Phillip Crymble

An interview

Gerard Beirne

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Although Phillip spent the early years of his life in Belfast, moving to Canada when he was eleven, and took a gap year in County Down in 1995 (a couple of years before I left for Canada), we didn’t meet in person until we both ended up living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. I moved there as Writer-in-Residence in 2008 and stayed on teaching part-time in the English Department. Phillip arrived in 2010 and began his PhD at UNB a few years later. Poetry being the curious business it is, however, we had encountered one another on the pages of Poetry Ireland Review in (our own gap year so to speak) 2009 - alongside, coincidentally, the then current writer-in-residence at UNB, Patricia Young! Eventually of course we met up in person and many times thereafter: corridors, offices, readings, parties, festivals, as fellow editors at The Fiddlehead magazine, bookshops, corner stores. A pleasure therefore to interview here this very fine poet and, apparently, “Honest Ulsterman”.

Gerard Beirne: First off, Phillip, let me congratulate you on the wonderful success of your recent collection of poetry  – nominated for both the New Brunswick Book Award for Poetry and the J.M. Abraham Poetry Award in Atlantic Canada. A tremendous achievement.

Although living in Canada, you have published widely in Ireland and indeed have a strong Belfast connection, can you tell me more about that?

Phillip Crymble: Thanks so much Gerry. And many congratulations on your own recent nomination for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Receiving recognition here in the Maritime provinces means a lot, as I’ve come to think of the region (Fredericton, in particular) as an adoptive home. And the fact that Not Even Laughter was a finalist for both The New Brunswick Book Award and the Abraham has really made me feel welcomed.

I feel very connected to Belfast, as my family are of French Huguenot descent, and have lived in Ulster since the time it was a plantation. My granda was a tenter at Ewart’s, where he met my granny, who operated a loom. My uncles were skilled tradesmen who cut their teeth at Mackie’s foundry, and my father apprenticed as an electrician in the merchant navy. We moved to Canada when I was eleven and settled in Milton, Ontario, but I always feel the pull to return to Ireland, and have travelled back many times. In 1995 I spent a gap year between university degrees living on The Parade in Donaghadee where I first attempted writing poems, and in 1999 my wife and I spent our honeymoon in County Kerry.

Despite my recent success in the Canadian market, it was always important to me that I debut as an Ulster poet, which is why I worked so diligently to have my poems published in Irish and UK literary journals from the start. In 2007, after years of hard graft, I was invited to Dublin to participate in the Poetry Ireland Introductions series, an event that coincided with the publication of my Lapwing chapbook Wide Boy. Since then, I have continued to send work to magazines and journals in the UK and Ireland, and I’ve even managed to place my poems in some of the bigger ones like Poetry Ireland Review, Magma, and The North. I also had a poem included in the 2013 Salt Anthology of New Writing and just recently, “Onions,” from Not Even Laughter, was selected to appear in The Forward Book of Poetry 2017.

GB: Apart from Ireland, you have lived quite a nomadic life, based now in the Maritimes but having lived in Ontario, Michigan and Zambia – what role does place play in your writing and how does it impact upon the notion of identity?

PC: In her analysis of my poem “Brogue” in Sabotage Review, Claire Trévien remarked that the sentences “build up into an intriguing exploration of language and identity for today’s third culture kid.” According to The International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Third Culture Kids, or TCKs “are particularly adept at building relationships with other cultures while not possessing a cultural identity of their own,” and this description, in many ways, typifies my life experience.

Born in Belfast in the late 60s and raised both there and in nearby Antrim during the paramilitary escalation of the 70s, I consider myself, first and foremost, an Ulsterman, despite the fact that I present and identify as Canadian. When I was a boy, we moved to Zambia for two years, as my father had hired on for work as an electrical foreman in a copper mine there. The country had just won independence the year before, and during this early period of Zambian self-rule there was a substantial amount of racial unrest, owing, in large part, to a continued sense of entitlement on the part of white settlers. No stranger to tribal animosities, I adapted fairly quickly to the new normal, but the social and cultural turbulence aside, what I remember most from my time in Africa is the outsized flora and fauna, the personal relationships I was able to form, and the adventures we had as boys exploring the wild. After Zambia, we returned to Northern Ireland for a year before moving to Canada where my father’s two brothers were living, and my guess is that the increase in sectarian violence had more than a little to do with it. 

Between the ages of 6 to 13 I lived in three different countries and attended a different school every year, but once I reached high-school my life began to stabilize, and I remained in Southern Ontario for nearly twenty years, earning bachelors degrees at both McMaster University and York. In 1999 I married my high-school sweetheart in Toronto and set off for the United States to study towards an MFA, first at Purdue in Indiana, and then at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where we lived for ten years before moving to Fredericton.

Because of my nomadic life, my writing is often concerned with Nostos, or a longing for home. “Trees and Weeds,” the poem that opens my collection, begins with the line “How we long for known surroundings, nostalgia’s equal mix of home and pain,” and this dualism preoccupies House Reel, the opening section of the book. Travelogue, the second section, also wrestles with notions of place, but does so from the perspective of a returning expatriate, which allows for unusual complications to arise, particularly when it comes to notions of gaze, indigeneity, and our claims to cultural identity.

