An Interview with Philip Raisor

by Mack Curry

Philip Raisor is the author of five books of poetry, nonfiction and criticism, and has been published numerous times in such journals asThe Southern Review, The Sewanee Review, Prairie Schooner, The Writer’s Chronicle, Studies in English Literature, and Contemporary Literature. Raisor is professor emeritus of English at ODU, where he initiated the Creative Writing Program, a visiting writers series, and the annual Literary Festival.

Mack Curry: Based on your newest collection, Headhunting and Other Sports Poems, do you think that there is a connection between sports and religion and/or sports and spirituality? If so, what do you think that connection is?

Philip Raisor: Oh, sure, I see a lot of players point to heaven before they take a foul shot or after they hit a home run; they gather in prayer circles on the field when another player has been injured. I even hear sports heroes claim that their whole career is founded on their religious upbringing. Debates over sports events on Sunday, the shared language, or whether sports is replacing religion in the world’s psyche keep the connection alive. But I, myself, wouldn’t foster the analogy. If the end of religion is personal salvation, the best sports can do is the Hall of Fame. Or conversely, if religion is speculative, losing (or winning) a game is fact. I would rather consider the two enterprises separately, just as I would the experiences of war and sports, which so many people connect. Getting a shattered lateral cartilage on a fast break is not the same as losing a leg in Anbar Province (nor does it belong in the same conversation).

But I suppose you could say that sports and religion and war and poetry all seek to break out of the self into a community of like spirits. In Headhunting, with Coach Phil Jackson’s Zen Buddhism partly in mind, I write a poem, “The Dharma Game,” about the attitude a player might take when winning and losing are the only parameters one can find: “Just pass. Say it: just pass.” In “The Street of Heavens” I imagine an eternal life of sports in open fields or stadiums or rivers rather than playing a harp on a cloud. Both poems are tongue-in-cheek. Yes, they say something about life-attitudes and unfettered imagination, but I don’t see them as alternatives to present paradigms. What they do try to do is find common ground in life, mind, or spirit with others who would break through an unendurable isolation and malaise.

MC: What was your initial motivation for writing poetry?

PR: Class assignment when I was nine. After that, in college, I began writing poetry as an act of rebellion. I was a jock, stereotyped, and I didn’t know any other basketball players who wrote poetry. I also didn’t know any poets who played basketball. I would cart around my literature textbooks and poetry and feel like Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as a bit of an outsider. It was a role I played for awhile, Jock/Poet.

But I had to go through a long apprenticeship as student and teacher before I really got serious about my own poetry. As I was getting my degrees, I think there were a few creative writing courses and a graduate program or two, but mainly English majors were taught to be teachers/scholars. I loved to read and write about Browning’s and Eliot’s dramatic monologues rather than write them. But here at ODU in the late 1970s, we started to build a community of writers, scholars, teachers, students, programs, and arts organizations that heightened the dialogue about creative writing, and I found myself joining the fray. I had treated literature as something to be examined. Now, I saw it, for me personally, as something to be created. My first three poems were published in The Southern Review, and I was off and running.

MC: What is your current motivation for writing poetry?

PR: Over the years, I have written personal essays, memoir, fiction, criticism, reviews, scholarly articles, interviews, and poetry. I would say the one constant is a narrative and analytical voice that may vary in range and intonation, but approaches each subject as a story to understand and tell. I’m not given to lyrical outbursts. I don’t know why. I love to laugh and feel emotion deeply. But give me a pen (or computer) and I want to dive into someone else’s experience. I was forty years removed from myself when I wrote Outside Shooter: A Memoir, and I wrote about that period with the same distancing mechanism I use in other forms.

Today, I find that the compression necessary in poetry fits my, shall we say, diminishing energies. Or maybe it’s because I have a passion these days to make clear and authentic the experience I write about. Strangely enough, I spent much of my life studying the complexities of high modernism and I see its fragmentation, disjunction, aimlessness, impersonality continuing into contemporary literature. What can I say? I’m bored with the technique of disruption and disconnectedness, where the only dance is that of language and metaphor, where the experience goes nowhere. Those devices are hardly new.

MC: What are some writers you look up to?

PR: My experience with writers and influence, at my stage and age, is probably not unusual. I have been reading literature seriously since I was a teenager, and after early favorites (Homer, Dickinson, Crane, Hemingway, Frost) and in-depth study of some (Joyce, Faulkner, Pound, war novels, new criticism, Snodgrass) I have learned that gods-aplenty abound. Early on, I wrote (not just imitated) whole chapters of Samuel Johnson, Zola, Fitzgerald so I could feel their rhythms. I recited in the shower (I couldn’t sing) poems of Blake and Yeats, awash in their bursts of imagination. I read tons of sports stories, but poets writing about sports eluded me or doused me with “Casey at the Bat.” Many subjects that poets wrote about didn’t interest me. The 1960s opened the vault to new subjects and poets who treated them dangerously. I was a graduate student teaching at Kent State, marching, yelling, reciting (or listening to others) when I realized how powerful poetry was and could be as an intellectual and social force.

MC: As a writer whose career spans over half a century, what advice do you have for any up and coming writers?

PR: Read. Don’t look at your mind as a sponge that simply absorbs experiences you have (you’ll end up as a confessional poet throwing rocks at yesterday’s train); see your mind on a safari you said you’d never take. Go with writers who are both compatible and incompatible with where you think your mind is: you like Phillis Wheatly, take along Simone de Beauvoir as well. Stick both Rilke and Octavio Paz in your back pockets. Read Jorie Graham and B.H. Fairchild with your latté. Up and coming writers should not assume they are on a straight line to their voice. The territory ahead is a vast plain full of surprises if you don’t just stay on the same path. Explore, for heaven’s sake, explore. Maybe you’ll find yourself somewhere down the line.

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Mack Curry IV is from Bowie, Maryland. He graduated from Hampton University in 2013 with a B.A. in English. Currently, Mack is a second-year MFA student in poetry at ODU, and he works as a Teacher Assistant at New Horizons Regional Education Centers in Newport News, VA.