A Conversation With Renowned St. Louis-Based Poet Carl Phillips

Washington University in St. Louis professor and poet Carl Phillips didn’t grow up with dreams of becoming a “professional” poet, nor did he spend his early years longingly hoping to one day see his name inked on the cover of a book. His fondness of the craft came somewhat unceremoniously, born as an organic means of developing language to explore feelings and experiences that were new to him.

His first collection of poems, “In the Blood,” published in 1992 and winner of the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, was exactly that—one man’s attempt to catalogue and examine his own sexuality, and understandings of love and desire. Since then, Phillips has published 12 other poetry books and two books of essays about poetry; has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Poetry (twice), the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the PEN Center USA Award and others; and was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry. Quite a resume.

The writer, who first dabbled in poetry while attending his Massachusetts high school, and again during his time at Harvard—where he once attempted to get into a poetry class led by Seamus Heaney, and was denied—manages a simple, quiet life. Ever-attentive to the small yet beautiful things around him, Phillips welcomes both the difficult and easy joys, celebrating the coming release of his fifteenth book of poetry with his partner and his dog Ben.

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You’ve taught Latin at the high-school level for 10 years and at the college and graduate school level for 24 years, so I imagine you’ve had your fair share of challenges, insights and memorable experiences in the classroom. Could you share some of them? What keeps you teaching today?
The moment I started doing my student teaching, I loved it. There was just something about teaching Latin and bringing someone into a brand-new language. I would think it’s something like being a parent: suddenly you see your child is actually speaking the language that you speak. Plus, the mentoring aspect is a very important part of it—differently for high school students, but I felt like we were kind of mentoring them for life in a way. These are the ages where they’re really taking shape. I find teaching really invigorating. It’s a form of giving, and a form of love, I think, if you’re really committed to it.

It’s different teaching graduate students, because they’re actually adults. But I love being able to teach technique. It’s exciting to pass on some of the older stuff that they might not read on their own. And they come up with things, too, so I’m always learning from them as well. They might be carrying a book of poetry around that I’ve never seen before, and they’ll tell me about it, and then that’s another voice I can learn about.

You also happen to be known as one of the most prolific contemporary poets of our time, having published 13 books of poetry and two books of essays over the last 25 years. What keeps you excited about writing? What drives you to the page again and again?
I mean, a lot of it is reading, which I count as writing. I read at least four hours a day for pleasure. I might get excited by how someone else is writing, or frustrated by how they’re doing it, and I think I could do it a different way—so there’s always that stimulation, going to readings and such.

I see why people think of me as prolific, but I don’t write all that often. At best, I write maybe two poems a month that are worth keeping. And I don’t sit around and write every day. I have to have something to push up against and be intentioned with in some way. With my first book, what got me writing was the realization that I didn’t have the language to understand being gay. The thing that might’ve made someone else go to therapy made me return to writing. I feel like there’s usually some kind of emotional thing you’re wrestling with. Of course, as you’re getting older you might be thinking about mortality more, or for example, thoughts about love at 30 are different from at 50.

Can you share a little bit about your newest collection, “Wild is the Wind,” scheduled to be released at the end of January 2018?
I’d like to think the book is different than anything that has come before it, but I think all the books—and I think this of every poet—are one long arc of conversation, or one long argument a writer has been having with themselves. But with this new book, it’s more philosophical. The lines are longer. Someone who read the manuscript said they thought it seemed like an older Carl thinking about age and memory. And I thought, well, I’m 58 years old. I guess it’s time to start thinking about those things. But it’s hard to see your own work. I look at older books of mine and I think I’m looking at older pictures of myself. And this book is just a more recent one. He doesn’t have hair on his head, but you know, it’s the same person.

This book has a lot to do with time, memory and the untrustworthiness of them both. The theme might be: after a long relationship, what does it mean to start anew? If what you thought would last forever didn’t, how do you go into the next thing without being jaded?

I read your essay, “A Politics of Mere Being,” (published in Poetry Magazine, December 2016) and in it, you say, “There are a small group of things that we—by which I mean poets of outsiderness, of whatever kind—are expected to write from and about, and it comes down to an even smaller group of identity markers (race, gender, sexual orientation, as I’ve mentioned), when in fact there are so many aspects by which identity gets both established and recognized. This is in no way to say that the identity markers I’ve mentioned aren’t immensely important; they just aren’t solely important.”

