A Conversation With Carl Phillips by KR poetry editor David Baker
Carl Phillips has emerged in the past decade as one of America’s most original, influential, and productive of lyric poets. Born in 1959, in Everett, Washington, Phillips received his AB in Greek and Latin from Harvard University in 1981 and his MAT in Latin and classical humanities from the University of Massachusetts in 1983, after which he taught Latin in Massachusetts prep schools for eight years. He returned to Harvard as a doctoral student in classical philology but moved to Boston University where he received his MA in creative writing in 1993. Since 1993 he has held a joint position in English, creative writing, and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also a widely sought teacher and workshop leader, having taught often at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and having held visiting positions at the University of Iowa, Harvard University, Northwestern University, and elsewhere.
Phillips’s books of poetry have appeared rapidly since 1992, with the appearance of his Samuel French Morse Award-winning In the Blood, followed by Cortege (1995), From the Devotions (1998), and Pastoral (2000), all published by Graywolf Press. His subsequent poetry collections have appeared from Farrar, Straus & Giroux: The Tether (2001), Rock Harbor (2002), The Rest of Love (2004), Riding Westward (2006), and most recently Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems 1986-2006 (2007). For his books he has been
awarded such prestigious honors as the Kingsley Tufts Prize, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Library of Congress.
In addition to his poetry, Phillips is an influential critic, literary scholar, and translator. His articles—ranging from the poetry of George Herbert to the problematic of the prose poem to the issue of identity in African-American poetry—appear regularly in periodicals such as American Poet, Field, and New England Review. In 2003 his translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes was published by Oxford University Press, and in 2004 his critical collection, Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry, appeared from Graywolf.
David Baker: Carl, thanks so much for the chance to talk about your five new poems in The Kenyon Review. These are wonderful poems, and we are especially pleased for the chance to print them in our new anniversary issue. We’re marking the seventieth year of publication for our magazine. I hope we also have time and the chance during this back-and-forth discussion to talk about your latest projects—poetry and prose—as well as your poetic background and your sense of the coming directions or opportunities for American poets.
I have some questions I’d like to ask about specific poems in the Kenyon grouping. But I’d like to take the chance to see if you wish to say anything about these poems first—origins, challenges, questions, or whatever you might wish to say to begin.
Carl Phillips: Thanks for inviting me, David. And thanks for including these poems in
The Kenyon Review. About the poems themselves, well, I suppose they come from my usual resistance to accepting that there are some questions that can’t be finally, absolutely answered. These poems were mostly written last fall and early this spring, a period when I seem to have gotten interested especially in power, the ways in which sexual power and political power are analogous, the uneven distribution of power, the costs of that. . . . I can’t say I was conscious of any of that while writing the poems, and it’s only now, for this interview, that I’ve stepped back to see what the poems might have in common. Of course, I look at “Tell Me a Story,” and that seems to have nothing to do with power—but I suppose oblivion is one form of respite from being consciously bound to power structures.
DB: The issue of power is fascinating. In these poems I follow the rigor and decay of sexual power. It’s a familiar trope in your work. The two lovers trade identities of stronger and weaker, or aggressor and submitter, back and forth, and much of the language (of conquest, vanquishment, injury, peacefulness, surrender) reinforces this relationship. I am less clear about the political issue, though of course gender and sexuality can be read as politically textual.
So do you mean that you see your poems, about the dynamics of sexual power, as analogues to a larger political circumstance? Sex as imperialism? Two lovers’ relationship as a country of their own, a dominion of two?
CP: Yes. Exactly. In a poem from The Tether, I made an attempt to be more overt about that—a poem called “Roman Glass,” that speaks of the erosion of the Republic and the
rise of Empire in ancient Rome, an analogue, I believe, for the diminishment of shared power in a relationship, and the total assumption of power on the part of an individual.
DB: “Roman Glass” is an important poem in The Tether. As you say, it’s a poem that articulates the connection between the large political dynamic and the lovers’ miniature world. You set about the task, as you say, of “recognizing the folly of equal rule” in that poem.
