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Pulitzer-winning poet Carl Phillips on his work and the power of poetry


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: What is poetry? And what does it offer us?

The recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize Carl Phillips, known for the beauty of his language and the depth of exploration, has some answers.

Jeffrey Brown went to St. Louis to talk to Phillips for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Carl Phillips, Pulitzer Prize Winner: "'Who am I?' the hero says to himself, looking past his reflection on the lake's surface down to where the darker greens give way at last to darkness."

Jeffrey Brown: From the poem "This Far In" in Carl Phillips collection "Then the War," winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Carl Phillips: "'Speak to me, speak into me,' the wind said, when I woke this morning. Let's see what happens."

I used to worry that I -- some poets writes about a whole bunch of topics, and I feel as if I only have a handful. But those -- that handful includes stuff like love, sex, death, and I don't know how you really fully plumb those subjects.

Jeffrey Brown: Pretty big things.

Carl Phillips: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Carl Phillips: So, when in doubt, I will comfort myself by thinking of Emily Dickinson, who really writes mainly about two or things.

And -- but there's a lot to be said about the things she writes about, death. Is there a God? If so, what's our relationship to this person or thing? I think she did an OK job.

Jeffrey Brown: Now 63, Phillips is a longtime professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where he lives with his partner, Reston Allen, and their dog Emily (ph).

He's author of 16 books of poetry and essays, including the 2022 collection, "My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing."

Carl Phillips: I do think of poetry as somehow engaging with mystery. I think it's a mystery to be a human being and to figure out what to make of being in a body for whatever number of years that we get. And poetry, to me, is an expression of that mystery.

Jeffrey Brown: It began, he says, as a way of coming to terms with his own body and desires, being a gay man, along with his biracial identity as the child of a Black American who served in the Air Force and white English homemaker.

Did you grow up in a way in which being gay would be unthinkable?

Carl Phillips: Oh sure. First of all, I grew up in a military family. My father was in the Air Force, grew up on Air Force bases. And it wasn't even about anyone saying, this is what you're not supposed to be. It wasn't even talked about. So it wasn't an option, and I think between that and being biracial, which was another way of not feeling as if you fit in either side in some ways.

Jeffrey Brown: You're not this, you're not that.

Carl Phillips: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: You felt that?

Carl Phillips: Right. I would say more that I didn't feel it until other kids in school would say, you aren't this or you aren't that.

And then I would think, oh, OK, I thought I was just myself.

Jeffrey Brown: One way into poetry was through ancient literature. He studied Latin and taught it in high school for several years. Adding Greek, he's translated a Sophocles tragedy.

Carl Phillips: For me, poetry is necessary, and not just the writing of it, the writing of my own poems, but the poems I encounter by other people, and living and very anciently dead.

There's something restorative in reading something like "The Iliad" and knowing that war has always happened, or understanding that in war what loyalty means, what love means, and that's something very long ago, but still has contemporary resonance.

I'm using two quarts of chicken stock, because that's what I have got.

Jeffrey Brown: It's not all tragedy for Phillips, who loves to cook and sing. He produced a series of pandemic era videos to share with a world in need of uplift. But writing longhand is how he reaches people best, pulling together scraps of ideas and phrases into his poems.

You have called poetry patterned language. What does that mean?

Carl Phillips: A poem is made of patterns and the meaningful interruption of those patterns. There is sound. There's diction. A certain word might keep recurring. A certain image could come throughout the poem at different moments.

And the artistry of writing a poem is getting those patterns to work in such a way that you condition the reader's expectations and you meaningfully disrupt those expectations at different points. There's actual motion. And that's a poem that lifts off the page.

Jeffrey Brown: At a time when much poetry takes on big issues directly, Phillips has a more personal and intimate voice. but, he says, the larger world, politics included, is very much there.

Carl Phillips: People used to say, where is your 9/11 poem? And my feeling is that every poem after 9/11 is a 9/11 poem.

So much is political anyway. Apparently, it's political for me to even exist in the world as a queer man of color. But I don't see how any poem isn't political in some way, because it's an individual stance, and, also, it's a resistance to silence. You have decided to speak.

Jeffrey Brown: A resistance to silence.

Carl Phillips: Yes. One could have chosen not to say anything. And even writing a poem about, say, oh, I don't know, a leaf falling from a tree, and someone could say, how can you do that when all these things are happening in the world?

But, even as they're happening, leaves are also falling from trees. And I think of poetry as a kind of collective record of what it has been like to be alive in a particular moment of time.

"You, the dark that nothing, not even the light, displaces. You, who have been the single leaf that won't stop tossing among the others. For you."

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in St. Louis.

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