Wednesday, June 5, 2013

"I'm Not Your Sweet Baboo" The Bob Phillips interview

I was 19 the first time I heard Bob Phillips read. He was performing as a member of the Back to Jack troupe at the Center for Performing Arts at the University of Toledo. Bob has a distinctive voice, with a bit of smoker’s gravel and a particular way of enunciating that gives every word its proper weight. I remember he read a scene out of Big Sur where Jack is hungover, bemoaning his condition, his inability to abstain from drinking, and the sad status of the drunk in the world. Bob read this selection like he was born already familiar with Kerouac’s punctuation and cadence. It was the scene I most looked forward to hearing at subsequent Back to Jack performances.

Not long after that first Back to Jack I started attending a local open mic where I heard Bob (and other Back to Jack performers) read original work. His poems are funny, sincere, spiritual, local in a way but still universal, accessible, and from my perspective, very well made. When you hear Bob read his poems, or find one of them in front of you, you realize that Bob cares a lot about what poetry can and should do. He’s humble about it. He’s at every reading in town, just about, sitting in the front row, remembering a line that killed in every poem and telling the poet who wrote it, after the reading, just how much he liked hearing it. Bob’s presence means a lot to poets young and old in Toledo. I’ve heard people say he’s the best poet in town, and they mean it.

When did you first start reading poetry? Who were you reading? Do you remember your first impulse to write? And can you describe it?

I first got interested in poetry when I was around 11 yrs. old in the mid-1950s, from reading Mad Magazine (25 cents - cheap). They often had humorous verse.  One that I still remember was a take off on Joyce Kilmer's "Trees".  It was called "Beer" and started out like this: "I think that I shall never hear/ a poem more lovely than beer./ With golden base and snowy cap/ that stuff that Joe's Bar has on tap.”

So I tried writing some humorous verse for awhile.  However, I was always getting unrequited crushes on various girls and then began writing truly horrible poems about the pain of love and lack thereof.

Then, when I was about 12 yrs. old, I was reading a Life magazine, which my family subscribed to, and there was an article about the Beat Generation. The article was very anti-Beat but after I read it I knew that I had stumbled upon my kind of people.  I eventually went to the library and read Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind, Jack Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City, and other Beat writings. And that was it. I was hooked on poetry and have been writing seriously ever since.  I guess I've been at it now for well over 50 years.

Do you write everyday? Do you keep a kind of schedule or routine, or do you write when the mood strikes you?

I don't write everyday, or keep any kind of schedule, although when I'm not writing I'm always thinking about it, and keeping my mind and eyes open, and I think those thoughts and images get stored in my head. Then, when I do sit down to write, hopefully some inspiration will arrive and some of the thoughts and images will manifest themselves into a poem on paper.

Sometimes I'll go for weeks without writing anything, or writing anything worth a damn. I start to get mentally and spiritually unbalanced when that happens and force myself to get down to it whether I feel like it or not.

I read a book of essays by writers called The Writing Life. The essays are about writing habits, the origins of poems or novels, relationships, things like that. One of the essays that really stuck with me was about making your work space sacred in order to keep your focus alive and your mind open to its own ideas. I'm wondering if you have a work space you go to, in your house or somewhere nearby, someplace sacred that helps you write.

Ah, yes.  For several years my favorite place to write is in the kitchen and usually at night.  And I have to get the kitchen just right.  I have to get rid of any clutter, wipe the counters, wash and put away any dishes, get some music going, and get the lights down low to create a mood that is receptive to creativity.  And then hope that something "happens".

One time I read something that made this little ritual make sense to me.  Cleaning things is kind of like communing with dirt, or the earth.  Washing things is kind of like communing with water.  Creating some mood lighting, such as with candles or a dim light is, of course, like communing with fire.  And getting inspired I suppose is like getting your mind to take off into the sky.  And of course there's music. Most religions and their practices involve these same elements. And I've always felt that when the creativity is flowing, and something is happening, and a poem manifests itself, I get the feeling afterwards like I've just been to church.  It's like an ecstatic experience and is usually the only way I can write.

Not always, of course.  Sometimes a poem just comes from out of the blue at any time.  But that doesn't happen very often.

There are a lot of references to jazz in your poems. Do you listen to music while you write?

I almost always have some music going in the background.  I was lucky to stumble onto jazz at a very young age and Miles Davis became a great inspiration to me when I was in the 8th grade.  It wasn't just his music that was inspiring, but also his artistic honesty and passion to be true to himself.  Definitely a lifetime mentor for me.  

I'd love to know who your jazz heroes are. Who do you listen to all the time?

I owe jazz musicians a great debt for keeping my soul together. People like J.J. Johnson, Cannonball Adderly, Yusef Lateef, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean, Horace Silver;  the list is endless.  I still listen to these people and the music remains as fresh as ever.

J.J. Johnson is one of my all time favorite jazz guys. When I first heard him I was so disappointed in myself for giving up the trombone in the 6th grade.

Glad to hear you like J.J. Johnson.  An album of his I listen to often when I write is "Heroes" from 1998.  Has some beautiful stuff on it.

But I love all kinds of music.  Some of my friends make fun of me because I'll get hooked on musicians I never listened to in the past or are a bit esoteric.  Like a few years ago I discovered Boz Scaggs' most recent albums which simply knock me out.  I highly recommend his album  "Dig".  Sometimes I'll put on some Stevie Nicks for her simple passion.  Or Erykah Badu.  A little known band called The Cliks is a favorite. I'm a huge fan of Johnny "Guitar" Watson.  I find all this music inspirational when I write.  I don't think I could function as any type of artist without music.

And just for laughs, what album do you take with you to a deserted island, if you can only take one?

Stuck on a deserted island, I think Thelonious Monk's "The London Collection" would do nicely.

I was wondering about the most fun you've ever had at a reading. And by contrast, do you remember some duds, too?

The most fun I ever had wasn't at the actual poetry readings but at the parties afterwards.  In Toledo during the 1970's, 80's and 90's, there was usually a big party after a reading.  One of the most fun and memorable was after Allen Ginsberg read at the University of Toledo, and there was a big party at professor Wally Martin's house. Peter Orlovsky was also in attendance.  A local poet was working as an ice cream truck driver and had his ice cream truck parked out front. There was a funny and crazy scene when Ginsberg was invited to go out to the truck and indulge in ice cream and what turned out to be other matters, which I probably should be discrete about and not go into.

The biggest dud reading I ever participated in is when a bunch of us Toledo poets were invited to read in Chicago at the famous Green Mill. There were 5 or 6 of us and there was absolutely no one in the audience except for our host, Chicago poet Deborah Pintinelli.  Zero. Nobody showed up.  Being good troopers, we gave a good reading anyway, even if it was to an empty room.

How did you meet Etheridge Knight? He's sort of a patron saint of Toledo poetry, so many of your contemporaries have personal stories about him and great affection for him. Could you share one or two memories with us?

I think it was in the late 70's when I first met Etheridge Knight.  I was renting a bedroom in a big house on Delaware Ave. Tom Barden had a room there, and Nick Muska also rented a bedroom that he set up as a writing studio away from his home with the wonderful and legendary Susan Harman Muska.  At that time Nick and Joel Lipman were figuring out ways to bring good poets to town for readings through their invention of The Toledo Poets Center.

So they brought Etheridge Knight into town at that time, which I think was the second time he read in Toledo. I had missed his first visit, and had never really heard of him before.  Anyways, Mr. Knight comes into Toledo and he's totally fucked up and juiced, and struggles with his speech, yet still gives a hell of a poetry reading.  Tom Barden put him up in the house on Delaware and that's how I first got to meet him.

I don't think you can call Etheridge the patron saint of poetry inToledo.  That kudo has to go to Nick Muska and Joel Lipman.  Those are the people who gave Toledo an illuminated poetry scene for the first time ever. And Tom Barden deserves a lot of credit for his energies, not only in poetry, but also in folk and ethnic music at that time. But that's another story.

But back to Etheridge Knight.  He would come back to Toledo once in awhile because he liked the poets in Toledo and they liked him.  It was like this for him in other cities too.  He was kind of a Johnny Appleseed of poetry.  In spite of his addictions and habits he was a no-bullshit guy with extremely high intelligence.  And wisdom learned the hard way.

At one point he stayed in Toledo for awhile to lay low and finish work on his award winning collection, The Essential Etheridge Knight, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Another memorable reading was when Etheridge and poet Michael Lally read together and stuck around town for a few days.  That was around 1979.  Lally currently has an interesting and entertaining blog on the
net, and is a very fine poet.

Who are your favorite poets to read, and how have they influenced your writing? You mentioned the Beats earlier, but who else do you enjoy? Do you read contemporary poets?

I like to read all kinds of poetry and poets but mostly fairly contemporary things.  And I've never read as much poetry as I should.  I like a lot of women poets and think they are writing some of the best stuff around.  Sharon Dubiago and Joy Harjo are two examples of many.  A very early influence is e. e. cummings who I still like to read.  I've noticed lately that he remains an influence on current young writers.  Haiku was an early influence as I appeciated how simple images and ordinary language can have great power if written "just so".  Native American poets for the same reason.  A list of poets I like would take up an entire page.  I also am inspired by and enjoy being around local poets.  I even like the bad stuff as it gives insight into what that person is feeling and thinking about, and what concerns them, and where they might be heading.

Actually, I think that visual art and music has been more of an influence on my writing than poets I've read over the years, as I've always thought of poems as being word paintings.

I've also been influenced by stand-up comedians.  Good comedy and a good poem share a lot in common. Both have to have some interesting turns of words, timing and rhythm, an element of surprise, and a good

Can you explain the important role poetry has played in your life? I wonder what makes you write poetry, or what makes any of us write poetry? Do you feel you've been called to write? For me it feels like a metaphysical thing, that I've been changed over time by writing poems.

I don't think I could survive if I couldn't write poems or practice some other form of art.  It's as important to me as food or money.  If I go too long without putting words on paper, even if it's crap, I feel like I might as well die.

When I was in my late 20's I was going through a hard time creatively and was very self-destructive because of it.  I decided I would rather live than kill myself trying to write.  So I gave up poetry for a few months. But what I discovered was that when I was doing mundanethings like talking on the phone, I would find myself doodling words on a scrap of paper.  What I came to realize is that writing poems was something I was always going to do whether I chose to do so or not.  I think what I learned was to stop worrying about it and simply do it.

I think that sometimes people have to quit torturing themselves and kind of make friends with their creative demons so they don't get the best of you.  After going through that tough period where I basically had "writer's block" for about 5 years and almost gave up, then had that simple revelation, I started writing better poems.  And writing became more enjoyable, too.  Now when I write bad stuff and look at it the next day, I can laugh as I toss it into the shit can.

I think I can truthfully say that I was called to either write poems or do some other creative art.  I clearly recall an incident when I was about 5 years old and was standing in the deserted playground of Glenwood School on a gray autumn day.  The wind was blowing dead leaves across the cement and a strange feeling came out of nowhere and seemed to enter my little being.  And I knew right then and there that I would try to be some kind of artist and live or die by it.  That really happened and that feeling has never left me.  Being any kind of artist in our society is difficult but I reserve my right to do it whether I succeed in some small way or am a complete failure.

I think people write poems because it's a way of saying things and communicating with people that you can't do in normal conversation and discourse.  It's the same language but somehow different.  Also, for me anyway, it's a way of trying to make sense out of nonsense.

I think that all creative things come from the same place, whether it's dance, music, film, sculpture, and also things like cabinet-making.  Poetry is just one way it manifests itself.  I kind of wish I had a talent for music. Not that it's any less difficult, but at least you have a fair chance at making a little bit of money. Unfortunately, poetry seems to be the poor uncle/aunt of the arts. There's no money in it whatsoever.  At least it's inexpensive.  All it takes is a pencil and something to write on.

I can't imagine what painters must go through with the cost of art supplies.  You're in the middle of a painting and you run out of white paint and you're totally broke.  I guess the painting gets put on hold until you can come up with a new tube.  Whereas a writer can always bum a pencil and find a piece of paper blowing in the street.

Back to Jack is an annual memorial reader’s theater dedicated to the work and memory of Jack Kerouac. There’s a rough script comprised of several dozen selections from Kerouac’s prose and poetry. 5 poet performers called 'Jacks' performed as Kerouac in different stages of his life, the young writer, the traveler, the drunk, etc. Bob performed Back to Jack with four other local poets for several years. Sometime in the late 90s the guys stopped performing. We all talked about it together, how great it was, how it was missed, and eventually I collaborated with Toledo poets and dear friends John Swaile and Caroline Gauger to bring Back to Jack back to Toledo. We’ve been performing with a rotating cast and new additions to the script for about 4 years now. The original 'Jacks' seem to dig what we do.

I have to ask you about Back to Jack. It occurs to me that I've heard a lot of stories about Back to Jack from the other guys who performed in it, your friends and colleagues who supported the reading and partied with you after, but I don't know what got the reading started. When did you guys start performing together? Was the whole thing Nick [Muska's] idea, or did you all contribute something to it? And didn't you perform Back to Jack in Quebec and Lowell, MA, in front of Jack's friends and family? What was that like? Can you talk about meeting Ginsberg and the other writers who were in the audience at this reading?

The annual Back To Jack memorial reading was Nick Muska's idea and he originally chose the pieces to be read.  After a couple of years Nick asked the participants to suggest other pieces so it wasn't the exact same text each year.

I was not an original member of the cast.  Back To Jack began in 1984, if I remember correctly, with a performance at the Colony Bookstore. Edie Parker Kerouac came down from Detroit and was a special guest.

I took the place of the inimitable John Henry Newmark (aka Johnny Hi Fi) in 1987 and the first time participated was at the tremendous Kerouac festival in Quebec City.  I was scared to death and thought I
did a terrible job.  Afterwards, Allen Ginsberg came up to me and poked his finger in my stomach and said, "I liked you."  That sure made me feel better.

I wasn't part of the 1988 performance in Lowell.  John Newmark took his usual place as he had to miss the trip to Quebec.  I think that's the last time John was in the cast as he wanted to do other things.  I took his place again until we all kind of ran out of gas.  And then you younger folks took over the presentation which is very gratifying.

Finally, can you offer some advice or insight about writing you've learned over time? Is there some practice or ritual, or a certain mindset, you feel is essential to the life of a poet?

A person has to be stubborn and dedicated and basically single-minded to be a writer or any other kind of artist.  As a gambler making a big bet would say, "I'm all in."  You have to be in it for the long haul even if that road leads to disappointment.

Another thing that is truly important is to learn honest self-criticism.  Not an easy thing to do as a lot of creative people look at their efforts with tunnel vision.  But in the long run you have to go with your gut.

And of course you have to learn how to handle rejection and the lack of recognition.  Acceptance and recognition are secondary things. It's the act of creating something  which is the primary objective. Anything positive that comes after that is gravy.

What most people don't realize is that trying to be some kind of artist involves living a life with two full-time jobs.  There's the job you have to support yourself and any loved ones and also your full-time job as an artist.  After working a job all day it's very difficult to summon up the energy and inspiration for creative efforts.  I think that's why a lot of people give up on their artistic yearnings.  It's very hard and can be disheartening and can feel like you're spinning your wheels.

Gee, I sure used a lot of cliches about writing.  But I guess that's why they're cliches because most cliches are true.

What follows is a nice selection of Bob's lovely poems.


A young couple lays in bed
& watching late night television.

Comfortable with each other
even though
their lives are edgy.

It's winter in Toledo
& tomorrow is a work day.

They wrap their bodies
around each other
& fall asleep.

As if they were morning glories
who will awaken
to whatever the sunlight brings.

there is a huge ring
around the moon.

The neighborhood dogs bark
at what they think is important
at 2 a.m.


It's one of those Ohio nights
nippy as a motherfucker
I'm having a few beers
& the cat wants out bad
so I open the kitchen door
& out he streaks
as if tasting freedom
for the first time.

A few minutes later
he leaps onto the hood of the car
& then leaps onto its roof
& sits there like king of the world.

A friend of mine told me
that if you let your cat out
it will get some kind of terrible cat disease.

But this night is too cold & dark
& beautiful
& rattling with autumn leaves
& a tree branch in the wind
is an arm beckoning,
"Come out!  Come out!"


I don't want to talk about
their beauty
swimming in water
sometimes invisible
except for the pale blue lace
of their tails.

I don't want to talk about
the grace
of a great blue heron
gliding across water
to its station in the shallows
where it waits for a meal
with due diligence
& stillness
as if it were frozen there.

I don't  want to talk about,
as I eat these fish,
the loneliness of my heart.

Nor the damsel flies & dragon flies.

Nor the curious head of a turtle
popping up
here & there.

Nor the voice of the redwinged blackbird
as if it were speaking
directly to you
telling you the meaning
of the rattle of reeds
& autumn leaves
in your terrible nightmares.


I'd feel funny
having my own site.
Read my poems!
Buy my poems!
Validate me!
Love me!

in a distant land
a family sips coffee
from small cups
as an RPG explodes
a block away
@ 8 a.m.

I'd feel funny,
shamelessly self-promoting.
Read me!
Buy me!
Validate me!
Love me!

in a not-so-distant land
a man in an expensive suit
sits at his desk
as his monthly paycheck
of half-a-mil
is electronically transferred
to his savings account.

If an RPG went off
several stories down
in the street below
he wouldn't even hear it.

He doesn't care for poetry.
He feels that artists
should get a real job.

He feels validated.
He feels loved.
He can buy just about anything.

in another distant land
flies buzz around
the faces of starving children.

And another so-called poet
hawks their wares
on the Internet.
Read my poems!
Buy my poems!
Validate me!
Love me!
Love me!

FEB. 14, 2011

It's just before midnight.

Huge piles of snow
slowly melt
in utter silence
after a brief relief
of warmer temperatures.

Winters in N.W. Ohio
are nasty & unpredictable.
I almost expect to find
the carcass of a mastodon
after all the snow is melted.

As I've become an old man
I have a fear of dying in winter.
I want to die in summer
as children run through the spray
of a garden hose.
As late night bickering
drifts through an old neighborhood.
As the full moon illuminates
a small lake
where a huge midnight bass
shatters the surface
& just misses your Hula Popper.

You sit there dejected
because you missed
the strike of a lifetime.

And as you sit there feeling sorry for youself
& not paying attention
the huge bass
unexpectedly strikes again.

Of course you miss it
beause you're frustrated
& feeling sorry for you luck
& here it is your lucky night
& you're not even ready for it.

That's the way things go.
The best things can happen
when you least expect it
& then they are gone
perhaps forever.


Just like you & I.

OCTOBER 16th, 2010

I step out the back door
to look at the moon.

It's a little bit more than half-full
& looks like a pear
or a teardrop.

For a Saturday night
it's as quiet as a graveyard
in this old & rowdy neighborhood.

The Buckeyes lost
& old Bobby Cser
across the street
is dying of cancer
in his livingroom.

Summer is over
& Columbia Gas of Ohio
is about to begin
it's yearly profession
as a stickup artist.

If there is a heaven
I hope there aren't
any utility companies up there.

But I do hope there is a moon.

And hostas & flowers to attend to
for those who desire
to attend them. 

And I hope there's beer
& small lakes with lilypads
& a kitchen radio
barely picking up a jazz station
as the clock is about to strike midnight.


If you live long enough
you learn a lot of things
but it's never enough
to fix things that happened
in the past.

As old
& as wise
as you could ever become
you'll still be a kid
playing mumbly peg
your face in the grass
eating dirt.

Believe it or not
cigarettes can be a way
of holding your life together.

I'm saving two of them
to have with my coffee
in the morning.

Just as the world
comes to an end
& begins again.


It's like treading water
for 2 years
on a bottomless lake.

It's like the death of a loved one
which of course
it is.

But it will be okay
waking alone
on a summer morning
your flowers of grief
on the kitchen counter
next to the coffee pot.

If you’re interested in more of Bob’s work, you can find a copy of his chapbook “Swallowing Our Love for Everything”, collected and printed by Michael Grover at Covert Press:

An older collection called “I’m not Your Sweet Babboo” is available from The University of Toledo Press: You can find work by other Toledo poets there too, all of it very fine, all of it rewarding.

1 comment:

  1. I would like to get ahold of Mr. Phillips... can you send me contact info


    is not working