But let me push on the trope. You seem to find an insistent or at least recurring use of the metaphor of ruling, of sovereignty and servitude, when describing the lovers’ relationship, not just in this poem but in the overall scheme of your poetry. Does one lover “rule” the other? Must one? I’m wondering if the trope is exclusive or total, or more like an enabling conceit for your poetry.
CP: I think the obsession with sovereignty and servitude has a lot to do with another obsession, sadomasochism, and the ways in which it can be viewable politically, spiritually, and in terms of the role of trust when it comes to intimacy. As I understand it, in S and M, there are fairly fixed roles. That’s interesting—to me—to think about in the context of a relationship between lovers. I used to believe in something like fixed roles, but over the years I very much believe that it’s necessary for there to be, if not an occasional exchange of power, then at least an ongoing willingness to renegotiate the terms of power. How that works in the poems, I don’t know, but it’s how I have lived my life off the page.
DB: That would be what you mean by “folly” then, right? The notion of equality—a democratic rather than colonial or monarchic structure—is a fiction, a folly. So, in your poetry the position and use of power transfers back and forth, rather than remains in static equilibrium.
I want to come back to this issue of imbalance, shortly, to talk about some elements of your style. But for now let’s turn back to the present group of Kenyon poems.
We are really pleased to offer our readers these particular five new poems of yours. Do they come from a new large project? A manuscript of poems? If so, can you say anything about it?
CP: “Conquest” is from my new book, Speak Low, which will come out next spring. I find it hard to sum up what that book is about—I suppose something to do with crossing that point beyond which there’s no return, the ways in which we fail one another almost willfully, or so it seems, the price of freedom, the intoxicating nature of desire. That last one, of course, isn’t all that new a theme for me, but I realize more and more that I’m one of those poets who pushes more deeply at something with each book, as opposed, perhaps, to casting the net more widely, in terms of subject matter. It’s why I think of all of my books as a single, sustained kind of meditation on—oh, on the ways in which the forces of being human (desire, for example, loss, conquest) shape a sensibility over
time. . . . Hmm, I have strayed from the question. Anyway, the other four poems are just poems I’ve written. I never know what the next manuscript will be or particularly concern. I wait until I feel I have enough poems for a manuscript and start to think about how they might be working together.
DB: I have a few more questions to ask about individual poems among these five, but I’d like to talk about them all together for a bit longer. They represent new directions for you and they also carry forward some of your more familiar thematic, narrative, and imagistic characteristics.
Do I detect the presence of the sonnet? I can’t recall more than a very small handful of sonnets from your previous eight books, and now four of these are sonnets or derivations of sonnets?
CP: Yes, I do think of these as bearing some relationship to the sonnet, though I can’t say I had that intention initially. When “Conquest” turned out to be fourteen lines after I’d arranged the lines, I was interested in the degree to which I could call it a sonnet. But after that, I began writing poems that kept coming in around twelve to sixteen lines, and I did start to work more deliberately at getting them to sonnet length. I don’t know why this sort of thing happens. In Riding Westward, I had become very fond of long lines and blockier-looking stanzas. It’s as if this is the natural next response to that.
DB: “Tell Me a Story” and “Almost Tenderly” are the two poems here that most apparently derive from the sonnet. I mean by this not just the eight-and-six structure of “Tell Me a Story” and the seven-seven structure of “Almost Tenderly,” but also I mean to identify places where the voltas fall, where the poems turn, where and how they open, and where, in the final couple of lines, they recapture or recapitulate each narrative.
“The Life You Save” and “Conquest” seem less like traditional sonnets and more akin to, say, a Charles Wright-like rendition. For example, where the dropped and indented partial lines do count toward the fourteen lines of the whole form. “Conquest”
even breaks in half with an asterisk at the turn, while “The Life You Save” exploits the three-part Shakespearean form.
CP: Yes, I had hoped that would be the effect. I get pretty impatient with people who consider any fourteen-line poem to be a sonnet. The turns of thought are crucial, as is the number of turns.
DB: Do you have more sonnets? Why the sonnet and why now?
