The Light Changes in Every Moment: A Conversation with Carl Phillips

Poetry Editors Jacob Bauer and Daniel T. O’Brien discuss poetic pauses, “musculature,” risk-taking, and restlessness with Carl Phillips. 

JB: I was hoping we might talk about the different kinds of pauses you employ in your poetry—obviously the comma, the em-dash, the ellipses—but also the line break, and how you see those functioning differently. In particular, I’m thinking about the line break—sometimes your punctuation aligns with the line breaks, and sometimes your line breaks bisect the sentence. What do you see the role of those different pauses being?

CP: I guess it’s not something I’ve consciously thought a lot about. Earlier, I spoke about muscularity, and I think of poems as being very physical experiences as opposed to objects. It’s almost like the difference between photography and videography—one seems a more static image, but you get three-dimensionality. In videography everything is moving. I feel as if these pauses—different kinds of pauses and line breaks—start to flesh out a more honest body of the poem. You get to see it almost in motion. It’s why a lot of poems sort of disappoint me. I feel as though they’re just standing there, and they look kind of beautiful, but I want to see the light changing as the body turns and catches different elements of it. I want to see the parts that are embarrassing or surprising that we don’t expect beyond the initial surface beauty. If you can think of a poem that way, maybe the different kinds of pauses and lineation create that experience.

DTO: I think that’s so interesting, particularly because it reminds me of a line of yours that I love, and it almost sounds like what you’re saying: “It’s as if/a side of me that he’d forgotten had forced into the light,/briefly, a side of him that I’d never seen before/and now I’ve seen it.” I guess if reading the poem is like watching the light changing—and you want to see it, and you can’t forget it—that’s how a poem really sticks with you. It’s the muscles and the body, the poem, and the person.

CP: Yeah, I think there is a real similarity to it. Often when I think of it that way, or I feel as if when I tell people that, they think of it as something sexual. But I think it’s more physical, or bodily.

DTO: Speaking to that, I’d like to talk about how you kind of build your poems. I’m thinking about the poem “Black Swan on Water, in a Little Rain,” specifically the way it builds momentum, which to my mind, happens in the manner we’re discussing. This poem is a single sentence, and last night you read a poem of Brigit Kelly’s, before which you said you think it is admirable to write a poem that is a single sentence. I’m curious if you’ll expand on that.

CP: I think there’s a special challenge to it—to make a poem of a full sentence that’s not a run-on means that you have to start layering it with subordinate clauses, and then you have to elaborate, which gives you more stalling time. I think that’s hard to do. It also means you have to really learn what a sentence is and keep control of it. To me a particularly sexy kind of poem is a sustained sentence. Or even within one poem, a lot of long sustained sentences. I think of it as a form of seduction: to seduce you have to get attention first. But then you have to hold the attention. Then to truly seduce, you don’t want to deliver immediately. There’s a constant stalling and delaying. So I think in a one-sentence poem you’re doing that. You’re constantly feeding information, but you have to do it in such a way that the reader doesn’t think, ‘I’m tired of this sentence.’ You have to keep surprising with a new thing; make them think, ‘Oh I thought I was tired, but now I want to follow this new trail!’ And suddenly they’re caught up in it, and in that way, it seems like a kind of sexual seduction.

And again, that muscularity. As opposed to saying something like, “The swan is on the water.” That’s a perfectly nice sentence, but by itself, if all the sentences were like that, it seems you’d have to be really good, like Hemingway good, to do a lot of sentences like that. In Hemingway, there’s a lot of nuancing and layering of that kind of sentence, so it has the effect of something more complex.

DTO: That seems to speak to something I was thinking about— how poems build their form, or, as you say, their musculature. And I feel each of your books functions as its own sort of muscle. Each particular book often has, or at least it seems to me, poems that appear similar. I was wondering if you think that has to do with the content or the perspective— that is, what you’re looking at, or the way you’re looking at it. Is it about the perspective you have at that particular instance of life that is shaping it, or is the content itself that dictates the form?

CP: Yeah. That’s a good question. I don’t think its subject-driven as much. I think, for me, it’s where I am emotionally, maybe psychologically. I used to write poems that were composed of short three line stanzas—I was very big on these. And then I stopped, partly because I was bored, but also, later, I thought maybe that was a time where that kind of rigidity or control was governing how I saw things. But also the context of a life— maybe your life seems more scattered and out-of-control and that is the lens you’re funneling through, if you could funnel through a lens. I think that’s a mixed metaphor. I thought of this a lot yesterday, as I was reading from two different books. The poems in Reconnaissance are a lot shorter and tighter. And the newer poems are more meandering, exploring ideas. That wasn’t a conscious choice. I never thought I could write a poem that went beyond a page.  Maybe the fact of my life being a bit less chaotic, lately, has allowed for the time and patience that a more sustained poem requires  I don’t know, and don’t really want to.

DTO: It seems to me, in my experience, when you’re feeling less turbulent, you’re less afraid to allow that kind of meandering. Whereas when you’re feeling particularly anxious, everything goes inward.

