Carl Phillips by Nick Flynn

BOMB 76 Summer 2001
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Photo by Doug Macomber. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Carl Phillips is the author of five books of poetry, including, most recently, The Tether, a movement of work that goes as deep into the unknown and perhaps ultimately unchartable realms of desire, wanting and mortality as any we are likely to encounter. In following, or being led by, his precise and sinuous lines, one is always aware of and often surprised by the dangers encountered, the illusions, the false steps inherent in such a journey. His work is meditative on the most essential, most elemental aspects of existence, both high and low, earthy and graceful. We are led to the edge of the unknown and then challenged as to why we followed: What was it we hoped to find? There are answers here but none of them are what was expected at the outset.

Ten years ago Carl and I were in a workshop together, led by the poet Alan Dugan in Truro, Massachusetts. Ongoing, for years it seemed, Dugan’s workshop was near legend, somewhat unstructured, with students appearing and disappearing over the course of each summer. Carl appeared one day, seeming at once both calm and restive, restrained and passionate, and read his poem as if it wasn’t part of him, with his head to one side, as if surprised by what it contained. It left the rest of us awed, open-mouthed.

I have followed his work closely since, and with nothing less than that initial awe. His poems enact the edict that it is the saying, as opposed to what is said, through which the poet will lead us further into the unknown. By following the language down, or up, by tracing the erotics of syntax, we witness again the interaction of consciousness and flesh, a deep yet tangible mystery we too often sleepwalk through. His work instructs us in ways that are hard to name, like desire can instruct: a fleeting knowledge that, once attained, proves difficult to hold onto, or even to return to, but has left us, thrillingly, changed.

“I have thought, since, of 
your body as I first came 
to know it, how it still

can be, with mine,


—from “Parable,” in Pastoral

This interview was conducted by e-mail and old-fashioned fax, between St. Louis and Provincetown, from January to February of 2001.

Nick Flynn When you spoke last year at The Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference on the 17th-century poet George Herbert, you said, “how we read a poem is a form of confession.” Was your reading of the subtext in Herbert’s poem “Sin”—“if sin makes us better, isn’t it possible we should indulge in sin” a confession?

Carl Phillips It’s more a speculation—but the fact that I make that speculation must say (betray) something about my own thinking, at which point it becomes a confession of sorts, right? That’s what I was thinking about when discussing my reading of Herbert, the ways in which we can only see anything through the layers of the various selves we are. As for sin and things sinful—whatever those may be—it was in Milton’s “Comus” that I first encountered the idea that good can never be known until evil is also known, by which logic the person who wants to be sensually and intellectually whole will want to have had experience with evil. That works fine, maybe, for the age of Milton, but it becomes dicier—in equal parts more thrilling and more perilous—to bring that way of thinking into the current age, one of moral flexibility.


NF Not yet. First, is this a morally flexible age? I know we’re all living on “Temptation Island,” and the language of good and evil has more gray tones, but it seems, if we are talking of sex, that the risks are at least as great now as they ever have been, no? I only bring this up because so much of your work involves desire and the body, which somehow leads my puritan/porn-addled brain into realms of, if not “sin,” then whatever we have substituted for sin.

CP Perhaps I’m overstating my position. I guess what I mean is that morality seems more flexible than we are often willing to suggest—or there’s a human instinct toward believing in the possibility of such flexibility, which is as old as (to go back to the first question) Herbert and then some. Somehow it seems appropriate here to refer to some lines from “Caravan,” a poem that appears in The Tether, because I think I state my view most cleanly there: “language should be—and/is—flexible, /it recalls, in//this way, morality, /how there’s nothing, it/seems, not to be given//in to.”

NF You connect language with morality in this poem that is in part a call to move beyond the given, the clichéd. Yet the way is anything but clear. What is the relationship between what is known to what is unknowable?

CP It’s the same as that between what’s easy and what’s difficult. It isn’t that I court difficulty—in a life, any more than in a poem—but I can’t understand complacency, how anyone can not be restive and still think of himself or herself as living a life of inquiry, which is to say, as living a life at all. You’re right: the way is anything but clear, nor is the danger nor are the surprises. But for me, there’s an urge to push at ideas with which I’ve become comfortable, and to keep testing what others might prefer to leave alone. How else do we grow, as writers and as people?

