Carl Phillips
Featured Writer

From the very first poem in my first book – “X” – I seem to have been concerned with the body, the conduct of it, the distinctions between what we do and what we intend, between what we are and what we wish we were, the complicated trio of intimacy, trust, and betrayal (of others as much as of ourselves)…I think a lot of these obsessions come from being a queer man, half Black, half White; because of those aspects of my identity, I’ve been questioned throughout my life, people don’t know quite what to ‘do’ with me, how to put me in an identity box that makes sense to them. I sometimes think of my poems as the boxes I get to make for myself, and I think the fact that the poems are constantly changing – formally – in their appearance enacts a restlessness that I’ve always felt about being boxed in, even by myself.

So, for me, a poem is a way to contain and enact sensibility – in my case, a restless, questing one. It’s also the space in which I wrestle with and temporarily pin down the many abstractions that figure in to any human life: love, sex, death, fear, intimacy, estrangement, etc. I used to worry that I wasn’t the kind of poet who changes themes wildly between books, but I now like to think of myself in the tradition of writers like Dickinson, who, instead of casting an increasingly wider net, ends up digging down more deeply into the ground immediately in front of her. I return to these large themes, but the difference is that I’m always seeing them through new lenses – I’m always older, which means I’ve also experienced more since the last time I considered a particular subject, which means that there’s guaranteed to be something new to consider. Writing about love at thirty, for example, won’t be at all like writing about it at sixty – we know more, we’ve hurt more, we’ve lost more, if we’re lucky we’ve triumphed more as well.

A poem, for me, is a temporary resting place, before I set off once again in pursuit of answers that aren’t meant to be found, because the questions are ultimately impossible: Who am I? What is this life? What will it have mattered, that I was briefly here?