Q&A with Carl Phillips
Carl Phillips is the author of eleven books of poetry, including Double Shadow (FSG, 2011), Speak Low (2009) and Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems 1986-2006. Other books include his translation of Sophocles’ Philocetes (2003) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (2004). A finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, he has received honors that include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Award, the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry, an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Library of Congress. In 2006, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In addition to contemporary poetry and the writing of it, his academic interests include classical philology, translation, and the history of prosody in English. Phillips teaches at Washington University in St. Louis and his poems appear in Smartish Pace Issues 6 and 19 (forthcoming, April 2012).
In Double Shadow, lines in poems are often interrupted by insertions (some are syntactical adjunts, some are immediate denials). How does it contribute to the tone of the pieces or does this style resemble the way you think upon writing?
Some of your poems do exhibit a certain philosophical slant. Who inspired you on this?
Could you briefly comment on the current queer poetry scene in America? What would you like to see more and less of?
Nicholas YB Wong — Hong Kong
It’s very much the way I think – constant interruptions, corrections, underthoughts, embedded ideas that start to bloom elsewhere on their own…. And it feels natural for me to let the poem work that way, since my idea is that the poem will enact the thinking behind it. To the extent that I even have a conscious idea about how a poem works – which I generally don’t. I think of a poem as a muscle in motion, if that is helpful….
[Some of your poems do exhibit a certain philosophical slant. Who inspired you on this?]
I’m just a thinky guy, I guess – or a nerd, or both. I’ve just always pushed far on things – farther than my parents and teachers would have liked, when I was growing up! I don’t turn to particular philosophers, but I will say that studying Greek tragedy had a big influence on my thinking about the tension between what’s expected of us, versus how we actually behave, and the degree to which we have any choice in the matter.
[Could you briefly comment on the current queer poetry scene in America? What would you like to see more and less of?]
Well, I don’t know that there’s a particular scene. There are a lot of gay writers writing openly, which is so different from when I started out – so much of my own poetry has come from having grown up in a culture of secrecy and suppression, and guilt. Younger gay writers don’t seem, in general, to be wrestling with that – it’s somewhat analogous to the different responses that people have to AIDS, depending on the generation they come from. Once, AIDS was a death sentence – now it isn’t, or not exactly. And that makes for a very different sensibility within the culture…The bottom line is that there are more gay writers writing openly, and I’m excited about that. Gayness – queerness – whatever these things may be, they are less often the subject matter, now, because a lot of rights have been won. Not all of them, of course, but a lot. There seems to be a way in which we can be a little more relaxed, but I think it’s important to remember not to become complacent.
What describes American poetry at this moment? What makes poetry “American”? Has American poetry always been about finding “A self we can recognize as our own,” as you wrote in your blurb of “Boy With Flowers”? Is this the same self Whitman sung?
Linda Flynn — Davidson, NC USA
Wide-ranging is certainly one description. And I suppose a certain suspicion when it comes to raw emotion, especially emotions like love, nostalgia…I have been described as more European in my writerly sensibilities, and I think that may be true, insofar as I not only think it’s okay to use abstraction but that it’s essential – it’s the abstractions that we’re always wrestling with, not the tangible things that are easy enough to pin down. As for finding a self we can recognize as our own, I think that’s what all resonant poetry is trying to do. Or maybe that’s just what I look for, when I turn to poetry. In the end, it comes to that most basic of questions – who am I? what is my purpose? Whitman seems, in general, not to have asked those questions, instead he announced who he was, confidently, and seemed to know his purpose. Maybe, though, that’s why the Whitman poems that I admire are the ones where he’s more unsteady, more vulnerable, or where he shows vulnerability in others – not the naked bathers but the frightened older woman who watches them and understands somewhere that she’s suppressed herself in life.
What are the possibilities for syntax? I mean, at its height what can it hope to achieve? Do you find syntax to be of great importance to your work? I feel like it is.
R. Willis — Baltimore, MD
Well, the possibilities are endless, I would imagine. Syntax works differently for each person, since we all use language differently. For me, it’s an element that can create tension, suspense, surprise, and can be used to enact our own desires to stall, delay, tease, hide. Given that these gestures often go hand in hand with the erotic, syntax figures highly into my work. But I have never really thought about it consciously. I discovered that syntax was a big deal in my poems through reviewers – I’ve always written the way I do, even in high school papers.
