Interview with Phil Estes

Interview Tuesdays:  On Tuesdays, we will post short interviews with Sonora Review contributors or just friends of the journal.  Please use the comment section to respond to the interviews and suggest more people or subjects.

(Photo by Greg Lamer)

Phil Estes’ poems have appeared, or will be forthcoming in: DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Lamination Colony, The Lifted Brow, Redivider, Willow Springs, and others.  His chapbook Gem City/Fountain City is available through Rabbit Catastrophe Press.  He lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Lewis DeJong:  The idea of film or cinema emerges in a lot of your poems.  One of your characters writes movies capsules for a living.  Or in a couple of poems, your characters seem to reenact scenes from movies.   How did this come about?

PE:  Some of the first poetry I read and fell for was informed by film and in a way I thought about film.  At the time, I always thought poetry and film were in perpetual opposition:  Poetry as this way to talk to God or this thing to read in an ascot; film is this sort of nasty thing you watch in lieu of doing something else. I tend to think about film a lot and sometimes I recognize an emotion from watching a film I cannot experience, or I’ve seen a way to communicate an emotion–love, anger–that I want to communicate but cannot.  Sometimes I assume other people feel this way.

I also liked how movie capsule reviews look.  They look like little prose poems and sometimes they are so incomprehensible, because of the space considerations for them to fit in a movie guide or on a tv screen, that they read super weird.  If you’ve ever read the capsule reviews in The Video Movie Guide, by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, they will sometimes write “don’t bother” or “gratuitous” for a review.  I think they wrote about Porky’s 3: “The Porky’s gang is back and takes on the Ku Klux Klan.  Don’t bother.  Rated R for gratuitous nudity, simulated sex.”

LDJ:  Do you see poetry and film as similar?  How?

PE:  I think what attracted me to poetry are the same things that attracted me to film: both forms can shed narrative and hit a viewer or reader.  They both have their own grammar–to use Dick Cavett’s term when he described Jean Luc Godard’s work.

Like in question one:  I feel like poetry and film aren’t reports or demonstrations of a reality and whatever narrative exists in these poems or films doesn’t matter–like everything that happens in the film up until a scene or image is erased.  I feel like a film that pulls off details but has a shitty plot is better than a tightly plotted film with a lot of clean shots or scenes.  That probably sounds obvious.

LDJ:  Do you see poetry as similar to other art forms? Like, let’s say Sculpture?  Or Scrapbooking?  Or Polka music?

PE: I never knew much about painting but my friend Haesong loves abstract expressionists, which lead to look me to Basquiat and Pollock.  I think one can make the connection between poets and abstract art.  There is a certain intuitiveness when writing a poem that seems to happen in painting; the difference being language and color.  Ed Harris is a terrible gauge, from the movie, but I feel like I also sit around a lot, and drink, and then write “really quickly.”  The big part is the sitting around a lot and thinking.

LDJ:  What do you think of people’s need draw comparisons between forms?

PE: I think this is a bad thing, mostly.  Sometimes I’ve read poems “informed by film”–or other art forms–that just describe a film or provide a summary of another art form.  This is not fair to poetry or the form.  This, I think, is why pop culture in lit gets a bad rap sometimes.  When people plunk the Beatles, Andy Warhol, or Thor (Marvel Comics, not the Norse God) into their poems they’re doing it for a reason I don’t understand and I don’t think is necessary–like to show that these other forms “matter,” or to show they are “hip” or “with it.”  They don’t really think about the intersection points of forms.

Film, in particular, gets ghettoized.  If film appears in a poem it’s usually something from the Criterion Collection, something classic Hollywood, or something that must be indicted–Michael Bay or Mel Gibson moves.  I don’t think certain “real” qualities of film get treated as well in poetry as certain “real” qualities of poetry get treated in film.  Film can be as chopped up and as nonlinear as poetry can be and vice versa.

LDJ: What movies have you seen lately?

PE: I watched my first mumble-core movie a couple of weeks ago: The GoodTimesKid. I don’t think anyone in the film, that I know of, has appeared elsewhere. I don’t know much about the mumble-core enterprise but, from how it has been explained to me, seems to reflect Stephen Burt’s “new thing” essay on Poetry. The characters never explain themselves of their emotions; there is very little backstory.  Narrative does not drive The GoodTimesKid:  the characters move quietly and stare at each other a lot.  What is said is stilted and inarticulate.  But what happens in the film’s silences works not unlike white-space in a poem.  It creates the resonance and works inside the viewer or reader.

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