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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Rowan Ricardo Phillips

By Nathalie Handal

Part of the Special City Series/ New York City


If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                      —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

Feeling New York happen is like experiencing feeling through a turning kaleidoscope. If you've ever thought to drink what you see turning in a kaleidoscope, on the rocks, that's the mood of New York. A liquid subjunctive.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

That my first three years I remember nothing of. Those are years; they count. 1974-1977: the city was so much more feral then, and I was there, but I wasn't there. This isn't meant to minimize all of the heartbreak that has taken place in New York during my lifetime. But how do you itemize, much less form a superlative, from that? Heartbreak, like all conjugations, exists so that we can speak.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

People here are kind and curious. It's almost a badge of honor not to show it, but when push comes to shove New Yorkers are nice people. Perhaps not always pleasant, but certainly nice.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Herman Melville and James Baldwin.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Met. I've been going since I was a child. More than once I've gone in for less than ten minutes just to see something and then leave.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

New York has become too iconic, if you know what I mean. There's a tour for every kind of “iconic” you can dream of. I don't want to add to that vibe. The best literary place in New York is one’s own two feet. Get around, lose the map, read the plaques on the buildings about which writer lived where, duck into every bookstore, go to Woodlawn Cemetery, find the African burial ground downtown.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I'm from the Bronx.

Where does passion live here?

Passion does not live here. Living here is the passion.

What is the title of one of your works about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

So much of The Ground is about New York City: there's "Tonight," "Song of Fulton and Gold," "A Vision though the Smoke," "Embrace the Night and Get Thee Gone," "Map, Incomplete, 1665," "Abingdon Square Park," "Heralds of Delicioso," "Grief and the Imaginary Grave," Mappa Mundi," "As the Heart of the Sun Descends on Tribeca," "Two Twilights," "Over the Counties of Kings and Queens Came the Second Idea," "Apocalypse with Sasquatch," "Two Preludes," "Sheep Meadow," "Hell Gate, East River, New York." That last poem was a savior of sorts for me, a balm for my mind––which is always thinking about poetry. We had just moved from the West Village, where we lived right next to the Hudson River, up to the Upper East Side, where we now lived right next to the East River. I had grown so accustomed to the Hudson and its skyline sunsets; as well as accustomed to the idea that on the other side of the Hudson was the rest of the country, the span of an entire continent. That mood of the first question you asked, my idiosyncratic New York City mood, was infused by my orientation to that fact, and to the sun coming last to outside of the city, staying last, and the river having a certain logic that was a second nature to me. It was the mood of poems like "Two Twilights" and "As the Heart of the Sun Descends on Tribeca," and even the cover of The Ground, which is a photo of North Moore Street by my wife when we were on one of our many downtown walks. Moving to the Upper East Side, Yorkville to be specific, wasn't only a change of neighborhoods, it was a profound change in my orientation to the city's natural sublimities. Now the sun came first and left first and the river had a different quality to it, half brackish, half fresh, and moving in different directions during night and day. "Hell Gate, East River, New York" was my first song to all of that, that encounter and change for me. It was a fitting way to approach the end of the book. That poem is a reminder that I'm not tethered to any one vision of New York. I shouldn't have needed one, but sometimes art has a better sense of what we need than we have by ourselves.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside New York City does an outside exist?”

I know what people say about native New Yorkers so I'm not falling for that trap. When I graduated from Hunter High School I knew that I needed some time out of New York and I found it, lots of it. And I'm forever glad that I did. What I love about New York is that an outside certainly exists, because the city is so grand it doesn't fear that one exists. When I'm away and come back there’s a part of me that needs to catch up with New York and there's a part of me that feels like I’ve never left. I hope that never changes. It's where growth comes from.


Rowan Ricardo Phillips is a poet, literary and art critic, and translator. He is the author of The Ground: poems, (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2012) and is the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writers' Award, the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and the 2013 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for Poetry. Dalkey Archive published a book of his criticism in 2010, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, and he has translated extensively from the Catalan. He has a BA from Swarthmore College and a PhD from Brown University. Currently he is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Poetry Center at Stony Brook University as well as a contributing writer for Artforum. He lives in New York City and Barcelona.



HAPPY 2014!!!!

Published Dec 26, 2013   Copyright 2013 Nathalie Handal

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