July 6–12, 2015
Patrick Phillips is the author of Elegy for a Broken Machine, which was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2015. He has written two previous collections, Chattahoochee and Boy, and received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Among his other honors are the Kate Tufts Discovery Prize, the Lyric Poetry Award of the Poetry Society of America, and the Translation Prize of the American Scandinavian Foundation. His nonfiction book Blood at the Root: A Lynching, A Racial Cleansing, and the Hidden History of Home will be published by W. W. Norton in 2016. Phillips lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Drew University.
With nothing but time
and the light of the Singer,
and no one to come now forever
and rattle the bell
at the backdoor and scatter
black mud on the stoop,
and make that small moan
as he heaves off his boots—
with no one to fill
the big kettle and set it,
and fall asleep talking
to the back of her neck
as the treadle-belt hums—
with nobody, nowhere
in need of such things,
she unbuckles his belt
for the last time
and cuts up his pant-legs
and rips out the double-stitched seams,
making patches of plackets
and oil-stained pockets,
of kerchiefs, and collars, and sleeves,
her thin fingers setting the bobbin
and clamping the foot
until she’s joined every
scrap she can salvage,
no matter how brown
with his sweat, or stiff with his blisters,
or blooming his roses
of pine sap, and gear grease, and blood—
as the wedding clock chimes
and his buried bones freeze,
as frost gleams
at sunrise in the window,
she stands by the bed
and breathes his last scent
then wraps herself
in it and sleeps.
–From Elegy for a Broken Machine, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote “Work-Clothes Quilt” not long after seeing a museum exhibit called “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” which featured quilts made by generations of women in the African American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.
One of the traditional genres in Gee’s Bend is called a “work-clothes quilt,” which a widow pieces together from her husband’s old coveralls and worn-out jeans. I found the quilts incredibly beautiful, and was moved by them as a response to a death: a literal re-membering of the lost.
Around that same time I was also watching someone I love begin her new life as a widow, and getting a really close-up look, for the first time, at how people go on without those they need most in the world. So the poem is inspired by the Gee’s Bend quilters, and for the widows I have known. It is also part of my ongoing attempt to write about how love is at the heart of grief.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on a nonfiction book called Blood at the Root, about the racial cleansing of Forsyth County, the place where I was raised in Georgia. The book is about a season of domestic terrorism in the autumn of 1912, when the entire African American population of Forsyth was expelled from the county, then kept out for nearly a century.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me begins with an early AM bike ride in Prospect Park, then a day of writing and reading, then dinner with my wife and our teenage sons. I usually watch my baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, and on a really, really good day they are crushing the Pittsburgh Pirates.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
I have lived in New York since 1995, and in Brooklyn since 2001. I live in Clinton Hill, and love everything about it: Fort Greene Park, the sculpture garden at Pratt, the bars and restaurants on Dekalb and Myrtle. I even love my bike commute, which leads me past the brownstones of our neighborhood, through downtown, up and over the Brooklyn Bridge, and up the West Side path to Penn Station.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
We live in a building that was constructed in 1898, and it has a couple of elegant but non-working fireplaces. When we first moved in one of them was walled shut, and a defining Brooklyn moment for me was busting out a piece of plaster and lathe covering the fireplace opening. When I got on my knees and looked inside, I found some crumpled old newspapers that someone had stuffed in there a long, long time ago … probably to stop the freezing air that comes down the flue.
When I pulled the papers out, they held their shape just long enough for me to glimpse a date along the top edge—1921—before the whole thing literally crumbled to dust in my hands.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Walt Whitman. Why? The sci-fi, time-traveling stanzas in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” seem reason enough, even if he’d written nothing else:
Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid
in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.
Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking
at you now, for all you cannot see me?
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there):
I have a lovely desk in our apartment, but it is covered with bills, my kids’ homework, receipts, old copies of The New Yorker, etc. As much as I fantasize about working there, it happens less and less. Instead, I spend a lot of time moving from library to library, café to café, which suits my short attention span. At a certain point instead of finding a single favorite place, I just got a bigger courier bag. I do have a lovely spot close to home, but it is so precious that I’m afraid to name it! If I did, and it was suddenly packed, I’d never forgive myself.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Ah, this list could be endless, particularly if I included my ever-growing list of beloved restaurants. But to name a few Brooklyn places at random: Prospect Park, Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Coney Island, Fairway, Caputo’s Fine Foods in Carroll Gardens, Fette Sau and Twenty Sided Store in Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Flea, and, closest to home, the little gem: Fort Greene Park. My favorite restaurants in our neighborhood are Luz on Vanderbilt, and Lulu & Po on Carlton. Favorite drinks: the Old Fashioned at Lulu & Po and the mojito at Luz.
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
I’ve read so many awesome books of poetry lately. A few that come to mind: Tom Sleigh’s Station Zed, Ansel Elkins’s Blue Yodel, Paul Otremba’s Pax Americana. One that I feel a deep kinship with—and envy of!—is Joshua Mehigan’s Accepting the Disaster.
I’ve also spent a lot of the past few years reading nonfiction that chronicles the history of racial violence in America. Some standouts: Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove; Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name; James W. Loewen’s Sundown Towns, and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate __________,
And what I __________ you ______________,
For every _______________ me as good _______________ you.
I can’t! What is more painful than filling in these blanks with my awful substitutes? I find the original so indelible that the only things I could put in the blanks would be terribly childish and lewd jokes. Hopefully anyone still reading this interview can take that and run with it.
For, as Whitman said, Brooklyn is alive with
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings,
on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them …