Interview with Philip Schaefer ~ Jory Mickelson

Philip Schaefer's first book of poems, Bad Summon, won the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry from the University of Utah Press and was published in 2017. He is the author of three chapbooks, two of which were cowritten with friend and poet Jeff Whitney. He won the 2016 Meridian Editors' Prize in poetry and has individual work out or due out in Kenyon Review, Thrush, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, Birdfeast, Salt Hill, Bat City, Adroit, Nashville Review, and Passages North, among others. He tends bar in Missoula, MT.
Jory Mickelson is a writer, educator, and retreat facilitator whose work has appeared in Ninth Lettter, The Rumpus, Southwest American Literature, Vinyl Poetry, The Florida Review, Superstition Review, The Collagist, The Los Angeles Review, and other journals in the United States and the UK. He is the recipient of an Academy of American Poet's Prize and is Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry. His most recent chapbook Slow Depth was published by Argus House Press.

Jory Mickelson: You said you have lived in Missoula, Montana for the past five years and are loving it. Can you tell me a brief history of your poetry life using geography? Where did you begin and how did you arrive in Missoula?
Philip Schaefer: My wife Natalie and I got married in a microbrewery in Chicago a little over 5 years ago, then packed up our new life in the trunk of a Honda Civic and sped down I-90 to Missoula a month later, having never stepped foot in Montana. Grad school provided us the chance to create an identity apart from who we had been in the Midwest (or so we thought). The first few years were difficult in that I was thrown into a community of (somewhat) like-minded people and she was thrown into the absence of one. We stayed afloat, but it wasn't until the two-year program ended that we began to feel like Missoula was home, a place we could call ours, together.

I remember writing poems early on that were filled with mountains, rivers, forest fires, bears, and the romantic topographical majesty that is this PNW landscape. And they sucked. Royally. I was forcing the language, appropriating nature for my personal use, and it was plainly obvious and painful to read. Once a few close readers illuminated this, I switched gears and wrote from the gut, the internal, and figured it didn't matter what role geography would play (but found Chicago to be a primary [re]source for said new material) in my work. After a year or two I realized the poems were trying to have a conversation between the natural world and the gentrified, humanized, crime-saturated one. Chicago and Missoula began to rub bellies, opening up different aspects of who I was, who I am, and how mountains and sex and bullet holes and constellations could all coexist in spite of their physical relationship to each other. Only then did the poems start to tap into more specific locations or geographies. The point? There is no point. But to me the best poems happen in spite of us, not because of us. We have experiences, we have artistic outlets, we have tools and language and history, but there's an X factor that puts it all together. I call it lemon juice, putting your head between your legs, reciting the alphabet backwards. Whatever cures the hiccups. Whatever scares the shit out of you. Now I'm trying to not write the same thing every time. Any tips?
JM: It is interesting to me how often the idea of a geographic switch will somehow allow ourselves to also become new people are intertwined. I think it is one of the enduring myths of "the West." Sadly, we are always taking ourselves along for the trip.

Changing your poems? That is tough! I am starting to believe that most of my poems (and most others) are elegies of one kind or another-to the land, to an idea or person, to the moment which the poem is enacting.

And speaking of elegies and the geographic, let's talk a little bit about the poet Richard Hugo. I know you open your new book Bad Summon with a quote from him and there are several nods throughout the book. Can you talk about the influence he's has had on your work or ways in which his legacy in Missoula has complicated it?
PS: I'm loving this idea that all poems are elegies of a sort. They are a dirge for the past, from the future, in the moment. All of it. Sometimes after finishing a poem I get a sense of relief (not necessarily joy or satisfaction) because the trance is over. I love writing, but sometimes the poem's occasion can be draining.

