January 10th, 2024

Forum Chat
Amy Wilson interviews poet Philip Raisor | June 2023

Five poems from Rented Lives

Scar Tissue

I see myself running down a pock-marked street with pimples
the size of oranges on my back. Someone is chasing me.

I look behind and I see mathematical equations and a few
words in Spanish. The day is night-colored and I have to jump

over neon bulbs that flash warnings about invading cockroaches
and falsified bills of sale. In my hand I carry a hand missing

all of its fingers and a paint brush I can’t hold on to. I curse
in French and manage to slip into a forest where I sprout

branches. At brunch or communion, I listen to my father’s
lecture on ownership. I awaken to green sheets tucked under

my chin. I’m exhausted. Dreams are bounced checks. Dreams
are showdowns. During the day I walk slowly, a touch

of John Wayne swagger. At night I run, as I have since
I was thirteen my face cut open at third base by a sliding

steel spike, and a nurse holding me with tears. I learned
empathy then. For years I was ugly, empathy a companion,

until college when sports hardened me, as did graduate school,
as did marriage, as did the years when banks said pay now

or you lose all, as did the night a tenant held a gun to my face
until he stopped shaking. I can be kindly—when someone’s

condition hauls me back into memory, but I tend to
to first sentences only. I know your name but I’m not good
at facial recognition. I won’t remember you.


You’re two months behind, in arrears, abaft.
That’s blood on the tail of an unforgiving sun.

Let’s say you’re a dried-up umbilical stump,
diaper refuse, the last thing a father smells
on his way out.

  is where we come from, and I signed
  an open-ended lease, so you can’t get
  cash-in-hand from my absence
  and expect me to pay for jurors
  who would judge me a grifter or worse.
  I am a tenant of the earth, alive or dead,
  and if anything you should pay me
       for my resolve.

I walk-thru your sad necromancy—
a Lug Life clock, one soleless sandal,
a hieroglyph of owls in the corner.

You say your deposit should be returned.
I have seen a Laughing Falcon disappear
in the Rain Forest. We take nothing with us
but our plumage and the number of years
we survive. I am sixty-five. Go now.

After the Move-Out

I’ve listened in. Watched from the hallway.
Walls smell like the inside of old shoes.

From the empty kitchen a grinning songster
intones “Solamente Una Vez,” and then breaks

for tea time (you’re kidding!). Old Chen stirs
chá from Shishi, Pedro thickens té from Mérida,

Buckhead adds a dab of Johnny Walker
to a jar from Aaron’s Pantry, Turkeytown, TN.

“Any juicy orange chunks in that mess
y’all brew?” and the endless squabble resumes,

cheap shots as regional and universal
as harvesting arugula in the fall. Who will be

the first to fart-laugh, miss the corner spittoon,
scribble Puszy under the KilZ, check the clock?

Time. Slowly, from cracked linoleum, they rise
in a strained harmonious stanza of grunts,

a United Nation of hands reaching for other
hands to pull them up. They vote aye,

and then like maps of other countries, turn
toward their place in the universe. The floor

needs sanding, change locks, replace blinds,
separate strong from delicate teas.

Advertising a Recent Availability

Apt.2, now vacant, a marvelous space where walls laugh 
at starting-over jokes and bad dreams lick the poison behind  

the stove and die. Rooms are cooled by a mostly quiet AC,
the doors have dead-bolts, your neighbor has a photo signed

by Spiro Agnew, and in the laundry shed soap dispensers
occasionally work. Don’t worry about the scratching behind

baseboards. We welcome guests without a green card.
For all tenants, empathy, that wonderful word, empathy

brings us together in the backyard for a summer cook-out.
A chance to hear the face that walks by your window

every morning toward the ’91 chevy (WASH ME, PLEASE).
She smiles, does not mention the bruise under her eye. 

Maybe the old man in the lawn chair will talk about Trotsky
or explain the mysterious origins of dolomite. Maybe

the landlord will show up, a return of the knight-errant.
You have to have a place to live. You have tried the hollows

of a distant alley, a warm cuddling in a mother’s armpit,
the underbelly of a tanker. For a life that’s always elsewhere, 

you have mastered homelessness, anonymous, on the move. 
You are your own home until walls fall down. Then the dark 

isn’t where it was yesterday. We do paperwork. The closets,
tub, bedroom floors are as clean as a maternity ward.

Find your own way here. You can stand in sunlight
in the kitchen and wail like you’ve been born again, again.

