Written by guest blogger, Elisabeth Lewis Corley.
Gary Phillips, a life-long North Carolinian born in Appalachia and long-term resident of Chatham County, is the 2016-2018 poet laureate of Carrboro, North Carolina. He is a writer, naturalist, and entrepreneur with a special interest in conservation and land-protective strategies. He is also a real estate broker with Weaver Street Realty, which he co-founded over thirty years ago. He lives in a rammed earth house with his wife Ilana Dubester in the Silk Hope woods of Chatham County. Phillips avidly reads poetry and anthropological science fiction, studies amphibian activities on full moon nights, and was once chair of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the seventies, he was a Morehead-Cain scholar who left halfway through his senior year because, as he puts it, “The whole school experience was preparing me for a life I didn’t want.” What brought him back to complete a degree in American Studies was the opportunity to work with the renowned poet Alan Shapiro, whose poetry classes were always full two years in advance, but who offered Phillips a place in his new memoir class, which gave him a chance to review the history of Appalachia, where his people come from and where he was born and brought up, which led to some of the works—poetry, memoir, essay—collected in his 2016 book The Boy The Brave Girls. He describes the collection as “a way for me to clean out the attic of my mind.”
The book deals with deep veins of memory, family, place. From “Memory That OleFool.”
The photograph says 1955. That’s me and cousin Norma, 3 years old,
buck-naked and running off to explore some wide side-stream of
White Oak Creek, surely, drinking Nature and Nurture, cossetted
inside a sprawling multi-racial Appalachian tribe, with wildness at every hand.
Note that “surely.” He’s talking about memory, now, and maybe it was White Oak Creek. Maybe not. And what has side-streams more than memory? Well, maybe White Oak Creek. Phillips’s work asks you to enter into a relationship with the speaker of his poems, a “relationship between the teller and the seen or unseen listener, and the relationship between the listener and all the tales that construct who they are.” Then he points to a picture that is not in the book but might as well be. “That’s my Dad there, with his sister Ethel.”
He is currently at work on a volume of poetry for Spring 2019 tentatively entitled Mr. Weiner’s Synchronicity Bell, dealing with the role of remarkable coincidence.
In his current role as Poet Laureate of Carrboro he has heavy and time-consuming responsibilities for bringing poetry into the public life of Carrboro, including organizing the West End Poetry Festival and leading the meetings of the Carrboro Poet’s Council. So, naturally, he decided to add the reading of a poem at the beginning of the meetings of the Board of Aldermen every Tuesday night. It is the first thing on the agenda.
“I don’t sleep much,” Phillips says. “And I needed to choose a profession that allows me to choose how much time to put in where.” So he chose several.
FROM THE ARTIST
Full Name: Gary Phillips
I live: in Silk Hope
I knew I was a writer: Always. I did the usual things: started a journal when I was seventeen. Still journaling. Almost everything starts in my journal. Edited the literary magazine in high school. It was never a question. I was sure.
My favorite poets are: Ah! No. Well, it has to be right now, otherwise I can’t. Right now. Evie Shockley. Tyree Daye. Naomi Shihab Nye.
Childhood memories: Most of my memories are wrapped up in my grandmothers—both of them outside the world in some way. My grandmother on my father’s side was half Cherokee and all hill witch. She was an herbalist in Yancey County, North Carolina, and post mistress of Bee Log, NC. We’d get up on a cold February morning and go looking for creasy greens. At the end of winter, she meant to get greens into her family at the earliest possible moment.
Some jobs I’ve had are: I’ve waited tables a lot. Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. That’s where I went when I left school. Lived on the marsh. Learned a lot from the Gullah workers in that kitchen. I worked as an auctioneer in Western Massachusetts. I was the pastor of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church for four years. I’ve been a County Commissioner. But that’s a longer story.
When I’m not writing, you might find me: Drinking. Ha! I’ve been a bartender almost all my life. And I’m an amateur naturalist, so you’ll definitely find me in the woods.
The craziest thing I ever did was: Possibly it was the move to Massachusetts with five other people—none of whom had known each other for more than six months—with the intent to form a model community. In that Amherst commune, among those five other people, was my future wife and the mother of my kids. It was the first time I had lived outside the South, and I stayed there almost four years. In the early days of that experiment, in 1978, we started a men’s group that is still active and meets for a full day every month. I go up about twice a year.
Possibly it was being a realtor in rural North Carolina and deciding to build a rammed earth, one thousand square foot house on land across the way from my best friend from college, Leif Diamant. Five young men built this with me and probably more like a dozen local artisans participated by the time we were done. It took four months to plan and eight months to build. The architect Giles Blunden, who specializes in sustainable design, collaborated with us. They talk about rammed earth houses simply melting back into the earth. I like that idea but I also like the idea that we’re still here—these houses last hundreds of years—and the walls are two foot thick.
Next on my bucket list is: You know, I hated leaving my farm on Castle Rock Farm Road. I always thought in my eighties I’d be puttering around with cows and sheep. Since I turned sixty, I’ve been taking things off of the bucket list. I do love to travel. My wife comes from Brazil and we go there every year. Not too long ago, I took a trip with my son. Prague, several cities in Germany. He wrote to me afterwards, “This trip will be a jewel in my heart for the rest of my life.” Who needs a bucket list?
On my bedside table you’ll find: Four or five books of Afro-Futurism. Vintage Octavia Butler. Two non-fiction books. That’s rare for me given how much I love fiction and poetry. Also The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch and The Power by Naomi Alderman.
Most people don’t know I: was a pastor.
My favorite places to go in Chatham County are: White Pines Nature Preserve, Haw River Natural Area, City Tap.
Three Chatham County artists I admire are: Salinda Dahl, Janice Reeves, Beth Goldston