Christopher Phelps studied physics and philosophy at MIT before poetry (be)came correct. His work appears or is forthcoming in magazines including Awl, FIELD, Lumina, New Republic, and in the anthology Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality. His poem “Stars by Other Means” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of KR. Two additional poems, “Nursing Home” and “Embodiment,” recently appeared on KROnline.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
In the bungalowed wilds of South Venice, Florida, there is a house whose front yard, hedged and neatly fenced, contains a dead bottlebrush tree wrapped in white twinkle lights. I only know it’s a bottlebrush because when I stopped to admire the density of light tight as a skin of bark on what I knew must be dead (for there were no leaves, just a few beaming branches, and this was late spring), a man came out of the house to take a photo of the full moon rising over the marsh field just across the street, and I, typically nonverbal around strangers but charmed by the timing and the noctilucence twice before me, moon and medium-sized tree, asked him what sort of tree it was he’d reanimated. He told me and we chatted for a few minutes. I later wrote “Stars by Other Means” as a brief meditation on that chance encounter that had put me in a reverie for reasons I couldn’t quite locate until I wrote them out.
The hardest part about writing the poem was distilling its wordplay away from distraction, making the plays work cohesively rather than discursively. In many poems I give a lot of latitude to the digressions and discoveries that words themselves always bring and brim with—their crosstalk and curiosity—but for such a short poem addressing a single subject I wanted to keep the ship tight, the variables viable, and my puns pulled. To put too fine a point on it, the poem is about identifying with a certain kind of identity loss—a continuous white void—so I tried to choose words that would reflect or overhear one another: “mired” and “myriad,” “finely” and “finally,” and the pair of reversals, “anti-effigy” and “endarkenment,” for examples. I also made use of parataxis (de-hierarchical, “run-on” grammar) to keep everything as much of a piece as I could.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Although I hesitate to call any of it knowledge, I learned almost everything I know about the process of creative writing in the last five years. Back in the early aughts my intention was to become a philosopher. I took a degree in each of physics and philosophy and then—for reasons still incalculable and inarticulate—I decided I didn’t want to go on with further study in either discipline. Instead I wanted to read and write poems. To the present day I still refresh and stretch legs in mathematics and the occasional philosophy monograph, but the problem—to derange the truth, truthfully—is that only my heart’s in it. Poetry reset me, toward putting formal feeling first. I was a participant in both my high school and undergraduate literary journals, but I didn’t study creative writing in a degree program. It’s been a strange haul and a tough sell.
Specifically, in the past five years I’ve learned to stop clipping my lines so much (I still prefer a short line, but not Kay-Ryan short); to make sound more friend than frenemy (I like fusillades of assonance and consonance, but most don’t); to use rhythm more like a perch and less like a crutch or an afterthought; and to invite etymological considerations front and center when a poem can make room for them. Webster’s dictionary was a favorite book at a young age, but Bin Ramke’s work encouraged me to think etymology has a place in the lines of poems, not just between them. I was also fascinated by Orlando White’s poems that look at the English alphabet—the letters themselves—as objects one can conjecture about, tell stories about, write histories for. I found myself doing this at the level of individual words, imagining etymologies for them, especially when their origins were unknown. Even words like “queer” and “quirk,” “pang” and “puzzle,” have unknown origins, the small and sometimes connected mysteries of which intrigue me.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
I look forward to reading Poetry’s poems and especially their Comment section. In recent months, Mary Ruefle has written a couple of pieces that knocked my socks off, and my introduction to Liz Waldner came from that magazine, too. I tend to enjoy whatever FIELD puts out—lyrics of precision and clarity. When I get my copy, I always flip right to the poems in Boston Review, and the same with the Gay & Lesbian Review. Both publications tend to surprise me and I like surprises.
