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Pulitzers and poetic forms: An interview with Patrick Phillips

Reads beat editor Scott Stevens interviewed poet and Stanford professor Patrick Phillips.

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Reads beat editor Scott Stevens interviewed poet and Stanford professor Patrick Phillips. His most recent book, “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” recounts the long history of racial injustice and brutality in Forsyth County, Georgia. “Elegy for a Broken Machine,” his most recent book of poetry, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Scott Stevens (SS): How did you become a juror for the Pulitzer Prize?

Patrick Phillips (PP): Like a lot of good things, it came about via a completely unexpected email. The Pulitzer Prize is administered by Columbia University, so the people from their office emailed and said, “We’d like to invite you to be on the jury.” I was delighted to be asked. It turned out to be a lot of work and involved a giant tower of book boxes that they shipped to my house. But mainly it was an honor to be on the jury and to advocate for books I admire.

SS: It does seem like it’s a large workload. I think I saw one article saying that they can give you almost 500 books sometimes.

PP: Yeah! I don’t remember what the exact number is, but the boxes came fast and furious, as almost every publisher in the country submits their new titles. This meant that more than any other year in my life, I had a real overhead view of the state of American poetry in 2019.

SS: How much of your reading is a mix of classics, old stuff and of contemporary, hot new stuff?

PP: I read everything, and love anything that renews my faith in the art of writing. As far as the old stuff, I have a background in the early modern period, and got a doctorate focused on 17th-century British Literature. My dissertation was about Ben Jonson and a bunch of poems and plays he wrote during the bubonic plague outbreaks of Elizabethan and Jacobean London — which is to say Shakespeare’s London. It’s an easier sell to teach very, very recent writing, and I love a lot of that too, but I’m often trying to use the poetry of the present as a kind of “gateway drug,” to get students to venture further out of their comfort zones.

I also read a lot of contemporary American poetry, but never on the scale that I did for the Pulitzer jury, where I had boxes and boxes of books coming down the conveyor belt. There were three of us on the committee, and my fellow jurors were the poets Marilyn Chin and Adam Kirsch. As the months ticked by and as the book tower grew, it was nice to know that they were out there reading as well. In the end it was a lovely group endeavor.

SS: Were there any trends in books you found in 2019? Anything that kept repeating?

PP: You do start to notice that certain styles and subjects are part of the zeitgeist, and some poetic moves recur in a lot of books. I was just reading a quote from Yusef Komunyakaa from the mid-90’s, where he says that anytime something new happens in the poetry world, it is followed by a lot of imitation. I think that’s inevitable, as we’re all influenced by one another, and I know that when I turn back to my own work after reading a poet I really love, that voice will often make its way down my arms and out across the keyboard.

The sense that a lot of poets are swimming in the same direction is also why it’s so thrilling to find a book that’s truly unique, and a voice that sounds like no one else. Our three finalists were Dorianne Laux’s “Only as the Day Is Long,” Mary Ruefle’s “Dunce” and Jericho’s Brown’s “The Tradition,” and in all three cases, it was the singular quality of the voice that jumped out at me … the singular quality of the consciousness. Even with hundreds of books in piles on my living room floor, I don’t think I’d mistake their poems for anyone else’s.

All were deserving, and I hope the Pulitzer announcement has helped bring attention to all three collections. Dorianne Laux’s book has a lot of beautiful elegies for her mother, who was a nurse. I first read “Only as the Day Is Long” months before the pandemic, and it struck me then just how rare it was to see a nurse as the main figure in a poem, or to hear that kind of work celebrated. Returning to those poems in the new world of the COVID-19, I’m struck by just how prescient Laux was, and how wise: to help us see the heroism of all the essential workers we are now, finally, celebrating.

Mary Reufle’s “Dunce” is amazing as well, and in poem after poem she somehow manages to be simultaneously zany and tender, companionable and brutally, terrifyingly honest. I don’t know how she does it, but Ruefle is the kind of poet who can zoom in on a catered buffet’s little carved radish man, swinging on a little radish swing, and have me absolutely riveted. And then have me choked up with emotion before the poem is over.

Jericho Brown’s book “The Tradition” also felt incredibly urgent. Among many, many other subjects, it contains the year’s most searing and unflinching poems about racial injustice, and about the constant threat of police violence against people of color. It should come as no surprise that a lot of poets were writing about these issues in the books that we read. But the poems in “The Tradition” stood out for the masterful way Brown speaks — often in the same poem — to the public and the private, the inescapably political and the profoundly personal.

SS: Yeah, they were interestingly done. And part of that was, at least in my understanding, because of his novel use of traditional forms, like sonnets, ghazals and blues. And then I’m pretty sure he invented the “duplex” form. Do you have any thoughts on form? Brown’s use of form?

PP: Yes, that formal impulse, as a way to give shape to a dizzying reality and emotional range, is very near and dear to my own heart. The duplex form that Brown invented has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention, not only because his poems in the form are so powerful, but also because there are now a lot of other poets writing their own versions of the duplex.

