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The Sky as a Body of Water: Q&A with Daye Phillippo

We recently spoke with poet Daye Phillippo about her debut Slant poetry collection, Thunderhead

First, what’s the background of your book’s title, Thunderhead?

The title is also the title of one of the longer poems in the book. Here in the landlocked Midwest, the sky is the body of water most visible to me. I watch it the way I imagine people who live on the coasts watch the sea. We get some prodigious thunderstorms here, and where our farmhouse is located—with acres and acres of farm fields to the west—we can watch thunderheads build and roll in for miles. Thunderstorms are like inspiration; we can keep an eye out for them, but we can’t control their force or when they’ll show up. The particular storm I wrote about in the poem “Thunderhead” was breathtaking….

Would you describe for me the process of writing this book?

The poems in this book were written and revised over a period of fifteen years or so, some before my undergrad years at Purdue, some during, some while attending grad school at Warren Wilson, and some since then. I like to say that I’ve lived my life backward, first raising a family, then going to college to study creative writing. In a way, you might say that all those years of reading to and with our children (we homeschooled for 20+ years) were part of the process of writing this book, too.

So poetry is something you came to later in life?

Oh, I’ve always loved poetry, reading it and writing it. Robert Frost’s collected works has been on my nightstand since I was a teenager. It’s a bit embarrassing, but my favorite poems from back then are starred or underlined in green felt-tip marker. My first published poem appeared in American Girl magazine in April 1973 when I was fifteen. I’d entered a contest. They sent me a check for $5.00. So exciting!

It must have been! Now, let’s talk about the writing process itself a bit more. Poets have reported various triggers for poems—sounds, scents, etc. What triggers a poem for you?

For me, a poem almost always begins with an image, something that catches my eye—a weird tree, a hawk swooping low across the hood of my car, something out of the ordinary. I jot it in an image journal, or just bring the image straight to a notebook or to the computer, and begin describing. It’s by getting as deeply and accurately as possible into an image through description that other things begin to open up for me, discoveries are made, and things I had no idea I’d be writing about begin to show up.  That doesn’t always happen, of course, but it’s like a thunderhead rolling in when it does. It’s what keeps me coming back.

For instance, with my poem “Fledgling,” I was weeding in the garden one day when I noticed a robin fledging on the ground by a tomato cage and I realized that that little bird was out of its nest, maybe for the first time, learning to fly. What an exciting time, the beginning of everything new for this little bird.

I left my weeding and came in the house to begin describing what I’d just seen. Suddenly I found myself writing about something that had happened to me way back when I was at what could be called the “fledgling stage” of my own life. I’d had no idea the poem would turn that way when I first started writing. I was just trying to document the cool experience of seeing that little speckled fledgling up close.

Personal discovery is part of it for you, then. Anything else?

Oh, yes! Let me quote Thomas Merton here since I believe he explained this part of the writing process for a person of faith in such a beautiful way:

“The earliest [church] fathers knew that all things, as such, are symbolic by their very being and nature, and all talk of something beyond themselves. Their meaning is not something we impose upon them, but a mystery which we can discover in them, if we have the eyes to look with.” (Selected Poems of Thomas Merton)

Isn’t that lovely? That’s my prayer now—Lord, give me the eyes to look with!

During undergrad at Purdue, I took dendrology (the study of trees), tree physiology, and several urban forestry classes. When people asked why, as a creative writer, I wanted to study trees, I told them that I studied trees not only in the hope of writing better poems, but also in hope of better understanding the mind of their Creator. As a person of faith, spiritual insight is something I’m hoping for every time I write.

You mention faith as being integral to your process. Tell me more about the influences that have shaped you as a writer.

In childhood, my parents. I grew up in a blue-collar household that was filled with books and music. We went to the Wells Public Library in downtown Lafayette every week, and our mother read to my brother and me in the evenings—Aesop’s Fables, Little Golden Books, and those Best In Children’s Books volumes that contain a bit of everything—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Our father told us fanciful bedtime stories that he made up as he went along. Words were everywhere! So was music. And we went to church every week, so I’ve always had a sense of God’s presence. My mother loved birds and wildflowers, and we often hiked as a family in Indiana State Parks. The minute we’d arrive at a state park, my father would swing open the car door, stand up and take a deep breath. “Just smell all that good oxygen!” he’d say, looking around appreciatively at the trees.

And more recent influences?

My undergrad poetry professor, Marianne Boruch, introduced me to the poetry of Li-Young Lee, Jane Kenyon, Tom Andrews, and many others. Her enthusiasm for poetry and life in general is electric. And she believed in me and the work I was doing, and urged me to continue my poetry studies in grad school, something I hadn’t allowed myself to dream of doing. My poetry instructors Daniel Tobin, Donald Platt, Matthew Lippman, and others too many to mention, have also influenced my work, as have my dear fellow poets from grad school, Susan Okie and Cheney Crow, and my poet friends, Terry Minchow-Proffit and Bonnie Naradzay. No one writes alone, really. It’s a community. I’m blessed to have such good people, such gifted and generous poets in my life.

Other than the thrill of the creative process, is there a poetry-related moment that’s been especially meaningful to you?

Several things come to mind, but I’ll tell you about this one. During undergrad, my Purdue literary award-winning poem, “Bread” was published in the school newspaper, The Exponent, where it was read by the head of psychological services at the university. She sent me a congratulatory email at the time, telling me what the poem had meant to her. It turns out, she held onto that poem, and years later passed it along to a friend along with Wendell Berry’s wonderful poem “The Peace of Wild Things” to comfort her friend after the loss of her husband. Unbeknownst to her, that friend of hers was also a friend of mine, who emailed to tell me the story and thank me for the poem. The way that poem circled around after going out on its own. . . . Cold chills! It was, of course, a blessing to have my work in the company of Wendell Berry’s, but more importantly, what a blessing it was to learn that something I’d written to comfort myself in what I was going through at the time, had been a comfort to someone else going through something entirely different. It felt like a way of ministering, a way of “weeping with those who weep.” It felt like community.