FEATURE — Summer 2006


Poetry Is His Perfect Expression

Carl Phillips' award-winning writing reflects the complexities of being human—being flawed and struggling.

By Kristin Tennant

Poet Carl Phillips has always felt a certain magnetic pull to difficult topics: desire ... loss ... morality ... belief ... sexuality ... transgression.

But Phillips faces these realities armed with his skills as a writer, making an art of seeking and wrestling with them. Although the process can be arduous, the resulting poems and their readers clearly benefit. With eight published books of poetry and a prestigious collection of awards and recognitions, Phillips, professor of English and of African and African American studies, is clearly doing something right.

As critic Carol Muske-Dukes wrote for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Phillips' poems argue for unsparing, inspired examination of that tethered falcon, the soul." John Palattella of Newsday describes Phillips' 2004 National Book Award Finalist collection, The Rest of Love (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), as "...the scintillating record of a poet struggling to understand desire and to find a pattern of understanding within the struggle itself."

Phillips says this willingness to struggle is the central theme not only to his poetry but his life.

Among Professor Carl Phillips' award-winning collections of poetry are Cortège (Greywolf Press, 1995), a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lambda Literary Award in poetry, and The Tether (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), winner of the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.

"If I have a mission at all—as a teacher, a poet, a human being—I would like people to think more openly about what it means to be human, rather than just falling in line with what's expected," Phillips says. "If I want people to get any single thought or message from my poetry, it's that it's not only okay to be flawed and struggling—it just is a fact of a life on Earth."

The inner struggles began early for Phillips, but so did the relief that came through reading and writing. Not only is he of mixed ethnicity, his father was in the Air Force so the family moved frequently. Phillips believes these factors played a significant role in his becoming a writer.

"I think I began to understand, as much as a child can, that a book is a portable world—something familiar you can return to," says Phillips. "I also began doing a lot of journaling. I think a child in a family that moves a lot, and who experiences prejudice, often builds a rich interior life, which is what I did."

Phillips' other early love, besides the world of books and languages, was animals. When Phillips began his undergraduate studies at Harvard, his only desire was to be a veterinarian. During his freshman year, however, Phillips took an ancient Greek course, wedged in between a slew of pre-med courses. He soon realized it was the only thing he looked forward to during the week. Reading the poetry of Sappho for the first time pushed him over the line. Phillips thought, "Why not major in Greek and Latin and just get a dog if I like dogs?"

If the leap from pre-med to ancient languages seems a stretch, Phillips later shifted again, from eight years as a high school Latin teacher to being a successful poet. The transition was a natural one for Phillips, who sees poetry as the perfect expression of emotions people have been having since the beginning of time.

Open to interpretation

It was as a teenager that Phillips actually began writing poetry. He says he didn't have a special talent—he was "just another teenager who wrote poetry as a way to work through a variety of emotions and struggles."

The same impulse drives him to write now.

"Somehow, as adults, we're made to think we need to suppress our emotions," he says. "Poetry is an opportunity to question ourselves and the world around us. I write because I have to."

"I try to present poems as opportunities to discover something about yourself and the world, not as complicated puzzles students will be lucky to solve."

This weaving together of self, life, and writing is a great starting ground for getting students excited about poetry. Poetry tends to scare people away, Phillips says, because it so often addresses difficult topics and isn't written in conversational prose. For Phillips, as a poet and teacher, the challenge is to get people to see that poetry is in part about human emotions—like love, despair, jealousy, and loss—they can relate to. The challenge for students and readers, he says, is to be willing to do a bit of work, and to take imaginative leaps.

Professor Phillips (right) treats his students as writing peers. He says he feels an obligation to them to be writing well himself, and to walk along with them as they find their way as writers together. Here, he meets with graduate students Joe Lennon and Jennifer Lyons.

"One way to help students see that poetry isn't threatening is by showing them that it's open to a number of interpretations," Phillips says. "I try to present poems as opportunities to discover something about yourself and the world, not as complicated puzzles students will be lucky to solve."

