The Washington Post

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.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
From clubfoot to climbing: Double amputee lives life of adventure
Learn to make traditional soup dumplings
In defense of dads
Play Videos
How to make head cheese
Perks of private flying
The rise and fall of baseball cards
Play Videos
Husband finds love, loss in baseball
New hurdles for a Maryland tradition
How to survive a shark attack
Play Videos
Portland's most important meal of the day
What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease
How to save and spend money at college
Next Story
Bethonie Butler · February 27, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.