Aspen Summer Words: A poet’s residency leads to ‘Heaven’ |

Aspen Summer Words: A poet’s residency leads to ‘Heaven’

Rowan Ricardo Phillips's new collection "Heaven" includes several poems inspired by his time as an Aspen Words writer-in-residence.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Let’s Get it Started’ panel, presented by Aspen Summer Words

Who: Alissa Nutting, Ann Hood, Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Where: Maroon Room, The Gant

When: Monday, June 20, 3:30 p.m.

Tickets: Sold out


What: ‘The Take Away’ panel, presented by Aspen Summer Words

Who: Antonya Nelson, Dean Bakopoulos, Ann Hood, Maria Semple, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Alissa Nutting, George Hodgman, David Lipsky, Darin Strauss

Where: Maroon Room, The Gant

When: Thursday, June 23, 4 p.m.

Tickets: Sold out

A bookshelf’s worth of new works has emerged out of Aspen Words’ writers-in-residence program in the past few years, but none has so directly responded to the experience as poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ new collection.

Phillips spent December 2013 in Woody Creek as a writer-in-residence and returns this week to teach a poetry workshop at Aspen Summer Words. At the residency’s conclusion, the New York resident and self-described “city kid” had completed several poems integrating this mountain landscape into the abundant world of his poetry. They’re included in his new collection, “Heaven.”

Phillips never adjusted from Eastern time while he was here, he said. Unconnected from the internet and television in Woody Creek, he found himself waking up around 5 a.m. and spending full days writing, “spacing out on the mountain range” and taking the occasional break to hike or visit Explore Booksellers in Aspen.

“It was really a sweet time of immersion,” Phillips said. “I loved it.”

Mountain light, blankets of snow, the silence of the woods, the cries of larks — “Heaven” is steeped in Woody Creek winter.

“The alpenglow just hit me in the face when I was there,” he said. “More than half the book was really just me absorbing the landscape.”

In the gorgeous two-stanza “The Barycenter,” he describes that alpenglow on the mountains as “the great rose poem of Heaven.” In “Measure for Measure,” which appeared in The New Yorker the autumn following the residency, he describes falling asleep reading Shakespeare and waking up to a herd of elk at his cabin window. In “Monday Morning in Snowmass, Colorado,” he links dawn in the Rockies to his West Indian heritage. A view of the Maroon Bells in “The Descent of Jupiter Over the Maroon Bells” invites a meditation on timelessness and freedom.

The natural world’s prominence in “Heaven” is something of a creative swerve for Phillips, whose 2012 debut “The Ground” was rooted in the rhythm, landscape and history of his native New York.

“It really surprised me,” he said. “I never thought of myself as someone who escapes to write.”

He’d never done a retreat or residency before and balked at the offer from Aspen Words. But his wife suggested it could be interesting and encouraged him to do it.

“I’ve always written where I am as I am,” Phillips said. “And so in that sense what I found myself thinking of when I got there was, ‘What a heavenly place.’ But it doesn’t provide language for you. If you’re a photographer, you’re thinking, ‘How do I capture this real thing that’s in front of me.’ The same for a painter. But if you’re a poet you’re always caught in the moment of translation — you can’t just take what you’re seeing and reproduce or describe it.”

The challenge surprised him, along with some of his experiences.

“I never expected to see elk at all,” he said. “These surprises popped up frequently, I think. It was unexpected, but better to be unexpected.”

But this isn’t straightforward nature poetry. As with much of Phillips’ free verse, it mixes together mythology, classic literature, pop culture, the personal and historical — all in an unpredictable style that often astonishes.

“All of that is me, so the ways it seems surprising and filled with juxtapositions — that is what I’ve embraced as an artist,” he said. “I really like myth and hip-hop and I liked cartoons as a kid and astronomy. All these things are part of the multitudinous factions of myself.”

Rather than compartmentalize those factions in his work — in sections or chapters or books focused on specific topics — he embraces it all with a contemporary Whitmanesque spirit.

“What I’ve learned in writing is to open the faucet and let it run,” he said. “You don’t want to waste water, but with the imagination you can just let the tap run and bathe in it. These are ways that I make sense of the world.”

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