The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks with Rowan Ricardo Phillips, the author of The Ground (FSG 2012), for which he received a Whiting Award, the PEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry, the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. His next book, Heaven, will be published by FSG in June 2015.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I like this formulation of the question so much more than “When did you become a writer?” or “When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?” Much of writing is about the priorities you give your sense of identity, isn’t it? What you realize you have to live with and live without. Who hasn’t seen the disastrous road people go down when they misunderstand the identity of being a writer to be about the smoke: how the Writer behaves or what the Writer does. The writer reads and writes. And hopefully, the writer pays forwards some good from doing so. Writing is a gift we pay forward to an unrealized self.

I’ve spent most of my life deferring an answer to this question. What I’ve been all of my life without question is a reader. I took one writing workshop in my final semester at college. After, I earned a PhD at a school with plenty of future MFAs. The job I took up after was primarily in the teaching of literature. The sign on the door of my life hasn’t said, Writer. And yet I write. I’ve always written. But that’s because I’ve always read. So I’ll make a distinction in the question that helps me think of me: being a human being has informed my sense of writing. For I don’t find the skill to be in writing or even in reading. The real skill is in being a human being, weighing that, contemplating its arcs and depths, and then making it all for better or worse sing.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
The music of the spheres. This is what composers get to do with reckless impunity; I envy them that.

Where is your favorite place to write?
Where I can write. For what it’s worth, I find it far more important to know where you can’t write, and I can’t write in cafés. I love Paris, I can’t write in cafés.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I have never been arrested. And yet isn’t the threat of an arrest always breathing over my shoulder and over the shoulder of someone who looks like me? And if I was able to answer you with, “Yes, I have been arrested,” would it not have inferred somewhat of a small miracle: that I’m neither incarcerated nor dead?

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I’m obsessed with the beauty of the syllable, how a simple syllable can change the torque and intention of an entire phrase, stanza, or paragraph. I’m allured by the syllable, even in prose. Syllables are the stardust on the space of the page.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
If I already knew the answer to that question I would question how daring whatever it was actually was.

What is the responsibility of the writer?
To read.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
If writers have a collective anything I hope it’s a collective belief in the importance of writing well. Ancillary to that is my hope that writers support the contexts in which great readers can flourish. I wrote a list of things after that and I just erased it. I believe in them but they seem so doctrinaire. A writer should write well and that is best evidenced by understanding the human condition.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
The idea of imprisoning a writer is so depraved, surreal, and yet so telling. Really, what language does the leader of a government that imprisons writers understand? A history book from the future with that leader’s name nowhere to be found in it? A brick with the word “Book” on it thrown at that leader’s head? Although it’s a story and not a book, I’d probably send Borges’s “Parable of the Palace.” That or the Theban trilogy.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
At the same place as the line between knowledge and information.