‘Memory, love, getting older’: LA Times Book Award winner Carl Phillips
Washington University English professor Carl Phillips was recently awarded the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Award for his latest book of poems, “Wild Is the Wind.”
Philips’ poems are delicately crafted, cerebral meditations that touch on themes as diverse as honesty, pain and aging.
“It seems really fortunate if the work then resonates with anyone besides yourself,” Phillips said. “We can all write about our feelings, but what makes someone else care about them? I think poetry does that for people, it often gives feelings, or gives words to how people feel but they don’t really know how to articulate it.”
As he writes poetry, Phillips said he explores philosophical, essentially human questions.
“I think of one ongoing meditation, really, on what it means to be a human being in a body right now,” Phillips said, expressing that life as a poet has “been almost thirty years of private wrestling with one’s own sometimes demons, sometimes just questions in life that are ultimately unanswerable, and some people don’t want to wrestle with questions, you know, things like what is death, what is mortality, what is sex, what is betrayal, what is desire. Those aren’t really ever finally answerable.”
Phillips says that much of the impetus for his poems originates in stillness and routine.
“I believe in being always attentive to what’s going on around you, and sometimes it seems impossible to do but making a certain amount of space for stillness, and privacy, because I think that’s the space where you can be alone with your thoughts, and push against them,” Phillips said. “I find most of my ideas come when doing things like walking the dog, or peeling potatoes and things for dinner, kind of routine things where your mind can roam.”
Phillips didn’t set out to become a poet; instead, he majored in Greek and Latin, and was a high school teacher for a number of years.
“I never thought it would turn into a career as a poet, because I actually really love teaching high school students, I like that age group,” Phillips said. “And when you’re a Latin teacher, you’re usually the only one in the school. So usually I’d have the same kids for four years, so it was a little bit like being a parent in a way, without maybe the baggage of being a parent.”
Phillips said his love of teaching high schoolers motivated his decision to teach freshman classes at Washington University.
“I taught the [Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities]. I teach the first semester, so I get these freshmen in their first semester here, so they’re basically high school students,” Phillips said. “I think there’s a real eagerness. I think I can still understand their nervousness and fear about coming to a college, and all of that. So it’s kind of nice to help them with an entry point in the life of Wash. U.”
Phillips’ trajectory toward poetry was initiated by a chance encounter with a visiting poet.
“A poet came to our high school, offered a workshop for teachers after school, and saw what I wrote, and said, ‘Oh, you seem like you really write, for real, you should apply for a state grant,” Phillips said.
Through the help of “all this magic and good luck,” Phillips received a grand and won the Samuel French Morse prize, which led to his first book of poetry being published. At a friend’s suggestion, Phillips applied for a job at Washington University.
“I got the job and it’s supposed to be just for three years, but then it turned permanent,” Phillips said. “So that’s why I tell my undergraduate advisees, you just never know how it’s going–you think everything hinges on your plan and what you think you’re going to do, but then you end up on a totally different plan.”
Having since been awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, Phillips was recently awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award for the second time.
“It’s a weird conflict to me with prizes, because I feel like writing, especially poetry, is a very private experience, so I’m never thinking of that when I’m writing, and so that all happens and it’s a little odd, it’s kind of a conundrum to be on a stage, not just for prizes but reading poems,” Phillips said. “I try to remind my students that that shouldn’t be the goal.”
On his most recent work, “Wild as the Wind,” titled after the Nina Simone song, Phillips said he drew inspiration from his own love life.
“The book came out of a new relationship, and sort of thinking about what that means, as you move forward and try to make a life with somebody else,” Phillips said. “And how not to be skeptical, or not let that get in your way… I think a lot of it is about memory, too, and on one hand we don’t want to lose our memory, you know, be senile, but there’s a problem with memory in some ways, because when you’re in a relationship with somebody else, all the relationships you’ve had in the past are somewhere in your mind as well. You break up with somebody or move on to another chapter, but you still remember them….So memory, love, getting older.”
As for advice for aspiring writers, Phillips said, “I really feel the best thing I could advise would be to read as widely and deeply as possible, which always sounds like that’s what everyone says. Reading, though, not just like books, I actually include reading things like Twitter. I read lots of newspapers on Twitter, and get links to articles that I would never know of otherwise. So it doesn’t have to be like, live in a library.”
Besides reading, Phillips advises young writers to go out and experience life.
“Explore, see what’s out there, climb a tree,” Phillips said. “I think that Wash. U. students sometimes do too much, you know. I have a set of new advisees, and they’re taking so many classes, and then they’re dancing and making pottery, and volunteering at a prison, and that’s great, but I kind of wonder, you could sit still once in a while too.”
Additional reporting by Elena Quinones