WILLIAMSTOWN -- Jeffrey Levine is not a "typical" poet, at least not by the Romantic standards of chronic illness and scandalous liaisons set forth by Keats and Shelley. He has a black sweater and chunky scarves, not to mention two collections of poetry under his belt -- his latest is "Rumor of Cortez" (Red Hen Press, 2005). Yet Levine is quick to laugh at himself and at the world. And he holds no grand illusions that poetry will reveal life's deepest meaning, but that has never stopped him from trying.
Levine, who is also the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Tupelo Press at North Adams' Eclipse Mill, will read his work, and perhaps from his raw copy, at Williams College tonight at 4 p.m. Far from retreating into the somber shadows, he welcomes any chance to interact with an audience by way of words.
"I'm a performance extrovert. I've done readings all over the country, at least 300 maybe, but this is my first locally," he said. "It's a tremendous vote of confidence and very satisfying to be standing at a podium where other amazing writers have stood."
Perhaps he is not giving himself nearly enough credit but that is the mark of a typical poet. Levine's work has earned him many accolades, including the James Hearst Poetry Prize and the 2007 American Literary Review Poetry Prize, but he will never rest on his laurels. He has far too much to write about and ponder over.
"I try to express very universal feelings -- love, sex, death, life. All poets do. But these are seen by one non-universal man, me," he said. "I'm exploring and exploding the moment, if that makes sense. There's just enough structure there to grasp it. I don't intentionally seek to be obscure. There is a certain amount of the elliptical in the writing. I never write poems that just stay still."
From Rome to the Ga lapagos, from Orpheus to Adam and Eve, Levine finds linguistic and narrative inspiration in setting and circumstance, some dreamed up, some real. All of this creative globe-trotting is in keeping with his own energy, which, aside from midnight oil moments (he is working on a third collection that Knopf is eying), is primarily devoted to keeping his active Indie press running so that other writers can know the joy of seeing their ink on the page. And apparently this country has no shortage of poets these days.
"There is a creative overlap for me as an artist and time spent getting other artists noticed," Levine said. "I spend 80 hours a week with Tupelo, but the press has enormous rewards. I read countless thousands of poems that come across my desk. There are so many indicators that people are writing -- 5,000 MFA grads a year, 20,000 books of poetry published every year -- it seems to have a life of its own. The stuff survives. It's Darwinian."
Levine's life as a word creator and purveyor is what prompted Lawrence Raab, Williams College's Morris Professor of Rhetoric and himself an award-winning poet, to extend an invitation to read.
"I thought people should know about him and his work, because he's a well-regarded poet with two books and a third on the way, and because he runs a highly regarded and very active small press," Raab said. "What I personally like about Jeffrey's poems is that they are both serious and playful, and always interested in the twists and turns of language, a combination I admire, and wish my students to be exposed to."
Raab also has plans to invite Levine back to Williams after the reading, to be a judge for the college's annual Academy of American Poets contest -- one of the many twists and turns of the life of a man who sometimes has to sequester himself in a remote corner of the library just to get his own poetry done. But he doesn't seem to mind.
"I seem to be in less of a hurry," Levine said. "I respect the work on the page much more. The longer it sits, the more discoveries you make. Besides, publishing a book or two doesn't change the life of the writer. Not that much. It's mostly about the discovery."