Chapter & Verse

Gentle but piercing. Indirect but intimate. Languorous but lusty. Carl Phillips is a lot like his poetry.

May 17, 2006 at 4:00 am
Vladimir Nabokov kept a stack of index cards under his pillow to take advantage of insomniac moments. Saul Bellow would study the constellations through his Vermont home's skylight while soaking in the tub. Poet Donald Justice drew heavily from his piano playing, repeating the lines over and over to himself.

Every writer has little tricks. For poet Carl Phillips, it's a morning stroll through his Central West End neighborhood. Lately he's spent these walks memorizing Shakespeare's sonnets. He's particularly intrigued by Sonnet 73, which recounts the relationship between an older man and his younger lover. It's the closing couplet that most interests him:

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

"He's basically saying to his younger lover: 'I'm in the autumn of my life,'" Phillips says, pulling his wool knit cap tightly over his head. "But I'd never noticed that the words love and leave are in the same line. That kind of thing never happens by accident in Shakespeare. It occurred to me that it's an equation: To love is to leave. As soon as you fall in love with somebody, you either have to lose them as they die or lose them as you yourself die. That's a poignant thing about love: You're committing to loss. And it's the anticipated loss that makes the 'love more strong.'"

It's not an encouraging insight, especially at nine o'clock on a winter morning. The remnants of the season's first snowfall still cling to the city's streets. By noon, the last icy mounds will have yielded to the winter sun, but it's cold now. So wrapping a scarf around his neck, Phillips zips his thin frame into a distressed leather jacket, stretches on a pair of black gloves and steps into the crisp air.

Biracial, gay and unapologetically erudite, Carl Phillips steers clear of the yammering so many of us use to smooth the rough edges of human relations. His business is wrestling significance from life's unspoken experiences, and he's always working — toggling his own tireless pursuit of meaning with the fleshy world of imperfect human emotional and sexual relations.

Sometimes these worlds collide in Phillips' poetry. Sometimes they collide while he's out walking Andy, his good-natured Golden Labrador mix.

"On the dog walk at some point, the question occurred to me: What does it matter to most people if the god Apollo ever existed?" Phillips posits. "Things are true if you want to believe they are true. It can go back to trusting in a partner: Who cares if somebody is cheating or not, if you believe they're not? If you sustain a belief in something, maybe that's enough."

Welcome to the world of Carl Phillips, in whose poetry moments are wrapped in myth, meaning is temporary, belief is often all we have, and the erotic is a force both healing and destructive.

Phillips didn't begin writing poetry seriously until after his 30th birthday, but since publishing his first collection, In the Blood, in 1992, he has been on a tear, producing seven volumes of poetry in fourteen years. He has directed Washington University's writing program for the better part of the past decade, during which time his baroque verse has garnered nominations for almost every major literary award (many of which he went on to win). In 2004 alone he published three books: Coin of the Realm, a book of essays; a translation of Sophocles' Philoctetes; and The Rest of Love, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry. Poetry collection number eight, Riding Westward, is out this month, and Phillips just inked a contract for a volume of selected poems in 2007.

To hear the critics tell it, Phillips is a rising star with an original voice. But Phillips — tall, timorous and self-effacing — seems immune to such blandishments. Though the big universities have come calling, he has so far avoided the nation's literary menageries, preferring to stay in quiet St. Louis and busy himself with the intricate business of writing poetry. So this morning, as on most, Phillips' loping frame may be spied snaking through the neighborhood's collection of tree-lined streets and stately homes.

Carl Phillips doesn't go to the gym. He doesn't jog, and he doesn't lift weights. He says he swims each morning while summering on Cape Cod. But he's quick to admit that's not quite right, either.

"What that really means is that I go for five minutes, dog paddle, and then I lie on the beach," Phillips says one afternoon while seated in his living room. "I'm not athletic. I hate it."

Still, at 46 Phillips remains a trim man, slightly built. He moves with a hesitant gait, walking on the balls of his feet with his head thrust forward. He dresses conservatively, with a preference for striped and solid button-down shirts tucked into faded jeans. His hair, which is beginning to recede, is cut close to the scalp.

The mixed-race son of an African-American father and a white British mother, Phillips blushes easily, lending his plump, clean-shaven cheeks a pink hue. But it is his eyes you remember best. Enormous, brown, slightly bloodshot and framed by heavy lids, they move slowly in their sockets. They scrutinize the world they encounter, and are quickly averted when their owner becomes self-conscious.

