Interview with Carl Phillips
by Ann van Buren
Carl Phillips is the author of fourteen books of poetry, most recently Wild Is the Wind (2018). Other books include The Tether, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Double Shadow, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His prose books are The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (2014) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (2004), and he has translated Sophocles’ Philoctetes (2004). A finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, his other honors include the Lambda Literary Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Award, the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Academy of American Poets, for which he served as Chancellor from 2006-2012. Phillips teaches at George Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to contemporary poetry and the writing of it, his academic interests include classical philology, translation, and the history of prosody in English.
KPS welcomes Mr. Phillips to the Katonah Library on Sunday, November 11, at 4PM. Below is a lightly edited transcript of a telephone interview with Ann van Buren, poet and KPS interviewer.
AvB: Thank you for taking the time to talk with KPS. We are looking forward to your reading at the Katonah Library, on November 11,.
CP: I’m looking forward to it too.
AvB: I enjoyed your book, The Rest of Love, particularly for its sensuality. It is a beautiful invitation to celebrate the male body (“Hymns and Fragments”), an urge to find tenderness in what the media often depicts as an armored form. You speak about the book’s reception in your essay, “A Politics of Mere Being,” originally published in Poetryin 2016 and reprinted in Berfois this past July. You tell readers of the surprise you felt when reading other people’s analyses of your work and the temptation people have to categorize a poem or poet. This leads me to my question:
Is art gendered at the point where it touches us?
It can be about gender, obviously, but does art itself have a gender?
CP: I tell you, that’s a lot. I’m thinking about it. “Hymns and Fragments” is from my seventh book, The Rest of Love. Are you asking what I think about the reception of my poems from the start?
AvB: I’m asking about the issue of being categorized.
CP: That was more of a problem with my first two books, and I did not like it. I guess that’s why I wrote the article, which was originally published in Poetry Magazine. I think it’s reductive to say that a person’s poetry is only addressing one or two things, or that it can only be read through one or two lenses. I guess it would be the same thing if someone readsa poem by a woman and decides that these are women’s poems, suggesting that all women are the same and there’s only one way of talking about femaleness. So anyway, I thought it was reductive, even though I was grateful that people wanted to read the poems. At the same time, there’s been less of that. If anything, people tend to think of my poems as being meditative and philosophical, still about the body, but the body in general. This other question- Is poetry gendered…
AvB: Or art
CP: Or art. Oh! It gets even larger, this question. I like it. I like it as a question. But I don’t know. It’s interesting. I’m just getting ready to read two books by a trans poet, and I’m wondering what is gender, anymore? I guess maybe the way I’d answer is that I don’t think that art begins as gendered. I think it’s human, or that we’ve been conditioned anyway to think in a very gendered and binary way. I think it’s very hard for those of us who were very open and “woke,” as they say, to sometimes get past that binary model. I think it’s so easy when someone reads, say, a poem by a man that’s a love poem, to assume that it’s a love poem to a woman. Or there’s this assumption about what being a man equals. So, I don’t think poetry is gendered, or art, but we gender it. In some ways I think that’s what happens with human beings.
A friend of mine was telling me that there’s a percentage of infants that are born with more than one gender and the parents are encouraged not to gender the child, but it’s almost impossible not to do it. They have a leaning one way or the other. I don’t know. I don’t know if art begins as gendered, but on the other hand, I feel that everything we make, everything that an artist makes, is reflexive of who that person is. If somebody is trans or gender queer or male or female, I think that comes through in some ways, but I don’t know…I don’t know. “I don’t know” is the answer to this question!
AvB: It’s a great answer to a big, abstract question. I want to say that for me, when reading your work, I feel liberated from the constraints of gender, and I want to thank you for that.