GB: Another Philip (Larkin) who lived in Belfast (5 years as sub-librarian at Queens University) described his writing conditions there as being the best he ever had – a top floor flat, writing between eight and ten at night, then off to the University bar for an hour or so, then cards and conversation until one or two in the morning. During the writing part, he said he had the second part of the night to look forward to and could enjoy that part with a clear conscience because he’d done his work. What is your current writing routine like and what was the best routine you had?

PC: Interesting that you mention Larkin here Gerry, as he’s featured in the preamble of the HU’s Blueprint, and is also the English poet of his generation I admire most. His simile from “This Be the Verse”: “man hands on misery to man/it deepens like a coastal shelf” is masterful, and, to me, is one of the most powerful and resonant examples of figurative language ever recorded.

I, too, function best when using work/reward scenarios like Larkin’s, and I also find that short stints of between two to three hours per day at the writing desk are optimal (as I remember it, Dylan Thomas had a similar routine, though he preferred writing in the mornings, and liked to take a drink – as my granny used to say – once the sun was over the yardarm).

During the summer months between the first and second year of my MFA at Michigan I wrote in the evenings, and sometimes into the night. This period was one of my most productive, though I wrote what I consider to be some of my finest poems during the five years I was employed as a Lecturer at Michigan following the completion of my degree. Teaching a three-three load didn’t leave much time for writing during the school year, but every summer I buckled down, spending most mornings and early afternoons in the roof-space garret of our little rented house working away.

Over the last two years the poems have come more slowly, as the academic demands of PhD course work, comprehensive exams, grant applications and RA assignments consumed a great deal of my time. But now that I’ve reached candidacy and won a SSHRC doctoral fellowship I’ll be able to spend the next two full years writing my dissertation in the afternoons, and working on a new book of poems in the mornings without being distracted by other commitments.

GB: Where did your love, or appreciation at least(!) of poetry come from? Did you have a “literary awakening”?

In this regard, who would you consider your literary descendants and what place do you see yourself having in the poetry continuum?

PC: My mother is an avid reader, and she taught me to read before I started P1 as a four year old, so that’s where my journey began. Bea Woolsey, who led the English Literature seminar I was enrolled in during the last semester of my final year of high-school, inspired me to focus on literary study in university, and it was in her class that I was first introduced to Dylan Thomas, who I consider to be an important early influence.

I took several classes with the Canadian poet Jeffery Donaldson towards the end of my first undergraduate degree at McMaster, and his interest in metrics, and focus on close reading helped me appreciate the mechanics and nuances of the art form. But it was while working towards my MFA that I did my most important and formative learning.

My wife was set on doing her postgraduate studies at the University of Michigan, but I somehow managed to persuade her to postpone her plans so I could enroll in the MFA program at Purdue for one year to learn from Marianne Boruch. Recently awarded a $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Marianne was definitely flying under the poetry radar back in the late 90s, but I’d read her poems, as well Poetry’s Old Air (her astonishing book of essays on the craft of poetry) and was determined to begin my apprentice work in earnest under her guidance. Marianne had studied under the surrealist James Tate at UMass-Amherst, and she was also fond of Richard Hugo, the Washington poet, especially his short collection of essays The Triggering Town. We read and talked about that book at length in her craft class. Without question, I learned more about writing poetry in the single year I studied with Marianne than I have done in all the years since, and the aw shucks quirkiness of her magical realist sensibilities, the relative leaps she was so fond of in Hugo, and her devotion to Weldon Kees have had a lasting impression.

Despite the fact that the University of Michigan’s writing program was, and is, one of the most pedigreed in the nation, it was my second choice. That said, I had entered into a lively correspondence with Richard Tillinghast around the same time I first got in touch with Marianne, and I knew I could learn a lot from him. I was initially drawn to Richard because of his connection to Ireland, and his affiliation with The Poets’ House back when it was at Islandmagee. He had also studied under Robert Lowell in the 60s. I have long-admired Lowell, especially his mid-career collection For the Union Dead, and Richard’s work had a similar sincerity and deceptively plain-spoken style which really appealed to me. That he knew Seamus Heaney and had worked alongside him at Berkeley and Harvard didn’t hurt either, as I was awed by the poems of my fellow Ulsterman, and felt that working under Richard would deepen my appreciation of his work, which it did. A laconic and slow-talking southerner from Tennessee, more than anything else, Richard taught me how to take my time. In his seminar on metrics we wrote and discussed new forms poems every week, and it was then that I first learned the finer points of English prosody and how to scan a poem. I also credit Richard for cultivating my deliberate reading style, which, I’m proud to say, is modeled on his own.

GB: As a doctoral candidate in Literature, you are studying early 21st century American poetry. What impact do you think this has had upon your own poetry?

PC: More than anything else, my studies have helped me understand where I fit in the continuum you mentioned above. Robert Lowell, Tillinghast’s mentor, was firstly an Agrarian, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, as he studied under John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College. Eventually, the academic conservatism of the New Critical approach became too stifling for Lowell, and he turned his back on the movement, then went on to form what later became known as the confessional school. Richard passed a number of the New Critical sensibilities he adopted from Lowell on to me, along with an approach to confessionalism that was decidedly less volatile.