Phillips has spent this particular morning shuttling between several tasks: revising a draft of his upcoming book, fretting about an essay on the ode as a poetic form he's yet to begin, finishing a Guggenheim Fellowship recommendation for a friend. (Phillips knows about Guggenheims; he received a fellowship in 1997.)

One thing he didn't do, though, was tinker with the scrap of a sentence resting upstairs on the desk in his writing studio:

(There are bells) I could have told you that.

He can see already that the line has its problems. For one, bells have been appearing in a lot of his work lately (a hazard, perhaps, of living near the Cathedral Basilica). But any revision will have to wait.

Though the history of poetry can be told as an unhappy one, with writers who awaken each morning to the terror of a blank page, Carl Phillips is not part of this history. He will go for weeks, even months at a time — browsing the stacks at Vintage Vinyl, leading a poetry seminar — without writing a lick.

"I used to want to be one of those poets who write three hours a day, but I'm just supremely lazy. There will be periods where there will be three poems in a month, and then two months will go by and nothing's been written at all. It bothers me a great deal," says Phillips. "I want to say that when I'm writing a poem it's a fairly quick process. But I've come to realize that I've spent weeks going over lines in my head. So by the time I sit down, a lot of the poems can be written pretty quickly. I think I write once a month at this point."

Phillips makes frequent trips to the record store. He buys at least two new CDs a week, making certain that one is by an artist he's never heard; the music of Garbage, My Morning Jacket and Pavement, to name a few, provide the continuous soundtrack to his days. But when he writes, he must have absolute silence. After a nonwriting stretch, he'll cloister himself away for an entire day, venturing out only to eat. He never works on more than one poem during a writing session, and he rarely returns to a poem the next day to revise.

"There are people who work ten years on a poem. I have to say I don't get that. I can only go so far with a poem, and then I think it's failed and I just have to walk away," Phillips says. "It's very strange physically. I come out of a writing session feeling — imagining, I don't actually exercise — but feeling what one would feel if one had had a workout. I feel mentally and physically disoriented, and I find it almost impossible to go back to a poem the next day and get back into that same space."

As for the process itself, "I sometimes think that many people I know who are unhappy with their work would be a lot happier — and probably writing better — if they just did it and stopped thinking about it all the time," Phillips observes. "It's not about the poetry so much as about staying alive and answering questions. I feel the poems come out of those two activities. I think that makes me a little weird in the poetry world. People are constantly asking, 'What do you do with a line?' Or, 'What are you doing stanzaically?' You sound like an idiot saying, 'I don't think about that' — but I often don't."

Phillips has a tendency to look off to the side when he speaks about his poetry, as if he's not responsible, or is embarrassed somehow. Soft-spoken and gentle, he's given to encircling his statements with self-effacing qualifiers: "I never think of myself as appealing to anyone." Or: "It sounds stupid, I know." And: "That's right, isn't it?"

"This will sound ridiculous, but I feel as if many of my poems come out of wrestling with various demons, temptations and fears to which one is partly attracted," Phillips says of his writing. "I guess I love that moment of feeling I've absolutely pinned down something. I have very little wrestling experience, but I do remember that there was a thrill when it actually happened. (More often I was the one being pinned.) But there's something about it, where I think: Yes, that's it, that's exactly it, it could not be seen more clearly."

Fortifying his conversation as he does, with the linguistic equivalent of an escape hatch, it's tempting to believe that Phillips is certain of very little. But there's a bright line between a lack of certainty and a lack of conviction, and the ferocity of his writing, its ceaseless grappling with sexuality's undelivered promise of spiritual fulfillment, belies his timid mien, as in his poem "Singing."


late, this morning: Don't blame
me, if I am everything your heart
has led to.
Hazel trees;
ghost-moths in the hazel branches.
Why not stay?

It's a dream I've had
twice now: God is real, as
the difference between
having squandered faith and having lost it
is real. He's straightforward:

when he says Look at me when I'm speaking,
it means he's speaking.
He's not unreasonable:

because I've asked, he shows me his mercy —
a complicated arrangement
of holes and

hooks, buckles. What else did you think
mercy looked like,

he says, and, demonstrating, he straps it on, then takes it off.

It's so reductive. It says, 'Well, black experience is a number of things only,'" says Phillips. "I feel as if, well of course at some level I'm always seeing the world through racial identity. Sure, I'm black, and I'm gay, but I'm not spending a lot of time thinking about that."

Phillips is seated on one of the couches at the Chase Park Plaza, bristling at the suggestion that, as the black and gay poet Reginald Shepherd wrote in Lambda Book Report, "[Phillips'] spare and elliptical poems [are an] attempt by the author to mask elements of himself to make the work more palatable to mainstream readers."

