5 QUESTIONS with carl phillips

by Jackie Malone | April 2018

Carl Phillips.jpg

Do you have a regular routine for writing?

I collect words and phrases as they come to me when I’m doing such routines as walking my dog, cooking, etc. And I put these in a notebook. About once or twice a month, I’ll have the feeling that if I just sit, usually at night, with these collected scraps, I might be able to make a poem from them, or get one to grow from them. But it’s unpredictable. If there’s a routine, it’s that I’m routinely in readiness for the next poem, whenever that may come.

Who were the first poets to impress you? How did they affect the way you write?

Sappho was the first poet I remember encountering who wrote so openly about feelings, especially feelings of desire. I didn’t realize at the time that her work only survived in fragments, so I admired her spareness, how much she could convey in so few words…This same spareness impressed me in William Carlos Williams’ work. And I also learned a great deal, early on, from Sylvia Plath’s poetry, a way to write with emotional rawness, without compromising precision of craft.

How much do philosophical and psychological conundrums inform your writing?

All of my writing is entirely about how to approach issues of desire both philosophically and psychologically. What makes us want what we want? What is desire? What is betrayal? What is faith? For me, poetry is a space within which to wrestle and briefly tame – or seem to have tamed – these conundrums that are unique to being a human being in a body that is still quite animal.

You have written 12 books of poetry. As you look back over your work, in what ways has your poetry changed?

I have actually written 14 books, the most recent of which is the just-published Wild Is the Wind. I don’t know if my subject matter has changed, especially, but my approach to it has evolved in the way that we evolve as people over time. So my take on desire in my second book, when I had just come out as a gay man, is very different from my take on that subject now, 25 years later, when my sexual orientation isn’t a novelty anymore, and when I have the hindsight that allows me to look back on earlier relationships that, in 1993, had yet to be realities…And I know the work has changed in terms of how it looks on the page – the lines are generally longer, and I think the work is more reflective, now, about things like memory, things that become more troubling the older one gets.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give a beginning poet?

Read everything you can, especially things written before you yourself were born. To write is to be part of a very long tradition, and we need to know what that tradition has been, in order to write within it and to push it differently forward.