Carl Phillips

recorded in St. Louis, MO

 

Carl Phillips

I’m Carl Phillips and I seem to be living in St. Louis, MO. Why? Because, I was offered a temporary job here 17, 18 years ago, that was supposed to last just for three years, and suddenly, I was transformed into a professor, which I never planned on being. I guess I was planning on going back to my home, which is in Massachusetts, where I taught high school Latin for ten years, and I was going to continue doing that. And instead, I was made into a professor. With tenure. So, I stayed. And then I thought I would leave, I kept thinking I would leave and move back east but every time there was an opportunity to leave, like a job offer from another place, the University here, Washington University, would just make it impossible and would make a sort of offer that I thought, “Oh, I guess I’ll stay.” For a long time, I’ve sort of lived in both places. I still have a house in Massachusetts so I was going back and forth but that seems to have—has changed, for a variety of domestic rearrangement reasons. So I seem to be, right now, a full time St. Louisan, but I don’t feel like one. I’ve always felt like a tourist here. And I like that. I would rather keep asking myself once in a while, “What the hell am I doing here,” because it means I’m not fully a Midwesterner. Nothing against the Midwest, but I’m not from here. So I keep looking around for an ocean, for example, and it’s taken me a while to be able to go out, drive out into the country and see the beauty of the skies here, the fields. I love all that and…(scratching dog), um, and frankly, maybe this sounds a little bourgeois, but I like the affordability of being here, and the fact that one can live in a beautiful house with a yard for one’s dogs, which I couldn’t do if I lived in Boston, for example. So it’s become home.


KWH

What’s the writing community like here?


Phillips

Community. I never feel like I’m part of one. I mean, I guess I am part of the University community, certainly, and that’s wonderful, but I’m a pretty private person so I don’t know a lot of people in St. Louis. I feel like I know a lot of people in the world, the way poets are they’re all scattered around, so it’s not like I’m bereft of friends or something but I really only know a handful of people in St. Louis whom I would hang out with or do something with. But that’s partially just how I’ve always been…is this when you interrupt and ask me things?


KWH

Do you feel like you’re part of a writing community in St. Louis?


Phillips

There is a writing community in St. Louis, but I don’t feel part of it, but not because I’m not welcome there. I tend not to like to hang around writers. For a variety of reasons, but I guess mainly because…I don’t know. I just find that I prefer hanging around with people who have never heard of me, they don’t read poetry, the kind of so-called regular people who might be bartenders or maybe they’re musicians or, you know, they run a hamburger joint. I come from a working class background and not academic, not elitist or something. And I also feel as if writing is a very private thing for me so I tend not to want to be in writing groups. There are lots of reading programs around the city, but because there’s a lively reading series at the university and I’m there usually a couple nights a week, you know, it’s kind of nice to stay home and not be at a poetry reading.


KWH

Hang with your dogs.


Phillips

Yeah, exactly.


KWH

You said you were a high school Latin teacher. Do you think Latin grammar and language that interested you affected your poetry? Being able to draw from Latin?


Phillips

Probably. You know, I didn’t think so before. People have, in reviews, they’ve said the sentences are like Latin and Greek sentences. And I guess that’s true, but it’s also just that I’ve been intrigued by languages since I was a kid. My father was in the Air Force and we were stationed in Germany for four years, so I learned German, which is also an inflected language like Latin and like Greek, which I studied in college. Maybe I just think that way or maybe I was attracted to languages like that because…who knows? I don’t know, but there does seem to be a similarity. I feel like my sentences come more from the novels of Henry James, people like that who have these long periodic sentences that go on and on.


KWH

We ask everyone we record this question and maybe as an outsider you can have a better perspective. Do you think there’s a Midwestern voice or aesthetic?


Phillips

Well, it’s a good question. I guess…it seems to me…I don’t know, I want it to come out the right way, but my sense of the poetry of the Midwest is there’s a reserve or a restraint to it, in terms of what it’s about and how it’s written. I don’t know if that’s an aesthetic. There’s this truism that Midwest people are nicer I don’t know if that’s true or not. They do seem pretty nice, compared to the East Coast people I know, but it makes the poetry more polite, in some ways. I do know that when I arrived here, people were shocked and still are, when I read at the University. I think they think— they can’t believe I’m talking about the stuff I’m talking about and that it’s sexually frank. I don’t know, things I take for granted. I take for granted that if you’re gay, it’s no big deal, it’s not a secret, but when I first came here, people would act—like they were shocked that I would show up with my partner at a reading like, Oh wow, that’s really brave of you, and I thought, Really, at the University? I’ve got to worry about that? And I find that it seems the poetry is sometimes restrained about that, so it’s not shocking. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing and I don’t think people should just write to shock people. I don’t know, that’s my murky answer.


KWH

Do you think some of that shock exists on the East Coast?


Phillips

You mean?


KWH

You said when you came here, people were shocked at the things you were writing about…


Phillips

Well, on the East Coast, they seem—well, first of all, they certainly aren’t shocked by the idea that there would be something homosexual in poetry.

The Hug by Thom Gunn

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It was a slow escape from the house where we were staying across the river in Illinois, balancing politeness and the need to be on time, and just across the bridge into St. Louis, we hit traffic and crawled to a stop. It was the worst kind of pressure -trapped in a car, unable to do anything. We tried to call Information to get Mr. Phillips phone number and tell him we were going to be late just as we cleared some of the traffic and in a fit of sharp turns and Tokyo drifting, arrived two minutes before our appointment. Mr. Phillips came out onto the porch, we took deep breaths, and went inside, like walking into a Rothko painting...