Former and current Drew University professors take center stage
March 2023 – Writers@Drew hosted a special in-person installment, welcoming Patrick Phillips, former English professor at Drew University, and current adjunct professor Kannan Mahadevan.
The event was organized and guided by Courtney Zoffness, assistant professor of English and director of Drew’s creative writing program.
Phillips’ first nonfiction book, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, was named a best book of the year by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and the Smithsonian. His book Elegy for a Broken Machine appeared in the Knopf Poets series in 2015 and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Phillips is also the author of Chattahoochee, Boy, and the newly-published Song of the Closing Doors. He is a Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University.
“This is a campus that I love and a place where I had a very happy writing and teaching life,” said Phillips of his 10-year career at Drew.
He read several poems from Song of the Closing Doors, a collection paying homage to his many years as a New Yorker and life events that transpired during that time. “The whole book is a love poem to New York City,” he said.
Mahadevan teaches a Short Fiction Workshop at Drew. He is a former fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, and Racquet. He has taught creative writing workshops for the University of Iowa and the Berlin Writers’ Workshop.
He read an excerpt from his new novel, Work and Days.
The authors then fielded questions from an audience of students, faculty, and staff.
One student asked if the writers incorporate real people and experiences into their work.
“I definitely do,” said Mahadevan. “This is where all my fiction writing comes from. When I write, I try not to think about what their opinion will be after they read it. I always plead that they’ve been transformed in the writing and they’re fictional characters now.”
“I’ve always written about my family,” echoed Phillips. “The impulse to write came from the desire to go back [to childhood] and think about it all.”
When asked about their writing processes, the two authors pointed to revising as central to project completion.
“I constantly correct and revise as I write,” said Mahadevan. “By the time I’ve done a draft, it’s fairly developed.”
“As a poet, I’m a tinkerer,” said Phillips. “I compose in a terrified rush and I get up and run away. I then revise rapturously.”
“As a prose writer, I wrote a non-fiction book that was under a deadline and was terrified. I gave myself a rule that I was only allowed to go back to revise one day. I could go back to yesterday’s work and tinker, but I was not allowed to go back further.” Through this process, he found the ability to move forward.
Another student asked about the most difficult topics they’ve addressed in their work.
“To write an ending for people whose lives are still ongoing,” answered Mahadevan. “I found it incredibly difficult to impose an ending. That was one place where I could not draw from life anymore.”
“Figuring out where I go in my writing,” said Phillips. “As a poet, I like to be a watcher and observer. Involving myself is difficult. It’s much easier to sit back and look at the rest of the world and not implicate yourself. I constantly want to paint the scene without me as if I fell from the skies.”
When asked how the authors counter writers’ block, Mahadavan said he tends to cook and procrastinate. “I wait until the end of the day to see if I’m in the right mindset—yet.”
Phillips shared a quote from fiction writer Richard Bausch, who said, “The cure for writer’s block is to lower your standards.”
Working on multiple projects helps Phillips when he feels stuck. “Because I have a short attention span, I keep a lot of things in process at the same time.”
The free event was co-sponsored by The Casement Fund and the English Department.