An Interview with Philip Kolin

Departures  Cover

Departures Cover

The following interview with Philip C. Kolin was conducted in early October shortly after the publication of Departures. Kolin is The University Distinguished Professor with the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he also edits The Southern Quarterly.

BH:     This is not your first published collection of poems. How does Departures relate to your earlier books such as Deep Wonder (2000) or Reading God's Handwriting (2012)?

PCK:   Much of my earlier work is rooted in "the poetry of faith." Deep Wonder was described as a collection of lyric poems that could be prayed; and in fact, several reviewers linked these poems thematically to the Psalms. Reading God's Handwriting was much more contemplative, modeled on Lectio Divina, or the sacred ritual of reading, meditating, and applying Scripture. Though more secular, the poems in Departures still concentrate on issues of belief whether of self, others, or creation.

BH:     You write a lot about historical figures and events in this collection. How are they part of your idea of "departures"?

PCK:   I have always been fascinated by historical poetry and have been working on two collections of poems grounded in history, one of the them about the savage murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and the other, tentatively entitled Pilsen Snow, about my old Czech American neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago. As Sir Philip Sidney proclaimed, a poet surpasses both the historian and the philosopher in gaining access to the truth. In Departures there is no question that the large arc of history provides a journey for famous and unknown heroes to travel. Accordingly, I have included poems about FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Enrico Fermi, Mother Teresa, Kate Hepburn, etc. as well as poems about individuals whose voices may otherwise never have been heard—my cousin who was killed on the last day of World War II, my grammar school piano teacher, a prayerful Chicago secretary who can "almost see the Beatific Vision" from her office window on the seventh floor of the Merchandise Mart.

 BH:    Why did you select the title of Departures?

PCK:   Each of the poems tells a story about a journey the speaker takes and so the word “departures struck me as a wonderfully expansive one to announce and group the poems. The journeys in Departures can be chronological, familial, romantic, and/or spiritual. The titles of the four sections into which the book is divided give readers signposts to the types of journeys the poems explore—"Childhood Encores" (both the happy memories and the traumatic ones), "Women and Men in/out of Love" (from the exhilarating joy of discovery to the dread of failure) to "Obsequies" (laments whether for the endangerment of a species, the ravages of Katrina, the loss of a spouse) to "Revelation" (the existential dread of being severed from life as well as flowering the garden within). One reviewer remarked that the poems in Departures are revelations in themselves.

BH:     But as I read Departures I also find a lot of humor, or am I misreading the collection?

PCK:   No, you are on target. There is a comic strain that runs through some of the poems, particularly in, say, "Sister Veritas" about my grammar school principal or "Why I Majored in English." This latter poem has the most humorous line in Departures: "I majored in English/ to learn how to be polite/ in front of cats."

BH:     I get a strong sense of place in your poems. Would you comment on this.

PCK:   I do include many descriptions of landscapes in Departures (one has to travel from somewhere), but place for me has both a geographic and symbolic address. The four geographies, if you will, that resonate in Departures reflect my own experiences. I was born, bred, and educated in Chicago (all three of my degrees are from Chicago universities) and so the urban Midwest is here, including my old neighborhood of Pilsen where Mayor Cermak and Kim Novak hailed from.  But for the last 4 decades I have lived in the South and have inhaled the perfume of Southern muses. So there is a long prose poem about New Orleans, several poems about Panama City Beach and Florida's Emerald Coast, and poems, too, about the people and places of Mississippi that have nurtured me.

BH:     What writers have influenced you the most?

PCK:   Unquestionably, Scriptural voices sound throughout Departures. And so do those of Dante and the Metaphysical poets. But there are also poems here about Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Beckett, all of whom have had a strong pull on me. There are other voices, too, less declarative but nonetheless formative such as Whitman, Frost, and even that rascal Allen Ginsburg whom I met once at Jimmy's Bar and Tap at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. There are also a couple of movies that triggered poems such as Schindler’s List for the long poem “Passover in the Camps.”

BH:     What did you think of Megan Cary's cover?

PCK:   It is stirring, haunting, and evocative of the entire collection. The patina of colors Megan chose symbolizes the earthly and the spiritual, the worlds of the poems, at once.  Megan is a genius and thanks to Sue Walker, a superlative editor by the way, I had a chance to have an extended conversation with Megan about the collection, and we also had lots of follow up, which is not the case with many presses. The indefinite figure traveling the long, rocky path toward an unknown destination, both clouded and (paradoxically) illuminated, strikes me as emblematic of the Keatsian mystery that undergirds Negative Capability Press.

BH:     Any advice for aspiring poets?

PCK:   It takes more than a “fine frenzy rolling” to write a poem. I am not discounting inspiration; in fact, I celebrate it, but being a poet means paying careful attention to people, places, and events, being a researcher, engaging in mind-bending revisions, many of them, and studying space the way an artist or architect would. Poems are more than words; they are visual creations whose shape and size must coalesce with the verbal. Enjambments, stanza breaks, punctuation (I love the work that dashes and hyphens do)—all shape a poem.

BH:     Finally, any plans to write a sequel to Departures titled Arrivals?

PCK:   Why not? After all, every departure ends with some type of arrival.