Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Life of a Poet ~ Philip Thrift

Kids, we have a quiet, steadfast, long-time member of Poets United and, more recently, of Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads, whose turn in the spotlight is long overdue. Today we are sitting down with the extremely interesting and intellectual poet, Philip Thrift, of Poetical Bits. Philip is a man with an interesting mathematical bent and a droll sense of humor. Perhaps because of his career as a mathematician and software scientist, he writes with an economy of words and, I discovered, this applies to interviews, as well :) .

Philip's writing, he tells us on his profile page,  frequently follows themes of technology and science, gay and pop culture, politics and philosophy. He is now beginning to write some plays and scripts as well. What impressed me all to pieces, when I was researching his site, was the discovery that Philip wrote the original code for what became NIMH CORTEX (, which  is, apparently, a program for "data acquisition and experimental control of neurophysiological experiments." Wow. Here we go, kids. Let's dive in!

Poets United: Philip, would you tell us a little about yourself, so we can get to know the person behind the pen?

Philip: I hope one can get to know me though my writing through whatever form it comes in. I like to analyze things going on in the world and try to figure things out in a critical way. That's why I like to read about what's happening in science, technology, popular culture and politics. All things current.

Poets United: In reading your profile info, I am very impressed by your background. Would you like to tell us a bit about your work as a mathematician and software scientist? And also explain about the program you created for “data acquisition” ?

Philip: Up through my applied mathematics Ph.D. from Brown, I was a mathematician, i.e. a theorem prover. Of course for my Ph.D. I had to come up with new theory and prove theorems for that. After that, I shifted to software (though I had done some programming in my math years) as my interest shifted to artificial intelligence. At Maryland, I did computer vision research after a year at Princeton, where I wrote a program for data acquisition that organized data collected from sensors measuring monkey brain signals in a neurobiology lab. The apes in "The Rise of the Planet of the Apes" would not be happy with me for what I did there. Then I spent my professional years as a software researcher at Texas Instruments.

Poets United: (Internal dialogue: don't think about the monkeys!) A very rarified field, indeed, Philip.  I seem to observe a connection between math, science and poetry for you, which works very well. Can you discuss that connection a bit, please?

[image from]

Philip: At first acquaintance, poetry is a structured form of writing that seems aligned with my mathematical sensibilities, (after writing mathematics and computer programs). Its constraints can actually lead one to expressing things better than one might have without that structure. Even free verse has a structure to it. It's just harder to do well since you have to invent your own internal structure. I don't really have a favorite form, but sometimes I like to emulate poets I like. But it's also about exploring linguistics and words and language, which are very mathematical things.

Poets United:  I so get that, Philip. My son is no mathematician, but he composes classical music and gives me to understand there is a very strong connection between the structure in musical composition and mathematics. What led you to sharing your poetry on-line?

Philip: There was no other place to publish it!

Poets United: Ha! I love that answer! It was a revelation to me when I first discovered there were people online willing, nay, eager, to read and encourage other poets. Who knew? What, most often, triggers you to write? Where do you go for inspiration?

Philip: I think now I'm beginning to discover what I think Derrida meant by writing. It is the time when you are most in tune with your real thoughts, and it's the real you that you leave behind. And you later read what you wrote and think: "Did I write that?"

[Derrida on the Fear of Writing]

Poets United: I know. Especially for me, because I have NO short term memory. I look back a month and go "Whoa....!" What poem, written by the real you, do you like the most and why?

Philip: I like my "The Geek Poets Tale" <> (a Chaucer-like tale), as it tells a story of a technology geek from an alternate universe who is discovering Earth poets for the first time. Its lines are fourteeners (fourteen syllable lines, not all iambic) rather than iambic pentameter (found in modern translation of "The Canterbury Tales"). I would like to clean up the meter a bit.

Poets United: Kids, here is Part I of the epic tale. Once you read it, I know you will want to click on the link above and read the complete work. It is truly witty and wonderful.

The Geek Poet's Tale (Part I)

Note: These fragments of fourteeners were discovered while scouring the backups of a once-thought lost blog on Blogosphere.
More fragments may be discovered in the future. -pt

[the first fragment*]

The Geek poet, patiently sitting, awaited his turn
To spin his own yarn. "My own tale, I hope, you will not spurn."

