“Living within and beside the large questions of a life”: a conversation with poet Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips. (Photograph by Reston Allen.)

Toward the end of last year, we introduced and highlighted TED-Ed’s then-new animated poetry series, “There’s a poem for that”. The first installment features Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo reading her poem “To Make Use of Water” while animation with the texture of water, or perhaps watery memory, mirrors the poem’s movements. Afterward, there’s a brief interview with Elhillo in which she is asked: “What is a poem you think everyone should experience?” Her unequivocal answer is Carl Phillips’ poem “Blue”.

Around this time, I had just finished reading Phillips’ most recent poetry collection, “Wild Is the Wind”, his 14th volume in an output that’s spanned over 25 years and garnered more literary awards than could possibly be listed here. I discovered Phillips’ poetry nearly a decade ago, fell in love with it immediately, and I’ve been reading it on repeat ever since. His inimitable idiom and syntax have yielded incisively meditative lyric poems that come as close as any to conveying what Elizabeth Bishop called “a mind in action.” Indeed, Phillips himself has written that his sentences “are pretty much models of how I actually think.” As for what he contemplates in his poems, some of life’s most slippery experiences feature prominently: sex, risk, restlessness, subjugation (of and by others), loss, love. But Phillips’ poems do not attempt to answer or resolve the inevitable questions about life that arise from examining these experiences; rather, as Phillips himself says, his poems aim to “liv[e] within and beside” these questions. And it’s this ambiguity, this refusal to confine life and its multitude of experiences to easy explanation or description that makes Phillips’ verse some of the most thrilling, introspective, generous, philosophical, human poetry in contemporary American literature. In short, and without hyperbole, his poems will enrich your life like no others.

Carl and I spoke via email for a month or so, beginning last December. We ended up discussing so much that our conversation will appear in two parts. The first installment is below; the second will be published tomorrow.

While preparing for this interview, I scrolled through your recent tweets and found this one that you posted for World AIDS Day. It occurred to me shortly afterward that your poems, especially your later ones and particularly those in “Wild Is the Wind”, maneuver similarly to Thom Gunn’s (despite the fact that your work and his are quite different stylistically): They wrestle with order and unpredictability, restraint and risk, in ways that, as the New York Times Book Review remarked of Gunn’s poetry, make “even [your] freest compositions have a disciplined music” to them. “If You Will, I Will” comes to mind, with its shifting, wending meditations that ultimately coalesce into a ruminative whole (or at least feel like it); and, of course, with its lines like these: “I like a wreckage I can manage myself, / the chance it offers for that particular version of power / that comes from winnowing cleanly the lost from the still / salvageable, not erasing disorder exactly, but returning / order to a fair footing, at least, beside a wilderness I wouldn’t / live without.” Has this Gunn-like juxtaposition (if you agree it exists in your work) always been important to you as a poet? What do you suspect attracts you to it?

Yes, it’s definitely a juxtaposition that has been important to me, really from the very start. I think I first started engaging with it—as in, thinking about it—when I studied Greek tragedy as an undergraduate, and saw how often those plays center on the tension between how we’re told to conduct our bodies and how we find ourselves compelled to conduct them. Restraint is what we’re taught, but release is what the body so often wants. I know one of the reasons I feel such an affinity for Gunn’s work, and for the work of writers like Frank Bidart, is that early on they made me realize I wasn’t the only one with these feelings, and that these feelings were contemporary, not just the stuff of ancient Greece.

Which I suppose brings me to your second question: What do I suspect attracts me to this juxtaposition? I wouldn’t say I’m attracted to it; rather, it’s who and what I am. Necessarily, then, it’s what I write from. I agree that this seems more the case in the later work. I think that has a lot to do with getting older, and being mystified that the wilderness inside me doesn’t seem to have diminished, which makes for a lot more work for the other part that prizes decorum.

Many, if not all, of the poems in “Wild Is the Wind” suggest, or at least intimate, that there is no attainable permanent balance between our capacities for restraint and release; rather, we’re at the mercy of one or the other at any given time (our so-called free will notwithstanding). Is that a fair reading? Do you prize the wilderness or decorum more? Or is either not rich without the other?

