Mistake House: In a December 2016 article in Poetry Magazine, “A Politics of Mere Being,” you write about the question of the way a politicized self can be read into or seen within poetry that is written for or within a space of individual experience. In that article you wrote, “at no point did I think of myself as having an agenda that could be called political. Rather, my agenda, to the extent that it can even be called that, has always been to speak as honestly as possible to my own experience of negotiating and navigating a life as myself, as a self—multifarious, restless, necessarily ever-changing as the many factors of merely being also change—in a world of selves.” And you’ve mentioned in an interview with NPR, that Emily Dickinson has been criticized for not writing about the Civil War, and that you have been criticized for not continuing to write poems focusing on identity politics (specifically gayness and being biracial).
Could you speak here about your current ideas about the relationship between the personal and the political in your ongoing practice as a poet, explaining how you see the political emerge from what you call an “awareness of time and place that doesn’t always show up in poetry”? Or to put it more simply, is writing that emerges from an astute but private attention to lived experience necessarily autobiographical and political at the same time?
Carl Phillips: I think all poetry is poetry that emerges from an astute but private attention to lived experience. Even the Iliad. Assuming there was someone named Homer who wrote that poem, he had obviously paid attention to the things around him, including the things that he’d heard about earlier times, which is what he’s writing about—he’s not writing about then—contemporary Greek experience. And the entire time anyone is paying attention to anything, it’s a private attention, and the paying of private experience to a particular topic is itself a lived experience.
And I consider all poems autobiographical in at least one respect: everything we perceive, we perceive through the lenses (as it were) of everything that we’ve ever perceived before. For example, if I write about a tree, I can only write about it to the degree that I have a sense of what a tree is and how it behaves and what my encounters with trees have been, both in actual life and in reading, films, songs, etc. The fact that I’m more likely to write about a tree that I’m familiar with means that in writing about the tree in the way I am, I’m also revealing something about myself, even if not consciously. We can only understand the world through our own minds and bodies – every gesture reveals something about ourselves, including the gesture of expressing things through language.
And I consider all poems political, since everything we do is political—again, even if not consciously. If I get up in the morning and make toast in my kitchen, it’s also the fact that I live in a house with a kitchen, that I have easy access to food—which already says something about class and economics, about privilege. It says something, too, about the body’s privileges, the fact that I am capable of going down the stairs, making toast…The problem in poetry is that many people have decided that poetry is only political if it’s engaging with topical issues of the day— but everything is political. And everything is personal.
MH: As an extension of our first question, in your reading, if not in your writing, are you attracted to writing about the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement or, more recently, the evolving legislation surrounding Trans Rights? If so, where should readers and writers be turning their attention at this time? And if not, what issues right now do you think people should be paying more attention to, even if they are not highly visible issues?
CP: There’s a big difference, I believe, between what we care about and what we find ourselves gravitating toward when it comes to subject matter in a poem. I’m always reading about the Black Lives Matter movement and the evolving legislation around Trans Rights—these are crucial issues for me and for the people I love and care about. But in the same way that I never chose to express myself through a musical instrument or through painting, I find that I don’t choose my subjects – they choose me, as writing seems to have chosen me, or at least to have been where I instinctively landed. I learned early on that my obsession was with the tension between how we wish to conduct our bodies and how society thinks we should conduct them – this is in fact exactly what’s at the crux of the controversies around trans people and what society wants to define as “normal.” I don’t write about trans rights, but in writing about the conflict I mentioned, I’m writing about something that includes trans rights, queer rights of all kinds; I’m also including race, since the issue around Blackness in particular, in this country, is an issue of White society being afraid of Black people and wanting to somehow contain them, if not eradicate them entirely. All of these issues lie at the crossroads I mentioned, between who we are and who people think we are supposed to be.
I think people are individuals. So I would never suggest that there is one thing in particular that every person should be paying attention to. It’s more important for each person to find their passions—one person may want to focus on animal rights, another on climate collapse. Yet another, though, might want to focus on how beautiful a cherry tree is when in blossom—that’s also part of a life. We need poems that address all kinds of things, since the world is not entirely one thing. Which is why I think it’s fine if Dickinson doesn’t address Civil War specifically. What we learn from her poems is that during wartime people are still individuals with private concerns and questions and struggles.
