Intimacy, Afloat in Space: A Conversation with Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips is the author of fourteen books of poetry, most recently Wild Is the Wind (FSG, 2018) and Reconnaissance (FSG, 2015), winner of the PEN USA Award and the Lambda Literary Award. 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 is the translator of Sophocles’ Philoctetes (Oxford, 2004). His honors include the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry, the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Academy of American Poets. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


I’ve long been a fan of Carl Phillips’s work. Reading his poems not only evokes eerily familiar emotions, but it is also a tutorial in saturating structure and syntax with mood and longing. His poems are like a sketch drawn with calligraphy; there is sharp form and veiled content, which rouse my imagination to fill in location and narrative. Which is to say, Phillips is very much a poet who writes associatively within a tight structure.

Consider how Phillips crafts language while subtlety hinting at context in these lines from the title poem in Wild is the Wind

For the metaphysical poets, the problem
with weeping for what’s been lost is that tears
wash out memory and, by extension, what we’d hoped
to remember. If I refuse, increasingly, to explain, isn’t
explanation, at the end of the day, what the sturdier
truths most resist? It’s been my experience that
tears are useless against all the rest of it that, if I
could, I’d forget. That I keep wanting to stay should
count at least for something. I’m not done with you yet.

In Star Map with Action Figures I find an element not noted in Phillips’s previous poetry collections: there are more details approaching, if not delineating specificity, a narrative occurring within a time-and-place framework, and a bit more character development, although there is nothing you could point to as confessional here. Even at its most explicit, Phillips’s genius, what might be thought of as wrestling with truth, is its unveiled anonymity.

Consider this narrative poem in Star Map with Action Figures, titled “Unbridled,” which is the story of two gay men with a past history, running into one another accidently in, let’s say, Provincetown, MA.

            To look at them, you might not think the two men, having spoken briefly
                                    and now moving away from each other, as different goals
                        require, have much history, if any,
            between them. That for a time that seems longer ago now than in fact
                                    it’s been, they used to enter each other’s bodies so often, so routinely,
                        yet without routine ever seeming the right way of putting it,
            that even they lost count—for back then,

                                    who counted?

The book’s title, Star Map with Action Figures, is one clue to the fluid sort of specificity that these poems offer. For Phillips, fluid lucidity seems to be the only specificity that is reliable, given space, time, and memory. A star map covers a vast expanse, encompassing far more than can be seen with the naked eye; furthermore, the light we see has traveled so far that its source—the star or stars—may have since shifted or become a supernova or even a black hole. It seems there is a physics of time-space involved in the action.  Here, lines from the title poem speak to the mystery of what can be known versus what is experienced.

                        Maybe between mystery

            and what little we can say for sure
            happened, lies a secret even
            memory itself keeps somewhere
            hidden because for now
            it has to.


                        Look at the field,
studded with the blue-black eyes of broken heroes.
One of his eyes is moving. It can still see. What does it see?

Something else I notice in Phillips’s work is how often the poems tend to return to the same imagery. For example, in “And If I Fall,” we find,

            As if my body
itself cathedral. I conduct my body
with a cathedra’s steadiness, I
try to. I cathedral.

And later, in “Wake Up,” this reprise,

…when the falconer steps back into memory as into
a vast cathedral, which is to say, when he remembers.

We find this image again—cathedral—in The Rest of Love (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004), in these lines from the poem, titled “North,”

What if the will
were husk entirely,
and the husk,
were broken open, to
where the seeds are? What
then? What would the seeds

A cathedral, falling.


Carl Phillips read from Star Map with Action Figures at a Saturday night reading for the 2019 Port Townsend Writers Conference (after which is the traditional whisky and pie finale to the conference). I spent the week in Phillips’s morning workshop with 14 other poets and found him to be a consummate teacher; during the week, he was generous, candid, available, and curious about our poems. Fortunately for me, I also had an advance review copy of Star Map with Action Figures, and Phillips was agreeable to answer a few questions about its publication. We conducted this interview via e-mail.

Risa Denenberg: Carl, this is not a question, but I want to say that I’ve loved reading your poetry for some time now, which is why I wanted to take a workshop with you. Although at times I feel somewhat lost within your poems, I never feel deserted; there is emotional resonance. While I used to think of them as “difficult,” over time I realized that they are simply un-storied for the most part, and instead offer a set of queries embedded in setting, emotion, and tone.

Carl Phillips: Thank you, Risa. I’m always somehow still surprised when the work resonates with anyone but myself! And yes, I think maybe what a lot of people consider difficult is that the poems aren’t always grounded in a straightforward narrative context—but neither is life, I find, so to me to write any other way would be dishonest. Someone once likened my poems to overhearing speech from the middle of a conversation between two people one doesn’t know. That sounds accurate, today at least.

RD: In other collections, many of your poems seem to be a series of linked impressions that exist outside of a single narrative context. The poems in Star Map with Action Figures feel more centered in narrative, and therefore somewhat more contextually grounded. Is this how you see them, or am I reading too much into them? Is the writing in this collection something that feels new or different for you?

CP: I do see these poems as—for the most part—having more narrative context to them, though I like to think there’s still a lot of open-endedness. And yes, the writing here does feel different, in that particular respect, which I think was part of the impetus to have the poems appear as a chapbook, separate from one of my regular books. I had thought that I might end up with a book of such poems, but then I found myself writing my usual type of poem, and I didn’t see how these would quite mesh. Having said that, my book that comes out next spring (Pale Colors in a Tall Field, forthcoming 2020; Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is dealing with fractured narrative, and has moments that are decidedly narrative. So maybe the poems in the chapbook were a way for me to explore narrative more fully, and maybe in the poems since then, I am moving toward a lyric-narrative hybrid. I have no idea.

