Risk (Is) Everything

WIL talks to Carl Phillips

by | Aug 10, 2016

At the beginning of his essay “Foliage,” Carl Phillips is fifty-four and single for the first time in his adult life. The image he paints of himself seems a restlessness one: he stares at the artwork above his fireplace; his dog stares at him. The essay then quickly leaves the realm of memoir and Phillips analyzes poems by Deborah Digges, Robert Duncan, Jack Gilbert, and what these poets’ works have to say about the nature and cost of risk. Then, with little transition, Phillips writes, “First came the mind fuck, for which I was ready.” Back to memoir, Phillips is recalling a time he arranged to meet a man in an apartment in a seedy neighborhood of St. Louis. He’d agreed to be totally dominated by the stranger.  Phillips writes:

I stripped on arrival, as I’d been told I would. He asked if I understood what I’d agreed to: to trust him, to do exactly what he said, to resist nothing. And I understood. I said I did. . . .

But when he tried to fuck me, I resisted, and he became enraged. . . He told me he was definitely going to fuck me now, but without a condom on; and having said that, he made me beg him to breed me, meaning fuck me bareback, and I begged him to. He fucked me slowly, deliberately, without a condom, then rough, to make it hurt on purpose. He made me say I loved it. He made me love it, I want to say, but that can’t be true. He withdrew, jammed his cock in my mouth, came inside it. And when I cried, he told me to fucking grow up. He knocked me to the floor and kicked my head and chest with the boots I only now noticed, mesmerized, he’d never removed.

This is not an episode from childhood. This was just last year.


“Foliage” is the last essay in Phillips’ The Art of Daring, a book of essays on poetry craft published last year by Graywolf. The above subject matter may be a bit surprising–shocking, even–in the context of a book on poetry craft and in the context of Phillips’ myriad awards, his rarified place in American letters. But it isn’t at all incongruous in the context of Phillips’ work itself, his thirteen books of poetry. The subtitle of The Art of Daring is Risk, Restlessness, Imagination, and the seven essays that precede “Foliage” lay out a schema for making art (or, as Phillips refers to it, simply making). A simplified interpretation of that schema goes something like this: restlessness in one’s life leads to risk taking, to take a risk means to venture into the unknown. Poetry, then, is the transcription of these acts of daring, or, depending on how you look at it, their transformation. Fittingly, Phillips’ most recent book was titled Reconnaissance. Reconnaissance, of course, involving not only a venturing out, but also a return, a report.

Carl Phillips upon the release of his first book.

Phillips was born in 1959 in Everett, Washington, though he did not stay there for very long. His father was a retired Air Force sergeant from Alabama and his mother, English-born, a painter and homemaker. The family moved ten times in as many years during Phillips’ childhood. In middle and high school Phillips wrote the occasional poem, though it wasn’t until his undergraduate studies at Harvard that he began to write seriously. He joined the staff of The Harvard Advocate while working toward a degree in Greek and Latin. He was not openly gay at the time and reading Greek tragedy he was taken by the recurrence of desire being in conflict with divine law. He told Ploughshares magazine: “Reading Sappho or Horace, I didn’t feel as if I was reading the work of a people from centuries ago. I saw those writers as companions, whose humanness I recognized; longing, grief, rage, and joy are not emotions which single us out as strangers, but which unify us in our being human.”

His own undergraduate poetry, however, he says, was not all that great. He applied to a prestigious workshop but was rejected. After graduation he stopped writing, thinking perhaps it had been a hobby.

At the age of 23, Phillips married the woman who had been his best friend throughout their time at Harvard. He’d had sexual experiences with men at that point, but those experiences had been unpleasant. He’d been exposed to few if any positive images of what it might mean to be gay. This was in the early 1980s and none of what he’d seen or experienced aligned with who he was. Married, he taught high school Latin in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Ideally, he thought, he’d like to teach high school, be married to his wife, for the rest of his life. Though, of course, his thoughts about sex with other men didn’t go away.

