Voices from Cave Canem: Carl Phillips

by Elizabeth Hoover    /  August 11, 2010  / 1 Comment


Carl Phillips on Sampsonia Way
Photo by Renee Rosensteel

In his poem “Aubade: Some Peaches, After Storm,” Carl Phillips writes “how your hands clear/ easily the wreckage; how you stand–like a building for a time condemned,/ then deemed historic. Yes. You/ will be saved.”

In his tightly crafted and morally urgent poems, Phillips often seems as if he is trying to save people from condemnation—a half-crazy stranger, lovers on the brink of separation, an unnamed narrator struggling with his faith. His attention to detail, idiosyncratic syntax, and extraordinary compression of language has made him one of the most original lyric poets writing today.

He is the author of 10 collections of poetry, most recently Speak Low—a finalist for the National Book Award. His awards include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Library of Congress.

In June, Cave Canem, an organization for African-American poets, held its annual retreat at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus and joined City of Asylum/Pittsburgh for a free reading on Pittsburgh’s Northside. This is the first of four interviews with the poets who participated in that event.

In an interview with Rattle magazine, you tell a story about bringing in a magnolia seedpod to your creative writing classroom at Washington University and being surprised that the students didn’t know what it was. You were trying to teach them the importance of noticing the world around them. Why do you think that it is so important for a poet to know about things like seedpods?

Well, that’s what poetry does. Poetry helps us see the world in ways we don’t ordinarily see it. Its job is not to just record what is obvious but also to show us the things that we would rather not see.

The doom of being a poet is that you don’t just get to walk by a tree and register it as “tree.” Suddenly you’ll start thinking, “oh the leaves are falling, mortality, death.” That’s what artists do: unpeel layers and see more deeply.

In the same interview you also talked about how poetry can help us rethink what constitutes morality. How do you see that playing out in your own poetry?

In my work, I’m concerned with this thing I call “flexible morality.” I was raised with rules that say this is how you’re supposed to grow up and live. When you realize you’re not like other people, you are forced to ask if you are being immoral because you’re being yourself. This led me to think that maybe morality should be more flexible. For example, is it infidelity if you stray and if nobody knows about it and it meant nothing to you? Technically, it is infidelity, but what does that mean?

Once it would have meant: you are a sinner and should be damned to Hell—and maybe for some people it does mean that—or does it mean that relationships are much more fluid and maybe resilience is part of a relationship? I don’t know. Some people say that what I’m doing is being immoral, but morality should always be questioned. Certainly you have to “behave,” but who gets to say what it means behave?

These two ideas of noticing and morality dovetail in your poetry. In your poem “Somewhere Holy,” the final line is the speaker saying ‘let’s go, show me.’ Do you think noticing things—even things that are unpleasant or repugnant—is part of the moral project of your work?

I do. This can lead to danger. That poem is about following a stranger and trusting that the stranger has something to show you that could open your world up in a positive way. But what if it doesn’t work like that? I don’t ordinarily believe in just following strangers, but that poem was written, in part, because I met and followed a stranger with whom I was partnered for many years. So isn’t that a good thing? But of course it’s bad when you follow someone and they kidnap you and kill you.

That’s life on the edge I guess—taking risks. You don’t grow if you don’t take risks. Not just in that way, but in writing. It’s a risk to keep looking at things. There are so many times we’re told to stop investigating. Like in catechism, for example, there are fixed answers. It’s blasphemous to ask: why is that the answer? Why not look further and push?  Some would say that’s immoral, but others would say it’s a moral imperative to not just accept blindly what is handed down to you.

This idea of constant investigation must make it hard to end a poem. Do you think poems should end with some kind of resolution?

I don’t like resolution. What I want is resonance at the end. That is when the poem seems as if it’s stopped, so it feels like conclusion, only to announce to the reader that there are actually several questions you might want to ask. I resist poems that I don’t have to think about any further because that truly is the end of the poem.

Part of the pleasure of reading poetry is the part where you conjure up thoughts beyond what the poet gave you. So I resist closure—at least of that obvious kind.

Another issue that comes up in your work is desire—particularly sexual desire. How do you see desire and morality coming in contact or clashing with each other?

