“Branching Ever-Outward” On the Page: A Conversation with Carl Phillips

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Carl Phillips’s most recent books, both published in 2022, are My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing (Yale University Press) and Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007-2020 (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Hailed as “one of America’s most original, influential, and productive lyric poets,” Phillips has published numerous books to wide acclaim, and his honors include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the PEN Center USA Award. In My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations on a Writing Life, Phillips draws on his four decades as a poet and educator to illuminate for readers, through a series of essays, what it means to construct a life as a writer. In Phillips’s Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007-2020, we encounter a new collection of poetry, a lyric prose memoir titled Among the Trees, selections from several of his past poetry collections, and a chapbook titled Star Map With Action Figures. I corresponded with Phillips about the notion of poetry as self-preservation, the role of individual sensibility in the artistic process, the similarity between overly polite first-book manuscripts and too-good-to-be-true user profiles on dating sites, the danger inherent in language’s ability to make “almost anything” sound true, and more.

LM: In My Trade Is Mystery you talk about how one of the most important lessons you wish to teach your students is that there is no map to making a poem, and that “to be given a map or compass” would be to prevent one from “getting lost.” When teaching poetry, how do you approach the challenge of imparting to students the elements of the art form that can be taught, while also honoring the mystery at the heart of poem-making?

CP: I remind my students that the one thing that’s unique to each of us is our own sensibility. That sensibility is both known and mysterious to ourselves. In other words, we know ourselves, but we’re also always surprising ourselves. One way to teach that is to present students with a wide range of examples. If I’m teaching them about line breaks, we might look at how fifteen poets have handled that craft element in different ways. It’s important for students to see the range of possibilities. When I then ask them to do an exercise with line breaks, each one is going to take an idiosyncratic approach, which is that particular student’s way of doing it, based on both exposure to many examples and the unique role that individual sensibility plays in a poet’s engagement with craft components. Trusting the mystery of the writing process, I emphasize for my students, doesn’t mean that we can’t train ourselves in craft. Mystery, far from being random, has its own order, and its own way of finding that order.

LM: Throughout My Trade Is Mystery, you explore the complicated role that external validation plays in a writer’s life: “Too much or too little attention paid from outside—by readers, critics—is a leading cause of doubt when it comes to ambition.” How do you, as a poet who has received a great deal of attention, navigate the tension between ambition on the page and ambition for outside recognition? Has the amount of acclaim that you’ve earned made the writing process feel different to you than it did when you started writing?

CP: My writing process hasn’t been affected by outside attention, but I think that has to do with why I write. At the risk of seeming overly dramatic, I feel as though I’m writing for my life. Each poem seems to offer a temporary stay against my succumbing to what might otherwise undo me. In that sense, I’ve always been writing for myself, driven by the urgency of self-preservation. We can’t control how people see us. I’m aware that people see me as a confident, accomplished person who enjoys a variety of privileges (which has led people to mistakenly think that I come from privilege, and that I have never suffered, blah blah blah). But that’s not who I actually am inside. The poems provide me a space in which to keep figuring out who I am, even as that self continues evolving and therefore eluding me. Because there’s so much at stake for me, personally, in the poems, the last thing I’m thinking about is prizes or publicity.

The only real difference that the attention has made is that I no longer have the luxury that comes with writing a first book, which is the ability to pretend that no one is paying attention. When a book is in production, I begin to have anxiety about whether people will still want to pay attention, and whether the attention they pay will be good or bad. But I remind myself that, by the time of production, and certainly by publication, I’ve already moved on. I’ve written what I had to write, and I didn’t write it for anyone else but me. More to the point, whatever others think, it can’t change the poems themselves once I’ve put them into the world. I said what I said, as the saying goes.

LM: Related to the question above, you reflect in My Trade Is Mystery on the highly subjective nature of literary competitions, and you encourage poets not to let such recognition, or lack thereof, distract from the urgency, devotion, and pleasure inherent “in the act of making.” In your many years of reading contest submissions, manuscripts, and work by MFA students, what have you noticed about tendencies and trends in the work of younger American poets?

CP: The main observation I’ve had as a judge of contests is that most entries are overly studied and polite. By studied, I mean that the submitters have tried to figure out the judge’s tastes, and they’ve tried to organize the manuscript in a way that showcases “stronger” poems at the beginning and end of the manuscript. This is such an old strategy that I find it hilarious when people still do it. While judging, I immediately flip to the middle of the manuscript, and to random other parts of it, and if I’m engaged enough, I then read from beginning to end. But usually I find a lot of filler. It’s like when you meet someone on a date, and that person looks clean and put-together because of an obvious agenda, which is to come across as attractive. But what’s behind all of that?