NF That surprise is one of the reasons I return to your work. Yet it seems more and more your poems are following a syntax beyond even surprise, into the unknowable, to a precipice of sorts. Which is where surprise turns dangerous, perhaps. In the poem “The Pinnacle” you question a given description of ferns—“you//called a sea”—“but/wasn’t it also some over-//whelming green argument/whose point was that/not everything requires//light?” How does syntax lead us into this landscape?

CP First, by our crediting syntax with having some degree of an organic life of its own; and second, by our willingness to take the risks that I think language sometimes wants to take. I’ll admit, though, that I remain in some doubt as to whether I’m imposing upon language the urge to push that I mentioned earlier, or whether language’s own instincts eventually become my own.

NF By pushing the language are you talking about the attempt to create a new syntax, to move the language forward?

CP First, if there’s any new syntax being created in the poems, it’s certainly not conscious on my part. The syntax in my poems is simply reflective of how my mind works, at least in that space where a poem gets made. As to what you ask about my pushing language, it’s the language itself that does the pushing. It’s like dogsledding, the language being the dogs who aren’t so much driven as they are given the direction; the force is entirely their own, though. The poet, of course, being the sled driver.

NF Your last book, Pastoral, has a recurring image of a stag, referenced in the poem “Words of Love” in The Tether: “There was, one time, a stag … /And now there isn’t,//is there?/And no, he won’t come,/ever, back.” An elegy, of sorts, yet it works on an allegorical level. What do you think about being referred to as an allegorical poet?

CP I don’t mind it, if the same term can be applied to, say, Dickinson or Plath. As I understand it, by allegorical it’s meant that the poem’s elements (including whatever narrative there may be) are symbolic or more than just what they seem, yes? But wouldn’t that then describe any poem that has resonance to it? What makes me uncomfortable with that term is that it seems to imply a single alternative that’s merely literal. My poems aren’t simply a diary of “what happened,” but I also don’t want something like a stag to be reduced to a cardboard figure marked “symbol,” marching across the page. It’s more accurate to say that I am interested in how much of the world is symbolic incidentally.

NF Well, it adds another tension to the work, which pulls between the actual and the symbolic.

CP Yes, that’s in fact what the larger “point” seemed to be in Pastoral, once I’d arranged the poems and looked at them all together—how much is real, and how much is as we imagine it to be because we want it to be real or because something in our brains—as a kind of safety mechanism, refuses to bear reality and transfigures it as a result? That’s what I had in mind in “Autumn. A Mixed Music” (from Pastoral), where the speaker is slowly coming to understand that all the pastoral symbols, everything that’s been translated into mythology—all of that amounts to a grimmer reality, in which the body stands naked, transparent, craven. Everything else has just been a means of justifying outrage. Sometimes poetry itself—the making of it—seems to me like an elaborate subterfuge that the brain provides as a way of giving brief containment to the more difficult parts that keep threatening to overwhelm…

NF From the image of the stag in PastoralThe Tether seems shot through with images of light in all its forms—shadow, brightness, dimming. Could you say something of your process here, of when or if these recurring motifs become something that holds the work together into a book?

CP This too is probably more incidental than not. Or has to do with something rather ordinary—namely, that I spend a lot of time tracking the light in its different manifestations and degrees. I know this is something that increased once I moved out to the Midwest, where I was struck by the different light one sees out here, as opposed to the light on the East Coast, which is still home for me. I also spend a lot of time outside, in the actual landscape, thanks in part to my partner being a landscape photographer—much of what I write starts in that context, of the landscape and the light’s relationship to it.

NF Has that always been true, the poems starting in landscape and light?

CP Yes—now that I think of it, that would explain why I almost always write in the morning, and always in a room that has an east-facing window. The view isn’t exactly landscape in St. Louis, where I look out onto an alley and the back of a row of houses—but there’s a lot of sky, and our equivalent of Central Park lies just past the houses. But in the summers, back east, there’s nothing but conservation land out back—plenty of woods, deer, the occasional fox, a tribe of coyotes.

NF If the geography of Pastoral could be called “the meadow,” then this new work could be “the yard” or “the trail.” What is the role of place, of geography, how important is it to be “placed”?

CP The role of place is crucial to the psychology, at least behind the poems. I lived in a different place every year for the first ten or so years of my life—my father was in the air force, so our family didn’t really settle until I was in high school. I’m convinced that this has made a difference for me: there’s an urge to settle, to come to rest; and no sooner is that rest arrived at than it gets replaced by a restiveness, a curiosity about the next space—geographically, intellectually.

