This summer Rowan Ricardo Phillips released Heaven, a collection of poems that was recently longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry. We spoke with him about how place informs his writing, his work in translation and criticism, and how he teaches his students to read and write poetry.
The title of your new collection is Heaven, the literal opposite of the title of your last book of poetry, The Ground. How does it connect with (or depart from) your previous work?
It's the opposite if you think of it in terms of down and up, certainly. That said, there's also a way to think of it as a continuance. It's all one poem, really; the work. If a poet is lucky there's some sense at the end that the work was an example of a life lived and re-imagined: an exemplum of piqued human experience. Some people have suggested that I'm working my way through a type of trilogy, skipping over Purgatory (I don't believe in Purgatory) and arriving at the following question now: What comes after heaven? My mind is much more on what comes after Heaven, though. I take my work one poem at a time and the bigger picture circumscribes that effort. Heaven, like The Ground, is a search for beauty through language and place through contemplative experience. Both ended up being a fun conversation with canonical practice. But The Ground is in essence a city book (although a city book greatly invested in nature) and Heaven is in essence a nature book (although a nature book greatly invested in the idea of a city).
Your sense of place feels like an essential part of your work, whether you're writing about the urban landscape of New York City or roosters on the side of the road in Ohio. You were born in New York and split your time between here and Barcelona, and you've also lived in a number of other places. How do all of the places you've inhabited affect your work?
Place for me is at the center of all things, along with sound. When you inhabit a place there's a music that, when you sit after and think of that place, is gone before you know it. Poetry is music for when the music is over. Even a placeless poem, marks a place: which I guess may be poetry itself. I try to listen more than talk and I love to walk. It's not that I try to be, or even desire to be, the voice for a place of the tympan of where I am. But poetry means and is about making; turning the seen and felt into an art of intelligible language. In this sense, poetry is a reverse emphasis.
You've also worked extensively as a translator and a critic. Do all of these forms feed into one another for you, or are they separate processes?
The they feed into one another, at times intentionally and at times not. There's no formula to it: some can do both well, some can do only one well. Translation has had an effect on humanity to such an extent that it feels hollow to me to think of writing without it. And in a practical sense, translation is a great argument against writer's block (another thing I don't believe in). If you think you have writer's block translate something.
What's your approach to teaching your students how to read and write poetry?
For the sake of space I'll simply say that an approach for me is literally that: a movement toward. That involves establishing a base: reading closely. After that much of it is about empowering students to use the critical reading skills they already have at their disposal but often don't recognize as such. They know what genres are because that's how they select their music and their movies. They have a nuanced sense of satire and irony having never not known a world (many of them) without The Simpsons and The Daily Show. They tend to both revere and fear the contemporaneous because they want to be on top of things but are terrified of being five weeks late or, even worse, liking what everyone else likes, although they still somehow manage to do that. So I bond these skills with them as they commit to close reading, discovering methodologies, and getting them into the archives. Yes, we are in the digital age, but I've seen a student's face when an extremely rare book is placed in front of them and it is a rich and moving sight.
What are you working on now?
Whatever comes after Heaven. A book-length translation from the Catalan of Melcion Mateu's poetry (which I highly recommend to everyone). I'm going to start writing on basketball for The Paris Review in the fall. Some literary criticism. And two other book projects I'd love to talk to you about but they're kind of a secret. It's not all confession: poets can have their secrets too.
Interview by Molly Long