Phillip Sterling has lived in West Michigan for a number of years. He has been a resident of the Lowell community since 2011. He enjoys retirement with his wife, taking care of the horses, dogs, cats, bees, and even a snake in addition to nature’s pets such as deer, birds, and squirrels. Sterling published his most recent book, Amateur Husbandry, earlier this fall and another set for release in March 2020.
A Love for Literature
Sterling has a long history of interest in literature. He is a Professor Emeritus at Ferris State University where, for 26 years, he taught American Literature. Since retirement in 2013 he has been taking care of things and animals around his house – and writing.
Out of boredom during a two-week blizzard in the early 1960’s Sterling spent several days writing his first novel. Without a TV and having run out of books to read and reread, he wrote. And wrote. His father even typed up the book which amounted to about three pages of paper. Upon returning to his seventh grade class, his English teacher was impressed and read what he wrote to the class.
His first poems came about in a similar manner. During his junior year in high school he and his friends were tired of “reading the same Shakespeare plays over and over” and thought writing poems were something “anyone could do”. This group of friends decided to write poems he describes as “awful, boys’-bathroom-style ditties and limericks” in part to impress a female student teacher who recently introduced the class to modern poetry. “The fun wore off for my buddies, once school was out and beach bumming began in earnest. I, however, started keeping journals, and, come fall, doubled up on my English classes, eventually deciding to apply to colleges as an English major.” he recalls.
Decades Publishing Works
In 2000 Sterling published his first book, Mutual Shores which is a collection of poetry. Previously he had been publishing individual poems, stories and non-fiction in magazines, literary journals and newspapers. After spending 30 years publishing his work in a variety of places, Sterling published his first book saying, “I’m a slow and deliberate writer, and so it took some time to collect enough things that I thought worked together as a book—not to mention that for the better part of those thirty years I was teaching full time and heavily involved in the lives of my first four children.” Following the publication of his first book he also published several chapbooks, which he describes as “small monographs under forty pages—which were unique groups or series (or sequences) of poems related by form or theme”.
Sterling has also published two anthologies. After teaching abroad in Belgium and Poland as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer he compiled and edited an anthology of creative works by other former Fulbrighters. Breads: Literature of Cultural Exchange was published in 2003 by Mammoth Books. The second anthology contained creative works by former Isle Royale artists-in-residence, a National Park Service program Sterling also participated in, which marked the 25th year of the program. Isle Royale from the AIR: Poems, Stories, and Songs from 25 Years of Artists-in-Residence was published in 2017 by Caffeinated Press.
Amateur Husbandry was released this past fall. It’s a collection of stories the size of paragraphs where the narrator “chronicles his marriage to a yellow horse”. “The stories are playful and sometimes silly on the surface, but full of subtle literary and natural science allusions and word play.” Sterling says of the book.
Short on Days will be the next book Sterling will publish. It will be released in March. It’s a “series of forty small poems written in and about February”. Main Street Rag Press will release the book which is currently available at a pre-order discount. Sterling indicates that it is sort of companion book to his 2017 release titled And Then Snow by the same publisher. The 2017 book consists of a series of 30 November poems and 31 January poems.
Upcoming Poetry Workshops
Creating something new, especially with language, makes Sterling feel as if he’s able to interact with and be part of the world. This is why he enjoys writing. “There’s pleasure in having purpose.” he says. Sterling is looking forward to offering three workshops at LowellArts this winter. All of them will be designed to encompass those who are looking to learn about poetry as well as those who are more experienced.
January’s class will focus on sound patterns or rhyme. He says, “I’ve found in my thirty-some years of teaching that many readers and poets continue to have a somewhat superficial or narrow understanding of what is meant by rhyme and consequently tend to use sound in reductive or contrived ways.” He goes on to add that rhyme is often what attracts readers and writers to poetry. The class will look at some poems most will find to use rhyme and sound effectively and some that don’t. Participants will also work on some poetry of their own. Playing with Poetry: Rhyme will take place Thursday, January 23 from 6pm – 9pm. Tickets are available online.
The second class he will be instructing is on the topic of ekphrastic poetry, which are poems written about other art forms. Sterling is hoping that this class will inspire some to enter the annual Muskegon Museum of Art’s ekphrastic poetry contest. Writing about Art: The Ekphrastic Poem is scheduled for Saturday, February 14 from 12pm – 3pm. Tickets are available online.
Closing out the trio of classes will be a look at line breaks. Sterling describes this installment as “how poets determine where to end a line”. Even in free form poetry writing where there’s no need for a strict number of syllables in a line and no rhyme at the end requirement, the cadence of a poem can impact the reader’s experience. This class will look at traditions and possibilities when it comes to line breaks in poetry. Playing with Poetry: Whose Line Break is it Anyway? will take place on Thursday, March 26 from 6pm – 9pm. Tickets are available online.
Sharing a Love of Writing
Sterling finds himself reading a lot of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction each week. He and his wife also participate in a variety of book clubs. He lists works by W.S. Merwin, Jane Hirshfield to use for quotes. Others including Jim Harrison, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck are among his favorite authors but his list is much more comprehensive. He also lists some Michigan authors like Caitland Horrocks, Jack Driscoll, and poet Jack Ridl as those he enjoys reading.
Jane Wheeler, Sterling’s wife is his biggest fan who happens to be a poet herself. He also relies on authors and literature buffs in the Grand Rapids area and throughout the state as a support network. Having spent decades in literature circles and having done programs all over the state he has met a pool of talented writers and poets. He enjoys giving and receiving support with those he has met.