My tale begins when I left my native realm, Blogosphere,
And walked planet Earth: to speak my peace, and lend them my ear.

My first encounter was this jazzily dressed dude. "A Beat,"
He said, was what his own land called him, "poet of the street.
Strange poet: What clothing is this? What roads do you traverse?
Are you a Beat poet from an alternate universe?"

"I, a Geek poet, find cosmologists' dark energy
More inspiration for verse than a person's dark psyche.
I weave verses of wonder 'round modern technology;
Some say I don't deal enough with human psychology.
Computers and math catch my poetic imagination;
But of poets of nature, I have great admiration.
And I am willing to learn more of this poetry of Beat,
And from others in your land." With that, we walked down the street.

Poets United: I love it, Philip! Do you have a favorite poet?

Philip: Emily Dickinson. Her poems are compact and philosophical.
Then Allen Ginsberg for his audacity.

 Poets United: I understand you are beginning to write some plays and scripts, in addition to poetry. Would you like to talk a bit about that?

Philip: Only some small scripts for now, but I am working on a larger play. I like the structure of the dialog as a writing form. It has dramatic possibilities.

Poets United: It seems like the most difficult type of writing, to me. Good for you! Are there other poets in the blogosphere you’d like to give a shout-out to?

Philip: I would like to give a croak-out to all the poets in the "imaginary garden with real toads". I am learning a lot there, I hope.

Poets United: They're a great bunch of toads:) Ribbit-ing,one might say :) When you are not writing, what other interests do you pursue?

Philip: Wandering around, reading, conversations, teevee and movie watching. My technology interest right now is in electronic publishing (ePub 3, HTML5 ebook/emag frameworks for iOS, and so on) and I'm delving into that.

Poets United: So interesting! Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you as a poet?

Philip: Robert Pinsky. There are lectures on poetry of his one can find searching Google Videos (e.g. <>). What he says about the sounds and patterns of poetry is what made poetry make sense to me.

Poets United: I'll have to check him out. Do you have some issues or causes that are dear to your heart?

Philip: I like the Occupy movement that is going on now. With the recent rise of the Tea Party, I thought America was losing both its mind and its soul. 'Occupy' is becoming the new Zeitgeist, and I think that's good. And gay equality is important as well, and I see it as part of that.

Poets United: Oh, you are preaching to the converted here, Philip. If I lived in a town where the movement was going on, I'd be there. I am too old and tired to lead it here, sadly. If you have a Bucket List, what is at the top of the list?

Philip: Live to see 100.

Poets United: "Said he, thriftily:)" Anything else you’d like to share with Poets United?

Philip: Write fiercely.

write fiercely

Poets United: Yes, may we all write fiercely. Thank you so much, Philip, for giving us a glimpse in!

Kids, week by week, this column has become so fascinating to me that I am loathe to take a week off.  I am always excited to learn about the next fine poet. Isn't it true that poets are some of the most interesting folks around? I love the different lives, stories, voices and perspectives in this community. Come back to see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. wonderful interview and very fascinating insights.

  2. Philip, it was so nice getting to know a little bit more about you. It is interesting to get to know the people behind the words! Sherry, these interviews have really enriched Poets United. Thank you for this one!

  3. It is my pleasure, indeed. I so love everyone's stories! Philip, I could not resist the monkey photo - I know you have a good sense of humor:)

  4. Wonderful interview! Wow Philip you have had a fascinating life~ I look forward to reading more of your words/work :D

  5. I loved the monkey photo! Thanks for the very cool interview and nice comments all.

  6. Oh, how I love 'write fiercely'! And the mention of Ginsberg's 'audacity ' —yes indeed. And I'll be looking up those Pinsky lectures. Thank you so much, Philip and Sherry.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this interview Sherry. Phillip you are indeed a very interesting person. I have long seen the connection between science and the arts and know just what you are talking about here. I loved mathematics but could not see how anyone would have a job doing it -- I did not like the idea of teaching high school. Now that I had a career writing I sometimes think I should have tried math!! Oh well.