Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of two books of poetry, The Ground and Heaven, both published by FSG; as well as a book of literary criticism, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, and a translation of Salvador Espriu's Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth. He is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN/Osterweil Award, the GCLA New Writers Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, is a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and the National Book Award.
I had the pleasure of taking part in Rowan's Craft of Poetry class at NYU this semester. I caught up with him via email to ask a few questions.
1. What was the first book you loved?
A copy of the complete works of Shakespeare that my uncle gave me for Christmas when I was 10.
2. What is the most important object you've ever had and lost?
The art of losing has been hard for me to master: I tend not to lose things. I'm also a rationalizer par excellence, so things I have lost tend to lose importance to me. I'm not wired to pine much over lost things; it's not in my temperament.
3. I'm interested in what you've said in class about writing in your head. What is your writing ritual like? (Coffee, tea, wine? A first draft in long hand or on your laptop?)
I don't have a ritual, per se, as I never wanted to idealize a context in which I can work and thereby absorb into my way of writing its opposite—a context in which I cannot work. I'm very much a get-it-down type of writer. Although that act for me isn't necessarily writing it down immediately as much as living with an emergent lyric someway somehow. I love to walk and I usually write in my head while walking. After a while I get to writing down what I was working on in my head but I don't rush to write down my thoughts. I don't trust that process as the mind produces quicksilver stuff that should run out and spread as it will for a while. I suppose this goes back somewhat to losing objects: if I'm not worried about losing a line of poetry, an image, a conceit then I'm not going to be too worried about losing an object. If it's good you'll remember it in some form or another. Eventually, things end up in my notebook. Sometimes I write straightaway on my computer. I don't produce and keep multiple edits of a poem. I just work through one document, erasing, re-writing, getting-it-down. In the end, I end up writing the poem over and over again until I'm repeating it down to the punctuation marks. That's when it's an object of its own accord and I leave it be.
4. What is your favorite word?
If I told you, it wouldn't be my favorite word anymore. Anyway, it's not an English word. I can tell you my least favorite word: whatever.
5. Who is your favorite artist or musician?
I'm simply grateful for art. I don't play favorites. Artists you admire should be capable of disappointing you and artists you don't expect much of should be capable of moving you in a profound way. My mind is utterly against hierarchy. Besides, you can learn much about art by studying what doesn't work. And you can be left feeling pretty overwhelmed if not useless if you only immerse yourself in favorites. This is one of the things I enjoy about teaching. I never teach a collection of my favorite artists and texts. There are some works you may not be crazy about but are incredibly useful to students; and there are some works you may absolutely love that would be of little value to teach. The idea of a favorite work of art brings me back to myself. Yet, one of the glorious things about art is that it transports you from yourself and into a great beyond.