Phip Ross

  • Phip Ross, English Department Co-Chair  

    Phip-Ross_webPhip is a frequent contributor to Illuminations and a welcome one. Currently Co-Chair of the SCC English Department, Phip writes with insight and poignancy, focusing on poetry and creative nonfiction. A Fulbright scholar, Phip has been instrumental in the implementation of the SCC Transitions Lab for foundation-level students and has embraced such projects as digital storytelling to encourage students to celebrate and share their life stories  He spoke with Illuminations about his writing process, the kinship he seeks, and the need to write first for one’s self.

    Illuminations: You’re a well-published writer and educator. What continues to attract you to publication in Illuminations?

    Phip: The most rewarding experience as a writer is not the bigger publications but the experience with an audience that’s closest to me: my wife, my children and parents, colleagues and friend-writers, and strangers that share a space and experience with me. Close quarters where communication is very alive; as a writer I see and hear responses, and the impact is felt and witnessed. These rewards are greatest to me. One of my favorite experiences was writing a poem on a flight from Las Vegas to Nebraska. A couple seated a few rows ahead of me and across the aisle were so in love and so fawning over one another I was compelled to write a poem about them and give it to them as we de-boarded the plane. They sought me out on the layover in Denver, and their expressions of gratitude were amazing for me. Writing poems on napkins for waitresses. Haikus for folks at the dinner table. Classroom writing. All of these experiences, including Illuminations as a “close quarter community,” offer a chance to be engaged with others in the challenge and rewards of communicating in a way that I would consider elevated and more intense. Together, we are mutually engaged in seeing truths in our journeys. Much of this experience of writing and sharing was learned from writing with other teachers who teach writing from around the country. I’ve been very blessed to see writing and community operate in such a dynamic way.

    I: You mention “writing and community.” Is a sense of community important for you as a writer, or is writing mostly a solitary pursuit for you?

    P: Right now, I pretty much write in isolation. I have a blog I share with a friend from out of state where we both post poems and rarely even talk about it. That is my very small community, and it keeps me going. So this is very minimalist in terms of a writing community, but it still pushes me because I know he’s a fine writer and a sharp reader, and that fact makes me edit in a way I’d never edit if I’m just working through a draft in isolation.

    I: How can new writers find a supportive community if they desire one?

    P: A committed writer can find community, but it can take time to find the right community that will support and challenge you in the way you need. Hopefully, classroom experiences allow connections to happen between other writers—peers in the class. A community that continues work beyond and outside of class is a real possibility. There are other community organizations set up in Lincoln that can support your growth as a writer. Contact a public library, ask writing teachers at several colleges, and read the posters at coffee shops around town. Writing groups are out there in the smoke shops, churches, and various public places; one just has to do a little investigating.

    I: You write both prose and poetry. Do you prefer one over the other? Do you enjoy dabbling in fiction?

    P: I confess that poetry is where I feel I can take creative license and flex my creative and reflective muscles in short bursts that give me that feeling I’m making something. Really, it may equate to whittling a small figurine, not a masterpiece. The longer works require so much of me in terms of the drafting I just don’t have that space in my life for more than the short tremors of the artistic expression. Consequently, it makes sense that micro-fiction has held my attention over the years. I love the compactness that resembles poetry and the challenge of building meaning in these short spaces of less than 500 words. Fiction, in general, appeals because of its opportunity to explore characterization, that meeting of a new person of your own making. It’s a delightful challenge. I like meeting new people even if they’re my Frankensteins.

    I: How would you describe your writing process?

    P: I am not a disciplined, sit-down-at-this-time-and-write-a-thousand-words-a-day sort, ala Jack London. I pay attention to what’s calling me every day, however, to put pen to paper. Often, it’s the very small stuff, the shoe lace that keeps coming untied, that I need to seek what it could be telling me if I were to explore it, even if it’s a bit silly and playful, in a poem. I think that Ted Kooser said that a poem starts with something felt, a sensation. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s going to be a poem worth sharing. But it could be a poem worth writing for one’s self.

    So I am hunting for ideas and typically don’t sit down until an idea has been presented and it’s been netted in my mind. I must write it down in some shape before it flits away. Then, I will make time to sketch the idea or draft it, follow it where it leads me. I will do this until a draft is finished. I’m speaking primarily of poems that require some good part of an hour. I will let myself feel good about this experience. In a day or a month, I will return to it as a critical reader and see what I was fiddling with and bend, break, or re-shape it. I do this revision by listening to the poem and how it connects to what the initial experience was. After this, I may post it on my blog, which if you remember, is largely a shared space with a writing partner and friend. As soon as the draft is posted, I begin to see it differently and will circle back and revise it in this space as I begin to see the writing from the eyes of someone else.