"I've only ever mentioned the color of anyone in two of my poems. So why should it be assumed that they're not black?" Phillips asks. "It's curious to me how racial identity in this country is so much based upon appearance rather than on reality. I can understand people saying you're a black poet because you're black. On the other hand, I think: Well, in a sense you're as much a black poet as a white poet — if your other parent is white."

But if Phillips straddles lines of race and sex in his work, his life, though similarly crisscrossed, maintains a placid surface. When he's not writing, he likes to spend his days browsing bookstores, shopping for food and cooking elaborate meals. Set back from the street, his three-story St. Louis home (he splits his time between St. Louis and a summer home on Cape Cod) is an elegant structure with richly painted rooms and inlaid hardwood floors. Abstract paintings by friends share wall space with several landscape photographs shot by Phillips' partner of fourteen years, Doug Macomber. At one time a TV news cameraman, Macomber now spends his time making photographs and tending to the business side of their domestic life. Macomber is also the only person Phillips will show an unfinished poem.

"I only give him gut responses to what I hear and what I read," says Macomber, who has never studied poetry. "As opposed to somebody who might be a serious reader of poetry, who has a lot of theory that they bring to the interpretation of certain things, I just go for the gut."

Raised by U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Carl Phillips and his wife, Helen, young Carl Phillips grew up in a household where the children were not allowed to speak once their father returned from work and were expected to follow his inflexible mandates.

"It was conducted as if we were all in the air force. There were inspections of our rooms on Saturday mornings, and we would stand by the door and watch as our father went around and checked," Phillips recalls. "His method of discipline was in large part through humiliation. If you know that you're going to get hit with a ruler if you don't eat your dinner, then you eat your dinner, even if it's awful. There wasn't any ambiguity."

Phillips' family moved every year until he was ten; by the time he'd begun to figure out a particular base's social order, it was time to leave. Though he was only vaguely aware of it at the time, he's now convinced his mixed-race heritage worked to further isolate him.

"It sounds so stupid, but to me one of the saddest memories of childhood is putting up posters and then having to take them down," he says. "You want to stake territory out like any animal, I suppose, and then as a child you can't: You have no control."

It wasn't until he enrolled at Harvard University in the fall of 1977 that he began to meet people whose interests jibed with his. A student of Latin and Greek, Phillips became a poetry editor for the Harvard Advocate, a student literary journal.

Harvard was also the setting for his first fumbling approaches to homosexuality.

"From the start I'd been bothered with how we're told to conduct our bodies versus how our bodies tell us to conduct them. But I wouldn't trust it. I didn't trust these [homosexual] feelings to mean anything," he says, recalling a trip he took as a freshman to a gay movie house. "Some guy came over and started putting his hand on my leg. I looked and his fly's open and he's hanging out. I just ran."

At the time there were none of the advocacy groups that have since become a staple of campus life, and Phillips was left to wrestle alone with his homosexuality.

"If there had been more positive and reinforcing experience, it would be one thing. But each time I would make this daring effort to confront this thing about myself, the result would be something awful, which would send me scurrying back thinking: Oh, I'm not part of that."

Phillips was so intent on avoiding his homosexuality that he steered clear of men during college and eventually married his college girlfriend. The relationship lasted roughly ten years. Perhaps tellingly, Phillips, who'd written poetry as a child and dabbled in college, wrote none until near the end of the marriage, instead devoting his time to teaching Latin at Falmouth High School.

"I think I knew I was gay, but my feeling was that a marriage was about much more than simply the sexual aspect; it was about a friendship. Divorce wasn't an option — but then the world kind of changed," says Phillips, who no longer speaks with his ex-wife. "I saw [the poems] as temporary stays against something that might seem too unbearable to have to see squarely. It was almost as if as long as I could write it, I didn't have to talk to anyone about it — or face the reality of saying: 'Well, look, I'm gay, and I'm married to a woman, and I need to get divorced.'"

He took a leave from teaching and entered a Ph.D. program in philology at Harvard. And in 1991, the year he turned 32, he met and fell in love with Doug Macomber.

"I had no idea he wrote poetry," Macomber recalls. "One day he told me he had just won a poetry contest. It was fantastic. I was really happy and started asking him about this poet in you. He basically said: 'Well, I just write a few poems.' But I soon realized that he was writing poetry to save his life."

