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A Record of What It Meant: An Interview with Carl Phillips, Author of The Art of Daring and Coin of the Realm

This post is the twelfth in a months-long series that explores the topic of craft: what it is, how it has evolved, who has historically had access to it, and the ways it is used in the classroom today, among other things. This week’s interview is with Carl Phillips, author of The Art of Daring and Coin of the Realm.

Carl Phillips is the author of fourteen books of poetry, including Reconnaissance, winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Lambda Literary Award, and Double Shadow and Wild Is the Wind, both winners of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

Ruth Joffre: You’ve written often of the poets you first encountered in your youth, such as Randall Jarrell and W. H. Auden, and of the way that these early explorations of the realm of poetry have shaped your relationship with the genre. When did you first encounter what we now collectively refer to as a “craft book”? Which craft books have been most influential to you as a writer?

Carl Phillips: I can’t say that there’s any craft book that’s been influential, since I really came to poetry by reading poetry—it’s still the best way, I believe, to learn how to write poetry, by studying poems that work and trying to figure out how they work. Later, I discovered books like Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, but is that a craft book or more a book of inspiration about the process of writing? I don’t know. Probably most influential was a prosody book, Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, from which I taught myself a lot of prosodic forms one winter by writing two of each one mentioned in that book.

RJ: In “Poetry, Consciousness, Gift: The Model of T. S. Eliot,” one of the essays collected in your first craft book, Coin of the Realm, you write in your examination of Eliot’s work that “the poet has a responsibility . . . to move past a longing to turn away from an unbearable reality, and learn not so much to solve it as to bear it.” This seems to me, in the particularly unbearable reality of the United States today, to be a much more political statement than perhaps it was originally intended: to not turn away from these atrocities, to not blind ourselves to what’s difficult. With this in mind, what do you think is the role of the poet in today’s America?

CP: I think the role of the poet in today’s America is what the role of the poet is always at any time in any place: to make a record of what it meant, how it felt, to be a thinking person in a living body at this particular time in history. Of course that means all kinds of things, depending on individual sensibility. It could mean writing a poem about the latest piece of disastrous news on TV. It also includes writing about walking one’s dog. A vase of roses. A private struggle. I love how, though the Civil War was going on, Dickinson reminds us that people were also looking outside a window, speculating about the afterlife, considering a bird’s flight.

RJ: In “Another and Another Before That: Some Thoughts on Reading,” you write, “I don’t think there are any ‘shoulds’ in the case of reading—that would lead to the usual thorniness of literary canons.” Can you expand on this? Up until fairly recently, few canons would have included the work of a black gay man or a queer Latinx woman or anyone other than a cis white man.

CP: What I mean is that we all have our personal canon, which is—or should be—always growing, changing, evolving. The problem with the idea of a canon is that it quickly becomes prescriptive and exclusive. If I have to choose a canon, it will be the canon that includes everything, so that one can have the fullest picture possible of where poetry has been and is going. But it is impossible to read everything. In assigning reading for my classes, I certainly offer a diverse selection. But I can’t possibly include everything in a single semester, so I think of it as a sampler from a larger canon that I encourage my students to explore. All voices are included, none of them eclipse the others.

RJ: In “Association in Poetry,” you write, “The successful poem makes the reader care about it, even before the reader has quite understood why he or she does care.” You were speaking specifically of a cumulative method of poetry typified by the works of Walt Whitman, Linda Gregg, and Frank O’Hara examined in the essay, but I think this applies more generally to most if not all poetry: the successful poem makes the reader care. In other words, it creates empathy and engagement. Can you talk about the role of empathy in poetry and about the different methods writers use to engage readers on emotional and psychological levels?

CP: It would take at least a semester to cover the basics, I think, of how writers get readers to commit to poems emotionally and psychologically, so I will bypass that part of the question! As for the role of empathy, I suppose poetry is a medium for empathy—it presents to us the world through another’s sensibility. To read the poem is to enter into that sensibility. What the poem says and how it says it will determine the degree to which we feel empathy with the poem’s subject and the poet’s sensibility. More generally, I guess the role of poetry can be to generate empathy, and the role of that empathy can be to extend and broaden our sense of the world and of those in it besides ourselves. Perhaps that means the role of empathy is to help us communicate better and understand one another better. That’s the role of empathy itself—in poetry, but everywhere else as well.