This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I never actually encountered Hugo's work until I moved to Missoula. I had no idea of his legacy and role in shaping the creative writing program at the University of Montana, and in fact, I first read his poems in a literature class, not a workshop. Then it was game over. His movements and imagery and humor and darkness, and maybe above all, his ability to stun with one-liners while still creating a whole poem, were unparalleled. He packed so much into his poems, yet they often read effortlessly. The next thing always belongs. After reading and teaching The Triggering Town (a collection of Hugo's essays on poetics), I found his approach to the craft aligned perfectly with mine, I just hadn't had someone else articulate it for me so well. 

Hugo is very much alive for me even if he's buried less than a mile away from where I live. Last year I led a little three-week community workshop in which I used one or two of his essays for (anti)pedagogical purposes. One of the members of the workshop pulled me aside one day to explain how her father was good friends with Dick (what he went by), and that he'd left her a correspondence of letters the two of them shared while Hugo was abroad in Italy. She said she'd never had the nerve to read through them, but felt like the time was right. So four of us went to the poetry corner of the university library and read through the letters from Hugo, passing them along, taking some notes, smiling and awing at how deeply intimate many of them were. It was like rifling through his wardrobe, holding each garment to our faces, breathing in the alchemy of sweat, cigarettes, and detergent. It was so private, yet so normal. He was a funny, depressed man. 

In terms of direct influence on my writing, Hugo helped me feel like a resident, like I belonged. I didn't have to write about a place, I could write from it, and into it, and through the cave of its mouth. Living in Montana means you squeeze in as much adventuring as possible when the weather allows. Hiking, rafting, climbing, etc. is part of the genetic makeup of the area. And so is driving. Everything is spread out. There's so much to see, so much to g(r)asp. But in this landscape of splendor and sky are towns with people who aren't always good, or have been socio-politically marginalized, or simply forgotten and turned into ghosts. Hugo opened this up for me. I became obsessed with the backdrop of violence on beauty: the woman who shoved her husband off a cliff in Glacier National Park while on their honeymoon, the German high school exchange student who was shot to death in a suburban garage after being lured and booby-trapped into petty theft, and so on. Living in Chicago meant endless crime, where it was easy to become a bit numb to the news. In Montana it's much more isolated, which highlights its impact. Every story becomes one you're a part of somehow. That's why I chose the epigraph: "Isn't this your life?" It's true even when it isn't. 
JM: Hugo was key for me embracing the writing of poetry. I grew up in Montana and when I encountered his writing in college, it sort of knocked the doors off their hinges for me. At the time, I had an uncle who lived in Phillipsburg and the town was rumored among us students to have the highest suicide rate in the state.and then to read "Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg" just sort of made the whole world real for me. Well, made the world real to me.

I first encountered your work through your chapbook Smoke Tones, a collaboration with poet Jeff Whitney. Would you mind talking a little bit about what collaboration with another poet has done for your work? And maybe more specifically, what collaboration has undone in your own writing?
PS: Of course. I love talking about collaboration because, as you said, it is as much undressing oneself as it is an act of creation. And Jeff is just the best to work with. We never overlapped in school and we've never lived in the same place at the same time, but somehow our approach to poetry is a strong enough adhesive to grant us the chance to work together. In a lot of ways, it's like being in a relationship, with trust and lipstick being at the forefront of all decision making. I throw nearly everything I write Jeff's way before even taking my own editorial knife to it. And 98% of it is utter garbage. If he's silent, I know to leave that piece to the side or scrap it altogether. If he speaks up, then I know something might have legs, even if it's far from finished. It's a really vulnerable experience, yet so revitalizing. Like flossing. 

