Life Advice from Philip Levine

Illustration: On Being / Flickr

What adventure most changed your life?
In 1965, while in my late 30s, I went to live in Barcelona with my wife and two sons. I wanted to learn Spanish. And I wanted to discover if I could live outside the United States. At that time, Barcelona was a lot like Detroit – ­industrial, polluted, grimy, and it had a working class. That year I didn't make much money, but I had a lot of time to write – and hours and hours to be with my kids. It was one of the best things I ever did with my life.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
In Spain a poet named Tom McGrath read my work. He said, "Let me tell you about your writing life. You know a lot; you can do a lot. What you have to do now is nothing but write until you're 50." He said these are the years of maximum output and don't throw them away. Worry about money later. I took that very seriously.


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How should a man handle success?
Accept the fact that one year you'll be the guy, and a few years later, people will say, "Who? Oh, yeah, I remember him. He's still alive?"

How should a man best face his fears?
Fears are often so irrational. The best thing to do is just to think of something else.

What essential tool should every man own?
Life is much more comfortable when you're wearing underwear.

What should every man know about women?
That they have what everybody wants. I was working with a guy in Detroit – I was married to my first wife at the time – and he said one thing you've got to do is try to be faithful to her. I said, Yeah, okay, but why? He said, "It's something I learned the hard way. Women can give away more with a teaspoon than men can with a snow shovel." He was saying, you think you can get away with stuff, but not compared to what a woman can do.

What's the best way to stay out of trouble?
Keep your mouth shut. One late night in 1980, on the New York City subway, I was coming home with my wife from a party uptown and was pretty drunk. These two guys came on – one was a big hulking guy, and the other was little. They sat across from us, and the little guy said, "Give us your watch and your purse, or I'm going to unleash this son of a bitch, and he'll kill you." My wife said, "What do we do?" I said, "Nothing." The guy started screaming, "Come on, you dog-brained faggots!" My wife turned to me and said, "They think I'm in drag." And we started howling with laughter. At the next stop, they got off. I don't recommend this.

What's the best cure for a hangover?
Don't drink.

What's the best cure for heartache?

When is it okay for a man to lie?
Well, certainly to his mother. Don't let your parents worry. Present them with a placid, healthy life, even if you're not living it.

What book should every man experience?
'The Great Gatsby.' I remember the first time I read it, I was up late finishing it, and the next day I woke up and said, I'm going to read this again and discover how he did it. It was just exquisite.

What should every man know about work?
It never ends. And for God's sake, try to get a job that you like. Because if you have a job that you like, it doesn't matter that it doesn't end.

How should a man handle getting old?
Badly. There isn't any other way. Break all the mirrors in the house.

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