Carl Phillips is the author of ten collections of poetry, the latest of which is Speak Low (FSG, March 2009). He is a professor of English, African American Studies, and Creative Writing at Washington University in St. Louis. Our summer issue features three new poems by Phillips, who recently took the time to answer a few questions about his creative process.
1. The poems featured in this issue of VQR, as well as several other poems you’ve published in journals this year, do not appear in your newest book, Speak Low. You’re a notoriously prolific writer. Is this work ethic a quality you’ve cultivated? Or is this just what you do—a compulsion, perhaps—and you happen to finish poems relatively quickly?
Despite the outer appearance, I really am not a prolific writer. I write about once a month, during the course of a day. If I’m lucky, I end up with a poem a month, occasionally two. So, you can see that there is no compulsion—and there’s no work ethic—I used to write every Sunday morning, but that was over ten years ago. Now it’s just whenever I can. But I am naturally always writing in my head while gardening, walking dogs, cooking. A major aspect to my life, though, is my aversion to the telephone and to blogs and to e-mail. I find that I have a lot of time to think about writing, time that others spend blogging, calling each other to complain, gossip, rant, etc. I would say I live a quiet life, for the most part—and in the silences, the poems arise.
2. The three poems that appear in this issue hover around fourteen lines. While they would not be mistaken for sonnets, formally, was it your intention to recall the traditional sonnet, at least visually, or to play with the form?
Yes, this is deliberate—but it started out accidentally, when a few poems just ended up around that length.
3. Thematically, these poems seem to quietly deal with being adrift and lost—or losing something—and then returning to or desperately clinging to a kind of meditative hopefulness rooted in the natural world. Are these themes something you’re focusing on lately? How do you find your preoccupations are shifting as you continue to write?
I never decide ahead of time what to write about, but I believe that the changes in our lives necessarily affect the weather of our poems. My mother died last year unexpectedly. This naturally charges the air with a sense of loss, and yet the poems aren’t about my mother or her death. People have always thought that my poem “As from a Quiver of Arrows” was about the death of a lover, presumably from AIDS. I have not experienced the death of a lover from anything, not yet, and I have only distantly known one person—a friend of a friend—who died of AIDS. But my awareness of these issues, just as I was coming out as a gay man, surely influenced my preoccupation with mortality.
4. You’ve written a lot about restlessness as the force to pivot around in art—how do you think this problem or gift of restlessness fuels another writerly concern, obsession? Does it go hand in hand with being an artist, or more specifically, a poet?
Restlessness tosses us from one thing to another. Obsession is a focusing on a single thing. But we don’t know what our obsessions might be, until restlessness tosses us in their direction—some stick, and others don’t. Just as we meet many people in a life, but we fall in love with a handful, if we’re lucky. I think both restlessness and obsession go hand in hand with being an artist, but I also think they go hand in hand with being a human being who is truly alive.
5. You are an avid student and teacher of the classics, which informs your work, but can you talk specifically about how the academic study fits into your creative process, how you consider ancient Greek literature when you sit down to write a poem?
I rarely consider Greek literature when writing a poem—which I only seem to be able to do either lying down or standing up—never sitting. A couple poems in Speak Low mention something from the Iliad—I was teaching a course on that when I wrote the poems, so Homer was just sort of in the air. . . . The only aspect of classics that seems to have an ongoing influence in my work is the more inflected syntax, though that could equally come from my knowledge of German, and from my enjoyment of the sentences of George Eliot, for example.
6. How intimately are politics and poetry linked in your mind? Do you consider every poem to be a political act, by its existence as an artifact, or do you have to decide to write a “political poem?”
I suppose every poem is political in some way. If the reigning mode is a plainspoken style of English, for example, perhaps to write poems like mine is a political act, arguing for independent uses of language. To write a poem about love between two men is not, to my mind, political, but I suppose it is, within a culture of homophobia. I’ve been told I’m political for refusing to write about race—I’m not sure what it means to write about race, anymore than I can say why I’m occasionally still told that I don’t seem to write a black poem. What is a black poem? What is a political poem?
7. There has been a lot of discussion lately about the future of the printed word and the solvency of literary journals and publishing in general. As a writer who publishes extensively in literary journals both high- and low-profile, what can you say about the value and necessity of these outlets?
I think journals are essential, for reasons that I can’t entirely explain. Partly it has to do with my need to feel—physically feel—something in my hands, with pages, with a smell of new paper, or old paper, to it. To read things online is a totally detached experience, for me. I feel alone in the room, somehow. Maybe that doesn’t make journals technically necessary, but art itself isn’t necessary either. Without it, though, the fabric of life would lack texture.
8. What are you reading now, poetry or otherwise?
I just finished rereading Middlemarch. I’m trying to convince myself that Fulke Greville was a great poet, by reading the newly reissued selected poems of his, edited by Thom Gunn. And I’m reading a book from the nineteenth century on the exploration of the Colorado River and the canyons around it. And just last night I began a book of essays on food by—I think—Agnes Jekyll. I’m always reading three or four things at the same time, and they usually are very different from each other.