Interview-Phillip White

November 13, 2009

Jakob Chapman: What is your process for writing—do you do anything specific before you write?

Phillip White: Not really. I usually take a long time to get started. I have little note cards that I keep little phrases, images, or ideas on. I keep them in my back pocket wherever I go and as soon as I start filling up a card, I put another card in. When I feel like there’s a bunch of things that might hold together I’ll try to put them together and write it out. Over a period of a couple months I’ll probably go through major revisions and from there, I’m tweaking or taking out a line and putting something else in and so on. I’m probably unusual in the sense that I don’t have some sort of “sit down and write” kind of thing that I do; it just happens. I don’t have a set time or anyhing like that.

Alixis Hodson: What is your method when you put together an actual collection of poems?

PW: For me, the first book was just basically 20 years worth of writing. Stuff that I didn’t like kept getting taken out and new stuff got put in. About 10 years ago, I started writing quite a lot, and at that point I began deciding which of the earlier poems to put in based on how they helped set up the book. So, you know, I had a book that whole time, something book-length, but it was changing, and by the end, it was nothing like how it started out.

Laura Thomas: Where do you get inspiration for your poems?

PW: I have a couple of experiential areas that I usually draw on; one is observation of the world, the natural world mostly. I spend a lot of time in fields and hills and woods in Kentucky where I’m living right now, basically just walking around. I have a dog and he takes me out walking occasionally. So I have my index card in my back pocket and my pencil and a camera and I just walk around, think, and look at things. I like to know what I’m looking at so I’ll try to learn the names of the plants and the birds and some of the geological history wherever I’m at. So that’s one thing, the natural world. In practical terms, the thing that gives me the most urgency, the “need to write,” is the death of people close to me. A lot of my poems, both in The Clearing and the nameless book that I have now are about death. I didn’t choose that and I wouldn’t want it to be that way but that’s the thing that really affects me enough to get off my rear end and start doing something.

JC: Why do you write?

PW: I think it’s been for different reasons over the years but one of the main reasons is that early on I liked doing it because I thought it was fun. It also seemed important in that I was a serious kid and it was a way of being serious that was ok,I guess. More and more it got to be a kind of existential need, if you will. It was, again, probably a response to death, to some pretty serious life questions and so on. In many ways, that’s why I need to write, and it’s probably an artificial need; if I had gone into cabinetry, cabinetry might have filled that need, too, but the thing that I started with was poetry. Actually, when I was probably about your age, I was doing almost everything: I did ceramics, drawing, painting, and I played guitar and the piano. But poetry is the thing that stayed; everything else dropped away.

AH: What advice would you give to beginning writers or writers who want to progress their work?

PH: Two things. First thing: you need to read. I think you need to be a reader. A lot of people think they want to write but they don’t know what they’re doing because they haven’t read enough. It’s okay to want that, but the earlier you can start reading and reading and reading and following your interests, the better. Get an anthology, find a person you like, and read everything that they’ve written. You know, follow your interests. The earlier you can start reading, the sooner you’ll be writing things that have validity, and not just validity for yourself. You’ll actually be writing from the stance of a reader, so you’ll more likely attract people who are readers also. Writing can be a great thing for personal self-development, and for keeping track of your own feelings and inner life. It’s perfectly valid to write just for yourself, but if you want to go farther than that, read. Read other people’s work. Learn what it is you want to read, what you admire, and try to adopt a little bit of that for yourself.