Welcome to the three hundred and thirty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with poet Phillip Ellis. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Phillip. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Phillip: I am an Australian poet, critic and blogger, and have been a netizen for over fifteen years. During that time I have been writing and getting published, both online and offline, and I’ve seen my world expand beyond the borders of my native Australia. As it happens, since I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and have been writing in one genre or another since childhood, this efflorescence has a natural and almost inevitable feeling about it.
Morgen: Netizen is a new word on me. Do you write poetry to form or as it comes? If to form, what are your favourites? Are some easier than others?
Phillip: I usually approach most poems as they come, since they dictate any form that comes. I occasionally write to form, and this year I have been writing metrical poems that lack rhyme, for the most part, especially for NaPoWriMo. In this case, I expect the most prevalent form is any variation on the sonnet, with blank verse sonnets high among them.
Morgen: I only found out about National Poetry Writing Month last year. I rarely write poetry but have done NaNoWriMo four times, Script Frenzy once and Story a Day (which is coming round again next month) once and love the discipline of a deadline. You mentioned your current work lacking rhyme, do you generally write rhyming or free verse?
Phillip: I write both free verse and rhyming verse, and I also write non-rhyming metrical verse (for example, blank verse, dactylic hexameters, et al.). I see the distinction less between free verse and rhyming verse; rather I see it as a complimentary set of options, including syllabic, accentual, syllabic-accentual, free verse, and all the extras that also occur.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Phillip: I have had over five hundred poems, and around two hundred prose pieces published in a variety of venues. The number keeps expanding: just today I have had two more poems accepted and published online in Bluepepper, a poetry blog that publishes a variety of poems by a variety of poets. As it happens, a small amount of the poems are published under a pseudonym.
Morgen: Wow, that’s some going. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Phillip: I have had thousands upon thousands of rejections, and even more silences. How do I deal with them? I accept them as par for the course; just because one poem gets rejected at a number of markets it doesn’t mean that the next won’t accept it.
Morgen: You’ve had so many accepted, it must make the rejections feel easier and as you say it just wasn’t write for that person. Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Phillip: I generally avoid competitions, though, generally because I find they tend to favour poems written expressly for the competition, whereas I concentrate on selecting from my range of writings what may suit (and sometimes challenge) a certain market. My nonfiction prose, however, is usually written with a specific market in mind, especially when it concerns book reviews.
Morgen: Do you go to poetry slams?
Phillip: I have yet to attend a poetry slam, but most often I attend a regular poetry reading, one that contains a lot of performance-based poetry.
Morgen: I’ve been to some (readings not slams) and always admire those who can recite their writing from memory. Even if I’ve written something myself, I can’t remember how it goes. With all you’ve had published, do you deal with publishers directly or do you have an editor / agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Phillip: I usually deal directly with publishers because I have yet to encounter an agent dealing with a poet not of international stature. Editors, however, are essential: when I gather a collection together I try to afford several rounds of editing, and am choosy about which editors to approach, given that they need to be able to be in synch with my range of poetic forms.
Morgen: That’s the thing about poetry, I find it deeper than short stories and it takes a poet to really understand another’s work (in my humble opinion). Are your books available as eBooks?
Phillip: I have had ebooks, and plan on releasing more when I can get time, but there’s nothing available in those formats at the moment.
Morgen: Do you think eBooks will change poetry?
Phillip: Regarding ebooks, however, like any publishing development the poetry will adapt, survive and thrive. Just as the scene has developed in tandem with technology and society.
Morgen: What / who do you read? And is it via eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Phillip: I read both ebooks and paper-based poetry; I also watch videos, read online, and listen to recordings: there are a large number of ways to enjoy poetry beyond just the paper page, and each has a range of benefits and drawbacks. And each has its own range of poetries best adapted to that medium.
Morgen: I love listening to audiobooks as it means I can be doing something else at the same time but for me it only works with prose – with poetry I need to see it written down, and read it at least twice in most cases. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Phillip: I do almost all of my marketing, but that doesn’t mean I am the best at it. There’s still so much to learn, and so much more I could and should be doing right, and there’s only so much time, and energy, and ability.
Morgen: I think every writer reading this interview will agree with you there (I certainly do). Do you have a favourite of your poems or topic to write about?
Phillip: I don’t have a favourite topic to write about. I do have a favourite technique, though, and that’s to mine my life for circumstantial details, the ones that help make the poem ring true. Where I wrote, recently, using an image of a “gravel rash” of clouds, I had done so remembering what that is like and having seen a photo of clouds at dusk that reminded me of such a rash.
