Q & A: Rowan Ricardo Phillips with FSG Poet Lawrence Joseph
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, whose debut book of poetry, The Ground, published this week, recently sat down with fellow FSG poet Lawrence Joseph. We’re happy to share with you their remarkable discussion on the craft, translation, mythmaking, and–of course–Phillips’ stunning new work.
Lawrence Joseph: First of all, I want to say how much I like this book. In fact, I think it’s a masterpiece. Why the title The Ground?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Good morning… and thank you! As opposed to “the land” or “the floor” or “where you are” or “the street”, there’s something feral, archaic, and really part from ourselves in “the ground”. It’s the word we often relate with the ceremonial end of our physical selves—we’re buried, we tend to say, in the ground—and yet it also inhabits, in our English language at least, a point of progression: we build on things, and on ourselves, from the ground up. If you replace “ground” with “earth” in those two phrases they become too self-conscious and overly willful. Similarly, “the land” is a word almost entirely self-conscious of ownership and power. For example, switch “land” with “ground” in Frost’s “The Gift Outright” and you have a different poet. I should point out that none of these aforementioned words were candidates for the title of the book. The Ground came to me instinctively as I was working on through the poems. It was as insistent, like a pulse, and I wanted to capture the feel of that in the entire book, the way the ground pulsed in my imagination as I wrote. As you read through the book I’m hoping you feel the pulse of the ground in it, both as concept and character. It’s incredibly important for a poet to recognize and come to terms with his or her temperament—I can’t stress that enough—and my temperament left me not wanting to have a titular poem in the book. That’s not me. A representative poem for the book—that wasn’t where The Ground was heading; I could feel that strongly even in its earliest moments and movements. What was vital to me in composing The Ground was that the ground marks that which is not Heaven and that which is not Hell; it’s the street level of the imagination, and where Heaven and Hell declare themselves. I’m a skygazer by compulsion, I always have been—waiting out at sunsets, rising early for sunrises, the appearance, disappearance, and re-appearance of phenomenon—and I’ve always lived near a river or the sea… I remember as a child saying things to myself such as “I’m a fisherman of the sky.” The Ground is a net cast out to catch to the music of what happens. It’s the primordial tympanum. Speaking of which, there’s also this:
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground
Her mind had bound me round. The palms were hot
As if I liven in ashen ground, as if
The leaves in which the wind kept up its sound
From my North of cold whistled in a sepulchral South
It is what it is.
Lawrence Joseph: Your use of different forms is dazzling, really quite extraordinary. Could you talk about your formal strategies?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: There’s a line by the Catalan poet J.V. Foix that best sums up my feelings about all of this—M’exalta el nou i m’enamora el vell, or, “I’m exalted by the new and in love with the old.” A poem is an object in a world of objects. Remembering this leads to remembering that every poem has a form and every poetic form has a history. These histories tend to lead to a breakdown in the form back to a nascent state and inaugural intention as art. This should humble encomium. The early villanelles were barely villanelles, the first sonnets in English were unruly cubes, iambic pentameter is a fine fiction, etc. I’m agnostic, entirely agnostic, to both formal and free fundamentalism. Neither makes much sense to me. Our poems have their own ambitions and at times tack and veer toward one way of being or another. Should we not listen to our poems? Should we not remain open to the vast possibilities of technique? To the mere joy of making? Painters and sculptors have been showing us the way for how long now? And poets still have much to learn from the best of them. I love that you used the phrase “formal strategies”. When we say form, we would seem to be referring to the tangible and quite visible shape of a poem. But that’s only the widest concentric circle of what form is. Form is an invisible map. It leads you from poet to poet, century to century, country to country, language to language, culture to culture. At its most inspired, form traces our inspirations, reverences, and innovations; it’s a palimpsest of song and dance. But at its worst it’s a phyrric prize: form as value and for its own sake. The aforementioned encomium. This seems rather bloodless to me. My one formal strategy consisted of two elements: to enjoy making the poems and to follow their folds, like a finger tracing the skyline or the petals of a rose. There’s much formally going on in the book, but I didn’t want to make much of it, I wanted that work to do what it was liable to do. But, no surprise, you picked up on it. So what do we have here: there are a few poems in The Ground—starting with the first one, “Tonight”—that are Spenserian stanzas but that use word count instead of accentual-stress to mark the tempo of the line. So they have eight ten-word lines and conclude with a twelve-word faux-alexandrine. I’ve published some verse essays that also follow this type of “false meter”. One poem near the beginning and another near the end, “Tabula Rasa” and “Links”, use dactylic hexameter (“shave and a haircut”, using an epic meter for curt poems, and all that). The Purgatorio poem is in hendecasyllabics, and then there are those Italian sonnets. In short, don’t let the date of birth, or the race, of the author fool you: The Ground is a troubadour’s book. My heart is provoked by what I guess I’ll call itinerant forms, forms made by poets on the move—sestinas, terza rima, ballads. These aren’t intended to be cherished as museum pieces, but to be picked up and played; perhaps to be picked up after a fallen poet and to charge forward with, no matter what’s ahead of you. My sense of poetry, as an object and in a formal sense, is that if you push it and it doesn’t like what you’re up to it will push you back. Hard. My ambition is never to write a poem in a form to write a poem in a form. Sure, I draft and sketch and do studies with certain criteria or self-imposed limitations, but those are for the notebooks and the poems to come. But the nuts and bolts of writing a good poem comes, I believe, from understanding how the spirit of free verse should live in a well-crafted formal verse and how the spirit of meter and form should braid a well-crafted vers libre. Everything else seems like talking around writing the best poetry possible.