CP: Well, yes, that’s true. That makes sense to me. In a calmer period, you’re more able to explore things, and more willing to.

A poet I deeply admire is Louise Glück, and she has changed from book to book. She makes more conscious decisions. She’s told me she’s made the decision not to use questions in a book, or she realized she hadn’t used long lines in a book, so she wrote A Village Life, which is much more prose-like. I’ve never been able to do that. But I also think that’s about the necessary restlessness of imagination. If your poems look the same all the time, that probably isn’t very interesting. There’s also a limited number of things we obsess over; we all have our little obsessions. Those don’t change very much for me. But I think the way I see those handful of ideas changes, so then the way they manifest on the page changes, too.

DTO: That reminds me about something you said earlier today, about how some poets write about one thing, or one experience, forever, looking at it in various ways, and that’s what, and how, it ends up on the page.

CP: Yeah, I see my work more as this extended meditation on pretty much the same things. It’s all been like— sex, the body, love, mortality. I guess those are all pretty big things to write about. Maybe identity to some extent. It’s interesting to see how that changes and how you see it at difference phases of your life. Now that I can admit that I am later on in my life, it’s interesting to have had different takes on the same subject, to compare them. And it makes sense that one’s relationship to a subject would change. Why would you say: “That was my book on relationships. That’s done.” You might have other relationships, or even if you stay in the same one, it’s going to evolve.

DTO: You spoke about videography earlier, and it feels like that. I’m filming the same thing, but the film has gotten better. Or maybe there are less glitches or jumps. Or it’s not in black and white anymore.

CP: And also, the light changes in every moment. So even if you decided for three days in a row at 4:00 you’re going to film the leaves falling from a tree, it’s going to be different each time. I think that’s what experience is.

In that sense, I don’t see why people say: “Oh he just writes about the same thing.” As opposed to poets who say: “this is my book about X and now I’m going to write about something radically different.” That seems a little bit like artifice to me. But also, I don’t think those people are really changing as much as they think they are. It’s still the same voice, it’s just coming through some differently-perceived subject matter.

Even people who are considered as changing a lot, like Jorie Graham— when I read across her work, it still feels like the same mind sorting itself out, but the poems keep changing their shapes.

JB: And I think Glück does that, of course, but you would never confuse a Glück poem, whether from her early career or later. Even when she is making these decisions to limit herself in various ways.

CP: Yeah, the sensibility stays the same. You still have who you are.

JB: This reminds me of your discussion early in The Art of Daring when you talk about poets or poems that have tended “to last.” Later in the book, you talk about one of the important virtues you feel about poetry is that it “embodies experience.” I’m wondering—and I know this is kind of an impossible question—if you have an idea of certain features that need to be in a poem in order for it to last. Is there a test we can put a poem through?

CP: It seems like there should be an answer to this question. I guess I feel that a lasting poem is one that speaks to irresolvable aspects of human experience. Every poem is the human experience in some way. But, imagine a poem that is about going to a concert, and that’s all it is, and then there’s another poem about going to a concert, where that’s the context, but it’s also about the experience of being engaged with music and memory and your relationship to the crowd. That, to me, would be more lasting.

JB: That makes sense to me. It sounds like you’re speaking to an engagement with larger ideas. To not limit ourselves in any number of ways, to try to be open and let our poems be open and receptive to a number of different impulses and factors.

CP: Yeah, I think that it’s even something as old as Shakespeare’s sonnets. The reason they last is because they aren’t grounded in their particular time period. They seem to be speaking about the struggle of how people resolve relationships with one another. Everyone has a relationship with somebody—friends or family. Sometimes there is a specific woman and man in the sonnets. But it’s less about the genders, though many people study that. Those sonnets seem more about the storm of love and estrangement which could be between two people of any kind. That’s what I strive for with my own poems.

I’ve had people say, “you used to write gay poems but you stopped after your second book.” Frankly, I never thought I was writing gay poems – whatever those might be, exactly – though there were two, sometimes more, men in them. But I wanted them to be human poems in the same way that I can read some man’s poems about marriage to his wife, and if he’s writing well, it will be a way for me to better understand relationships. It’s about not having such limitations.

DTO: If we were limited to responding to poems that only spoke specifically to our experiences, it wouldn’t be very interesting.

CP: That’s right.

JB: What I sense in your work, and I sense in a number of poets’ work, is this fact that words are our only tool, and yet we’re very distrustful of them. I wonder if you feel that’s true about your relationship with words, and if so, what is the experience of working with a tool that you both need to trust but are also distrustful of.

DTO: Which I also find to be relevant to a discussion about faith, about our relationships with people and other bodies—all that we have, but is outside of us, we can’t know it.

