Presentation & Handouts for Lecture: “It’s Alive: Why Poetry Still Matters”

phillips-rutherford-hall-lecture-11-16-2016On Wednesday, November 16, I gave the lecture “It’s Alive: Why Poetry Still Matters” at Rutherford Hall in Allamuchy, New Jersey. Here are the materials for that talk:

This talk also transformed into my November 2016 blog post for Ploughshares, “Truth & Dread: Why Poetry Still Matters & The Risk of (Too Much) Empathy”:

Can the act of empathy, learned from literature and poetry, become an act of appropriation when we take it to our lived lives? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. Each of us is not a sun around which others revolve; we cannot, like black holes, pull everything into us without risking erasure, of others, of ourselves. Perhaps more than the practice of empathy, poetry offers us the opportunity to listen, and not just in the way that it appeals to the same areas of the brain music stimulates, and not just in the way that we can hear the cadence and rhythm and sounds of poetry. Perhaps poetry offers us the opportunity to hear its many speakers, to not so much as internalize each of their voices and experiences as to confirm them, to say, you are you, you are a voice, I hear you.



Poetry Workshop Readings and Writing Exercise: “Befriend Me: Poems of Social Media & Technological Engagement”

When I am out of town on November 30th, my colleague will be discussing the poems from the “Befriend Me: Poems of Social Media & Technological Engagement” packet and then leading the Poetry Workshop in the “Befriend Me” writing exercise. I hope to do this again with my spring Craft of Poetry course, and go more in depth with the exercise and the class’s engagement. Thanks to all of those on social media who suggested additional poems for inclusion in this reading packet.


Save The University of Akron Press, 2015

Yesterday, Akron Poetry & Poetics editor Mary Biddinger announced her return to the reinstated University of Akron Press. Coordinator of Print Manufacturing & Digital Production Carol Slatter and Editorial and Design Coordinator Amy Freels returned to work Tuesday under the new leadership of transitional director Jon Miller and the umbrella of the University of Akron’s Library. This is a great victory for the press’s supporters who protested the University’s July decision to shut down the press and lay off its entire staff. I’m especially grateful to the Press’s staff, board, and authors. We saved the University of Akron Press!

Now that staff is back and the University has assured ongoing support for its Press, my second poetry collection Groundspeed has returned to the production calendar for publication in early 2016.

Below are statements from editor Mary Biddinger, transitional director Jon Miller, and the University’s president Scott Scarborough about the future of the Press.



Many, many, many thanks to everyone who helped us Save the University of Akron Press. I am very happy to be back at work making beautiful poetry books and supporting our authors, who spoke out so passionately against the closing of the press.


Thank you for your patience and support of the Press these last three weeks. I’d especially like to thank Kevin Kern for his advocacy and his updates on behalf of the editorial board. I appreciate all that Tom Bacher has done for the Press, and I look forward to working with him. And I am very grateful for the poise and professionalism of Carol Slatter, Amy Freels, and Mary Biddinger as we discuss the nature and possibility of their continued work for the press. We are also fortunate to have the support of Phyllis O’Connor, our Dean of Libraries.

I am optimistic about the future of the Press–for 2015-2016 as well as for many years to come. Otherwise I would not have accepted this role.

We are working to return the Press to a condition that will satisfy authors, readers, faculty, and students. I wish our progress could have been quicker. It has been a very tough time for the entire campus, however. In this context, I think our progress has been about as quick as it could be. Provost Mike Sherman and President Scott Scarborough have responded to our arguments and recommendations in ways that would surprise their critics. They have demonstrated a genuine and patient interest in developing a deeper understanding of the great promise of this gem of a university press. I expect there will be more good news over the next few days, weeks, and months. Please bear with us. And thank you so much for your continued patience and support.

Jon Miller
Transitional Director


The University of Akron Press has been and will continue to be a vital part of the academic core of this institution. As we complete its transition to University Libraries, we will take all steps necessary to make sure it maintains its well-earned reputation as a vibrant, active academic press, and to maintain its full membership in the Association of American University Presses. It will honor all existing publishing commitments, continue to seek out new, high-quality works to add to its catalog, and proudly continue to support its nationally recognized poetry series.

After consultation with Professor Jon Miller, transitional director of the University of Akron Press and Phyllis O’Connor, interim dean of University Libraries, regarding staffing plans within University Libraries, we are re-engaging the services of the two staff members who will help ensure operations of the UA Press.

The University of Akron Press logo

Statement from University of Akron Provost Mike Sherman regarding the Future of the University of Akron Press

University of Akron Provost Mike Sherman sent out this statement to Akron employees about the future of the University of Akron Press, my publisher. The statement doesn’t mention publishing any other books beyond what’s already under contract, and there’s not any revelation about the future of the Akron Series of Poetry & Poetics. I have applied for pro bono representation from the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) through the Cleveland Bar.