Lawrence Joseph: You’ve also written a groundbreaking book of criticism, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness. How does your critical imagination affect the writing of your poems?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Thank you for reading it. I’ve always been drawn to the poetry of poets who write strong criticism. Poets invested in critique, its history, methods, and applications, poets who think through the world critically (which still meant, for them, with feeling: feeling the sensations of thoughts through powerful critique). The pre-Socratic philosophers wrote in verse, Horace’s Ars Poetica is in verse, Geoffey of Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova—these gave way to Dante, Ronsard, Sidney, and away we went…Dryden, Pope, Dr. Johnson. The intervention of the world on the world continually demanded more of not just poetry but of criticism as well. The poet-critic was left with the challenge of rendering a world that, due to Humanism, discovery, slavery, and an emerging modern music, was simultaneously growing and shrinking. Apart from the poignant exception, every epoch has its abundance of criticism and all but a bit of it ends up forgotten. The poets and scholars keep what’s most useful. Voguish methods come quickly to feel dated. The hustle and jive of other work dates itself even quicker. It never fails. Is this any different from poetry? I don’t think so. Coleridge tied things together for me in college in ways that were refreshing and terrifying. I found Biographia Literaria as daemonic as his best poems. I studied how Shakespeare used character and history as forms of critique. I contemplated how Black poets, in the absence of a literary critical apparatus, used exegesis brilliantly as critique. Note that all of these examples read as incredibly necessary (perhaps not Pope, but what Pope was up to was incredibly necessary to him). When it comes to both poetry and criticism there’s so much wind and so much to read that it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. But it’s been that way for centuries upon centuries in countless and untold languages and cultures. So I don’t worry about that. The next generations always find a way of sorting these things out for us. For my part, both poems and criticism stoke the same inner fires in me and likewise crawl out of that same fire. The critical imagination should be a poetic imagination and the poetic imagination should be a critical imagination; I’m certainly not the first to say this. And, of course, this by no means makes it necessary for a critic to write poems or for a poet to write criticism. But they are empathetic endeavors that inform each other. I’m still talking about temperament here. About reading everything and then taking that leap. I mean that neither as a fatalistic nor a self-aggrandizing metaphor. Simply, there is an end to us: our self-fashioning, our bitterness, our obsequiousness, our fraudulence, our charm. When we leap, just our work and our love are left behind. The great thing about both poetry and criticism is that neither is condemned to, nor saved by, contemporary appraisal. Time figures it out. The next poets and critics, they figure it out. I write with a free heart because of this. As a writer you can’t cheat history and you can’t conqueror time. For the writer there’s that one granule of sand you try to pry from the shore to write all of your life’s work on. Then you put it down, the sea rises, and that’s that. You began the first line of your first book of poetry with “I was appointed the poet of heaven” and set out from there. Haven’t you been writing back to that line since? Part of me believes rather strongly we’re all at work on one poem, one great poem, and one great piece of criticism. And that they together form one plangent whole. This is the American in me, no doubt, which tends to rise and recede. Alas, this belief chafes against our particularly American poetic problem: our stultifying monolingualism. We’re working on it, but it’s kind of silly and sad.
Lawrence Joseph: And you’re also a formidably accomplished translator. Does being a translator affect how you write a poem?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Can I make a distinction between being a translator and translating?
Lawrence Joseph: Of course!