CP: Hm. I do feel like language is very dangerous because it’s historically been used in many ways to cause a lot of trouble for people. What people are called. What words connote. How one thing can be called two different things. If we’re going to talk about bodies—there’s sex, but when is it promiscuity, and when is it meaningful communication? When is it being liberated, or recreational? When you’re a writer, it’s your responsibility to handle language with the respect anything potentially destructive should be handled. Which is to say, yes, you should be careful with how your words are deployed, and how you’re going to say what you think, because the words matter. The part of the poet that is supposed to be in control is trying to control how the reader will read the words—so that you don’t get fifteen different ideas of what the poem can be about.

But that’s also the excitement of dealing with language, you have to be a risk taker. A lot of manuscripts, a lot of which come out of writing programs, are very careful and polite. They’re not making any mistakes, but that’s what’s wrong with them, to my mind. They’re afraid to fuck up. But it’s when we fuck up that the interesting things get revealed, in life, and on the page, too. There’s not enough recklessness in writing these days. It’s polite. People are thinking about how to get a job and how to get published. I’m not saying those aren’t real concerns. But people know what the trends are, so people follow that. Or they want to win the contest so don’t want a manuscript that’s too crazy. But I look for the unexpected, the wild, when I’m judging things.

All to say: yeah, language is dangerous. But on the other hand if we don’t actually engage with it, it’s just going to be there. You might get hurt from it, but I happen to think life without risks is very boring. Hardly anyone agrees with me. Everyone acts like they would never do anything wrong. And I think Really? This is the time. There’s no time not to.

DTO: It’s like we discussed earlier today. It’s a post- 9/11 society. The thought process isn’t: things are probably OK. It’s more like: things are definitely wrong, something’s definitely wrong.

CP: That’s right. It’s also a post-AIDS society, not as in AIDS doesn’t exist, but as in we live in the wake of knowing that it exists.  How people have grown up is very different. When I was in college, we were told nobody should get pregnant. Nobody said anything about diseases. Meanwhile, other kinds of innocence have gone away, or forms of trust.  If you got lost as a kid, you went to any person’s house and said you were lost and they would help you. But now, who knows who that neighbor is. So I get it. But I feel like you still have to try, with some responsibility, to be in the world, and open up to it, and to let your kids do that too.

DTO: That reminds me of a quote from one of your poems: “Some are willing to trust any anchor.”

CP: And that doesn’t end up very well for the fellow in that poem.

DTO: No, it doesn’t.

CP: But the answer isn’t to stay hidden in your house and never trust anyone. Or never take on challenges either.

DTO: I think that’s the task we take up when we take up writing. You can’t write from no experience. You can’t communicate your worldview if you don’t have one.

CP: That’s right. It’s all risk-taking, it seems to me. Even loving someone is a risk. And a commitment almost immediately to loss, or doom. Even if you stay with someone forever, usually one person dies before the other, one of you will have to live in the wake of that kind of loss and grief. And yet, to me, who would not want to love someone?

JB: I taught Silverchest this past week and I asked my students to write a question for this interview. The question that rose to the top derived from a real empathy for you because they found it hard to fathom what it would be like to have to wrestle with these big, complex topics, and then have to do normal things in your life. So I was wondering if you could describe what a day in the life of Carl Phillips looks like.

CP: Well, it’s a lot less cerebral than they are probably imagining. It really is very regimented. I’m told it’s a little too regimented sometimes. It begins with cleaning the dishes from breakfast, and then there’s the dog walk, then there’s deciding what dinner will be, and then there’s the daily food shopping. And that brings us to lunch, which is brief, and then another dog walk. What’s left? Oh, there’s always something else—like this week it’s the lawn. I imagine your students are thinking, “Is he thinking something poetic during this?” Not really. To me, the regimented nature of my life feels monastic. Kind of pensive here and there, but I’m doing stuff. Some of this is just practical, in terms of daily life as a homeowner – you have to stay on top of things, in order to keep a household in order.  But it occurs to me that there’s also some way in which having a schedule of daily tasks is a bit like imposing order on an otherwise chaos of mind – that’s what a poem is, I suppose.  Order can be restrictive, but it’s also a stabilizing force.  Order and risk – I suppose the key is to find some balance between the two, on the page and off.




Jacob Bauer is a Poetry Editor of The Journal, and a Masters of Fine Arts candidate at The Ohio State University. His poetry has been recently published or is forthcoming in Threepenny Review; DIAGRAM; The Bennington Review; Forklift, Ohio; and RHINO, among others. // Daniel T. O'Brien is a poet from New York currently living in Columbus, OH. His work has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in American Literary Review, Banango Street, BLOOM, The Boiler, Prelude, and Sequestrum. He was the recipient of the 2016 Vandewater Prize and the 2015 Helen Earnhart Harley Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from The Ohio State University, where he is currently an MFA candidate and serves as Poetry Editor for The Journal and Managing Editor for The Journal/OSU Press Book Prize Series. He has been a finalist for the American Literary Review Poetry Contest and the Red Hen Press Poetry Award.

Carl Phillips is the author of thirteen books of poetry, most recently Reconnaissance (FSG, 2015) and Silverchest (FSG, 2013).