Though the application deadline had already passed for Boston University's writing program, Macomber pressed Phillips to submit some of his poems to Robert Pinsky, who was on the faculty of the university's creative-writing program.

"I said, 'Why not do it right now? Let's find out where he lives and call him,'" Macomber recounts. It took some persuading, but later that day Phillips arrived at Pinsky's doorstep. Trembling, he apologized to the poet, handed him the manuscript and fled.

That night Pinsky left a message on Phillips' voicemail: "You're in."

After earning his master's degree in creative writing at BU, Phillips moved to St. Louis in 1993 to take a job as writer-in-residence for Washington University's English Department. He was awarded tenure in 1996 and has twice headed Wash. U.'s Writing Program (in 1996-1998 and again in 1999-2002).

For a poet concerned with issues of devotion, betrayal and the faith-affirming aspects of sexual transgression, Phillips' monogamous relationship with Macomber is, he admits, a strange arrangement. In his own way, Phillips is a keen practitioner of Gustave Flaubert's dictum: Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

When pressed about the incongruity, though, he grows evasive, saying he and Macomber have an "absolute trust."

"We believe in [monogamy], but we believe in it in different ways. My feeling about it is that it's not normal. It's not human to be monogamous," Phillips explains. "You meet a lot of gay guys who say: 'Yeah, we're monogamous; we have lots of affairs, but we're monogamous.' I thought that was bullshit, but now I don't feel that way.

"That doesn't mean you have to go off and have an affair. But even going somewhere where you're in the presence of the possibility; the test is whether you do or you don't. It's like Eden: There's nothing really interesting about it unless it's been tested. At least on paper I believe that it's important to take risks. But it's another thing to say that in real life. I feel like when you meet somebody who you're lucky enough to have a meaningful life with, everyone's just getting older, why fuck it up?"

On a scrap of paper in his upstairs studio, Phillips has scrawled the message: "Send bk —> Kathy Marshall!" It's not a poem. It's a reminder that Phillips needs to send Marshall, who headed the Center for the Writing Arts at Northwestern University, a book he'd promised her. In the meantime he has used the scrap of paper to capture an idea:

The history mostly is one of loss, which each time that it surprises us makes us think also it should not surprise us.

Seeing it on the page, though, he quickly edits the line to read:

The history of losing, which is different as the __________ is from __________

"Losing seems an ongoing state, and loss seems something you can look back on that is already finished," Phillips will say later. "I was probably thinking: That's an interesting idea. I like this kind of a sentence, but I don't think in terms that this will be the heart of a poem — that it will be a poem about loss versus losing. I know plenty of poets who will say, 'I'm working on a poem about loss versus losing,' and I think, well, how do you know it's about that yet?"

Phillips writes in a second-floor study whose south-facing bay window overlooks his backyard and an overwhelming stand of bamboo; to the east rises the green-tiled dome of the basilica. Above a brown leather couch, he has hung the bleached skull of a Texas longhorn. For his inner cowboy, he says.

It's different in Massachusetts, where he'll often write standing up in a detached writing shed he and Macomber built. But here in St. Louis he likes to lie on the couch or sit at his small Mission-style library desk. Once his mother's sewing table, today the well-worn desk strains under a laptop computer and a portable CD player.

Phillips begins all of his poems longhand, and the unlined manuscript pages quickly become mazes of diagonally jotted phrases, dashes, carets and scratch-outs. He won't move to the computer until he's fairly certain of the entire poem. To him, everything looks finished on a computer screen, and he fears the compulsion to tuck in his lines and clean up his stanzas.

He has now penned the phrase:

The history even of a glass

of flowers,

The line makes no sense. It's just a note on a sheet of paper that will never appear in the finished poem.

"If I try to analyze it, I think: Maybe a glass of flowers eventually wilt. That's loss, but before they're lost you watch them in a state of decay. It's hard for me to really say what I was thinking," Phillips says of the fragment, adding, "I thought that after I explained these things, you'd be much less interested in my mind. I don't know how other poets work, but I don't get the sense that they're as random as I am."

But that's what he likes best about poetry: wrestling with words, bending them into meaning.

Soon he replaces The history even of a glass/of flowers with:

Bending as no flower bends

"I want this to be one extended sentence — the whole poem," Phillips says. "This kind of beginning sometimes gets me excited into thinking: Oh, this is a very elaborate scene. I like the camera work, having the reader try to figure out where he is."

Phillips rarely ends a stanza with a period. He stalls the climax and builds tension with tangential phrases, flirtations and deferred conclusions. His stanzas are themselves an act of seduction, often mirroring the poem's substance by continuously edging up against, and shying away from, its climax.

