J. Phillip Reed Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
You’re still a student, starting an MFA program in the fall, which is remarkable because your poetry shows great maturity in content and form/craft. What, or who, has been your best teacher, and why – and what did you learn from that teacher? I’m thinking of a broad meaning of “teacher” – it could be an experience, an actual professor, or something or someone else.
Mistakes are always faithful teachers in my book. Generally speaking—and my words here must be general, if for no other reason than that several of my actual professors are good friends of mine who deserve this title in specific and diverse ways—my life has been blessed with the guidance of good teachers. For that matter, living as a student has been my best teacher. I’ve had dedicated and wise individuals in my corner for as long as I can remember, and the lessons learned have often been completely incidental. As a child, I used to grill my mother about the purpose of life, and the answer that stuck spoke of leaving this world in a better state than we find it. As far as I’m concerned, my teachers (that is, academics, employers, friends, relatives, authors, etc.) accomplish this enough for several lifetimes. I am the product, a sort of continual art project.
Speaking of teaching and learning, what kind of learner are you (that is, there are visual, audio, and kinetic learners, and maybe others) and how do you understand that to affect your writing?
Can I be all of these? I learn visually through reading the work of writers whose craft I appreciate, envy, and wish to imitate and eventually subvert. I attend poetry readings as an auditory learner, listening for the levels of imagery that successfully move an audience. My professors have adamantly encouraged me over the years to read my work aloud in order to hear the sounds that could be hiding on the page. Sometimes, a superfluous tongue-tier lurks and simply screws up the pacing enough to keep a poem from leaping. Of course, touch is essential. I write images and lines in journals, and—it’s weird—the speed at which the page passes under my hand is often a good indicator of whether or not I’m being too cerebral. So, maybe I’m a combo learner. I wanna eat the whole cake, as Borgore says.
The pronouns and switches between active and passive voice in “The Locusts of Control” do a lot of work for the poem. These devices create and release tension and forge and unravel relationships, including the reader’s relationship with the speaker of the poem. It’s stunning craft. Would you share with us your thoughts when you chose these craft elements?
I find that passive language never fails to be a topic of discussion and angst in my undergraduate writing courses. We students acquaint ourselves with the task of combing our little essays to find to-be verbs and eradicate them like roaches, but we (and our professors) often have to concede that passive voice has a place in good writing. That place is sometimes watery and obscure. With “The Locusts of Control,” I wanted to communicate the similarities between disaster and inspiration: they appear in the same episode, but the language we employ for them—whether in conversations with ourselves or with others—sets the margin. Also, use of the pronoun “one” is like the passive-aggressive diplomat of scholarly rhetoric. “One” is the general, compact, politically-correct-sexist-nonetheless alternative to “he or she,” and young writers like me have misused it in countless academic papers to suggest some insular person whom we should all strive to be or to heed, as if “one” is the authority who lends its cred to our supporting arguments. Who better than this “one” to be that take-charge, self-assured master of the internal locus of control? Conversely, “you” stands at the other end, having a finger shoved in its face and no idea what it’s done to deserve the plague.
The language in your poems is beautiful and creates a type of orchestra, with sounds and metaphoric meaning repeating in a way that is comforting (even when sad) and that serves the tone and meaning of the poem. To me, raised in undergrad by New Critic professors, it’s brilliant and exciting. Where do these repetitions and metaphors stem from? For example, do they reflect the way you understand life, or some part of it; or do they stem from particular writers you’ve read?
I love words, sometimes so much that I marry them and seek therapy when I find them cold and distant. I’m currently taking my last undergrad class, a Greek Mythology course for which the primary text is Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth—a transcribed interview with Bill Moyers. Among the many brilliant gifts Campbell gives us in this book, there is a great discussion of metaphors, myths, and religion, including the quote, “Myths are so intimately bound to culture, time, and place that unless the symbols, the metaphors, are kept alive by constant recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them.” Gorgeous. First, I accept that any word is instantly a metaphor. Not to bury myself in theory, I recognize Derrida’s différance as a personal anxiety that can only be overcome by embracing language’s potential for infinite connotations. Repetition is good for this: in repeating “this” five times, I get to objectify a signifier that literally refers to nothing at all and give the word some sensuality. It’s crazy fun. I guess the comfort comes from resolving ourselves to the immediate failure of language—we love this thing because it exists to eat itself, creating words as extraneous supplements to each other with the aim of meaning-making. Language, like me, is secretly a romantic looking for its other half and doing so in hopefully new ways that can only be described in the language of the past. And as sad as that is, its echoes are the seasons, sex and death, mythology, history, the earth spinning on its axis, ad infinitum. Everything we do, everything our language does, is a chorus.
What’s your favorite character flaw or vice? (This can be something you like yourself or in others.) Why?
