Interview by Kim Hambright, Assistant Editor, The Fourth River
Philip Terman’s books of poetry include The Torah Garden (2011), Rabbis of the Air (2007), Book of the Unbroken Days (2005) and The House of Sages (1998). More recent publications include a new and selected poems, Our Portion (Autumn House Press, 2015); a selected Arabic translation of his work, My Dear Friend Kafka (Ninwa Press, 2015); and a handsewn chapbook in collaboration with the artist James Stewart and the bookbinder Susan Frakes, Like a Bird Entering a Window and Leaving Through Another Window (2016). His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry, the Georgia Review, the Kenyon Review, the Forward, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, and Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust. Recipient of the Kenneth Patchen Award, the Sow’s Ear Chapbook Prize, and the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poetry on the Jewish Experience, he teaches creative writing and literature at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the visiting writers’ program. Terman co-directs the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival and is contributing editor for poetry for the journal Chautauqua.
The Fourth River: Many of the poems in your book Our Portion reference literary influences, ranging from Whitman to Proust. Which writers or books continually provide a source of energy and inspiration for your work?
Philip Terman: Like all writers, language itself is one of the most abiding influences. Writing births writing! Since we writers are obviously avid, passionate readers, we can’t help but be inspired by them to write—jet fuel packs lifting our imaginations. We connect with certain writers—those that brush our souls—and they become, as many others have said, our “tribe.” So, yes, I’d say writing from and about other writers provides energy and inspiration, and a great many poems are launched by them; in fact, writing inspired by other writers is so fundamental a subject for me that some of my book titles—“Among the Scribes,” “The House of Sages,” “Rabbis of the Air”—reflect that obsession. There are too many of them to mention, but no question my tribe includes all of those I’ve written about, such as Whitman, Kafka, the Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri, Yehuda Amichai, Edmond Jabbes…certainly several of them are Jewish, since that speaks to a certain core.
TRF: You have described your residence as a redbrick schoolhouse. What role does environment play in your writing process?
PT: I’m probably a traditional, old-fashioned poet in that “place” and “story” are essential. The larger word for this may be: “the world,” the sensuality and miracle of our immediate, day-to-day lives, which involves, for me, the people and places, moment by moment, all bound up in the word “environment.” Each moment is an occasion, and poetry happens when we rise to those occasions. So I want to experience as fully as I can where I am and who I’m with. Poetry is an attempt to achieve an I-Thou connection with that environment, allowing us to really feel and empathize—to process and respond in language that’s beautiful and honorific. So no matter where I’ve been, I want to really be there, and poetry is wonderful in that it offers those opportunities for true understanding and potential wisdom. I hope my poems reflect the diversity of environments I’ve inhabited: a used car lot in Cleveland where I worked (grudgingly!) for my father, Oil City, Pennsylvania, where I’ve lived and taught, European cities such as Prague and Toledo, where I’ve traveled, China, where my wife and I have adopted children…and the red-brick schoolhouse, where we currently live.
TFR: Your poems vary greatly in length, from a fresh adaption of the sonnet in “Deer Descending” to the elegant seven-part tribute to your brother in “To A Scientist Dying Young.” How do you decide when a poem is finished?
PT: That’s a great and difficult question, almost impossible to answer! Of course, when we’re drafting a poem, the general rule is that we shouldn’t know how long it will end up—we allow the language to a large degree to dictate that, and we ride that wave. But one can generalize poems into two types (many exceptions here, of course): the lyric, inspired by a present “moment” and the narrative, which, while still wanting lyric and music and rhythm, that wants to tell a story. The lyric, of course, would mostly be shorter—think around sonnet length—and focused. The narrative can be as long as the story lasts. So: “Deer Descending” is a lyric, and “To a Scientist Dying Young” a large story—actually seven narratives, each focused on a particular subject inspired by my brother, whose passing inspired the poem. Now—one of my favorite kinds of poems to write—and I’m arrogant enough to claim that I invented it (!), is called the “nest” poem, which is a collage of lyrics all webbed together in one great big long poem. I have many of those—“The Torah Garden” is a good example—where I discover my subject, which is often informed by a few related subjects. “The Torah Garden” combines short lyrics inspired my wife’s enormous garden and Judaic writings. The “collage” poem has a not-too-distant relationship to the “journal” poem, and I write it by combing my journals to find the best “pieces” of writing that will fit into the “nest.” Since we have the garden every year, and since I often “riff” on Judaic (and other) writings, I have many scribbles throughout the years—one big reason why, for my own writing, keeping a notebook is essential. So I rework those pieces of writing that seem to connect into the larger collage. By the way, a one can also have a “collage” of narrative pieces—“To a Scientist Dying Young” is really a collage of seven poems, each of which can stand on its own. That’s true for others of my poems, such as “The Used Car Lot” or “Oil City Serenade.”, More often than not, the sections are written as separate poems, and I’ll think they will be finished, and it’s only later when I recognize a pattern that can combine these separate sections into a longer nest poem.
