Featured Fellow: Rowan Ricardo Phillips

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

Featured Fellow: Dale Jamieson

Dale Jamieson's new book Love In The Anthropocene, a collaboration with Bonnie Nadzam, uses fiction and essay to create a vivid, personal vision of a world impacted by climate change. We spoke with him about the power of storytelling, where we are now in the climate change conversation, and his work in the emerging field of environmental humanities.



In your forthcoming book Love In The Anthropocene, you use fiction and essays to imagine a future where the environment has been profoundly altered by climate change. What made you want to explore this topic through fiction and essays?

The first climate change paper I wrote in 1988 talked about how bloodless and abstract scientific concepts such as "global mean surface temperature" are, and said that if you want people to understand what it would be like to live in a climate change world you would have to write stories. It took me about 30 years to get to it, but finally the stories are here!
Stories can do many things that my academic writing cannot do nearly as successfully. The two most important to me are these.

First, climate change is happening in a world in which lots of other things are happening, too-technological change, growing inequality, political unrest, and so on. What happens to professors is that we fixate on the particular topic of our own research (e.g., climate change, ethnic conflict, whatever), and then act as if that's the only thing that's going on in the world. That's part of why so many of us are bores at parties ("Enough about me," says an academic at a party, "what do you think of my book?"). Writing stories forces you to think more holistically.

The second thing I'm especially interested in is what you might call "the banality of climate change." It was the psychologist Daniel Kahneman who first got me thinking about this. He's talked and written a lot about why it is that disabled people tend to report higher levels of subjective happiness than non-disabled people would imagine. Part of the answer, according to Danny, is because, disabled or not, most of us think about love, money, jobs, and so on rather than our disabilities or lack of them. Our abilities and disabilities are things that we mostly take for granted-they are part of the baseline from which we judge our happiness. On the other hand, when you ask people to imagine what it would be like to be in some other physical state than they one they are actually in (e.g., paraplegic), they focus laser-like attention on that state, and so exaggerate its importance. I started thinking that something like is true when we think about climate change. For most people climate change will become part of the baseline. In a climate change world, middle class people will think about what they think about in this world-jobs, status, money, and so on, with of course love being at the center. It might be harder to get these things in the world we're creating-and for people at the bottom the suffering will broaden and intensify-but unless the absolute worst scenarios come true, for many well-off people climate change will just be part of the background of their lives. This is very hard to express outside of fiction in a way that is both compelling, and also conveys how truly horrifying this really is, at least to me.

The essays are there to introduce people to the central topics-the anthropocene and love. These are not simple notions and it was fun thinking through them with Bonnie.
 


The book is a collaboration with the novelist Bonnie Nadzam. What was your collaboration process like?

It was enormously fun and felt enormously creative. Writing with Bonnie put a smile on my face (though sometimes we spent days arguing about a single word). Bonnie and I think about many of the same things from a broadly similar perspective, but we have different points of emphases and different skill sets. I learned an enormous amount from her and not just about writing.

I asked Bonnie for her take on this question and she said this: "Working together was like driving with no hand on the wheel or in a car with two steering wheels, with no particular destination in mind." She makes it sound like a literary On the Road experience, which isn't too bad an image (though I'm not sure who is Neal and who is Jack).
 


Your book Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle to Stop Climate Change Failed-and What It Means For Our Future, you explore the reasons we've missed the mark on preventing climate change. How has the conversation progressed since your book came out last year? In your view, where are we now in the climate change discussion?

Not much has substantively changed, which doesn't surprise me, since in my book I was reflecting on the evolution of this issue over decades and centuries. Something would have had to have been deeply wrong with my account if the course of this history would have radically changed in a year.
What has happened is that some major actors who had been on the sidelines (e.g., the US and China) are now acting to moderate the extent and pace of the warming. This is very good news and let's hope it continues. But if we succeed in reducing greenhouse gas emissions-which we still have not-this would only mean that we're putting fewer climate changing gases into the atmosphere than we were, not that we've stopped putting them there in the first place or that the atmospheric concentrations of these gases have started to come down.

In addition, two of my main worries remain. The first is the cyclical nature of the attention that people pay to climate change. Each international meeting (such as the one coming up in Paris in November) is treated as the last chance to save the world. When nothing world-historical occurs (as it won't again in Paris), the issue goes dormant until the next last chance to save the world. The second worry is that while we have pretty strong majorities in most countries in favor of reducing emissions, we have very little support for helping those who are being damaged by climate change largely through no fault of their own. This dimension of the issue is as important as reducing emissions.
 


