An Interview with Carl Phillips, Poet and Professor by Sten Spinella (2016)

I only had 30 minutes to speak to poet Carl Phillips, which was just enough time to access his worldview, yet a woefully insufficient amount of time to truly get at the thickness of his poetry. It was by far the friendliest interview I have ever conducted. Phillips was flexible with his schedule and would make a joke in the same breath as a philosophical aside. I reserved us an awkward space near the lobby of the Nathan Hale Inn on the University of Connecticut campus where we sat across from each other in armchairs looking over a small table. People continually passed by, but we were relatively alone.

With an impressive catalogue of 12 books of poetry and two books of criticism, as well as being a professor and winning countless awards, Phillips seemed almost as honored to be interviewed as I was honored to interview him. Phillips wore a blue button-down shirt and had a neat crop of facial hair. I couldn’t help imagining him as a quality professor, for he made my questions seem smart when I thought them vague, and he always doubted the adequacy of his answers, as if he wasn’t giving me enough to go on.

Phillips is about as established as an American poet can be, but his manner seemed unchanged by the fact that the Long River Review was interviewing him, not the Kenyon. When we had wrapped up, he thanked and complimented me before being rushed away to speak to a group of high school students an hour removed from UConn.

Sten Spinella: Going through your biography, you’re impeccably educated, as both a teacher and a student. I was wondering, can you contrast how your poetry has been influenced due to your teaching versus you being taught?

Carl Phillips: In terms of being taught, I’ve studied Greek and Latin, so I feel like that’s had a lot to do with what I write about, because I was interested in Greek tragedy, and in the Greek tragedies, people get in a lot of trouble for being innocent. They’re sort of randomly caught in a bind, with the Gods, usually. I was interested in this idea of how come just by being who you are you can suddenly be cursed, or damned. I feel like I’ve been writing about that intersection between how we behave and how we’re told we’re supposed to behave, and how they don’t always connect. Also, I think the way I write sentences is kind of connected with how Greek and Latin work. They’re kind of flipped aroundverbs are at the end and things like that. Is this too…It sounds boring as I’m saying it.

SS: Not at all!

CP: But teaching, I think, has taught me more as a writer, partly because, first I was a high school teacher for a long time, teaching high school Latin, where you really have to know grammar. You can’t just go in and tell students ‘This is a verb’ because they don’t know what a verb is. So I find that teaching has made me really understand things I took for granted so that I could explain them to other people. Poems are, in a sense, doing that; trying to explain something to an audience, but now that I teach in college, what I learn most from the students is things they bring up I’ve never heard about, like things they’re reading that I wouldn’t think to read, or else we’ll read something I’ve read many times like Homer’s Iliad, and some student will have a totally new idea I’ve never had after all these years. I actually think that’s the best kind of teaching; when you’re learning too and not just some big rock of wisdom, beaming wisdom to people. Plus, it makes it exciting. It would be boring if you knew everything. It seems like it’s symbiotic, kind of feeding off the students and vice versa.

SS: Continuing on education, obviously you did go to school for creative writing at a certain point, and you are a creative writing professor. There’s of course this school of thought that writing can’t be taught. Where do you stand on that?

CP: I believe you can’t. The way I always put it is you can teach technique, but you can’t teach vision. You can teach someone the rules of a sonnet and they can write a fourteen-line poem and it can rhyme a certain way, but there’s a reason why Shakespeare is Shakespeare – just because that’s who he was. Or like Emily Dickinson, in a way, was very messed up, weird, but that is what makes her poetry, her poetry. There’s reasons to go to a writing program, you can learn and read a lot of other poems, and learn styles of other people, but it’s hard to tell whether someone will go on to be a poet who has a unique way of seeing the world that people want to hear about. It’s hard to explain that to students because it’s almost like saying ‘Well, it’s just a magical gift. You either have it or you don’t.’ I secretly kind of believe that.

SS: You don’t tell your students that, though?

CP: Well, it seems like they want to believe if you work hard enough, and I’m sure that’s true in some cases, but for the most part it feels like someone has to have some weird…

SS: Story?

