Stopping By

Stopping by with Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips is the author of sixteen books of poetry, most recently Then the War: And Selected Poems 2007-2020 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022, Carcanet 2022). His honors include the 2023 Pulitzer Prize, the 2021 Jackson Prize, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Kingsley Tufts Award, a Lambda Literary Award, the PEN/USA Award for Poetry, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Academy of American Poets. His new book of poems, Scattered Snows, to the North, will be out in August from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

What is a poem/book/piece of art that changed or greatly influenced your life? Why/how?

I found a used copy of the selected poems of William Carlos Williams back in the 80s – I’d vaguely heard of him but never read him. I had no idea that a poem could be about something as simple as someone eating plums from a bag, curtains blowing at a window. Nor did I realize that the language of a poem could be just like ordinary talk. It was that book that got me back into writing poems, after having stopped writing after college. I know people think of fancy syntax when they think of my poems, but I’m most interested in precision, which Williams’s poems have. And for any syntactically complex sentence I write in a poem, I always include something more demotic, to counter the complexity. I learned that from Williams. And I credit that book with making me want to write poems that I could eventually call my own.

What is the last thing you read/saw/watched/listened to that moved you?

Read: Paul Yoon’s book of stories The Hive and the Honey.

Saw: Flurries blowing through the bamboo in my backyard last night.

Watched: Saltburn. Fascinating movie.

Listened to: Romy’s debut solo album, Mid Air.

What was the first concert you attended?

I think it was Bonnie Raitt in the basement of some bar in Cambridge in the 70s. I’d never heard of her, but a friend had insisted that I come along. The first one I actually planned to go to was Carly Simon, somewhere in Boston – she ended up not showing, and James Taylor appeared instead.

What’s an additional talent you secretly wish you had?


What is your morning routine?

Immediately feed the dog and make my one cup of coffee for the day. Then check emails and social media on my phone. Then do the first dog walk. My daily rowing-machine exercise comes right after that. Then the day really begins, and I figure out what needs to be done…

What is one of your guilty pleasures?

I’m afraid I feel too guilty – and/or possibly embarrassed – to talk about that.

Is there a public space you feel particularly attached to?

Here in St. Louis, definitely Forest Park, our version of Central Park. On Cape Cod (Massachusetts), where I’ll soon be living, Hardings Beach, in Chatham.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

Probably most poets want this, but I want people to feel I’ve made a space for them to feel something they didn’t quite know they felt. Or they didn’t have words for it, or didn’t have the words to get them in touch with it, if that makes sense…to feel companioned in their human loneliness…which includes joy, too…

Are working on anything you can tell us about right now?

Well, I just finished going through final passes for my next book, Scattered Snows, to the North, coming out this August. And I have a new poem that I think is finished but I’m still trying to find a title for it. And I just finished writing a long essay/lecture on making and the made thing and being a maker…Finally, I’m working very hard at trying to understand how to retire from a university, move across country, start a whole new chapter – in moments of panic, I remind myself that people do this all the time…but I’m still a bit panicked.

Author photo by Reston Allen.

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