CP: I think I have one more, written pretty recently. And a couple of short poems, but they’re not sonnets. I think it’s just something I stumbled into, though. A more recent poem is around eighty lines long, so that’s definitely not sonnet territory.
DB: Then let me turn to another issue among these poems. “Almost Tenderly” is a good representation of your work, it seems to me, with its combination of lucidity and mystery. The landscape with its touch of the Middle Ages and of myth-making is vivid, full of details. The narrative of the broken man is visceral in its portrayal. And the overall examination of “suffering” is something I find in many of your strongest poems.
But just as vivid here is the mysterious primary pronoun “it.” This little word may be easy to overlook, but it seems central to fully understanding the poem.
What is “it”? Something grand, like myth? Or something tangible, like a real artifact? Inside “it” we find the whole narrative. Does it matter whether or not we can identify “it”?
CP: I can honestly say I have no idea what the “it” is supposed to refer to. Maybe a certain emotional or psychological state that can’t be articulated except in terms of what it could be imagined to contain, if it could be made more concrete. I liked the idea of a poem working like this, an idea I first saw in a poem by Jack Gilbert, “Registration,” where a man looks into the worm-opened chest of an owl and sees the city of Byzantium. The rest of the poem is a description of what’s going on in Byzantium, and the owl gets completely forgotten—just the means by which the rest of the poem comes into being.
DB: A second familiar characteristic of this poem is also something not immediately assertive. But all five poems bear this touch. I mean the quality of metaphor, especially the rich and abundant similes. Again in “Almost Tenderly” the whole poem and its narrative come to us as simile; the whole poem answers the question of what “it” is “like.” As the poem proceeds, one simile transforms into another, and another; the scheme of the whole poem is to open up this tactic, as though inside a single gesture we might find a miniature world, perhaps like the Gilbert poem. Even inside the figurative “wounds” we find a whole sea.
CP: Hmm, I guess that’s to do with how I see the world in general, ramification after ramification, everything sort of divigatory, which probably explains my looping sentences at times. It’s a difficult way of thinking, let me tell you. A little maddening.
DB: I think I’ll come back to those looping sentences in a bit. How conscious are you, as you write, of the larger governing tactics of your poems like the one we’re talking about? And what more might you say about the importance of metaphor—especially simile—to
your work? I invite readers to look back over these five poems and find the similes; they are everywhere and they provide the essential magic of the poems. That great “as if.”
CP: I’m not conscious of tactics like this at all when I’m writing. It’s often the kind of thing I don’t notice until I get to the stage of trying to assemble poems into a manuscript.
I’ll suddenly realize how often certain words appear, but also how often certain strategies come into the poems. It’s often how I figure out which poems to eliminate, if too many are working in the same way. As for metaphor and simile, I seem to be very much caught up in abstraction in my work, and I think the only way to deal with abstraction in ways that can bring it more physically into the light is through figuration. Otherwise, a poem would risk sounding ponderous, academic—figuration makes it all more visceral, I find.
DB: I know what you mean. In your poems the abstract is contextualized through figures, tropes. The abstract is made tangible, almost bodily.
There’s another trope, an aspect of landscape, which recurs not just in these poems but back through several books of yours. I mean, the field, the pastoral expanse. It’s a landscape of birds, waves, ponds and marshes, pine fields, horses. Sometimes it seems lifted from medieval settings, or classical ones, and sometimes it is contemporary. As you say yourself in “Falling” (one of my favorite poems in Riding Westward), “There’s a meadow I can’t stop coming back to.” You go so far as to identify this place as your “sacred grove.”
I am tempted to think this is a view from your window on Cape Cod. So tell me, what field do you see? And is it invested with holiness because of its profound presence in your imagination? Or is there a different explanation for its holiness?
CP: On the Cape, the view from my window is all forest—many acres of conservation
land. I really became keen on fields when I moved to the Midwest and started going out into the landscape with my partner, Doug, who was always looking for good photos at sunset. Fields became something I could love in the way that I love the ocean when I’m out East.