CP: Well I’m glad, because the reason I’ve resisted being boxed in as, say, a gay poet, is that I’ve never thought of myself as writing that way. I’m interested in writing about the body and how we use it and its vulnerabilities—and to me that’s very human. All humans have a body. What I don’t understand is that we’ll read love poems by some male poet to a woman and no one thinks of them as “straight” poems. We all look at them or can identify them as poems of love. Say,Shakespeare’s sonnets. We just think of them as love poems. But as soon as someone is seen as being queer in some way there’s this idea that only certain people have access to their poems. Similarly, if a gay poet writes about illness, people think that this poem must be about AIDS, whereas if we read poems by Keats we don’t think of him as a tuberculosis poet–but he died of tuberculosis. So,yeah, I hope that people can enter poems of mine and those by other people without those biases.
AvB: I’m certain that in the case of your work, they can. In the same essay you note that, these days, we are challenged not to be “PC but to be correctly political.” Do you feel that your work rises to either of those challenges, deliberately or in an unconscious way? Are there issues that are of particular concern to you that you would like to discuss?
CP: Well, one of the reasons I wrote the article is that I resist being correctly political. By correctly political I guess what I meant is that people have assumptions about, say, what type of poem black poets ought to be writing or what type of gay poems. For me, I’ve always just written the poems I have to write, and whether people want to read them is up to them. So, I don’t feel that it’s the obligation of a poet to rise to expectations. I think it’s actually the obligation of the poet to speak honestly and to disrupt assumptions that people have about whatever. If they have an expectation about what a black poet is going to write about, they’re going to be surprised in my poems to see that that’s not my goal. I think my concern is that people keep trying to make art into something that speaks for everyone and serves a common purpose; but for me, art has always challenged what we think, and good art often disturbs what we thought we knew. Those are some of my ideas. It’s not that I don’t, for example, love pop music. But pop music is not trying to shake any new thoughts out of us. Whereas when we listened to someone likeAlanis Morissette (who everyone thought was kind of wild and shocking) or even Madonna when she first started, we think,yeah, but that’s what music is supposed to do. Sometimes it’s there to comfort us, but the really lasting music, for me, sort of changes what we thought music was. Long answer, sorry!
AvB: Long answers are the best kind! Thank you.Right now, I’d like to focus on your latest book, which was published by FSG this year. I’m interested in the title,Wild Is the Wind. This speaks a little to what you were saying, since my question is about music. The book’s title is also the title of a song, first made famous by Nina Simone and then again by David Bowie. I wonder when you first heard the song and why it was significant enough to title your book after it.
CP: I know the first time I heard the song was on a David Bowie album, and that I didn’t really pay attention to it. It was only maybe five years ago, [I was]watching an episode of MadMen(of all things!),[and] when they were ending the showthey played the Nina Simone version of Wild Is the Wind.And I thought what is it with this song?It was as if I had never heard it before. Then I realized I actually had it. I had a greatest hits of Nina Simone album and I was playing it all the time. But that moment was the only time that I thought, I want to write a poem with that title. I never know what I’m going to title a poem. I wanted it to be the title of the book because to me, it’s about fragility of love and attachment and while that could be depressing, it also becomes an incentive to seize the day as they say. Anyway, knowing that being committed to anyone in love is also to be committed to the doom of loss,this seemed to fit the theme of the poems.
AvB: These are difficult realizations that are very much a part of your book. I’m looking at the opening poem, called “Courtship,”which is three lines long:
— Both things, I think. But less the hesitation of many hands
touching the stunned dethronement of the master’s body, than
their way of touching it again; again. Each time, more surely.
Is courtship a way of dispelling illusions of perfection, in order to find a way to manage defeat and to work with what is? So many of thepoems that follow this oneconvey the feeling that things are not great, yet we’re hanging in.
The poem “Several Birds in Hand But The Rest Go Free” (14) says this in its title and again in the lines
people I know are those whose main strategy has
always been detachment.”
The latter phrase, which reads like an aphorism, can be interpreted as straightforward advice. But the same message appears again, dressed in poetic embroidery, when you say:
as in deeply felt—I save mine, what’s left of it, for
the wounded animals, the ones not yet dead. Already I don’t
mean, anymore, the soft dark violent rustling wilderness
inside the bright one that I was before, when I say wilderness”
How did you arrive at a place where you are inclined to consider detachment and a wildness that is something that is injured, or tamed? Sorrythat this question is so long! My questions tend to be very long.
CP: Well, you’re right that your questions are long but they’re fascinating. First of all, I appreciate how closely you’ve read this book.
AvB: Thank you, but I am sure that I’ve barely touched the surface.
CP: But thank you. I guess that I get into that space via my life. I don’t feel very unique in this, but I guess I’ve moved from a time in my life, probably in my 20s or 30s when you meet somebody, fall in love, and think well, that’s the way it is. Then, several relationships later, one sees that well, that’s not always how it is, despite anyone’s intentions. I think what it’s made me see is that I need to be a little bit more wary of attachment, and less naïve about the outcomes of attachments. I guess that translates into the poems. I somehow think this has to do with, although this is rather personal, my life now. My partner and I have been together for five years. There’s quite an age difference. I’m fifty-nine, and he’s thirty-seven, and he’s given me an interesting perspective. For him, this is his first real relationship. For me, this is maybe the fourth one. To see this different perspective and to see someone who is very optimistic and bright about it— it’s not that I’m pessimistic… I guess I just think I’ve had more experience in the world and know that these things aren’t forever. Being so much older, I am also aware of mortality, and thinking you may as well cling to what you have, but clearly you’re not going to be together forever even if you wanted to be. Theoretically, being older, you’re going to be the one to die first. That sounds very morbid but somewhere I got into that space and also feeling that the more wounded we become over the course of a life, the more cautious we are. That was a very rambling answer.
AvB: It’s an interesting answer. I don’t think that it’s completely what I got from the poem or what I get from your poems. I don’t think of your work as morbid, even though there are allusions to death. I’m thinking of the poem, “Gold Leaf,”(13) where you describe the act of looking through an ancient skull of an animal and wishing that one could become “the animal you’ve always wanted to be.”I think that most of us who can relate to that longing to become one with an animal or a tree or a star or anything that we suspect we are not also know how lonely it can feel to be abandoned by a dream or fantasy. What I love about this book is how you stand by your readers in that state of disappointment and tell us to “say no to it, not to who you are, to say no to despair.” This is such an important message in 2018. In the poem “Several Birds…” detachment is a means for survival. This is not really morbid. This is saying,Don’t throw it away. This is what it is. This is life!
CP: For me the only part that’s morbid is the part about being older, an older partner. But I actually feel that I’m a very hopeful poet. People talk about how serious the work is, but to me it’s a serious commitment to life. Sure, being wise about it, but not despairing.
AvB: That’s how I read it as well, and again, I thank you for that. You don’t gloss it over. You present us with some of life’s difficulties, but you rescue us from them.
CP: Well, it’s funny, I was just giving a reading with somebody else. The first person was introduced as a poet whose poems are full of life and accessible, then when they introduced me they seemed as though they were trying to get around saying,you know, these poems are almost impossible to understand. I think the poems are hard to understand and I do think that I talk about difficult things in life,but a lot of things in life are difficult. But you seem to have read the poems and gotten a lot of things out of them, so that’s good!
AvB: I think I’ve gotten a lot out of them, too! This is the kind of poetry I love. It’s not just a conversation or a lecture or a joke. The poems feel a bit like puzzles and I enjoy working through them.
Anyway, I’m wondering if there is anything else you’d like to share with our readers. You said that you were pressed for time because you have to teach a class.
CP: This is true. I do need to teach the class and I like to re-read the books before talking about them. But then again, they’re the ones that are supposed to be able to talk about them (though I should still re-read).
AvB: What books have you assigned?
CP: One is written by a person named Chase Berggrun. The book is called R E D. It’s an erasure of the novel Dracula.The idea is that Dracula, as a book, is very misogynistic and sexist. This person has erased words and what survives is a feminist story. Then the other book is called Feeled, by a person named Jos Charles. Both these poets are trans poets. I’m teaching a seminar on prosody. We started with all of the traditional stuff, sonnets and Shakespeare, but now I’m trying to push things into queer poetics. We’re also looking at Native American work and Latinx poets, to see how historically marginalized people deal with prosody. Those are the two books. But it’s a murky area for me, because,as you may know, the whole idea of trans is very new for a lot of people and the definition is very slippery. I know several trans people and each one has a different way of identifying. So, it will be interesting to discuss these books. I’m not sure what is going to happen. Fortunately, there are three trans students in the class, so I’m hoping that they’ll speak up.
AvB: Definitions are changing so rapidly.
CP: Yeah, and there are many different definitions. I guess I’m kind of old school and I was raised in this binary way. But there are trans people who identify as,say, a different gender than what anatomically they are; then there are people who have surgery; then there are people for whom it seems that how they present is most important in terms of clothing. And these two books are very different. I thought it would be interesting for them to have this conversation.
AvB: Well I’m going to look these poets up and think about their work, too. I think we’re pretty fortunate that there are teachers like you who can put together a conversation about these things.
CP: I’m going to try to anyway. I just realize that I’m in an area that is not my specialty this week, but I like that. I like being lost together as a class and sorting it out. We don’thave to end the whole thing with an answer, we just have to have thought for two hours.
AvB: Thoughtis something that’s getting more and more precious these days.
CP: I know. It’s interesting. I’m on Twitter all the time and I stay abreast of the young poets. I feel that there are very few people who want to stop and think about a poem, even a short one. They’ll focus on one line that they feel is good and they’ll tweak that. I find that patience seems to be going into extinction, the way silence is. Both those things seem important for making art, and the space to be thinking.
AvB: Wow. That’s very beautiful. I agree with you onehundred percent. My dream is to go hibernate and winter in Maine.
CP: Yes, I understand that! I’m from Cape Cod. I’m already planning my retirement where I’ll go to Truro where no one lives. I’ll live in the woods, I hope.
AvB: Sounds good to me!
CP: Well, is there anything else you’d like to ask? I think you’ve covered a lot.
AvB: Well, I did write one more question, though I’ve taken a lot of your time.
CP: Well what is it?
AvB: Oh thank you. It’s about the poem called “Craft and Vision” (42) In it you say that life boils down to three questions:
“What happened, what didn’t happen, who does it/ matter to?”
If you could choose your ideal audience, to whom would your poems matter most? What would you highlight that happened and/or didn’t happen?
CP: Hmmn. That’s interesting as a question, and I should preface it by saying that those three questions are from a novel that I acknowledge in the back of the book, Reputations, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez.
And to answer your question, I guess the audience would be one that had the things we’re talking about. It would be an audience that has the regard and respect for silence, patience, and self-examination. I think most people are afraid of self-examination or self-interrogation. I like to think that my poems are an invitation to reflect on who we are, including some of the things we might not like about who we are. So that would be an ideal audience.I don’t know if there is anything specific that I’d like to say happened or didn’t happen. What I said about disrupting expectations is another way of saying that the responsibility of the poet is to leave a record of one’s sensibility and what it was like to be alive at this time in history.
Ideally, years later, people can bring all these voices together and get a sense of who came before us in the same way that we have Walt Whitman and Dickinson. I know that some people think that Walt Whitman was more reflective of America at the time, but Emily Dickinson gets the fact that there was a daily-ness and an interiority that also was going on. Not everyone was at the Civil War. Not everyone was running across America. But there were people who stayed at home and thought about the afterlife. I guess that’s why we need all these different voices, and I’m happy to try to be one of those voices. That’s all I can do is represent who I am and leave that record and then people can make of it what they will, later.
AvB: You’re in the process of creating a beautiful record. I look forward to hearing you read and to meeting you in person!
AvB: Well, thank you.
CP: Thank you, too!