It’s time for another interview with a fantastic writer. This month, it’s Phill Provance.
In addition to his most recent poetry collection A Plan in Case of Morning (Vine Leaves Press), Phill’s books include two works of nonfiction, A Brief History of Woodbridge, New Jersey (The History Press 2019) and Postcards of McHenry County, Illinois (The History Press 2021), the poetry chapbook The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky (Cy Gist 2010), and the comic strip The Adventures of Ace Hoyle (MediaTier 2008-2010). Before completing his MFA in Poetry and Fiction at WV Wesleyan College, he studied English and Irish literature at Bethany College and Oxford University. Born and raised in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, he now lives near Chicago.
Welcome to the Fountain Pen, Phill – tell us how your writing career began.
As an undergrad, I placed in a small contest and had a summer externship for the Baltimore Sun. After, I interned for Wizard Entertainment’s InQuest Gamer then became full-time editorial staff, before the Great Recession hit and InQuest was discontinued. I continued freelancing for Wizard while working as an assistant archivist at the local library and attending NYU for journalism before I was hired as a writer by a Czech company, MediaTier, and was eventually promoted to executive editor for developing the online comic series The Adventures of Ace Hoyle for them.
From the encouragement of early mentors Joe Weil and Marvin Bell, I started publishing poems and reviews in smaller journals like decomP, Word Riot, and Orbis (in the UK), and met poet Zachary Schomburg. Zach mentored me via email and got me involved in the Brooklyn poetry scene of the early 2000s, where I met several great poets and artists, including Mark Lamoureux – whose micro-press, Cy Gist, published my chapbook, The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky – and Shelton Walsmith who hosted my launch reading at his studio. Hanging out in an East Village pub, one day, I ended up sharing a cigarette with my future agent, Lukas Ortiz. Not long after that, I was invited by who would eventually be my son’s mother, poet Allison Eir Jenks, to join her poetry social-media site. By that point I had already more or less begun writing A Plan in Case of Morning, but it would still be many years before I got together all the material I wanted to include in it.
Poetry, comic books, and non-fiction! Did you choose them, or did they choose you?
I don’t know that I discriminate between genres and audiences. I started out as a journalist, wrote comic strips for a while after that, then started doing poetry, and nonfiction histories for The History Press. Growing up with a tradesman for step-father, I developed a strong sense of writing as an intellectual trade and the view that any writer worth his salt must be able to write whatever he can get a contract to write. It’s like a stonemason or bricklayer: a master doesn’t hold out for the grand cathedral but will just as soon build a parking lot if that’s the contract at hand. Each has its own conventions and its own wiggle room for artistic license.
In my nonfiction I’ve experimented with epistolary narrative; in my poetry with form, genre and montage narrative; in my comics with breaking the gutter. As long as you know the conventions well, there’s always plenty of room to colour outside the lines and innovate. I also have a novel I’ve been working on of and on since about 2014, and that’s historical fiction written in a late-18th, early-19th century idiom – and maintaining accuracy with that is a tall order for a writer about two centuries removed from that period. In some way I need these little experiments though. Even academic and hard-news articles I’ve written in the past play with conventions here and there. Wouldn’t life be boring, for the reader and me, if everything were strictly colour-by-numbers?
How do you approach a new project? Are you a plotter or a pantser, or somewhere in between? Where you do get your ideas?
I don’t follow one particular process but let the work find its own process. With poetry, that tends to mean letting each piece come as it comes organically and revising and revising until I have enough polished gems to make a collection, then sitting down with the pieces and feeling out the inherent structure, the underlying logic, connecting them. I The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky, that underlying logic formed a day-in-the-life structure; in Plan it formed a hero tale.
In prose nonfiction, in contrast, I research the topic thoroughly, then compile a long list of facts as a sort of skeleton on which to build the more interesting aspects of the writing. Usually, it’s in this process of compiling and organizing facts that I find overarching narratives buried within the seemingly random details of the archive and am able to flesh out the human drama from there.
I guess it comes down to this almost laughable romantic notion of letting the work guide itself. From a psychological perspective, the creation of art is an intuitive process–and the literary artist is no exception: sometimes you choose a word not because it’s the best according to the dictionary but just because it feels right. For me trying to build a book block by block, like one does a Lego model, would simply be disastrous because each book has to arrive on its own terms. Along the way, you learn things about the next book you haven’t even thought about writing yet.
Have you considered how Covid-19 will affect your writing? Has it already?
COVID has put a lot of fear in me – and a lot of loneliness. To be honest, I haven’t been within ten feet of anyone but my son, his mother and her boyfriend in a year, and while that’s doable because, due to my writing, editing and teaching contracts, I make enough to pay the bills as an utter hermit, I won’t deny that I miss the rest of humanity. During this long, cold slog to vaccination, I just keep reminding myself that there will be one hell of a party when we’ve finally all gotten stuck and can breathe again freely and without fear again. But, in the meantime, I do feel my recent work becoming more cynical, more angry, less playful and humorous than it was before. I hope this isn’t a permanent state. Lord knows, I know I’m lucky. But who knows what lasting trauma will linger with us after this terrible moment in history has passed.
How did your relationship with Vine Leaves Press begin? Was it a conscious decision to work with a small press rather than a Big 5 or self-publishing route?
I was helping one of my most talented workshop students, Cooper Lysek-Gomez, search for journals to submit to and came across Vine Leaves Journal, to which we both submitted. Jessica ended up taking pieces from us both for the final coffee table-book issue of Vine Leaves Journal, and after that, I stayed in touch as she built Vine Leaves Press, taken immediately with the quality of the covers and layout she and the rest of the Vine Leaves team produced. After finishing my MFA, then, I asked if she’d mind if I submitted my thesis, A Plan in Case of Morning , without being particularly hopeful she’d say yes. At the time, I had the book out to several contests and a handful of other indies and university presses, and I had another taker, but they wanted me to add 30 pages to the collection and make drastic changes to the format. So it was a great relief when I got the good news from Jessica that they wanted Plan for Vine Leaves just the way it was.
What’s next for you?
Surviving COVID and attending that crazy post-COVID party I mentioned. If that’s by this summer (and hopefully it is), I’ll consider maybe doing some live readings because I miss those and have missed doing them for Plan since it launched during the pandemic. Otherwise, well, I suppose I’ll just keep writing and reading stuff and being a dad. What else is there?
I’m sure we’ll all be having a huge party when we’re able! Hopefully we’ll be back to normal so you can have some one-year anniversary readings instead. Thanks for joining me today, Phill.