Cerberus’ Growl

No hell. No Zodiac cycles. No Baskervilles, our apartments
are civilized, modern mess allowed: aerosol mist, popcorn,

closet laundry, dumbbells, sink dishes, unmade beds, stacked
calendars, comic books, and no dogs. A mouse may sneak in

under a cabinet, squirrels may thump in the attic, flies fly,
but no Shug Monkeys haunt the stairways or Black Shucks

howl or prowl. No dogs. If one, sauntering by on the sidewalk
with master in-hand, squats in our bottlebrush bushes, prickly,

no harm, but next time pooch may swerve from the posted sign

          No Dogs Allowed


Amy Wilson interviews poet Philip Raisor

ASW: Good afternoon Phil, thanks for joining us at Forum for a chat about your latest  poetry collection, Rented Lives. These poems explore the tenant-landlord relationship and in doing so, you dually examine the cultural underpinnings of what it means to be a “renter” in the United States and how it feels to be a member of this class of persons known as “renters.” This is a compelling and unique topic to spelunk the depths of in a poetry collection. Talk to me about the impetus for writing about this subject through the lens of a tenant narrator.

PR: Hi, Amy, good to be with you, and thanks for asking me to talk a bit about my recent work. I have been happily submerged in a number of projects for a couple of years, and it’s a pleasure to be the seal rising at a breathing hole.

Rented Lives is a completed collection of poems about the world of landlord and tenants. Since I didn’t approach that subject as an ideologue, perhaps a bit of context here would be helpful. I was a faculty member at Old Dominion University, when my wife, who was a journalist and tracked real estate sales for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, piqued our interest in owning some apartment buildings. We did get involved and I became a landlord for almost thirty years, while also continuing my academic and writing careers. Now, we’re out of real estate, I’m retired, and I have time to look back and assess.

I have to admit, Langston Hughes poem, “The Ballad of the Landlord,” hovered over me all those years:

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak,
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

I spent conscientious hours keeping ahead of last week, but the issues were always deeper than fixing ceiling tiles and clogged drains, which brings me to your point about “cultural underpinnings.” For many people, renting is merely a stage in their economic lives. They are students or divorced or just starting or leaving a job or military or credit challenged or ex-cons or voucher families or on and on. Most of us have rented in our lives, and we didn’t feel like we were in a class; we were in-transition. The landlord, corporation, banking system which collected our money weren’t better than we were. They had power and we, well we, had to have patience because they had a lease and lawyers and, so it seemed, the law on their side. For most of us that didn’t matter. We spent our rental lives without confrontations. We wanted a good, clean place to live, and a landlord that would provide it.

For many people, that is not the story they would tell about their time as tenants.

As we know, this arrangement in America is part of a capitalistic system, which Chris Hedges observes, in Wages f Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, has become a kind of corporate totalitarianism. Renters are workers and workers are oppressed. Rents are always too high, services are spotty, managers are absent. I didn’t set out to test that premise, but I was interested in the vast gap between so-called managers and victims. I thought I would set up the situation where the owner was thrown in with the tenants, a kind of reverse Rome’s Colesseum. Eventually, I decided not to make it so dramatic and simply have the landlord, recently separated, move in to the apartment complex—and see what happens to him and them when basically he is living with the other tenants. 

ASW: In Rented Lives, I hear echoes of the outsiders and rebels from your collection, (one of eight I might add), That Naked Country. What is your take of “renters” in these poems? Do you write about them as cultural outsiders? Those locked out of the American Dream?

PR: In That Naked Country (Standing Stone Books, 2019) I am concerned with the insider forced to the outside, and in Rented Lives I am concerned with the outsider forced to the inside. I am playing a bit with words here, but in both collections my interest is in the dynamic by which people are driven to discover themselves and act accordingly. In Naked Country, for example, Emmeline Pankhurst is goaded from her privileged life to take on a leadership role in Britain’s women’s movement of the 1920’s. In Rented Lives, my landlord, who doesn’t spend time with his tenants, must do so when he moves into one of his own empty apartments.

The truth is, of course, that not everyone rises to rebel against an oppressive system, even at the urging of the Boston Tea Party patriots or the Black Panther Movement. And self-doubt and self-serving don’t disappear automatically when one discovers that empathy is part of one’s character. I feel, I guess, that the panorama of historical lives (Prometheus, Nero, Bacon, to Charlottesville) in the earlier book, and the exploration of the inner life of the narrator in the current one, tracks my primary interest. What happens when the passion for community reform meets the individual’s need for self-fulfillment? In one of the poems, I have Woody Guthrie address that particular issue:

                       I can’t
stop thinking this land is our land—of gandy dancers,
broke dicks, gritters; we can’t put a hand out, we can’t

get a hand in. My head spins like a shadow boxer
in a granary. How do we get a time card, a paycheck,
a night-on-the-town. “I ache and pain and bleed,”
says Woody. Yeah, and we got born just to bear it.

In the end, Woody says what he is willing to accept: “Lady, / we got people to find, love to find, before we love.”

