Good morning (it’s morning here). How are you?
I’ve got a case of the coffee manics as I went to bed at 1:30 (Adam started a late night conversation about popular misreadings of the Daoist gender binary. Sexy!), then woke up at 6 AM as Jude had to be at Cross Country practice because shared suffering and sleep deprivation make you run faster.
Continuing my poetry interviews, today we have Carl Phillips. I’m feeling good about wrangling him into this. Carl’s plenty opinionated, but when the mic goes on he may choose to bound into the forest like the ghost stag of myth and legend.
I met Carl in 1992 when we both began at the Boston University’s poetry program. We’d been hauled in for a mandatory TA meeting, one of those deals where they make you sign in at 8am on a Saturday and hold you prisoner for 6 hours while telling you what a grade book is and going through the sexual harassment policy a syllable at a time.
At some point, after a series of telepathic exchanges, Carl dropped from his seat at the end of a row and signaled in SWAT team fashion that I should follow. I remember this as one of the best afternoons ever—hopping the train (I hadn’t lived outside of Nebraska long and found riding the T to be the height of urban sophistication), and wandering around the Back Bay until settling in at the Ritz Hotel bar to kill four hours. We drank multiple martinis after the established practice of Plath, Sexton, Starbuck, and Lowell, our BU Program poetic elders. We’ve been fast friends ever since.
Carl is a prolific writer, which would be tolerable if the books weren’t individually and collectively brilliant. As a poet and essayist, it’s no exaggeration to say he’s one of the very most influential, critically admired, and important poets of his generation. No one but Carl sounds like Carl. Imitators wash up on the shore of his distinctive extended syntax, his uncanny concretizing of abstract states-of-being, as well as the usefully obsessive, sacred/erotic conundrum that underpins both the poems and the essays (and if you haven’t checked out his brand new essay collection from Graywolf, The Art Of Daring: Risk, Restlessness and Imagination, do yourself a favor and order it now. It’s hawt).
Carl now lives in a beautiful, multi-storied old house in St. Louis. It’s the kind of house that has an inordinate amount of teensy, hidden powder rooms. Apparently a lot of discreet powdering was required of people at the turn of the century. A Cape Cod Yankee at his core, Carl is a ruthless bargain shopper and recently purchased (on deep discount, of course) yet another perfectly distressed leather couch, a testament to his fraught relationship with what he calls his “inner Hemingway”:
So the other day when we were texting (and I still maintain that a transcript of these exchanges would rival the scandal created by Taylor and Burton at their peak), you signed off to go pick up the rotten pears that had fallen from your pear tree.
As I said at the time, even when you’re performing a disgusting yard chore, it still seems sooo exquisitely LYRIC in some ineffable way. I mean, “Ah, the sweetness! The Beauty and Ruin! The bees humming drowsily in the golden nectar…”
Please tell us why your life is more poetic than other peoples’ and how you achieve this effect.
Ha, it only seems more poetic to you because you didn't have your fingers sliding through the rot of pears that looked solid, nor did you see me trying not to scream around all the drunk bees, and then there's the rank smell of a man cleaning his yard in 102 degrees. It's sexy in the movies, but you can't smell the movies...
Eeenteresting. Though if you could smell a movie, which movie would you choose and why?
A Streetcar Named Desire. Marlon Brando.
Yeah, early 50s Marlon Brando. That choice seems pretty self-explanatory. No follow up necessary.
Instead: you have a potentially death-inducing food allergy (which I will not name here to prevent your enemies from slipping a mickey into your jug wine), and I’ve also seen you throw yourself out of a moving car.
Do you think this predisposition both genetically and spiritually leads to the strong sense of duende that runs through your poems?
I'd forgotten about the car...what's duende?
(A pause while Professor Belieu finds Professor Phillips the Wikipedia entry for ‘duende”).
"In his brilliant lecture entitled "The Theory and Function of Duende" Federico García Lorca attempts to shed some light on the eerie and inexplicable sadness that lives in the heart of certain works of art. "All that has dark sound has duende", he says, "that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain."
So glad you sent that to me before I went to the doctor. All these years, and that dark sound in my head is nothing to worry about, just duende...