NF I know you split your time between St. Louis and Cape Cod. I’ve also read that you’re from a biracial family. One a choice, the other a birthright. Do these facts add to the restiveness?

CP I think the divided living situation might reflect that restiveness—I feel very grounded in each place, and I find I can’t decide which I prefer; each provides something very necessary for me, and for the writing. I have this longing to live in one place and call it home forever, but some part of me seems to require longing, rather than the satisfaction of that longing. Decidedly masochistic. As for the effects of birthrights, yes: while my being the product of two racial identities should mean that I am both those identities, I have always found it to mean that I don’t get to quite claim either identity but, instead, I live somewhere in between. Not by choice—it has to do with the countless, various, and conflicting conventions about race—what it is to be black, what it is to be white. Though I’m at ease with myself when it comes to race, I sense a lot of unease—among blacks and whites—when it comes to how they might go about including an anomaly like me. And somewhere in that between that I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of restiveness, quite reasonably.

NF Understandably. Brenda Hillman has said that “punctuation marks beg for the sanity of not going forward, of resting…” Could you say something on this? I ask to get to the means you employ to embody this restiveness.

CP I’d say that punctuation marks are indicative, in equal parts, of the urge to go forward and the urge to turn back and the urge toward stasis—the conflict among the three, when meaningful, can be exhilarating.

NF I’ve also heard you describe your relationship with syntax as “erotic”—say more.

CP For me, syntax has great possibilities for the erotic—there’s so much stall-and-deliver, release-and-restraint, or at least that’s the kind of syntax to which I’ve always been drawn, in the Latin of Tacitus, in the English of James. And I don’t mean just the wildly sinuous sentence, its conclusion held back frustratingly, teasingly, by subordinate clauses, self-correction, parenthetical addenda, etc., but also the relationship of those particular sentences to the fragment, or to a simple and terse statement, the sudden clarity of a sentence like “Reader, I married him.” So much of what resonates with meaning has to do less with the actual content of a sentence than with the relationship of how that content is deployed to how the content has been deployed earlier and will be deployed later. Can’t the same be said about sex? To care about syntax—to believe in its infinite possibilities, rather than just accepting the few to which everyone easily agrees—is akin to distinguishing between sex and good sex. Surely that’s a distinction worth making.

NF Well, it certainly layers the experience of approaching a poem one is interested in.

You use the word “ambition” at least twice by my count in The Tether in “Regalia Figure” (“And yet,/to let go of it, ambition/seems as impossible, as/impossible …”) and in “Lustrum” (“Anything/left, anymore, private? Ambition,/like they said: little torch”). The Tether is your fifth book, the second in as many years. What is your relationship with ambition?

CP The ambition I had in mind in The Tether was one of the body, whose ambition I think of as getting expressed in terms of desire. Desire is ambition—both can be thought of as those curves in calculus that move forever toward a point they can never reach, since the reaching itself has no limit. By the end of The Tether, I hope what comes across is an understanding of the body’s desires both as folly and as sacred, and as necessary. Stasis, in the world as I’ve imagined it anyway, is more than a kind of death—it equals death.

But the way you put your question suggests that you’re speaking here of literary ambition. In that regard, I can only say that I have great ambition for the poems—that is, that they come as close as they possibly can to achieving what I want for them as poems. That’s artistic ambition, maybe. That’s what I want, and can control. How the poems fare outside my own space of making them is, as you know, very random and often has to do with many factors beyond the poems themselves. As for two books in as many years, well, I feel fortunate in being able—at least right now—to write in ways that are satisfying to me. I’ve never planned a book—never had a notion as to what a book would be about, or how long it should be. There just comes a point at which a project announces itself as having been a project all along, and as being finished. That sort of thing has its own time or schedule, I find. I can understand just as easily there being ten years—or more—between one book and the next, according to how it has to happen, not for the poet so much as for the poems.

NF In describing what you hope the impact of your work will be (in an interview in Callaloo, 1998), you state, “What I hope is learned is that we all have the same hungers, fears, needs, etc., and that sexuality and race are just as much the point as they are not.” That seems essential to placing your work in a larger context, and the turn at the end makes it essentially a “Carl Phillips” statement. Would you like to add to this?

