Poet Of The Week

Maya Phillips

     September 16–22, 2019

Maya Phillips was born and raised in New York. She received her BFA in writing, literature and publishing with a concentration in poetry from Emerson College and her MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in At Length, BOAAT, Ghost Proposal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Vinyl, the Gettysburg Review, the New York Times Magazine and the Rumpus, among others, and her arts-and-entertainment journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Vulture, Mashable, Slate, the Week, American Theatre and more. She is the author of the poetry collection Erou (Four Way Books, 2019). A former content editor and producer at the Academy of American Poets, Phillips currently works as a web producer at the New Yorker and as a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.

Author photo by Molly Walsh

Ode to My Father’s Failed Heart

It’s okay. I, too, have failed
at the expected, have sputtered
and choked like a rusty valve
in water, have jumped into the pool
only to sink. Little engine, your flawed
machinery is nothing like love. You limp
at last call to the dance floor,
but feel no shame
in your offbeat two-step,
your eleventh-hour shuffle
in a dead man’s shoes.
There’s nothing left
but the encore, so go ahead:
relax, unravel
like a loosened knot. Overripe
fruit in his chest, you blush
with uncertainty, bruise yourself
tender; little heart, tiny treasure,
sweeten to the point of spoil.

—“Ode to My Father’s Failed Heart” from Erou (c) 2019 by Maya Phillips. Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote it as part of a 30/30 (when you write a poem a day for a month) that I was doing with some friends a few years ago. I don’t usually like those kinds of exercises, though they do tend to be productive for me when I actually get myself motivated to do them. In my book Erou, I talk about my father’s death but place it in the context of real, already existing mythologies (The Odyssey, The Aeneid, etc.) and also a personal mythology that I myself have fabricated as a means to tell his story. And I was thinking about it—his death, and his dying body—metaphorically, or thinking of him just in terms of the larger narrative I was telling: where his body was, what his body was doing, etc. But it occurred to me to try to think about his death in the most concrete, straightforward terms: he died of heart failure. That’s what it says on the death certificate. But even in that very direct medical terminology, there’s the opportunity for poetry, specifically for me to speak to my father through the guise of speaking to his heart. This poem is one of a pair, with “Ode to My Father’s Failed Kidney,” and both were fun to write; they came out already pretty close to the form they’d ultimately take, and beyond allowing me the chance to really extract metaphors from these two mundane medical moments, they also allowed me the opportunity to reimagine my father’s body after its death (it’s never just a corpse: it’s a pool, a dance floor, a place for the heart to live) and sympathize with its failures, and, by extension, his.

What are you working on right now?

I haven’t been working on poems as often, just because, even though my book’s now out and I feel like I should be ready to move on, I feel like I still need a breather, between planning readings and still needing to think about that work. So I’ve been focusing on my journalism (I’m an entertainment/culture writer), which has kept me busy and feels very satisfying. But once things calm down again and I feel like my head has stopped spinning, I’m looking forward to getting back to working on a series of poems I started last year that I hope will be my second manuscript.

What’s a good day for you?

That’s tricky, because I want to say something involving relaxing, but I’m notoriously bad at that, so I’ll be honest and say a packed, scheduled day of activities: working out first thing, doing some reading and writing, going to a museum, seeing a movie and having a beer, getting some kind of delicious dessert, watching an episode or two of a good TV show, then bed.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

When I was growing up, in Long Island, Brooklyn seemed very far. Some of my dad’s family was in Brooklyn, and he was born there, but my parents were both raised in Queens and preferred the suburbs of Long Island. But at some point in my college years I realized that Brooklyn wasn’t as far as I’d imagined. In my mind, as a child, Brooklyn was huge and wild and maybe even a bit dangerous, but then suddenly I got older and Brooklyn was like one big community where all the cool people lived. It became the county my dad claimed as his own in the moments when he liked to romanticize it (say, when he was listening to Biggie songs); as I say in my book, “Born in the county of Kings, raised in the lap of Queens.” There’s a beautiful royalty to Brooklyn. I talk a lot about mythology, but Brooklyn is its own mythology.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’ve lived in Park Slope since 2013. I always seem to trip over strollers while I’m walking around, because there are families everywhere, but I love it so much. It’s right on Prospect Park—I can hear the bandshell from my living room window (this summer, when Patti LaBelle opened Celebrate Brooklyn, I sat in my living room with my dinner and listened to Ms. LaBelle in my PJs, without even leaving my apartment). There are great bars and in the summer there’s some kind of street fair or block party pretty much every weekend. On Halloween, the streets are absolutely mobbed with costumed children, and it’s both wonderfully endearing and completely horrifying. The old brownstones are stunning—most of the neighborhood is a historic district. And everyone pretty much goes to bed early—there aren’t many partiers in Park Slope, so walking through the neighborhood late on a Saturday night, everything is calm and quiet, like even the streets have gone to sleep. You can see the changes more around the edges of the neighborhood, like Gowanus, where they’ve been building these big, shiny high-rises that honestly look pretty depressing. I lived at home for a year after college but then moved to the Slope, where I’ve been ever since, so it doesn’t compare at all to Long Island or where I lived in college, in Boston. It’s its own particular comfort.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

A few years ago, I moved into an apartment right on the park with two roommates—one of those old buildings with huge bay windows, and I had a huge room with two closets and my own bathroom. About a year and a half later, after about eight stressful months of apartment hunting, I found a new place, a one-bedroom, and moved in with my partner, while my old roommates continued to rent my former room out. The place was four blocks away from my old apartment. After a few years, we broke up, and, by chance, within two weeks, my former roommates said that the girl who had been renting my old room just suddenly said she was leaving, so I moved back, and now, after six years, two moves and a breakup, I’ve lived within the same four-block radius in Brooklyn. Oh, and a few weeks ago I learned that I live next door to a giant, fifty-pound tortoise who’s apparently a local celebrity, so that was special!