Jeff and I also have this strange teeter-totter balancing act going on in terms of scope. He tends to zoom out, approaching war and the notion of borders and what comprises a country's identity, whereas I examine the pupil of an alligator or feather the belly of a seahorse. But then again, we also switch roles. We never discuss this, we just know when to yin each other's yang. After the cutting and line-breaking and stanza-swapping process is over, we look at the poems completely perplexed at how we arrived, or who wrote what, or what any of it means if anything, but when it's successful (at least to us) we feel like children riding dinosaurs through the centuries. I recommend it for everyone, especially poets. Even if it "fails" or isn't a perfect fit, collaboration is important for relinquishing control and saying no to yourself a few times. Or a hundred.
JM: One thing I am always curious about is who writers are currently reading. What are some of the great books you are stealing ideas and moves from?
PS: I'm not reading nearly as much as I'd like to be right now. I've been working for a while on another endeavor that would essentially be a business startup, in addition to bartending to pay rent, let alone spending the time it takes to write. That's still not really a good excuse or a proper answer, however. There are writers I always return to, Hugo being one of them. For poetry, it's always Jack Gilbert, Mary Ruefle, Joanna Klink, Larry Levis, CD Wright (actually all Wright poets), James Galvin, Bob Hass, and Denis Johnson. Johnson is my crossover heart throb. I love The Incognito Lounge, but I'm more smitten by his fiction. That's probably better saved for another conversation, but when I have the time to read prose, he's first on the list lately. I also just love seeing what my generation is doing. Social media, for all its woes and horse shit, opens access to contemporary writers and in some senses (this interview being a great example) lends itself to relationships and interactions that resemble a community. It's the primary reason I use it. Loving the debut collections by sam sax, Kaveh Akbar, Bianca Stone, among so many others. And I wiggle with glee over those books that are yet to be accepted for publication, but am confident will be, especially by younger poets whose work I've encountered in various literary magazines or chapbooks. So much quality poetry is being written right now because we're realizing how desperately we all need it. 

All that to say, I try to steal from these writers among so many more. Who doesn't? But I want and need to read more. The void at times feels physical, like some weird dark crawlspace between my skin and insides, some aperture that only literature can fill. Then again, maybe it's just gas.
JM: Returning to the topic of violence, I am not sure if the West is any less soaked in in it than Chicago or other urban areas. It seems to me that in reading the history of the West from First Contact to settlement that our history is rife with violence, either as the problem itself, or as a solution to the problem of violence.

I was rereading your poem "Evening News" which was first published in Pacifica Literary Review and I was struck by how delicate or fragile the structure is in contrast to the brutal content. The lines "...The football team / record resting on the arm / of a boy who is addicted / to the way he feels / after midnight, recently / acquitted..." seemed particularly apt. Can you talk a little bit more about the writing and revising of this poem? 

Also, how was being in Missoula during the ongoing media coverage of the University of Montana, the football team and the issue of sexual assault? What are your perceptions of it living in the town as it unfolded?
PS: That's a really good way of putting it. The West is rife with violence, because humans are still humans and often terrible to one another, and it's so fucking sad. Mostly what jolts me is the juxtaposition of bizarre violence amid so much natural beauty. Most days it feels like we're actually in Twin Peaks. Diane?

I think that's what "Evening News" and a lot of the book attempts to do: exploit this terror from a position of observation and deep sadness, both up close and zoomed out. The poem was written sort of like a moniker in which the couplets act as quick flickers of egregious crimes.