Bad taste. I think everyone should have a little. I publically adore Lindsay Lohan, and I think that if not for jokes about the Holocaust or Black people, we’d be without Quentin Tarantino. Heaven knows Oscar Wilde sprang fully grown from the forehead of bad taste, and The Picture of Dorian Gray changed my life.
What’s something that’s repulsive to you? Is this in some way related to (or maybe in opposition to) something you love?
My “something” here is a bit specific. I cannot stand for people to glorify their depression and carry it like an excuse, and it repulses me all the more because I have been that person. I’m referring to folks who know better: that guy who—against all common sense and better judgment—goes through a breakup and drinks himself into a stupor every night after; that girl who complains about having no friends to the friend she is in the business of alienating. These little breakdowns are small potatoes, and the people who cater to them will be pancaked by the mega-spud, Life. I favor those who live proactively. Sure, that’s complicated, and everyone’s experience is different, but it’s the difference between getting to the root of your unhappiness and being a walking pharmaceutical drug trial.
The Locusts of Control
When given breadth: a way to begin
all over. One believes. One can anticipate
a drought to wade. Doesn’t wait
sound sadistic to you? Doesn’t it
whiff of destruction, a bazillion deaths
bonding? One cannot waver. The cloud, at last—
Or breadth is taken; the whole of will
cements without you: a flame on the very air.
What happens now will happen to hurt.
Remember yourself in the wake of the waylay:
waiting, like the fields, to allow
all of this this this this this.
Hips of the Drowned
What else should we say about the waves? They undulate
every poem before—in the same way I preface
capsized stanzas with that line. Oceans iterate
but heavens, planetary pirouettes set the motions,
learned the sea by trickle-down example: repeat damned
mistake and mistake and miss and take.
We channel the twisted Charybdis: fluid seductress
conch, tease before deathblow. Give the illusion of snailpace
descent after which the winds ravel.
Encroach on a landmass, a vessel: take the mast, the phallic
strain of spires muscling up; what we think of Atlantis when we
think of Atlantis—drifting meanderer
immortalized as a mess on the floor. The sea knows
who got off first, who grew the cold shoulder, denied men
passage, taught us to embrace their entry, commit, pull away.
Tempest Monsoon Manwhore Hurricane Slut—
christenings as if one climax were a state we could replicate,
as if climax were climax the end.
We are all sure things. We are sixty percent coming back for more,
elementally inevitable, only hard to get for fun. Wild tropics
distort us, give us legseyes walls to wreck against lovers.
—The couple’s fucking wasn’t humming then, my darling.
Lullabies of deep seas in deep space: it’s the hot mess, original
big bang just a-whooshing the spiral of your ear.
What will remain? The breadcrumbs of our controlled burn,
still burning: the scent of cinnamon chewing gum, sweat—
a pungency only secrecy has. An overdrawn curtain.
A wadded cloth conceals the weight of wasted sperm.
With us, it’s always discretion: checking detritus
tracked on the carpet. In a forest I didn’t invent, you
become a youth—flushed, starved, lost, and I cannot help
but think of penitence now, of a fire:
old flames, hot death in a seedy hotel. Non-smoking,
king: that was never the story. I didn’t write that myth,
didn’t fold my raven-wings. I came as mosquito.
Promethean liver, the price of imparting. I fellate you,
moons cycle, and I forget who cowers in the brush,
who calls him out of darkness, who is hero, is monster.
I’ve long felt us bristle on the cusp of something mown,
hyperbolic. Gods gamble at the edge, stroking eagles
like the groin before sleep. I borrow your apartment key,
rinse myself out of your favorite glass, take no shower,
leave pennies in the furrows of a fitted sheet.
Smoke, scavenging fowl remain. Sins invented for consolation. Tell me, blood oath-like, that you someday want a wife.
Point out amid the haze growing shapes of little terrors.
The Waking Sex of Brom Bones
Late sun bellies up. Body pinned, saddle-sore,
Katrina discovers more of the same: mutton-and-ale
breaths taken in bushwhack strides, striated
fingernails, prints dusted with gunpowder,
her mint tongue tainted by matchstick char.
Goose pimples crown her collarbone, graze
the beard, the curls that turned her insides out.
Cold thigh, heat of horseback, his gallop.
Perhaps it was then she broke, however dainty
the tear, and could not stem the rush of blood,
starved assurance. And maybe, it was the town,
its tendency to overcast, to magic tired men
into mystery suitors, asses into sleek Pegasi.
She had scoffed at the servant girl, What gut?
Van Brunt, most unblemished in all the Hollow,
drools buckets and snores high around the rafters.
Having bruised purple her proud little ankle,
his fist crowds into itself, sinks her waist lower
like a found-guilty throwing stone in the Hudson.
She accepts the weight—again, the hint of certainty,
arrangement, a herd, good harvest hereafter—
when, like clockwork, the cock rises,
ugly and more jerky in motion than before,
to scare off old fable at the entrance of dawn.