An Interview with Carl Phillips

By Sophie Weiner

Carl Phillips is the author of fourteen books of poetry including Reconnaissance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), Silverchest (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), Double Shadow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), finalist for the National Book Award; and Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), finalist for the National Book Award.

Other books by Phillips include The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (Graywolf, 2014) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (Graywolf, 2004), and a translation of Sophocles’s Philoctetes (Oxford, 2003).

He is a Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also teaches creative writing. He has served as the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets since 2011. His new book, Wild is the Wind, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in January 2018.

Poets, like all writers, have those poets who, in times of whatever kind of need, be it for a sentence, a wish, a breath, reliably fulfill for that need. One of those for many, and for me, is Carl Phillips.

It’s the sentences: how they show the mind moving, always unveiling it seems, upon some much awaited turn, some moment of clarity— After reading his most recent book, Reconnaissance, in moment of needing a poem, I wrote to Mr. Phillips in the hope of gaining some insight into the ways the poet, and the poems, build meaning.

To my delight, in his reply: “It’s as if to write a poem were to build a poem, for me – and in the course of it, I go where the pieces lead me, until I feel finished.  It can take days for me to really understand what the poem is trying to say…”

The following interview was conducted over email.


Your most recent collection of poems, Reconnaissance, begins “All the more elegant forms of cruelty, I’m told, begin / with patience.” I want to ask you about patience—another moment, that opens “Lowish Hum, Cool Fuss,” “how what looks like patience isn’t patience / at all, more like hunger and instinct squaring / off before joining forces…”

If “what looks like patience isn’t patience, at all,” what does real patience look like or, what is patience by your definition? Nick Flynn once asked you in an interview with Nick Flynn for BOMB magazine what your relationship to ambition is— What is your relationship to patience?


Patience is something I attach to human beings, as opposed to non-human animals.  It seems to require a consciousness of time in a way that isn’t there, as I understand it, in animals.  In the poem you mention, I’m trying to get at how we, as humans, impose a quality like patience on animals, when it’s really because we are humans and see through a human lens.  As for my own relationship to patience – when it comes to poetry, I have a very close relationship to it, because I think patience is what allows us both to see and to think through a thing carefully, accurately.  I’m told I have very little patience when it comes to human beings, but I don’t know that I’d agree.  I have an impatience with incompetence and with willful ignorance (as opposed to simple ignorance) in human beings.


You’ve spoken elsewhere about how the autobiography of a poet can overshadow a poem. Do you ever worry about your own poems being read that way?


I don’t really worry about that, because most people don’t know much about my day to day life.  Usually where autobiography overshadows the work is after the poet is dead and we learn things we didn’t know about the life and are tempted to read those things into the poems.  Plath is a good example.  To my knowledge, people didn’t think of her as suicidal or as a person in a strained marriage when they read her poems and she was still alive.

What I more worry about is that, since poetry is such an intimate form, or can be, people will sometimes imagine they do know my life, based on having read the poems.  Certainly the poems are a reflection and record of my thinking at a given time, but the events around which those thought take place aren’t necessarily autobiographical, or they may have been exaggerated in some way.  For example, I have often been asked if I ride horses a lot and if I go falconing, simply because of the poems.  We don’t have to have done a thing in order to write about it, it seems to me.


I find your poems to be neither heavily autobiographical nor completely non-autobiographical— but what of the “you?” the “we?” I wonder, is there a level of detachment from this “you?” I think of the poem, “The Darker Powers,” beginning “Even if you’re right,” pointing perhaps at the reader, perhaps the speaker’s self in some regard, perhaps some particular “you.” I’m inclined to read it as the first, though not exclusively. Then there’s the more general, “You could tell from the start that the best // were frailing” opening “For Night to Fall,” closing with a more particular address: “who says the dead are farther away from me // than you are?—across the hard, hard, shore.” How much when writing, are you thinking about pronouns? Could you talk a little bit about the role of pronouns in Reconnaissance?


I think a good deal about pronouns, because they determine the poem’s point of view, and so much depends on point of view, from the start.  One thing I can say is that I never intend the “you” to be the reader – this is something I never thought of in my own poems, or anyone else’s, and I only first encountered this idea when I started teaching mfa students.  So maybe it is a thing, and I just missed that particular boat…I am never thinking about a reading audience at all, when writing a poem.  For me, the “you” is always either a sort of alter-ego – the self in some way interrogating or arguing with the self – or else it’s a partner (romantic, sexual, both), more often imagined, though sometimes I have a particular person in mind.  Reconnaissance came in part out of a disastrous relationship, and many of the poems are addressing the “you” of that relationship (who is often also referred to as “he”), though just as many are addressing myself, wondering how I got myself into such a situation.


As long as I have you on these two poems, what is “the addict[ion] to mastering / the dream of mastering,” to which the former refers, or rather, whose dream is it (“The Darker Powers” 13-14)?


Well, there’s a word missing from the quote there.  It goes: “the addict[ion] to mastering,/to the dream of mastering.”  I don’t know for sure what the addiction is, except maybe the human impulse to want to master a thing – another person, a profession, a recipe.  I distinguish between mastering and the dream of mastering, because when it comes to things like desire (also the writing of poetry), there can be no mastery – there’s only the dream of it.  Mastery is impossible, yet we strive for it over and over.  That’s an addiction.


It seems to me that the speakers, across many of your poems, are always thinking through something difficult, the mind doubling back on itself, the constant movement pushing against a desire for stillness, flexible, as the mind is— It’s a little like they’re resisting being contained. Yet they are contained— Do you find it difficult ever, to keep the poems anchored or concrete in some way?