What I notice is how smooth and seamless your poetry is. How important is having control to your work? At the same time, the poems are engimatic. How does mystery and uncertainty affect your poetry? What contemporary poetry collections would you recommend to a young (or not so young) poet?
Don — Rockville, MD
I think poetry’s purpose is to deliver meaning, at some level. So the poet’s job, presumably, is to arrange and order language in such a way that it conveys the meaning he or she wants the reader to receive. And in that sense, poetry is a form of control – of controlling language, but also using language to control – or guide – how the reader takes in and understands that language. Poetry and control, then, are sort of synonymous, for me. But on the other hand, I think to go into the writing of a poem with this kind of thinking is disastrous. When I start writing, I don’t know exactly what I’m writing about, or why. I suppose I eventually get surprised into understanding what I’ve written, somewhat later, which is when revision can begin. I feel that any successful poem always has something of mystery to it, no matter how often it’s been read. And that mystery seems to come from the poet having been able to let go, to abandon him or herself to what isn’t known, is maybe never knowable.
It’s hard to know what to recommend, among contemporary poetry collections, since we all turn to different poets for different reasons. Off the top of my head, I suppose I think of Hass’s Time and Materials, Linda Gregg’s Too Bright to See, Kathleen Peirce’s The Ardors – but this list could be very different later on today. These are just three books that I’ve been returning to, with pleasure.
Is there a poet you like that you feel is underappreciated by readers?
Stacey Crain — Knoxville, TN
Among the dead, I think Edgar Bowers is underappreciated, and Louise Bogan, and maybe Edward Thomas, though he seems to be having a bit of a revival. And Marianne Moore – no one seems to read her anymore, but she’s terrific. Then there are the living…That’s harder to say, since anyone I name, if they read this, will think I’m saying their careers are insubstantial – poets are tough to deal with, I’m telling you. You try to help, and what do you get – drama…
How important is form to your creating of poems? Do you consciously practice and apply it? Is it: the inspiring moment from which a poem springs, then the search for the form the poem should take? Is form important enough for the poet to incorporate in manuscripts?
James Cagney — Oakland, Ca
Form is not important to me in the creating of poems. It’s more the other way around. In the course of writing the poem, it takes on a form, or at least it starts to find its lineation. And even that isn’t always the case. Often I have a block of language, and the work of lineating comes later, always by hand. A little bit like sculpting, I suppose. Every poem has a form, by the way. Whether it’s a standard form, like a sonnet, or lines of a random number and random length, that’s still a form. So every manuscript of poems is also a manuscript of forms, necessarily.
Do you have any feelings about the Occupy movement, or whatever, that is happening in the USA? Are you poetically inspired by current events? Thank you Smartish Pace editors for another great Poets Q&A poet.
T.I. — Berlin, Germany
To be honest, I don’t have any feelings about the Occupy movement, since I can’t claim to understand it enough to know how to feel about it. It’s not that I don’t have political views, by any means – but we all pick what we’re most concerned about…I wouldn’t say I’m inspired by current events in a way that is an easy equation for the poems – only once have I ever written in direct response to an actual event in the news (a boy getting killed by a serial killer). But how I see the world is conditioned by what I read about it – I’m aware, for example, of the Puritanism that still affects how many Americans view desire, gay desire in particular, and how it affects their voting. My poems accordingly give voice to the side that many would like to suppress.
Would you discuss imagination in relationship to your poems, as opposed to the influence of any possible literary predecessors?
