Rowan Ricardo Phillips, English professor and Director of the Poetry Center at Stony Brook University, was recently granted $50,000 from the Whiting Foundation for his first book of poetry, “The Ground,” and to continue his craft.
Phillips, 38, is a native New Yorker, husband and father and in addition to working at Stony Brook, he also is a translator and traveler.
Senior Staff Writer Emily McTavish sat down with Phillips to discuss his book and poetry.
Emily McTavish: For someone who hasn’t read “The Ground” how would you describe it?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: I’d describe it as a love letter to places–probably primarily to New York. You know like I say at the end of that poem “Tonight,” which is about where I was born, “love the place that welcomed you.” But other places as well. I spend half my life in Barcelona, and Stockholm and St. Petersburg and mythical places as well, but it’s a book that is very much in love with places. Not in a tourist sense, but really kind of putting your hands on the ground and seeing how it feels.
EM: A lot of the poems, at least to me, seemed very sensory. Do you think you have a heightened sense?
RRP: I think that poetry is a heightened sensibility, and I’m a poet. I don’t know if I have a heightened sense of anything. I know that I’ve given my life to poetry. Poetry is how I understand the world. When you pay close attention to poetry you’re paying close attention to the senses. How things feel and smell and taste through language. For instance, if you just had a really great apple, and you wanted to tell someone about it you’re left with either saying, “Here, have some of this apple” or explaining it. And that’s trying to find the right senses. We think it’s the right words, but when you’re a poet you’re looking for the right tones and tenses to describe that and to make or re-make sense.
EM: How long did it take you to compile all the work?
RRP: It was published in 2012. It was accepted in 2011 so at that point I must have been 36 or 37. It’s not a life’s work…People sometimes when they want to put together a book of poems, a collection, they think here are the poems I’ve written and now I’m going to put them together. Or these [poems] are published so they must be good so now I’m going to put these together. But, what happens when you put together a book or collection you look for some real type of symphonic weight—something that seems as itself.
You try when you write a book that it is only that thing. “The Ground” is only “The Ground,” but for that reason there are poems that I really adore and that I published in really good places that didn’t make the book. I could have written a book years ago. As a matter of fact, I had put together a book, and then I destroyed it.
EM: When you’re writing, do you have a set process or is it just in the moment?
RRP: I have no process but to get it down. I actually do a lot of writing in my head. I’ve written quite a few a poems on the LIRR (Long Island Railroad). I’ve written at my desk like everyone else—staring out a window. I believe that you work on making your mind capacious enough to catch what’s important. I do a lot of writing in my head walking around. I love to walk. I don’t believe that if you don’t write everything down that you lose it. I instead just believe that the good things that come to you, you remember, and if you don’t remember it, it wasn’t that good in the first place.
If a good line pops into my head, I will email myself a line and the subject heading will be ‘lines.’ I just try and capture them so sometimes I’ll write something on the back of an envelope. I have a notebook of course. You live with your notebook, and you live with your memory and see how your mind is treating everything.
I don’t have a process that someone from the outside looking in would recognize as a process like, “Oh, now Rowan is writing.” I do have a process in the sense that the mind trains itself to keep its eye out for poetry.
EM: How important do you think it is, at least for you, to have been so well read?
RRP: Oh, I’ve never come across a great writer that wasn’t a great reader. You have to be well read. It’s the first thing. I mean half of the writing that you do is reading…It’s like a musician has to listen to music. You can’t make new, great music without listening to music.
For me writing is a form of reading because when you read my book you see how I’ve read certain things. In the same way reading is a form of writing…I think in reading poetry you find the poems that you want to write because they’re not there.
EM: What do you hope readers of “The Ground” get out of the book?
RRP: A thrill from poetry and a desire to read more of it.
Poetry at its best is community building. It does it through sound and scents. The senses we were talking about before. I hope that “The Ground” is a contribution to that spirit.
EM: You’ve received a lot of good press or notice for this book, but do the awards matter to you?
RRP: Well of course they matter. You’re grateful anytime that you’re thought of so well by judges, by organizations, by people who pick these things. Certainly it matters, but it’s not the only thing. Certainly I didn’t write this book thinking I’m going to win awards or wouldn’t it be nice if I won awards. Poetry is a vocation more than an occupation. I never have written a poem and think that I’m going to make money off it…I’m very grateful for the awards, and I hope there are other awards in the future for more of my work. I don’t expect to win awards for every book that I write. I just want to write the best book that I can, and I’m really kind of humbled and overwhelmed for the way the book has been received.