This is all just to say that Brown’s formal turn — and his turning of form to new uses — delighted but did not surprise me. There is an outdated notion that politically engaged poetry must choose formal freedom above all else, and that to write in formal patterns — whether invented or received — is inherently conservative. But that’s always been a false dichotomy, based on a notion that formal patterns belong to one group of people more than any other. So I’ve enjoyed watching a lot of contemporary African American poets show us the way to a new new formalism, if you will. And Brown’s “The Tradition” is a powerful addition to that, well … tradition.

SS: Totally.

I tend to go way into the past or into the contemporary for my own reading. So sometimes I feel like I have a scant understanding of that political poetry from the 60s or the 70s. In my scant understanding, there was this big break away from those stricter forms as part of political protest.

PP: That’s the subject of a two-hour lecture. [Laughter]

But yes, during the free-verse revolution of the 1950s and 60s most poets trained in a formal style threw off traditional meter, with crusaders like Robert Bly calling on all American poets to follow him over the ramparts in a war against iambic verse. But again, I don’t think that distinction holds up as well as critics would like, because the generation who led the free-verse revolution …  they were all trained as formalists, and everything they did in free verse was informed by that other, stricter music. Not to mention that many of them, like James Wright, went on secretly writing perfect sonnets (and hiding them from Bly).

I guess the through-line here is, I love “The Tradition”’s inventiveness and playfulness with form, and I don’t see that as some veering away from a prescribed path in 21st-century American poetry. It’s always been there.

SS: Do you have anything else to say about what it was like to work with the judges?

PP: It reminded me a lot of the pleasures of teaching, to be honest. Writing is a very solitary vocation, and while that solitude is one of the things I love about it, there’s also a point at which you crave community and companions in the art.

So it was lovely to consider all these books, knowing that what lay ahead was a kind of reading workshop with two poets I admire, Adam Kirsch and Marilyn Chin. We got together and celebrated favorite poems, favorite collections. There wasn’t a lot of contention, as one might fear … just a lot of interesting nuance to the conversation. So that was really joyful and the most rewarding part of the process. I think when you’re a young writer, and you’re submitting to contests and grant applications and grad school, it can be easy to imagine some sinister committee passing judgment on your work. [Laughter] But in fact, it was quite the opposite.

SS: That’s good to hear.

PP: Yeah … I hope people will instead imagine a group of judges who love this stuff and are rooting for every single writer. Every time you flip the page, you’re hoping to be blown away by the poems.

SS: That’s good. [Laughter] Good knowledge to have, that they’re rooting for writers.

PP: Well, nobody gets rich reading books of poems for a prize committee! It’s a labor of love.

SS: Did you feel like you had free rein in judging? Do you feel like the Pulitzer board just said, “Here: books! Read them, tell us about it”?

PP: The Pulitzer administrators distribute detailed, very clear guidelines, then leave the committee to do its work. The other thing that makes judging the Pulitzer a pleasure is we did not have to make the final choice. We forward three finalists, and then the Pulitzer Prize Board makes that final decision. So it saved us from some of the beads of sweat that form as you try to choose between three very worthy finalists.

SS: We already touched on some areas of interest in your work. We talked a bit about your interest in 17th-century English literature, and we talked about Ben Jonson. But are there any other writers from that time period or across the ages, that you think people don’t really talk about as much, about whom you want to say, “These people’s work is exciting. You should know about them.”

PP: There are too many wonderful poets to name, so let me just go with George Herbert, who was a 17th-century religious poet. He wrote these really erotic poems to God, and meditations on mortality, that are stunningly beautiful. His poem “Church Monuments” is one of my favorites. I memorized it years ago, so whenever I’m walking alone or riding my bike I can pull it out of my head and just say the lines aloud for pure pleasure. I’ve probably been doing that for 30 years.

SS: In terms of influences — but other than literary influences — there are things outside of what we read that influence our poetry. I was reading an interview about your most recent collection “Elegy for a Broken Machine,” and in the interview you talk about how your book has “traffic jams and Kool menthols, son’s diorama made from Legos, a poem with a ‘loud, horrendous fart,’” which I thought was great. [Laughter] Those kinds of nitty gritty details of life have been coming into your poetry more. Right now, what sorts of details do you find entering the poems that you’re writing?

PP: I’m interested in transgressing across the boundaries that we tend to erect around what’s worthy of being in a poem and what’s not. And I find that the more I’m abiding by those boundaries and only putting in the things that seem “poetic,” the worse it is as a work of art. The more I transgress across that and let what really goes on in my life into the poem, the more interesting things get.

That happened a lot when I had kids, since life gets a lot less glamorous when you’re taking care of children. [Laughter] You can have a certain amount of swag and be a certain amount of cool, but once a kid is barfing on your shoulder, and once you’re wincing because you stepped on Legos crossing your living room, it’s a little harder to be dramatic and cool all the time. So raising children and now having teenagers in the house, I’ve wanted to let more of that onto the page.

Right now my life is very much involved with teenage boys who spend a lot of time playing video games and barking orders into their headsets. I haven’t figured out what kind of poem to make out of that. But then I always experience a lag: it took me about 10 years to figure out how to write about the time when our kids were born. And when my dad got very sick, and my father-in-law died of cancer, I wrote poems about those experiences only much later. So while I’m sure everyone is different, for me, at least, there seems to be a decade of incubation before I’ve changed enough to write about the person I once was. It’s not an art form for those in a hurry.

This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Contact Scott Stevens at scotts7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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