About holiness, I don’t know that I can think of holiness as anything more than how we choose to invest a space with—variously—belief, the will to believe, the refusal to have a thing be “merely” what it is. . . . I know that’s a little vague.
DB: Then let me ask a related, maybe larger question about this subject. What is the connection for you between the world—with its multitudes, its failures and damages and beauties, all of its secular and natural particularities—and the sacred?
CP: Well, again, I’m uneasy about concepts of the sacred and of holiness. If I believe in the sacred at all, it’s more in the sense of finding something to have a sacred sort of resonance for me—maybe this is something like the sublime? In the sudden scattering of leaves from a tree, I feel something sacred, but I don’t think the moment itself has sacred value, that it’s a sign—I’m not a Transcendentalist or anything. . . . I want to believe that things mean more than they do. But I have my doubts. But I want to believe that my doubts might also mean more than they do.
DB: Yes, this does sound like the sublime—the awareness of beauty so immense or
amorphous that we fear for our safety or sanity. And it is related to the transcendental,
especially if that term can suggest something other than the conventionally religious. Maybe instead of the religious, we are talking about the ineffable or the numinous—the thing suggested beyond the thing in front of us.
You say you feel uncomfortable with these concepts. But they are—like the trope of the politicized lovers that we discussed earlier—a central part of your poetic, your language, even your method of figuration. I think I mean your amazing capability to suggest that-which-is-beyond presence or the present moment. Maybe again we’re talking about the deepest operation of metaphor, the exchange of thing for thing, or the association of thing for thing. Would that be in the ballpark?
CP: I hope I won’t sound like I’m being difficult, if I say that these things are not tropes, for me, they’re just how I think and what I think. I guess they become tropes, for readers, once the poem exists, but for me there’s not very much separation between the poem and the life behind it.
DB: So do you think metaphor itself is a kind of holiness? Or is that going too far?
I know some of your favorite forebears—Herbert and Donne, Dickinson and Hopkins—would likely make that association between metaphor and the sacred.
CP: I don’t think metaphor itself is a kind of holiness—but I believe that the ability to see in terms of metaphor is a special kind of vision. In that sense, I lean towards the ancient Greco-Roman idea of the vatic, the way in which access to certain kinds of vision can be viewed as a kind of holiness.
DB: Can you say more about that? What kinds of vision? And how does one gain access?
CP: Well, the kind of vision I mean is the kind that makes some people poets and others not. Or maybe I should say, it makes some poets the poets they are—I’m not speaking here of the kind of poetry that seems merely a record of the world as anyone on the street would be likely to see it. I mean the kind that presents the world as if for the first time. As to how that kind of vision is accessed—I suspect there’s no method. Strategy can be taught, when it comes to poetry, but not vision.
DB: Some of your favorite poets seem to me to pick up and continue this idea of the Greco-Roman vatic. I’m thinking, as I said just above, of Herbert and Donne, Dickinson, Hopkins, maybe Geoffrey Hill. I see in these poets, and in your own work, a shared style, too, in addition to the vatic or prophetic. These poets are metaphysical—dense, very complicated in everything from their treatment of image and conceit to syntax and phrasing.
Is that accurate to say? And if so, then does the vatic seem metaphysical to you?
CP: I guess it can be, but I don’t think that’s the only possible manifestation of the vatic.
DB: You’ve touched on a few more stylistic issues, but we haven’t addressed them fully yet. You mentioned your looping sentences, and your recent application, sometimes, of a blockier form on the page.
Your syntax is characterized not only by long constructions, but also, within those
long constructions, by all manner of interruptions. You are parenthetical, self-interrupting, hesitant, delaying, and all of those tactics seem to me to achieve an amazing result. In your best work, the sentence itself creates something like an analogue for thinking. I feel an idea being glimpsed, doubted, tried out, explained, absorbed, rejected, by turns. Most poets aspire to a sentence that seems the result of thinking; yours mimic the very processes of perception and cognition as they happen.
