Phil Metres, Poet


Phil MetresBorn in San Diego on the 4th of July, Philip Metres always felt like a regular American kid. And yet, the Lebanese half of his family’s heritage left him feeling different from other kids.       

“I’ve always been told I’m Lebanese and Arab and to be proud of it,” he says. (His dad’s half is Lebanese- American and his mom’s is Euro-American with Irish and German roots.)

He has frequently experienced the double dynamic of feeling pride in the Middle Eastern background and the dread of feeling quite different, he says.      

He remembers one day in his childhood, shortly after moving to Chicago, when he rode his bike through the new neighborhood. Some boys shouted, “Hey Spic!” and threw crab apples at him. He didn’t know what it meant, but he understood it wasn’t good.

Still, he never felt damaged. Instead, he says his life has been enriched by the friends he has made both here and abroad. When he traveled to Greece, they spoke Greek to him. In Russia, they mistook him for a Georgian.

“Growing up I had friends from many nations (Korea, India, Lithuania, Russia), and I immediately feel drawn to people whose families, wonderfully fragrant foods and special routines made them different,” he says. 

The exploration of the feeling of “otherness”—being like and unlike others—is only one of the inspirations that have led him to become an award-winning poet.      

Metres is also a professor, author, accomplished translator of Russian poetry, husband to Amy Breau, and proud father of two little girls (Adele, seven, and Leila, four). He has received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, two Ohio Arts Council grants and a Pushcart Nomination. Metres’s poems have been published in Poetry, Field and Best American Poetry.

“His work is . . . beautiful, powerful and magnetically original,” George Bilgere (2003 Cleveland Arts Prize winner) wrote in nominating Metres for this award. “Phil Metres will go on to become one of the important voices in American poetry.”      

Perhaps a more telling praise comes from his father, Philip Metres Jr., who says he never understood poetry until he read his son’s poems about their family.       

In “Making Meshi,” Metres wrote:

“I was five, rolling grape leaves into thick fingers: meshi.  Ne touche pas, ne touche pas, my father trying to hug his mother’s back, proudly bowed before the oven. God-damned French hudda. Everyone laughed when Grandpa swore in Arabic, as if the language itself were a punch line.” 

His work examining the poet’s role in opposing a war, which is explored in his 2007 book Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront, Since 1941, which he was inspired to write when his parents sponsored a Vietnamese family after the fall of Saigon.       

Metres, who was five at the time, had asked his mother, “Where is their home?” Through them, he saw the trauma and displacement of war. He believes his parents took a great leap of faith—they already had two children to raise, he notes, yet they took in this large family.       

“Sometimes I think that most of the really good things we do in life are risky,” he says.      
It’s a lesson he emphasizes to his students at John Carroll University, where he teaches American literature and creative writing. He tells them they must be “willing to risk being vulnerable and to risk making mistakes—but with openness.”

He’s even willing to awkwardly sing a little Lady Gaga in class to prove his point.

—Susan Ruiz Patton

Cleveland Arts Prize
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