Rowan Ricardo Phillips talks poetry and the importance of knowing your roots

On Friday, January 11th, Key West High School (KWHS) English classes were lucky enough to hear from an esteemed poet,  Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Phillips took time away from the Key West Literary Seminar to speak to over 100 students. All week students had read and familiarized themselves with his works and were excited to finally meet the man behind the poetry.

Photo by Carly Neilson
After Phillips’ talk, students lined up to speak to him and get their copies of “The Ground” signed

Phillips took the stage as an equal, wishing to share wisdom with the teens who sat before him. He ditched the stool and microphone and sat at the edge of the stage, ready to connect with the students. He spoke on the importance of “place” and knowing where you came from. He quoted Ralph Ellis saying, “geography is fate” and that where you grew up and the community you grew up in influences every aspect of your life.

“I think it is important for an artist to have a sense of where he or she is from and kind of have a sense of the writer’s who have gone to your high schools, the writers who have emerged from Key West, where you’ve grown up” explained Phillips.

Phillips himself is from New York and often writes about the city; many of his works discuss the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His poem “Tonight” is about sharing the same space as so many unknown people and artists.

Phillips also discussed why he writes and how he defines his style – with no definition at all. Taking from the importance of the community you grew up in, he says that he writes to build his own sort of community. Whether it’s poetry or sports-writing Phillips writes to connect others. His sports writing focuses more on the artistry and the stories of the games rather than play-by-plays, and he has found that this form of sports-writing has attracted a group of like-minded sports fans.

“I’m happy for the way in which sports has kind of made me realize that with art and reading and poetry, you’re not identified by your title, ‘I write about basketball’ you’re identified by the communities that you foster. I love the way in which I’ve made unexpected connections and enriched communities,” said Phillips. He wants his style to constantly evolve and to attract people of similar interests in order to form these separate communities.  

Photo by Carly Neilson
Phillips signs his book of poems, “The Ground” for a student after his presentation.

At the end of his panel, Phillips left the high-schoolers with words of wisdom. First, being how to combat writer’s block.

“You don’t know what to write about? Where were you born? Go there. Write about it. Write something about your mom, for better or for worse and also if you’re blocked, translate something,” said Phillips. He has embraced translation as a means to bridge the gap between different countries and cultures.  Phillips explained, that you don’t have to be fluent in another language to start translating it. He described translating as “the intent to understand language in a different way.” By doing this, the world will come closer to being united and connected. Phillips expressed the strong faith he has in the teen generation to be the ones to finally achieve this.

His closing words for the upperclassmen in the room were to “keep high school in the rearview mirror”. He explained that as students, we should fill our “tool-box” with as much as possible, whether it be art, literature, biology, or cheering. By doing this students will widen their base and build a strong foundation for their future. His words resonated throughout the focused auditorium and he left an air of hope and excitement for the students as they envisioned their futures.

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