Meanwhile, by politeness, I mean that many entrants seem unwilling to give offense of any kind. I’ll find I can’t identify anything wrong with a manuscript, and yet it doesn’t stand out, which means it lacks personality. I want to get a sense of the kind of person behind the poems. We are all human, so we’re all sometimes messy, chaotic, unbearable, and I want to see that in a manuscript. I often pick manuscripts simply because they’re fucking weird, and I can’t stop returning to them. So many entries, however, are faceless, or they’re curated and crafted like profiles on dating sites (to return to that simile). It’s impossible to know who’s really there.

LM: Given your desire to access the “person behind the poems” when reading a poet’s work, it would be fascinating to hear your thoughts on T.S. Eliot’s assertion, in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” On a related note, when it comes to the subject of personality in poetry, are there any poets that you feel provide especially powerful models for the conveyance of personality on the page, and what are some ways that you view yourself as expressing personality in your own work?

CP: I never really know if I understand a word of Eliot, to be honest. But I think by “personality” here he means something like biography/autobiography, with the idea being that a poem is more than a diary entry from a person’s life, and that it should speak beyond the self. I think he’s arguing that poems should be more “universal,” a word that’s tricky to use these days. But to phrase it another way, I’ll say this: A lasting poem tends to resonate beyond its maker because it transcends the details of biography and speaks to the larger state of being a human being. If that’s what he means, then I agree with him.

But my own way of thinking about it is that a poem should be marked by the maker’s sensibility. In reading any poet’s poem, I want to be invited to see how this particular person thinks, and I expect that way of thinking to be very different from mine, since each person has a unique sensibility. Dickinson is a perfect example of a poet whose poems enact her particular sensibility, not just in the way she uses punctuation and rhyme, but also in terms of the imagery to which she’s drawn. Linda Gregg is another example. I leave her books with a feeling that I know this mind, and that I’ve been part of its thinking, which is a very different thing from believing that I know what Gregg’s daily life was like. I suppose in my own poems my sensibility is enacted at the levels of syntax, diction, and imagery. I would say, though, that all poets use these same things to show sensibility. Hopkins and Bidart play a lot with syntax, but no one confuses the two of them with each other, or with me.

LM: Your mention of syntax brings to mind the syntactic complexity that has long been considered a hallmark of your poetry. In My Trade Is Mystery, you discuss not feeling ready, when working on your first book, to write about queerness in a direct manner, which compelled you to shape sentences that “would tell and not tell, ones that could possibly distract from what they were telling by telling it, as Emily Dickinson would say, slant.” Would you talk more about this aspect of your work, while also touching on how, if at all, your sentence-making process unfolds differently when you’re writing prose than it does when you’re writing poetry?

CP: The main difference between writing prose and writing poetry, for me, is self-consciousness. When writing prose, I ostensibly know what my subject is, though I don’t know how I’m going to navigate it, what my argument will be, or how I’ll shape it. By contrast, when writing a poem, I have no idea what my subject is at the time of writing.

Making sentences is my way of pushing more deeply toward and into an idea—a feeling, really—that somehow eludes me. The sentence-making is the evidence, left on the page, of my having wrestled with and tried to pin down a feeling by imperfectly articulating it. I think all articulation of feeling is by definition imperfect because language doesn’t suffice. Words just contain feeling, for a while, and in a wobbly way. I want my sentences to reflect an honest thinking process. For me, honest thinking is not un-messy, and it isn’t immediately (if ever) “correct.” That means a lot of back and forth within a sentence, backtracking, self-revision, and a willingness to trust uncertainty.

LM: As part of our conversation about how you shape your sentences, it might be illuminating for readers if you’d spend some time talking through your sentence-making process within a specific poem. I’ll quote below from “Sing a Darkness,” which appears in Then the War. This excerpt strikes me as illustrative of your unique approach to syntax. How would you describe your method in constructing the language excerpted here, and what do you view the poem’s structure as expressing in relation to its content?

Slowly the fog did what fog does, eventually: it lifted, the way veils tend to at some point in epic ……………verse so that the hero can see the divinity at work constantly behind all things mortal, or that’s ……………the idea, anyway, I’m not saying I do or don’t believe that, I’m not even sure that belief can change any of it, at least in terms of the facts of how, ……………moment by moment, any life unfurls, we can call it fate or call it just what happened, what happens, while we’re busy trying to describe ……………or explain what happens, how a mimosa tree caught growing close beside a house gets described as “hugging the house,” ……………for example, as if an impulse to find affection everywhere made us put in there, a spell against indifference, ……………as if that were the worst thing— is it?