Race, especially now, is something that appears so vividly in the foreground of our experiences, and for some Black poets and artists, that can be both a freeing and simultaneously limiting thing. How do you navigate that tension?
Well, I’m told that I don’t even write about race. I don’t know if that’s fair to say, but I do think that usually, there’s nothing indicating the race of any speaker or any people in my poems. So first of all, I wonder why people assume it’s not about race. Who said they weren’t Black? I think some readers are looking for certain things that will mean blackness, besides the literal word. But I feel that what I’m navigating mostly in my poems is desire, the body, sex, memory … and I think those things resonate across all races.

I’d have people basically tell me, ‘You’re not doing what you should be doing because you should be writing about, for example, Ferguson.’ And the assumption is that because Ferguson isn’t in one of my poems, that I don’t care about it—and that is not true at all. But how we get affected by things doesn’t necessarily translate itself into a poem.

The essay also talks about the way blackness and politics operated in different literary moments—how the immediacy of the Black Arts Movement was a response to the politics of the time and called for a specific kind of language. What are your thoughts on how the politics of our current world has affected poetic language?
Just to write about a flower, these days, is a form of resistance. It’s resisting caving in to thinking that simple things don’t still matter, and that we can’t still appreciate something beautiful that makes us happy. I think we need those poems, too. All we hear is the horrible news—which we do need to know, but at the same time, I want a reminder that there is joy.

But as far as poetic language, I do feel that we’re seeing cycles of the same. I feel as if there are a lot of poets right now who are writing in ways that, to me, recall the Black Arts Movement, where it’s very direct speech about what social wrongs there are. And for some of those poets it’s because their particular community just started having a voice—like we’re seeing a lot more Latina and more trans* poets. And some people in those communities are going to experience the same thing I did, where they may choose to say, ‘Yes, I’m trans, but that’s not what I write about, specifically.’

I think we need all kinds of poems to truly understand the period. It’s all necessary. If a person can have fluidity of identity, why can’t a poem? Why can’t poetry? I think it’s always changing, and that’s what makes it exciting.

You’ve lived in St. Louis for 24 years now. What kind of influence has the city had on your writing?
St. Louis is definitely an influence, but in odd ways. When I moved out here, I started having more of an appreciation for the light and the landscape. I moved with a landscape photographer, and we’d go out into the countryside a lot. And seeing that landscape has moved into my poems a lot. There’s a different kind of openness that I think affects language, too, and how it’s used. There’s a different syntax to the landscape. I also just encounter a lot of strange things around St. Louis, and then they’ll end up in a poem in some whacky way.

I’ve also become a person who goes and looks for different things—maybe because at first I thought St. Louis was boring and decided to start looking around. So now I see more than I normally would even think to look at. I’m also used to living in real silence, so being here has made me shape a space at my home that’s almost like a monastic space of quiet. That’s been very conducive to writing, and I don’t know if I would’ve done that if I stayed in Massachussettes.

A lot of people have been talking about a kind of artistic “renaissance” happening in St. Louis. What are your thoughts on the literary landscape here in St. Louis?
I have seen a renaissance in St. Louis. But first of all, there always was a big literary community here. I mean, when I first came here there was Howard Nemerov before, but Mona Van Duyn, too, and William Gass is still here. And then you go on the Loop and see the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and you see all these other writers who were here in other centuries.

But since coming here, Washington University’s writing program has really become one of the more prominent ones, and that’s been exciting to see. It’s an achievement to be in the Midwest and get people to pay attention. But also other programs have started since I’ve been here—the one at the University of Missouri-St. Louis didn’t exist when I first got here, and Devin Johnston started a whole reading series at Saint Louis University that’s really popular and brings in a lot of great writers. So it’s been exciting. There’s the River Styx reading series, the various ones at Left Bank Books, the series that’s now at the Pulitzer and others. There’s just so much to do now.

And of course, an obvious last question: any advice for a young poet in who might be reading this?
This is going to seem boring, but I still maintain that the best way to be a good writer is to read good writing.

I also would advise not be afraid to write what you have to write. I think it’s easy to get intimidated or feel as if you can’t say something because no one’s saying it. But I think if you feel like you have to say it, then that’s reason enough. And it’s been my experience that even though you think you’re the only one talking about it, a lot of people have been thinking about it and have been waiting for someone to talk about it. Writing takes courage if you’re going to be honest about it.

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