CP: Maybe this gets back to what I said about the lack of separation between life and poem that comes from a life. I think most poets are overly self-conscious of being poets; they are very much aware that they are trying to articulate something on a page, and they often seem to be very much aware of an audience outside themselves. I’m not at all like that. I work intuitively, wrestling toward a temporary answer to questions that emerge from a struggle that is ultimately utterly private. I think I’m just lucky that my private struggles happen to be, as well, human struggles, so that the poems happen to resonate with other people besides myself. But I’ve never expected that, or sought it. It’s why I can easily swing into anxiety when I’m giving a reading—it truly feels like I’m revealing something very private. Of course, it’s not as if the poems are baldly confessional, and the actual struggle, the specifics of it, are never in the poem; that’s part of the transformative work that a poem has to do. But I myself know what the source of a given poem was, and it can be wrenching to bring that up again, and in public.
DB: Your poems do shimmer with a sense of intimate revelation, sheer exposure. I never read your poems as bluntly autobiographical, though—but rather as gestures toward connection with the reader. The paradox of this connection is that it comes out of highly
private-sounding narratives. But Whitman showed us this paradox, didn’t he? The “dark patches” of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” served as his bleakest confessions but also as his means of physical connection.
So how do you maneuver from the baldly personal, as you say, to the artistic? Is that how conceit and myth work, to aid in that transformation?
CP: I really think it’s been luck, in my case, since I work pretty intuitively and from a deeply private space. How the work produced there ends up having a wider resonance remains a mystery to me, and I have to admit, I think it’s best that it remain a mystery. I think it’s true that myth, in particular, can be a way to transform the personal into something less so, but it’s not a guarantee.
DB: Privacy and intimacy. The poems in your later work—I’m thinking of Pastoral and since then—have often explored the intimate life of a gay man. You have pursued a gay narrative with increasing openness and depth.
We are all of us made of many selves. You refer to this phenomenon as the “many-sidedness of self” in your essay “Boon and Burden: Identity in Contemporary American Poetry.” Another side of your own self is an African-American man. How do issues of racial identity affect your poems? I think you think of yourself at times as a gay poet. How do you think of yourself as a black poet?
CP: Well, for the record, I don’t think of myself as having pursued a gay narrative specifically, but a narrative of what it means to be human—the issues I’m interested in aren’t limited to gay men, any more than they are limited to African Americans. I see
myself as a poet who happens to be black and gay, just as he happens to be from
Massachusetts, just as he happens to live in Missouri. All of these are powerful lenses through which I see the world. It’s true that being black and gay gets particular responses in the world—one is more likely to have felt rejected for being gay than for being from Missouri, for example. But I don’t go around consciously thinking of myself as anything in particular, when it comes to identity. Or I believe that identity is so much more than race and sexual orientation.
DB: Again in “Boon and Burden” you say you want “neither to compromise [your] individuality nor to be restricted by the particulars of it.” Do you mean, then, in your poetry, that these facets of a self—sexual preference, for instance, or gender or racial identity—are aspects to be transcended, or to be embraced, or both?
CP: I want them to become more broadly resonant—not irrelevant, exactly, yet not the point.
DB: I’d like to turn now more deeply to issues of style. Let’s look at one of the Kenyon poems. This is the looping kind of construction we’ve been talking about. In “Conquest” the first four lines typify that style. The very long first sentence begins with a participle phrase, then asserts a quick, self-revealing interruption (“I think”), then the italic addition of another voice, then a dash followed by a qualifying clause, itself capable of commenting on itself (“and should”). Then the punch of those two tiny sentences that follow. It’s wonderful pacing.
CP: Those two tiny sentences were the hardest to write, believe it or not. The longer sentence is simply my mind doing its wandering thing again.
DB: So now I really like the adjustment from the sturdy first stanza into the falling-apart of the second: the uneven lines, the interruptions (“instead” and the dash), and finally the fading of the ellipses. And this all recollects, and starts again, in the final stanza with the assurance of the new narrative, the new trope of the dream. It seems to me a large task accomplished in a very compressed space.
We can find more of those very long sentences (with their hesitations, inclusions, self-references, quick veers-away) in all five of these poems. Do you have a model in mind when you write this way?