Clandestinely, he met men in places like adult bookstores for anonymous sex. Often, he exchanged phone numbers with these men afterwards, though the number he supplied was always a fake one. Despite this, he says, he did believe in fidelity, in adhering to a moral code. After the acts of anonymous sex, after the orgasm, Phillips found himself, “deluged in the usual trinity of waves: guilt, fear, revulsion.” To Phillips, homosexuality seemed at odds with his status as a high school teacher, a respected member of the community. When he thought about divorce he thought of the pain it would cause his wife. He fell in love with a man over the course of a summer. He contemplated suicide. It was from this tension that he returned to writing poetry and composed lines like these, from his poem, “With Love for the Night Patrol.”

After the echoes unwrap about us,
The world is unchanged: trees broken and prone
like cool stigmatics, bit of bird in the bush,
wagerable sound. There is rain,
and the same doubt I couple with the breaking
of dangerous habits. It is difficult
to know what to walk away from.

“I don’t usually think of poems as therapy,” Phillips says. “But looking back those poems were a coded way to talk to myself about things I couldn’t talk to myself about.”

In a mere six months he wrote enough to comprise a collection, which would eventually be titled In the Blood, which he submitted to Northeastern University’s Samuel French Morse prize. The judge of the prize, poet and essayist Rachel Hadas, chose his manuscript as the winner and Hadas, who did not know Phillips, stated in her introduction to his manuscript that clearly the author was erotically attracted to other men. Phillips says that Hadas came to that unambiguous conclusion before he did.

It was around this same time that, as he rode the subway home one day after a discrete hook up, he called the man with whom he had just exchanged numbers and confessed that the number he had given was fake. He gave him his actual number and said he’d hoped they could meet for coffee, to talk.

“He was the first positive role model,” Phillips says. “The first person who showed me that this sort of relationship could be about more than just sex.”

Phillips’ eventual relationship with the man on the other end of the line lasted for 18 years.

In writing In the Blood, Phillips had enacted risk without explicitly trying to. His desire for an “old fashioned” married life and his desire to sleep with men, his desire not to hurt his wife and his desire to leave her–reading In the Blood, one gets the sense that Phillips wasn’t so much interested in reconciling these conflicts as he was in exploring them, looking at them straight on. He wasn’t attempting to make them congruous but to know their incongruity better. The poet John Keats said that all writers must possess negative capability, his term for the ability to be in the presence of troubling things but not feel the need to resolve them, to, in other words, look steadily at and be still with that which unsettles. With In the Blood Phillips had gazed directly at what most unsettled him, ventured into that psychic space, and transformed the venture into poetry. Though the stakes would never again be life or death, this has been his modus operandi since.

“It’s not as though you resolve one traumatic something only to find that there’s nothing left to work out,” Phillips says.

His next two books—Cortege and From the Devotions—grappled with questions of how two men make a life of domesticity, and how fidelity figures into that life when, at the time, marriage is not an option. Phillips, who still truly cared about fidelity, found himself redefining what fidelity meant, which, he says, is always slippery. This isn’t the physical risk of “Foliage”, but venturing into the psychic unknown is likely to complicate one’s life, with such intense self-exploration comes the possibility of learning things about yourself you’d rather not know. Increasingly, his poems explored moral flexibility, as in “Caravan” from 2001’s The Tether. The poem reads in part:

images like
and sand

and white birds
and—off all of them—
the light shivering with

meaning, but one that
is difficult to
translate because

language should be—and
it recalls, in

this way, morality,
how there’s nothing, it
seems, not to be given into.

The Tether was written over the course of an academic year, split into two halves representing two semesters, the first at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and the second back in St. Louis. Though the relationship that began with Phillips’ phone call from a subway lasted eighteen years, it was in many ways troubled. The book is about the breakdown of the relationship, a breakdown that was in part fueled by Phillips himself blurring his thinking on the page with his thinking in real life.

“It’s one thing to abstractly write about going to have sex with a stranger rather than work out the problems in the relationship,” Phillips says. “But then to actually do it and say, it’s OK because in a strange way it isn’t really me, it’s my artistic side. Though it’s actually not. It’s actually me doing something. I think morality should be flexible. But at the same time when does that become an excuse for bad behavior, for deception?”