Flora Lerenman, Arts & Sciences Class of '06 with a double major in English and economics and minors in writing, psychology, and humanities, says before she took Phillips' African-American Poetry course she saw poetry as a difficult genre she was "obligated to at least feel a lukewarm appreciation toward." Phillips inspired a different opinion in her.

"Something about poetic conventions and strict meter rules once struck me as cumbersome and unnecessarily dogmatic," Lerenman says. "But Professor Phillips helped me understand how artistically stimulating those restrictions actually are. Every encounter I have with him spurs my desire to know and understand the classical world as well as the everyday current events that color poetry and literature."

For Phillips, teaching and writing clearly feed one another. When he's teaching literature classes, his own poems often emerge from the process of preparing and knowing another piece of literature so thoroughly. Teaching the graduate poetry seminar inspires him to produce, too. This interplay came across clearly to Keith Newton, a 2005 M.F.A. graduate now living in Brooklyn, where he works on his own poetry and as an editor.

"The first thing to say about Carl as a teacher and a poet is how inseparable those two things are for him," Newton says. "Each feeds the other, and he brings to both his psychological insight and his devotion to the idea that poetry has real meaning for us—that its meanings are capable of changing us."

Phillips treats his graduate students as writing peers, creating a rich and productive environment. He says he feels an obligation to the students to be writing well himself, and to walk along with them as they discover and find their way as writers together.

"The information Carl imparts is never from a source of fixed, stale, or patronizing 'wisdom,'" says Jessica Baran, a second-year M.F.A. student. "He treats us as fellow writers, as peers, who he realizes are struggling with the same issues he is."

Freedom within a form

While much of the thought process behind his poems is sparked by reading and teaching, Phillips' actual writing process emerges organically from his daily life and tasks. Rather than disciplining himself to write for a certain amount of time each day, he waits until a phrase or idea comes, then he sequesters himself for three to six hours to write through an entire draft of a new poem.

"My best ideas come from very mundane experiences and moments, like while I'm vacuuming or going to the market or walking the dogs," Phillips says. "Then I need concentrated time to write—I find it very difficult to go back and continue working on a poem the next day or later."

Excerpted from "Tower Window":

"Last night, the storm was
hours approaching.
Too far, still, to be heard.
Only the sky, when lit—
less flashing than
quivering brokenly

(a wing,
not any wing,
a sparrow's)—for a sign.

It seemed exactly the way
I've loved you."

—"Tower Window," The Rest of Love
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)

One issue Phillips is particularly drawn to is the mind and body in conflict, and how that conflict challenges our conventional ideas about truth. His fascination with the natural world and metaphors like birds and animals emerges from the same source—except in the natural world, there is no tension between the mind and body.

"I'm drawn to difficulty, which is why I'm drawn to suffering and restlessness," he says. "I'm also drawn to write about the body, and how the body's desires can collide with societal expectations. Also, how identity—especially sexuality, race, and gender—affects how we conduct our bodies and how we're expected or allowed to."

In his new book, Riding Westward (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 2006), Phillips moves away from themes focusing on reconciling ideas of love, the mind, and the body, and he explores what happens when there are no moral guideposts—a difficult, frightening, yet fascinating look at "rules," why we need them and who gets to decide them.

As for poetry, there aren't rules so much as freedom within a form—both of which Phillips seems to fully embrace and thrive under. His awards include election into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Yet Phillips embodies a true sense of humility and even surprise at his success as a poet, referring to his writing career as a "lifelong apprenticeship." It's difficult, he says, for him to measure success as a poet in any of the usual ways.

"I'm still always a bit surprised to find myself where I am, writing and teaching poetry for a living," Phillips says. "The teaching and the writing both just come from a desire to share something, to express something about the world. Either way, I'm really only trying to help people ask difficult questions."

Kristin Tennant is a free-lance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.