The most obvious way they clash is, for some, it’s immoral to be gay. So already sexual acts between certain people are immoral. What do you do when you feel like who you are is immoral because you’ve been raised to think so? It’s been very fascinating to me to think about that. I think that is why so many teenagers commit suicide—because they are gay and think that makes them immoral.

Shortly after I came out, I observed in the gay community how common it was for people to have open relationships, or for sex not to be the sacred thing that I had thought it would be. That troubled me because it would often happen with people who were in very committed relationships and yet had no difficulty going and fooling around with others. How do you reconcile that?

I don’t know. We have this animal self that instinctively has a sexual desire, and this human self that has this moral context that’s supposed to cater to notions of devotion and fidelity. But what do you do when you’re gay and there’s no real model for a relationship?

I used to think that not having a model was one of the freedoms of being gay. That way you’re free to create your own model from relationship to relationship. But part of the eagerness that a lot of gay people have for the right to be married is because of a desire to have a model that is fixed. That’s the problem of freedom; it’s great to be free to create your own model, except, we are like children who need rules because they are comforting.

I was just thinking of this because in my workshop here at Cave Canem, students want to know, what are the rules for making a poem? There are no rules, or the rules change from poem to poem.

However, in your own poetry, you seem very attentive to rules, particularly the rules of sentence and syntax. Do you see this same kind of push-pull between rules and freedom as something that happens on the craft level in your work as well?

I like the idea of the formality of the sentence rubbing up against the unconventionality of the content. I hope it makes for a meaningful resonance; something can seem stately in how it’s being cast on the page and yet maybe we’re talking about some sort of weird anonymous sexual scenario.

I didn’t set out to do it; it just seems that the way I write is more or less how I think, so I never thought there was anything strange about the syntax until people had all these theories about it like: Is it Hasidic Greek and Latin, is that what it is? And maybe it is but I think I’m just—you know, strange.

One of the qualities of your syntax that might be considered strange is its pacing. You seem to hold the reader back with lots of commas and ellipses. Your sentences are tough!

I think of the syntax as being related to the erotic. In syntax embedded clauses and subordination are the equivalent of sexual stalling. It’s like foreplay. Not everyone thinks syntax is sexy. But it’s an interesting way to have the language enact what’s going on.

I think of the sexual and the spiritual as not being so far apart. Faith is just an abandoning of the self to something that, ultimately, you can’t know exists. How different is that from sado-masochism and having a mask or hood over your face and being gagged and forced to do whatever this person you can’t see tells you to do?  Even the position of prayer could be the position used to give someone a blow job.

I’m fascinated by how the erotic and spiritual worlds are very ritualized. That’s why Madonna was so shocking. But she wasn’t shocking to me when she first started. Everyone acted like, ”Oh she’s rolling around in a virginal wedding dress with a cross around her neck but she’s talking about getting fucked!” I’m thinking, why is everyone so upset about this?

Clearly it’s still controversial. People get bothered when these worlds that are supposed to be separate start blurring.

You see something similar in the work of John Donne. His relationship with God, with the whips and—

And “batter my heart, three-person’d God…”

He’s one of the poets that I’m quite influenced by. I think it’s fascinating how often he’s sort of saying that to believe in God one would have to be ravaged or something. And you know, that’s pretty hard-core for the 17th century.

You also cite Greek and Latin texts as influences. They also seem to have a moral project.

The reason I started studying classics is I thought it was so strange and fascinating how people were given these moral choices where they couldn’t win. If Antigone buries her brother she’s going to be killed because she’s defying the state, but if she doesn’t bury him she’s betrayed the law towards family. And so, again, morality—this morality where she has no way she can possibly win, and all those tragedies are about that, it seems to me. And so thematically it was very informative to me.

But also things like discovering Sappho’s poetry and thinking, wow, you could be this spare—I mean I know part of it is that things didn’t survive, except in fragments—but to be so spare and intimate so many centuries ago? This is amazing.

Read Elizabeth’s bio.

About the Author

Elizabeth Hoover earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University, where she received a Project on African Expressive Traditions grant and the Won-Joon Yon Scholarship for Racial Tolerance. She has written for American Heritage, Life, and Poets and Writers. Her criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She has published poetry in The Adirondack Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and the Atlanta Review. Recently, New Letters nominated her for a Pushcart Prize. Hoover is a former associate editor at Sampsonia Way.

View all articles by Elizabeth Hoover

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