CP: Yeah, some strange angle on the world. Most poets are pretty much a mess in some way once you dig deep enough. I think that’s where their weird way of seeing the world comes out on the page. That’s a long sentence, cut it off whenever. That’s what I always  tell my students: ‘Just stop me.’

SS: This is going to sound weird, but, when I was reading your poetry, my favorite color is blue

CP: Good choice.

SS: I noticed there were a lot of references to the color. Of course there’s the poem “Blue” and I noticed it in “Cortege” and “Hymn” that you alluded to the color blue. Does the color have some sort of significance in your writing?

CP: I never thought it did, but, I too have noticed it comes up, and maybe I’m just redundant, but in some ways, in that poem “Blue” it’s like it stands for some kind of space in-between where we can never quite get to, of who we actually are, and I feel like if I think about the color, it’s some kind of abstract thing that we’re aiming towards. To me, being alive is an ongoing wrestling to figure out who we are, and it’s always changing. You never can say, ‘Oh, I got the answer now to who I am, and what love is, and what life is.’ It’s always like this wrestling, but it’s towards this space of blue that would be perfection. But, if we really reached it, there’d be no point in living, so, that’s my latest theory of it. It’s like some ideal that we’re always striving toward even though we can never make it, like a calculus curve, from what I remember of calculus.

SS: On a personal note, just from people’s accounts of you, especially at the event last night

CP: Oh, are they talking already?

SS: (laughs)

CP: I read the article. I mean first of all I appreciate that they did it. One of the things I’m always bothered by about myself is that I want to seem personable, and also, in my nervousness, I say things that I guess are, they do come across as sort of funny, that’s fine, but then I don’t want to seem like I’m not a serious poet, but I don’t want to seem like a pompous

SS: You’re not allowed to have a sense of humor then?

CP: Right, but I hate going to these poetry readings where they just go up like they’re a priest or something, and they just read, and I just feel like a lowly nothing. So, I like it to be more human. But then, when I read the article, I thought like ‘Oh, it just sounds like I spent the evening saying ‘Gee, I’m stupid.’ I know that’s not what the intention waspeople like that at the same time. But you were going to ask something based on accounts.

SS: Who am I to know, really, but it seems that there’s this idea that you’re humble.

CP: If it comes across that way, that’s good.

SS: At this point in your career, how can you still be humble?

CP: I think because I’ve never expected anything to happen. I wasn’t raised to think that I wasI don’t think I was ever told ‘You don’t deserve anything’I just wasn’t privileged. It seems like I was on paper, like going to Harvard and all that. They don’t mention I went to Harvard on a scholarship where I cleaned toilets and dormitories for the first three years, and that really has a way of, if you want to get all cocky about ‘Oh, I’m a Harvard student,’ but then you’re carrying a bucket and a mop across Harvard Yard each day. I was raised very working class, my father was in the Air Force, we moved around, so I’m always sort of grateful. I can’t believe this is happening. It’s kind of weird because I know people get sick of how Taylor Swift acts shocked every time she wins something: get over it girl, you win everything. Or Sally Field when she wins the Oscar and says ‘You guys really like me, I can’t believe it,’ it’s like she’s not acting like a dignified actress. But I feel that way. Like last night I thought, ‘People are actually here.’ I don’t know why I think there should only be three people. Then this woman gives this introduction that’s so smart and everything. To me, I don’t feel like that person. I feel like I just write, but I don’t have any thoughts, or ideas. It could be humbleness, maybe it’s a lack of self-esteem, but maybe that’s healthy sometimes. A lot of times, especially poets beginning out these days, they sometimes seem like, ‘Wow, I’ve got a first book, I’m a superstar.’ That’s hard to call. Even when you have 10 books, it could all end. It’s safer to be grateful, and it’s a privilege for people to come and want to listen to poetry. There are lots of other things you could do that are probably more fun. I host a lot of poetry readings at my school, and after someone is introduced they’ll get up there and they never even say thank you. You shouldn’t take that for granted, anymore than if someone had invited you to dinner – you don’t just eat and leave.