MH: In your work, the human body is the locus of both tenderness and vulnerability to violence. For example, your poem, “Something to Believe in” juxtaposes soft, natural imagery (“steam off night-soaked wooden fencing when the sun first hits it”) with violent reference to the Iliad in which Priam images his own death (“the dogs he’s fed and trained so patiently pulling [his] corpse apart”). Will you speak about the human body as a central trope in your work?
CP: Ah, that could take years…I think, to put it briefly, that it makes sense for the body to be central to my poems, since everything I do gets done by my body, it’s the primary vehicle by which and through which I experience and engage with and interrogate the world around me. I think that’s true for everyone. And yet it’s the body that’s most problematic for society–back to how we are expected to behave versus how we choose to behave. We are told, for example, that we should each get married to someone of the opposite sex and have children. But what if we aren’t attracted to the opposite sex, or what if we are but we don’t want to have children? So the body lies squarely at the center of moral debate, and my poetry is always at some level about morality and the question of who gets to decide what’s correct, what’s permissible? In that sense, the body appears a lot in my poems, along with the things that bodies can do.
MH: Nature also functions as a central trope in your poetry. You speak about this at length in your interview with Nick Ripatrazone in Image. In that interview, you mentioned the power of the natural world as a means of reawakening one’s real self, free from the expectations of a society all too happy to prescribe roles, set parameters, and punish deviancy. But at least by some measures, the natural world is full of examples of beings who do not fit the norm and are killed or left to die. The runt of the litter is often rejected and allowed to starve. How do you think about avoiding the risk of creating an erroneously idealized picture of the natural world when using locales like forests as representations of self-awakening? Would an idealized representation of nature limit a nuanced ability to understand humans’ relations with their surrounding ecosystems, as well as “nature” as a human construction?
CP: Well, I guess I don’t think that I do idealize the natural world. In the Image interview, I am speaking in the context of nature freeing us from the expectations of human society—the natural world doesn’t seem to include morality, in our human sense of that world. If the runt of the litter is rejected, there’s nothing moral or immoral about that—it’s simply that the runt isn’t likely to survive, and the parents of the runt have to direct their attention to those who are more likely to survive—the runt is technically a waste of their time. Obviously, we would find this a terrible thing if we were talking about human parents rejecting a baby who was weaker. The problem with the human world is that moral decisions are subjective, not based on natural science. In being subjective, morality is very personal, and therefore biased…Yes, terrible things happen in the natural world–more accurately, we call those things terrible. But in the natural world they aren’t terrible at all. They are simply how things are. You mentioned my poem “Something to Believe In,” and how Priam is upset that his trained dogs will eat him when he’s a corpse—he thinks that’s terrible. But I state very directly in the poem that there’s nothing terrible about it, that hunger is natural, and human ideas about loyalty are totally irrelevant to animal hunger.
MH: Again, in the interview in Image with Nick Ripatrazone, you spoke about the distance between instinct and belief. You said roughly that instinct is evidence of belief, and that “Belief can be dangerously close to knowing, to what passes for knowing, when really the problem is that belief is almost entirely dependent on what we do know. Based on what we know—or don’t know—we believe this or that. It’s the reason why education is so important, so we can understand and know a thing correctly, with all of the facts before us.” This raises the important question of how do we, as beings that crave absolutes upon which to build our belief systems, develop an effective practice of making distinctions and using them in critiques of our own beliefs—especially given the potential danger in discovering that our systems need to be revised?
CP: Well, I like to think that my poems are the example here. What people seem to notice a lot (and to sometimes be frustrated by!) is that I am very fond of the word “or.” Throughout my poems, whenever I say one thing is true, it’s very common for me to immediately present an alternative way to see it—often in poems, I’ll say something and interrogate it flat out. Here’s the opening to my poem “That the Gods Must Rest”:
That the gods must rest doesn’t mean that they stop existing.
Is that true? Do you believe it’s true?
Right there, I make an authoritative statement, then question it. Then I question the difference between what’s true and what we might believe is true—which are often two different things. The poem continues, but it never answers those questions. For me, this is as honest as it gets, because how can there be an authoritative answer to a statement about gods, when we can’t prove that the gods exist in the first place? I think successful poems have authority—the way they achieve that authority is through vulnerability, through realizing that truth is a very slippery thing. How do we develop a practice of making distinctions? By making a point of making distinctions, and not taking everything as assumed. How do we critique our beliefs? By being aware that beliefs are merely beliefs and they require constant revisiting, in the form of critique.
