Interview with Robert Philbin
by Mary Pat Brown

Robert Philbin with his mother, Elizabeth R. Philbin, The Farmer's Market, Lancaster, PA

Robert Philbin was interviewed recently by Mary Pat Brown at a cafe in the Old Town section of Philadelphia. They shared a bottle of pinot grisio and bread and chicken pate with olive oil and fresh vegetables. The conversation covered a variety of topics, then settled into a discussion of poetry.

Mary: Want to talk about poetry?

Robert: I don't have a lot to say about poetry, really.

M: How about sources?

R: I'm influenced by everything out there. Language, people, music, media, conversation, lyrics, newspapers, you know, everything goes into it, one way or another. I feel old, though, not with the younger writers sometimes.

M: Aged?

R: No, just old, like, I don't want to be hip anymore, don't want to go there again. I want to be comfortable with my self. Don't want to run with any crowd or with whatever is going on today. Lethargy, I suppose. . .

M: Who really moves you?

R: I want to be around young, beautiful, intelligent women! I want to spend the rest of my life around such women. (laughs) And all kinds of artists.

M: Like your daughters!

R: Exactly, I love those girls, you know, always "girls" to me. They're perfect. And I love them. Of course, I"m joking though. We are all moved by lots of people and influences.

M: Really -- any influences you care to discuss?

R: Different writers at different times, really. Nobody is that good, in a sustained way, you know. I'm sort of comparing Charles Bukowski and Frederick Seidel and Ray Carver at the moment, thinking about a piece about American decadence, maybe. . . But there are lots of good poets out there from all over the world, coming out of all the modern, post-modern scenes -- it all kind of flows together, and you see what comes out in the work. My experiences are internal for the most part. Solipsistic. I write about what I think about mostly, although there is experience in there of course -- nature, I mean, the light, the place, or history, global news and experience as context. But it's thought that moves the language along in my mind. And thought is made up of fragments of self, emotion, insight, transcendence --

M: Transcendence?

R: Of the self, I mean. We overcome the self, the unavoidable baggage of self gets in the way of the flow of reality in thought. It's hard to tell what's real and what is baggage . . . There's that shot in Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky -- you know the Bowles novel?

M: Yes.

R: The scene where the characters arrive somewhere in North Africa and all their luggage is left on the dock, you know symbolic of their identity, their personal pasts, their exterior selves, neatly packed in fine luggage, alien, doomed already to dependency on local labor, and extraneous, they will obviously change over the course of the story, and their luggage is already a burden. So transcending self becomes a game to get to the real inner point of view, you know without the novel, or the two hour film, an authentic point of view that is honest, deconstructive, and direct, the most humane self, let's say, the humane point of view that is within each of us; and that's a difficult thing at times to get to, but it's often both the goal and the obstacle to tapping into one's poetry. I'm not too coherent, I know. (laughs). This wine is great, isn't it? You know, I'm writing a novel, a murder thing, and the lead character is incapable of processing emotion, so he filters any emotional experience through scenes in movies he has seen. This connection between film and experience is interesting to me. Also, I view poetry as a process not unlike film. You know time passing, duration, and the lines unfolding on the page like film on the screen, or a dream.

M: Can you talk about process?

R: Fundamentally process is all about hard work. When you lived long enough and hard enough, it gets easier to pull together insights; but still you need something to get you engaged with the flow, the process of making it work in language on the page, or even as spoken, recited language -- although speaking is dangerous, I think, it saps one's energy and the words become air instead of printed concepts -- but that initial motivation to get it moving can come from anywhere.