CP Just that it’s possible for one thing to be both crucial and incidental, when it comes to identity—that’s what I was getting at when I made that statement. Necessarily, I see the world from within the context of being biracial, gay, male. But those are only three identity markers, no more crucial—and no less—than where I grew up, or whom I live with, or whether or not I can swim. And when I’m writing a poem, I am as conscious of being gay as of my being a so-so swimmer—that is, not conscious of it at all, though I have no doubt that both facts are somewhere in my brain. They can define identity, but are they defining it at that moment? If yes, then each to a constantly shifting degree—all identity, not just sexual identity, being fluid. But people have a tendency to discriminate among all these markers of identity, to give more valence to some things than to others, to think of these valences as fixed, and to equate valence with value. I’m hardly going to resolve that one.

NF Although simply by refusing to be anything but fluid within the context of identity, a stand is taken, which perhaps contributes to the dismantling.

CP I guess I don’t think it’s possible to take a stand on identity, only on the politics of identity. To be gay (as with being black, for example) is a various and multidimensional fact of identity, not a stand on it. Even how those facts of identity get articulated isn’t entirely a thing we can choose; but where choice is possible is where a stand might reasonably be taken.

NF As with past work, many of the poems in The Tether deal with connecting with the lover/beloved. Yet several of the new poems are also about turning away: “I was there—yes—but/I myself touched no one.” Has the syntax of connection led us into a more difficult, complex realm?

CP I think so. I think the difficulty and complexity of connection are challenging, sure, but they can also lead to the instinct to turn away. I spoke earlier of pushing forward, but that gesture isn’t exactly a merry romp. It’s taken me awhile, too, to understand how little touch has to do with connection, at least sometimes. I guess by nature we’re empirical creatures. That doesn’t help very much when it comes to negotiating those spaces that resist our usual ways of knowing, i.e. by touch and other senses—trust, leaps of faith. Those are harder tools to manage, but sometimes the only ones available, or so it seems.

NF Again, we come up against the unknowable …

Your earlier books have a tension, it seems, on one level, between elegance and, well, earthiness. I sense a different tension at work in The Tether: “Less and less//am I one of those who believes/To know a thing,/first you touch it …” The elegance is still present, yet it seems to be pushing against something else.

CP There’s nothing to get the hands dirty with, nothing to muck about in. When it comes to those spaces I’ve mentioned: What’s the connection? What is divinity? What is trust or belief? The earlier work (though I think this changes around in From the Devotions) concerned itself more with the body, the actual physicality of it. There’s a lot to get dirty on, in that arena. Earthiness? Some, of course, say the first body was made from earth.

NF Though I sense even more psychic dirt, somehow, in coming face-to-face with the limits of touch.

CP Yes, but psychic dirt is itself a chimera, at least as a term, isn’t it? It’s just a way of trying to grapple with the abstract by rendering it concrete—but the psyche isn’t concrete, and dirt, in that phrasing, is only a metaphor. The hands, to all appearances, rise clean. But we sense that they aren’t in fact clean—and nobody senses this but ourselves. That’s what’s terrifying.

NF When the actual and the symbolic blur. Your poems have a lot of weight, yet the syntax—fluid, inverted—often suggests a turning from that authority: “Not//only do I respect, I/require mystery.” Could you talk about the balance between authority and what might be named “reticence”?

CP For me, the truth—as one has come to understand it after careful wrangling and consideration—is one of the best authorities. And the truth doesn’t have to announce itself with a lot of fanfare and trappings. On the contrary, I tend to give more credence to what simply announces itself and trust that whatever authority it has will be in itself, not in its context. As for what you say about the syntax, I think that my syntax is probably indicative of how carefully, how respectfully one has to approach authority. Mystery, by the way, is also a truth for me—I grant it a lot of authority.

NF That’s another aspect of your work that feeds me, the willingness to linger in mystery. I’m interested in where you come from, whatever you take that to mean.

CP The poems come out of my need to understand what I can’t seem to bring to a point of understanding that stays fixed. Devotion. Desire. The sexual and the spiritual. Hunger. Morality. Mortality—what’s past it.

NF One could argue that these larger concerns have remained consistent threads throughout your five books. How have they changed?

CP Like everything else in life, they’ve changed according to those experiences by which we come to understand anew what we thought we understood entirely already. In the Blood was written before I’d come out as a gay man (I always say—and believe—that the book outed me), the poems in Cortège were written in the immediate wake of falling in love and of my conviction that love had some meaningful governance over the body’s resistance. With each book, I’ve had to start all over in terms of reckoning with those issues that you refer to as consistent threads. What’s consistent is their inscrutability, and I approach them with weapons that change each time, though each bears the same engraving: experience. For me, the hardest lessons have been those out of which The Tether was written. There’s a sustaining arrogance (or confidence, or complacency) about the body in Pastoral, as well as about the realization of ambition, the bodily sort that I mentioned—an assumption that the distance between “to want” and “to have” is a small and easily negotiated one. The poems in The Tether are the humbly offered evidence of mistakes both recognized and not entirely regretted, even as to see disaster squarely is not necessarily to wish any of it undone, or so it seems tonight.

