Carl Phillips is the author of thirteen books of poems, most recently Reconnaissance (FSG, 2015). Phillips has also published two books of prose, The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination, and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry; and has translated Sophocles’s Philoctetes. His awards include the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry and the Kingsley Tufts Award, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Academy of American Poets. Currently the judge for the Yale Younger Poets Series, Phillips teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
Hi, Carl! Thank you so much for talking with me. It’s not often—or ever—that I get the chance to pick the brain of a writer whose work is so integral to my definition of what poetry is and what makes it so important. Let’s start here: I imagine you’ve read more than most people alive. Which books—past and present—still manage to excite you?
CP: The answer to that – the truest answer – would take more space than is reasonable! I’m not sure where to begin, except randomly. So, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I’m very excited lately by a mystery series written by Joseph Hansen, featuring David Brandstetter as a gay insurance investigator in the 1970s…All kinds of poetry, from Graham and Gluck to, working backward, Shakespeare, the metaphysicals, Greek tragedy (which I count as poetry). All the novels of Barbara Pym. Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Everything by Larry Levis. See what I mean?
What do you think about when you read? Is there any delineation for you between reading as a reader and reading as a writer?
CP: I think I’m always a writer and a reader when reading. As for what I think about, I suppose if a book is really good, I’m just enjoying it, enjoying being invited to travel with another sensibility, and to get to know it. But it’s also true that some part of me is aware of what I can learn, in terms of craft and/or ideas – I feel I learned to write by reading, and that’s still how I learn things that allow me to grow and take on new challenges.
Are there any blank-page rituals you’re comfortable coming clean about? (Be delicate—I already have a casual nicotine habit from the time Terrance Hayes told my high school writing class that he smokes a single cigarette when he sits down to write.)
CP: I have no rituals, alas. When I finally sit down to write, it’s because I’m ready to write, and I plunge right in.
After publishing twelve collections of poetry, I can imagine it might be easy to step on your own tail. How do you continually write poems that are new and exciting to you?
CP: This might tie in with the answer to the question about reading. I see the poems of others, and I’ll be interested in a technique or strategy that I’ve never used in my own poems. And in the course of doing that, taking on something new, the poems get pushed into directions that end up surprising. It’s sort of like getting older – the most interesting people are the ones who still want to learn something new, travel somewhere new, eat something different, whatever. Otherwise stagnation is inevitable.
What is the genesis story of your newest collection, Reconnaissance?
CP: I’m taking it that you mean how did it begin? Well, I don’t plan books, ever – I’m not able to write toward a given theme or project or idea. So I just write poems individually. After a while, usually a couple years, I’ll write something that feels as if a door has finally shut. That’s when I look at what I’ve got for poems – usually45-50 – and I try to see which ones are the best, and having culled those, I try to see how they’re speaking to one another. So I don’t know if Reconnaissance had a story that lay behind it. The poems come from a period in my life of some personal upheaval, and perhaps that’s reflected in places, but I wouldn’t say the book is that story. More accurate, maybe, to say the book is a portrait of a psychological space and its accompanying gestures during a space of time. I know that sounds evasive, but it’s as true as I can get.
In that same vein, does a collection sneak up on you from a distance or do you plan for it in advance? Does thematic unity come easy or is it something you find yourself engineering?
CP: Well, I guess I just answered the first question. As for thematic unity, I don’t engineer it – I don’t believe in engineering anything, when it comes to art, I think we have to let the art speak to us and tell us how it’s working – something poems often know before the poet does. But I always assume that any poems I write have to have at least the unity that comes from having been written by the same person. Or maybe this is the way to put it: it would be like trying to find thematic unity to a person’s life – we do so many things and are so many people at different points in life, so there’s hardly one governing theme, except the obvious one of being born, living, then dying. For some time now, the popular thing has been to put books together around themes, often artificially so – but, for me, each book can most honestly be described as the latest ways in which one person reflects on a life in the course of that life. In that sense, I almost see each book as analogous to decades of a life. Here I am in my 20s, here I am in my 30s, wrestling with different things and/or with the same things in a different way – here I am in my 50s. If that makes sense…
I’ve been taught to avoid abstraction, but many of your poems deal fearlessly with it, as in the title poem of Reconnaissance:
All the more elegant forms of cruelty, I’m told, begin
with patience. I have practiced patience. As for piety
being, to superstition, as what had seemed a fortress
can be to not-a-fortress-in-the-end, at all: maybe so.
—Why not move like light, reflected, across the snow?
Cruelty, patience, piety, superstition—and then light, reflected across the snow. Here, the general illuminates the specific, an effect I find difficult to achieve. What’s your secret? How do you pull it off?
CP: I think, if there is a secret, it’s something like a belief in abstraction, in the face of what everyone says about not writing about abstraction. I’ve been told, for example, that it’s somehow impossible to write about love in a poem, unless it’s done ironically. But the fact is that we do love, and we tend not to do it ironically – and if a poem is an accurate reflection of what it means to be alive inside a human body, part of that experience is weathering a world that is both concrete and abstract. The ability to understand abstraction is unique to human beings. Why pretend it doesn’t exist? I do think an important thing, when using abstraction in poetry, is to balance it with concrete images – for one, it helps the poem not sound overly academic, but also the poem then becomes a truer reflection of our lives, half concrete, half abstract.
Let’s talk about endings. Last week, as I rushed to fortify the latter halves of some of my poems before a deadline, I paged through Reconnaissance and wrote down the ending lines of each poem to see what makes them tick. Like good magicians, they would not give away their tricks. How do you come to such unshakeable landings? Is your primary focus on sonic qualities or on truth telling, or on both, or on something else entirely?
CP: Here, I confess to being stumped. I truly don’t know how I come up with endings. I’m writing, and then inevitably I start going in directions I hadn’t anticipated, and boom, something comes out and I realize it’s the ending. I wouldn’t say I have a focus, but the thing that makes me trust that I’ve stumbled into the ending is that I’m suddenly surprised, and not always sure why this is the ending – I just know it is.
Speaking of tricks—are there any go-to maneuvers you use to generate ideas, solve problems or navigate difficult intersections when writing a poem?
CP: I always turn to structure – prosody – when there’s trouble with a poem. If the poem isn’t working, it’s probably because it hasn’t found its form, line length, whatever…So I’ll sometimes try recasting. For example, if I have a 33 line poem, and the lines are all long, I’ll try cutting the poem down to a 20 line poem, and the lines have to be short. Just to see what happens. For generating poems, I often turn to a poem by someone else, sort out what the structure is, and make those my constraints – say there’s a poem by Louise Gluck that is constructed entirely of fragments and has three stanzas. I’ll make those my constraints, just to have a starting point. Rather like giving rules to children. They actually prefer rules – which are a form of structure.
Okay, I’ll leave you with this: Given the circumstances of your life right now, what is the poem you want to read next? What—whether a matter or movement of content, form, or syntax—do you consider to be most important on the forefront of poetry?
CP: Ah, that is a double question! To the first, I’ll say that the poem I want to read next is the one that I’m always looking for, the one that makes me re-see the world. Very few poems do that for me, but when they do, it’s worth all the time spent going through what’s less surprising. And for question two, I don’t know what’s the most important element for poetry right now. What people seem to think is the most important thing right now is identity politics. But that, in and of itself, does not make a poem. Meanwhile, identity politics has long been important and has been a part of all kinds of literature, and of art generally, so it’s hardly new. But back to the question, I don’t even think I can speak of the forefront of poetry, since that forefront is different for each person. On the forefront of my own poetry, the most important thing remains what it’s always been: making the next poem.