An Interview with Phill Provance (Poetry '19)

Dee: In your commentary on “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches” on, you tell the readers that you “wanted to create plurative meaning” in the poem and that the “Modernist playfulness is largely the result of [your] close readings of [the] father of Modernism, James Joyce.” This was over seven years ago. Do your studies of Joyce continue to play a substantial role in the creation of your poetry?

Phill: In a lot of ways, yes. For instance, “The Stenographers Union,” which is more recent, is one of those sorts of pieces like “St. Petersburg” that I intentionally wrote from an intellectual place (more on this below), and even more heartfelt pieces, like my “Hours,” tend to play intellectual games wherever I can find room for them or a lucky opportunity. With “Hours,” specifically, the second line of the second strophe reads, “succor for the good sex,” which on the page means something like “(one) who gives respite (or comfort) from/to the good sex,” and depending on how you want to read “good sex,” that means either protection from the effects of venial sin or that the obviously male speaker is being sexist (or maybe, then again, it’s me satirizing sexism). But aloud it’s a pretty obvious pun, sounding like “sucker for the good sex,” the sort of word play you’d find in Spoken Word poetry or song lyrics and, yes, in later Joyce. This is nice and feels strong because the poem is presented in text primarily, not spoken, so it's far subtler than if it were intended primarily to be heard. Reading it aloud is an extra step, so the superficial, browsing reader simply won’t get it, but the close reader will, and that’s really what I feel Joyce was going for with his later works—excluding his children’s book about cats. In my opinion, what Joyce was aimed at in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake was forcing the reader to do some of the work in creating the text. Luckily, the Modernists all laid the ground work for establishing that kind of reading approach, so today you don’t have to make a piece so much about familiarizing the reader with that and can instead make such things fly under the radar more, like Easter Eggs in a video game.

Anyhow, the point, really, is to create ambiguity, give the reader room to make up her own mind as to whom this speaker is and what he’s praying about and to create room for multiple, even uncontrolled and uncontrollable, readings because that’s the way language moves in my opinion: everything is context and tone at the heart of it. You can say the exact same sentence to five different people on five different days, and each time it will mean something different. So that gives the reader an in, a way of participating in the writing process with me, rather than my strictly controlling the way she sees it, and that appeals to me. And then, of course, in the same poem you’ve got another Easter Egg in the third strophe when the speaker is rattling off names of famous historical and pop-cultural heroines he wants his divorce attorney to channel in the courtroom, and those who know how to read accentual-syllabic verse will notice these two lines break from the free verse of the rest of the poem into a heroic couplet ending in a feminine rhyme of “Athena” and “Zena.” In other words, it’s a feminine-rhymed heroic couplet about heroines, which is a self-conscious game I’m playing and will, I hope, drive the reader who thinks I mean for the speaker to say “good sex” to mean “men” unironically (or, alternatively, that I am unironically having my speaker mean “men” by “good sex”) to reassess her interpretation(s) or at least to see the other possible meanings and a human complexity there in a poem that is a lot about a man's relationships with women, himself and his child. The last thing I want to be in such a poem, if I want to be honest, is pat or simplistic, and so I feel that sort of Joycean refraction on the tertiary level and depth is necessary for the complicated, heartfelt moments, even if on a second reading the reader only takes it as a sneaky joke. I hope, in short, my ideal reader will see that no poet who spends the time it takes to bury a heroic couplet with a feminine rhyme consisting of two lines listing heroines within a free-verse poem actually feels any ill-will toward any woman and reflects on what that might mean about a speaker seemingly very close to said poet and what the true subtext of the seedier lines is.


D: Your poem, “The Stenographers Union” was selected as a finalist for the Crab Creek Review Prize. In your comments about the poem, you describe it as a “montage within the rhetorical framework of an intimate admonishment,” stating that the goal was for the reader to “construct meaning from it as if looking into a mirror, rather than having a controlled meaning dictated to her.” The final lines of that poem stand out to me: “But aren’t we the / generation of hard luck and broken parts; / don’t our iron crosses just float as well as / witches." Is this a statement of the emptiness of the burdens borne in the relationship for the speaker?

P: Now, Dee, how can I possibly answer that and still leave the poem open to constructive reading? What I will say is this: an “iron cross” is a German military medal, awarded to German servicemen between the Franco-Prussian War and WWII, and in the medieval period, trial by water entailed determining the accused to be a witch if she floated, innocent if she sank. Also, there’s a period there at the end, so maybe that final sentence is a rhetorical question, and there’s the syntactical placement of “just” indicating patronizing sarcasm, so maybe the speaker is belittling the addressee, and maybe what he/she means is double litotes: if the honor received for doing terrible things (as far as we’re concerned as English speakers) doesn’t float, it isn’t actually damnable, but if we’re saying that sarcastically, then perhaps it actually does float or at the very least still is damnable, despite sinking. Or, then again, maybe none of that’s right at all because your interpretation is starting to grow on me now that I consider it more. Or maybe I am still holding my real intentions close to my vest. I liked Diane Seuss’s interpretation that it was a religious poem, too. Anyhow, even though I could definitely share what I meant by it, I think that is ruining the reader’s fun of weeding through the mental gymnastics of it. After all, there’s writing to be read and writing to be re-read, and I hope “The Stenographers Union” is one of those I’ve written that falls into the latter category.