Dante Micheaux — London, England, United Kingdom
Oh Dante, what a question! Let me see…Well, I wrote for a very long time without having read any contemporary poetry. I had studied Classics, so it was all the Greek and Latin thinking that was in my head – if there are literary predecessors, that’s where they are. It’s also true, though, that I read Plath’s Ariel in college, and Hughes – believe it or not, I didn’t realize that they’d been married…But I think we’re influenced by things that are just in the air. I remember an early acceptance to a journal, long before my first book, and the editor said it was clear that I admired Ashbery. I’d never heard of Ashbery at the time. People still ask me about the influence of Stevens, of whom I’ve read very very little, it’s not work for which I seem to have an affinity. I know that, in the years since I began writing, I’ve discovered and been very influence by Bidart and Gluck – and I’m sure that showed, early on; but I like to think I’ve done what we’re supposed to do with our idols, learn from them, and figure out a way to incorporate what we’ve learned into something that isn’t derivative, but uniquely our own, to the extent that anything is our own, when it comes to language.
What are you reading at the moment?
L. Sullivan — Iowa City, IA
Well, I mentioned some poetry books earlier, but when it comes to what I am actually reading right now, what’s next to the couch where I read every night, I’m reading Elizabeth David’s Italian Cooking, just finished Marianne Boruch’s The Book of Hours last night, Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick, and I’ve just started this novella called An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by Cesar Aira.
What do you think of poetry anthologies? I often find them jarring and nice to look at but not to read. I mean, I’d always prefer a book of poetry by a single poet, yet there seem to be a million anthologies and counting. What’s up with that?
Diane Winters — Manhattan, Kansas
I think poetry anthologies are great, because it can be impossible to know where to start, when you want to know about, for example, contemporary poetry. Anthologies give you just enough for you to decide whether you’d like to go out and read more by a particular poet. And it’s a good way to fill in gaps in one’s reading. I knew nothing about metaphysical poetry before Geoffrey Hill directed me to Louis Martz’s anthology, for example. It was through an anthology that I got to know about French poetry of the 20th century – not knowing anything, how would I have known where to begin? But you’re right, there are millions of anthologies. There’s a lot of stores in the mall, too, but you don’t have to go into all of them…
Does writing relax you? Or how does it make you feel?
V. Lights — Fremont, CA
When I’m actually writing, I feel dislocated in some way, as if I’m in a space of my own, alone with a kind of thinking that isn’t relaxing or not relaxing, it’s just where I am. When it gets to the revising stage, I feel sort of giddy, to be honest, and I’m almost always listening to dance music at that point. And when I feel I’ve written a “real” poem, whatever that means, I feel as if there’s nothing and no one else I need in the world, for that moment. It is better than anything, even better than sex.
What is your next series of poems going to be like and/or about? And how do you see them compared to Double Shadow? Thank you!
Anne Gardner — St. George, UT
I’ve just put my new collection together – or it’s pretty much together, I should say. And with each rereading of it, I’m beginning to see that there’s a certain amount of violence and death that hovers over the early part, for some reason – and then this seems to pass through a kind of chamber of reconciliation, somehow, which ends with a suite of poems that, to my mind, are concerned with the need to press onward, despite the doubts that have accumulated as a result of life’s difficulties…I guess, as with all of my books, this is a continuation of the last one, but I like to think it pushes harder and discloses different things, or different facets perhaps of the things that I am always pushing at.
Who is your favorite critic?
PL — New York, NY
I don’t really have one. Sorry, I wish my answer were more exciting! In general, I don’t find the criticism I read to be helpful, in terms of giving me a sense of how to read a particular writer. Most criticism simply tells me about the critic. In terms of my own writing, I suppose I think I’m my own hardest critic, and ultimately the one I trust the most – not because I’m right all the time, but because only I can know if I’ve really done what I wanted and hoped to do.
I think most of your books have been published by either FSG or Graywolf. I’m curious to know how you began publishing with them? Did you enter a competition, send a manuscript, get invited? And is there any reason why you’ve stayed with FSG instead of working with a different publisher? Or do you ever consider switching publishers?
