Carl Phillips was teaching Latin to high school students when a poet changed his life.
Phillips had long been an avid reader and wrote poems casually, but he never conceived of poetry as a career path. The poet Martin Espada visited the school where he worked and led a workshop for faculty. He saw what Phillips wrote in an exercise and suggested he apply for a state grant.
Phillips got the grant.
Then he won a poetry contest that led to publication of his first collection, “In The Blood,” in 1992.
The next year he secured a position on the faculty at Washington University, where he remains a professor of English and leads a workshop in the graduate creative writing program.
Many awards and honors later, Phillips published his 15th poetry collection in March of this year. He said “Pale Colors In A Tall Field” was inspired by a walk at the Shaw Nature Reserve at Missouri Botanical Garden, which made him mindful of faint memories dotting his mind, like the little wildflowers in the grass at his feet.
In the latest Cut & Paste podcast, Phillips, 60, talks about his evolving relationship with memory, and with the expectations that come with the role of an acclaimed, queer, black poet.
He finds poems in everyday moments: cooking dinner, sharing an intimate moment with a partner, walking his dog Ben.
“I think [poems are] containers for things that we find ambiguous in life. Poems make us feel, briefly, that those conundrums of life have some fixidity. I think of it as giving shapelessness a form,” Phillips said. “It’s a temporary stay against confusion.”
He doesn’t typically sit down to write a poem on a specific theme, or to rush his work out for publication. The national uprising in response to Minneapolis police killing George Floyd has Phillips rethinking his approach.
“I do find moments of wondering: ‘What is the point, Carl? What is the point of what you’re writing, if you’re not writing about this?’” he said. “But I have an answer for it, I think, that works for me. I've been talking with a lot of other poet friends of mine — black poets — who have said there has to be a place made, still, for joy.”
Current events have prompted this highly deliberative writer to do something uncharacteristic. He wrote a poem, “Swear It,” directly in response to this moment of national crisis and posted it on Twitter. Listen to it below.
The podcast is sponsored by JEMA Architects, Planners and Designers.
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