Morgen: I love the sound of that. Presumably you choose the titles of your poems – do you get to keep them or are you ever overridden?
Phillip: Usually I manage to keep the poems’ titles, but when I was pursuing a policy of titling every “Opus Number such-and-such” I was often overridden.
Morgen: You mentioned rounds of editors earlier, do you always show / read your poems to anyone before you submit?
Phillip: Sometimes. It depends upon the poems, and who is interested enough in that particular form.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Phillip: I am currently working on a number of poetry-related projects, such as a number of bibliographies, concordances and editions of poets. At the same time I am drafting a minimum of a poem a day, with an extra poem a day over April for NaPoWriMo.
Morgen: I met English poet Wendy Cope a few years ago and she said she writes a poem a day but has Christmas Day off. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Phillip: I have been writing every day for NaPoWriMo without any sign of writer’s block. I find the more I write the less likely I get the block, and haven’t had to deal with it in over a decade. What I find helps most is being able to get into the frame of mind where I can let the first lines and images rise up easily, when I sit down to write.
Morgen: I’m the same really (although I don’t write every day, slap wrist). I have more ideas than I can cope with (she says looking at a dozen 80-sided display books filled with newspaper cuttings). Even a one-word prompt can trigger something (one of the exercises I set in my Monday night workshops which then end up on my Exercises page). Why do you think poetry is such a difficult market to break into?
Phillip: Poetry can be difficult to break into because it can be difficult to work out where to start. There are so many smaller markets, and competition for publishers of books and chapbooks can be fierce. However, with places like Duotrope‘s Digest, and other market listings, it is possible to develop a sizable body of poetry in preparation for larger and more ambitious publications.
Morgen: I subscribe to Duotrope, it’s great. Are there any tips you could give to someone wishing to write poetry?
Phillip: The only tip I want to give to anyone wishing to write poetry is that a strong grounding in technique is the difference between a good poet and a great poet. By knowing the craft, that is, it is easier to worry less about the form and structure of a poem, allowing the thesis, the poem’s argument, a clearer and easier development. Plus it can also mean the difference between a poem that hangs together and a poem that is technically raw and ill-formed.
Morgen: That’s where I fall down; I’ve never been taught poetry, not even the fundamentals… ooh maybe you could do another guest post for me. Do you write any fiction, non-fiction or short stories?
Phillip: All my fiction is now in the form of narrative verse, and I am slowly exploring verse novels, verse novellas, and similar forms of narrative poetry.
Morgen: I can often tell when a story or book I’m reading is written by a poet, it’s so tightly formed and… for want of a better word, poetic. Do you do a lot of editing of your poems or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Phillip: I’ve found that, as time goes on, I am able to edit more effectively as part of the composition process, with numerous, light edits thereafter. That is, I usually find the form as I go, then edit into that form as I clarify the language and thesis of the poem.
Morgen: I used to write a lot of 60-word stories and found the more I wrote the closer they came out to the word count. It’s obviously not a direct comparison but do you find your poems come out at similar lengths, or does they really vary.
Phillip: A lot depends on the poem. A lot of the time I have a strong feeling when the poem is done. Other times I write to that length, and, rereading, find it needs more or less material, and I proceed to add where needed.
Morgen: You say that you “mine” your life for your poetry, do you have to do much research?
Phillip: Usually no, I don’t do much research, unless it’s something ambitious and out of my areas of familiarity.
Morgen: You’re written so much, do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Phillip: I plan on having most of my work eventually see the light of day, however I do have a small number I only want published after my death. I always make notations to that effect on the relevant poems.
Morgen: I have a novel like that although it’s one of my strongest so I might change the names (to avoid being sued) and publish it anyway. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Phillip: My least favourite aspect is the degree to which I have to toil to make anything close to a living, and even then the money’s not great. Anyone who says people are paid what they’re worth is either lying or deluded.
Morgen: But that seems different for writers; a profession that’s notoriously underpaid in the main. What advice would you give aspiring poets?
Phillip: Again, the only advice I would give is master technique. Know the craft, the mechanical aspects of poetry, and practice them to the point they become second nature. That way you’ll find thinking about that aspect of writing is lessened, allowing you to concentrate on what you and / or the poem want to say.
Morgen: If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Phillip: I would like to invite Shakespeare, Ernest Dowson, and maybe the Australian poet Christopher Brennan to dinner. The shop talk would be brilliant.
Morgen: Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Phillip: There isn’t a word, phrase or quote I specifically like enough to quote it here. That doesn’t mean I don’t have favourites; for a while there my most common “major” word was “drowning”.