F. Francis — Austin, TX
My first book was published by Northeastern University Press, where it won a contest. After that, I ended up at Graywolf in a roundabout way for my second book. Fiona McCrae, the head of Graywolf, was at the time an editor with Faber and Faber in England, and she was interested in doing a volume, maybe an anthology, of new African American poets. As I understand it, she asked Charles Rowell at Callaloo for suggestions, and he – having published some of my poems in the journal – suggested me. Anyway, that project never came about, but I had heard that Fiona had admired the work that Charles sent to her. Then, a year or so later I learned that Fiona was the new head of Graywolf and was looking for new voices. I sent my manuscript to her, and she took it in the same week that U. of Chicago did. I consulted with a colleague, who suggested that Graywolf would be a good choice…
Meanwhile, I had sent to FSG over the years, but been rejected each time with a letter that encouraged me to keep trying. I was happy, though, with Graywolf, until I asked if I could have my book appear in hardcover, and was told no. So I sent my manuscript for The Tether (which was then called Spoils, Dividing) to FSG, and they took it. It’s interesting, because now Graywolf commonly does hardcovers for poetry, and they are in fact distributed by FSG.
As for why I’m still at FSG, I have always thought they were an amazing publisher – with a tradition that includes Bishop, Lowell, Berryman, Bogan, all the way up to and including Komunyakaa, Gluck, Pinsky, Bidart…They continue to produce beautiful books, and they seem to really stand by their poets. I feel very honored to be there.
How has your study of the classics influenced you as a thinker and poet? Has this changed over time?
Steve Manner — Virginia Beach, VA
It’s influenced my thinking, in that Greek tragedy in particular concerns the conflict between private behavior and societal expectation, and that’s at the heart of what I write about. But I would say I’m just as influenced – moreso – by being gay and black, two things that meant growing up in conflict with societal ‘norms.’ Another influence from classics is the immediacy and raw emotion of the archaic Greek poets, like Sappho and Archilochus. I learned from them a sparseness that I had never seen in American poetry – later I’d see it in W. C. Williams. And finally, probably my syntax is conditioned by my having spent so much time working with Greek and Latin syntax – though I’d give just as much credit to German, which I studied when I lived in Germany as a child.
I don’t know if the influence of classics has changed over time, except that I don’t actually use things like myth anymore. But the things that shaped my sensibility and my writing style, those things don’t go away, so I imagine I’m still influenced in ways that I maybe don’t see.
Do you have a favorite visual artist? Does visual artwork ever inspire your poetry?
Matty Lane — Hemet, CA
I don’t have a favorite visual artist, no. But visual artwork does inspire me, sometimes. I’ve written one actual ekphrastic poem, in my first book. More often, I’ll be influenced by the feeling I’m left with, or I’ll want to write a language equivalent of something abstract that has moved me – a Frankenthaler, for example. Or I’ll end up with a brief mention of how the light hits a saint’s face, and then realize years later that I’m thinking of Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. At show I saw a couple of years ago, there was a drawing called “Head of a Wind God,” and that image became part of the opening to a line in Double Shadow…
How many poetry readings have you given? Do you keep track of them and do you have a favorite or one that is memorable for some cool reason?
F. Young — Madison, WI
I truly have no idea – it’s a pretty large number after 20 years or so. And no, I don’t keep track, so it comes down to what I remember. I’d say the most memorable for a cool reason was a reading I gave with Robert Pinsky at Illinois College. The reading itself was uneventful, but after the reading our host took Pinsky and me for a drink – which, in that town, meant going to this motel where they have a lounge. We arrived, only to learn it was Jimmy Buffett theme night…Pretty soon, a phone was brought to our table by the waiter, saying that I had a call – it turned out to be a biker woman who said she had seen me across the room, was now calling from the parking lot, and wanted to know if I’d like to go for a ride to her place…I had never been picked up by a biker before, male or female. Pretty cool. I decided to pass, though…
The speaker in many of your poems is talking or thinking about personal experiences and I recall seeing somewhere that these are often experiences from your own life. Is this always the case? What do you make of poets and poetry that is written as if about personal experiences but in fact is not?
Lynn W. — Parma, OH
I don’t think it’s possible to write without at least writing from personal experience, if not about it. Everything we do and perceive is through the lens of past experience, whether we’re conscious of that or not. In my own poems, I wouldn’t say they all come from actual experiences, though – they’re often a mix of imagined risks, stories I’ve overheard, things I’ve read. My second book ends with a poem about encountering a man who offers the speaker drugs. That actually happened to me, in Mexico. But the rest of the poem has the speaker debating about risk, then choosing to follow wherever the man might lead. I had nothing to do with the drug dealer. It is true, though, that at the time of writing the poem, I had fallen in love with a guy, and was wondering if I should take the plunge and follow him into a new chapter of life. So there’s personal stuff in there, there’s reflective stuff, there is an actual event, all mixed in together.
