Carl Phillips

The eminent American poet returns to discuss a transformative sexual encounter, the trappings of guilt, and his arresting new essay collection: The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination. A full transcription of the audio interview here included can be found below.

Carl Phillips


Ben Evans: I’m Ben Evans and you’re listening to Fogged Clarity. This morning, I’m pleased to be joined by Carl Phillips, a phenomenally gifted poet and a dear friend. Carl recently wrote a brave & inspired collection of essays, published by Graywolf Press earlier this year, entitled “The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination” which we will discuss today. If you haven’t yet had an opportunity to read it, I highly recommend it. Carl, thanks for taking the time.

Carl Phillips: Sure. Thanks for inviting me.

BE: So what was the impetus for “The Art of Daring” and how would you characterize the core concepts it attempts to articulate?

CP: Well, the impetus was that I was asked, here, Washington University in St. Louis to deliver these humanities lectures. They ask someone on the faculty each year to do it, so you have to do three talks in the course of two weeks and they’re supposed to be for the general public and for undergraduates, accessible. So I thought that would be interesting to do. I wasn’t really sure what the theme would be, but as I started looking at the poems I wanted to talk about it seemed that what they had in common was a kind of restlessness that I realized, I shouldn’t have been surprised, characterizes a lot of my own work. So I ended up writing about that as a current running through poetry, but it seemed that the more I wrote these talks the more they seemed to become somewhat autobiographical and got me to start questioning ways of living beyond being a writer. Anyway that’s how it began, and it just, over a few years I was asked to do other essays or talks and I saw that they tied in, and it wasn’t until Graywolf asked me, when they took the book, they said they needed a final essay to sort of tie things together and that’s how I ended up writing the final one called “Foliage”, and, I don’t know, I feel like it’s kind of more memoir.

BE: I think, your own sense of restlessness, your need for meaning, is a palpable driver of this entire collection, as it should be, given the subject matter. And part of that unrest appears to emerge from a desire or need to justify moral relativism. I wonder if this is accurate, and what you might name as the genesis of that need–if it in fact exists?

CP: That that is behind the essays? Is that what you’re asking?

BE: Among many, many other things, yes.

CP: Yes, well I do feel…yes, maybe it took a while, 20 years of writing or something, to realize. I know that a lot of what I seem to write about in my poems is about risk, especially sexual risk, and in the beginning it seemed sort of edgy. I found it odd but exciting that people were drawn to the work because it seemed to push against moral assumptions about sex in particular and about fidelity in relationships. And it took me a while to start questioning that, it seems an easy thing to say, and then when you actually find that you’ve cast aside all kind of moral boundary markers, then what? There can be a kind of lostness that it seemed to me was hard to account for or to stand proudly behind. So, I think the essays, the final one especially, was a way of taking stock of what does it mean to espouse certain views and then to maybe have found that one has compromised their own moral standards, and gotten into some trouble once in a while. And also what’s the responsibility of a writer? Should we be saying these things and encouraging people to live on the edge and take risks and at what cost? Is it true that’s what makes an artist, someone who always takes risk? And what kind do they have to be? So those were all the questions that seemed to swarm around the book.

BE: And like you say in the book: Poetry is a means of better identifying & clarifying that which we don’t know, rather than a vehicle toward some grand truth.

CP: Yeah, but I think that that’s part of the problem. I think some people would rather not know the things that they don’t know. And I think there gets to be a point in life where that may be true, I think it can be disturbing to find out things about oneself and sort of wish they weren’t so. But to me I still think its worth it to have written one’s way towards that space, but I understand the sense of disorientation and sometimes dismay that can result.

BE: Yeah. How much of your own poetry, of your own intellectual exploration has been an attempt to reconcile the repression & uncertainty you may have experienced in the 16 years you spent in a heterosexual marriage?