You've been a leading figure in the field of environmental humanities that has emerged over the past decade. How do you see this loosely defined, interdisciplinary terrain developing in the future, and what sorts of directions do you see the field taking in the years to come?

At the moment the environmental humanities is a perfectly agreeable version of the Wild West. Lots of smart, creative, often rebellious people are doing interesting things. The threats I see to this wonderful circus come from opposite directions. But in an odd way, like the extreme right and left, these threats have a way of leading to much the same place.

From my point of view there is little reason to write if you're not communicating with someone who in some important way is not like you. Unfortunately many academics seem quite happy to write for themselves and those who are extensions of themselves. This becomes very apparent in the tortured writing and neologistic vocabularies you all too often find in academic writing. What makes this even worse is the decline of careful broad reading in the academy. It takes too much time and energy, and detracts from writing for ourselves and those most like us. Where this threat leads is to an array of mutually unintelligible linguistic ghettos, all classed together as the "environmental humanities." The second threat is that the field effectively gets taken over by a discipline, and the paradigm becomes work that conforms to the conventions of that discipline. This scenario is very much like the first except that in this case, rather than anarchy, one of the linguistic ghettos exercises power over the others.

How does your writing feed into your approach as a professor?

I've always thought that the most important thing that I do is to teach. Writing is itself a form of teaching, and all forms of teaching are way of learning. Sitting in my room writing is where, on a good day, I actually develop some thoughts that are worth talking about.


Interview by Molly Long

Featured Fellow: Michelle Goldberg

In her new book, The Goddess Pose, Michelle Goldberg documents the story of Indra Devi, who helped bring yoga traditions from India to the United States. We spoke with her about Indra Devi, International Yoga Day in India, and her recent article about the decision to have children.


Your book The Goddess Pose takes a look at the life of Indra Devi, a woman who was instrumental in bringing yoga to the West. How did you choose to write about her?
I've been practicing yoga for a long time - since spending six months in India in my mid-20s. While I love it and rely on it to stay (relatively) sane, I also long suspected that a lot of what my teachers were telling me about its origins and powers was bullshit. While searching for a cultural history of yoga, I came across Indra Devi's New York Times obituary, which outlined an astonishing life that spanned the entire 20th century. I went to Amazon to buy a book about her, and discovered none had been written. For years, I told my agent he should get someone to write one. In 2009, I was feeling a bit burned out on politics, my usual subject, and decided to tackle it myself. I thought it would take 18 months. It took five years.

 

Sometimes Westerners have an underlying anxiety that we're appropriating yoga or corrupting it as a spiritual tradition. After looking at its whole history, how would you address that anxiety?

I'd say that, when it comes to postural yoga, there's no authentic tradition to corrupt! What's known as yoga today - a system of poses designed to relax the nervous system and tone the muscles - is a relatively modern phenomena, and a mash-up between Eastern and Western traditions. To continue to innovate and adapt it to contemporary circumstances is to be part of a tradition of sorts.
 


The Indian government recently decided to celebrate International Yoga Day, which some Muslims say is disrespectful to their religion. What do you think about the controversy?

There's an irony at the heart of what India's right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to do with International Yoga Day. On the one hand, he's a religious nationalist who wants to assert yoga's Hindu roots, and the move to integrate yoga more fully into Indian culture is a chauvinistic one, particularly in the context of his party's longstanding hostility to Muslims. At the same time, by declaring International Yoga Day, and getting so many countries to sign on to the UN resolution establishing it, the Indian government suggests that yoga can in fact be separated from Hinduism, and that it's an entirely ecumenical practice.
This tension isn't unique to India; there was recently a lawsuit over whether yoga classes in a California school district violated separation of church and state. An appeals court ultimately ruled that they didn't, because the yoga was "devoid of any religious, mystical or spiritual trappings."
 


Is your book being released in India?
There are no plans right now, but I hope it will be! There was a very nice piece about it in The Times of India.
 


You write about the different strains of culture that created what we call yoga today, and how its meaning has changed over time. Do you think the practice of yoga will continue to change and adapt to different circumstances?

Undoubtedly. Its ability to do so is part of what makes it so vital.
 