I’m not sure what you mean about poets and poetry that aren’t about personal experiences, but claim to be. I guess I would wonder why a person would want to do that. Why pretend to be someone who’s been sexually abused, for example, and then write from that perspective? If poetry is about, as it is for me, getting to something like the self that we actually are, then taking on other identities seems merely a distraction.
If you hadn’t become a poet what do you think you’d be doing? Do you have some other strong interest that was left underdeveloped because of your dedication to poetry? Thank you.
Mindy Howe — London, Canada
All through childhood, I wanted to be a veterinarian, and only gave up on that when I couldn’t stand chemistry in college. I also have always wanted to be a singer – pretty much a Sade kind of singer, in a small band – and I do think I’m pretty good, I have to say. I’ve also wanted to be another kind of singer, Chrissie Hynde, from the Pretenders…But more realistically, I think in another set of circumstances I might have ended up cooking in a restaurant. Cooking is one my top passions.
Have you ever felt yourself drawn to a particular school of poetry?
JTM — San Francisco, CA
No, and it used to bother me. Or at least, when I was first sending out poems to journals, I used to think something was wrong with me, because none of the poems in the journals seemed like mine – so I thought I might be out of step with what poetry was supposed to do and look like. But then, there was no choice but to write the way I write – it took me years to be thankful for having something like a distinctive voice and style. When it comes to schools of poetry, I’d say I read pretty much everything that’s out there, if only out of curiosity, and I also believe you can learn from anything, even from stuff that you might not be crazy about.
E-books are quickly surpassing printed books in popularity. It seems that printed books are going to become something the disc (music) or record. Smartish Pace is a print publication but I read where they will also be issuing e-issues going forward. What do you make of this trend? Do you read e-books? Do you think poetry will change aesthetically or otherwise because of e-books and new technologies?
Wyatt Lewis — New York, NY
I don’t read e-books, but that doesn’t mean I won’t ever. Before iPods, I never walked around listening to music. And I began writing before computers existed, but here I am, on a computer…What I make of the trend is just that people want things to be more portable and immediate – I’m told that you can have a whole library of books on a Kindle, so you don’t need to decide what to bring on a trip. I love the moment of choosing which books will be my companions for a vacation or trip somewhere – it’s a kind of commitment.
But if e-books mean that more people might read, because they like the format, that’s great. As for poetry changing, I think it already has changed, with the computer, the way we can incorporate visual images, for example, or do so much more with font. But also I think how poetry gets written is different, when on the computer. I’m a pen and paper guy, myself. I think computers allow for thoughts to get transmitted more quickly – I know I can compose letters on the computer like a breeze. But for poetry, I don’t want to be able to transmit quickly, I want to have to think slowly, and I also want the physical experience of pen and paper. But that’s coming from a middle-aged guy in Missouri.
Do you get annoyed being described as a gay poet? I mean, why don’t we say some poets are hetero poets? “Mr. X has won many awards and is a top hetero poet whose work has influenced….”
J. Jump — Tallahassee, FL
Once the so-called norm is established, everything else gets described in terms of how it deviates from the norm. So, I think that’s why people don’t refer to hetero poets – it’s kind of assumed that that’s what everyone is, unless they’re not. Just as it’s assumed that everyone’s white, unless they’re not. I don’t mind being called a gay poet, because I am one. I only get annoyed when the term is used in a reductive way – the word gay means so many things, so I wonder what people think when they think of a gay poet. Gay simply reflects whom I have sex with, to be very basic about it. But many men have sex with men. They’re not all the same, though. If people want to refer to me as a gay poet, so be it, but I would hope they don’t think they automatically know who I am, just because of that term. Just looking at a handful of gay poets – Timothy Liu, Henri Cole, Raphael Campo, and myself – we’re not at all the same, as writers or as people.
I love the old picture of you taken by Doug Macomber. I like your newer pictures too, but that one is a beauty. Where was that taken? What else did you do on the day that photo was taken?