And considering we moved to Missoula in the thick of the UM football team scandals (2012), this particular issue was on everyone's mind. It rippled and ripped the town apart. Football, like for many other universities and cities, is as much a religion as it is a sport. There were/are a lot of people in Missoula who didn't care about the sexual assault truths if it meant a losing record (thankfully not everyone). Krakauer's book was published a few years later, and the dissipating conversation surrounding rape culture on campus started re-materializing for better and worse. Missoula is by no means alone in this (because humans are humans everywhere), but it feels highlighted or spotlighted or somehow magnetic to it. There are a lot of good people here though who work every day toward promoting a culture of empathy, change, and equality. Montana is just so white, and you can't uproot the history of privilege very easily, turns out.
JM: No easy answers in poems or in life unfortunately. One thing I am noticing in your book is all the dogs! If birds are always breaking into my poems, dogs are always running through yours. Where do they come from? Are you secretly a dog?
PS: I "lol-ed" at your last question. I secretly want to be a dog, or maybe a bear riding the saddle of a moose. Hard to say, but I feel animal most days. Truth is, my first semester in grad school I learned all the different rules poets have about what can and cannot exist in a poem. Ed Skoog was the visiting poet/prof that year, and his rule was "no dogs in poems." Plain as milk. Since I'm an asshole I accepted the challenge, maybe a little too aggressively. I also have a dog that I like probably more than I should. When I imagine less human-on-human violence around these parts, the idea of broken and broken-down dogs devastates me, so I channel it. I write what I hate because it forces me out of comfortable skin. Birds are so versatile though, good call. I'm on a duck kick lately.
JM: I know people often ask in interviews, "What has happened since the publication of your book?" but that feels a little disingenuous. It's like flipping a switch and suddenly you and your life has changed. Can you talk a little bit about what happened between the book winning the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize and November of 2017?
PS: For sure. Early on after receiving the good news, David Baker, the contest's judge, reached out via email to introduce himself. We learned a bit about each other, and as a closing remark he said something I'll never forget: "enjoy the ride." This was a simple breath of fresh air, and since this is my first full length book, a lot of the decisions to make were new. From contract jargon to cover design to layout to line edits, I just let David's directive balloon through my mind. 

In normal life speak, nothing really changed. I was mostly in awe/disbelief for 10 months that this was going to be a reality. In poetry life speak, two things evolved: I was asked to give more readings and to speak to classes and lead workshops and fun things like that. The other thing, which was a huge psychological boost, is that I was able to start writing/working toward/assembling a second manuscript. I'm almost always writing, even if sometimes I take a few weeks off, so the material written post Bad Summon was piling up, but I didn't have the free headspace to know what to do with any of it. Once that first manuscript was taken, I was able to focus on the new project, which I've now begun sending out. I'm fairly certain it's not finished/publishable yet, but I'll wait for the round of responses to pop in to know if it's even got legs (just got my first "thanks no thanks" for it yesterday, actually).

One last little anecdote... instead of flying down to Salt Lake City for the book's release with the press, my friend and I rode motorcycles down from Missoula in early October, camping the whole way. It was the most insane, epic, terrifying, and rewarding experience. We hit snow, rain, heavy winds, late night city traffic, and what feels like every other obstacle in between. Probably wouldn't do that again (at least not at that time of year), but it layered the nature of the trip with a healthy dose of mortality. 
JM: Most of your author bios mention that you tend bar. If you were a bartender handing out free advice with strong cocktails to writers, what would you say to them from across the counter?
PS: I stood metaphorically naked at a crossroads a few years back where I decided Missoula was home and I have basically two skill sets (if that's what you call them): the page and the restaurant. Adjuncting in Arkansas or New Jersey or whoever will have me doesn't appeal. Though I love teaching, I'd rather try to pay rent in a town I love by working in a separate industry. Luckily, I'm able to lead community-based workshops each year and keep my poetic life vibrant without the academic pedigree.

In the writing advice/mezcal elixir, I usually say two things, both of which I'm positive I've heard from many others: do something else besides write. Don't go straight from high school to college to grad school to a PhD program. Of course, many people do it and are successful, but it's my opinion, if you're able to afford it (financially and psychologically), to sink your hands into something else. Move to a big city in your 20s, take on jobs you never thought you would. Learn a new trade or befriend people unlike you. Give your 30+ year-old self something to write about. I think Bob Hicok drove that one home for me.

The second piece of advice, which in my head doesn't conflict with the first, is to never stop writing. Publishing is hard and may or may not happen, but don't let that destroy your sense of understanding and interpreting the world. Art is private and personal before it's public and publishable. And if you hang your head because 9 or 99 journals form-reject you, then wear thicker armor. It's going to happen and it won't stop. Keep writing, keep creating, and don't look around you to see who's watching. 

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761