Albion College hosted a poetry reading on March 2nd featuring Rowan Ricardo Phillips, a New York native and associate professor of English at Stony Brook University. Phillips gave an hour-long reading from his award-winning book, The Ground, which features a lively array of lyrical mastery musing on a Post 9/11 New York City.
The Ground boasts the 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry, the 2013 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer Award in Poetry, and was a finalist for the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry.
Phillips also read from his upcoming book, Heaven, which he recently signed with a publisher. The Pleiad was able to sit with him before his reading and ask him a few questions.
The Pleiad: Do you write poetry in any languages other than English, given your work as a translator?
Phillips: I have written poems in Spanish and Catalan. It isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but I’ve been asked to or I’ve written light verse sometimes.
Do you feel that your poems shape shift from written to spoken word?
I read slowly. I like to think that when I read I am fully taken over by the form. But I don’t think that I read in a way that you can hear the form, I think that I read in a way so you can hear the language. Sometimes the form is an engagement with the eye and not always an engagement with the ear. And that is what is marvelous about poetry, that play between what is seen and what is heard. When I read I like the idea that you’re hearing how it is in my head, but that doesn’t mean that it is the only way. But the important thing for me before the form in reading it is the language.
What type of poetry do you like?
I am a fan of all poetry. I don’t see any intellectual good in shutting yourself off from any aspect of poetry.
You use so many different structures in your poetry, do you feel that the spirit of the poem lends itself to its own unique structure?
I think that each poem, like each person, has its particular soul. I think that a poem is an object that has in it a particular heartbeat with a diastole and a systole [the expansion and contraction of the heart] and poets at their best can hear that when their forming a poem. You get rid of anything that’s extra, you trim all of the fat and you’re left with what is urgent and real. What’s beautiful about poetry is that you don’t need it until you need it…it is a way into feeling what we share, which is language and the heights and depths of our emotions. I like to be kind of capacious, there should be people thinking about all different ways to make poetry work. I’m not very fundamentalist in my taste, I’m open.
How does 9/11 fit into your poetry?
I don’t know that it does. When 9/11 happened, I remember very clearly that I said I was never going to write poetry about 9/11. I’m not what is called an, “occasional poet,” which means that when there is an occasion they pop up and write about it. But what happened for me, being born and raised in New York is that the landscape and the cityscape that was so familiar changed. I’m an avid walker; I’m always looking up, kind of into the atmosphere, and being in New York and doing that and seeing what was missing seeped into these poems. How could it not, right? But for me it was very much what happened and being there, and having lived my entire life there. So it wasn’t really that I wanted to write September 11th poems, it was more my mind dealing with the reality of that change, when you look up it’s not there anymore. In a better world, there would have been no September 11th poems to write.
What do you enjoy and gain from teaching poetry?
Teaching poetry makes me feel very young because you get a rare adrenaline rush from doing it, but it makes me feel old at the same time because you end up in inevitably repeating yourself. You’ve taught this in 2010 and now you’re teaching it again in 2014, you always like to think that you are doing something in your life outside of the classroom that the students share, but the older that you get the less that is true. What I really like about teaching poetry in particular is that there seems to be these stakes involved for students and I’m very empathetic to that, the sense that this isn’t a Political Science or Biology class, this is a class that folks can ask “Why are you taking this class?” The idea or the kind of horror that you have with college is that everything that you’re doing should lead to a job. So if you don’t have the aspiration to be a poet, what are you doing when you are taking a poetry class? Well, to engage in poetry. I love that students take that risk and that leap, and like to build themselves as a human being. It’s very easy and scary to think about this, but you can go through four years of college and really not have to talk about anything that has to do with really how you live. You really learn how to have empathy and learn how to be a citizen through the humanities—and without that we lose something really vital to ourselves. The history of poetry is the history of us dealing with ourselves. For me being able to show students a poem from the fourteenth century that can resonate with them is invigorating and fun.