MH: In today’s cultural landscape, where short, easily digestible, Instagram-friendly content has come to define what casual audiences think of as poetry, do you find it difficult as an educator to successfully impart an understanding of the virtues of dense, challenging, formally interesting work to students? If so, have you discovered any strategies to reach them despite these difficulties?
CP: I don’t have this difficulty, but maybe that’s because I bring so-called difficult poems to class and try to show how a poem isn’t a confrontation but an invitation—if we feel confronted, that might be because we don’t know enough, yet, but that’s what school is for. I think a lot of it has to do with the teacher. I grew up with teachers who would announce with dismay that we now had to “get through this poetry unit.” Get through? If presented as an invitation to a shared adventure, students are much more likely to be curious about poetry, rather than being conditioned to resist it from the start.
MH: In The Life of a Poet: Carl Phillips, the Library of Congress interview you did with critic Ron Charles, you discuss how poems can be viewed without reference to the author. Do you feel like the experience of other people reading your poems now will be affected because of their inevitability of knowing some part of your identity? In other words, do you feel the effect of the reader knowing the biographical context of the poet, especially ideas about fame and aspects of personal and professional identity, will detract from an unmediated experience with the poems?
CP: Sure. I like to show students a poem by Langston Hughes called “Island.” It makes no reference to race at all. I ask the students what the poem means to them, and they say it’s about alienation, loneliness, not being able to reach the island in the poem. Once I tell them Hughes was Black, they have all these ideas of how the poem is referencing slavery, Middle Passage, being excluded because of skin color, etc. Those things only enter the poem because of the poet’s bio. The poem itself doesn’t speak about those things. Or people immediately think of Plath’s suicide when they read her poems—it means we don’t get to appreciate the poems for themselves. And yet, it’s also fascinating to read poems through the lens of the poet’s biography. It does and it doesn’t matter.
MH: In the article “End of Line” by Dan Chiasson for The New Yorker, the author talks about the way you play with short sentences and stanzas as your signature in Poetry, do you believe having these pauses that sometimes cause suspense and delay, entice the audience to keep reading?
CP: Well, I should say that those short stanzas were more a signature of my early poetry–meanwhile, my sentences have always been fairly lengthy, many poems are one long sentence. What is true is that I use syntax to create delays, as a way of giving a poem muscularity, a physical sense, when you read it, that something has changed. Deferred conclusion to a sentence makes a reader want to find the conclusion – so I guess that’s a form of enticement. But of course, there are plenty of people who have no time for my meandering sentences. Ha!
MH: In the interview at the Library of Congress with Ron Charles, you say that growing up in a military family was constricting, that moving around a lot and the mindset of the community were limiting. Were there elements of your military family childhood that offered a more positive influence for you, especially in your writing practice?
CP: The only positive I can think of is that, because of all the moving, I found myself clinging to the stable worlds I found in books. I could move all over the world, but the world in my favorite books stayed the same, recognizable. And I started wanting to write poems and to keep a journal. I think the instability of moving all the time led me to what I could rely on—in my case, story, both what I read and what I wrote.
MH: In an interview with STL on the Air with Sarah Fenske last Spring, you talk about the importance of tenderness with your collection Then the War. How do you see not only your own writing but poetry more broadly relating to what is happening in the world today with hatred and division?
CP: I believe poetry is a record of what it means to be alive in a particular body at a particular time. But we all choose to record different things. Some poetry relates to the world’s hatred and division by recording it, talking about it, critiquing it. My poetry is a lot more interior. But as I think I said on that program, that’s the difference between Dickinson and Whitman. Both lived during the Civil War. Whitman writes extensively about that. In most of Dickinson’s poetry, there’s no clue that war is going on. She’s concerned with spiritual questions often, sometimes she’s just thinking about a train or a butterfly. That kind of poetry is just as important, it seems to me, because in all the swirl of hatred and division people are also doing things like loving someone, making a meal, feeling alone, feeling joyful…As for tenderness, I think it’s always worth remembering that tenderness exists. It’s not all hatred and division
MH: After reading your poem “Blue” I noticed painted or impressionistic imagery. Could you talk some about connections in your poetry between emotions, ideas, and visuality and/or visual art?