I don’t find it difficult, so much as challenging – but that is what it is, to write a poem: to solve the challenges, to overcome the hurdles that hinder clear and accurate expression.  That’s why I think of writing as an athletic, physical experience.  It is hard work, using language responsibly, in order to convey a difficult idea.  And it’s all the more daunting if one thinks of language the way Michael Palmer does – he says words are “a sacrament.”  How we handle them, therefore, requires respect and care.  And patience.


Much of your work explores morality, often, the recurring themes of restraint, recklessness—the push and pull between them, especially in this latest book. How much, when going into the writing, especially with subjects like these, do you have an idea of what you want the poem to do? I suppose what I’m really trying to ask you here, is what is the role of authorial intent? To what degree is a given poem what you would like to say? What the poem wants to say?


I’m not an authorial intent poet, though most of the writers I know are.  They know what they want to write about it, and often research and plan for it, then they write the poem.  I’m unable to write toward an idea that I’m conscious of – maybe this is related to Levertov’s definition of form as the “revelation of content.”  I write down words, sentences that come to mind, etc. over the course of weeks, and I wait until it feels that I would be able to do something with these scraps if I sat down with them.  It’s as if to write a poem were to build a poem, for me – and in the course of it, I go where the pieces lead me, until I feel finished.  It can take days for me to really understand what the poem is trying to say…I put books together the same way.  I never know what a book will be “about.”  Eventually I have maybe 40 poems and I sit with them, trying to hear what they say to one another and as a choir, as it were.  But that’s only after the poems have been written.  Maybe it has to do with how I feel about being lost – I don’t think I can get to a poem until I’m lost – the poem is the way, perhaps, by which I find my way home, if only briefly.  The sense of being lost is what makes a poem seem to have something truly at stake.  I find most poems lack this, and I think it’s because most writers are too self-directive and/or too invested in an audience they would be better off forgetting, until the revision process.


I find often in poetry classes, there is an emphasis on the line over the sentence. Can we say that the sentence is the first and foremost unit of the poem? As a teacher of poetry, what have you found yourself emphasizing most in the workshop? You say also, in a landscape in which poetry is dominated by the use of sentences that reflect the way that most people speak, the use of syntax in which people don’t ordinarily speak could be seen itself as a political act. How did you come to this understanding of what it means to queer language?


I think what’s important is the relationship between sentence and line – that relationship determines so much of a given poem’s muscularity, and it’s also in that relationship that a lot of the poet’s sensibility comes across, and it’s that sensibility that makes us want to engage at all.  I emphasize everything pretty equally in a workshop – line, sentence, syntax versus grammar, punctuation and/or lack of it, stanzaic choices, the order in which information gets delivered.  It’s all of it equally important, for me.

About the queering of language – I didn’t really know anything about that.  I think I read about it in a review of one of my books.  For myself, I have simply written the way I think – I’ve never been trying for a particular effect, is a way to put it.  I think I’ve stayed pretty much the same, when it comes to sentences, but the views have changed, in the world of poetry.  So, what I used to get called out for, sentences that were somehow un-American or archaic or mandarin – to name three adjectives that have been thrown at me over the years – now gets called radical or queer.  It’s pretty funny, actually.


“Toward a Politics of Mere Being” is a title that, when I read it, I can’t help but be reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being. Also, I think of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. I see both in a poem like “First You must Cover Your Face,” from Silverchest— You wouldn’t happen to be a fan of Merrill and Woolf, would you?


Well, I am a huge fan of Woolf’s novels – primarily To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway – but I have not read her criticism.  But I love her sentence-making in the novels.  As for Merrill, I will confess I haven’t read a great deal of his work – I have never read The Changing Light at Sandover.  I did try, but I just didn’t connect with it.  The writers in English that have had the most influence on how I look at a sentence are Henry James, Frank Bidart, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Jorie Graham…


Who or what are you reading now?


I’m rereading all of the novels of Barbara Pym.  Graham Greene.  I just finished poetry books by Jennifer Chang, Danez Smith, Nicole Sealey, Morgan Parker, Gabrielle Calvacoressi.  I just yesterday picked up William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind and the new Joni Mitchell biography.  And I’m taking my time, so as to really enjoy it, going through a new selected poems of Thom Gunn, edited by Clive Wilmer, which just came out in England.


You have a book coming out in 2018, Wild Is the Wind— Can you tell us anything about this new project?


Well, you’ll have figured out by now that I don’t really think of these things as projects.  It’s more like all of the books I’ve written are an ongoing meditation on certain ideas – the body, desire, love, betrayal, cruelty…I think our thinking about a particular thing constantly revises itself, or perhaps evolves, as we ourselves get revised by the fact of time.  Wild Is the Wind does look a bit more at what it means, I suppose, to believe in something like love, like the idea of commitment to love, once one is old enough to have seen how those commitments can turn out to be meaningless.  How do we continue to believe in meaning, and why?


Read “Toward a Politics of Mere Being” here, or listen to it here:

Watch the full conversation between Carl Phillips and Ron Charles at The Library of Congress here.


Carl Phillips is the author of thirteen books of poetry, most recently Wild Is the Wind (FSG, 2018); Reconnaissance (FSG, 2015), winner of the PEN USA Award and the Lambda Literary Award; and Silverchest (FSG, 2013), finalist for the International Griffin Prize for Poetry.  He is also the author of two books of prose: The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (Graywolf, 2014) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (Graywolf, 2004); and he has translated Sophocles’s Philoctetes (Oxford, 2004).  A four-time finalist for the National Book Award, his other honors include the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry, the Kingsley Tufts Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Award in Poetry, induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Academy of American Poets.  Currently the judge for the Yale Younger Poets Series, Phillips teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.