    I: Marvelous! What do you enjoy reading most, and how does your reading life affect your writing life?

    P: Speaking of Ted Kooser, he had me reading ten poems a day. Right now, I try to read at least one poem a day. There are many ways reading affects my life. Simply put, it stirs language and ideas; it keeps the gears turning even if I’m not that interested in the work. Even that’s beneficial. Hearing a new voice, meeting words joined together in new ways, holding the shape of something new in my mind is all stimulating and self-sustaining in my work-a-day life where I’m putting the garbage out on the corner, washing dishes, or doing the work of a faculty-administrator. I remember that after 9/11, there was a lot of poetry being shared, and one poet claimed that the poems were like prayers. Whether you’re reading or writing, I often think of this comment, and it resonates.

    I: Indeed. Do you enjoy participating in any other creative activities?

    P: Perhaps my most creative activity is banging on my acoustic guitar and singing at home. It’s a good substitute for not dancing, although on occasion I can be caught doing that. Making noise like this on the guitar not only includes my voice but is more fully sensory. If I’m feeling tired and need a shot of adrenaline, this is the best juice.

    I: Where do you see yourself as a writer in ten years?

    P: If I am writing regularly, weekly, I’ll be happy. That will be at least an indication that I’m still a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, and praying human being who’s in love with life (or trying to love life) and showing up for what it has to offer. Most folks are familiar with the reference of “harden not your heart.” In this sense, writing keeps the heart thumping and aware. I literally have heart disease in my family background, but I think all of humanity has to be aware of this disease of the spirit and do whatever one is called to do to prevent it because the world has a way of fossilizing the most tender tissues.

    In terms of publishing, I am a journalist in many ways. That’s my first degree, so when stories present themselves that need some assistance in making it to print, I enjoy this work—like with Far Beyond Words: Stories of Military Interpreting in Iraq (2013, Infusion Media) that I wrote with Sulaiman Murad. I will likely publish more stories that I believe are important contributions to non-fiction literature.

    I: Are there certain subjects or themes you’re repeatedly drawn to write about?

    P: I have spent a lot of time writing about moments from my gorgeous childhood. There’s always that. I’ve always stuck pretty close to home: marriage, child-rearing, my psychologically complicated adopted dogs, and my workspace and domestic doings. On the surface, this does not engage until the texture of that black button of the dog’s nose butts into your face. They’re real, and a profundity of little truths are hiding in rich textures.

    I: What advice would you give a writer who feels as if he or she has not yet found a voice?

    P: First, don’t look to satisfy anyone else other than yourself. If you keep asking for others to validate your voice, I think you’re compromising yourself and it will be more difficult to find your voice. This doesn’t let anyone off the hook to find critical readers at some point. But you are the primary reader. Respect that. Of course, I’m writing this as someone who’s not trying to make a living off of his writing. I use writing mostly as a tool to learn, heal, laugh, explore. Still, you need to engage and be sustained by the work you do. If the writing is not “happening” for you, keep going until it is. Then, you’re getting close to sharing, revising, and perhaps publishing.

    As a teacher of writing, I will also take note of the fact that writing in schools is complicated for someone who wants to do writing. Some of my earliest memories of enjoying writing came in classrooms, but there are factors that inhibit the growth of voice in the inauthentic spaces of school buildings or Internet classrooms. These can hold worthy assignments, feedback worth saving, and some tips and tricks to put in your toolbox, but the time, space given, and assignments should be looked at by the writer as practice exercises, so don’t get too bent out of shape about it. The real growth as a writer will be in the community you seek out and the work reading and writing invested beyond the classroom.

    I: And finally, the silly question of the day: If you were a criminal mastermind, what would be your criminal racket?

    P: Oh, no question: assassin. More specifically, character assassin. I’d aim military grade, black market vocabulary at bad boys in this world and take ‘em out. Hitler had a sexual fetish for bonobo monkeys: “Bam!” He’s back painting peonies in a studio apartment. Did you hear the Koch brothers air drop flecks of their own feces over major U.S. metropolitan cities? Well, yeah, they do: Ka-blooy. Sublime subterfuge.

    “Batting practice at bedtime”
    by Phip Ross:

    Up to home plate
    while already in bed
    a blanket across my neck,
    one pillow folded underhead,

    socks in a pile nearby—
    I level the bat across a knuckle
    to lay down the first bunt
    on the ball field behind my eyes.

    Again and again pitches
    catch the sweet spot
    on the fat end of the bat
    with the dull knock of wood

    in a rhythm of baseballs rolling
    down the chalky third baseline
    until the park lights dim and I sink
    into the dugout of my bed, satisfied

    and ready, at last, to let go of a day
    of wild swings at most everything.