Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Professor finalist for National Book Award

Carl Phillips, an English and African-American studies professor at Washington University, has been selected as a finalist for the National Book Award for his work, “Speak Low,” published in 2009. He has received two prior nominations for the award and progressed to the level of finalist, for “From the Devotions” and “The Rest of Love: Poems,” for which Phillips also won the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry.

“Speak Low” is one of five selected works in this year’s poetry titles for the National Book Award. The award will be given on Nov. 18 in New York City. Each winner will receive $10,000 and a bronze statue; each finalist will receive $1,000 and a bronze medal.

“I am excited and honored and kind of nervous. I’m in good company with the other writers,” he said. “Awards are never in my mind when I’m writing. Writing is a way of answering a life question. Prizes are kind of distracting in a way, and I think you’re a poet if you’re writing poems and if you do win a prize then it doesn’t mean you’re a poet. There’s a kind of randomness to prizes.”

Phillips said in regards to the work, “I think it’s got a certain greater clarity, but it’s hard for me to separate a book from the others because I think of it as one big poem. I like to think that it does something experimental in an unusual way.”

Biography

Phillips graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1981 with a Bachelor’s degree in Greek and Latin. He received his master’s degree in Latin and Classical Humanities from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

After Phillips was accepted into former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s creative writing program at Boston University, his writing career took off.

Phillips has written 10 collections of poetry. He has been recognized for his literary talent since his first book, “In the Blood,” which won the 1992 Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize.

Phillips is committed to teaching at the University, where he works alongside graduate students in the creative writing program.

Rebecca Jensen, a creative writing graduate student whom Phillips taught for two years, said Phillips’ poems possess an uncommon humanity.

“There is a universal quality to what he writes. I always feel like I learn something about life and human nature whenever I read any kind of his poems,” Jensen said. “So not only do they kind of bring you in through their beauty and the elegance of their style and his unique sense of words, but there’s a deeper resonance there.”

Alec Hershman, a graduate student who is one of Phillips’s advisees, said, “As a teacher he’s a very sympathetic reader, he’s quite good at taking students’ work on its own terms and really offering feedback that way. And as a writer there’s nobody else who really sounds like him right now; he’s done such an interesting job of bringing syntax back to poetry.”

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878