Review: PBS Spring Choice: Jen Hadfield and Rowan Ricardo Phillips in conversation with John Challis
PBS’s Spring Recommendation Living Weapon (Faber, 2021) is a love song to the imagination, a new blade of light homing in on our political moment. Rowan’s poetry reveals the limitations of our vocabulary, showing that our platitudes are inadequate to the brutal times we find ourselves in. And yet, through interrogation of allegory and symbol, names and things, time and musicality, a language of grace and urgency is found.
Rowan delivered a variety of poems from his highlighted release Living Weapon, as well as teasing some new poems from his collection Lost. Poems from Living Weapon included ‘Prelude’, ‘History’, ‘Even Homer Nods’, ‘The Peacock’ and a brief collection titled ‘Trinidadian Triptych’. Poems from his newest collection included ‘Book 1’, ‘Romanticism’ and ‘Vespers’. John reflected on how Rowan’s poems worked to reanimate our understanding of the literary canon, challenging traditional attitudes towards poetry.
The PBS’s Spring Choice ‘The Stone Age’ is a timely reminder that our neurodiversity is a gift: we do not all see the world in the same way, and Hadfield’s lyric line and unashamedly high-stakes wordplay provide nothing less than a portal into a different kind of being. The Stone Age is the work of a singular artist at the height of her powers – one which dramatically extends and enriches the range of our shared experience.
Jen followed Rowan’s roaring triumph of literature with her own impressive collection, starting with poems from her recent release The Stone Age, some of which she’d never performed to an audience before. She spoke on the collection’s emphasis on language, a necessity that, while universal in nature, is contrasting in practice. This included poems such as ‘Ovea, ‘Ert-fast’, ‘Scythe’ (which spoke blatantly on the diverse nature of language) and ‘Strimmer’. These poems, which were perhaps more serious in their discussion of language, contrasted the following poems, which were more light-hearted in nature.
These poems included ‘Nudibranch’, ‘Cliff’ and ‘Lunar Transmission’ (which boasted a unique structure in her text, posing as a rainbow-like zenith with a steep drop). ‘Rhubarb’ posed a narrative in which two people that are so comfortable with one another have a unique connection, where often language isn’t the limit. Jen finished her readings with a poem named ‘Shadows’, the peppy segue towards audience questions.
Q: How did you enter into certain dialogues in your respective collections? Did you find these dialogues impossible to avoid?
Jen: I spent a lot of time paddling around in rock-pools and looking as closely as I could to the shore. Part of it is that I love the atmosphere, and sometimes when you look closely enough you have this feeling that time is changing. A rock-pool, if this happens, can grow to encompass you and you can lose your sense of past, present and future. You feel very small, and a part of the web of other beings. Sometimes a line or two comes to me through that.
Rowan: I’ll second Jen! The answer for me would be the latter, they are impossible to avoid. When I have the good fortune to spend time with you all, or drink tea or go for a walk, unquestionably poetry leaks out into my sentences as it’s part of my language. When I write I don’t deny that impulse. Poetry is how I understand the world. My poetry really is a mirror held up to [my] inside engagements.
Q: What topics or ideas do you find difficult to write about?
Rowan: A lot of the topics that I find difficult to write about, I actually end up writing about! I was born and raised in New York, and always thought I wouldn’t write about 9/11, but my first book was a sort of meditation towards that event. In Living Weapon one of the final poems is clearly a poem speaking to my daughters, and I always felt I wouldn’t write poems about children. Other than that I can’t think of many others – I struggle to write poetry in Barcelona, as I see that as a time to relax and read.
Jen: I find writing hard a lot of the time, so I often don’t write for a long time and then feel inspired to [put pen to paper]. Without a doubt anything I intend to write doesn’t fly, I spend my life trying to escape my own intention, but I still keep trying as I think it’s the only way to stay fluent in that language.
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Jen Hadfield’s fourth poetry collection The Stone Age (Picador, 2021) explores neurodiversity. Passionately involved with the wild world, she uses poetry, lyrical essay and, occasionally, sculpture in cast porcelain, to try and share her intense experience of the here-and-now.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of three books of poems (Heaven, The Ground and Living Weapon) and two essay collections (The Circuit and When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness).
John Challis is the author of The Resurrectionists, due out from Bloodaxe in 2021, and the pamphlet, The Black Cab (Poetry Salzburg, 2017), which was a 2019 New Writing North Read Regional title.
Thomas Moorcroft, the author of this post, is an English Literature and History student currently on placement with the NCLA.