Morgen: I used to say “actually” a lot but “cuddle” is my favourite, especially when my dog’s in earshot. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Phillip: I am also involved in facilitating a writing group at a local drop-in centre, and I edit poetry as well as supporting others with their poetry writing. Even if it only means buying the books.
Morgen: Including Phil Eling’s forthcoming memoir, which we’ll be talking about when I interview him a little later in the year. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Phillip: Most of the time I read, though I also try and study where I can, and find time to watch maybe one or two television programmes.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Phillip: There are so many sites out there! It’s hard to know where to start, however I can give a few tips and tricks for finding sites. One is to thinking about the keywords you’ll use in a search engine, and to make them as suitable to the sort of site you want. Another is to follow links from any site that you like, as well as likely looking links from blogs and tweets and facebook posts. Another is to read widely as well: tips on fiction could be applied to narrative verse, for example, and many marketing tips can be adapted from prose to poetry with a bit of ingenuity.
Morgen: You retweet a lot of my Twitter feeds and I’m really grateful for that. It is all about supporting each other, isn’t it, and I know how grateful all my blog contributors are that I give them a platform… and I’m grateful to them for giving me the content. You mentioned Twitter and Facebook, are you on many forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Phillip: I am on a number of networking sites, and on social networking sites, and I find them of varying use when not connecting directly with people.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Phillip: I have no idea what the future will hold; I can barely wait to find out though!
Morgen: Me too. As a self-published eBooker, I’m thrilled by how easy it is to get my work online (once they’ve gone through at least two editors – selling the eBooks is a whole different clichéd ballgame) and I’m excited for the future as, although I can’t see real books fading away, eBooks are definitely the way to go with authors having more ‘power’ and that can only be a good thing from this side of the table. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Phillip: A lot of my work is searchable under my byline, Phillip A. Ellis. If you’re using a search engine that likes terms in quotation marks, such as Google, put the name in quotation marks, as that way you get better results. You can also find out about me on a site under construction, but online: http://www.phillipaellis.com.
Morgen: I only found out about the quotation marks option a while ago, it certainly helps with non-unusual names. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Phillip: There are so many different types of poetry out there, even to one and / or more per poet. If you don’t find your niche, in other words, create it. If you don’t find a magazine or website publishing the poetry you love, publish it yourself.
Morgen: Again the joy of eBooks – once you have a template it’s so easy to put up subsequent items. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Phillip: Actually, there is something I’d love to ask you: where do you find the energy, the enthusiasm, and the time to do so much for the writing community?
Morgen: <laughs> It’s my addiction. I say it’s passion but I constantly think about writing (and talk about it if people let me). It’s easy to be consumed when it’s something you love, and of course somewhere along the line I hope that it’ll convert to people buying my eBooks but I need to work harder (at all would be useful!) at that.
Thank you, Phillip.
I then invited Phillip to include one of his poems…
Cool summers, plenty of clouds, balmy nights,
warm winters, dry as wine and twice as nice:
these days, the weather’s wilder, harder. Floods
are common, droughts are also common, vast
extremes of temperature common. Tell me
about it. Let me say, I know. I know it
too well, too well to say much more about it—
and there is much more worse that could be said.
But, other years, I would not have my way:
the 1890s, say, I would be mad
and locked up. Not a hope for swift release,
and not a hope to live a productive life;
the 1920s? Same: I would be mad
and locked up still. O happy day! O joy!
I then invited Phillip to include a synopsis of his latest book…
Symptoms Positive and Negative, is a chapbook of sonnets of various forms written around my experiences with the symptoms of schizophrenia. While Symptoms Positive and Negative, is based upon my experiences, they are not raw and undigested but, rather, skilled meditations on the range of experiences that may be encountered. Symptoms Positive and Negative, is available from the poet for $5AU postpaid (in Australia), and $7 AU postpaid from elsewhere.
Phillip A. Ellis is a freelance critic, poet and scholar, and his poetry collection, The Flayed Manhas been published by Gothic Press; Gothic Press will also edit a collection of essays on Ramsey Campbell, that he is editing with Gary William Crawford. He is working on another collection, to appear through Diminuendo Press. Another collection has been accepted by Hippocampus Press, which has also published his concordance to the poetry of Donald Wandrei. He is the editor of Melaleuca. He has recently had Symptoms Positive and Negative, a chapbook of poetry about his experiences with schizophrenia, published by Picaro Press. He can be found at The Cruellest Month. You can also read some more of Phillip’s poetry and reviews on my Post-weekend Poetry page.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
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