RJ: In the preface of The Art of Daring, you write, “This book is much less of a book on craft than [Coin of the Realm] was.” This is not to say that The Art of Daring isn’t a craft book—it certainly is, from its conception to its marketing—but that it does not always operate in the ways that are expected of craft books. For me, this is one of the great strengths of the book: its willingness (its daring) to buck conventions. When you were writing The Art of Daring, how did you navigate the expectations surrounding craft books? Do you think that the way we talk about craft is limiting or limited?

CP: To be honest, I don’t know that I understand what we mean by a craft book. My own thought is that it should discuss elements of technique, strategy, etc., not be a sort of self-help book, which is how many so-called craft books read. Or it should discuss a poem in terms of its craft. And I do that in several parts of Coin of the Realm. The Art of Daring is a whole different thing. To answer your question, I navigated the expectations by ignoring the expectations—which is also how I write poems. I had already written the opening three essays for a commissioned series of talks—I thought of them as meditations. And I had all of the other essays written already, from talks I’d given elsewhere. So it was more a matter of deciding how to group things. And then Jeff Shotts, my editor at Graywolf, suggested that I do a final essay that might somehow encompass everything in the book. I didn’t really know what he meant, but I had recently been processing the experience detailed in that final essay, so I wrote about it. And it then seemed to me that the whole book was really about how risk and making art intersect, and what happens when we translate that into real life. In the end, the books seems to me less a craft book than an extended meditation of the subtitle: risk, restlessness, imagination.

RJ: I’m interested in the intersections of Coin of the Realm and The Art of Daring. Many essays in Coin of the Realm, including the titular essay, touch upon the notion of trust: how it relates to faith, how readers place trust in writers, how “trust leads to betrayal leads to love leads to trust,” and how trust relates to risk. The Art of Daring expands on this relationship between trust and risk almost without using the word “trust,” exploring it most clearly in relation to sex and BDSM. Was this a conscious expansion? Is there an implication here that writers, in daring, must also trust themselves to bear the difficult consequences of risk?

CP: I never saw the second book as an expansion of the first, no. As I said earlier, the essays were pretty much written, and I wanted to group them into a book, mainly because people at the talks I’d given had been so eager to know where they could read these talks . . . I’m not sure about your other question. I’m reluctant to say that writers “must also trust themselves to bear the difficult consequences of risk,” since that implies that the consequences are always bearable or that a failure to bear something is a failure of trust, when sometimes things are simply unbearable and that’s no reflection on one’s character. As with risk itself, I’d say that these are very private, individual decisions, what to risk, whom to trust, how to trust. . . .

RJ: Many of the chapters in The Art of Daring begin with short passages separated from the rest of the text via a symbol, a visual break in the text. For example, the opening passage of the chapter “On Restlessness.” Such passages seem to be at once of a piece with the rest of their respective chapters and set apart, drawn from a more poetic, introspective conversation that seems to be happening behind the scenes, in the breaks between chapters and paragraphs. How did you arrive at this structure, and what did you intend the reader to take from it?

CP: Well, I have always hated writing the kind of prose that we are taught in freshman comp, where there’s a thesis statement, then the proof, then the closing paragraph that basically says “I have proved my thesis.” Ugh, awful to write, and maddening to have to read such essays. I’ve always thought the essay should be what I think Montaigne thought of it as, a kind of wandering of the mind as it explores a particular subject. That means there is room for surprise, for unknowing—it becomes less about proving a point than about inviting a reader to share how it feels to think about that point. For me, the more loosely associated form that I use is more honest, is truer to how it feels to think one’s way through and toward a subject. They call it the lyric essay these days, but it’s how I’ve always written!

RJ: Finally, what are you working on now?

CP: I’m always just working on the next poem—or more like working on being receptive to the possibility of a new poem. I don’t do projects. I don’t actually say I’m writing a book, since it’s always poem by poem until one day I realize I might have enough poems to think about another book. Since I don’t know what a given poem is going to be about, I can’t think in terms of a book. Most of my poet friends will tell me they are three poems away, say, from the next book—but I wonder, what if the next poem you write makes you completely rethink where you thought you were headed? It’s rather like having a five year plan in life; but what if, without having planned it, you turn the corner and fall in love? So all can say is that I have a chapbook coming out in September, Star Map with Action Figures, and then in March my new book will be out: Pale Colors in a Tall Field.