SUNY Poetry Center Director Rowan Phillips Gives Workshop at City Tech
Distinguished poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips, director of The Poetry Center and of English Graduate Studies at SUNY Stony Brook, visited City Tech Professor Jane Mushabac’s Creative Writing class in March 2011 to lead a poetry workshop. His 75-minute workshop included tips to writers, readings of his own poems and stories from his life.
Phillip’s book of essays about African-American poets, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, appeared last year. Next year, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux will publish his poetry collection, The Ground.
Professor Phillips has taught at Harvard University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts. His poems have been published in The New Yorker, Granta, Kenyon Review, The New Republic and Iowa Review. His translations of Dante have appeared in Chelsea, and those from the Catalan language have appeared in Best European Fiction 2010 and Best European Fiction 2011.
When Phillips was growing up, his mother always said that he could do anything he wanted with his life, but no matter what he chose, he should be the best at it. Even if he chose to become a bum, he should be the best bum possible. He told the class humorously that as a child he’d pondered what the best bum would do to outdistance the competition. As an adult actually figuring out what he wanted for his life, he realized that he always wanted to be writing, which was his best clue. Adults choose a variety of ways to be productive in society, and he decided that what he wanted to produce was his own writing.
“Read, read – read a lot of stuff, including history,” Phillips advised the aspiring writers in Mushabac’s class. “Do your own ‘mash-ups’ of old stories,” he suggested, the way Shakespeare did in his plays. He told the students to read the works they love and to become immersed in them so that they became models for their own writing. This is an approach Mushabac has long favored.
Phillips read to the class the poem he had written on the history behind his name. “The students responded by writing poems about their own names,” Professor Mushabac said later, “poems that pitched them very naturally into creating a voice for themselves and a sense of who they were as poets.”
“You might think you have to have something figured out to write about it,” Phillips continued. “But that’s actually not true. What you need is tension. Poetry comes from tension and sometimes a poem is a calling into the dark.” Phillips then read one such work, recalled Professor Mushabac, a poem he wrote to a friend who had been murdered, “Grief and the Imaginary Grave.”
The speaker advised reading the classics whether Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange or Dante. Make your own version of a classic work, he added, reading his own Dante-inspired “Purgatorio,” in which Marion Reid, one of the students in the class, noted that an unnamed troubadour in the work was based on Bob Marley.
“Excellent,” said Phillips, commending the student. “No one has picked up on that before.”
Later in the semester, Elise Schmidt, another student in Mushabac’s class, responded readily to an assignment to write a poem inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poem “Wild Nights.” The result, “Three Thousand Every Nights,” went on to win first prize for poetry in City Tech’s spring 2011 Literary Arts Festival. And at the festival Professor Mushabac directed a short play, also a prize winner, written by a student in her fall 2010 writing class, Kimberly La Force’s green card marriage play inspired by a Chekhov farce. An accomplished writer and 2011 Scholar on Campus, Professor Mushabac also won a prize in the competition, for her short story.