The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Rowan Ricardo Phillips about his poetry collection The Ground.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Gaby is running a little late, but she wanted me to ask you about Barcelona and New York and how the notion of place works itself out in your poems.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Good morning everyone. I was born and raised in New York. It’s an unavoidable starting point for me and how I experience the world. Or at how I have thus far. My wife is from Barcelona, half of my family is from Barcelona. In fact, I just rushed here from a large family lunch.
How does that work itself out in my poems? Well, experience is a type of infancy that poets return to, and in returning to it the imagination does the rest.
Camille: I wonder how being a traveler (if that is what you call yourself) changes your poetry. There are stay poets and move poets, and it seems that can make a big difference. Do you think it influenced your sense of the fact that you couldn’t go back to a loved place even if you tried?
Gaby: That’s a great question. I’d also love to think about Camille’s question in terms of form and a poem like Song of Fulton and Gold. How that act of looking creates the form. I have such a clear memory of always looking at the towers as I turned the corner to my apartment and then literally turning one day and not seeing them and tracking downward and realizing in a new way that huge part of my life had ended.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: That’s an apt way of thinking through that problem. What I find is that you can re-inhabit spaces, territories, buildings, etc. But that spirit of that place as it was, if you are indeed searching for that, is impossible to find again. I’m influenced by the process of the search. The poem is more often than not what’s found during that search. What’s found, if you will, in the ground.
Gaby: Right? I really realized a whole chapter was over in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone evoke that moment in a poem for me.
It’s a huge question but can you talk a bit about the various forms you use and subvert and “sample” in this book. Did they surprise you? Because they are so alive and so surprising in this book. And they are maps. In a book in which mapping in all of its complexities is worked out.
Brian S: Not so much a question, but a comment along with what Gaby is asking. I really enjoyed the way you messed with Purgatorio and put it in Bob Marley’s voice. As well as “The Double Death of Orpheus.” Really great work melding everything together there.
Gaby: And Brooks is in there and then the “sample” and play of Wyatt.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: The city takes on a penmanship all its own. All of sudden, faced with another, knowing it was real, it would be the ¨there¨ of there, I was faced with a question: what do I see when I’m there. What had I always seen before. The form of the poem wanted to be the form of loss in medias res. I’m skeptical of reconciliation.
Gaby: How does that skepticism play with/into the poems?
Brian S: I think it’s good to be skeptical of reconciliation in art. There’s a place for it, but you really need to make sure that it’s not just a cop out.
Camille: I’d actually love to talk about the question of audience and universality. As a teacher it sometimes feels like student concerns come in flocks. Lately the questions that are flocking are about how to attain universality. My answer is you actually can’t, but you can strive for specific connections and hope some number of people will connect. For you RRP I am curious how you thought about building those connections. Not everyone will have the direct experience Gaby speaks of in relation to the towers, but did you think of how you would reach a larger audience then those who might have lived in NY?
Gaby: I think we may have had some similar teachers (Lucie?) and I feel that skepticism as such an engine in the work, particularly as it works with the impossible notion of beauty.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Gaby, regarding forms: I feel they’re all always in play. I don’t know of a culture that has failed to take advantage of what works in order to adapt it to their tastes, needs, and wants. We live in an age of sampling, some do it far better than others, but regardless it’s important to feel one’s way through the material history of poetry. Poetry is not the history of wind, it’s the history of objects made of language. How we put them to use is up to us. But like a painter or a composer I find it vital to have a wide skill set and sense that at any time a form can be useful for rendering the best poem in the best moment.
Gaby: Yes. Does this have a relation to the notion of mapping and naming that I find so interesting in this book? That may not be a clear question but maybe you can help me find my own way into it with your thoughts.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Gaby, I grew up with maps all around me. In my parents study there were wall to wall maps. My family is from an island so small, Antigua, that it’s literally a dot on a map. Meanwhile, I was born in an obscenely large metropolis. That might lead a person to stare at maps.
Gaby: It sure would. I was actually just thinking of buying my godson a globe and wondered if he’d like it as much as I did when I was little. I had a globe by my bed and an enormous world map on the wall. Ink that does something to a person.
Brian S: Maps and globes were really useful for me as a kid realizing that the US wasn’t the biggest country on the planet—I was a Cold War kid born in Texas, so I had an outsized view of our place in the world.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Brian, that part of Dante’s PURGATORIO is where he breaks into Provençal to speak as Arnaut Daniel, the better craftsman¨according to Dante. It’s as moving a moment in literature as there is. I had done a translation of the original and then this setting, this transposition, came to me in my sleep. That voice is in some way my Provençal.
Brian S: My attitudes on translation have morphed over the years (as is the case for many things in my life). I like the modifications—the focus on the spirit of the piece rather than the transliteration. I wouldn’t want to lose transliterations completely, but I like the way that old pieces can have new life in the hands of skilled writers.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: The concern regarding universality can only be dealt with in the specifics of making a work of art. It’s deliciously counter-intuitive, isn’t it. If you want to make a car that everyone will want to drive you need to make an outright excellent car. Gaby speaks of an experience with the poem from an experience she knows. The poem knows Gaby but the poem is concerned first and foremost with knowing itself. The greatest problem in poems I find is that they want to be something that they’re not. A poem has to know itself.