CP: To address this excerpt, I’ll start by saying something that no one believes when I say it, but it’s true: I don’t craft the syntax of my poems. Rather, my sentences entirely reflect how I think, which is usually in a sort of constantly branching way, or maybe a continually outward-spiraling way. The fog here is compared to veils being lifted to reveal divinity, which then leads me to want to say I don’t necessarily believe in divinity, which leads me to the question of whether fate is real or just a way to think about a thing, which leads me to another thought, and onward from there.

The sentence doesn’t seem, to me, to employ a lot of syntactical complexity, but there are plenty of dependent clauses hovering about. To me, this sentence is more about pacing and deferral, a sense that a point is being approached. It’s unclear what the point is until near the very end, when we arrive at the idea that indifference might be the worst thing of all. I suppose that’s a version of syntax, holding the point off until the end. But what’s more interesting to me is the juxtaposition of an eighteen-line sentence next to what interrupts it, which is a two-word question. After the lulling nature of the long sentence, where we’re given time to get used to the ride, the question’s brevity is jarring. I see it almost as a pulley, where the small question holds up the giant question, and for a moment they’re perfectly in balance.

As for how that relates to the poem’s content, I think the unspoken argument is that we can dither back and forth all we want about how to think of things like fate, divinity, indifference, and affection, but at the end of the day, we’re left with “so what?” What do those things change about the facts of how our lives unfurl? I think the long sentence placed in tension with the small question enacts that argument, and maybe proves it.

LM: There’s a meaningful paradox present, of course, in an aesthetic approach that seeks to mirror the mind in motion, reflecting what you describe as an “honest thinking process,” by means of language that is carefully crafted. Given that the thinking process, as it unfolds linguistically within the human mind, comprises a jumble of thoughts and associations that aren’t as intentionally calibrated as the language in your poems, how do you negotiate the tension between the desire to present an authentic (or authentic-seeming) record of honest thinking, and the desire to create a piece of art in language? Relevant to that tension, how would you describe your revision process, particularly with regard to the role it plays in helping you arrive at sentences that enact the kind of thinking you’ve described?

CP: I view the jumbled thoughts and associations you’ve described as just the material that the mind contains, rather than as manifestations of the thinking process. Thinking, as I see it, is the act of corralling those thoughts into sense. In light of that, I believe that a useful way to approach art is to regard it as the rendering of sense into something more than just sense. An exit sign makes sense, but it isn’t automatically art, in and of itself. Harkening back to my previous answer, I write the sentences that naturally occur to me when I’m thinking. They’re not fashioned, except in terms of their music, as I do give a lot of thought to how a sentence sounds, and how its rhythms unfold.

Rendering my sentence-making process into art is part of the revision process, which involves sorting out where various sentences belong in relation to each other, and also determining what happens if I juxtapose certain images in the poem. But the sentences themselves pretty much take shape on the page in a way that mirrors how they emerge from my mind. Again, no one believes me, and people think that I work hard to sound strange. The truth is that I’m just naturally strange!

LM: Your most recent book of poetry Then the War: And Selected Poems features a new collection titled Then the War, a lyric prose memoir titled Among the Trees, and selections from several of your past poetry collections. In what ways do you see Then the War as differing from your earlier books? Did the process of putting together the book, which involved selecting and arranging excerpts from your work across more than a decade, lead you to any surprising insights about yourself as a writer?

CP: I don’t do anything consciously when it comes to writing poems, and because of that, I’m not able to write in terms of a book. Many poets have a project, know what they will write about, and are able to see the book’s trajectory. But I can only work by intuition, poem by poem. Every couple of years I’ll look at what I’ve accumulated, and try to see how the poems are (or aren’t) speaking to one another. I wait for them to find their inevitable constellation, and I wait for that constellation to reveal to me the themes with which I’ve been wrestling. Because of this way of proceeding, I can’t consciously go in a different direction. But because I’m a human being, my sensibility is always evolving as I accumulate more experiences in life. The way that I see love at sixty-three is not the way that I saw it at twenty-three, when I’d had far fewer encounters with it, as well as fewer victories and defeats. I trust that each book is maybe moving not in a different direction but moving differently toward whatever’s next.

Then the War still speaks at some level to the same subjects and themes about which I’ve always cared, including the body, desire, memory, fear, risk, the natural world, instinct, and restraint, but how I speak about those things feels different, even if it’s not a difference that is immediately apparent to a reader. One very apparent example, though, is the prose memoir section you mentioned. That’s not radical in a book of poems, but this was my first time trying it, and it was a last-minute decision to include it. That surprised me. I hope that, with each book, I surprise myself a little by reminding myself there are still new things to try out on the page.