The key for me is the get the first draft down fast and keep the language flowing all the way to the end. Now this can be one long piece, or it can break off and change direction, morph, transition and end up somewhere else -- that's fine, as long as the flow is humming along with some level of truth to it, everything else can be worked out later. The poetics of the thing, I mean, are easier to confront later than in that first draft. It's sort of like cubism in the sense that you get a draft down, then revisit it later when the emotion has calmed and you find something, another perspective from a different point of view, and that new viewpoint generates another draft. It's a risk you take. You may lose something great and authentic emotionally by riding the impulse of another draft or the changed point of view, or it can become a series of poems dealing with something you're not aware of at the time -- it's an unavoidable part of the process too. There is always risk, some element of danger you might say, in the moves one makes along the way.

M: What do you mean by "poetics"?

R: Well, I don't like to talk about "poetics" per se. It becomes very much just bullshit, you know, chatter for academicians who spend their time considering such things. Violations of the rhyme schemes in the classic Sestina. Decadence, really. Each language has its inherent poetics like the comfortable length of line and natural meter and of course rhythm and rhyme emerge from simply speaking the language -- consonants and vowels ultimately gives us all kinds of linguistic music. I mean, that's all valid of course, I just don't give too much time to it, and I don't have much to add to that discussion, except perhaps within the cultural context. How culture, society, shape the poetics of any given period of human existence. That's interesting to me -- art, poetry over time, as it impacts a political dialectic, really. That's why art as a market is failing, while art as a reflection of the human experience and a sort of quest for the humane is exploding globally.

Today, we are in apparent decline in the west, for example, nothing makes sense, history seems to have come to an end in many interpretations; that is to say, the rational world has become illogical just as we thought it was when we were children. We were right of course. Beyond science, I mean, this confusion is political and social. So we have a rise in the irrational -- religious belief spilling into the public sector, ideological confrontations, extremism, and so forth; this affects the arts, our language, our point of view a long with everything else. It's hard to find something true in this decline, so art as experience -- not some cynical product -- becomes more important than ever. I'm rambling now, aren't I?

M: No, not at all.

R: Well, generally, when I talk about poetics, I'm talking about the shape of the piece, the sound, meter, rhythm, the way the thought moves under the words, all the resonances you can work up into the language, the layers of meaning -- the technique that lets you know when the piece is resolved quite nicely. You know, we can talk about form and all that, but each piece carries its own poetics, so to speak. The trick is to discover the sort of natural poetics of each piece and that structure really becomes the poem. Sometimes that falls quite accidentally into a traditional form -- like a sonnet -- but usually each work has its own appropriate poetics.

M: Thematics?

R: No, not really. I leave matters of theme to some one else. I'm not interested in "theme" per se. That's an interpretation to me. A point of view from outside the piece itself. Again that's valid of course and certainly interesting the hear. But the artist can't deal with that really. It shows in the work I think. But I'm interested in personal statement, resolution, state of mind, progression which has to do with me as a person moving through time, more than the poem. You know artists cannot know everything, and that's what theme implies to me, something complete and didactic.

M: I see. What do you mean by "poetics" then?

R: It's important for me to revisit a poem over and over again to push it all the way to some finished form. And that takes time, and a certain state of mind. Clarity, let's call it. Beyond that sort of discovery of content pushed into the most appropriate form, I don't pay any attention to aesthetics, or schools of poetry per se. I take whatever I want from where ever if I find it, and use it to make something I like in the end.

It's a combination of the external world - in all it's many forms -- colliding with this rock hard internal existence which has slowly become, over time, me. Not that I'm a finished product, or an authority, or particularly strong, or remotely unique; I'm a process thinker, so it's not over for one in life until the fat lady sits on you. The process of the mind, art, poetry, is living and then one day, it all stops. If one develops an elaborate aesthetically advance construction of some sort, it becomes a monkey on one's back, a intellectual distraction actually from the act of making the poem. Or worse, it becomes a rule. So the piece both contains and implies its own state of perfection.

M: You were talking about death?

R: Of course, we confront that too. Unavoidable. But the work is about life, don't you think. Maybe as a process of postponing the inevitable. The documentation perhaps. There is nothing more beautiful for me than an artifact that is so old it has lost all "contextual meaning" -- it becomes essentially a beautifully humane thing completely unto itself. Timeless.

