Alumnus returns to discuss writing inspirations

Growing up in Columbia, Missouri, Philip Schaefer spent his summers in Current River, where he camped, swam and hung out with his friends. He said he now realizes the way he grew up plays a role in where he lives today, which is one of the writing topics Schaefer pursues.

He studied at Truman State University and then took off to Nashville, then spent several years in Chicago where he worked nights at bars and restaurants and wrote in the morning. He attempted several types of writing, but poetry became his go-to.

“It felt less like a choice and more like a muse pulling my hair and saying, ‘you’re coming this way,’” Schaefer said.

He said it was really formative, and that is why he started to appreciate and invest himself in nature. He said living in Montana has given him time and distance to reflect on Missouri life and how it has shaped who he is and where he is now.

When he was a Truman student, he majored in philosophy and religion with an English minor. It wasn’t until his junior year that he decided to pursue creative writing.

He took a poetry course with Joe Benevento, professor of English, who introduced Schaefer to a lot of classical and contemporary poets. The creative writing classes that really got under his skin were with English professor Jamie D’Agostino.

“I really just latched on to [D’Agostino’s] voice, his style of teaching, his poetic engagement and use of language that just seemed natural to him, like he didn’t have to think about what he was saying,” Schaefer said. “It was just really a part of his presence, and I was just completely enthralled with it.”

D’Agostino also introduced him to tons of poets, including Mary Ruefle, Tony Hoagland, Mark Yakich, Robert Bly and Robert Hass. Ruefle was the first person who used language in a way Schaefer didn’t understand, but he fell in love with it because it was so alluring. Schaefer said she had the ability to captivate him through association and strong image without giving an explanation. That connection continues through his work.

“I find that the senses are the most basic sort of primordial way of understanding our existence, and I hone in on the visual, the tactile, the things you can smell and taste, all of that, in a way that I take pleasure in,” Schaefer said.I think it’s a way we can relate to each other without necessarily having to extract some particular meaning or some sort of acute interpretation of the text.”

Those ideas followed Schaefer after he graduated Truman in 2008. He took time away from academics and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, for a year and then moved to Chicago. He had been in Chicago for four years when he decided to apply to graduate schools for writing. He was accepted into the University of Montana in Missoula, where he still lives. He is a bartender and works at a distillery and a restaurant in town. He hopes to one day open up his own restaurant.

Schaefer found his writing voice by reading, listening, workshopping and viewing other people’s work. He juggled writing poetry and working full-time. Schaefer also leads several community poetry workshops that focus on generating material, editing and staying as weird as possible. He said, in that way, one can remain a few feet outside of one’s own headspace. That was what he strove for when he wrote his own poetry, and those poems eventually led to his first published book of poetry, “Bad Summon,” which was released Aug. 1, 2017.

“I found inspiration everywhere,” Schaefer said. “From my days in Missouri to Chicago to out here in Montana to the nine corners of my imagination.”

Schaefer is currently shopping around his second manuscript, currently titled “Salvation Party,” which takes places in Montana and Missouri, in both America and Americana. He said poetry doesn’t take place — it takes over places, it is the place and  it wears the geographical face.

Schaefer suggests reading a lot, even if the books are difficult and confusing at first. He recommends finding trustworthy readers to provide feedback and not be afraid to remove things that don’t work. He also says that writers should learn to accept rejection because it is part of the writing world.

“I say that you have to be persistent and you have to wear those rejections and failures like badges and keep going forward,” Schaefer said. “But, ultimately, trust yourself, be confident, but also know that it’s hard and long, and it’s a sacred thing that is meant for you and to keep that close by.”

Schaefer will read selected poems from “Bad Summon” at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, April 26 in the Student Union Building Activities Room. “Truth to Music: We Owe Reality Nothing,” a craft talk, will take place at 12:30 p.m. the following day in the SUB Activities Room.