What I learned most, in the course of selecting what to include in the Selected Poems part of the book, is that I’ve been changing, formally, much more than I had realized. That was encouraging, since I often feel I’m doing the same thing over and over again. But I think of poems as very bodily. Our bodies change as we age. Why shouldn’t our poems?

LM: It’s fascinating to hear about your realization that your work has been changing formally over time to a greater degree than you initially thought. What are some of the ways in which you feel that the formal elements of your poetry have evolved, as evidenced by the work in the Selected Poems sections of the book, and do you find that these formal developments have coincided in any interesting ways with changes in the content of your work?

CP: I realize now that the changes are more evident if I go even further back than Then the War: And Selected Poems, to my earlier volume of selected poems. For example, I used to be very fond of short-lined tercets, and I’ve watched my lines get longer over time. I’ve also noticed that tercets, rather than being abandoned entirely, have ended up in poems of mine where the approach to line-making varies more frequently from start to finish.

When it comes to the current selected poems in Then the War, I do note two evolutions. The later poems look more dense on the page. Examples of that include “Pale Colors in a Tall Field,” “Wake Up,” “Unbridled,” and “Wild Is the Wind.” I think the heightened visual density might have to do with an increased tendency toward storytelling and philosophical meditation. In addition, I feel as if the poems over time show a growing tendency on my part to juxtapose lofty diction with something more demotic. My earlier poems, by contrast, were a little fey-sounding, which is something that I can see with clarity at this stage. I think I take myself a little less seriously now in my poems, and that I’ve started letting more of my real self, in all of its earthiness, onto the page.

LM: Is there a particular poem of yours that you might point to as an example of what you’ve described with regard to the juxtaposition of lofty diction with demotic language?

CP: I think that “For It Felt Like Power,” which appears in my book Wild Is the Wind, is a useful poem to discuss in this context. It starts with a dreamy sort of sentence:

……….The combined light and shadow of passing cars stutter-shifted across the walls the way, in summer, ………………..the night moths used to, softly sandbagging the river of dream against dream’s return…

The poem then progresses to a more colloquial style of address:

……………Listen, it’s not like I don’t get it

After that, there’s a move toward another bit of loftiness:

……………………………………………………about suffering being relative –

Then the language returns to a more grounded place with the following repetition:

I get it.

I have found myself increasingly playing with the tonal effects that a poem can achieve through the mixing of different diction levels, and my sense is that this excerpt from “For It Felt Like Power” offers a snapshot of my efforts in that direction.

LM: In Then the War: And Selected Poems, your poem “California” centers on two men as they navigate a romantic relationship. You write the following: “That’s the trouble with words. Soon / almost anything sounds true.” Would you talk further about what you see as some of the potential dangers inherent, artistically, politically, and otherwise, in the fact that words can make “almost anything” sound true?

CP: For all of these categories—art, politics, and otherwise—the danger is that if anything can sound true, then we can always be misled by words, and that means we are then in danger of being harmed. For example, if someone confidently tells me there are no tornadoes in sight, and I believe them, then I won’t be watching for a tornado, and I am at risk of being killed by one. But words are largely all we have, other than whatever senses we have available to us, such as sight and smell. The ongoing challenge is how to communicate with others, via language, even as we know that language is not only inadequate but often incidentally misleading, and sometimes, depending on the person wielding it, deliberately deceptive.

LM: Many of your poems in Then the War: And Selected Poems incorporate questions that invite readers to regard the surrounding lines as possible gestures toward answering what has been asked. For example, in “Somewhere, right now, a Hawk,” you pose the following question: “Is it true / that only by having passed / through absolute despair / can we arrive at anything close / to self-knowing?” What do you view as the role of questions in your poems, in terms of how you hope for them to interact with the lines around them?

CP: I think of questions as invitations not to provide answers but to speculate on possibility. For the question you’ve quoted, for example, there can’t be an absolute answer. Someone might say, “Yes, it is true that you need despair to become self-knowing.” Others might maintain that they have dealt with despair and they still don’t know themselves any better. What’s more interesting, for me, is to let that question hover, and to think about how despair can be many things, including both pointless and revelatory. For most of the important things in this life, I’ve found, there’s no fixed answer, and that’s the thrill and terror of being alive. Everything’s in flux, nothing’s reliable, and yet we crave reliability. We want to trust. And yet –

LM: The act of naming occurs frequently as a subject throughout Then the War: And Selected Poems. In “The Enchanted Bluff,” readers encounter these lines: “…when it’s / just a river—here’s a river…Why not say so, / why this need to name things based on what / they remind us of.” This example recalls that memorable moment in Robert Lowell’s “Epilogue” when he poses the following question: “Yet why not say what happened?” Shakespeare’s assertion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the purpose of “the poet’s pen” is to “give to airy nothing / a local habitation and a name” also comes to mind in this context. Would you talk more about how you view the role of “naming” in your work?

