Since the publication of his first book, In the Blood (1992), Carl Phillips has generated a body of poetry that is singular for its demanding intimacy, its descriptions of the dissonant energies within a self, and its beauty. Phillips has now published thirteen books of poems, which have situated him among the most influential of contemporary American poets. Phillips’s poems wrestle with themes that seem especially urgent today—identity and race, sexuality and sexual politics, morality in human action and thought. But his poems also feel coolly adjacent to the present, as though—like other poets of great interiority, from George Herbert to Emily Dickinson to Li-Young Lee—he is thinking about timeless questions. If it is often the case that poets, over a life of writing, become more autobiographically revealing in their work, Phillips has always maintained the perhaps paradoxical quality of being candid and private at the same time. During our interview, he mentions that “My Bluest Shirt,” a poem from Double Shadow (2011), was informed by the death of his mother, though it doesn’t explicitly mention her. When asked whether he minds the reader not knowing the elegiac origin of the poem, Phillips says no. “I think that’s one of the fun parts of being a poet,” he says. “You can sort of stitch things into the poem that only you get.”
Phillips was born in Washington State in 1959, to an African American father and a white British mother. His father’s career in the air force took the family to various bases in the United States and abroad before they eventually settled in Massachusetts. Phillips attended Harvard College and received graduate degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Boston University. His father continues to live on Cape Cod. After his mother’s death, Phillips says, his father started taking electric guitar and painting lessons, and remarried at eighty. “It’s a new chapter,” he says wryly. Though Massachusetts has remained a kind of home, Phillips has lived in Saint Louis, Missouri, for over twenty-five years, teaching at Washington University. His oeuvre now includes a volume of selected poems, two books of prose, and a translation of Sophocles’s Philoctetes. His next collection, Pale Colors in a Tall Field, will be published in 2020. Since 2011, Phillips has been the judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition.
This interview took place over two hot September days in Saint Louis. On the first morning, Phillips picked me up from my hotel driving a crayon-yellow Jeep. He and his partner live in the Central West End area of the city, in a town house built in 1903. The house is elegant, with colorfully painted walls and bright rugs. On one wall was a triptych of watercolors, reminiscent of Cy Twombly, that abstractly depicted the Orpheus and Eurydice story. In front of two French doors stood a pair of brass cranes salvaged from a fountain, several feet tall and green with age. Beyond was a backyard almost completely taken up by stands of high bamboo, which contributed to the atmosphere of cozy remove. Phillips is tall, handsome, often boyishly casual in dress. But a little like his poetry, in person he can be measured and watchful. We talked in his dining room, which remained cool and dim through my visit. Phillips’s brawny hound, Ben, kept us company while we talked. Except for the insistent, clearly habitual requests for feeding and walks, Ben slept.
You interviewed the poet Geoffrey Hill for The Paris Review in the late nineties. What do you remember of that experience?
I was terrified. He had been my teacher at Boston University, where he was quite intimidating—very exact and precise about everything. In class once he asked me to speak on something, and I began, “I feel,” and he interrupted, “I’m not interested in your feelings, I’m interested in your thoughts.” The overall effect was frightening.
Apparently he had refused to be interviewed for The Paris Review for some time, and then asked for me, specifically, to be the interviewer. I didn’t think I could say no. It was a little tense the first day—it was hard for me to see him other than as my professor. Also I find his work difficult, so I had a lot of questions and I worried he’d think I hadn’t read it thoroughly. But it all improved after the first night. He and his wife threw a dinner party for my then partner and me, and Geoffrey got a little drunk. He walked into a closet thinking it was the bathroom. The dog went berserk. I also learned his wife and I had danced at Harvard’s freshman mixer many years earlier. The next morning was more relaxed. I think Geoffrey felt a little foolish, and he seemed, to me, more human, having revealed that side.
One of the questions you asked was about the difficulty in his work. Your own work is intensely lyrical, often without the narrative coordinates that might help a reader navigate the poem.
I tell people, especially if I’m giving a reading, it’s okay to let the words wash over them, the way one experiences abstract art.