafted there.

Joseph I. Castro, the university’s president, said at the reading room’s dedication that he felt the space inside the library was waiting for this purpose.

“Students and faculty and staff can come and read and reflect and write,” Castro said. “I’m confident that we will continue to produce extraordinary leaders here at Fresno State because of the incredible faculty we’ve had like Phil.”

The room was created to be both a beautiful space and a useable space for poetry and literary arts, said Hales, who is currently teaching the graduate poetry workshop in the room. The student writers sit at a table with a wall of windows on one side overlooking the university’s Peace Garden and a wall of bookshelves on the other side housing Levine’s personal library.

“It’s an exceptional experience,” Hales said. “This is not a static shrine, or even a monument, but an inspiring and vital workspace that connects us in a very physical way to Phil and what he read, taught, believed and wrote. It feels like Phil is there with us in some way.”

Everwine said the room honors not only an exceptional poet but an exceptional teacher, mentor and model for young men and women of the Valley. He said the flowering of creative talent here that began with Levine’s arrival in 1958 marked Fresno as an important place on the literary map, a designation that continues.

“I would hope that those who come to Phil’s reading room would recognize not only a tribute to a man but also the ongoing aspirations of students and writers,” Everwine said, “a space devoted to Fresno’s literary history and its creative continuity.”

Jefferson Beavers is the communication specialist for the Department of English. If you’re interested in supporting the Levine reading room or scholarship, please contact Becky Brown in the College of Arts and Humanities development office.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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