CP: This question’s a bit too broad to tackle, frankly. I can say that I’m not usually very interested in ekphrastic poetry, so I don’t tend to engage with visual art in my poems. As for how emotions and ideas and the visual world are connected – I scarcely know how or where to begin! That would be like trying to explain what it means to be a living human being…
MH: Fair enough. We didn’t mean to imply that we think your poetry is ekphrastic. Rather, we are more interested in the specific ways you think about seeing as a poet. In your book for The Art of series from Graywolf Press, The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination, you include a passage about the “camera work” in Louise Bogan’s poem, “Night”. We would like to hear you talk about how you, as a poet, deliberately or intentionally think about seeing and the process of translating this sensory experience as a poet. Yes, it’s a big question, but it’s not about something as broad as “what it means to be a living human being.” Just because people can see, doesn’t mean they can look with any sensitivity or understand what they see. Looking/seeing is a hard process—and we want to know how you think about being sensitive to this hard process. What sorts of assumptions or assumptive processes about looking do you intentionally resist in your work, for example?
CP: Hmmm. Well, I begin to think it’s not that the question is too large, it’s more that almost everything about writing poems, for me, is purely instinctive and unselfconscious. The assumption in your question–clearly stated—is that “looking/seeing is a hard process.” It has never occurred to me that that’s the case, because for me it isn’t a hard process at all: I simply look at things in front of and around me, and I see them, and usually that’s all that happens; occasionally I’ll see something and it reminds me of something or it suggests an idea—the hollow in the side of a sycamore tree might suddenly look to me like Munch’s “The Scream” or remind me of a similar hollow that I once put my hand in, as a child, only to find that three was something dead inside it. But I don’t do anything to make these connections happen, they just happen. And even after I’ve made the connection, it’s only now and then that those connections lead me to a thought for or a line for a poem.
Going back to the idea of camerawork in the Bogan poem, in that instance I wasn’t talking about seeing, really, but about directing the reader’s eye, which I do see as part of the poet’s ‘job’. I think the deployment of information is crucial to the success of a poem—what pieces of information get revealed, where and when, and in what order? This order is going to determine when the reader gets to see things, and the idea is that the order of images matters, in the way there’s a difference between a movie that opens with a dead body (where the rest of the movie is spent rewinding from that image to how we got there) and a movie that concludes with a dead body (where the whole movie is a story leading us unexpectedly to a dead body).
But this is a separate issue from the process of seeing, what you’ve described as a “hard process.” I can’t even say that that’s an assumption I resist, since it’s not an assumption that really occurs to me. Maybe another way of saying it is that I always assumed that how I saw the world was how everyone else saw it. Not until I started publishing poems did I learn that that’s not the case. But why and how I see the world the way I do—I have no idea, truly. Maybe 80 percent is just who I am, and 20 percent how and where and with whom I grew up, however those things shape our sense of the world and how to navigate it.
I will say this: I think what makes so much poetry—and writing about poetry—less than satisfying is that there’s too much overthinking of and about what doesn’t yield itself to analysis. There’s not enough faith in mystery. As Pamela Alexander ends her poem “The Vanishing Point”: “Finally we forget what we are carrying and do not/make mistakes.” When I forget myself, when I allow myself to get lost, to see without thinking about seeing or about what I’m seeing or about what I might make of what I’m seeing—that’s where the poem finds its start.
MH: Do you ever play hooky? If you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
CP: I’m restraining myself from googling “dérive”—but I assume it means a diversion or something? On the face of it, I have a huge amount of free time. I teach one day a week. I don’t have kids. So every day is a potential hooky day. But I’m someone who doesn’t do well with too much free time, plus I have learned that managing a household requires structure. So I have a lot of structure to each day—getting groceries, cooking the dinner for the family, walking the dog, doing the yardwork. That’s all to say, I tend not to feel the need to play hooky. Or maybe I don’t think of it as playing hooky–I do things that aren’t household routines, like going to brunch or visiting the botanical gardens. But those things feel like natural parts of a life—we’re not always supposed to be working or accomplishing something. Sometimes it’s great to do something for the sheer pleasure of it. I try to make sure I experience some form of joy each day. It’s good for the body, and for the poems.