James Tate, like Lowell, received critical acclaim as a young man, and though his early poems owed much to the examples of Stevens and Williams, the French symbolists and surrealists had the greatest influence on his mature work. Marianne Boruch was raised in a devout Catholic household in Chicago, and her immersion in the culture and rituals of the church inform who she is as a writer every bit as much as the surrealist impulses she adopted from Tate. Much in the same way that Tillinghast internalized and subsequently softened or refined Lowell’s approach, Boruch, too, took what she had learned from her mentor and created a writing style all her own by focusing less on the absurd and more on moments of hyper-realized lyric intensity that rise to the surface of ordinary experiences. Many of my best poems do the same. 

While my impulses and sensibilities as a writer owe much to my teachers, the students in my MFA cohort at Michigan also had a substantial influence on my development. As a Canadian, I had been reared on Al Purdy. I was also a fan of Charles Bukowski and his earthiness and irreverence. My colleagues probably thought that I had just been released from a time-capsule, as they were writing poems that relied on fracture, dissolve, arcane parataxis, and a knowing awareness of the materiality of language. According to Stephen Burt, this ‘elliptical’ approach to poetry composition was something that typified the ‘house-style’ at Michigan when I was there, which makes sense, as Thylias Moss and Alice Fulton were both teaching in the program at the time. I was one of the few students who had come to work specifically with Tillinghast, who was generally seen as a sort of benign paterfamilias and a hippy throwback.

Poets like Nadine Maestas, Darcie Dennigan, Jaswinder Bolina, and Ryan Flaherty helped me rethink my own writing practices, and I went on to incorporate telegraphy, non sequitur, and a sense of linguistic playfulness into my work that made it more contemporary. My doctoral dissertation is an attempt to understand and decipher the “post-avant” writing that was being done at that time from an insider’s perspective. It’s also a cultural study that looks at appropriation, co-optation, and the rise of inclusivity in the late 90s by examining Third Way politics and how the optics of Clintonism helped shape youth-culture attitudes and arts practices.

GB: In contrast to the academic influences, domesticity clearly plays an important part in your writing. In what way, do you think, can the specifics of private life or the ordinary experiences of the home empower individual expression?

PC: Much like the way that repeating a word or phrase over and over again makes it sound like nonsense or gibberish, I have found that if you worry a seemingly ordinary object, situation, or circumstance for long enough it will eventually reveal its secrets. I’m often reminded of Proust while writing, and the iconic cup of tea containing soaked morsels of petites madeleines in Swann’s Way. For the narrator, the sense experience of drinking that tea triggers an involuntary memory that creates a gateway to the past, and leaving myself open to the unexpected in my day to day life, I feel, serves a similar purpose, as it’s impossible to determine where the next appropriate or necessary subject for a poem might be hidden. 

I’ve also found that’s it’s equally important to be able to resist certain impulses, as it’s all too easy to be led down the garden path. In “South Side,” a poem from my Lapwing collection, I begin with the line “It’s more a matter of things to be refused,” and in the closing poem of Not Even Laughter (an elegy for my grandmother) I caution myself to “resist the weight/of rain. The pattern./Don’t go far away./Stay true.” In other words, what you say no to, in my view, is just as important as what you welcome into the world of a given poem.

So much of my writing is about detection or looking for answers and the necessary hard work involved in that process. Something that has always stayed with me from the time I first read it in Marianne Boruch’s craft seminar is Robert Frost’s credo that “it is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it is thought of first and saved to the last.” I think this resonated for me because my poems provide a means to work out the nuances of my own identity, and there are no short-cuts to genuine self-discovery. 

I received an equally important lesson from the American film-maker Paul Schrader. Schrader gave a talk on screenwriting when I was at Michigan, and he emphasized the importance of finding the right metaphor to express the feelings you want to communicate, as opposed to writing about those feelings directly. The example he gave concerned his original screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. In the early 70s, recently divorced and living out of his car, Schrader found the perfect answer to the loneliness and despair he was living through in the metaphor of the taxi cab, and the driver who constantly interacts with new people but lives in isolation, cut off from the world. For me, everyday household experience serves a similar purpose, as the close examination of domestic themes and objects allows me to explore and negotiate my third culture background in relationship to both the mundane and mythic aspects of an unobtainable homeplace.

GB: Finally, where next? Do you plan on staying put for a while, and in terms of your newer poetry, where is it off to?

PC: As it stands, I have nearly two full years of funding left to complete my dissertation, though I’ll be applying for a few tenure-track creative writing jobs this autumn as it makes good sense (considering how few positions there are in the marketplace) to stretch my job search over two years. Ideally, I’d prefer to stay in Canada, and, more specifically, the Maritimes. That said, the likelihood of a job opening up here is small, but you never know.

In the meantime, my poetry continues to evolve, and I have a short collection of new material that’s currently being considered for publication by a Canadian press. The last year has been a whirlwind of reading engagements, awards ceremonies, and travel, but now it’s time to get down to work again, and I have to say, I’m really looking forward to it.