Rose L. — Chicago, IL
Doug has taken most of my pictures, so I’m just going to guess that the one you mean is the one in color, from Riding Westward. That one was taken at Bank Street Beach in Harwich, Massachusetts, around 4 or 5, which is when I go to the beach in the summer with a hamper of wine and cheese, etc., have a quick swim, then eat and drink. It’s kind of a ritual. Doug was with me, taking photographs randomly of the water, the sand, then he suggested I should let him take a few shots, which I did. It was the one time that we weren’t consciously taking an author photo – it was just meant to be candid, and I was relaxed from the wine, so I let down my guard and smiled.
I’m not very familiar with your poetry but I have read a couple of things in Smartish Pace. I’m younger and new to poetry and pretty much of just read poets I find in Smartish Pace, and I like a lot of them. So, I’d like to read a few of your books, but you have a lot of them; which one should I read first, and why is that a good one to start with? Let’s say I read all of your books, which should I read last?
Danny Sexton — Philadelphia, PA
Hmm. Well, you could start with Quiver of Arrows, since it has selections from almost all the books, and it gives a sense of how things change from book to book – I enjoy discovering a poet that way, sometimes, and then I go to the individual volumes. But if you don’t want to do that, then maybe I’d point to The Rest of Love as fairly representative. It’s hard to say what to read last, since that makes it seem as if that book is the least interesting, successful, etc. I do think that the book that gives people the most trouble is Rock Harbor, for some reason. But I also sometimes think it has been the most important book for me to have written, in terms of my development as a writer, and in my thoughts about what I write about.
Do you think of yourself as an allegorical poet? Sometimes I do (think that of you), but I’m not you and you’re kind enough to do Poets Q&A! Thank you.
MIL — Phoenix, AZ
Well, I suppose some of the poems are allegorical, sure. Poems like the one at the end of Pastoral, with a stag rushing into the room and threatening someone – hard not to say it must stand for something, since it can’t really happen. But I never have thought of myself as an allegorical poet. I’ve been told that I’m allegorical, because many poems take place in a forest, or by the sea, or they involve animals – and apparently, these have all been read allegorically by some people. But the fact is that I spend a lot of time in forests, by the sea, and in the wild where animals are common – foxes, deer, falcons, hawks, even bears. So for me, these places are actual. But I think we’ve come so far from nature – I have a friend who tells me that all nature is an abstraction – that maybe it seems that nature can’t be real, has to be the stuff of allegory. But I will say this much: when I look out my backyard and see a leaf fall from a tree, I don’t think it stands for anything.
Who would make a great Poet Laureate for the US? I think you’d be a perfect selection, would you be interested?
Anderson Krum — Silver Spring, MD
Thank you for thinking I’d be a good Poet Laureate for the US! And yes, if asked, I would definitely want to do it – it’s a wonderful honor, of course, but it’s also a chance to do something, even if just some small something, that might make a difference to poetry in a good way. As for who would make a great Laureate, I think most of the names that occur to me are people who have already done it – I guess one exception would be Michael Palmer, also Lyn Hejinian, who I think would be especially terrific and bring a very different sensibility to the position.
Are there truths in the sound of poetry that are lost when poetry is read silently? Are there poems that are meant to be read in silence? Do you think your poems are better read in silence or aloud?
Wagner — St. Paul, MN
I don’t know if there are truths, but sound is a dimension of poetry, for sure, so that’s something that gets lost when it’s read silently. On the other hand, there’s a strange pleasure, for me, in reading in silence – I guess I get to hear my mind voicing something, as opposed to my mouth. But when I read books of poems by others, I read them aloud and in silence, both, sort of a handful out loud, then a few in silence. I like trying to tell what difference gets made. There are certainly poems that are meant to be read in silence, because they are literally incapable of being read aloud. I’ve seen poems that were literally a bootprint on paper – how do you read that aloud? I’ve seen poems that are just the title, followed by white space…My own poems, I think I’d like them to be read both ways. But I have been told that hearing them aloud has made them more easily understood by people. And I have to say, I’ve had this experience with Shakespeare’s sonnets, where they became crystal clear once I actually read them aloud several times. That’s especially so, if I memorize them and recite them aloud. But that is another story…