I was honored when Carl Phillips, Department of English at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed to an interview. He is a prolific author whose most recent collection Reconnaissance (2015) continues to establish him as a leading poetic voice. When asked what advice he would give to someone new to writing, Phillips succinctly responded, “Read as widely and as deeply as possible.”
Laine Derr: What do you fear? Is it – speaking of promiscuity/art – “to become cliché”?
Carl Phillips: All artists should fear becoming cliché, certainly. And I suppose I fear I won’t find my way to the next poem. But the things worth really being afraid of lie far from my private fears – I think it’s more worth taking seriously the fear that unarmed black people will continue getting killed by the police, that terrorism will never not be a reality, the list goes on…
LD: In your collection Riding Westward, I was struck with your poem “Shall Want for Nothing.” In the opening stanza, you write of a “they” being misguided by concepts of pleasure, exactness for art, and the self. Is working through confusion a fundamental part of your writing process and poetry?
CP: Yes, working through confusion, wrestling with the unanswerable, is pretty much entirely what brings me to write a poem.
LD: Does Reconnaissance continue an ongoing discussion (through your body of work) of contradictory expression, creating a “space for surprise,” and the role of art and sexual restlessness?
CP: Yes, I think so. Though I don’t think I’ve talked much about art in my work, more about the body and restlessness. I never really thought about the relationship of that restlessness to art, until thinking about my prose book, The Art of Daring.
LD: In The Art of Daring, you conclude: “If I’ve been restless, then as a compass can be, and still be true.” Is the concept of being restless yet true (also found at the end of “Shield”) an important theme for you, for your writing?
CP: Yes, it is crucial for writing, and for living fully – which is to say, imaginatively.
LD: How is poetry “both a form and an act of love”?
CP: It’s a desire to make sense of something, in a way that will resonate with others – that seems to me a way of giving a gift, a gesture of love, to have helped others see the world anew and maybe more usefully. The writing of the poem is the act, the poem itself is the form.
LD: What is your editing process for a poem? For instance, the movement of ideas and parts of lines between versions “Each Like a Branch Thrown Slant Across” (published in Washington Square) and “Shield”?
CP: That’s hard to get into without really really getting into it. I favor associative leaping between ideas, I like the idea of seemingly disparate shards being brought meaningfully together. And that’s what guides me in constructing the poem. In editing, I read aloud a lot, get a sense of where rhythms do and don’t work. Form matters, of course, but it’s hard to say how I get there…
LD: What was your inspiration for the poem “From A Land Called Near-Is-Far” and its concluding lines: “that smell, or fearfulness, or just fear by itself—tenderer/ hands than ours, soundlessly, as they at last unyoke us.”?
CP: It’s hard to point to a particular inspiration – I suppose the idea of relationships, their wounding properties, and the idea that maybe things just happen because they happen, no special reason. It’s meant to look a bit like an excerpted paragraph, but lineated, and somehow shadowed by the sonnet’s form…
LD: How does the title piece for your collection Reconnaissance shadow the poems to follow?
CP: That title poem introduces the idea of exploration, and raises the question of how best to proceed – how to navigate possibly dangerous terrain. I like to think the book as a whole is the enactment of that navigating.