Dunes Review Interview Series: Phillip Sterling
Phillip Sterling's most recent books are And Then Snow (Main Street Rag 2017) and, as editor, Isle Royale from the AIR: Poems, Stories, and Songs from 25 Years of Artists-in-Residence (Caffeinated Press 2017), and In Which Brief Stories are Told ( Wayne State University Press, 2011). He served as Artist-in-Residence for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in 2016.
Philip's poem “I Have Been Coming to This Morning Since the Day I Was Born” appears in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Dunes Review.
Do you need to be inspired to write, or is it a job, a routine?
There’s always been “inspiration” behind it, though time (in one’s life) is generally a bigger factor in generating final products. When I was teaching or working other jobs, I often didn’t have time to attend to any “inspired” images or phrases—beyond jotting them down. But during workshops in graduate school (or during writing residencies, when the time is available) there was, of course, expectation to write regularly—more like a job. In which case I was more open to, and actively sought, “inspiration”—more attentive/aware to possibilities. Time, I think, provides stimulation, which may be a cousin of inspiration . . .
What is your writing process like?
It varies, with the circumstances. There have been times in my life where I had a favorite place to work, or a schedule, or a particular kind of paper and pen. But mostly I found myself using the absence of such as an excuse for not getting things done . . . I prefer working very early in the morning, in a room where my reading aloud—repeatedly—won’t bother anyone (or elicit mocking . . .). And I continue to write first drafts longhand.
Do you think of yourself as a writer? Why or why not?
I have a hard time thinking of myself as a writer—especially a poet. Perhaps because I’ve always felt that there’s a certain amount of pretension or posturing in declaring such. Someday, perhaps, I’ll be a full time writer. But my identity has always had something else playing a bigger role—teacher, parent, neighbor . . .
What's the first thing you do when starting a new piece of writing?
Worry that it will turn out horrible and I’ll be wasting my time . . .
What's your least favorite thing about writing?
The business of publication—and self-promotion.
Do you let other people read your works in progress?
I only share after I get a poem to the place where I don’t think I can make it any better myself.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
When I’ve read it aloud for the two hundredth time and don’t stumble on any words.
Whose writing inspires you?
I have eclectic tastes and read voraciously and find every week or so someone else to admire, though with poetry I tend to return again and again to W.S. Merwin and Jane Hirshfield.
Who are you currently reading?
George Saunders, Ali Smith, Ann Patchett, Grace Paley, Fredrick
Backman . . .
What is your favorite thing to do when you're not writing?
Read. Or putz around outside. In recent months I’ve spent a lot of time felling trees and splitting wood, which provides me with a certain amount of purpose (we partially heat with wood) and pleasure (exercise).