An Interview with Phil Estes
Phil Estes is the author of High Life, released this year from Horse Less Press, and the chapbooks Slowjams (Living Arts Press), Children of Reagan, and Gem City/Fountain City (both from Rabbit Catastrophe). His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Diagram, Prelude, Sprung Formal, West Wind Review, and elsewheres. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Oklahoma State. Currently, he lives in Shreveport, Louisiana and teaches at Louisiana Tech.
I recently read High Life and found it brilliantly dark and humorous, full of strange imagery and language. I talked to Phil via email for this interview.
BRANDON HOBSON: One of the poems in High Life is titled “Old World.” In it, two painters look at “the print of a half-closed eye/in the Swede’s hand.” In some of the other poems, too, there are glimpses of visual art. Are you interested in saying something specific about art in this book?
PHIL ESTES: I don’t know if I am trying to say anything specific about art as much as I am interested in the joke of prestige and articulation. I like how visual artists don’t talk about something when they talk about something. They kind of just nod their head, or deflect. When they do talk, it feels incredibly important. You see how their mind works, and it helps you listen, read, watch. I think sometimes when people talk about art they spend way too much time trying to articulate what the thing is, or else they get wrapped up in stuff that has nothing to do with the thing itself. Like when you go to a reading and the person gives a really long explanation to the piece, and then you hear the thing, and you go, “Why did they set it up?”
The molecules of origin are already in the fucking thing. What you made is doing more than your explanation, it is shooting for the uncanny. Let it do it.
BH: I think it’s hard to pull off.
PE: Yeah, I think doing the Jay Leno thing—"Have you heard this? have you seen this?“—the white-hetero-male-poet-lit-guy-in-the-v-neck sweater thing, “Did you see what I did there?” connects to prestige. Like you are trying to elevate your work, or emphasize a high/low culture thing that should be dead. I don’t think there’s a difference in materials, because something high or ethereal—Homer, Shakespeare, Michelangelo—is already in everything. We read and see that stuff when we’re not reading and seeing. That’s why I like visual artists and how they talk. The ones I look to in the poems (Basquiat, David Bowie as Warhol in Basquiat), they don’t explain anything, but they make you aware of the act of explanation, which gets you closer to the thing.
BH: So this might explain the Basquiat quote at the beginning, “I hear them and I just throw them down”.
In “White Lines,” the longest poem in the book, there are images of things we don’t normally think of together. For example, the armless, legless monk drinking liquor; an aging pharmacist on a smoke break; and Buddha and dogs and Volkswagens. You’re good about creating the abstract from the mundane. Can you speak a little about this?
PE: I have always been bothered by art that “connects” too much, when everything wraps up, the composition has unity. It is too allegorical or representational. There’s a certain positivism to it, if that’s the right word; the thing becomes a curio no matter how much “emotion” it contains. When there are connections to things, it is usually in a very fucked up or scary way. If the connections exist, they’re less obvious, they’re buried, and there’s the terror usually. Nothing really is easy and is clear. There are ethics, though. I don’t mean this in a nihilistic way.
Two close friends had a profound effect on me. They showed me other ways beyond concreteness, narrative, “clarity” or, rather, “easy clarity"—the poem is way spelled out, the lines are long but weighed down by prosody. And I started reading what they read and I listened, or tried to listen, to how they talked. Poetry is super weird, the cultural assumptions of it. Like the shit you see in sitcoms, or news shows; Kirstin Bell movies from the oughts, etc. Poems usually rhyme, are dirty limmericks, or poems sound fragmented, like Neidecker or Williams or Oppen or Armantrout or Mullen. It is a much more complex response than you’d think. And I started to shed some stuff.
BH: Do you consider your work nonlinear?
PE: Not really. I mean, it sort of starts and ends and maybe moves in and out of stuff. I never really thought about it.
BH: Do you favor minimalist or fragmented poetry over longer, more traditional forms?
PE: I am drawn to that sort of minimalist/fragmented type of poetry—or poetry of gesture—but I try not to dismiss traditional forms. It is harder to get past the machinations of the latter, but that’s something I try to deal with, not to dismiss easily. I think, though, it is really hard now to read poems that are "poetic"—not just forms, but poems that try for beauty or say beautiful things in recognizably beautiful ways. They are hard to read with earnestness. Especially when that idea of what a poem should be is shared by, say, Ted Cruz or whatever. Conservative art, which, I know, is a bit of a broad stroke. I think I might be listening to Žižek lectures too much on my long commutes to work. I know beauty and form aren’t the same thing, but it is fucking hard sometimes to separate.
BH: So do you focus on form first, or does your work start with an image? Do you begin every poem differently or is it the same?
