The Poet’s Project: ‘I wrote those lines because they were true’

Poet and Guggenheim Fellow Philip Metres speaks about poetry as keen observation of the world as it is


Provided by Philip Metres

“We will not be writing just for no reason, but hopefully we don’t necessarily always know why we’re writing, we know only that there is a kind of insistence in language. Poems really do begin with playing,” poet Philip Metres said.

by Sarah Mohammed, Features Editor

Philip Metres is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an award grant for exceptional creative thinkers to have time and space for their craft, and the author of 10 books, including his most recent collection of poems, “Shrapnel Maps” (Copper Canyon, 2020) and a series of lyric poems about grief, language and gentleness titled “Sand Operas” (Alice James Books, 2015). Metres is currently a professor at John Carroll University, teaching English and directing the Peace and Justice department. 

Metres spoke with Winged Post and Aquila Features Editor Sarah Mohammed (11) about poetry as witness to, uncovering, holding and speaking of his experiences of looking deeply into and around the world by writing poetry. While talking about surveillance in post-9/11 America during the conversation with Sarah, Metres poses, “How can the poet write back against that sense of being alert?” And this embodies his poetics, the craft that holds him — writing to excavate the story of the world sitting around, within and among us, writing to resist, to touch. 

I started writing when I was about 17. I have this distinct memory of reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when I was a senior in high school and just being absolutely astonished that T.S. Eliot somehow could read my mind. There’s just something really bracing, really exciting and unnerving when you read something that feels like it reveals the secret about yourself or the world. I think poetry has that capacity — speaking the unspoken or saying the thing that is true, the thing that we haven’t yet heard being said in quite that way. 

A cover of “Sand Opera” by Philip Metres. “Sand Opera” is a series of lyric poems published by Alice James Books in 2015 and features poetry about Metres’ 9/11 experience.

As a teenager I experienced wild fluctuations of emotion — great joy and great sadness. Falling in love, my grandfather’s death and traveling to a wonderful place, Chichén Itzá in Mexico — those three things were pivotal moments for me where I had extreme feeling, radical encounters with beauty, death, love. I just felt like I needed to do something with those feelings. Putting words together seemed to be the way to do it for myself. 

One of the things that is really clear to me is that poetry, for me, is a technology of investigation, and potentially a testimony of keen observation. Keen observation, particularly when you’re considering some of the experiences in “Sand Opera,” is necessarily political. 

Some poetry is more political than others. Every poem has a political context, a political dimension and is connected to politics because politics is the realm of social organization, how people organize themselves into relationships of power and connection. Poetry, by virtue of being language that’s being shared, has to connect up with that [political realm]. Yet, some poetry explicitly seems to have a political purpose, while other poetry might not or its politics might be a little bit hidden. As a writer, you can do any of those things. It’s up to you and up to your work and up to how the work is received.

A cover of “Shrapnel Maps” by Philip Metres. “Shrapnel Maps” is Metres’ most recent collection of poems and was published by Copper Canyon in 2020.

I’ve been writing for almost 30 years. You want to catch up and see what people are writing now, and then you want to try to figure out how you fit into that or what you are doing that is distinctive. One way to find your distinctiveness is partly to go back to writers that have been less well-known and find your own tradition. That could be poetry, but it could also be other things: other arts, other legacies, other stories, other archives of wisdom and understanding. I love reading translations of the Hebrew songs, sometimes I recite prayers in three different languages. 

To me, there is a natural desire to want to see what’s being written right now, particularly by people around your generation. But when you are feeling suffocated by the contemporary and read something that’s 200 years old, or 500 years old, you will be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, yes. This is still a lot. This is still speaking to me.’

Sometimes [vulnerability in my poetry] happens almost accidentally. It’s not like I’m thinking, ‘I’m gonna write the bravest thing I can write.’ Instead, I’m in a mental and emotional place, writing where I’m receptive to accepting the secret thoughts that I might be thinking and just letting them appear on the page. 

A lot of people have read that line [about the post 9/11 experience], [“sometimes I’m afraid I’m carrying a bomb”] [from “Sand Operas”] and said that they resonated with it. It turns out that a lot of people have that feeling that they are afraid they are guilty, even though they are not guilty. 

I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m glad you know that I took that chance.’ I’m a total pacifist, but we always internalize the view of the dominant culture of us. Even if we were able to reject it, we also know that it has [held us], that we have to wrestle with that in order to let it go. I do not consider myself very brave. There are far braver people out there. But I’m glad I wrote those lines because they were true. I spoke them into the world. 

Before [“Sand Operas”], I do not think I had written any prose poems at all. [By writing those prose poems], I think I was trying to loosen my poetic voice instead of feeling constrained by line—to say more. As in that poem in the middle of the book [ “Sand Opera”] that goes “You look at me / looking at you. How close the words // creation and cremation,” I wanted to work on juxtapositions, and having these disjointed but also connected sentences was appealing to me and exciting. 

9/11 as I experienced it was deeply disjunctive, an international trauma. That is to say, there’s no simple linear narrative way of talking about it. Placing sentences next to each other that were disjunctive felt like a formal way of handling this very disjunctive experience.

There are tons of experimental poets who are doing this work, and I’m sure that I am influenced by them, poets like John Ashberry or some of the language school poets. But the subject [of talking about 9/11 in the way that “Sand Operas” addresses it] was mine. The other thing about the prose poems [in the middle of “Sand Operas”] is that they look like windows or mirrors in their physical square form on the page — I was thinking about that as well.

For me, I always feel more alive when I’m writing. I feel more connected to myself and the world when I write even if it takes me away from it, temporarily. Those are good things. Those are anchoring things for me, tethering things. [As advice, I would say] keep poetry in a place of personal adventure and enjoyment rather than something that will be a profession. We will not be writing just for no reason, but hopefully we don’t necessarily always know why we’re writing, we know only that there is a kind of insistence in language. Poems really do begin with playing.