Kat: My immediate impression after reading The Ground was that it was a book of songs. I imagined them being sung as I read them.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Kat, that’s sweet music to my ears.
Brian S: I got that impression too, Kat. I think the repetition in a number of the poems lends itself to that.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: The closer the reader comes to an archaic experience with lyric when they read The Ground the better.
Back to maps for a second. Do you notice how we’re talking about the contemplation of maps? There’s of course the practical use of maps as well. But when we have maps before us, or a globe, there’s not only a sense of searching or wonder, but of world-making as well.
Brian S: That was obviously an influence—not just the Arnaut Daniel voice, but your poem “Proper Names in the Lyrics of Troubadours,” which just jumped out at me. The amalgamation of places wrapped up in a name—terrific! That strikes me as a completely 21st century poem. A globalistic poem.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: And yet it just seems West Indian to me.
Gaby: Rowan, what are you listening to? Do you listen to different music in Barcelona? How does it find its way into the poems? I kept thinking of the lost club world of NY. Another kind of ruin one can map alongside gentrification.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: What am I listening to? Bob Dylan.
Gaby: I would pay an infinite amount of money I don’t have to hear you talk about world-making. That’s a way I talk about poems as well.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: I know, right?
Gaby: My screen has basically disappeared… can’t track the chat.
Thelma: I liked how, in the poem “Hell Gate …,” there is so much downward movement, which gives the phrase “ground down” such resonance toward the poem’s end.
Gaby: I think it’s a good comment now along with music and maps and world-making.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: By way of an analogy, when I studied at Oxford the poets I ended up reading the most were William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson. I’ve never read them as intensely as I did there. What I mean is that immersion in a country or culture for me also tends to lead to a secondary or tertiary type of immersion. A re-emergence of art I thought I was already familiar with but I suddenly asking me to take another lap around the lake.
Brian S: Who are you reading intensely now?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Brian, I’m reading Shelley and Apollinaire.
Camille: Interesting pairing, those two. What are you finding in them as a pairing?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Regarding world-making, whether we’re from rural Texas, New York, the suburbs of Paris, wherever, the world comes to makes less and less sense the deeper we immerse ourselves into art. Poets, especially, as they’re in search of a sustainable way of creating with their language, absolutely must find a way of unraveling the world and making it again. Heraclitus, I believe, said that geography is fate. That, then, is what tethers us to the world. The rest is pulling on that tether.
Camille: Your movement from the archaic to the colloquial seems to influence your movements between personal utterance and collective reflection. Were these important polarities to you and why? Or do you see them as polarities?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: I’m also reading the Catalan poet J.V. Foix.
Brian S: Never thought about geography is fate before, but it makes sense to me, though in a far different way than it did to Heraclitus, I’d imagine.
Gaby: How long will you be in Barcelona? Is it another home? Does writing happen for you there and is there any difference in your practice depending on the place you are?
Thelma: Brian, we can’t step into the same poem twice.
Gaby: I walk a few miles each day and depending where I am that leads to different kinds of information and different ways of coming back “home” and wrestling with it
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: I’m reading Apollinaire in French. I haven’t thought about the two of them in tandem. I just got back from Paris and thought I’d read some of Victor Hugo’s poetry but ended up diving back into Apollinaire instead. Both Shelley and Apollinaire have a sublime sense of sound.
Camille: Interesting that you compartmentalize. So that even though you are reading them at the same time you are not reading them “together.” Do I take liberties to read into your poetics with the knowledge that you sometimes compartmentalize thus?
Brian S: I should revisit Shelley. I read him in grad school, but somehow came out of my Romantic classes without retaining a lot of his work.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Like I said, half of my family is in Barcelona and Catalunya. I speak Catalan, I am Catalan. But as far as writing is concerned, I write when I can here. But I’m mostly here visiting family. I’ve been here for over a month. We head back to the States next week. It’s my daughter’s first trip here. She turned seven-months-old today.
Brian S: Maybe it’s an unconscious or subconscious pairing? Can you really read multiple people and not make connections on some level?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Brian, that’s what I did as well. I was far far more into Coleridge and Keats when I studied the Romantics in college. Now I’m far more into Shelley and Wordsworth.
Brian S: I came out of grad school with a greater love of John Clare and an appreciation for early Wordsworth.
Gaby: Clare was a revelation to me, too. Also Herbert.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Camille, I’m often reading in various languages at once. And I tend to think in that language when I am. So it might be easier—if I can put it that way—for me to read that way.
Clare is tremendous.
Gaby: Blew my mind. Really blew my mind.
Rowan, we haven’t touched on your essays here but I’m wondering if you’d say something about if the process is different for you or if you still think of them as “worlds.”
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Gaby, I’m a devoted walker myself. I know the feeling.
Gaby: Yes. While writing my second book I’d walk eight miles a day in LA really changed my life. I can walk forever.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Essay writing is different, yes. But the engine is the same. You’ll find the same or similar methods in both books.
Gaby: I’m excited to see those connections and divergences. And I’m so grateful for your time. Thank you for joining us!!!
Thelma: There’s a novel featuring Clare: The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds. Really marvelous. Just wanted to sneak that in for you Clare lovers.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: As am I for your time. Thank you. I hope you all have had as much fun as I have. You all at The Rumpus are terrific. Be well. And thanks again.
Brian S: You too. See you next month!