D: Your latest accomplishment that I’m aware of is having earned an Honorable Mention for the Ron Rash Award in Broad River Review for “Of Beauty & Things.” I was not able to find the poem on the web and read it, though I’m anxious to. Can you tell our readers a little about the poem and its inspiration?

P: Yeah, that was great news last winter; my first acceptance in an Appalachian journal came with a bang for sure, and I’ve followed that up since with an acceptance from the Heartland Review for my “Valediction on Zero: A Postscript,” which I’d submitted to their Joy Bayle Boone Prize. Thematically, both are tied as sort of epiphanies in an overarching storyline for the collection I’m working on as my thesis, A Plan in Case of Morning.

In terms of inspiration, “Of Beauty & Things” is a free-verse litany poem framed as a reaffirming prayer (as a counterbalance to the yearning prayer of “Hours”), and it came about when I was driving my son, Ledger, to the county fair out here in Illinois and thinking about the beauty in the commonplace ugliness and imperfection that is all real people really know. That, in turn, developed into a sort of whispered hope that these imperfect things can somehow be saved in some way, in what I hope is a mature appreciation for what we have, rather than the shiny, new-smelling perfections our culture tells us to desire—a prayer, in other words, that what our consumerism assures us is worthwhile, perfect and deserving of heaven isn’t the only thing that is deserving, in fact, but that the imperfect things we learn to truly love are worthy, too.

Of course, as my answers above show, I’m very interested in the interplay of form and content, as well as how nonce concepts lead to nonce forms, and free-verse litany isn’t exactly the most novel form. Still, what I meant to say with the poem seemed too sincere to feel right in something more souped-up; its simple, heartfelt message needed a simple, heartfelt form for Thomist coherence. And, anyhow,  simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy, by any means. In fact, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that without Mary Carroll-Hackett’s keen eye and impeccable advice, that one would still be doing its rounds in various slush piles. Free verse litanies, after all, are as popular and obvious a form as love is a theme, so doing one well enough that someone will take it, let alone take it as an honorable mention in a prize, is no small order. Novelty and fireworks like with “The Stenographers Union” are almost easier by comparison because experimentation in poetry can be a kind of crutch, a kind of mask for errors, the way CGI can cover over bad storytelling in many movies. Or, put another way, the experimental stuff is like sawing a lady in half, while more traditional forms are like card tricks: so much is going on in the former the audience doesn’t notice the errors amid the light show, while the real test of sleight of hand is creating an illusion with none of that but a simple pack of cards. Granted, I believe experimentation is crucial and essential to certain poems, and I love experimenting when it’s appropriate, but even with a few sawed ladies under my belt, I’m in many ways prouder to have pulled off a card trick, analogously, and still being a baby poet (or, maybe, a toddler poet?) I don’t think that would have been possible without Mary’s guidance.

Finally, as for finding “Of Beauty & Things,” for some reason the Broad River Review decided to keep my name “Phillip Provance,” on their winners’ list after I emailed to mention I use “Phill Provance,” so the announcement itself is hard to find, and I think the only way “me public” can read the poem is by ordering their prize issue. Likewise, I’m not sure if the Heartland Review is publishing “Valediction” online, so that might be a mail-away situation, too. Then, again, The Crab Creek Review recently put “The Stenographers Union” up after a year of its being paper based-only, so who knows. Once they’re out in the world, I just assume somebody somewhere is reading them and getting to them. I’m still holding out for emails from strangers who are readers, but those are few and far between for everyone who’s not a laureate, a Pulitzer winner or listed on the NYT best-seller or Oprah Book Club lists. Still, I will take this opportunity to ask that any strangers who have liked anything I’ve written to please message me on Facebook. Sure, that’s absurd of me, but if such people exist, I want to hear from them and make them my friends.


D: You have a non-fiction work coming from The History Press, as well a second poetry chapbook from Cy Gist in 2019. Your publications and prizes are almost too numerous to mention. What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment to date? What are you currently working on?

P: Sentimental and trite as it might sound, I have to put my son down as my number one accomplishment in life. Just to realize I made this little person and that every day I manage to do my part to make his life happy is more than I ever thought I was capable of, and beside that, anything I’ve written or might write is secondary—is perhaps only important to me for how it might someday give Ledger a way to understand and remember me. Fatherhood has definitely made me less certain of my relationship with my work because what it might give me in a connection to my little guy after I’m gone, it takes in time I can’t spend with him now, which brings a pain of its own. Luckily, I’ve built a life for us so far that allows me the financial wherewithal to afford all the needs and most of the wants without taking up my whole day so that I can write off my time writing as being the other four hours per day most parents would spend at work that I’m free to write. My only hope is he’ll understand someday that the time I could have spent with him was invested in writing to give him pieces of me when I can’t be there. And if my work achieves nothing else, I think whoever I am in the grand hereafter will be satisfied if it does that.