TFR: In “Job Description: Poet,” you cleverly describe a poet as someone who does the opposite of what is expected in everyday life. Do poets have a responsibility to their communities? If so, what is it?
PT: I think poets have a responsibility to their communities in the same way that I think everyone does… I guess that’s the nature of a “community”—we all do something to nurture it. Having said that, though, I don’t think there’s anything specific that poets need to be responsible for—i.e., do readings or teach workshops—unless they are inspired to do so. The terrific thing about poets is that there seems to be enough room for all the varieties of poets there are. Some poets are more community oriented, but I think we need to honor those who are less—social. We wouldn’t really want to force a poet like Emily Dickinson or Paul Celan to sit on a fine arts committee! Their poetry is responsibility enough, I would imagine, and allowing them that space, is—another way of looking at it—the community’s responsibility to the poet. And there will be other poets who might be more outwardly civic-minded. For example, the poet Carl Dennis’ poetry speaks so essentially and thoroughly about living a humane and ethical life that reading his poetry alone will enlighten any community.
TFR: What does your writer community look like? Do you have friends or colleagues that read your drafts and help you navigate the revision process?
PT: My writer community is probably a bit different from most—I would describe it as a combination of the “solitary” and the “communal.” I live in the country, with a good spread between neighbors, and almost two hours from the nearest big city, so in my immediate day-to-day life I’m pretty much the only poet! A great advantage of that is that my “neighborhood”—and this spreads a fairly far distance, but, rather than living near my university colleagues, includes folks who are artists and craftsmen, builders and homesteaders–recognizes me as their “poet laureate” and often, between the music and the socializing, to read a poem. Many of my poems are inspired by that community. So, because I’m completely incompetent at fixing anything, being recognized as the “neighborhood poet” has been important to me in terms of filling a role in my community (and also connects back to the “responsibility” question in my case). Beyond that, I know several poets in Pittsburgh and from other life-intersections who I can share and critique poems with, and that’s been essential for me. We all know that poetry is such a solitary act, and it’s so crucial to find someone whose reactions you can trust and only cares about helping you make the poem better. For me, such relationships are rare, and I treasure them.
TFR: So many of your poems are intimate studies of your family, faith, and culture. Have you faced any negative feedback from the communities closest to you?
PT: The only time I had any negative feedback occurred several years ago. I wrote a poem about the synagogue in Oil City, Pennsylvania which, like the town itself (and unfortunately so many towns like it), was diminishing in attendance and spirit. The poem tried to reflect—and honor– that sense of loss. Though there were not many in the Jewish community, I did hear that one or two were upset, and I don’t blame them. But their struggle, too, is part of the poignancy. And—even earlier on—my father wasn’t at first entirely happy about the way I presented his used car lot, but a few years later, when the poem turned up in a journal, he changed his tune (though he did threaten to sue me!).
TFR: What is one piece of advice you have for writers who are afraid of the vulnerability that comes with publishing their work?
PT: I’ve always considered myself a conduit for my poems—in other words, in a way, rather than it’s me who write the poems, it’s actually the poems that write me. Poems, I would like to think, live out there in that vast eternity, and for some reason choose us to embody and express them, kind of like spirits or ghosts. This sounds like the old-fashioned version of the prophet or shaman, who speaks in God’s voice. In a similar way, I think we speak voices larger than we are and, if they are done “rightly,” with as much attention as we can muster, our poems reflect larger concerns and issues—those that we share with, yes, the larger community, perhaps a community as large as humanity itself. So if I’m writing about a brother who died, of course others who are in similar circumstances might relate, just as I relate to poems that I connect with. And that’s one way how we can resurrect the dead, and how the living can speak to the living. A poem is not just one person speaking to another—it’s that, but it’s a community speaking to a community, to inspire it, to enlighten it. So—in publishing your work, you may help save lives, just as that poem helped save yours.
TFR: What is the greatest complement someone could give you about your poetry?
PT: The greatest complement would be for someone to be interested enough to ask questions about my poetry. And—of course—to write their own!