Carl Phillips: The Life of a Poet

Earlier this month, Carl Phillips was my guest in “The Life of a Poet” series, sponsored by the Hill Center and the Library of Congress.

I had not met Phillips before that evening, but he was a fantastic interview subject – witty, candid and thoughtful. And he read his own poems beautifully. The Hill Center has now posted the video feed:
Video: Interview with Carl Phillips

 

Part of this interview caught me completely off guard. I had prepared a large section to focus on Phillips’s religious beliefs. The language of faith and church plays such a strong role in his poetry that, as I studied his work, I kept a list of religious words – prayer, cathedral, angel, glory, altar boy, immaculate, heaven, cathedral, choir. In a poem called “The Gods,” writes:

It is not that they don’t exist but that they are

everywhere disguised, that no one space than another

is less fit or more likely.

Another poem called “Perfection,” speaks of the unquenchable desire for God:

To thirst gothically, to want –

like a spire: no discernible object but more sky.

Like Emily Dickinson, he wrestles with the demands of faith. In “Singing” he says:

It’s a dream I’ve had

twice now: God is real, as

the difference between

having squandered faith and having lost it

is real.

(Copyright Dinty W. Moore. Courtesy of Farrar Straus Giroux.)
(Copyright Dinty W. Moore. Courtesy of Farrar Straus Giroux.)

Naturally, having traced these strong religious themes through his poems, I thought we should talk about this subject. So, half-way through the interview (30:00), I asked, “How would you describe your religious upbringing?” He immediately answered, “I didn’t have any”!

Turns out his bi-racial parents were treated rudely at the first church they attended, so they never went back. Phillips didn’t know anything about religion or the Bible until he was in college studying Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and he got tired of looking up all the religious allusions. Even now, writing these remarkably moving poems, he says he has no particular beliefs in or about God. He never prays, never goes to church. He’s interested in spirituality and faith as another form of human desire. Using religious words and images is his way of exploring that aspect of experience.

Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare, an interview — like God — can move in mysterious ways.

Our next guest will be Edward Hirsch on April 23. Many Washington Post readers will remember that Hirsch was the longtime writer of our Poet’s Choice column. “The Life of the Poets” series is free and open to the public, but seating is limited to 100, so please make a reservation here.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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