So, yeah, typical parent answer, but true nonetheless, because I really can’t point to a single accomplishment writing-wise and say, “This is the best thing.” I am, naturally, grateful for any recognition, because writing is so damned thankless, but I’m incapable of complacency. It’s just not in my DNA. And that means no matter what I do, where my work appears or who reads it, part of me is still like, “Well, it isn’t a Pulitzer,” or “It isn’t Poetry Magazine [the New Yorker, MAR, etc.].” Probably, much like a bit of autobiographical writing from a prominent poet Doug shared with me first semester, I will always think that way no matter what I accomplish, or wouldn’t life get boring? But, in terms of short-term goals, I guess the next steps after graduation are pretty straightforward: finishing the second chap for Cy Gist and several more popular histories that The History Press has expressed interest in, while applying to PhD programs and honing my first full-length poetry manuscript until I’m confident enough in it to enter it in some first-book contests. Then, I’d like to dabble with this novel thing I’ve started with Richard and have gotten to 15,000 words so far, with the hopes that with the 70,000-90,000 words my agent says I need for him to sell my monstrous foray into fiction, it will find a home somewhere. Beyond that, I really don’t have any plans or aspirations. Maybe just to keep striving to write that one thing someone might someday use as a text for an elective my son is forced to take so said prof. can embarrass him by mentioning I’m his dad. That’s the dream, right? Shoot for the moon, and all that.


D: You will soon graduate from West Virginia Wesleyan’s MFA program. How do you feel your writing has changed as a result of your studies?

P: Well, there’s the rule that if Semein Washington hums, Larry Thacker winks, and Aaron Morris and Andrew Raines break into spontaneous literary debate over a piece I’ve submitted to workshop, it might be a poem. And there’s the rule that one may not pass the second floor on Halloway Hall’s elevator without hearing The Thump—which I suspect to be one of Larry’s lost clowns.

But, seriously, there are really too many technical matters I’ve honed at WVWC to mention them all here, so as a broader summation, I will say that what has changed is I can now look at a broken piece more objectively, diagnose what its issues are and fix them, rather than having the niggling, irksome intuition something’s wrong and the frustration of having to abandon the piece because I can’t articulate for myself what the issue is. Moreover, I feel much freer with my work, freer to take chances and play because I have a better understanding of what other poets have done and how they’ve done it, so a better idea of what’s permissible, when and why, as well as what hasn’t been done. And that has led to more complete poems straight out of draft, as well as easier fixes in revision, and consequently, more finished work. In fact, at one point last summer, I even placed in a contest with a piece I wrote in one sitting on Facebook as several FB friends followed my revisions live and commented. I could have never done that sort of thing before. Not that I can do it every day yet either, mind you. But it’s still pretty exhilarating to do even once.

But, most importantly, I’ve definitely gained a community of people just as serious about writing as I am who take a genuine interest in my life and work like I do theirs. Yes, I’ve made some very good, long-term friends in poetry circles before my MFA, but I also made plenty of enemies, too, especially during my New York escapades in my twenties, and making enemies doesn’t feel good at all. I mean, there is always friction between some folks, and yes, on a few occasions I haven’t always been every fellow WVWC student’s (or professor’s) favorite person, I’m sure. But the difference, I suspect, is cultural: we’re predominantly an Appalachian program, and as I recall from boyhood, “blood is thicker …” in the mountains. In a sense, then, we become blood, siblings at WVWC more than we compete (as I’ve seen some NYC friends do with their fellow students in other programs), and having that is worth every penny of what is probably the lowest tuition in the country. In fact, coming out of WV Wesleyan, I really want to start a sort of alumni group in which we pair off to keep the semesters going and keep up a regimen similar to what we’ve done in school, not only to help each other continue improving our work and practice our pedagogical skills, but to keep our little writing family as close as we can hope to be as the program’s reach continues to grow. I’d really like to do this for each other, and I’m wondering if anyone would like to join me. If so, let’s hash it out this residency and get something together through Facebook.  

Phill.jpg (taken by Sheldon Walsmith).
Phill Provance is the author of two poetry chapbooks, The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky (Cy Gist, 2010) and Given to Sudden Laughter (forthcoming from Cy Gist, 2019), as well as the popular history, A Brief History of Woodbridge, New Jersey (forthcoming from The History Press, 2018). His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications, including The Baltimore Sun, The Crab Creek Review, decomP and many others. He has received various honors and awards, including being named a finalist for the 2017 Crab Creek Review Poetry Contest by judge Diane Seuss. An MFA candidate at WV Wesleyan, he lives in Woodstock, Illinois, where he and fellow poet Allison Eir Jenks co-parent the special-est little guy ever, their son, Ledger.