“Elegy with Table Saw & Cobwebs”: Five Questions with Patrick Phillips

Patrick Phillips is the author of three collections of poetry and a work of nonfiction. His 2004 collection, Chattahoochee, won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and his 2015 collection, Elegy for a Broken Machine, was a finalist for the National Book Award. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Phillips earned his PhD in English Renaissance Literature from NYU, and now directs the creative writing department at Stanford University. He has received awards including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Copenhagen, and the Lyric Poetry Award of the Poetry Society of America. His poem “Elegy with Table Saw & Cobwebs” appeared in the 2021 edition of the Best American Poetry.

Lily Cowles: You seem to be drawn to the elegy as a poetic form — your third collection of poetry, “Elegy for a Broken Machine” is composed of them, and you’ve also written others, such as “Elegy with Table Saw & Cobwebs.” Is there a reason for this?
Patrick Phillips: Thanks for this question, Lily, which really gets to the heart of a lot of my poems. The short answer as to why I’ve been drawn to the elegaic mode lately is that I’ve had some close encounters with death and grief, and have experienced the kind of loss that is happening all around us every day, even as the great world spins. Some people learn very early in life that bodies are fragile and can betray us, but for me it started, and accelerated, during adulthood.

I’ve lost a number of close friends over the past twenty years, and I have always looked to poetry as a way to dwell on the overwhelming mix of emotions that follow such a loss. For me it is a mix of love and anguish, anger and bewilderment, and longing for someone who is only lamented, of course, because they were beloved. I have written poems about people whose laughter and goodness and wickedness I miss so much that I want to bring them back, and keep them alive, at least in memory, for at least as long as the poem lasts. In that sense, I guess I am drawn to elegies because they are love poems, composed of seemingly opposite impulses: to praise and to lament.

LC: You’ve also written a book of nonfiction. How do you experience writing prose, especially nonfiction, compared to writing poetry?
PP: I came to writing nonfiction rather late in my career, having worked for decades on spare, compressed little lyrics, and having published three books of poetry. The truth is that I never thought I could write a long prose work—a book book—because I have a short attention span and thought I was far too restless to focus that long on a single subject.

But then I realized that I had an important story to tell, about the nearly-forgotten waves of white terrorism that drove out the African American residents of my homeplace in 1912. I told that story in a book called Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, and I think I was only able to write it after accepting that I was uniquely positioned to learn a truth that white people in Forsyth County, Georgia, had been deliberately hiding for generations. As a white man raised in the county, I had access to information and carefully guarded secrets that I don’t think many other people could have unearthed, and that were deliberately hidden from the African American descendants who deserved to know what happened to their ancestors. So what really freed me up to write that book was a conviction that if I didn’t, no one else would.

As far as the experience? It was hard! But also exciting. Luckily I had some practice at finding and taming lots of dusty old archival documents, having written a Ph.D. dissertation on the literature of the English Renaissance plagues in London. I had always thought that kind of scholarly, academic work was unrelated to my life as a writer, but in the end it was incredible training in the skills I needed to write Blood at the Root.

LC: How do you go about writing poetry? Do you have a specific process, or does it depend on the poem?
PP: Good question! I only wish I knew exactly where poems come from, so I could go there more often. Every writer is different, but for me the first lines of a poem are fleeting, mysterious, and fragmentary, while a draft’s route to actually becoming a decent poem is long, slow, and filled with missteps and backtracking. I love revising and dread composing so much that I almost never sit down before a blinking cursor and wait for inspiration. Instead, I rifle my pockets for things scrawled on torn envelopes; scribble down amazing things I heard strangers say; transcribe weird little mantras that I find myself repeating while riding my bike; or just sift and sort abandoned old files on my hard drive, searching for something—anything—that seems to have a spark of life in it.

One of the ways I rekindle my hope that it’s still possible to write well—which is always on the verge of flickering out—is to look back through the earliest, most terrible drafts of poems that eventually panned out. I’m always amazed to see just how lame they were at the beginning, and just how little I understood what I was really writing about. Since those humble beginnings have occasionally led to poems I like, it gives me hope that my current disasters, my present group of hopeless failures, might someday actually make something of themselves!

That’s a long-winded way of saying that my process is one of trial and error. I tinker and tweak, read the poem out loud, pace around, get some coffee, read my heroes, and tinker some more. And I probably abandon about 90% of what I write, in both poetry and prose. If there are efficiency experts in the business world, I guess I’m an inefficiency expert! But I love being deep down in the maze, trying to find my way out. It’s a kind of trance that the poet Alan Shaprio calls “that self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration.”

LC: Which of your poems or poetry collections are you most proud of? What are your favorite works by other poets?
PP: Oh man, I guess I’m always most proud of the latest one, which in this case is a book of poems called Song of the Closing Doors, which will be published by Knopf in Fall 2022. I’m not the best judge of which of my poems are best, but certainly the most popular has been a little meditation called “Heaven,” which spent a few years riding around in subway cars under New York City, thanks to the MTA’s Poetry in Motion program. That was a thrill because I’ve been a New Yorker for most of my adult life, and a weary, straphanging commuter for many of those years. It was wonderful to get emails from strangers who’d seen that poem during their own long commutes and who, despite being skeptical of poetry, felt something when they read it. That, to me, was pretty dreamy: to write a poem actually read by my people.

LC: Is there a particular logic behind the rhyming in “Elegy with Table Saw & Cobwebs”?
PP: That’s a really good question. I’m only one reader of that poem, but for me the logic is not narrative or rhetorical, but sonic: on the page the line-endings don’t rhyme in a traditional sense, but when read aloud I hope there’s a kind of formal unity, and a plaintiveness, that comes from those repeating aaaa sounds (not the lofty, soft a of “father,” but the kind of rasping, cranky a of “rack”). The rule of the poem—that all lines will try to end close to that sound—is an invented form that I stumbled on when tinkering with the thing, and feeling unsatisfied with it. I realized that there was a kind of tonic note in a lot of the lines, and that whatever else the poem was saying, it kept homing back to that a sound. I know this could sound a bit mystical, but that form emerged of its own accord, and I just tried to listen.

Ultimately, this is the great wonder of form for me: the way a sonic pattern–a seemingly stifling constraint–can free the imagination, and allow a boring, lumbering draft to suddenly rise up off the page, and sing a song altogether more interesting and more urgent than what the poet had planned. That’s the trick for me: to so trap oneself in a formal scheme, and so limit the range of possible utterances, that the poet has no choice but to say something unexpected and, because unexpected, more likely to be true.

Photo credit: Marion Ettinger

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