Philip Levine’s Advice for ‘Making It’ as a Writer

When I was about nineteen I showed my poems to one of my teachers at Wayne. He said these were incredible poems, poems that should be published. I said, “Oh really?”—I was thrilled—“How would I go about doing that?” He walked over to his bookshelf and brought back a copy of Harper’s. He wrote down the name of the editor and said, “Send the poems to him. I met him once at a party, he may remember me. It doesn’t matter, the poems are so good. Just send them.” So I sent them. A month later they came back with a little printed note telling me they didn’t suit their present editorial needs. I was just shocked. I took it to the teacher and said, “Why, you assured me.” He said, “I don’t understand it.” He was a very sweet man, but he didn’t know the first thing about publishing. …

Many young poets have come to me and asked, How am I gonna make it? They feel, and often with considerable justice, that they are being overlooked while others with less talent are out there making careers for themselves. I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able.

-Philip Levine, in the Paris Review (1988).

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