You also wrote recently for New York Magazine about having children after decisively not wanting them for most of your life. What has the response been like to your article?

I was worried, because I don't often write about my private life, but it's been incredibly sweet. In fact, I've never written something that's elicited so many kind words. Still, I'm a lot more comfortable writing about other peoples' lives than my own.


Interview by Molly Long

Featured Fellow: Laura Kipnis

Laura Kipnis sparked a debate with her recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe," as well as her book Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation. We asked her a few questions about her irreverent writing style and how people have responded to her work.


You recently wrote about the current climate of feminism and its impact on higher education, which has snowballed into a huge debate. Two students brought Title IX complaints against you, which have now been dropped. What's your takeaway from this experience so far? Has it confirmed your views, or complicated them?

I wrote somewhat ironically about the new consensual relations codes prohibiting professor-student dating (our campus instituted one a year ago), which have dialed back a couple of hundred years of progress when it comes to treating women as full consenting adults. Students then staged a protest march on campus about the essay, saying it made them feel unsafe and should be condemned by the administration. I'd argued that this new climate of vulnerability on campuses was actually increasing students' sense of imperilment while putting too much power in the hands of campus officials. I'd say I was proven right, unfortunately.

 

Your work brings a sense of complexity and irreverence to some polarizing subjects. Why is it important to retain a sense of irony when writing about contentious topics?

Didacticism makes for boring writing, to begin with. But the irreverent style is deeply embedded in the way I think-my attention just seems to veer toward social ironies and contradictions. Finding ways of transporting them to the page is the great pleasure of writing, I mean to the extent that it's ever pleasurable. I suppose I think of myself as writing comedies of manners in essay form? But I get horribly bored when forced to take on "issues" in a straightforward way-I really hate hearing myself on a soapbox.

 

Your book Men: Notes From An Ongoing Investigation takes an in-depth look at the current, conflicted state of masculinity by examining men who have made missteps. What made you want to write a book about men who behave badly?

I think I secretly envy men, or identify with them, or some combination. There's a line in the preface about men always having grabbed more freedom from the world, and despite what we all know about the destructive sides of that freedom, it's never struck me that the constraints and strictures of femininity are a better deal for any of us. It was also the case that-for reasons I can't entirely speak to!- the essays and reviews I'd written over the last fifteen years or so seemed to cluster largely around this subject, as I realized when I started rereading them. If I ever go into psychoanalysis, I suspect this would be a good place to start.

 

What has the response been like to your book?

I have the great good fortune of being hated by all sides of the political and moral spectrum. I've gotten hate from men's rights groups AND certain brands of feminist. It can be fun to fall between every category, but it can accentuate the finding-an-audience issue. I'd rather be loved by everyone-at least everyone who buys books.

 

What are you working on now?

At the moment I'm waiting for the dust to settle (mainly the intellectual dust) following the Title IX cases, then having exposed the process in a second essay, which did cause something of a shitstorm. There's been a lot of media, a barrage of email and so on. I wrote a book in 2010 called How to Become a Scandal and I half-joked in it that I could identify with James Frey (who was the subject of one of the chapters) because I was sure that if I ever got myself into a national scandal it would be because of something I'd written. I've just had a taste of it-nothing like his situation, of course, but it's still been intense. I suspect it will translate into something eventually, but hard to say. I've been toying with the idea of a book called Is Sex Bad?


Interview by Molly Long

Featured Fellow: Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, a longtime fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities, has written a new memoir, On The Move, to reflect on his life in the wake of his terminal illness. The memoir has been widely acclaimed as a stirring narrative of a life well lived.

NYIH fellow and former director Lawrence Weschler wrote a moving account of his thirty year friendship with Sacks and his thoughts on the memoir for Vanity Fair.

NYIH fellow Andrew Solomon wrote in his review for The New York Times: "The primary mark of a good memoir is that it makes you nostalgic for experiences you never had, and Sacks captures the electrifying discoveries he made, especially those in his early career, with vivid, hard-edge prose."

Michael Roth called the book "a glorious memoir that throws open that window and illuminates the world that we have seen through it." Read his full review in The Atlantic.

Will Self wrote in his review for The Guardian: "I began this review hoping to synopsise Sacks's entire life, but it's a hopeless task. His truly has been a life lived to the full—and beyond."