Patrick Phillips: An Interview with the National Book Award Finalist


Congratulations on the publication of Elegy for a Broken Machine, your third book of poems, and for its being a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. It seems to me that both topically and stylistically the builds impressively upon the accomplishments of your two earlier books, Chattahoochee and Boy. As the central speaker, who appears to be consistent throughout the three books, moves forward through time, experiencing youth, fatherhood, the jarring experience of losing a father, the poems reflect (to mention just one thing I’ve observed) ever-more movingly on the passage of time. What continuity do you perceive between this book and your earlier works, and what if anything has changed or evolved?

Thanks, Aaron. I appreciate you doing this interview, and thank you for the generous read. In answer to your question, I think there certainly are continuities between the books, in that I have always written about family. That’s a word that has shifting definitions in mid-life: I started out writing about the family into which I was born, and then in my second book I wrote a lot about becoming a father. Much of this new work grows out of my experience watching my parents age, and watching some of the strongest people I know, and some of those I love most dearly, grow weaker.elegycover

I should add one more thing, which is that my father is alive and well. I hope that doesn’t sound like a refutation of your generous, smart reading of the poems, because I think it is natural to understand the book in exactly the way you have, and the way it’s presented: as a son’s lament for his father. That’s how I hoped it would be read. Some of the poems in the book are about my father, who has survived major heart surgery and a couple of grave illnesses, and some are about my father-in-law, who we tended at home as he died of metastatic prostate cancer. At various points in my life they have both been fathers to me, so I hope no one feels tricked by this intrusion of autobiography into the book. One of the poems says “Patrick Phillips is dead,” and that isn’t the case either—though it is one of those lies that will come true!

If anything has evolved in my work, I think it’s that I have tried to let more of the world in, and to relax the filter on what does and doesn’t belong in a poem. In this new book there are traffic jams and Kool menthols. There is a poem about my son’s diorama made of Legos. There is a poem with a “loud, horrendous fart”! At one time I don’t think I’d have let that kind of thing past my internal censors, who used to worry a lot about being taken for a redneck… about not being taken seriously. But now I find myself wanting to write not just about the noble and the timeless and the archetypal, but all of it: the whole messy, mutt world in which our lives occur. 

Reading these poems, it seems to me that you’ve found ways for the noble, timeless, and archetypal to exist side-by-side with our messy actual lives–which is of course the only they way they can exist at all! I’m thinking of your poem “Mattress” in which you describe how a place “where we’d dreamt, and read, and made love–” has become “a map of old stains” destined to be hauled to the dump. What a metaphor for our lives!  To what extent do you see these questions about content (what does and doesn’t belong in poems) as also being formal problems? I ask because your poems really do contain a lot of this messiness of life–and without being cast in what we’d call “traditional” form, they do so with a great deal of formal rigor.

I guess I always want to do something to save a spare, heartfelt poem from sounding like cheesy bullshit! After all, it’s pretty late in the game to use certain poetic devices without an awareness of just how many times readers have heard that shtick.

It makes me think of what happens to the Italian sonnet tradition once it gets to Shakespeare. All those Petrarchan love poems are impressive and elegant… but so, so played. So instead we get “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and the lover swooning not over perfume, but “the breath that from my mistress reeks”!

He saves it at the end, of course: “And yet I think my love as rare / as any she belied with false compare.” And that’s the kind of engagement with form I’m interested in—putting on the handcuffs, and then finding a way to free yourself.

All just to say it feels better, to me, to dirty things up a bit… to write a love poem set at the Freshkills Dump, through the eyes of a gull shitting on our hideous old mattress. I don’t mean it’s not a love poem, but I’m not interested anymore in the version that pretends we live forever.

The compression, economy, and precision that has always been a staple of your poems seems to lend itself extraordinarily well to elegy, a form that involves material that’s difficult to handle for all sorts of reasons, personally as well as aesthetically. The care and reserve we see in the poem’s forms and language (which almost reflect a certain distrust of language) seem especially apt for material of such intense and potentially overwhelming personal importance. What special challenges did you face as you took on the elegy?

There’s no rush when someone dies, right? Especially after a long illness, death is not a beginning of talk, but an end to it—an end to the planning, the work and tedium of caring for someone, the interminable, terrible coping. It’s over. So the prevailing mood, at least in my experience, is quiet: a kind of astonishment and disbelief. And yes, relief.

I think we all know that one enters the death house quietly. It calls for a kind of Roman decorum that I have always admired in poets like Donald Justice, Kay Ryan, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Stanley Plumly—and especially John Keats. Keats writes an elegy for his brother who has died, but never mentions the brother at all, not the deathbed, not the blood-cough, none of it. Only the stubble plains, the gathering swallows twittering in the skies. There is a restraint there—and yes, a distrust of language—that breaks my heart. The quietness of “Autumn” seems so much more accurate and significant as a representation of grief than “all that blab about death,” as Alan Shapiro puts it.

So I hope the spare sound of my poems comes across not so much as a style as a necessity. It wasn’t that I set out to write in a certain way, and many of the poems started out three times as long. But those poets gave me faith that it might be possible to speak of the beloved dead in a way that felt worthy. Or at least not recklessly unworthy.

That leads to spare, quiet poems, which is a risk, of course, since it’s so hard to pick out any one voice in the chatter and din of America in 2015. That makes me even more grateful to the National Book Foundation for the nomination. I’m delighted, and still amazed, that they heard me.

Thanks for doing this interview. The book is wonderful, and I’m sure I speak for many readers in saying that we’re grateful to have it! It may be too early to say so soon after Elegy for a Broken Machine‘s publication, but any sense of what’s next? Future directions in the work? New books?

For the past ten years I have been working on a non-fiction project, and I’m coming to the end of the story. It’s called Blood at the Root: A Lynching, A Racial Cleansing, and the Hidden History of Home, and is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in 2016.

The book tells how in 1912 bands of violent white men drove out the entire black population of Forsyth County, Georgia, where I was raised. They declared Forsyth “all-white,” and imposed a racial ban that their decendants enforced for nearly a hundred years. When I grew up there in the 70s and 80s, it was still known all over Georgia as a “white county.” As a kid I heard a kind of mythic version of the expulsions, stripped of names and dates, and any details about the vanished black people of Forsyth.

So for the past decade I’ve been tracking down descendants of the families forced out, and digging in census records, land deeds, and newspaper archives, trying to find out the real story of what happened. It’s a very different kind of work from poetry, but fascinating, and related to a lot of my obsessions in the poems. This book also grew out of a kind of astonishment and wonder at the past.

Interviewer Aaron Baker is the author of Mission Work (Houghton Mifflin), winner of the Katherine Bakeless Prize in Poetry. He is an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago.

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