M: You said you are a process thinker. What does process have to do with your art?

R: Well, it's a point of view, you know, a very old dialectic. Aristotle and Plato, the flow of things versus the ideal fixed and unachievable -- the image reflected on the wall of the cave, while some ideal exists in the mind or the culture -- all of it totally wrong in my view, of course. The flow of things -- life, history, nature, science, etc. -- is the process of how things proceed, and that's life well beyond any art form, I mean it's a constant -- change, process -- it drives everything in nature, in culture, in politics. So I'm not a formalist, or a traditionalist really.

Remember the Futurists! The idea of the acceleration of destruction -- war, cultural collapse -- to bring on the new, to progress? Crazy, but that pretty much defines most of the last century, doesn't it? And actually, isn't that exactly what we're doing in the American wars of this decade? We're accelerating history, aren't we, through the collapsing of the Iraqi and Afghani cultures, through countless deaths, aren't we? I mean Mr. Marinetti, Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Cheney have similar points of view on history don't they? The idea that the powerful somehow have the right to do these things is of course outrageous.

M: Does process impact on society in America?

R: Well, you have some Platonic ideal in mind. It's fixed -- the ideal becomes how we define "our culture," as in the current culture wars in America. I mean there are many cultures in America, always have been. Some Americans have a fixed point of view on what that American culture is. They see their status quo changing, and this change threatens them in some way, they're anxious about change in their status or their belief system, their ideology. This has political implications. Fear breeds hesitancy, indecision, a tendency toward conservatism as denial, yet history demonstrates this clinging to obsolete paradigms results in faulty decision making which leads to collapse.

Others see change as simply a process. What perhaps worked in the past, no longer works, so we change it, and we can argue about how to change it, but let's get on with it, and make it better. This becomes very political of course, a game, a manipulated illusion actually, by the powerful to maintain their wealth and power, which is quite apart from one's feeling about change and process.

For example, the process of making money may be working just fine for the elite, so let's not change that; now they don't care if health care reform includes abortion funding or not, that's someone else's concern. But if abortion or the law impact on how they make money, then they care, they have a point of view which has nothing to do with abortion, but rather how they can manipulate the law to suit their economic purpose, which isn't health care at all, but the status quo of how they make money. So we have to be careful and certainly cynical about all of this. This is essentially what's occurring in our so-called "health care debate" right now.

M: Time too?

R: Time is perhaps an artificial construct. Things progress -- even decline is a form of progression -- I like the new work of the German artist Anselm Kiefer because he explores this idea of decline bottoming out, reaching a point of stasis at which some thing new begins again. In other words, there is not an end to process, there is a transformation, and time is how we frame process over time, but it sometimes takes a long time to understand the history of something. We think of the weather in terms of the first weather science, for example -- about 1850 or so? But of course there are billions of years involved with today's weather pattern. Human beings have been living longer without a concept of time than they have with one. I mean the concept of time is a useful tool, of course, but that's all it is. Art is long, life is short, right? I consider time arbitrarily relative.

But when we talk about process in poetry, it gets very complicated, because you have to consider energy, neurological science, linguistics, the root of language as an evolutionary process of thought and communication, really how human beings came to fully realize our humanity. Out of all of this, comes a process that works in terms of causing something new and progressive to happen when someone encounters something you've created. A good poem of piece of art can change one's synapses in the brain. Create new connections. That connection, when it works, is an added bonus for me, however, because the real point of the work for me is more personal, to get the poem out into the objective world, make it interesting or exciting or beautiful, and then move on to what comes next.

You know there's nothing cooler for me than to encounter a really interesting painting. It's like the first time you ever saw one of De kooning's later works, for example, those symphonic waves of fabulous color just coming right at you. It's all very fresh looking, confrontation really, even when it's decades old, you're looking at a masterpiece and it's just a cool experience, unlike say looking at something from the past. This encounter changes you, you can never be the same again, the insight informs the way you see on many levels, it wizens you. Now this is what I would like to do with my work, but it's quite impossible to realize you see. An impossibility, really. So we keep at, don't we. . .

