Poetry in Motion
Poet-critic Rowan Ricardo Phillips finds inspiration in the classroom
By his own account, Rowan Ricardo Phillips has been writing since before he was writing.
To be sure, Phillips may be using poetic license when he lists “entreaties for more playtime outside” as an example of his early boyhood work, but if he is stretching the definition of writing a bit, it’s only because Phillips said he never knew he wanted to write — it’s just something that happened naturally.
Long before he was an award-winning writer (he’s putting the finishing touches on his second collection of poems, Heaven, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) or an associate professor in Stony Brook University’s Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences, Phillips drew inspiration from his surroundings. The son of immigrants from the Caribbean nation of Antigua, Phillips spent his early years in the Bronx, which he dubbed “the center of the world.” It is perhaps there in that bustling borough that his insatiable curiosity was stoked.
“I always had a very clear sense that there were other places because the people I grew up with were from all over the world,” he said. “Fortunately, I had an endless array of maps, atlases and encyclopedias at home to track these places down and follow the peregrinations of my budding imagination.”
And it was in the Bronx that he nurtured his critical thinking and creative writing. Phillips said it’s hard to know if he was looking for inspiration or was just a child who read voraciously, but one thing was clear — he was a veritable sponge. When Phillips was 10 years old, an uncle gave him the complete works of Shakespeare, his mother’s favorite author, for Christmas. That early exposure to the Bard may have been the catalyst for the literary fire that burns within Phillips to this day.
When he was a teenager, the center of his world shifted downtown to Manhattan. There he attended Hunter College High School, where his love affair with Shakespeare deepened, probably due in large part to a curriculum that heavily featured the English poet and playwright. By then, the literary die was cast.
After high school, Phillips continued to find inspiration from his college and graduate school professors, but rather than give credit to any one individual, he maintains that the library is the best mentor a person can have.
“In the humanities, your professors teach you how to be a humane-thinking person; but the archives teach you how, not what, to think,” he said.
That’s a philosophy he shares with his students at Stony Brook, where he teaches a variety of poetry courses at the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels. Denise De Gennaro ’11, a student success advisor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, took one of Phillips’ classes, Black American Literature, in fall 2010. In that class she learned an important skill that she applies to her work in higher education.
“English courses, generally speaking, require reading, analysis and writing. It is important to see the big picture and situations as they are at the present, but essential to take a deeper look at why, to question how we arrived at the present moment,” she said. “Professor Phillips’ incredible passion and engaging style elevated the typical English class experience. I found myself thinking about the material we would read in and out of class.”
Indeed, Phillips takes his roles as associate professor and director of Stony Brook’s Poetry Center seriously.
“The faculty-student relationship is always by its very nature a relationship on borrowed time,” he said. “My responsibility is to help students further learn how to learn, to think critically and yet expansively.”
His impassioned approach to teaching carries over to his writing.
“In my opinion he’s a marvelous poet, on par with the best, because he thinks clearly about what it means to be human, and he revises and revises until he has found just the right combination of words to make his point,” said Department of English Chair Gene Hammond.
Although Phillips expertly juggles teaching, writing and traveling, he downplays the notion of employing “balance” in his day-to-day activities.
“I don’t think I balance as much as I get it done, and I thoroughly enjoy putting in a full day,” he said.
It seems that Phillips’ days are fuller than those of most people. For example, last year he was the recipient of two prestigious writing awards, the Whiting Writers’ Award and the PEN/Joyce Osterwell Award for Poetry, with the ceremonies for each held on the same evening at approximately the same time in New York City. Demonstrating superb time management skills, Phillips attended one ceremony for a little while then raced crosstown to catch the tail end of the other, proving he could be in two places at nearly the same time.
And now that the spring semester has begun, Phillips is already on the go. Later this month he will visit Harvard University, where he will record several of his poems for the archives of the renowned Woodberry Poetry Room, which houses one of the most comprehensive recorded collections of poetry in the United States. Phillips’ recordings will join those of some of the world’s most revered poets — W.H. Auden, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Moore and Sylvia Plath, to name a few. While there he will also give a talk on innovative approaches to designing and teaching a poetry workshop.
Then in April he’s off to University of California, Berkeley, and the venerable Lunch Poems reading series, which is under the direction of former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Haas, who has invited Phillips to teach a class and give a reading.
When he’s not teaching or traveling, Phillips is tackling three poetry projects at once — the aforementioned Heaven, which should be published later this year or early 2015; a book of criticism titled Biographia Literaria; and a translation from the Catalan of the selected poems of Melcion Mateu.
“The three projects together go a long way toward explaining how I feel about the task of a poet. I’m a poet-critic, a vocation that has been with us for ages. I’ve always been attracted to the work of poet-critics,” he said. “I like to think that writing poetry is an exercise in criticism and criticism is an exercise in writing poetry. It’s not quite that simple, but both my work as a poet and as a scholar are vital for my imagination.”
Also crucial to his creative process is time spent with family, he said. Phillips and his wife, fashion designer Núria Royo Planas, and their 2-year-old daughter, Imogen, split their time between Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Barcelona, Spain, where Planas has family.
“Barcelona is a spectacular place, full of arabesques and shadows. … My connection to Barcelona is entirely familial, and given that I live a good portion of my life in Catalan, the literature and visual art have become a major part of what to me is familial about there,” he said.
As with many writers, Phillips’ wanderings undoubtedly enrich his art, but he makes it clear that inspiration doesn’t always come from a visit to an exotic locale — it can be nurtured in the classroom.
“When it comes to your education as a writer, you can’t cheat writing; you can only cheat yourself. Stony Brook students seem to get that: They don’t take the opportunity to write for granted,” he said. “Combine that with the tremendous cultural, social, demographic and racial diversity of Stony Brook, and you have all the makings of a fine little crucible for studying writing.”
He added, “I admire these students when they take on this challenge. It really is the road less traveled, and I feel fortunate to share a small part in their process.”
—By Susan Tito; photos by John Griffin