SS: Do you think that when you write you shed that humbleness and lack of self-esteem? Do you have to have a sort of arrogance to write?

CP: I’m glad you used that word, because I tell my students a lot that a writing career involves a combination of arrogance and humility. You do have to have some belief that you have something new to say and people should hear it, but you can’t just think ‘I wrote something, I’m great.’ You have to have enough humility so that if you get rejected or people don’t like the work, that you think ‘Well, I’m not perfect all the time.’ At the same time, if people reject you, you can’t think ‘Oh, I’m a loser, I’ll never write again.’ You just say ‘Well, screw them.’ It’s a mix, but that’s probably true about everything. There are parents who think they’re the perfect parents, and that’s a guaranteed way to screw up. But then if you’re just a slacker who never is doing anything and think, ‘I’ll never be a good parent so I may as well just be high all day,’ that probably isn’t the best model either, but I’m not a parent, so I don’t know.

SS: In reading your interviews, it seems like there’s this obligatory question about the lens of your identity, race, sexual orientation. What are your thoughts on this common question and how are, for example, white, straight writers treated differently in that way?

CP: I was just writing something about this. I feel as if people – well, there seems to be a movement right now, partly because of different events that have been happening like Black Lives Matter and Ferguson and those issues of police shootings. Everyone thinks the only kind of poem there’s room for is a certain kind of political poem. This article I’m writing, it’s about how it can be political just to be yourself in different ways. Not all of us are supposed to – well first of all, if you’re a black person, it doesn’t mean you have to speak about race at all. That kind of thinking doesn’t make room for straight, white writers and readers. 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. Some of the stuff that people are thinking is political, like race or sexual orientation, those are just parts of identity. I don’t go through the world each day and think, ‘Here I am shopping, I’m gay and I’m black.’

SS: That would be a huge burden.

CP: It would be! I’m also a shopper, a dog-walker, I’m all these things. It’s more like I don’t think about those things too much until something happens to make me aware of it. Some of those things go away, but they’re just parts of identity, and there are equally valid other parts. There was a straight, white male student at the University of Cincinnati recently who was asking me – he felt like he didn’t have the right to write poems now. I was thinking that we’re all supposed to be recording, in some way, what it’s like to be alive right now, and we need all the voices, because it all counts. In some ways I think it’s especially important to hear straight, white voices because now there’s been this tendency to think – there’s this whole thing of whiteness, which is just as bad as saying ‘This is what all black people are like.’ Poetry is a great way to understand who other people are and how they feel. I think the world includes everyone. People should be able to write the poems they want to write, and knowing what those experiences are informs my understanding of the world. I feel like that sounds very Pollyanna-ish, but I truly believe it. I understand a certain kind of guilt that straight, white men might be feeling, like they’re sort of under attack, but I feel like that doesn’t leave room for the fact that everyone’s an individual. The thing is too, when I get lumped into being black, one of my parents is black and one is white, so I don’t immediately think of white people as the enemy, nor do I think that they all think the same way. If anything, that makes it all the more important for them to keep writing so we can see there’s just as much diversity of voices.

SS: This has been an issue for a long timeI think back to the Harlem Renaissancedo you think that black writers are pigeonholed by political events, and who is doing that pigeonholing?

CP: In the Harlem Renaissance there were white expectations of how black writers should be, writers like Countee Cullen would write based on white models, like a Keats sonnet. Part of his agenda might have been to show that black writers were just as educated and skilled. At the same time, there are writers like Langston Hughes who were saying that black writers should be writing the way black people speak, so he would go into Harlem and try to record that kind of language. I find that even back then, and now too, there’s an expectation on both sides. I’ve often been told that I’m not correctly black. In this article I’m writing I mention that I’m not appropriately black if I’m not writing about black things. Why is it not a black thing to write about love, or sex, or desire? They seem to mean you’re not writing about a black identity experience that we all are supposed to relate to. If that includes a certain inner-city life or living in projects for example, or having been raised in certain ways, I didn’t have that experience, so it wouldn’t be authentic for me to write about it. It happens with gay writers too. You’ll have people who will say ‘You stopped being gay after your second book, because there’s no graphic, gay stuff.’ I didn’t stop being gay, maybe I just had other things to write about besides that.

