Last week Roanoke College welcomed visiting writer Patrick Phillips. He is a professor at Drew University in New York, where he lives with his wife and children. His most recent book of poetry, Elegy for a Broken Machine, is short listed for the National Book Award.
While he was here he visited English and creative writing classes to talk about himself, his poetry, and the writing process. One of his early influences was James Dickey who showed him that the events of his life could be the material for poems. Phillips wanted to make sure he captured a moment but didn’t label the emotion. He said, “a poem is something you undergo, not a report back from experience.”
On Oct. 29 he gave a reading in Fintel Library. The number of chairs set up weren’t enough for the number who came to hear him read. Students and teachers had to borrow chairs from other areas of the library. Vicki Peterson, a student in the Creative Writing program, introduced Phillips. She said his poetry, “simultaneously strikes the heart and soothes the ache.” Peterson also requested that he read “Falling”, one of her favorite poems.
When Phillips started his reading he automatically engaged with the audience. He read a few poems from each of his three books, Chattahoochee, Boy, and Elegy for a Broken Machine. During the reading he talked about where he was in his life when he wrote them. The audience was comfortable enough that when he made a joke there was an immediate, genuine laugh.
His first book Chattahoochee was filled with poems about his childhood. His brother and father didn’t have a good relationship, and the family dynamic showed up in the poems. He was originally worried about what his father would think of the poems, but he said, “Dad only loved the poems he was in, even if he was the villain.”
The second book, Boy, includes poems after Phillips had his two boys. Phillips said that once he started to have kids, he saw himself making some of the mistakes he blamed his father for doing. This led him to start to forgive his dad. Phillips made sure to read “Falling” for Vicki Peterson, saying amusedly, “poets don’t often get requests.”
He finished off the evening reading from his most recent book. A lot of the poems in this book centered around his father’s illnesses, hence the name: Elegy for a Broken Machine. The “fluorescent lit world” of a hospital, as he called it, was a new experience for him. His concrete images guide the audience through his experiences.
He was met with an overwhelming round of applause after the reading followed by a quick question and answer portion. His books were for sale and many students and faculty bought at least one. Phillips signed books and spoke to students individually who wanted to talk about his work.
The next day he made himself available to students to talk casually. He went to breakfast with a small group and later was in the Miller student lounge talking to students. Not only was he a talented poet, but more than willing to talk to budding writers about anything from the plague to cocktail parties.
Joanna Peders, another creative writing student, and Dr. Robert Schultz made sure that Phillips kicked the kicking post for good luck. The winner of the National Book Award will be announced on November 16. Elegy for a Broken Machine is definitely worthy of the win.