Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ debut collection ‘The Ground’ marks the arrival of a virtuoso poetic voice. From New York in the often surreal aftermath of 9/11, to the deep underworlds of ancient mythology, to the trans-continental heritage and childhood of Phillips himself, these are poems with a restless agility that make the terrain beneath your feet more mysterious. In addition to publishing several poems from the collection – ‘Bird of Fire’, ‘Abingdon Square Park’, ‘Reverse Eurydice’ and ‘Apollo: Season Three’ – Rowan Ricardo Phillips spoke to online editor Ted Hodgkinson about world-making, overhearing a poem, his love of marginalia and the experience of assembling a collection.


TH: A couple of the poems ‘Proper Names in the Lyrics of the Troubadour’ and ‘The End of This Little Book’ explore the complex shared heritage in your own name (‘Another of those names that straddles the seas in the sails of unseen / Ships.’), which you say, took you ‘a while to accept’. Has part of assembling your first collection been about capturing the process of personal discovery and uneasy reconciliation with the undercurrents of history?

RRP: Yes. And what turned out to be incredibly rewarding about the process was that I learned in the midst of it how to compose the book of poetry I most wanted to write as opposed to a book of poetry for the sake of it. The Ground ended up being more about myself than I thought it would be and more about a book of poetry than I thought it would be. Ordering its atmospheres, testing its articulations, thinking through what gets left in and what gets left out: it became a bildungsroman in and of itself. It’s a book I’m very proud of, and to be able to say that with an open heart is the book’s great gift to me.

There are many gods and mythological figures in these poems, from Orpheus and Eurydice to the Catholic God. They often receive a tongue in cheek treatment as when you tell us Orpheus ‘thought he’d find her [Eurydice] in Hell / When she was actually interning in Heaven.’ Is part of the pleasure of invoking myths rendering them in a playful light?

It’s part of the pleasure, yes; but only a part. Some of the poems in The Ground, such as ‘The Greenness of the Ground’ and ‘A Meditation on Many Things Out of My Control’ evoke a stern, hard-edged God and conclude on a note of consequence. ‘Apollo: Season Three’ also turns on the idea of consequence. I find that the most important part of writing mythic poems is approaching them from some credible sense of belief and consequence, centering your mind and all of your love there, and then setting out. We’re bounded on all sides by bullying fundamentalisms. Poetry’s weakest response to these is cynical, shrugging, indeterminate play. Poetry’s strongest response, on the other hand, is determined, open-ended world-making, which is the work of empathy. Myth is a wonderful mode for the what and how of an idea, but also for working through the torque and thorn of getting to that idea.

Your influences seem to range from Dante to Scooby Doo. Do you find there’s a difference between what you think has had or will have an impact on your writing and what emerges in the poems themselves?

Well, what’s good for the imagination should chord the imagination, I say. If that happens to be Dante, so be it. If that happens to be Scooby Doo, so be it. That said, I wouldn’t call Scooby Doo an influence. Material, yes; but not an influence. In the particular poem you’re alluding to, ‘Apollo: Season Three’, Apollo leads to Daphne and Daphne leads to, well, Daphne from Scooby Doo: three ages of Apollo, three registers, three ontologies. Only Apollo was intended from the outset. But my imagination is democratic and capacious, even as it discerns and discriminates. I don’t find Scooby Doo and Apollo to be contradictory material, because I don’t find myself to be a contradictory self.

Many of these poems seem to be conscious of their own making, as with the reflexive loop of thoughts about thoughts at the start of ‘Abingdon Square Park’ (‘I once had had a thought / About a thought I once had had’) or even the probing of the limits of poetry in ‘Tabula Rasa’ (‘Is it always a maybe with you?’). In this way your poems sometimes seem to function like palimpsests which trace their own mental origins. Are following these lines of thought down their respective rabbit holes part of the challenge of writing poems for you?

It’s more readily apparent in painting as we take in a Rembrandt or a Kehinde Wiley but, as with painting, poetry is always the subject of the poem. Always. To flee from this fact is to flee from the reality of what poetry really is. Poetry defines poetry. That doesn’t mean that poetry lacks ‘intimacy’ or ‘accessibility’. Rather, a poem has an inner border where its tensions and its stakes meet. Sometimes you find there the reader, sometimes you find the poem itself bright like an annunciation, sometimes you find the poem’s naked idea waiting for you. Like many, I was taught to consider the lyric as an overheard thought expressed in a form and language suitable for poetry. This works well at the seminar table but it has certain limits when you’re at the writing table. Should I always pretend that I’m being overheard? That the ideas and experiences of a poem are completely smoothed over and stowed away in a completed poem that is being overheard? Sometimes I enjoy being heard, I enjoy the music and force of a thought in process. And I trust during those moments that the poem trusts me as much as I trust poetry. Sometimes I’m wrong, but if I were always right poetry wouldn’t be nearly as difficult or as fun as it is.

Several of the poems here embrace the language of technology and the Internet. ‘To The Reader’ is a parody but also a lament for the way that the distance between reader and writer has been collapsed by the Internet’s erosion of privacy (‘If you don’t know my email / You can Google it’). Is this an ambivalence you share about our changing reading habits?

I wish we read more, but I don’t blame technology for that. Technology, if anything, has provided us with opportunities to read more, more often, and with greater facility. That said, I’m still fond of bound books. I just love them. But I don’t want to fetishize them. A book is a form of technology, just like any other. I just happen to like it more. And I love marginalia.

What are you working on next?

I just finished translating Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth by the wonderful Catalan writer Salvador Espriu. Dalkey Archive will be publishing it in August. It’s a terrific book, a really unique collection of stories. Other things are in the works, but I’m a big believer in taking things one step at a time.

 

The Ground by Rowan Ricardo Phillips is currently available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Photograph by Sue Kwon

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