By Ali Banach
Rowan Ricardo Phillips opened his reading with a dedication to the Ambassador Chorale of Florida Memorial University, who had just departed the stage. He spoke to the moving nature of their performance, stating, “When I close my eyes, I hear the past, and when I open them, I see the future.” Phillips’s poetry reading deftly incorporated and followed the choral performance, tying directly to this year’s seminar theme of Singing America: A Celebration of Black Literature. The Chorale, directed by Dr. Argarita Johnson-Palavinci, performed songs in multiple genres including spirituals, gospel and chorale literature. Phillips echoed the importance of working across numerous registers, expressing his personal interest in “speculative music.”
Phillips’ poetry is both particular and encompassing; he read from work that dealt with planets, birthdays, Romanticism, and the recent loss of his grandmother. Throughout all of it, he spoke of sound, listening, and music. In the poem called “The Peacock,” whose first line supplies the title of his reading, Phillips writes, “There’s something in it,/ How poems pretend to sing.” Phillips’ work brilliantly navigates the space between writing and song. His body of work is one concerned with what a poem is, what it can hold, if he can write “a poem about the soft future.” If, as Phillips claims, “music for when music is over is what a poem is,” then his work and this year’s conference are demonstrating the way that music resounds when it ends: both in writing, and specifically, within the African American literary tradition.
Throughout the reading, Phillips cited musical works as a source of inspiration in his own practice. He inserted an anecdote about “The Köln Concert” by Keith Jarrett; he shared his first encounter with The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” while perched on a twin bed; he read a poem directly inspired by “River Man” by Andy Bey. He speaks about song as a place of fantasy, of transcendence and “triumph.” Poetry, then, is where such triumph and violence are able to coexist. In a poem titled “Violins,” Phillips writes, “He never saw a violin but he saw a lifetime of violence.” Here, Phillips touches on a core theme at the heart of this year’s seminar; how do writers manipulate language to capture the music and the violence that shapes Black life and Black history in the United States? How can you write in order to make “the soft future?”
Phillips concluded his reading with a short poem titled “Thoughts and Prayers.” One of its opening questions states, “And so what comes after heaven that’s not heaven?” The question resounded throughout the conference long after his reading and the music came to an end.
Ali Banach is a current MFA candidate at Columbia University. She is from Mechanicsburg, PA.