In Rented Lives my narrator has to face the dissolution of his marriage, his own reticence about being a landlord, and an attack on his property by a local gang. My approach has always been more narrative than lyrical, but the more he finds out about his tenants the more self-reflection is required. As a person who first sees a tenant’s eviction as merely “blood on the tail of an unforgiving sun,” to one who says that “I have a life now / both separate and engaged, transformed / by what has changed,” the owner is willing to see his tenants as individuals and their needs as different.

He comes to think of all of us as renters rather than owners of our lives.

ASW: Talk to me about your writing process of the collection. Are you a poet who adheres to a word count per day quota? A free ranger agent who lets the muse move you to write only? Something in between?

PR: As with most writers these days, I squeeeeeezed in writing before or after my day job(s), but now I arrange my day jobs (yard work, golf, to-do lists, etc.) around my writing. My routine varies, but I carry with me at all times a notepad, phone recorder, and memory pills to be sure that anything that is useful in my head doesn’t escape in a heartbeat. The middle of the night? Push a button. A line of poetry with morning coffee and yogurt is fine. However, once I do get settled, I am a long-distance runner until I start to stumble and find myself running backwards. Then I quit and take a swim.

I would say that with each work I start on, I think through to a certain point, and then I let the material and my subconscious run on, sometimes gripping me like a water bottle. By now, I think I know when my mind is simply pushing forward, and anything I write today will have to be severely revised (or tossed) tomorrow. That means I have had to learn patience. Quit for the day when nothing fresh is happening on the page. Thus, one page one day and seven another. I think I have learned to enjoy being in the middle of a poem or story and not desperate to get to the end. Revision, I find, is the most enjoyable track of all to run around in.

ASW: A shift of gears here. You implemented the Old Dominion University writing program in 1978. What do you believe university writing programs offer new poets and authors? And, what advice do you offer young authors who dream of that first book—and what the cover will look like?

PR: We didn’t have any creative writing courses at ODU in 1977, though a few faculty members and students wished we did. Kick forward a year, and as serendipity would have it, we had both undergraduate and graduate courses, a visiting writer (Pulitzer prize winning poet W. D. Snodgrass), relocation of the AWP home office to our campus, a new fiction position, and an annual Literary Festival (now in its 46th year). My article (“Amazing Grace: The AWP/ODU Years”) on that euphoric time appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle in May, 2002. I served on the Board of AWP off and on during its seventeen years at ODU.

As our program and others grew during the past several decades, I came to understand that sharing had become an important part of the creative process. Not everyone will agree that handing over a draft to others or mingling with hundreds of writers at an annual meeting in Seattle or Oklahoma City is essential to getting the work down on the page, but substantial scholarship funding, workshops, online communities, open and celebratory readings, regional panels, writing centers, Friends of MFA support groups, and other unifying programs attest to a desire for apprentice and mature writers and their readers to join together. Tough mindedness, selecting friends carefully, and controlling time are now a part of the young writer’s portfolio. I know, I know, you just wanted to write the poem. Why all of this interaction? Many, many young writers coming out of these creative writing programs are publishing fine first books and even prize-winning work. Something must be in the water.

ASW: You are quite prolific. In addition to Rented Lives, what other works can we look forward to from you in the near future?

PR: Don’t let anyone tell you that writing is not a life-long experience and that you will burn out before you retire. I agree that happened to me with playing basketball and running a business. Maybe in my last year of teaching, I lost the sharpness I had tried to hone every year.

You will only stop writing if the fire to live burns out. You may need an additional desire to want to be recognized for the quality of your work. You will need to care, give a damn, about the world you live in. I think that state of mind has kept me on a track to continue to write and publish. Having completed Rented Lives, I am now concluding revisions of another collection of poems, The Breathing Season. Also, I am halfway through a hybrid work of poems, flash fiction, short stories, and essays. Great fun! And, if the opportunity arises (which I am working on) I will submit a revised version of my memoir Outside Shooter (2003) to a publisher interested in a re-print. March Madness comes every year.

Thanks, Amy, for the opportunity to talk with you.

About the author: Philip Raisor has published eight books, most recently That Naked Country (2019). Outside Shooter: A Memoir (2003) and Headhunting and Other Sports Poems (2014) were influenced by the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements of the 1960s (as well as the fact that he played with Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas). His collection, Swimming in the Shallow End (2013), was nominated for the Poet’s Prize, and Hoosiers the Poems (2013) won the Palooka Press Chapbook Prize. His edited volume of essays on W. D. Snodgrass was published in 1999. Raisor’s literary work has appeared in Southern Review, Sewanee Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry East, Aethlon, Chautauqua, Poet Lore, The Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. His essays on Shelley, Browning, Joyce, and Faulkner have been published in numerous scholarly journals. He has taught at Louisiana State, Valparaiso, Kent State, and Old Dominion University, and now lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. See philipraisor.com.