Dear Colleague,

I want to update you on developments concerning the University of Akron Press, which is transitioning to University Libraries.

I am pleased to announce that Dr. Jon Miller, associate professor of English, has agreed to serve as transitional director for the University of Akron Press. Dr. Miller has published two books with UA Press; served on the Faculty Senate’s Library Committee for six years, including the last two as its Chair; and, has significant experience as a scholarly editor of journals, an encyclopedia, and critical editions.

Dr. Miller will work with Tom Bacher, current UA Press director, and Phyllis O’Connor, interim dean of University Libraries, to manage the current activities of the UA Press (acquisitions, editing, marketing, distribution, etc.) and recommend a staffing and operational plan to meet obligations for previously published and currently contracted publications. As part of this process, they will determine how the Press’ future operations are incorporated into the ongoing strategic planning relating to University Libraries. Dr. Miller also will help strengthen opportunities for University of Akron students to publish their scholarly works and to learn about careers in editing and publishing through internships and classroom experiences. In addition, he will ensure that IdeaExchange@Uakron continues to showcase the research-based information generated from faculty and students.

The University’s three-year financial plan approved by the Board of Trustees in June includes a strategic investment fund to enhance the academic mission of the University. That fund will be accessed to help facilitate the transition of the UA Press to UA Libraries.

We will continue to update you on these and other developments in the weeks ahead.

All the best,

William M. “Mike” Sherman
Senior Vice President, Provost and Chief Operating Officer
August 11, 2015

“The Craft of Prose” Fall 2015: Course Description, Required Texts, and Grade Requirements

Instructor’s Course Description
As a means of exploring the craft of prose writing, we will read, analyze, and imitate two living writers: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jesmyn Ward. By reading two, book-length works by each writer—a short story collection and book-length essay by Adichie and a novel and memoir by Ward—we will see how these writers develop their unique styles across genres and locate how their personal concerns inform their fictional narratives. Additionally, we will supplement these texts with short stories and essays by some of the most influential prose writers of the 20th century to understand the history and development of American prose over the last one hundred years. We will translate these immersive reading experiences into writing skills through discussion, exercises, and workshop. Several times throughout the semester, students will turn in original writing for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers, and later revise two of the pieces using the comments received in workshop. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. We will base our discussions on how texts work rather than what they mean, after Francine Prose’s ideal of “reading like a writer.” My approach to teaching writing is founded on the belief that our writing skills must be practiced and cultivated, and that one must continually challenge one’s aesthetics, habits, and concerns throughout one’s writing life in order to write anything of consequence to one’s readers and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self.

Required Texts

  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor, 2010. ISBN: 978-0307455918
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor, 2015. ISBN: 978-1101911761.
  • The Best American Essays of the Century, ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Mariner, 2001. ISBN: 978-0618155873.
  • The Best American Short Stories of the Century, ed. John Updike. Mariner, 2000. ISBN: 978-0395843673.
  • Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury USA, 2014. ISBN: 978-1608197651
  • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury USA, 2012. ISBN: 978-1608196265

Grade Requirements

  • Class Participation (10%)
  • Group Presentation (15%)
  • Four Workshop Pieces (40%)
  • Two Revisions (15%)
  • Two Imitations (10%)
  • Discussion Board Participation (5%)
  • Final Reading (5%)

Poems in the Voice of Emilia & a Request for Reading Suggestions

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Desdemona's Death Song (ca 1878-1881, print)
“Desdemona’s Death Song” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

On & off for several years, I tried to write a series of poems that addressed or took on the persona of the character Emilia in Othello, my namesake. A few poems were informed by her story, but none took on her voice head on. I was paralyzed by the fear that I couldn’t write in the voice of a character previously voiced by Shakespeare—how could I not be?

With a prompt given by Mary Szybist at The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, however, I was able to try out Emilia’s voice again, and now I’ve embarked on the series, tentatively titled “Alternate Endings,” which allows Emilia free range to consider other fates, to address her husband & killer Iago, to reveal more about her relationship with Desdemona, to reckon with her literal role in the play & the stage’s constraints, & to anachronistically comment upon contemporary events. I see this sequence as a foundational pillar in the third manuscript, which also deals with the reconstruction of the body & memory.

As I continue to work on these poems, I need some good persona & sequence lodestars to guide me. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Mary’s Incarnadine & Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination the last couple of weeks. But is there anything else I should pick up & read to guide me through this project? I’m particularly interested in those sequences that reckon with historical, mythic, or literary figures through persona or apostrophes. Thanks so much for your help, friends.

Photo with My MFA Teachers

Since we learn so much about teaching from our teachers, I wanted to post a recent photo with my three MFA professors: Kathleen Graber, David Wojahn, and Greg Donovan. Thank you for everything, you three.

Kathleen Graber, David Wojahn, Emilia Phillips, and Greg Donovan, May 2015
Kathleen Graber, David Wojahn, Emilia Phillips, and Greg Donovan, May 2015