SS: I want to get back to your writing. I’ve always really liked your titles.

CP: I like them, but sometimes I can’t explain them.

SS: I’m not asking you to necessarily explain them, I just think that they’re very lyrical and I’m wondering how you find your titles and how that relates to your writing process.

CP: The title is always the end, I never have a title until after I’ve written. The problem is – I’ve been traveling around for a couple weeks with this poem that has no title – and I feel it would be like if you had a child and you haven’t named it yet. It’s bad luck, you should name it. Sometimes they just come to me. Truly, I’ll just be walking my dog or something like that. Some line, I don’t even see how it works, but I’ll put it on there. I like titles that aren’t exactly what the poem is gonna be. Say the poem is about walking a dog, I don’t want the poem to be called “The Dog Walk.” A lot of people do that, but I think it’s boring, so I like something where you think ‘What? How does that title fit with the poem?’ I get a lot of titles from song lyrics. One night I was listening to some chorus where this women kept singing ‘Bow down to me,’ and suddenly I thought “Bow Down” is the name of this poem that’s striving for a title.

SS: So they really just come to you, it will just be a feeling.

CP: I know it sounds lame. It’s the hardest part for me.

SS: It is the hardest part of your writing?

CP: Yes. The poem, it seems like it just happens when it’s ready to happen. I always think ‘If it doesn’t have a title you don’t know what it’s about, Carl. If you don’t know what it’s about, what’s the point?’ I think that poems are supposed to surprise us. First we think ‘I don’t really know what this is about,’ and then over time you’re like ‘I see, I was wrestling with this or that.’ Not every poet works that way. Some people decide they’re gonna write a poem about doing a reading last night, and they’ll sit and write about that, but I can’t write toward an assignment like that. I was a bad student in that sense because someone says ‘Write about this’ and I don’t want to do it, so I write about something different.

SS: When I was researching you, which is weird, I was thinking about it while I was walking over, to look someone up on the Internet.

CP: It’s weird to me to think that I’m on the Internet.

SS: I wanted to know about how your skill in translating, criticism, and essay writing – do you compartmentalize those, or do you think that they’re conducive to poetry?

CP: I really hate writing essays. I’ve written two books of them, but mostly they were talks I gave, and then later I was able to turn them into an essay. I can’t do that thing where someone says ‘Write an essay about this.’ They’re not conducive to anything. What I found though is that how I write, I figured out a way to write essays how I write poems. My problem with essays is that I feel like I have to hold an idea and develop it and all that. I can’t do that, and I don’t like reading essays like that. But then I thought, ‘You could just leap from idea to idea like you do in a poem, and maybe the pieces will all start to come together like a kind of collage.’ So that’s often how my essays are now, like a little section and then an asterisk, a little thought here. After a while I think, ‘That makes sense,’ you know, they all came from the same mind. To me an essay becomes an invitation to think about this thing a little bit here and there. It’s like if an essay were a many-faceted diamond, and so each time you turn it, it catches the light in different angles. That would be, to me, a fun essay to read, where I’m invited to tumble through an idea. I feel like freshman comp ruins people. You have to do a thesis statement, and then the body, and then the summary.

SS: Now does that start in high school, or college?

CP: I guess it does start in high school. I hate those papers. I hated writing them. My students think it’s weird because I don’t assign papers. I don’t want to read them! You’re gonna turn in those essays that I hate.

SS: That’s great. That’s all I’ve got. Let me save this.

CP: What if you hadn’t been recording and you didn’t find out until now?

SS: Honestly, it’s a recurring nightmare.

Sten Spinella is a junior English & political science major at the University of Connecticut. He is Interviews editor of the Long River Review.

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