A Phillips poem often circles an idea the author finds both frightening and alluring; his lines, rife with pauses, subordinate clauses and snippets of dialogue, have led many reviewers to label his syntax itself "erotic."

"Carl often writes about the imperfection of eros: that there is always something next," his former professor Robert Pinsky observes. "Those are the terms I would use for his writing about love: perfection and imperfection, ideal and reality. He knows how to make the sentences become vocal, so that they approach actual song. The expressive, sinuous, intricately unfolding energies of grammar, delayed verbs and attenuated clauses, the pleasure in feeling the syntax loosen and snap.... He goes right to the emotion, without blah-blah about anything inessential."

Only when he's ready for the pin will Phillips move to a lined sheet of paper. Finally, as he scratches out words and breaks lines, a poem begins to emerge: The contrast between loss and losing is now spoken, there are now two speakers, and a fleet of ships. And with that Phillips moves to the computer.

The poem that results, "Trade," speaks to the difference between loss and losing, but it ultimately pivots on the idea of one person telling another that though they should break up, they're going to stay together, continuously experiencing the act of losing that is their relationship.


Bending — as no
flower bends —
casting the difficult rule
of his attention upon an elsewhere
that accordingly broke open
into a splendor that, too,
would pass,
I am resigned,
said the emperor
to a history between us less of loss than,
more protractedly, of losing —
and, having said as much, said
nothing else to the man to
whom he'd said it;
whom, for years now, he'd called
variously paramour,
sir; who, for
himself, said nothing;
who from where he was seated could
see, and easily,
each at is labeled and color-coded slip
moored slackly,
the bows of the ships of the Fleet
Imperial, about which
what he found, just
then, most worth admiring it
is impossible, anymore, to
say exactly:
the trim of them,
flawless, sleek — reminiscent, in
that way, of almost any line from Ovid; or,
when there was wind,
how the bows tipped,
in it;
or the stillness, afterwards,
that they found; or the way they seemed to.

A few years back, Macomber presented Phillips with the first in a series of cardboard boxes. Phillips has twice been nominated for the National Book Award. His second book, Cortege, was a finalist for the equally prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. He's won the Morse Poetry Prize, the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry and the Pushcart Prize, not to mention the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Still, he has never considered himself the sort of poet whose papers anyone would want to read. One day Macomber noticed with horror that Phillips was about to throw away a postcard he'd received from another poet.

Hence the boxes.

"I know some people keep drafts because they have an awareness of their papers and all of that. But I feel weird about it because I never think of myself as appealing to anyone," Phillips admits.

Washington University recently asked Phillips to donate his papers to its special collections library. So he has begun piling his papers in Macomber's boxes.

But if inclusion in Washington University's Special Collections sounds impressive, it doesn't pay the bills. Like most working poets, Phillips cannot support himself by his art alone. Poetry occupies only a minuscule fragment of the publishing market — so small, in fact, that it appears no one bothers to keep track. Few people read poetry with any consistency, and there's generally very little opportunity for poets to show their work.

So it is that on a rainy spring evening, Phillips heads to the Schlafly Tap Room to read from Riding Westward. The event, which also features a reading by Phillips' friend, California poet Jane Mead, is well attended, with plenty of Washington University students scribbling in notebooks and a healthy contingent from the local literary crowd.

The room is cavernous, and the hiss of the stage's makeshift PA system is interrupted occasionally by a beery cheer from the bar below. But the assembled crowd is silent as Phillips takes the dimly lighted stage and begins to read:

Radiance Versus Ordinary Light

Meanwhile the sea moves uneasily, like a man who
suspects what the room reels with as he rises into it
is violation — his own: he touches the bruises at each
shoulder and, on his chest,
the larger bruise, star-shaped,
a flawed star, or hand, though he remembers no hands,
has tried — can't remember...
That kind of rhythm to it,
even to the roughest surf there's a rhythm findable,
which is why we keep coming here, to find it or that's
what we say. We dive in and, as usual,
the swimming
feels like that swimming the mind does in the wake
of transgression, how the instinct to panic at first
slackens that much more quickly, if you don't
look back. Regret,
like pity, changes nothing really, we
say to ourselves and, less often, to each other, each time
swimming a bit farther,
leaving the shore the way
the water — in its own watered, of course, version
of semaphore — keeps leaving the subject out, flashing
Why should it matter now and Why,
why shouldn't it,
as the waves beat harder, hard against us, until that's
how we like it, I'll break your heart, break mine.