Hmmm. An artful dodge. Ok. Let’s try this: you, Carl Phillips, contain multitudes. You are an excellent chef, a daring interior designer, a virtuoso accordion player, a gifted roller skater, and a former high school Latin teacher. You are also a man the world identifies as African American. But I know there have been times in the past when you’ve gotten the message from some in the poetry world that you don’t seem “black enough.”
What makes people have those kinds of (as I think of them) totally asinine responses? What’s at the heart of such a response do you think?
I think it comes from an insecurity about identity. And a blurring of identity and the concept of trademark or brand recognition. Insecurity makes people want to narrow the definitions down, when it comes to identity. If there are two many definitions, how is one to choose? The bolder and more intellectually imaginative alternative is to broaden the definition and consider the idea of identity as textured, multi-valenced, various, and to see that variety as exciting rather than intimidating. But the insecure are easily intimidated. We are all of us insecure in our own ways, but that doesn't mean we have to live there...Meanwhile, by narrowing the definition, the definition becomes a label, like a trademark. Gay poetry. Black poetry. Etc. What's too bad is that we minorities already have the problem of being thrown into a single category by the so-called majority. Why compound that by doing it to ourselves?
That is an eloquent answer. Thank you.
But back to my impertinent questions: I have a theory about poetry as self- portraiture based on the movie 101 Dalmatians. You may remember in the opening of that movie, the dog Pongo and his master are sitting at a window watching people walking their dogs in the park. The visual joke is that the dogs and their owners look suspiciously alike, though the people clearly don’t realize this.
Given that you look very much like your dog Ben, and that a strong “The Pets of the Poets” motif is developing through this interview sequence, I think this is an especially good question for you: do you believe that every poem, no matter how close or far way the subject matter appears to be from a writer’s experience is just another self portrait? I wonder because we in contemporary poetry seem awfully anxious about the idea of what the appropriate amount of distance is for a poem to take from the autobiographical.
I think all poems are necessarily and inevitably autobiographical, inasmuch as they come to us only after having passed through the various facets of our own experiences of the world. So everything we write is marked by our sensibility, which itself has been shaped by our experiences, whether lived or read about. Why all the anxiety? Having a poem reflect who we are isn't the same as confessing things we'd prefer to keep private.
Yes, but people still rank on the supposedly “confessional" mode frequently, as if that designator means something in an age when you can google most celebrities’ genitals or your neighbors' amateur porn sites anytime day or night.
So the anxiety about the autobiographical-appearing must come from somewhere outside of this quaint, now mostly absurd notion of confession. I suspect that it’s actually code for “personal-seeming” and it gets used especially to dismiss poems assigned to a “feminine” way of writing. Do you agree?
I don't know if I've noticed it being a way to dismiss poetry by women in particular. It seems to me that there's a general aversion in the last ten or so years to feeling in poetry. To human feeling. The result is a lot of poems that distance themselves from feeling by being entirely conceptual, mechanistic; I don't know what word is right, here. There's a lot of bloodlessness, I guess, when we are blooded creatures with feelings. That's a general observation...I guess I really don't pay a lot of attention to the noise...
Uh huh. Sure you don’t….
Anyways, final question: so you and I both know you’re kind of obsessed with soup: making soup, eating soup. Today’s soup was Portuguese kale soup. Ninety percent of the time you’re doing something soup-related when I ring you.
I'm not kidding about the noise. I follow news, via places like Poetry Daily. And then there's just what I hear from friends. Seriously. I think I value day-to-day peace too much to get caught up in what ultimately just distracts from getting work done...
Gordon Ramsay, there's another example. I didn't know his cookbooks or show until the other day when you mentioned him to me. Truth. Anyway, I'd probably go with. Crab linguine with lemon gremolata...but I can't claim to have invented it, I found it on a food blog. That's how I spend a lot of my time, not on poetry sites, but in food blogs. Food's a lot more essential in the world.
You really didn’t know who Gordon Ramsay was? Jesus, Carl, you really are Emily Dickinson.
But the food question was just a ruse to find out your fanciest recipe so I can wheedle you into making it when I come to town in October.
And thank you, Carl. This has been a very edifying interview. You’re a peach!
Thanks Erin, I'm so happy to be a peach rather than top banana in the shock dept., to quote Holly Golightly...
Tomorrow tune in for my interview with the delightful Adrian Matejka covering such scintillating topics as the best tattoos of MMA fighters, his failed career as a French horn player, and the deal his workshop once made not to date women writers.