So many literary periodicals seem to play it safe, publishing what sounds most recognizably contemporary, often a sort of channel surfing that becomes quickly monotone; a kind of ironic tunnel vision in its drip-drip disjunction and fastidiously gestural preciousness. Life is famously short and death and love and grief are constantly various, organic and ever modified, and the present age is frakked up in a Fibonacci number of new ways, so I’m surprised when mainstream magazines don’t publish more work that bears more interesting, variegated, and earnest witness; that makes more piezoelectricity from all the madness of a world rapidly demythologizing and trying to figure out, in fits and starts, what the hell comes next besides the next Mars mission.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
I used to post musings on a blog I named Any Angled Light, from a line in Larkin’s poem, “Water.” To paraphrase a friend’s reaction, “A blog! A medium he’d hate!” Larkin’s three stages of poem writing (I want to name them Impression, Representation, and Reproduction) sound about right: from the frisson of impression/inspiration, to the discoveries and decisions and craft and toil of representation/writing/revising, to the often difficult process of finding others interested in one’s wordwork.
But I do think it’s best not to think too much about Reproduction. I once had an acquaintance tell me that perhaps I could try to sound a little more like what she thought the editors and readers of a certain literary journal want: less contraptual and ponderous, more narrative and attuned. I quietly decided never to steer my style that way, toward slipping in the deck. My edges would be deckled, no matter how I trimmed them, anyhow.
I go back and forth between which I think is harder, Impression or Representation. Some weeks it seems like everything is an impression I can’t find the words for. Other times I feel flat; lost in somewhat arbitrary, artificial considerations of craft; hungry for an infusion of content, a fresh experiment, or a lyrical lead.
There’s also the complication that I’m often inspired by arbitrary, artificial considerations of craft: I’ll be playing around in etymology and syntax or just rubbing phrases together to see what sparks and speaks and a direction will present itself as possible—so I’ll follow the arrows into the maze. Usually I’ll get stuck after a while, well before I’ve even got a draft. An accumulation of snags will threaten to bleed a poem by a thousand doubts and only by some small miracle of patience, persistence, and dumb luck will a way break “inside the overknown,” as Heather McHugh described it. Often that doesn’t happen and I end up with a jangle of lines I save in a folder. Since I share the view that a poem is written for its end—defined by its struggle to conclude—and since I typically write short poems, I’m intimate with the feeling of something’s ending just as it (finally) begins.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?
May I answer this question in six quips and four stanzas?:
Conservatives are right about one thing: errors have always been with us. Liberals are right to find the eros in them—to allow for generosity.
The truth is coincidental. Because there’s so much of it, it’s right under nose and thumbing nose and smiling at the wave from a nearby universe.
The uncanny, however briefly, is language leaning toward both utmosts: clarity and honesty, reification and suggestion.
The uncanny won’t be canned for long. The expiration date is now.
The past persists in every plot and inkblot. It will make its insistences any way you go.
Most people will resent something about it (and with any luck, find something else to like), so write (as Rilke said) what you think you must—which may just mean, all things in the equilibrium of a moment’s choice and a draft’s design—whatever you want and can live with having wanted.
Enigmas are loveliest lowercased: indeed
what would’ve annoyed Wittgenstein more
than a single heart, than a core
without corridors, one with its seed?
And so the man who wished to cure us
linguistically, from our problem sets
and problematic answers answered:
there is no problem only because
there are too many. As one witness,
continually sketching, calls the new
sketches more true, another witness,
eyes defiant, calls them all false.
Who’re you? The compulsive questions
are compulsive for a reason. Let’s
recycle our drafts. Let’s keep meaning
a hot potato. Let’s always keep in touch.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
Three have been most important to me: Andrew Joron, with his finely machined surrealism and humane touch; Heather McHugh, with her sliding pitch of plaint, her love of the literal, and her tragicomic wit; and Tim Taylor, whose adamantly non-narrative yet rigorously multistoried stories (told through his heteronym, Ramick) have taught me so much about the ways of wandering in the pleasures of textured writing.