Some readers find frustrating that Phillips’ poetry is ultimately open-ended. The conclusions, if there are any, tend to be in the form of further questions. Don’t expect Phillips to draw a line where making art becomes a guise for bad behavior or for him to put a dot where staying true to oneself ought to yield to commitment to a partner. When it comes to these big ideas, the best we can do is know the tension better or, as Phillips says, “arrive at a stance with respect to a given abstraction; this can feel like a resolution, though it is only a respite–which is still better than nothing, however.”

The poet in St. Louis.

Consider Phillips’ “The Clarity,” a poem from his 2002 collection Rock Harbor; the poem opens:

No dream–but as
if so, moving at first
with the force of
idea purely; and
then of a man convinced
he has justified
brilliantly himself to

Then, several lines later:

I could see,
across the room
heaped there like fouled
linen like memory like
detritus stepped
away from, the truth of
–of myself

The poem ends with its longest line:

I take it, in the darkness, to my face.

It’s difficult to say what the truth “heaped there like fouled linen” is, exactly. Not that it matters. The importance is in the last line.

“It’s a moment of acceptance,” Phillips says. “But you’re accepting something that is really quite unpleasant, which is better than being in denial. The poem says: admit it, you hurt somebody. That’s hard for people to do. I think we all have a lot of wreckage we’re dragging along with us and writers, I think, live with that more than most people.”

Acceptance without judgement permeates Phillips’ work, and it isn’t hard to imagine the essential salve this must be given the toll of combing one’s own psyche with intent to pursue personal truth no matter how unpleasant, how uncomfortable, those truths may be. Wreckage uncovered accrues. It’s important to note that Phillips, the person, is anything but brooding. He’s warm and generous. I interviewed him one unseasonably cool May morning, sitting on a café’s veranda. His demeanor was easy and after about ninety seconds of chatting I’d easily forgotten the rarified reputation and accolades of the person I was speaking to. He noticed I looked chilly and suggested we move inside. An undergrad from the University of Connecticut who recently interviewed Phillips said that Phillips was the friendliest interview he’d ever conducted. A former graduate student said that Phillips had a knack for creating harmony and turning conflict constructive in a class in which both MFA students (artists) and Literature PhD Candidates (critics) were enrolled. It was no surprise, the former student said, to find out Phillips had once taught high school.

The poet in St. Louis.

In the two decades since In the Blood, Phillips has never gone more than two years without publishing a book. He won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Lambda Literary Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He’s been a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1993 he came to Washington University in St. Louis as a Poet in Residence and has been there since, serving for a time as director of its lauded MFA program.

All this success unearths a potential paradox in again and again, reliably, finding success via venturing into the unknown, transforming those experiences into poetry. Can a poet have too much negative capability? At what point does one become so used to looking into the unsettling that he is no longer unsettled, and what should be the stuff of art instead becomes banal? At what point does one start manufacturing risk? When does risk becoming acting out and refusing to grow up?

Phillips says his current poems have become more philosophical, less about desire and more and about looking back and asking: what has the point of it all been? At the time I met him he’d turned in a new manuscript to his publisher and hadn’t heard back. Maybe they’d reject it, he said. (A recent tweet from Phillips said that, in fact, his publisher loved the new manuscript.)

His current partner is twenty-two years his junior, which is new territory, another unknown. Is it inevitable in such a relationship to not be a little paternalistic? And what does that mean? Questions of commitment and impermanence are on his mind. He still believes in moral flexibility and though his current relationship is a monogamous one, he believes monogamy to be wholly unnatural.

“But there are some parts of us that do need to be in check,” Phillips says. “That’s part of the sacrifice and compromise of committing to somebody. Right now I’m sort of wrestling with the idea that everybody should be who they are, though if being who you are will hurt your partner in a certain way, then what? In some ways it’s the same mess I started with, but I like to think I’m a lot wiser now.”

Ryan Krull

editor at large

Ryan Krull teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart (online), The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere.

Author photos © Durrie Bouscaren 2016