His “Pleasure”: Six Questions with Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips is one America’s most original and influential poets. He was born in Everett Washington in 1959, and moved around frequently as a kid. He earned a BA from Harvard, an MAT from the University of Massachusetts, and an MA in creative writing from Boston University. He taught Latin at several high schools and is now a professor of english at Washington University in St. Louis where he teaches creative writing. Phillips was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006, and since 2011 he has served as the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Phillips most recent books of poetry include Reconnaissance (2015), Double Shadow (2011), and Speak Low (2009). Phillips’s poem “Pleasure” published in the 2004 Best American Poetry edition spoke to me because it was very calming and had a happy mood.

Maeve Donoghue: When you were younger, did you ever imagine yourself as a poet who has published work read daily?

Carl Phillips: No, I did not. I thought of poetry as a very private thing, and wasn’t even aware that there were magazines that published poetry. I read books of poetry, but I somehow never thought that I would be doing that.

Maeve Donoghue: What was the motivation behind writing your poem “Pleasure”?

Carl Phillips: I’m pretty sure this poem came about while I was at the beach on Cape Cod. I heard the sounds of piping plovers, which are endangered seabirds that nest on the beach. That led to the idea that pleasures that occur in the natural world are just there, they aren’t meant for humans in particular, they’re just the sounds that birds (in this case) make. That must have been how the poem got started in my mind, anyway.

Maeve Donoghue: Do any of your poems resemble the time period in your life when you moved around a lot as a kid?

Carl Phillips: I don’t know if they resemble that time – I’m not sure how that would work. But I think the feeling of never having a home that was fixed is what made me lean toward writing and reading – books and poems and stories became a portable world that could stay the same, wherever I was living.

Maeve Donoghue: Does knowing Greek and Latin help in your poem writing?

Carl Phillips: It doesn’t help it, but it has influenced the poems, in terms of how I make sentences. People have told me that my sentences often have subordinate clauses, verbs withheld until the end, etc. These are characteristics of inflected languages – and both Greek and Latin are inflected languages.

Maeve Donoghue: You have been a professor at many universities, what made you want to settle in St. Louis?

Carl Phillips: Well, I have always been settled in St. Louis – it was my first job as a professor. The other places have just been visiting professorships, where I was asked to visit for a year or a semester, sometimes just for a couple of weeks. But I’ve been based in St. Louis for 24 years. It’s not where I’m from, but it became a job that was very rewarding, and so I’ve stayed here.

Maeve Donoghue: Do you prefer teaching poetry as opposed to other types of writing?

Carl Phillips: I don’t know for sure, since I’ve only ever taught poetry classes. Well, once I taught a class on plays that have been influenced by ancient Greek plays, but that was more a literature class, not a creative writing class. I think, though, that as long as I’m looking at writing that’s exciting and provocative, I don’t care whether it’s prose or poetry. I read a lot of each, and I’ve written both as well.

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