NF I’m thinking of the lines from your poem “Little Dance Outside the Ruins of Unreason”: “ …and the difficult-to-/admit-to disappointment/at the loss of them, carnage’s/bright details …” And from “The Pinnacle”: “I am remembering//the obvious—trees/mostly, and a hardness of/breath …” Your use of the image often feels like a landscape glanced from a moving train, always in service to the thought. What is your relationship to the image?

CP Well, maybe it has to do with what I said about being empirical. The image seems the most available way to understand circumstance, and from which to begin to understand the ramifications of circumstance—or predicament—beyond the easily available details (trees, carnage, breath). But I also think of the image as that against which it becomes possible to begin to understand how much is not available to us, is not knowable. I also think there’s an impulse to generate an image for the unknowable to inhabit—we feel better that way. Thunder gods to explain thunder, for example. And of course there’s the image generated as a substitute for what we begin to sense we can never have.

NF That sense of what we can never have is one of the ways, it seems to me, that your work has been tempered.

CP Merely living—just being flesh and blood—is to be a fact of loss, an instance of it in progress; which means there’s only so much we can possess, and what we do possess is ours only temporarily. That can be very freeing, when it comes to concrete things like a scratch on a new table, a broken cup—even if the possession is temporary, we can go to the store and replace them with an equally temporary something. But what is joy, for example, and how can we know we have it if we don’t know what it is except abstractly? And when is the body not hungry for more, and the mind content to stop its always questioning, except when living itself has ended? I don’t find it possible to be alive and not to be aware of all that we can never have—I’m aware that this is not the case for many other people, the majority, it sometimes seems. And that in saying what I’ve said, I’ve made yet another confession.

NF Often I read issues of power and control into your work—of who has authority, of who leads. Can you say something about this? Is this my own confession?

CP It may well be! But you’re also on target about power and control in the poems. I’m interested in those issues on two levels. One is the level of relationships between two people—between lovers. For me, control and the lack of it are constantly the case, if not the point; power is fluid, I believe, shifting variously between two people in the course of trying to make a life together, which is what makes the effort to do so challenging—especially, or so I find, when the two lovers are both men. I tell my students that a large part of the “meaning” in a poem can be found in the relationship between restraint and release—that’s true, as well, for lovers. It’s very erotic and murky and fraught with the possibility for violence (which in another context might differently be called persuasion). It’s also true for the other level with which I’m concerned, the power “dynamic” between human beings and whatever deity (deities) might be said to exist—that, for me, is what Herbert’s poems are largely about.

NF All roads lead to Herbert. In your talk on Herbert, you called him a “confessional poet,” in a liturgical sense, in that his confessions were less spoken than enacted. You went on to say that to share our problems is less difficult than to embody them, but that most “confessional” poetry today is more about “sharing.” Is the turn away from the image into the act of sentence-making an attempt to enact?

CP Hmm. Well, I’d say that sentence-making is the attempt to give the images an order that makes sense enough for us to use them as departure points for the kind of thinking that leaves the literal (and the figurative) behind. Maybe sentence-making is, increasingly, consciousness caught in the act of completing the trajectory that can only lead to the dissolution of consciousness itself—past which, well, we’ll see if we get there.

 Daniel Poppick and Jenny Zhang
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“What do you do when you’re born—without your consent—and you find out later that your life was at the cost of someone else’s? That’s how high the stakes can be.”

Gillian Wearing  by Grady T. Turner​
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Influenced by fly-on-the-wall documentaries of the ’70s, Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing has turned the form on its ear: recording her subjects’ confessions, then re-pairing sound and image, mixing the voices of adults, children and relatives.

Melanie Rae Thon by Caryl Phillips
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“When I read any writer, I think: Is the story honest? Are the images vivid? Are the people real to me? If those things are true, what do I care who the author is in real life?” Melanie Rae Thon

Originally published in

BOMB 76, Summer 2001

Featuring interviews with Robert Mangold, Brian Tolle, Robert Pollard, Carl Phillips, Colson Whitehead, Kenneth Lonergan, and Guillermo Arriaga.

Read the issue
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