Q&A: Phillips Edits Princeton Poets

Julia Mallory
From the September/October 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In April, Rowan Ricardo Phillips was named editor of the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, which publishes emerging and established poets through Princeton University Press and has nurtured many critically acclaimed verse makers over its nearly fifty-year history, including Jorie Graham and Robert Pinsky, whose first books appeared in the series. The editorship was previously held for ten years by Susan Stewart. A poet, screenwriter, academic, journalist, and translator, Phillips is the author of six books, including the forthcoming poetry collection Silver (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024). Phillips discussed paying it forward through poetry, the power of the written word, the importance of university presses, and his plans to leave no manuscript unturned in his new role.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips, editor of the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. (Credit: Sue Kwon)

Language is central to your work in a variety of disciplines. What is it about the written word that you find compelling?
It’s quite the mystery, isn’t it? If I knew what compelled me about some things, they would no doubt compel me less. If I were to make a list of those things, the written word might end up at the top of it: little marks, some straight, some curved, that we agree to mean everything there is in the world. It’s amazing if you stop to think about it: The written word is part math and part miracle. It marks both the absence and the presence of an author, or a possible author. It’s been kept from people by force of law and threat of death. It is a tool, and it is a weapon. It presumes one is not alone—that there is a self and an other, in the form of a writer and a reader—and I consider this sublime, hopeful, and humane.

How will these concepts—“part math” and “part miracle,” “absence” and “presence,” “tool” and “weapon”—inform your approach to your new role?
My taste travels from pole to pole. You can have a sense of something, but that something is enhanced by the idea of an other. Think of it as counterpoint—a communal sound formed by the simultaneity of different notes. I can’t keep playing the same, singular note, hopping up and down in the same spot: That’s how ideas turn to stone. But—and I’m not looking to be evasive here but honest—I’d rather not speak too much about my approach. I find the approach to be in the doing—nothing more, nothing less. Poetry is an art that suffers when it’s considered one thing and best done one way. Instead, poetry is built by syllables and surprise. The results can be big and pyrotechnic or more modest, more subtle. Some poems flash on the page at first sight, while some burn through implication and inference in the vapor trail of having been read. What I find important is to be open to all of it as much as I can.

I am intrigued by literary spaces that offer very defined preferences for submissions in terms of tone and voice. Can you briefly explain how the acquisitions process will work for the series and your role as the editor?
The press accepts submissions during the month of May. We’ve had a tremendous number of manuscripts come in, and I’m thrilled. This used to be done solely via physical submissions, but we’re now open to digital submissions. Upon receipt of the complete set of submissions, I will read all of them: No, there is no slush pile; I’m reading everything. Afterward I will communicate my selection—or selections: I’ll select one or two manuscripts—to my colleagues at the press. From there we go down the path of turning a manuscript into a book with the author or authors. The staff at Princeton University Press, many of whom I’ve already had the pleasure to meet, are wonderful. Working with them has already been a blast.

What advice would you offer to writers who may find themselves on the receiving end of a string of rejections?
What writer hasn’t dealt with rejection? I always find it important to remember that writing, at its best, is a commitment to the long game; and that the long game is the only game. I approach this long, winding journey of selecting some work and not selecting others, having some work selected and others not, with all the empathy I have in me. But there’s no way to take away the sting of rejection: It hurts, it disappoints, it feels unfair, and yet it’s the next step toward getting the work published.

Very true. What role do you think university presses play in the publishing world?
A highly significant one. In fact it’s difficult for me to think of a world without university presses. Their importance in the publishing of poetry is overlooked. My graduate school teacher Michael S. Harper published with university presses for his entire life, first with the University of Pittsburgh Press and then the University of Illinois Press. His books meant and still mean the world to me. There’s a good group of university presses that have had an unquestionable influence on the writing and study of poetry over the years, and I fear we may take them for granted. To say nothing of their contributions to translation. Bringing the question back home, Princeton University Press’s catalogue strikes a great balance among academics, the arts, and the public humanities, and I think this in essence is the mission of any good university press.

You are balancing a multihyphenated creative career. What’s on the horizon for you? What has you eager to hop out of bed in the morning and work?
Well, I have a new book of poems called Silver that Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish in March 2024. And there’s a big nonfiction project I’ve been working on, I Just Want Them to Remember Me: Black Baseball in America, also to be published by FSG—that’s further down the road. Meanwhile I’m doing consulting work for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for its forthcoming new exhibit on the same topic that will open in April 2024 in Cooperstown, New York. And FSG will soon be republishing my book of essays, When Blackness Rhymes With Blackness. I can’t wait for that. There are always some translations on my desk pending completion, and [I have] another book idea on poetry and art that’s just starting to take shape, but I don’t want to jinx it, so I’ll leave it at that. The funny thing is that it doesn’t feel hyphenated or like a career to me. I don’t know what to call it: a journey, perhaps. One long and winding journey where things are picked up—and picked up on—along the way.

You truly have a lot of irons in the fire. When I hear you say that it feels more like a journey, I interpret that to possibly mean there aren’t these separate categories of who you are but rather multiple ways that the self is expressed. If so, that idea resonates with me.

Given your own growing list of projects, what attracted you to the editor role?
Funny you ask. I was not at all pursuing this role; it simply wasn’t something on my mind. But when Princeton called and asked me if I would take the reins from Susan as poetry editor after she retired, I found myself thinking about the force of nature that Susan has been for the press over the years. And that Toni Morrison was an editor for Random House, which I’m always thinking about. And that T. S. Eliot was an editor for Faber, which I’m always thinking about. And that I’ve been fortunate beyond belief to work closely and extensively with the most incredible editors a writer could ask for: Jonathan Galassi at FSG, Matthew Hollis at Faber, Dean Robinson at the New York Times Magazine. And it all just felt like the right thing to do and the right time to do it. Poetry is the art of my life; it always has been and always will be. I want nothing more from poems, poets, and poetry than to do right by them. That’s all. Poetry is a difficult and peculiar art at times. We all know that. And publishing is a difficult and peculiar process at times. We all know that. There’s no hand-waving that away. But this role is an opportunity, through the work of other poets, to leave poetry a little better off than I found it. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I’m here. 


Julia Mallory is the author of six books. Their writing can be found in Barrelhouse, Emergent Literary, the Offing, Stellium Literary Magazine, Torch Literary Arts, and elsewhere.