CARL PHILLIPS is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently Speak Low, a new collection of work, and Quiver of Arrows, selected poems from 1986 to 2006. His many awards and honors include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry, the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Academy of American Poets, to which he was elected a chancellor in 2006. Phillips currently teaches at Washington University in St. Louis. Below are a few exchanges from the much longer interview, which you can find in Issue 22.1–Winter/Spring 2010, due out next month. –Mario Chard, Poetry Editor
SR: You only write a few times a month—keeping away from distractions— and you write almost the entire day. My question is, then, do you still feel like you’re being a “poet” the rest of that time you’re not writing? In that you’re observing the world?
Phillips: Yeah, I feel it all counts. I think one of the most important things I do every day is walk two dogs. I never feel as if, oh something’s wrong, I haven’t written this month. Because I figure I lived. I left the house. Usually I can trace back from a poem I’ve written and think, huh, that never would have happened had I not gone on that drive and down that road and run into so and so.
SR: That you’re not just a poet when you write, but it’s a part of your life.
Phillips: Right. I have a friend who hadn’t written for a few years and she said she was no longer a poet, and I just thought that was ridiculous, told her so. Eventually she did write again. I think she needed that time, that sense of despair about writing. Somehow she had to get through all that to get to those new poems.
That’s the other thing that’s wrong—or at least artificial—when it comes to writing programs: this illusion that writing happens in a timed manner outside the realm of real life. You produce a thesis in two or three years. But real life isn’t like that. In real life relationships fall apart, or you start a relationship, or someone dies, your life gets affected.
SR: It takes some time to sort some things out, living while you’re writing…in that vein, I’ve noticed the use of questions in your poetry. Are these questions you’re asking yourself, an interior self?
Phillips: Yes, I always seem to be asking questions in a world of uncertainty and doubt. There was a review that talked about how my sentences are constantly self-questioning and doubting, as if that were something weird. But that’s simply how I am in real life, whether on the page or in a supermarket.
It’s not as if I sit there and think, oh I’m going to form a certain question here or there—it’s instinctive. That may be what people forget: that poetry is a reflection of the sensibility of a particular mind. We think that these things are a certain strategy—why is this poet doing this or that? Well maybe it’s just because that’s who he or she is. It’s like walking. That’s just the particular person’s gait.
To read the full interview, order Issue 22.1 now!