That is indeed a fair reading—of life itself, in my opinion. I think we’re always trying to balance instinct against societal expectation, discipline against desire. I don’t prize either more than the other, because they require each other, in order to be knowable to us. I certainly don’t claim to have invented this thought. I think I first learned in Milton’s “Comus” about the idea that the sacred isn’t knowable without the profane. Or how, in the Shakespeare sonnet, there’s an argument for promiscuity as a means of narrowing down what true devotion might look like. For what it’s worth, I think a successful poem is one in which we’ve temporarily brought release and restraint into calibration, both prosodically and in terms of content.

Would you say, then, that we can interpret the wind in “Wild Is the Wind” as a metaphor for our selves, for our constant buffeting between discipline and desire, sometimes with control (or at least the convincing illusion of it) and other times without any, all of this motion unseen but for how it moves what it passes through? If so, is there a poem in “Wild Is the Wind” that, for you, speaks to or embodies this interpretation the most?

Well, the wind itself, like everything else from the natural world in my poems, is always only itself; I never have in mind that a tree or a fox or a wind stand for anything but what they are. But the wind in the book’s title has to do with the song “Wild Is the Wind”, from which I got that title. In the song, love is compared to the wind, in that it’s unpredictable, sometimes gentle, sometimes not. And a big part of the book is built around the desire to make something sturdy—or maybe a life that’s been spent trying to make something sturdy—out of what is ultimately unpredictable: human emotions, the effects of time, and maybe especially how memory works, in a wind-like way, coming and going, shifting, and again unpredictable. Unreliable.

I suppose the poem that speaks most directly to this is the title poem, how it talks about memory, but also especially how there’s this idea at the end, that the desire to stay with someone should count for something. I like to think I’m speaking there to how unstable intimacy and fidelity can be, and yet how compelled we are to try to fight that instability, if only for now.

One of the many poignant parts of the title poem arrives in the last two lines: “That I keep wanting to stay should / count at least for something. I’m not done with you yet.” That last sentence, especially, is freighted with both tender possibility and ferocious innuendo—an excellent note, some may argue, on which to end the collection. But after “Wild Is the Wind” we find the book’s final poem, “The Sea, the Forest”, one of the collection’s shorter pieces:

              Like an argument against keeping the more
unshakeable varieties of woundedness inside, where
such things maybe best belong, he opened his eyes
in the dark. Did you hear that, he asked…I became,
all over again, briefly silver, as in what the leaves
mean, beneath, I could hear what sounded like waves
at first, then like mistakes when, having gathered
momentum, they crash wave-like against the shore of
everything that a life has stood for. —What, I said.

You’ve been including short poems like this in at least your last half a dozen or so collections—homed-in snatches of experience or meditation that, for what they so deftly reveal and withhold at the same time, bring to mind the works of Dickinson and Tomas Tranströmer, even Louise Bogan. What do poems like “The Sea, the Forest” represent for you, in terms of what they’re meant to convey on their own and how they figure in the sequencing of your collections?

Well, with “Wild Is the Wind”—but maybe ever since “Riding Westward” back in 2006—I’ve noticed the poems lean toward being longer and, not coincidentally, more philosophical, meditative, narrative, depending—modes which require more words, frankly, more space within which to develop and work through an argument. But I’ve always been a fan of the short lyric, and in maybe the last five or six years I’ve come to think that a poem can consist of “mere” gesture, a slight movement of the mind from A to B, equivalent to an eye shifting its gaze, or a body turning slightly in sleep. For me, these gestures are their own form of maybe unresolved argument. They open up an argument’s possibilities.

So, in “The Sea, the Forest,” it consists merely of an exchange of words between two people. But all around and in between the dialogue, such as it is, there’s the suggestion that not everything is meant to be said—or admitted to—and there’s the deliberate decision to deceive, to pretend not to have heard the approach of something potentially disastrous. What does that mean, to withhold what one knows, when it comes to intimacy? Is ignorance better? How much can anyone know of us, truly, if they only know what we tell them? All of that is in that poem, or that’s the idea, even though nothing ostensibly happens.

As for sequencing, yes, the ending of the title poem of the book would be the more resounding, powerful ending, I suppose—but it would also be how so many people expect a book of poems to end. I resist expectation, whenever possible. Meanwhile, the book as a whole is really much more about living within and beside the large questions of a life—it’s not about resolving them. I think “The Sea, the Forest” leaves the reader on a more ambiguous, though maybe no less triumphant, note. It’s also meant to give a feeling of “There’s more to come, Reader, it’s you I’m not yet done with.” That, anyway, is the goal.

wild is the wind cover
“Wild Is the Wind” (FSG, 2018).

I agree with you that ending “Wild Is the Wind” with the title poem would be too predictable, too neat. And I fully endorse resisting expectation whenever possible, especially in poetry. You’ve been resisting expectation as a poet since your first collection, “In the Blood”, which was published in 1992—namely the expectation that as a gay biracial man you should or would write poems that speak primarily to those aspects of your being and experience. You wrote about this expectation at length in your 2016 essay “A Politics of Mere Being”. Since then, have you noticed an increase in this expectation as America has rapidly shifted rightward politically? In his 2013 New Yorker piece on your poetry and then-new collection “Silverchest”, poet Dan Chiasson writes:

“The ordinary markers of identity—[Phillips] is black, he is gay, he grew up in a military family, crisscrossing the country—have at times been hard to find in his work, which suggests that identity abides not in the outer fringe of autobiographical fact but in the inner circle of emotional life. This emphasis on the inchoate private life has a polemical edge.”

Viewing your work from this perspective, have you ever considered your resistance to expectation—your continual exploration and interrogation of our abstract-yet-palpable interiors, as well as the implications or consequences this seeking and asking have on our physical worlds—as political in itself, whether or not you intend it to be? And, in the context of poetry in general, what’s your take on the old maxim that the personal is political and vice versa?

I do think the political is personal, in that what happens in the political arena affects each of us as individuals. Likewise, I think the personal is political, if by personal we mean an assertion of and insistence on our individuality, a refusal to fall in line with what’s assumed to be the general view. And I think it’s in this latter light that my poems could be considered political: They’re an argument, I hope, for the value of—the necessity for—introspection, for plumbing the self as a way of engaging more meaningfully with the world, and it’s this engagement with the world that becomes our contribution to a working society. Have I intended the poems to be political? No. I just write poems. But as I said in the essay you mentioned, I have found that just writing about being a queer man who thinks and loves has been perceived as political—maybe that’s the proof that the personal is political?

The point of my article was to argue against narrowing identity to only one or two things. I’m not just a queer man of color, I’m many things, and I think about many things. Including, for example, morality. I wrote the article because I have long been told that I’m not in fact a queer poet or a poet of color because I don’t write about queer, black things. Is morality not a queer, black thing? My point isn’t to avoid writing responsibly, but to hold oneself accountable for writing responsibly about all of one’s perceptions—and my perceptions are not limited to two facets of a multifaceted self. I don’t know if the expectations have changed as a result of a rightward political shift. I’ve never paid much attention to expectations, when it comes to my writing. Sure, I have a sense of what gets said, but I can’t let that distract me from writing the poems I need to write. Even the refusal to write toward outward expectation seems political, to me. It also involves distancing oneself from things like popularity/celebrity. Of course I hope people will read my poems, but I’m not strategizing for that to happen; it’s another way in which I’m maybe old-fashioned, I don’t know. I feel like the last poet in America who doesn’t have an agent! Give it time, maybe I’ll end up succumbing…

I was unaware that you don’t have an agent. It’s refreshing to learn that, especially nowadays when it seems like every published writer has one (or believes they ought to). So, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: Why have you chosen to go the agent-less route?

And to briefly branch off our discussion of the short lyric, I’ve always found the epigraphs to your collections intriguing, sometimes even flooring—lines from Elizabeth Bishop in 2001’s “The Tether” and Tu Fu in “Silverchest”, for example. The epigraph to “Wild Is the Wind” reads as follows: “more rough, less blue, more lit, and patternless”. Is this your own? What is this epigraph’s function, if you will, in “Wild Is the Wind”? What purpose do epigraphs in general serve in your work?

Ha! Two very different questions. I wouldn’t say that I have chosen the agent-less route; it’s more the case that until maybe five years ago or so I hadn’t heard of poets having agents—what would we need agents for? Or I guess I knew that Robert Pinsky got an agent after he was named Poet Laureate, but I imagined being PL would involve so much more correspondence and business that one would need an agent to keep track of things. Now it seems everyone has an agent, even before they have a first book. Which made me wonder if I should look into the matter, so I asked around, and it mostly seemed the case that poets wanted agents because they had difficulty doing things like keeping a calendar, arranging a flight ticket, remembering where to go and when—things that, to me, are just part of being an organized adult. Since those are things I do all the time, on my own, why should I pay someone else? Another reason for an agent, I was told, was to generate more readings. But I feel happy with the number of invitations I get already. So, I find myself not quite knowing what it is that I would want from an agent. But that isn’t to judge those who do have agents, and I do understand that I’ve been around for a long time; beginning writers might need an agent just as a way to get some notice, to get their “brand” out there, so to speak. I’ve never been much about that. Also, besides being an old-timer, I also think agents are more appropriate for people whose work is more immediately accessible, both in terms of the writing and in terms of subject matter that can serve as a “hook” for a news story; I don’t think my work is marketable in that way.

Epigraphs… I think a good epigraph, for a book, does two things: It speaks to the sensibility or subject matter or mood or psychology of the poems that are to follow; and it becomes part of an active dialogue between two writers, the author of the epigraph and the author of the poems. I especially like this idea of being reminded that we are always in conversation with all of the voices that came before us. It’s a kind of marker, too, of how our contemporary concerns have always been human concerns: Desire, war, sorrow—these have been around forever. The epigraph works, then, as a kind of homage.

But having said that, the epigraph to “Wild Is the Wind” is an exception. It’s an excerpt from the concluding sentence to my poem “Rubicon”, which appears in my book “Speak Low”. In that poem, the words of the epigraph describe the act of forgetting. But I came to use these as the epigraph after I’d had difficulty assembling “Wild Is the Wind” into a book shape that worked for me. After weeks of frustration, to the point where I thought maybe I don’t really have a book here at all yet, I stumbled upon the earlier poem, and the ending words struck me as a directive: I’d been trying too hard to find the perfect shape for the book, to make things seamless, when maybe what I needed was something “more rough, less blue, more lit, and patternless.” Just like that, I knew how the poems should be sequenced, though I can’t explain how or why. And then once I’d picked it, the epigraph seemed as well to speak to the sensibility behind the poems themselves: a newer, more open way of living and of thinking about making a life together with another person.

That’s fantastic—stumbling upon earlier work and extracting a sort of life-giving force from it that both brought “Wild Is the Wind” into its “natural” order and, it seems, reinvigorated you with new perspectives and possibilities. Now I wonder how often we move on from fragments or lines that we don’t realize still want to speak to us?

On a different note, you mentioned beginning writers in the first part of your previous answer. You’ve long been involved with cultivating, if you will, talented younger poets, through your teaching at Washington University in St. Louis and as the Yale Series of Younger Poets judge. Alas, not all writers of your stature (poets or otherwise) are as generous with their time and energy when it comes to fostering their younger counterparts. What draws you to be as nurturing of younger poets and their work—as “accessible”—as you are?

I always save all of my drafts and notebooks, precisely because I find there are lines that didn’t work at the time in a certain context, but then months or years later I’ll find I see them differently, they become a starting point for something new, or they turn out to be the exact thing that’s missing from a current draft. In that sense, I never feel I’ve wasted time when I write, even if I don’t come away with a poem. It’s more like I’ve added to my storehouse of material.

And on to your question about nurturing younger poets… I suppose it’s as simple as that I’m passionate about teaching. I went to grad school for an education degree, in order to teach high school, and I ended up teaching high school Latin for eight years. From the very start, I loved working with that age group, and I loved how, as the only full-time Latin teacher, I usually had the same students for all four years of high school. So I really was part of their growing up. It felt like mentoring in some of the most important senses of the word; not just in terms of Latin language and grammar, but mentoring in terms of how to be a responsible adult, how to wrestle with feelings, how to find one’s way toward oneself. I had teachers like that, as a kid, and I was excited to be such a teacher myself.

Obviously, it’s different now, where I mainly teach graduate students who are, technically speaking, all grown up. But I have the same eagerness to help them find their strengths, on the page and off. Teaching is one way of doing that. Another is serving as a judge so that I can help bring new voices into the literary world; and in terms of the Yale, at least, I consider the job more than just the act of selecting a manuscript, but of offering guidance to the poet in terms of editing and other feedback, to whatever degree it’s wanted. I suppose for me the main point of being alive is to help give further life in a meaningful way—helping future generations seems a big part, I suppose, of my moral purpose. I don’t mean to sound high and mighty when I say that. But if we’re only here for ourselves? I just don’t get that.

One thought on ““Living within and beside the large questions of a life”: a conversation with poet Carl Phillips

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