CP: I think of naming as a form of possession. To name a child is to place it within a context of ownership, to say “we have named this child, and so it ‘belongs’ to our family.” Likewise, naming things like birds, for example, gives us a sense of ownership and an ability to distinguish one thing from another. This is a cardinal, and this is a robin. The more we can name whatever we’re seeing, the more we can ‘own’ it, in the sense of our having placed these birds in some kind of order that makes them understandable because controllable. The subject of naming also evokes the uneasiness that surrounds our interactions with language, the discomfort we feel about the way that words can limit and impose definition. I think it’s a human impulse to name things because it’s how we know and understand reality. But I also believe that we should always remain aware of language’s limitations. Look what naming and defining have done, for example, when it comes to ideas of race, gender, and sex.

LM: In your lyric prose memoir Among the Trees, which appears in Then the War: And Selected Poems, you draw a parallel between the notion of forests as queer spaces and your process in writing poems: “In a sense, the poems themselves are trees, or treelike, in that they become a place where what’s difficult and/or forbidden can have a place both to be hidden and within which to feel free to unfurl and extend itself.” Would you talk further about the prevalence of arboreal imagery in your poetry, while also expanding on the notion that your poems are “treelike” in their construction?

CP: Trees, leaves, and forests are really in my poems simply because they are part of my daily life, and I believe poems are reflections of our daily lives. We don’t think in a vacuum, but many poems I encounter do seem to have been written somewhere where there are no plants or animals. Numerous reviewers have tried to figure out how the natural world works allegorically in my poems, but if there’s anything allegorical, it’s purely incidental. I go to the park most days, and I live surrounded by trees, even here in St. Louis. For me, a poem is only convincing if it shows evidence of having taken place in the real world, and for me, that involves trees.

As far as the notion that my poems are “treelike” in construction, I think of them that way because they tend to work by branching ever-outward, reaching toward something without attaining it, as trees reach to the sky without attaining it. The reaching is the point, it seems to me. Likewise in poems, the questing through and toward an idea is the point, not the arrival. When a poem ends, for me, it means we’re resting. The journey’s not over.

LM: The last poem in Then the War is a long meditative piece titled “This Far In,” which weaves together many of the themes that animate earlier poems in the collection. After questioning what’s next for him “this late in the long apprenticeship,” the poem’s speaker hears an unexpected voice: “Speak to me; speak into me, / the wind said, when I woke / this morning. Let’s see what happens.” What do you see as coming next for you in “the long apprenticeship” to the art of writing?

CP: It’s hard to say. On one hand, ever since I started writing, it has always seemed that by the time I’ve published a book, I’ve already written nearly enough poems for the next book. That has proven true this time as well. Then the War came out in February, but of course I turned it in to the publisher two years before that, which means I’ve written a lot of new poems after finishing Then the War. I had a new manuscript ready to give my publisher last fall, and it is scheduled to come out in the fall of 2024. Since then, I’ve kept writing, and I tend to write a poem or two a month, so I’m presumably working on a new manuscript, though I have no idea how it will turn out, if it will end up being a book, or if I’ll ever write another poem again. There’s always a sense of the unknown when it comes to my process. While I don’t consciously try to write a book every couple of years, I just seem to write regularly enough that I end up with new manuscripts at that frequency. Going back to one of my earlier answers, I feel as though I am writing for my life when I shape a poem, so continuing to write means that I’m still living, and that I still want to be alive. I have no more idea about what’s next in my writing than I do about what’s next in my life. I know this much: I am going to make lunch now. I have no idea what this evening holds, let alone tomorrow. Again, that’s frightening. It’s also thrilling.

LM: Thank you for taking the time to talk with Literary Matters about My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations on the Writing Life and Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007-2020. We are grateful for the opportunity to include new poetry by you, along with this interview, in our current issue, and we couldn’t be more excited to learn that your next book of poems will be hitting the shelves in fall 2024. In the meantime, we hope you continue “writing for your life” so that the urgency you bring to the page persists in enhancing the lives of your readers.

Photo of Carl Phillips
Photo credit: Reston Allen

Carl Phillipss most recent book is Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007-2020 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022). His most recent prose book is My Trade is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing (Yale University Press, 2022). He is a Professor of English at Washington University in Saint Louis.