RD: Star Map with Action Figures is a chapbook. How or when in the writing did you know that these 16 poems stood alone, together?

CP: I was telling my [boyfriend] over drinks that I thought these poems didn’t fit in the forthcoming book. And I didn’t want to wait to see if they might fit in a book that might not appear until 2023 or so. I think he may be the one who wondered about a chapbook, I don’t remember. I do know that he asked if I knew any people who do chapbooks. I immediately thought of Bryan Borland at Sibling Rivalry—he’s a friend, so I texted him right then and there. By the time we had finished drinking, Bryan had said he was eager to see the poems.

RD: Sibling Rivalry Press’s motto is: Disturb/Enrapture. Your poems certainly do both, as well as matching SRP’s sensibility as a queer-positive press. Did you feel these poems in particular were a good fit for their press?

CP: I have long known of and been a fan of Sibling Rivalry Press, specifically because of their being a queer-positive press. And then Bryan and I met at a Lambda Literary Awards event a couple years ago, and I found him to be as enthusiastic and passionate in person as he is with the press. I have always been an openly queer poet, from my very first book, and yet I have never been at a press that focuses specifically on queerness—I don’t know of many poetry presses that do that at all. So yes, this seemed like a good fit for Sibling Rivalry, and at the same time an opportunity for me to be a bit more overtly activist than I probably seem.

RD: There are certain nouns (persons/flora/fauna/places/things) that recur across your books. For example, in your poem, “Swimming” from Wild is the Wind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), you refer to a jetty, and a map with monsters. The poem arouses a feeling of ghostlike movements and a heavy awareness of the history of a place. In “My Monster” (Star Map with Action Figures), I feel I am returned to the same place. Is this more of a conscious or unconscious movement on your part?

CP: Ha, sometimes I fear it just means that I am redundant! But one truth is that I am haunted by certain places that have been variously important in my life. I hadn’t made the connection between the two poems you just mentioned, but yes, I see that the jetty, anyway, is the jetty in Provincetown, Massachusetts; the pier I mention in “My Monster” is also in Provincetown, almost within view of the jetty. It’s all totally unconscious, on my part, an example I guess of how the mind loops back to places in memory. People have often asked me why I don’t write poems that have St. Louis recognizably in them, given that I have lived here for 26 years; I think we don’t get to choose what places mark us at our most impressionable moments. I grew up, from high school on, in Massachusetts, and the sea is still very much part of my internal landscape, regardless of the one where I actually live.

RD: These poems often seem to be embodied, that is, occurring in the body, but as if a detached intelligence is observing (dissecting?) from a distance. They feel like they take place in the middle of something that is both intimate and existential. Does this make sense to your experience of writing them?

CP: It does make sense. It’s hard for me to say much more than that. All I can say is that the poems arose from events that were like intimacy if intimacy were set afloat in space, stripped of any real place or rest or people to prove intimacy was ever there at all.

RD: As a reader, your poems stir up emotions and questions that are at times comforting, at times uncomfortable, and at times both. With Star Map with Action Figures, how do you feel upon re-reading these poems, now that the writing is committed to the page?

CP: In regard to what you say about the emotions and questions, I feel these poems are very much in keeping with the concerns of my work overall. And despite their narrative impulses, these poems remain similarly open, suspecting of stability, and adamant in their refusal to answer the unanswerable. Which is to say, I stand by them!

RD: The book’s Deborah Eisenberg epigraph reads, “If someone dreams about you, does it keep you alive?” This very much configures with my understanding of the concept of remembrance in Judaism, which asserts that with memory, we keep our dead alive. In many of these poems, there is a heavy sense of loss, if not death, and a diligent tracing of memory. Can you elaborate on what the Eisenberg quote means to you in relation to the poems in Star Map with Action Figures?

CP: Well, first of all I should say that the quote comes from Eisenberg’s story “Merge,” which appears in her recent book Your Duck is My Duck (Ecco, 2018). I feel remiss in having somehow forgotten, after all the proofing for the chapbook, to include that information in the acknowledgements page! I acknowledge everyone else and somehow forgot the epigraph, argh…

I suppose the quote, for me, speaks to the idea of what proves intimacy ever existed—going back to what I said about intimacy floating without real context. Does it mean it was real if we dream it? Or even if it isn’t real, does it become real enough for us to call it a living thing if we dream it? But then there’s the reverse aspect: someone dreaming about you even if you don’t give them permission to (as if we could give or withhold permission when it comes to dreaming). If we choose to leave someone’s life, but they insist on dreaming about us, have we ever left? Can we? Anyway, the conundrum of all of that is what the epigraph captures for me. And it seemed appropriate to the poems in the chapbook.

RD: Because your syntax is often a moving target, your line breaks are often the only way into the poem, particularly where a line drifts off and continues one or two lines down, taking off at the next space—a broken sentence. As you write, do your line breaks flow more from sounds, or from structure?

CP: Hmm. I don’t know that I see the syntax as a moving target. If anything, I think it’s what holds a sentence together, so it has to have more stability than that. But it is true that my syntax allows sentences to be quite long, at times, which can get confusing—and that is where I find line breaks useful, as ways to parcel information, which can help the reader track the sentence along the way down the page. I don’t think of the sentences as broken, necessarily—rather I see them as measured. Which is to say, I think the line breaks arise from a desire to (usefully, I hope) mark out the argument—the rhetorical structure—of the sentence. A recently appointed editor at a journal said in an interview that the reason I use syntax as a tool is because line break is less important in my work. She couldn’t be farther from the truth!



Risa Denenberg

Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Café Online. She has published seven collections of poetry, most recently the full-length collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition.

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