I’m excited to introduce you to friend, artist, and fellow poet, Phil Smith. Phil is active in the Atlanta poetry community especially with the reading group Private Poetry Unveiled. I met Phil at the group’s very first unveiling.
Phil studied art at the Maryland Institute College of Art where he minored in poetry and creative writing. Although not an official designation, he refers to himself as a Baltimore School poet.
Just as Phil is now active in the Atlanta poetry scene, he took a leadership role during his days in Baltimore. He began a May Day reading at MICA, and managed the poetry series for the Maryland Writers Council. Along with poet and musician, Tom Diventi, Phil formed the Apathy Project, a weekly performance series for poets and musicians.
Now my interview with Phil:
Sabra – Many authors struggle with a title for their work. I love the title you chose for your collected works. Tell us how you settled on Impure Honey!
Phil – The title grew out of my extension of a quote from philosopher and mystic, Meister Eckhart. Paraphrased the quote is “God wants us to come out of ourselves so that God can be God in us.” My extension of that quote was that by doing so we could see whether we were “curdled milk or impure honey.” I thought the title fit the collection because some poems were older pieces that were curdled and the newer ones were not yet purified. I’ve worked in series over the last few years and find a title acts as a frame to support the poems. The more offbeat, the better.
Sabra – Your poems Poe City an Elegy to Baltimore, Poe City Requiem, and Eileen allow us to see the rich, creative connection you have to Baltimore, and to its 1st poet, Edgar Allen Poe. Tell us about this deep, creative connection.
Phil – I grew up in D.C., so all the sites in Washington were available to me. But several trips to Baltimore, when I was seven or eight, were like going to a foreign place. The poem Poe City Elegy is about a trip to Fort McHenry in the midst of a hurricane like rain event. The area now reclaimed as Harbor Place (Baltimorons call it Horrible Place) was lined with row after row of corrugated metal wharfs and a seaport that was dangerous in appearance. When I went there for college, it was still a run-down place trying to survive.
I was in Baltimore at the right time to meet Joe Cardarelli, an English professor at The Maryland Institute College of Art. Through one of the other professors, Joe met Alan Ginsburg. Joe and others were influential in bringing Ginsburg and some of the Black Mountain Poets, Robert Creeley and Ed Dorn, to Baltimore to read. Andrei Codrescu and Anselm Hollo were also in Baltimore in the mid 1970s. So, there was a great swelling of poetry that rivaled N.Y. and D.C . I call myself a Baltimore Poet, as do others who studied with Joe, because there is a sense of history and memory in having been in the area at that time. That sense of history and memory still exists today and makes for a voice, a style that is unique.
Joe taught that the poetic and poetry was everywhere and in the everyday. One only needed to be aware/awake/alive to record it. I should also say that until the gentrification/urban renewal projects of the 1970s through 1990s, Baltimore had this strange vibe. Poe had been there; also H.L. Mencken, Wallis Simpson, Babe Ruth, Hubie Blake, and Billie Holiday. There was a secondary vibe that lingered from the Civil War, when Baltimore was under martial law. Baltimore was very much a southern city, sympathetic to the Confederacy. This gave one the feeling that 100 years later, it still was not over.
Thrown into all this, is the fact that I would not have met Eileen, had I not gone to Baltimore. I could go on and on, but won’t. We all have a place we come out of. That place is not necessarily where we were born. It is the place where we first found we could do something meaningful. You have one, too.
Sabra – You sometimes hold photographs of paintings when you read your poetry at an event. Tell us about the influence your formal art studies have had on your poetry.
Phil – I wrote a series of poems based on Henri Rousseau paintings. I held the photographs because I wanted the audience to see the visual at the time they heard the verbal. I started writing as a way to be “painterly,” which is to say, I wanted to do things with words that an artist does with brushes…create a scene, image, or use the idea of color to excite an audience. I think of my painting and poetry as Abstract Impressionism. Two schools of painting, which in their way, broke free of what painting was supposed to be. When I paint a landscape, as the Impressionist did, I record an actual place, but use abstraction to make it about something else – distortion, use of color, shape, or weight of paint.
Sabra – I enjoy reading your delightful list poem, From: I’d Like. When I try to write a list poem, mine simply sounds like a list. Is there a secret to writing an interesting list poem?
Phil – List poems have been a favorite of mine, since I encountered Joe Brainard’s I Remember. I started writing about things I’d like to X. The phrase I’d like just came to me. As for ideas of how to write one: Let a list generate in your mind and write it down as it comes. Try not to edit at this point; wait until you see how the list can be categorized. You can create a list by thinking about same/different, favorite/not favorite, good/bad, fun/not, old/new. Basically any set of ideas that occurs to you. When I taught a class, I gave out this assignment: Write a list poem using – Once I/but Now I.
Sabra – Phil, thank you so much for doing this interview. Is there anything you want to add before we close?
Phil – To sum up, I’ll say poetry and being a poet has enriched my life in ways I could not imagine when I started in the 1970s. I’ve reached a point where my word craft has met my dreams. By that I mean, I’m having fun with words, their meaning and ability to create ideas and images, and I get my message across in ways people least expect…I make them go: Hmm! Sabra, this was an interesting process and I thank you for inviting me to participate.
Sabra – You are welcome, Phil. Of course, before we go, I want to share one of your poems and Amazon links to your books. I’ve chosen the poem This Means War!.
This Means War!
Your immutable imperative
My empirical immobile order
Causes us to be here today
Called to post, armed, in battle line
We are drawn here by our fears
Yours the fear of questions
Mine of answers
Afraid that despite our best
(Or is it worst?) efforts
We may both be wrong
This is True, don’t I see?
That is False, are you blind?
Which of us holds the high ground?
I cannot, through diversion citing spirit over letter,
Budge you from the strategic
You by redirection of chapter and verse will not force my
Retreat from the defensible
We know in our hearts, our inner most selves
A peaceful end to all this
Is to get beyond labels and categories
To see that my Black pegs
Your White holes
Leave out the Possible!
Visit Phil’s blog to see other poems and photos of his art.
Both Impure Honey! and Eggshells of the Soul are found at Amazon.com. Impure Honey! is a collection of Phil Smith’s poetry and writing. Eggshells of the Soul is an anthology including Phil’s poetry and the poetry of five other poets.