CP: I don’t have a model in mind, no. I really do think this way. But it’s also true that my thinking may well have been shaped by my interest in inflected language, and in particular in the Latin of Tacitus and Cicero, both of whom can effectively mix the long sentence with an unexpected moment of terseness, the terseness gaining all the more power because of its appearance in the context of lengthier sentences. Much later, I discovered Randall Jarrell’s “90 North,” which culminates in a sentence that is stretched across two or three stanzas, followed with a simple sentence: “It is pain.” I get chills every time I read that poem, and I believe it has everything to do with the manipulation of sentence length.
DB: We’re back to the issue of imbalance, aren’t we? The tension—sexual as well as
syntactical—between different elements and degrees of power, and the exchange back
and forth of that power.
So let’s look at a further stylistic touch—something that accompanies your looping sentences. You often enhance the hesitating sentence—as I’ll call that manner of interruption and heavily punctuated movement—by means of your lineation. The long sentence seems longer, and the interrupted sentence seems even more hesitant or deferential, when you shape them into short lines. The line is, of course, yet another manner of punctuation and deliberation. Nothing in a poem is more obvious than the line. This is a structure you have used all along in your work, the long sentence set against the short line.
But I have also been really compelled in your latest work by a few strong poems that have eschewed the short line in behalf of an extended and more regular line. I’m thinking in Riding Westward of “Bright World,” “Ocean,” and maybe the title poem; those are three of my favorite poems in the book. I’m also thinking, even earlier in The Rest of Love, of a few poems that seem now to me to be working toward that extended and smoothed-out linear form, poems like “Custom” and “Here, on Earth.”
We might look here at “Tell Me a Story” and “Almost Tenderly” as short versions of that effect. Or “Next Stop, Arcadia.” What differences are you finding in those methods of lineation? I mean, long regular lines versus short or more various linear constructions.
CP: “Custom” was a breakthrough poem for me, both in terms of its being a single stanza, and in terms of the wildly veering line length. That poem was written last of all the poems in The Rest of Love, I believe, so its effects don’t get seen until the book after that, Riding Westward. Being able to allow a ragged edge to the poem felt very freeing.
I’d been so caught up in stanzas that looked neat on the page, and very caught up in lots of pauses, which meant very short lines, with a pause at the end of each of them. At a certain point, I guess this just felt overly dramatic, I don’t know. It wasn’t a conscious shift—I tried hard to lineate “Custom” differently, and eventually I realized it had already found its form. That’s how it always works for me. I’ll think I’ve remained pretty much the same across the various books, and then realize I have been evolving, in my own way, from book to book, outgrowing something or getting bored with it.
The long lines just sound right when I read the poems aloud—if there is hesitation within sentences, there’s an increased confidence in terms of a longer period of time that isn’t punctuated with the pause of the line break. And yet, I want a little of both, I suppose, which is where the dropped lines come in, allowing the reader to see the entire line across the page, but also having some of the pause—the psychological caesura—that a dropped line, for me, indicates–a pause, but not as big a pause as an actual line break at the end of a line would indicate.
DB: We’ve talked about lots of great past poets. But what about today’s poets? Who are you reading with interest? What interests you in those poets’ work?
CP: I have been looking at poets who write a very short poem, and who push at lineation: Christine Garren, Jean Valentine, recent Frank Bidart, Lyn Hejinian’s The Fatalist, Martha Ronk. I keep studying and studying the shorter poems in Robert Hass’s Time and Material . . . I’m back to memorizing sonnets of Shakespeare—whoops, he’s not exactly contemporary . . .
DB: What are you seeking in the very short poems you are reading? What are you finding?
CP: I’m trying to see how different writers get so much resonance out of so few words—the power of economy, something that I’ve always cared about, but I would like to see what would happen if I really started thinking in terms of spareness. The poets I have loved from very early on are Li Po and Tu Fu—that’s what first got me thinking about how short a poem can be, and still be a poem. I don’t think, in the course of my reading, that I’m finding out the “secret,” exactly, since that’s different for each poet. But I have usually found that I learn and grow as a writer simply by reading as much as I can, and relying on some sort of osmosis that isn’t trackable, but is very real.
