Thursday, June 02, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Phil Goldstein

Phil Goldstein is a poet, journalist and content marketer. His debut poetry collection, How to Bury a Boy at Sea, was published by Stillhouse Press in April 2022.

His poetry has been nominated for a Best of the Net award and has appeared in The Laurel Review, Rust + Moth, Two Peach, 2River View, Awakened Voices, The Indianapolis Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal and elsewhere.

By day, he works as a senior editor for a content marketing agency, writing about government technology. He currently lives in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Jenny, and their animals: a dog named Brenna, and two cats, Grady and Princess.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I’m still figuring that out, since How to Bury a Boy at Sea is my first book and it’s just been published. I can say that already it’s afforded me the opportunity to connect with a wide range of people and groups interested in preventing and helping others heal from child secxual abuse, which the book reckons with. That includes survivor groups, abuse prevention organizations, mental health professionals and others. And that’s been very rewarding. It’s also been incredibly heartening to hear from people who have purchased a copy – or who have passed along info about the book to others in their lives – who are also survivors of abuse, and tell me that it’s helped them feel less alone. That’s a huge goal of the work.

In terms of how it compares to earlier work it’s hard to say since almost all of my previously published poems are in this book. It’s definitely been the most intense and difficult and rewarding creative experience I’ve had in my life up to this point. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I started writing poetry when I was in seventh grade and wrote it through high school and into college, with my work in my college years being more of the slam poetry/spoken word variety. And then after I graduated and got a job it basically fell off and I was consumed with my writing for work, which has been business and technology journalism. I was always an incredibly avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction growing up, but poetry always spoke to me in a way that other forms of writing never did. My mom got me this anthology of American poetry aimed at kids when I was 11 or 12, which actually coincided with when I was being molested, and poetry as an art form just really stayed with me, as a way to express really complex feelings. 

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

My writing comes in bursts or spurts, I would say. I’ll be walking the dog or in the shower or making dinner and an image or a line will pop into my head and I’ll write it down, and sometimes start jotting down the first draft of a poem on my phone. And there are weeks or months where that happens and I write half a dozen poems in a pretty short period of time. And then there are times where I’m not writing anything creative for weeks or months at a time because things are busy at work or in our household or in the world – there’s still a pandemic raging! – and that’s frustrating.

I would say there are a few poems in my book that came out relatively fully formed and required very minimal edits before they became their final form. But I think, like most writers, the vast majority of my finished work is the byproduct of multiple rounds of revision.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Poems always begin for me as an image. And then I build the architecture of the poem around or leading up to that image. Since I’ve only had one book published so far I can’t say that I’ve really written with a larger project in mind over a long period of time, except for this book. I think once I had written a dozen or two dozen poems dealing with the abuse that my then-girlfriend and now-wife really encouraged me to think of this as a potential book, so I have to give such immense credit to her for that. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I’ve always been a bit of a performer and did musicals in high school and slam poetry in college, so I really enjoy doing public readings. I enjoy reading poems on the page, sometimes aloud to myself, but I am definitely one of those poets who thinks that poetry was and is intended to be spoken out loud, hopefully in front of a decently sized audience of people. I think that poetry is obviously meant to evoke emotions in people who are reading or hearing it, and so I see public readings of poetry in the same way that I see public performances of music or people gathered in a movie theater. They’re all there to experience art and will all be influenced or affected in unique ways. I think that’s wonderful and as COVID-19 hopefully becomes more of an endemic disease over time and cases go down I really hope there is this burst of public readings. I love public readings.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I wouldn’t say there are theoretical poetry concerns that I’m preoccupied with, but I think a deeper question my work confronts is, What does it mean to survive a trauma? Anyone who has experienced trauma in their lives has their own individual response to that trauma. And there’s no one “right” way to respond or heal from trauma. Everyone’s response is so particular and multifaceted, and so I want to explore that kaleidoscope of emotions and experiences. A corollary is, What does it mean to live a full life? No one is or should be defined by the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. There is obviously pain and suffering in life but there is joy, love, intimacy, connection, wonder. What does that look like in connection to the darker aspects of our existence?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think writers at large continue to play the role of interpreting and explaining the human condition to others. Whether or not that is understood or appreciated by the public at large is an entirely open question in a world where the culture is so fragmented and atomized and our politics are so polarized. I think poets, in particular, have a responsibility to address and illuminate aspects of the human condition that do not get a lot of attention in other aspects of the culture, whether that’s TV, movies, the news media or anything else.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Editors are and will continue to be absolutely essential in my mind, whether that’s friends serving as informal editors or editors you are working with for a project that is under contract. My work would not look and sound the way it does without the incredible insight of editors. Sometimes one might disagree with their perspective, but those perspectives are totally essential.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Pare down your writing to the essential elements and lose the unnecessary ornamentation. What is it you are trying to convey with this one particular image or series of lines?

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?

I enjoy writing both and find it relatively easy to move between both since I write and edit news articles and narratives for living. I think poetry allows you to address emotions, thoughts and experiences in an abstract way and essays are appealing because they enable you to build an argument in a more straightforward way.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I honestly do not have a set routine for creative writing. I write so much during the week for my job that I try to snatch time whenever I can in the evenings on the weekends to work out poems or other creative work. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

The work of poets I either know or am just discovering whose poetry makes me feel electrified. A long walk in the woods or along a body of water also always helps.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

For where I grew up: chicken wings (from my favorite restaurant in my hometown). For where I live now: the perfume and hand lotion my wife uses. 

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Music is definitely a big influence for me. I listened to a lot of music while writing the poems that became my book and I even created a Spotify playlist to celebrate those songs and instrumental pieces that I think really resonate with the book’s themes or emotions I want to evoke. And being out in nature always inspires me and reminds me of the precious beauty of this fragile world.  

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

This could go on for a while so I will try to name just a few: Louise Glück, Walt Whitman, Adrienne Rich, Nikki Giovanni, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Jericho Brown, Rainer Maria Rilke and Lucille Clifton. Whenever I read their work I am blown away.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d love to spend a significant period of time in a place that’s pretty disconnected from civilization, deep in nature. I’d also like to go skydiving at some point.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I think maybe a nature or news photographer. I like taking photos on my phone but it would be amazing to get paid to take photos.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I’ve always been writing in one form or another, going back almost as far as I can remember, so I’m not sure.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read is hard to pick! The last great novel I read is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I’ve also read some fantastic poetry collections in the past year, including Rachel Mennies’ The Naomi Letters and Catherine Pond’s Fieldglass. The last great film I watched was The Power of the Dog, which I watched at home with my wife. It’s such a beautiful, intriguing film. The director, Jane Campion, is a genius.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve been trying to work on some new poems where and when I can, but it’s honestly been tough lately amid my day job and work I’ve been doing to promote How to Bury a Boy at Sea. Hopefully I’ll encounter another burst at some point soon.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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