Interview with Poet and Professor Philip Metres

by Kathryn Beaton on October 1, 2018

Our new Fulcrum Community Manager, Emma DiPasquale, studied under our author Philip Metres at John Carroll University. Below, she interviews him about his new book The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance, which was released in September. He also will be visiting Ann Arbor to read (with author Aimee Bender) on November 15.


You join over a hundred other poets who have contributed to the Poets on Poetry series. What drew you to it?

When I was in graduate school researching poets and the peace movement, I first encountered the series through volumes by the poet William Stafford: You Must Revise Your Life (1987), and Crossing Unmarked Snow (1998). Later, I read many others, with the same delight. They were the literary equivalent of VH-1’s “Behind the Music” show, or perhaps more accurately, “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” They had the feel of a miscellany—collecting interviews, talks, essays, and poems—but their gift was that they pulled back the curtain on writers who often felt imposingly mythic. In a time before social media, poets seemed distant and impossible to know. They helped me see how poets thought of their process, their work, and how it related to their lives. Unlike traditional literary scholarship, which often feels enclosed inside an exclusionary shell of language, Poets on Poetry books were gentle welcomes into the great conversation that is writing. A number of years ago, Kazim Ali asked me to blurb his wonderful Orange Alert (2010), and I started to wonder what I might gather to do something similar.


What did you learn from writing The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance? How was this writing experience different from other things you’ve written?

The Sound of Listening is the product of ten years of essays on poetry, written in the wake of my scholarly monograph, Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront (2007). While that book was enormously important in my development as a writer, I also felt as if I didn’t always reach the audience that I’d hoped. I began a blog in 2007 to supplement or even popularize the ideas of the book, and for a few years, I wrote nearly-daily posts extending the argument of the book. In the process, both on the blog and in various magazines and sites, I kept engaging the questions of what poems are for—whether they could function as a technology of social change, of resistance to oppression and injustice and war. A decade later, I’d gathered more than enough pieces to put together The Sound of Listening.

In the process of working with Kazim Ali and Marilyn Hacker, I revised everything again, updating many pieces whose origins were 5-10 years old. One of the revisions, incidentally, I did while I had a concussion, squinting through one eye at the page swimming beneath my suddenly-blurry vision. (That experience ended up becoming part of the book as well). What I loved learning about writing was that though I do still see poetry as a means of resistance, I also was able to take a step back and realize that what makes poetry (and indeed all the arts) so vital is their ability to envision a world that is both present and not yet realized. Paul Eluard once wrote: “there is another world, and it is in this one.” (Or Jesus, for that matter: the Kingdom is near, and at hand). So instead of merely reducing poetry to a mode of protest, I saw it suddenly (or, really, newly, because I keep having this epiphany) in something like a totality, as something more vital, more visionary, more necessary to human being.


How has your experience at Holy Cross/John Carroll and as director of the Peace, Justice & Human Rights program shaped this text?

At Holy Cross, I was an English major, with a Peace and Conflict Studies minor (and a Russian minor). I seem to have always had two passions—for literature, and for trying to find ways of creating peace. Those twin drives exist at the very beginning of literature, in the writing of the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, the first known poet in human history, who wrote a poem called “Lament to the Spirit of War.” This is a text that is over 4000 years old! I learned about her when watching our country engage in war after war in Iraq, devastating that country.

Despite our human proclivities toward mass violence and cruelty, we also can be enormously gentle, nurturing, and loving. Poetry, and indeed all the arts, must grapple with the entirety of that human (and indeed, non-human) reality in which we find ourselves. After college, I lived in Russia for a year pursuing a version of this work, exploring how Russian poets responded to the massive historical changes after Communism. Returning for graduate school, I kept thinking about these questions, with new lenses.

Of course my Jesuit education (at Loyola Academy, at Holy Cross, and at John Carroll, where I’ve been teaching since 2001), has played a key role in my thinking and practice as a writer. In sense, I hope that I’m writing toward the radical invitation of the Beatitudes. For all the terrible scandals of the Catholic Church (of which I could write angry volumes), I remain a person of faith, who believes in the fire of God’s love. I’m almost embarrassed to say it. Perhaps my faith is just intellectual or even spiritual weakness, but the experience has been so formative that I cannot disavow it, even if a part of me wonders if religion is imply just a metaphor for reaching toward the infinitude in us and in the universe.

Being the director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll offers me the gift of developing a program to help nurture leaders in peacemaking, social justice, and advocacy for the vulnerable and oppressed. Although a part of me would love simply to write and not be bothered with academic program stuff, I do love seeing students get fired up about making change in the world.

All of this experience is inflected in The Sound of Listening, just as The Sound of Listening induces new experiences, in the praxis of art and life.


What are you working on right now? What’s next for you?

On the horizon is a chapbook called Returning to Jaffa (Diode 2019), which is a docupoetic inquiry into the mystery of what happened to Palestine’s most populous city and its municipal archives during the Nakba in 1948. Working with vintage postcards, Haganah leaflets, and personal photographs, Returning to Jaffa tells the story of one former resident of Jaffa, Nahida Halaby Gordon, a Palestinian who fled her native land during 1948, and who periodically returns to visit her childhood home, confiscated by Israel after the war.

This chapbook will be part of Shrapnel Maps, which will come out from Copper Canyon in 2020. It’s a book that wrestles with the Israeli and Palestinian realities. I was going to say “conflict,” but I’m trying to write a book that is more than a record of conflict, but a dream of a new past, an old future, one that is bigger than any one story of that place.

I’m also circulating a memoir of my Russian experiences, called The More You Love the Motherland. It’s the story of a poet who falls in love with a country and its poetry. But will the country (and its preeminent poet) return that love? A reading tour in America brings together a famous Russian poet and his awestruck Arab American poet-translator (me), but their relationship is tested by language, culture, and personal differences. The road trip triggers memories of the young poet’s year in Russia during its tumultuous post-Soviet transition. A travel memoir, The More You Love the Motherland anchors itself in a series of encounters with Russians and Russia, reflecting on the strange relationship between poetry and various forms of freedom (economic, social, personal, and spiritual) that suddenly flood the new Russia.


What is one thing you try to convey to your poetry students?

Just one thing? Writing is a gift that you give yourself every day, a place and an occasion for you to explore the mystery of being alive, of being the mystery of your own becoming. Every day I write is a good day. I feel more at home in the universe and in myself. Or, to quote from the book’s title, a place to listen, a place of refuge.  

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