DB: And whom are your students reading, and why?
CP: Well, it’s hard to say what they’re reading of their own volition. What I have directed them to in the past semester includes Jarrell, the Hass book mentioned earlier, selections from Bogan, Frost’s “Directive.” I try to assign, half the time, reading that they might not have looked into, yet—this usually means the dead, I have found. The very dead. Or people over the age of fifty or so—who aren’t dead, of course, but for some reason the younger poets I encounter seem less interested in older generations. That’s a whole other subject. The rest of the time, we look at work by people who will be visiting the campus—this semester, we’ll read Carolyn Forche, Kay Ryan, and Henri Cole—and work that is sometimes very, very new, a poem I’ll have encountered in a recent journal,
for example. Anything that I feel they could learn something useful from.
DB: What do they need to know? I ask that question as a fellow teacher who has noticed how professional our students have become, especially those in MFA programs and the bigger summer writing workshops. They act as though they are going into business, assembling resumes, networking, comparing experiences in this or that workshop. What don’t they know that you feel urgent about teaching them?
CP: They need to know that emotion is real, and not only worth spending time with, but essential to spend time with, if they want their poems to in any way reflect what it is to have been alive in our time. No matter how much technology there may be in the world, we are still people, vulnerable in many ways, and we still turn to poetry as a way of understanding that.
I also think it’s important for them to remember that we can only write the way we write—in terms of style, pace, and sensibility. I often have students who are anxious to get the first book out there, simply to get a job, and yet they know they haven’t written the book they hope to write. I understand the pressure, but I think it’s really important to try to ignore it, for the sake of the work. Or I’ve had students who lament how they write—they wish they wrote prose poems, or lush nature poems, or whatever—but they must write the poem they must write. There’s no choice in the matter, it seems to me, without things beginning to sound forced and inauthentic.
DB: You teach widely. You are a sought-out teacher. How do you feel about the graduate writing programs and the summer workshops, the proliferation of them? What value and what peril?
CP: Well, the peril ties in with your last question. Some programs—well, maybe all of them, to some extent—have a way of making students aware of a profession beyond the writing program walls, a profession that’s competitive and can generate anxieties that are counterproductive to getting good work done. Programs, by their very nature, suggest that there are time constraints on production, as does the tenure process—and yet, great art can’t be produced in that way. Finally, I think workshop inevitably makes writers very self-conscious of what they’re doing. Sometimes, it’s good just to go with something, rather than analyzing why you’re doing something a particular way, or agonizing over who did and didn’t “get” your poem in workshop.
But the value, for the student who truly comes to a workshop in order to become a better writer, is that a trusted community of writers can allow a writer to look at his or her work through other eyes, and perhaps see the failures and successes that the poet himself or herself couldn’t quite see. There’s also the wonderful exposure to a variety of voices, and this can work the way reading can, to inform one’s own work in ways that are very real and intangible.
DB: As you look forward now, to your own new and next work, what do you see? What projects or what questions seem to be emerging for you? That is, how do you see your work growing or changing?
CP: My work tends to change mainly in terms of form—all these sonnet-y pieces suggest that I’m headed that way, at the moment, for reasons unknown. And the questions are the same ones for me, as ever. Who am I? How can I grapple with what I am and wish I weren’t? What am I here for? What is morality? If the questions don’t change that much,
I hope that my responses do, if only by virtue of my being older and each time coming to the questions with a whole new set of experiences behind me.
DB: Along this same vein, what kinds of things do you think our new and next poets will need to address? This could be formal, this could be thematic—I don’t know, but I’m curious about your sense of the forthcoming.
CP: Ah, I have no sense of the forthcoming—and rather like it that way. I think the new poets will inevitably need to address what it means to be alive in our time, in the context of you-name-it: politics, war, catastrophe. In all of those contexts, we still love, and we still sorrow. We remain human beings.
[This interview is part
of a series of conversations with authors who have work in KR.
It is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for