Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Carl Phillips is a lyrical wordsmith. His early studies in the Classics combined with his lifelong personal and unique relationship with language resulted in 13 collections of poetry and a slew of awards and honors. His work is often described as bold, passionate, and beautiful, amongst other descriptions of praise. We had the opportunity to ask him about his new collection, Wild Is the Wind: Poems (due January 2018), his current view of the craft, and his hopes for the future.
—The Auburn Avenue Editorial Staff
Your 13th collection of poetry, Wild is the Wind: Poems, will be released in January 2018. Tell us about the new collection and the time spent in between composing it and the last collection, Reconnaissance.
It’s a book that, as far as I can tell, meditates on and comes out of the fleeting quality of love, the ways in which love gets shadowed increasingly by mortality…and ultimately the impulse nevertheless to keep seeking love. I don’t really think too much about what my books are about, per se, so this is just a guess. As for time, I think maybe half the poems were already written by the time of Reconnaissance. Another six months or so, and I was able to turn in a new manuscript.
In the tradition of this issue’s theme, “Be Fearless: Celebrating the Unafraid,” we’re speaking with people that have made creative breakthroughs and boldly approached their work with emotional power. Can you speak a little about the power in which you hold and how you’ve used it throughout your life?
Power that I hold? I don’t know…I’ve always approached difficult issues as if instinctively, especially to do with the body, sex, desire. I’ve never felt especially powerful or bold about it, I just have my thoughts and put them down. I have found, though, that readers sometimes think the subject matter and how I handle it can be provocative, to say the least. But for me, I’m just being myself.
At what moment did you first realize that you wanted to write for a living?
I have never thought to write for a living. I wanted to teach for a living – and that started with my teaching high school for eight years. And that led into teaching at the university level. Writing is a necessary part of my life, but it isn’t what I do for a living – I don’t know many poets who could do that, since there’s rarely any money in poetry!
What are some things you’ve learned about yourself or your life since the beginning of your professional writing career?
I’ve learned that certain ideas that I take for granted are often shocking to other people. Ideas about risk, in particular. And I’ve learned that restlessness is an inescapable part of who I am, for better or worse.
On the topic of self-examination, the new collection, Wild is the Wind, is described as “reflective” and “meditative.” How intentional are you in letting assessments of your current or past self enter your voice?
I don’t think we can be intentional about that – rather, I believe we have no choice but to carry our past and current selves with us at all times, and I think it’s inevitable that we sometimes reflect on those, especially the past, sometimes with regret, sometimes with admiration. So I don’t sit down intending to let these selves enter my voice – I think they’re always there, and find their own particular ways of coming out as they see fit.
Poetry as a service. What is your opinion of this phrase? In what ways does poetry act as a service to you and/or vice versa?
The service of good poetry for any reader is that it challenges the reader to think anew, to reassess his or her own opinions and assumptions. And it opens up other worlds, of thinking but also of sensibility, and of things like landscape. We get to see something outside ourselves, and that’s essential to self-growth and deepening.
Many are captivated by your use of language and the level of skill you bring to the craft. So often there are those that give up creative pursuits for fear of not being good enough. How do you respond to the self-doubting mechanism that can sometimes paralyze creatives or make them cease creating?
Well, I don’t know if this is a hopeful answer…But I don’t think poems get written out of paralyzing self-doubt. We have to believe that we have something to say and that people need to hear it, otherwise why write it down? Which is to say, I believe that poets have authority, or their poems have to have it, if I as a reader a going to be persuaded by the poems. Other things like rejections from journals can of course cause self-doubt, but I believe the person who is meant to be a writer, who is committed to it, is not going to let rejections get in the way of doing the necessary work of writing.
You’re a professor of English at Washington University and previously were a professor of African American Studies. Over the years, has there been any changes in which you approach academic instruction or engage your students?
I don’t think I have changed that much, no – to be honest, the best strategies for engagement were the ones I used as a high school teacher, and they continue to serve me well. The key is to be enthusiastic about one’s subject, and to believe that students are human beings and have intelligence. Believe it or not, not all professors seem to think this about students.
Art and literature, especially in times such as these, can either intentionally or unintentionally take on a “political” tone. In an interview last year with Long River Review, you spoke about the intersection of literature, identity, and politics stating, “Everyone has some political statement to make about who they are, and I think choosing to live how we live is a statement in a way.” Further, you discussed this topic in your essay, “Toward a Politics of Mere Being.” Do you ever think art and identity, or the intersection of both, will ever be apolitical?
No, because as soon as we make art – out of language at least – we have resisted silence. And as long as there is identity, someone is going to be opposed to or have assumptions about that identity. Therefore, merely to exist as a person has a political resonance, as soon as we step out of the house and into the world at large.
With so many poetry collections and career accomplishments under your belt, what drives your creativity these days?
I write as a way of coming to terms, briefly, with irresolvable subjects. And since the subjects are never resolved, I always have to return and revise my thinking. Love, for example. With each experience, we think differently about love – and with time, and with the various shifting contexts of our lives. So the subject matter is inexhaustible.
In a perfect world, how would you like to see the literary landscape look? Beyond that, how would you like to see the world itself look?
I guess I’d like the literary landscape to look diverse, with everyone being able to find something to identify with in the poetry that’s out there. It has gotten so much more diverse in the last ten or so years, but there’s room for improvement. As for the world, well – I’d like the world to look like a place where people are kinder to each other than they often seem to be, these days. It doesn’t have to mean going out of your way to be nice to others. It seems as simple as respecting other people’s right to live and love the way they wish to.