FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
CARL PHILLIPS: I was first drawn to poetry as a child, because my mother – who was born and raised in Ealing – wrote poems for my sisters and me. I loved the music of it, and I suppose the way that so much could be said in a short space. So poetry was always around, and I loved reading the poetry books I found in the library. I began writing my own poems just before going to college, but the poems that I think of as my own began appearing in the 1980s, when I was in my late 20s.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
CP: I thought of myself truly as a poet when I started writing the poems that would become my first book. I had stopped writing after college, and didn’t think much about it. I realize now that I wasn’t ready yet to write the poems I needed to write – as I came closer to understanding the fact of my queerness (something I hadn’t really understood at all), I began writing pretty constantly, I suppose almost as a form of therapy, of putting on paper what I wasn’t yet ready to say to myself aloud, or to say to anyone else at all.
Somewhere around 1990, a poet (Martín Espada) visited the high school where I taught Latin, and he offered a poetry session for interested faculty. I signed up, and we had to write a poem in 20 minutes. After Martín read my poem, he suggested to me that I apply for a state grant – I’d never heard of such things, but I applied, sent in ten poems, and 6 months later I learned I’d been awarded $10,000. I used the money to buy my first computer and to take a summer class with a poet named Alan Dugan. Dugan suggested that I put my poems together and enter a manuscript contest. I did so, and my manuscript was chosen to be published in 1992. So there’s been a lot of luck and chance involved! That first book led to my leaving my high school job for a job teaching writing at the university where I still teach today. There have been 15 books of poems since then, a translation, and three books of essays on poetry. Wild!
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
CP: While I have a reputation here in the US, I’ve never had any sense of my work being read in the UK. But I’ve always followed the Forward Prizes, and admired the work by winners and finalists. It is only in the last year or so that I’ve had poems appear in UK journals, and my first ever book to be published by a UK publisher appeared this February (2022) from Carcanet. Being a finalist for one of the Forward Prizes is a wild surprise and a tremendous honor, and it’s a lovely confirmation that my poems are being read over in the UK and deemed worthy of recognition. I’m so grateful for all of this.
FP: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
CP: I’m not a poet who can write with a sense of what I want to write about ahead of time. For me, poetry is a way of straying, of getting lost, an almost unintentional questing forward, emotionally and psychologically. So it’s hard to say exactly how my shortlisted poem began. I suppose the heart of the poem is at the realization of a certain disturbing detachment of self from tenderness, regret…And from there, the idea that the feelings we worry about in ourselves – our helplessness – aren’t just our own, these are feelings that have always existed, even back in ancient Roman times. Which, I suppose, makes one’s feelings seem less dramatic, less urgent, and maybe just part of being human, which is maybe some consolation…
The best place for a reader to find more work of mine lately is in the new book from Carcanet, which includes an entire new book of poems plus a selection of earlier work, including a complete chapbook of work that has never been included in a book. The Carcanet book is Then the War: And Selected Poems 2007-2020.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
CP: Such a hard question! I should start by saying I’m most drawn to poetry that makes me see the world anew and as if for the first time, shaking up my assumptions about the world. And I especially like it if I’m made to think differently about language itself. I love the syntax and penetration of thought in Jorie Graham’s work. I love the mystery and the bridging of past and present in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems. I love the formal dexterity and the interrogation of eros in Thom Gunn’s work. Robert Hayden and Rita Dove are two poets whose work showed me that to be a Black poet didn’t mean I had to write toward anyone’s expectations. There’s often a pressure on Black poets to write about race and to do so in a specific way. I have long argued for what I call a politics of mere being – of being who we are, in all of our fullness, which means I get to write about race, walking my dog, being queer, Roman empire, whatever I choose to. Dove and Hayden’s poems were crucial models of that for me.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
CP: That’s always hard to predict! I hope to write another poem! Meanwhile, I do have enough poems for a next manuscript, but I haven’t yet sat down to see how they speak to one another, if at all. I’m excited, though, that one of those poems is the one shortlisted for the Forward Prize, so that gives me hope that I’m still writing something that others want to read…On the prose side, my third book of essays will be published (Yale University Press) this fall, My Trade is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
CP: Well, I know this is what everyone says, but my top advice is to read as widely and variously as possible – that’s how you learn about language’s capabilities, how things have been done, how they have been done differently, and how people have thought about things over the centuries. Reading is often where my poems will start, often something as simple as encountering a word in a novel, say, that I’ve never thought to use. I’ll write that word down and save it for a poem draft later. Many of my poems begin with my riffing on a word or phrase I’ve encountered elsewhere.
The other piece of advice is just as obvious, but crucial, I think: Look closely at everything around you. When I’m disappointed in a poem I’ve read, it’s often because the poem doesn’t seem to take place in the actual world of human life. I think of writing poetry as a form of world-building. Which means, to me, that a poem should be more than one person’s private thoughts. Where is the thinker? What do they perceive? Are there trees? Is a loaf of bread being baked and the smell filling the house? Does the thinker have a body? For me, poetry begins with keen attention. And then the challenge is to use language, not to transcribe what we take in from the world, but to transform it. To leave the reader as changed as the writer has been changed.