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: The former doesn’t affect my writing at all. When I’m working as a translator I’m giving in to someone else’s temperament and thinking through tempo to such a great extent that I feel one part of me opening up and another part, perhaps the most mischievous part of being an artist, closing like—how did Neruda put it?—a nocturnal flower. The most Adamic moments of translating, the moments that feel most like making poetry, almost always for me involve how words, and idioms, and rhythms co-exist in that brief moment of being transposed betwixt and between the two languages. This sensation, for me, is the joy of translating but not the job of the translator. But those moments of joy do end up in my poems sometimes, either as the result of conscious note-taking or something simply absorbed into my lexicon. Late Lowell has that great line that I vehemently disagree with—“We are poor passing facts,”—but I have to give into to it when it comes to translators because translators almost always are. (Coincidentally, that poem in Day by Day is followed by a few concluding translations: the epilogue to “Epilogue”.) All of that said, translating, as a process of composition, is a tremendous way into poetry. I often translate to clear my head or to live better with a poem or an important line. Rilke’s Du mußt dein Leben ändern felt so momentous to me that I took to it in German. I needed to know how it would come out of his mouth: its pith, the weight of its intervention on a silent moment of starting at a sculpture of Apollo. I still only think of that line in the original German. I can’t help it: it helps me think. Translating also can help with practical matters of, well, simply being a writer. I don’t believe in writer’s block. Writer’s block is not writing: period. If you can’t “write” then “translate”. Nearly every poet I grew up admiring also translated. It never seemed to me up for discussion whether to translate or not. When reading a bi-lingual edition of a poet, devouring one side of the page would eventually lead to devouring, ever so slowly, the other side of the page. The gap between the translation and the original is in many ways like form: an invisible map for the poet to find in order to find. To find what? You know when you write it; not when you live it, but when you write it. One other thing I love about translation is how it lifts my mind at times toward transposition. It’s rare that I read something in English and want to transpose its situation to another experience. But translation…sometimes it’s like using someone else’s racket, liking it, and getting one yourself. There are a couple of transpositions in The Ground: “Purgatorio, XXVI: 135-148” and the final poem in the book, “The End of His Little Book”, which is both a transposition and found poem from the “Deo Gratis” at the end of a book written in Catalan that I, like Cervantes, very much admire: Tirant lo Blanc. Both of those poems deal with faith, which wasn’t intended but now I see that there’s must have been some reason for that.
Lawrence Joseph: It’s been said that poets are mythmakers, and throughout The Ground myth and mythic figures play an important role…
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Absolutely. Myth is pattern recognition of the natural world expressed in narrative form. The Ground is in the same key signature. There’s something monumental and terrifying about myth when it’s allowed to become again something more than a euphemism for fiction––as in “that’s just a myth”––and it creeps with conviction into your belief system. I can’t quite explain how that happens to a poet. I just know that it happened to me and eventually I decided not to fight it; I decided to just let it rip. And The Ground really got off the ground when I decided to just let it, all of it, rip. Years ago I was reading Rolfe Humphries’ translation of Metamorphoses and, much to my surprise, I came across my name. Rowan: the rowan tree. I’ll never let go of that moment, and I never considered it a coincidence. I’ve always wanted to write back to it, and by that I mean write my way back to it. That’s my temperament. I was appointed the poet of Rowan. This is what as a poet feels liberating to me. I know I’ve used words above such archaic and inaugural, and this is in part the root of it. There’s something noble about history—and especially history and poetry—that provokes my distrust. Besides which, a powerful part of my imagination craves the feral simplicity of myth. Why is something something and not nothing? Why does the sun rise and descend? Why do those birds sing as they do? Why do the seasons change? What happens to us when we die? Why do these specific flowers always bear the same marks? Science has given us sufficient answers for most of these questions, but my mind is restless and skeptical of sufficiency. Likewise, myth is skeptical of symbolism and prefers allegory. The relation between Apollo and the sun, between Apollo and elegy, between Aphrodite and love, between Poseidon and the sea, these aren’t symbolic; rather they’re allegorical. I bring this up because allegory gives the imagination space in which to figure things out. It doesn’t merge both phenomena––the sun and the sun god, for example––but renders both in a prism of perpetual being and non-being. The sun not being the sun but the cargo of a god, this explains a part of the world and that should be reassuring. Instead, it’s terrifying. Maybe myth helps me make sense of terror. Maybe.
Lawrence Joseph: The shape of the book, the progression of the poems from first to last… The Ground is, it seems to me, very much written and composed as a book…
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: If a poem is an object, a work of art with a particular inner logic, why can’t a book of poems be so as well? Why should the act of gathering of poems into a volume cause those qualities we associate with poetry to be absent in the volume as a whole? Why should a book of poems read less like a poem? I wasn’t waiting until I had enough good poems to cram into something that could be considered a book. I’ve published a number of very good poems that don’t appear in the book. The Ground is a vision not a snapshot. I set out to write a book—an honest to God book—with its own turns, fantasies, and hard-earned truths. It’s the only way I can conceive of making a book, composing something with impetus and momentum, something that feels real, a happening. As Henry James put it: “I got wind of my positive fact. I followed the scent.” And here it is: my little book, my concept album, my verb in noun’s clothing, my ground.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of a collection of essays, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, and the first translation from Catalan into English of Salvador Espriu’s Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth. He is an associate professor of English and the director of the Poetry Center at Stony Brook University. He lives in New York City and Barcelona.
Lawrence Joseph’s most recent books of poems are Into It and Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993. He is also the author of two books of prose, Lawyerland and The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose.