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

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Carl Phillips. (Photograph by Reston Allen.)

As promised, here’s the second installment of my conversation with Carl Phillips. We discuss music, emerging poets, prose poems, translation and a host of other subjects.

(Editor’s note: One topic we don’t cover [because it was announced just yesterday]: Carl is the recipient of The Sewanee Review’s 2019 Aiken Taylor Award! Congrats, Carl!)


So, I have a few follow-up questions to your last answer, but I was just hit out of nowhere (or maybe not: I’m listening to music through my earbuds at a bar as I write this) with a different question to ask first. Here goes…

It’s clear from reading your whole body of poetry—and individual collections like “Speak Low”, “Double Shadow” and “Wild Is the Wind”, for example—that music influences and is braided into your poems to varying degrees. Whom have you been listening to lately who’s possibly seeping into your current writing?

Also, here’s a song I’ve had on repeat for a little while now; to my mind it could be part of a soundtrack to “Wild Is the Wind”—especially those poems that seem to prize the wilderness over restraint. I’m curious what this song evokes for you.

A music question—I love it! Yeah, I listen to music all the time, it’s been a huge part of my life, and I sometimes think I came to poetry through music first, being a longtime fan of the singer-songwriter tradition—Carole King, James Taylor, etc. Though I listen to a pretty wide range of things these days: Currently in rotation are The Charlatans, Robyn, Janelle Monáe, The Innocence Mission. I’ve been returning to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” a lot, as well as Sarah Vaughan’s album that she did with Clifford Brown. I’m not sure to what extent music seeps into the writing, but I do find myself sometimes wanting to write a poem that gets at the emotional gesture of a certain song that’s in my head; this happened recently with a Charlatans song, an instrumental piece called “Honesty”.

It’s hard for me to imagine the Conor Oberst song as part of a soundtrack for “Wild Is the Wind”, if only because I find his voice is too close to Dylan’s, which always makes me want to leave the room! But I take your point about wilderness and restraint; that song definitely gets at the idea that people aren’t easily tameable into what another person expects or wants; and toward the end, it gets at the idea of self-loathing and raises the question, for me, as to whether wilderness is its own thing, or is a manifestation of something else, inside, that may not be known or even knowable to ourselves.

It’s true: Oberst’s voice is quite similar to Dylan’s, and some people do find it too abrasive or his lyrics too heart-on-sleeve. But for me, Oberst’s music, particularly songs like “No One Changes”, brings to mind what the poet Michael S. Harper said in an interview about writing poetry (though I think his advice applies to the creation of most, if not all, art): “[D]on’t fear being too personal, too idiosyncratic, too bizarre, too (Monk) ‘straight, no chaser…’” And this in turn reminds me of your “Postcard: Advice to a Young Poet” (which, I must tell you, has continued to be invaluable guidance for me since I first read it roughly five years ago). So, as both a university professor and the Yale series judge, what are some fundamental “lessons” that you try to impart to the emerging poets you work with? Does any of your teaching or judging involve the negotiation between wilderness and restraint that we talked about earlier?

I had forgotten all about that postcard! I think what I say there pretty much answers your first question. The fundamental lesson I try to impart is that you should write what you have to write, regardless of outside expectations. The one unique thing we can bring to a poem is our own sensibility; to compromise that makes for inauthentic poetry. As for wilderness versus restraint, I believe what’s important is a careful calibration between the two, when it comes to making a poem that is athletic, physical, visceral. Too many poets are afraid of wilderness, and tend to make poems that are polite, give no real offense, but ultimately also fail to yield much personality. That’s my biggest challenge as a judge of poetry: manuscripts that do no harm, that merely behave. As with people, that makes for an uninteresting manuscript.

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“Postcard: Advice to a Young Poet”. (Courtesy of the Academy of American Poets.)

Who are some young or emerging poets you’ve been reading lately whose poems you think achieve that careful calibration between wilderness and restraint?

Well, it would be easiest to point to Yanyi, whose manuscript I selected for the Yale series last year; that book, “The Year of Blue Water”, will be out this spring. I also loved a book called “Three Poems”, by Hannah Sullivan, a book that dares to consist of three long poems, that’s it! (Editor’s note: “Three Poems” was awarded the 2018 T.S. Eliot Prize on January 15 of this year.) Catherine Barnett’s “Human Hours” and Diane Seuss“Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl” are two books from 2018 that I am continuing to learn so much from. I note that these last two poets aren’t what some people would call young or emerging, since they are over 30 and they have previous books. But I was just today saying on Twitter how the poets I most admire are the ones who never stop emerging; they keep surprising themselves, and their readers, by evolving in unexpected directions. I think that the older we get, the more experiences we accumulate, and experience is what gives us something new to wrestle with. I have gotten this sense that many younger poets are not interested in keeping up with writers who have been writing for what amounts to a long career. But Bob Hass, to give one example, is writing poems that are vastly different from where he began, and for me it’s thrilling to see how a poet keeps changing on the page even into old age. He is still writing work that we can all learn from.

I’ve also gotten the sense that younger poets aren’t interested in keeping up with writers who’ve had long careers, and I think it’s an attitude, if you will, that younger poets (myself included) should resist. There’s so much one can learn from reading, say, Chase Twichell’s body of work right up to her new collection—lessons in form, economy of language, risk, evolution—that to take the opposite stance seems to me a kind of self-deprivation in terms of evolving as a poet.

That said, Catherine Barnett is wonderful—as both a poet and person! She taught one of my craft courses in grad school and, funny enough, she had my class read Robert Hass’s collection “Time and Materials”. And Yanyi: I’m really looking forward to reading “The Year of Blue Water”; these three poems from the book are lacerating in so many ways. They also bring to mind your prose poems, which to me are more so prose poems with deliberate line breaks (in “Wild Is the Wind”, poems like “Courtship” and “Gold Leaf”, for example; or, one of my personal favorites, “The Jetty”, from “Silverchest”). What attracts you to this prose form? Why do you often break the lines in these poems as you do? And, when writing a poem, what might signal to you that a prose structure best suits the piece?

Hmmm… Well, I guess the first thing to make clear is that I have never written a prose poem. As you mention, there are line breaks, and the only absolute thing that can be said about prose poems is that they relinquish the line break and have to figure out how to make up for the absence of that particular tool. You can tell “The Jetty” isn’t a prose poem, for example, because the lines don’t go to the page’s margin; that means they’ve been deliberately broken, which means these are lines of poetry. Same with “Courtship” and “Gold Leaf”. These poems have long lines, but there are poems with much longer lines in the book, which shows that the margin goes beyond where it does in these two poems. Another way you can tell is if you compare the left and right margins: The left is flush left; if this were a prose poem, the right-hand margin would also be flush, meaning there would not be an unevenness to where the lines end at the right.

Not that I want to give you a lesson in the prose poem! But I have noticed—again, with younger writers—that there is confusion about the prose poem, so I hope in my small way to clear that up. I do have one poem in a forthcoming book, where one section is a poem, and the other section is a prose poem. That’ll be my first sort-of prose poem, I suppose, but even then it’s a hybrid. If it makes you feel better, a review of an earlier book of mine in The New Yorker went into a whole theory about a so-called prose poem in the book—when it wasn’t and isn’t a prose poem. LOL, as they say!

Ah, the clarification is much appreciated; let’s call it a valuable mini-lesson on the prose poem!

As we wrap up, I’d like to ask about your translation of Sophocles’ play “Philoctetes”. What drew you to translate this particular work? Do you regard translation as an integral part of writing poetry, as something all poets should try their hand at? And for those translators reading this, what do you believe goes into creating a successful translation?

Well, I wasn’t initially drawn to it. It’s part of a series that paired poets with translators (only in my case I already knew Greek, so I did the translating myself); I had wanted to do Euripides“The Bacchae”, but I was told that was taken, and I was assigned “Philoctetes”. As I revisited and really dug into the play, though, I realized that it’s the only all-male Greek tragedy that survives, and that there’s a certain homoerotic claustrophobia to the play. It also is more like a philosophical dialogue, in many ways, than a play: not a lot of actual action or plot, but a lot of invitation to meditate on trust, betrayal and duty—to oneself, to the state… So it ended up having a lot of intersections with my own work.

I don’t know that every poet needs to try translating, no. I think poetry would be a lot better if more poets knew other languages, and had access to other sensibilities than those that English carries with it. But I do think that all poetry is a form of translation, a translating of fleeting experience and perception into something briefly fixed.

As for what I think goes into creating a successful translation, I suppose it’s very important to try, as much as it’s possible, to really get inside the sensibility of the work being translated, and to try to keep one’s own sensibility out of it. None of this is entirely possible, of course. But when people read my translation, I want them to feel they are getting what Sophocles intended, not what Carl Phillips thinks he intended. I do think that my style seeped into my translation—how could it not?—but as it happens, a lot of my style seems to have been shaped by my having studied ancient Greek, so in that sense there was a good fit. What I don’t like to see in translations is contemporization of old texts, even though I know that’s popular with many. But if someone is only going to read, say, one translation of Virgil’s “Georgics”, I don’t want it to take place in contemporary rural Iowa. Having said that, I do think Derek Walcott did something pretty masterful when he translated the “Odyssey” into a Caribbean setting, with “Omeros”.

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Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Finally, what project(s) are you currently working on? You mentioned a forthcoming book of poetry; can you tell us about that?

This fall, I have a chapbook—my first ever deliberate chapbook—coming out from Sibling Rivalry Press. It’s called “Star Map with Action Figures”, and consists of 16 poems that I wrote last summer in a kind of flurry. They’re a little different, in that they ghost a more traditional narrative, I suppose, though in the end that narrative isn’t entirely revealed. The poems came out of a little emotional storm that has since passed elsewhere, as storms do. I don’t know if these poems will be in a future book or not.

Meanwhile, I have a regular book of poems, “Pale Colors in a Tall Field”, out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the spring of 2020. It’s always hard for me to say what my books are “about,” but if I have to do so, this book seems to look at how to accept the weight of memory, to resist memory’s ability to harden us to anything new— when it comes to risk—and to take the risk, again, of making a life with another person. Which is to say, the book continues the ongoing, ever-shifting meditation I’ve been involved with, all these years: How do we live? How do we know who we are or should be? How to love another without compromising the self? The usual easy questions that a life comes down to.


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