M: Do you remember your poems?

No, not at all. Once it's done, it's gone. I've written -- probably thousands -- of poems, and I don't even know where they are. Only lately have I started to publish them. Because of the internet you know. The computer save me. I don't care that much about the artifact, the physical presence of the thing. It's about the process of making it, which means it's about personal growth in many ways. Once that's been achieved to some small point of relative perfection -- an impossibility really -- or at least as good as I can make it -- I've learned all I can from that particular experience. So it's finished. So what comes next? Here let's try a quick poem right now, and just see what happens (clears his throat, starts speaking poetry) OK, here we go:

plantation foods

Let us imagine a grove of lemon trees.
Spider hair, red as rust, along the hedge
row near the patio bar. The drunk in the pink polo
shirt belongs to this private club where
the greens are always startlingly blue in this light.
We drink bloody mangoes and watch the drunk go

crazy. He makes fun of a taxi driver, who urinates
on the drunk's shoes, standing there at the bar, even as
the drunk tells an old, off-color joke. Every one laughs at him.
And we are all thrown to the sharks again. With Hemingway
martinis, overdoing it in the sunlight, late for dinner,
no time to clear our heads, all the while remembering

deKooning (late period) and how he comes at you
like a wave, a savage wave of fabulous color
anointing you, shrouding you, atomizing you with yellow.
Pulling you deeper into yourself, as if beneath clear tepid
waters; deeper still, all the way down to the blue
silence each of us has come to fear, for no good reason.

I don't know if that works. . .

M: Wow! Just like that? Interesting. Thank you for doing that.

R: It's the wine. Sort of sums up what we're talking about -- capturing the experience and combining it with something I just remembered happening in a club in Hamilton, Bermuda, years ago.

M: Where does the title come from? Plantation Foods, I mean?

R: Funny . . . There was a food company in south Florida that was owned by two guys I knew years ago, really big fat guys, a father and son actually who looked like lizards to me at the time. I used to call them the lizard twins. They had a company called Plantation Foods, and it seemed so appropriate for these two fat guys -- they were New Yorkers transplanted actually -- the idea of being fed, you know, depending on one's status in some plantation culture. . . the slaves get this, the slave managers get that, the slave owners get the best of everything of course. These days . . . the driver urinates on the master's shoes. Or is he a manager? History is a process too!

M: How did that connect with you in the poem?

R: I'm not sure. Does it matter? It kind of links with what I'm reading right now, and our conversation, of course-- I mean every word a poet writes has a personal history behind it, doesn't it? And every word a reader reads has another personal history resonating in it too. We're always just approximating communication, aren't we? Juxtaposing our personal histories, always a little out of register. I'm not sure what that piece meant. I've forgotten it already, so. . . When it works on a deep level -- beneath irony, I mean, or amusement -- we want to call it something, so we call it art, I guess? Art. It's amusing to talk about it. You see, I could and would examine the thing endlessly to get at what it might mean, but I won't in this case, because it's just fun.

M: It has been fun Bob.

R: Thank you Mary.


Copyright 2009 Mary Pat Brown and Robert Philbin

Robert Philbin was educated at St. Agnes Cathedral High School, studied literature and philosophy at Dickinson College, and Humanities at The Pennsylvania State University. He lectures frequently on subjects pertaining to the Humanities, and his published essays, reviews, political commentary and poetry are available on line. Among his plays, Finca Vigia was recently produced at The Little Theater; Buffalo Dancing was produced at Open Stage; and his play, Finding Utah was produced by The Park Slope Theater, Brooklyn. He is currently developing a mixed media poetry - graphics project with New York artist Joseph Nechvatal.