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

In college, I became part of a slam community, and that was so influential to me as a writer and shaped the way I think of literary communities. I competed nationally with a team and was one of the hosts on the slam nights (Boston poetry slam at the Cantab Lounge!) and it became a fixture in my week. It was what I looked forward to, and it helped me grow as a writer and encouraged me to write more and try new things and learn how not just to read my work but use my voice and body as a means of giving my work the best platform it could have. And it meant a lot for me, as an introverted writer, to have a space where I could walk in and feel comfortable and also have these people I could hang out with—I fondly recall going to house parties and then, suddenly, people breaking out into drunken poetry readings. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t really found that here yet. For one thing, New York is such a large city, but also a lot of the time the communities here feel a bit more tight-knit, and I think that it’s been hard for me to find something like the community I was used to having when I was in college, but I’d love to have that again.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Is it cheating to say Whitman?? And Philip Levine. Kim Addonizio is a badass, and Aracelis Girmay is brilliant. Matthea Harvey and Matthew Rohrer—who lived right by me, so I’d see them by the park or at the coffee shop, and that was a pretty cool bit of local literary celebrity! And Cathy Park Hong—I saw her on the G train shortly after I’d finished Dance Dance Revolution and was definitely tempted to have a “Let me talk at you about how I love your work” fangirl moment.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

In undergrad, I studied with John Skoyles, who was the poetry editor of Ploughshares for many years. He was great and always encouraging, even when I was being an obnoxious twenty-year-old so-and-so slouching with my hoodie up in workshop. In grad school, A. Van Jordan really laid the foundation for me, in terms of my thinking about rhythm and syntax and structure. He helped me think more critically about other poets’ work, and challenged me to work through my difficulty with poetry (and academic prose) that was more unfamiliar to me. Connie Voisine also fostered that kind of critical thinking and encouraged experimentation, a lot of which made it into my book. And Gabrielle Calvocoressi really helped me get a good sense of myself as a writer and gave me all of these different ways to look at my work in the wide view, and provided me with the tools I needed to actually build my collection. I’m so grateful for all of them.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I’m thinking about a Mary Ruefle poem I saw on Twitter recently, from her new book, and I can’t wait to have it in my hands. And for my birthday this summer I got Ilya Kaminsky’s second book, Deaf Republic, and Ruth Madievsky’s book Emergency Brake, both of which have lovely poems in them.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

If we’re talking fiction, that list is endless, so I won’t even try to go through that. In poetry, I feel like it would be nice to be more well-versed in some of those old Romantics, and some of the Modernists who are a bit more challenging. (The craziness of Gertrude Stein!) There are some folks, like Galway Kinnell, for example, whose work I love but have never dived deeply into. Some more international poets would be great. Miłosz, Tranströmer, Szymborska. I need more Audre and Gwendolyn. And I need to read more books by Sharon Olds—I’ve read maybe two, but I love her work and need to get my hands on more of her collections. Also, somehow I still haven’t gotten my hands on Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin yet.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I prefer to read one book at a time, cover to cover. Otherwise, I get distracted and overwhelmed, and I feel like I’m not giving the book my full attention. I used to try to loosely plan out my reading in advance, and I like the idea of those reading journals you see sometimes—the ones that are meant to help you keep your reading list organized and keep track of your progress. But I never end up sticking to that, because if I say I’m going to read X Spec Fiction book but then I suddenly feel like I want to read Y Poetry Collection, then I’m going to feel cranky and bored reading X and probably not appreciate it as much. So I try to just stick to my moods now, browse around to see what appeals to me, and go with that. I’m all about physical books, never digital, and I never take notes—only if I’m writing a review, and then I’ve got my laptop open. I never mark up books or dog-ear. I know a lot of people do, but I like my books pristine—they’re no less loved though!

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

Lately I’ve been thinking about how I’d love to do a series of prose poems. I really admire the form and how it seems to create the opportunity for really wonderfully odd and quirky voices and statements. Like the poems of Russell Edson. I love those strange poems.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I pretty much like sticking to reading and writing at home, but if I do happen to seek a new place to settle in with some work, I like places that are really quiet and comfortable—I hate working at desks or tables and prefer to tuck myself into a plush armchair or couch.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love movies, so Nitehawk (the original in Williamsburg, and also the new one near me, in Park Slope!) and Alamo. Smorgasburg in the summer for delicious food. Coney Island (I’m not a beach person but love the feeling of old-time Brooklyn kitsch). The Brooklyn Promenade, for the view. The Community Bookstore, Greenlight and Books Are Magic. Prospect Park, the baseball fields, in the summer. Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, for all my research needs, and Ample Hills, for all of my ice cream needs.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate late nights when I’m still awake in the city,

And what I resolve myself to—rough, sleepless, unlovely me you see before you,

For every error in me as good as the best in you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

California’s cute but the West Coast never had Biggie

It was all a dream I inherited from my father

Singing Brooklyn off-key in the car—a big-shot: hands like Tyson   swing like a Dodger

Though his friends would tell you he couldn’t do jack

All talk   the kinda talk of kitchens barbershops backyards    that’s Brooklyn

That’s my father    in Kings    he’d make himself a kind of royal    his sin

Being pride—no more than anybody else—thinking he could build a reputation from a column of smoke, rob

A county’s greatness and   keep it for himself, pen

Himself   a Brooklyn    all his    all him    no sleep til … you know how it goes (til the grave)    a Brooklyn   without my father    but    father,   I’m here now sending greetings: From Brooklyn, with love.

Why Brooklyn?

Because there’s no place cooler.