From Here to “Heaven”: Rowan Ricardo Phillips visits Key West High School - A group of people standing in front of a curtain - Academic conference
Rowan Ricardo Phillips addresses students from the stage at Key West High School. SARAH THOMAS/Key West Weekly

Rowan Ricardo Phillips isn’t new to islands. The celebrated poet, National Book Award finalist and author of the collection “Heaven” is the child of Antiguan immigrants and lives in New York. He also is a regular visitor to the Keys and the Caribbean. A friend of the Key West Literary Seminar and recurring speaker, he is, however, a new addition to the lecture series hosted by Key West High School through KWLS. Previous speakers include Jamaica Kincaid and Victor LaValle. 

Phillips addressed the student crowd, including visiting Marathon High School students, about the fluidity of being from an island, and considering the lens of movement and embracing change. He said, “You are made to change, you are an organism made of cells that are constantly regenerating and dying.” He asked the students about traveling for sports and other extracurricular activities: “You’re always leaving this island and crossing bridges.” He said, “You guys are always taking flight in a wonderful way … it’s mythic and historical.” 

His bridge of concern wasn’t ultimately a geographical one, but a philosophical one. He began with advice “for anyone who wants to make art.” Phillips said: “Empathy is the bridge between the self and others.” Likewise, he encouraged the students’ perspective on their lives. He said, “I miss those days, but I’m glad that they are over … There’s something strange about high school. It’s all encompassing, and it seems like it will never end, and then it ends.”

Phillips brought the accessibility of art — and poetry in particular — to the forefront. He dropped quotes, from Homer to James Baldwin to Big Daddy Kane. He encouraged students to do what others before them have and borrow: from influences around them, music and existing art and from their own lives. He suggested beginning with a poem about one’s name. “A name is something you don’t give yourself until you give it to yourself.”

He read his poem Proper Names in the Lyrics of Troubadours: “My parents never call me Rowan/I’m Ricky, from Ricardo/but not Ricky Ricardo.”

Then: “For the record, that’s an Old Norse first name/A Spanish middle name/And one of those faux-English-faux-Dutch-sounding last names.” 

“It’s just a poem about a name, he said, and I stole the name of the poem … Proper names, steal them — steal something, not cars, don’t shoplift, but steal art!”  

“We have been doing mash-ups and touch-ups and remixes forever,” he said. Encouraging students to riff, reflect and write what they know, he went on to field questions from the student audience. Phillips said, “One student asked what inspired me to be a poet, and I talked a bit about the supreme fiction of that question. A poet can’t describe a crystalline moment.”

So how then, did Phillips wind up on the path to a successful poetry career (a bizarre concept itself these days—what is a “career poet” in the age of Twitter?).

He said, “I realized I was writing poems when I was in high school, but it was something I did, but without the idea of doing something with it. Some folks in class draw, but I wrote.” Phillips admits, “Part of me still hasn’t digested a career in poetry. … It’s more like a commitment to making, and the word comes from the Greek poiesis, or ‘making.’”

Phillips described pursuing a doctorate in English literature, but knowing he would “write poems my entire life.” He mentioned predecessors in the genre having “day jobs,” like Wallace Stevens’ famous career in insurance. “Whatever I was going to do, there would be poetry with it,” he said. “I had things to say, and poetry was always the way I made sense of the world.”

He’s written about those early days. In “Boys,” he writes: “We’d cut school like knives through butter, the three/Of us—Peter, Stephen and I—to play/Just about all the music we knew.” 

Of youth, he said: “We all are introduced to the world through song and rhyme, and something happens when we get older and start to be socialized. We get socialized into a prosaic world. The faucet gets turned off, and you have to turn it back on.”

“Your generation is more equipped than any generation to make art. Turn it off, and it’s a choice, unplug. Technology has always been around, and you have a choice … Do not let it take away the beautiful imaginative part of art. So many people are using technology to make art.” 

Phillips ultimately returned to the pragmatic idea of creating “situations of poetry” (the word “prompt” is trite, he said), as well as using existing influences as a place from which to riff or evolve. 

He said, “You may not be feeling inspiration, but you have to keep playing your scales. You don’t feel the muse. Well, pick up a poem by a Hungarian poet, put it through Google translate; it will give you a terrible translation, so work on it, and make it viable in English.

He said, “It’s like jazz. … You’ll say, ‘Oh, here are things I recognize, and here are things I don’t recognize.’ And they layer over one another, and you look at the big mess, the whole harmonium of it, and then you look at it and decide what to dip in amber and make permanent.” 

“Poetry is an object that can be stretched, and it’s like dance. And the stage is a page. It’s theme and variation.”

Key West could be described as “theme and variation,” on the larger fabrics of Florida and the Caribbean as well. Last year, Phillips was part of the “Writers of the Caribbean” seminar and acknowledges “wisps” of similarities here to Caribbean islands.  

Phillips said: “What I like about Key West is that it’s close — literally and rhetorically. You can find a slice of life that has the (Caribbean) aroma here.” He speaks of the diversity of this part of the world, of Kincaid’s “small place” in Antigua, of Walcott’s exile from Trinidad. Of Key West, he said: “It’s the closest Stevens and Frost ever got.” 

“I love Key West,” he said. “It’s a beautiful, kaleidoscopic place, and it doesn’t necessarily remind me of any place else, except for those wisps and whispers of the Caribbean. … It’s useful to think of Key West as a sort of slant rhyme.” 

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