PE: I kind of make notes, scraps, then kind of work from there. Rearrange stuff, etc. Usually an image, but most of the time something I hear. I think there are poets, who I like, who may think about form first, but they never seem to hold to it totally, or they’re doing it because of a sort of awareness of the form—a sort of subtle sense that it is kind of weird, or they want to undermine that form and the politics surrounding it. The good poets, you know. I used to count syllables and stuff like that, but I don’t really anymore. I just try to get stuff down.
BH: That’s what I tell myself—just get it down. Can you talk a little about how you came to title nine different poems "Everything is All Right,” throughout the book? They’re all very different, but I feel they mirror the book’s title.
PE: I was writing those poems for a while and I felt like they all fit together in some way—the speakers seem close to being one voice and there was a lot of anxiety in them in some way–not anxious each of them, but they shared something. A few had different titles, but as I was putting it altogether, they felt like a chorus. They seemed unified by mood or something.
I’ve always had a weariness of masculinity and privilege. What right I have to say about anything. I think about this a lot. The titles of those is less a motto and more a mantra maybe—that still doesn’t seem like the right word—more an attempt to delay something, to try to bury that implication, to try to resolve something. Not my attempts to bury, but the speakers’ attempts. That’s also my weariness of a type of narrative poem–the “easy” or the “clear” narrative. The philosophizing, the demonstration of rigor (thing is, there’s always rigor). I’m interested in the gesture–where you see a poet’s mind work, etc.
BH: There’s a lot of humor in your work.
PE: Yeah, I think humor is important. I don’t think it is a deflection. I think “seriousness” is over, or it never really was a thing. I think, sometimes, people think irony isn’t a type of affect, but it is. Humor is complex; I think something like “wit” is dangerous and bad—it excludes. Humor, comedy, shouldn’t and doesn’t. And I think it is more complex than the notion of “things are shitty, you just got to laugh.” It’s more complex. I think that’s why it is in the poems, maybe. It is my way/attempt/stab at articulating.
I see that in your work, too. It is more than just being funny or more than just being really serious by being funny. It is a sort of ethos, maybe? I don’t want to misread what you’re doing, either.
BH: I try to do that. I like the idea that we’re not sure whether we’re supposed to laugh at something or feel sad about it. Do you find yourself as interested I this as I am?
PE: Yeah, I do too. A friend in my PhD referenced a philosopher/theorist, who said laughter is an intellectual act. If all emotion somehow becomes suppressed, there will still be laughter. Marx says something about history reoccurring—first as tragedy, then as farce. Žižek wrote a book with that title that I just got in the mail, but haven’t started it yet. I think we’re in a mode, right now, where those are almost the same thing. They’re very close. It felt like that didn’t happen in the 90s, but it happened before. Like it skipped that decade and came back to us. I was a teenager in the nineties and it sucked. I think it will be remembered like the 20s; we kind of dig some of it for whatever reason (cheesy fashion, music, Tarantino movies), but really it was terrible and it seems quaint in the shadow of what came after it (what do we like from the 90s, really? Shit that was from earlier decades reconstituted, we like the 90s spin on those things). No one wants to go back to the 20s except crazy, dangerous people. I think the 90s will be the same way. The terror was lurking there but we didn’t laugh at it and we didn’t jump to action. We thought shit was “solved” and we can still be assholes. Things were “clear.” “New” economy, blah blah blah. Dennis Miller is a “witty” genius guy in the 90s. Now we know him actually. Ditto Ken Starr, Michigan Militia, Rush (Limbaugh, not the band). They got away with so much. You can’t watch Friends now without cringing. You can’t read certain things from that decade.
There seems—to me—an impression that humor slights or deflects the profound in poetry. I remember encountering an anthology of “funny” poets once and some of the poets in there were whatever, “witty”, Billy Collins, etc., and it felt like the anthology didn’t get what was funny. It just did this stupid—clarity, funny thing, philosophical clarity. The humor wasn’t really humor, just something to admire, because it lead back to something “serious.” This whole idea of affect gets to me a little, the affect equals seriousness. You know, “seriousness.”
I think humor is sort of an intellectual act, but it isn’t an act that deflects or represses. Laughing actualizes. At least it’s supposed to. Billy Collins doesn’t actualize. He’s an easy target, but he doesn’t. He has that half-poet thing: “that sounds pretty good” at first, then a little later you’re like, “Fuck that dude, that wasn’t interesting at all.” I know this isn’t a widespread thing, it is just something that I encountered early. It still kind of shadows me.
Brandon Hobson won a 2016 Pushcart Prize and is the author of Deep Ellum and Desolation of Avenues Untold. His fiction has recently appeared in Conjunctions and NOON.