Maddy: Hi, I’m Maddy Fisher and this is Crossing the Rubicon, SPAs poetry podcast. In this episode, I will be interviewing English teacher Philip de Sa e Silva about his experience with poetry.
de Sa e Silva: I’m Philip de Sa e Silva. I am an English teacher at SPA and my pronouns are he/him/his.
Maddy: Can you describe your introduction to poetry, if you can remember it at all? Sort of your initial reactions and experience.
de Sa e Silva: Yeah, so my very early introduction to poetry I think came from my parents or family members. I think when I was like a little kid, my parents would occasionally read something from a poetry book, like poetry for children. I remember the Joyce Kilmer poem Trees a lot. And I think I had a deal with my parents where if I memorized a poem I got a dollar or something. I think I might have only done it like twice, but that’s something I remember early on. I don’t know if I was necessarily reading a lot of poetry on my own at that point, but that was kind of my early encounter.
Maddy: What would you say your experience was like with poetry in school, and how did that change over time?
de Sa e Silva: I think my experience studying poetry in school was really important and I think it was a huge factor in why I became an English teacher. I actually don’t remember reading a lot of poetry in elementary school. I actually don’t have any memories of reading poetry in elementary school and not really too much in middle school either. I think toward the end of high school, we have some sort of small encounters; like in my American Literature class we read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which I think no one really understood. I took a French literature class when I was a junior in high school, and I think that was the switch for me. We read fables by Jean de la Fontana and poetry by Baudelaire and Apollinaire and other French poets and I just remember loving reading French poetry so much, in a way that I hadn’t before. Maybe it’s because I just hadn’t had too many poetry reading experiences before, but I think I had a really creative teacher who taught us about poetic devices in a way that made the poetry to me seem extremely rich and meaningful and like this beautifully crafted work of art. That kind of got me started and then when I was in college, I was an English major, and most of my focus ended up being on poetry as well. It’s funny, I think because I’m actually, you know if you can say that someone’s like a poetry person or a fiction person or a drama person, I think I’m really more of a fiction person, that’s what I usually pick up and that’s what I read for fun, but I think as a student, as a younger student at least, I was more of a poetry person.
Maddy: Was there something specific about the French poems you mentioned that caught your eye or was it more how the class was taught?
de Sa e Silva: Well, I guess it was both. I was going to say a lot of it had to do with the way the class was taught because I think it was the first time I felt like literature was presented in a methodical way where there were specific tools that someone could use to approach reading something difficult. My teacher was maybe unusual in this way; he had us memorize the International Phonetic Alphabet and then we had a test where he gave us a sonnet in French and we had to transcribe it in IPA. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this, it’s so strange, but his reasoning was that he wanted our pronunciation to be better and also for us to be noticing things as specific as sounds in a poem and what effect they had. I think the part of the approach I really liked was attention to detail. I was really into that, and that comes across in my own teaching too. As far as the poetry itself, I think that type of poetry, or at least the type of literature, type of French literature that I remember being taught in high school, it was pretty heavily symbolic. That made it really fun to analyze; I think I remember then trying to read some like American poetry that was not as symbolic and being like, if this doesn’t represent something then I don’t know what it means. Poetry can be doing lots of different things but I think symbolism was a really good gateway.
Maddy: How often would you say you interact with poetry? Do you read poetry, do you write poetry? How are they different, if you do both?
de Sa e Silva: I never write poetry. I do read it, but rarely. I think it has to do with what I’m teaching, so I think most of what I read during the school year is inspired by whatever I’m teaching at that point and so when I’m teaching a poetry class then I’m reading more poetry; I’m reading books about poetry. This year I have been teaching, basically all fiction, all year. The exception is that in American Literature in the fourth quarter we’ll be focusing exclusively on poetry, so I think my reading habits will change over spring break. But otherwise, I think within the past couple of years in particular, I have not been reading as much poetry. I just go through phases, I think.
Maddy: You said you didn’t write poetry. Is that a constant? Have you tried writing poetry before? What was that experience like?
de Sa e Silva: I tried to write a poem once in high school because one of my friends was writing poetry in this way that I thought was super compelling. They were messing with fonts and different word sizes and I was like I’m all about this. And so I think I tried it and I hated it and stopped. I have not been writing recently. I think a lot of my writing in school was focusing on more academic writing or criticism; that type of that type of writing which I really enjoyed a lot. I think actually making stuff on my own was something that I was too intimidated or afraid of doing.
Maddy: This is kind of a hard question, but do you have a favorite poet or favorite poem? Or maybe just like a couple lines that you’d be willing to share that you really like.
de Sa e Silva: There are lots of things that I like or that I turn back to, or that I really enjoy teaching students. I’ll go through titles first and then I can maybe think about poets and then I can think about lines. I love the James Merrill poem Christmas Tree, which is told from the point of view of a Christmas tree that’s been chopped down for Christmas and is decorated, but it’s slowly dying. It tends to be read as the poet coming to terms with having AIDS and aging and it’s really moving and sad. I like a lot of Walt Whitman and Shakespeare’s sonnets. I went through a really big Sylvia Plath phase, I think when I was starting college. I’ve been thinking a lot about Emily Dickinson recently for whatever reason. I think the Auden poem Musée des Beaux Arts I also think about a lot and I enjoyed teaching. That’s the one about a painting by Bruegel called Landscape with the Fall of Icarus where it’s sort of a landscape and has this tiny little splash in the corner which is Icarus falling out of the sky and drowning. One of the things the poem is about is how suffering is always happening around us, but it’s happening in these kind of casual, invisible ways that are easy not to pay attention to or that are kind of happening off-center. I think that’s one of my favorites. I wish I had something good about specific lines but I think the lines that I think about it’s not that they necessarily mean anything in particular but I think there’s something about the way they sound that sticks with me. I think there’s something about poetry that I’ve always found to be true; I think that there’s like a famous Wallace Stevens line about this and other people have probably said something similar but just the idea that poetry is funny because you can read it and have almost no idea what’s going on, and it will still do something to you and that’s so cool.
Maddy: That was all of my questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add or something else you’d like to talk about?
de Sa e Silva: I think, just as a plug for poetry, for maybe people who don’t like it or haven’t had good experiences; I think there’s a helpful comparison to be made between like poetry as a mode and music as a mode because I think people will sometimes say that they don’t like poetry, but I think saying you don’t like poetry is kind of like saying you don’t like music; it’s kind of a weird generalization to make. I think there’s something for everyone, and it just might not necessarily be what you come across in school or in a class. It’s really satisfying to find a poet or a poem that does resonate and so if you haven’t had that experience yet, you know, just have faith, it is possible, you just kind of have to be patient and and look around for it.
Maddy: Thank you to Philip de Sa e Silva for sharing his story. Once again, I’m Maddy Fisher and this has been Crossing the Rubicon.
Adding The Sun by Kevin MacLeod