When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I started studying poetry because I felt I knew nothing about it. I have an extensive background in American literature, and I made sure that when I began teaching at the college level that I introduced poetry to my students, but I also did it for me. I thought that, even in literature classes, poetry was a neglected genre. I began writing poetry because I had read so much of it that I had internalized rhythms and meters almost unconsciously. The very metered poetry of Emily Dickinson had much to do with this.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I tend to write academically during the day and more creatively in the evening when the mind switches from the conscious and logical to the more unconscious and imaginative. Like the poet Marianne Moore, who admitted she wrote in a notebook of “School Assignments,” I have dozens of notebooks scattered about, and I use these as a kind of poetic workshop. There’s nothing Romantic about the creative process, at least for me.
Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Poems can come from a thought, an observation, a line, but most likely a memory. My current poetry is an exercise in American memory as it recalls a more rural landscape that was then developing into the more suburban. I grew up on the North Shore which has now become overly developed, claustrophobic, and urban in the sense that it now mirrors the city outskirts of Boston rather than a more exurban setting.
Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?
The high modernists have influenced me the most. The imagery of and allusions to T.S. Eliot run through my poems as does the use of meter from Robert Frost. I’m also very fond of the simplicity of William Carlos Williams and the trenchant narrative voice of Sylvia Plath. I’m also influenced by the more sentimental poets from the nineteenth century such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and other women writers whose names are largely neglected today by those who don’t take American poetry seriously.
What excites you most about your new collection? (Significance of the title? Overarching themes? Process/experience of assembling it?)
What excites me the most about my new collection is that critically it is a very strong collection of poems. Of course, one always yearns for popular success but as a kind of neo-modernist book it also speaks to a specific audience. The re-telling of “Jack and Jill” after Gertrude Stein is a perfect example in that it plays with language but also assumes or requests a familiarity with Stein and her overlooked and underappreciated genius. While I can’t claim to be a “neo-modernist,” if that category even exists in American literature, I’m thrilled to be able to introduce or re-introduce the poetry of the modernists to a contemporary audience. I find myself in their direct line of heritage and if that speaks to many or to a few I’m happy where I stand, at least poetically.
DOWN AND UP THE RABBIT HOLE
A rabbit buried in a Walmart bag
Because Sheba Inu killed another one.
Said bag would never biodegrade.
But several years later, if someone
Were to develop that land, which
Stood as a gorgeous and impossible
Garden, they’d find an intact Walmart
Bag with you in it, literally skin and bones.
A fossil in a contemporary kind of amber,
Lodged in a post-modernist landscape.
But wait! Another time and in that place
A rabbit proved most aggressive. I’d like to
Think that this one was your descendant.
Emboldened by time and natural selection,
To prove that you had never died in vain.
You ran with your quick, thick bunny thighs,
So strong and confident. You brooked no disrespect.
Your weakened and murdered ancestor lives in
This fiery bunny’s blood, who attacked that crow,
A traditional and offensive consumer of carrion,
Now trying to score live rodent meat,
Swooping, descending, trying to feast on you.
Again and again, perched on the fence,
Like that poet’s rook in stormy weather, or
Her unfaithful spouse’s hawk in the rain.
But you defied that nasty crow, as you munched
On that simple suburban grass. Doing your quiet thing,
Even though you destroyed the neighbor’s garden,
But you would have no part of it. Decency be damned.
You put up a fight, the blood in your rabbit
Veins coursing through with pride and disdain.
In your little bunny way, you conquered the
Crow, symbol of advantageous evil, and
Selfish dismay. You put up a fight, and sent
The crow flying, in more ways than one.
Purchase Canine in the Promised Land
Philip J. Kowalski has taught courses in critical thinking and American literature at Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts.