Interview with Phil Taggart

Phil Taggart has published three collections of poetry: Rick Sings (Brandenburg Press 2014), Opium Wars (Mille Grazie Press 1997) and Cowboy Collages (a collaboration with Texas artist Ann Harithas). He served for nine years as the Poetry Editor of Art Life, and is currently editor and publisher of Askew with Marsha de la O and Friday Lubina. He received a Champion of Mental Health Award from the Turning Point Foundation for his work promoting the understanding of mental disorders, an Art Stars Award from the Ventura County Arts Council, and the Mayor’s Art Award and an Individual Artist’s Grant from the City of Ventura. He grew up in South Whittier and now lives in Ventura, California with his wife Marsha de la O. Chaparral’s editor, Kim Young, corresponded with Phil about his new book, Rick Sings.

1. Will you first talk a little about the book: How long was it in the making? What were some of your concerns/hopes/fears about the project?

My Brother Rick suffers from schizophrenia. I started writing about him back in the ‘90s, as I said in the book, at first unconsciously. While the poems were coming, I also started to photograph Rick. This culminated in a photo/poem/art project that was exhibited at a few galleries in Ventura and at Beyond Baroque in Venice. This morphed into a live and video presentation that I use often at readings. The bedrock of the project has always been the poems. I’m fortunate to be in a couple of wonderful response groups that helped me with the shaping of this work. Their names are mentioned in the book.
My main concern in this project has been Rick and how it would affect him. Mental illness is an incredibly stigmatizing disease and although Rick is obviously mentally ill, I didn’t want to invade his person in a way that would harm him. It turned out that he likes the attention. In many ways it gives him protection, as he is known and there are people looking out for him. That is not the case for most people in his situation.
I had hoped to give a voice, albeit mine, to this group of people who don’t really have a voice, and in particular a voice for my brother.

2. Rick Sings deals with the personal subject matter of family and mental illness. Yet, I would suggest that the poems are more akin to Carolyn Forché’s Poetry Of Witness. Rick Sings is neither completely personal nor overtly political. Instead it seems to operate in this “social” sphere, one that, as Forché writes, lives “between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal.” Can you talk a little about how your work might function in this “social” space—a realm that links deeply observed personal moments to a larger context?

Harry Schearer used to advise us on his radio show, Le Show, to be aware of the homeless in our community because after all, we are driving through their living room. We share “the commons”, the parks, the streets, the sidewalks with the mentally ill and homeless, so they’re not really unknown to us. You may see someone walking down the street wildly gesticulating while screaming or incomprehensively talking, sitting with a sign asking for money at the entrance of the local mall or you fill in the situation. These people are all around us but not really a part of us. When asked about Rick during readings; I sometimes say that if you saw him walking towards you on the street, you would probably look away from and avoid him.
I interact with Rick and observe how he interacts with his world. I also see how the world interacts with him. I was let into his world and gained access to many of these outsiders.
When I’m with Rick I have be mindful of what he’s saying and doing. Because of his disease, I have to translate and place it in the context of Rick. For example, he may be agitated with me. Rick is pretty much unable to tell me what’s wrong. It could be his check is late, he got beat-up, a group of drug dealers took over his hotel, or maybe someone has moved into his room. There are so many things that happen to people like Rick and for most part there is little recourse for them. So my job with Rick is to be very aware of what could be happening to him. As this happens so frequently with this group of people, my observations although personal have the weight of common experience. At least I hope so. I wrote the poems through this disciplined and concentrated lens.

3. One of the most compelling aspects of the work, I think, is the speaker’s voice—your voice—as you say in the brief preface, and the ability of that speaker to render these details in a profoundly compassionate manner. Can you talk a little about how you crafted that voice? Or, perhaps, how you developed that observant and compassionate approach in your writing?

Simplicity was what I wanted with this work. I wanted the book to be accessible to poets and non-poets. There was also a need for distance and my mental safety. “Safe personal space” was not necessarily the case in our family. I included poems about our early family life to describe why and where my voice came from. I also know that many people with Rick’s illness don’t have this background. Mental illness strikes people from all walks of life. And most people don’t have abuse in their experience at all. To accommodate as many people as I could, I combined my brother voice with my journalist voice and distilled it through my poetry voice.

4. There’s also a powerful urgency to the work. You sometimes forgo punctuation and the poems unfold at a rapid pace. Were these approaches intuitive? Did the poems undergo a lot of revision? Can you talk a little about your craft strategies in the book?

The poems went through a lot of revision. My process usually starts with notes and free form observation. Then start a poem. Revise. Revise. Revise. Then work-shopping. Then revision. Revision. Revision.
I am a minimalist. Less is always better for me. I try to move the poem along with the least distraction possible. Sometimes that means no punctuation.
The first seven poems tell you who’s speaking and where he came from. The seventh poem, Last Night, transitions to Rick but of course at the end reminds you it’s me speaking. The Rick poems are really one poem. As Rick is introduced and his story unfolds, I introduce people around Rick wherever they may be. On the beach promenade, downtown, at a fast food restaurant, in the park, etc… I recently talked with a young woman after she had read Rick Sings. Her brother suffers from schizophrenia as well. We talked a lot about the commonality of the experience and that we both watch homeless people. We both watch the police when they’re arresting the mentally ill or homeless to make sure our brothers aren’t being cuffed and stuffed into the back of a squad car.
After I’ve spun out the tale, I try for a summation of sorts. Drifting Through Lunch is about Rick’s friend Jesse’s arrest. Two Days Later is about sitting with Rick on a beach promenade two days after a schizophrenic episode. Then there’s a poem about taking Rick with me to the bank and finally the poem below, Rick Again. This is one of the older Rick poems. It’s here because it ends but doesn’t. Rick’s life continues and much hasn’t changed. As I write this, the hotel that Rick lives in has been yellow tagged. This means a scramble for housing as the holidays and Rick’s birthday approach. Rick doesn’t completely understand what’s happening and is stressed and angry. There’s a hotel full of people like him that are in the same situation. Hopefully, this situation rights itself before long and probably will. Then Rick gets to take the balloons home.

Rick Again
I leave you
with the voices
on the corner
in the bottle
you walk home
change your shirt
go to the park
talk to Jesus
eat the hot dogs
drink the punch
and take the balloons