CP: Well… in a heterosexual marriage? That was eight years, just to let you know. And, you know, I certainly think that…because my first book came out of…I wrote the first book while I was in a heterosexual marriage, and I think it entirely came from a sense of guilt and…I don’t know, I want to say times were very different back then, in the 80’s, but maybe I was just naive. Certain things never occurred to me, like: that one can get divorced and that it’s ok. It seems to me that was a way to ruin a person’s life. But on the other hand, then what to do if one learns in the course of being married and supposedly straight, if one realizes one is gay instead? And it seemed, to be honest about that would be heartbreaking for the other person. So to me it seemed one of those irreconcilable problems and, I don’t know, at some point I’ve said that it seemed as close as I’ve gotten to being suicidal, because it seemed that that might be the only real way out, rather than what now seems to me the obvious thing to just sort of be up front with everybody and understand there’ll be some hurt, but one should live honestly. And for me there wasn’t this option of living a closeted existence the way many gay men do because, I guess, it just seems wrong. Honesty seems important. But it is true that I started trying to rationalize ways in which maybe it wasn’t dishonest, if, say if one was having sex with another man outside of a heterosexual relationship then it wasn’t exactly cheating in the same way. And I think a lot of closeted men rationalize things in that way. For me, the poems became a way, I think, to speak to things that were almost unbearable to acknowledge to myself, if that doesn’t sound too melodramatic.

BE: No, no, it doesn’t.

There is a passage that ends the second essay in this collection that has stayed with me: “There’s a restlessness that keeps us up at night, the kind whose catalyst isn’t uncertainty, or a quest to know what isn’t known, but is guilt. Perhaps we can say it leads—out of a desire not to feel the agony, the particular restlessness that guilt leads to—to a correction of behavior. It doesn’t erase mistake—mistake being a prerequisite for guilt—but it can stop us from repeating the mistake, or what at least we believe to be, deep down, a mistake. Right, or wrong—who can say?

—Oh but what is to become of me then, now that guilt’s gone away?”

CP: Yes.

BE: I found this passage immensely freeing, and upon reading it, carried it with me as a kind of tenet and justification for a new and radical freedom. What does life look like after the weighty fog of guilt has dissipated, Carl?

CP: Well, the thing is…I find it interesting that you found freedom, and I’m glad. I guess, for me, there is that exhilaration of freedom from guilt for a moment, but then, at least the way I imagine that final question being asked, about what to do now that guilt’s gone away, then what’s to stop me from doing anything I want? And that’s both exhilarating and terrifying. If we have no sense of guilt, now are we over all the restlessness about cheating, for example, and we’re just going to go and sleep with whomever we want? Do we kill someone because we don’t like them and we don’t have to feel bad about it? So in that sense I feel as if there’s a need for something that morally restrains us, or the morals that can physically restrain us.

BE: Aren’t those the morals themselves though?

CP: They should be, but then the problem is: who’s to decide what the morals are? And it’s one thing to say well it shouldn’t be in the hands of this particular party, but once we decide we’re going to hold all the morals ourselves I guess I think it gives us freedom to behave in any way we choose, which I don’t think we necessarily should, since we have the consciousness of humans as opposed to animals, and I think that consciousness can be very dangerous. So, it’s perplexing to me. And it’s not actually that I don’t feel any sense of guilt, I just refuse to feel guilt as a knee-jerk reaction in the way that some people might think I should. So… I mean I still would feel guilty if I killed somebody, on the other hand, if I’m told I should feel guilty for who I am as a sexual being that wouldn’t be a kind of guilt that would work for me.

BE: Strange how our histories, you know, inform our feelings about all things, you know, including guilt… I mean, for me, if I am to consider guilt as someone who has suffered for a long time from—who’s not really anymore—from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder… I mean, I can exploit that concept in horrifying ways and into horrifying things. For me it becomes, you know, guilt over thoughts, not about even actions, you know, and that’s when it’s terrifying. But I’ve come to the conclusion, in part from reading your book, that if we get to a certain point of awareness and intellectual development, I truly believe we’re free to just be and live without conscience. Because, I know myself after thirty years, well enough to know that any scenario could occur and I would never kill anyone. You know, and maybe this is me trying to rationalize something or run in fear from a concept that could be potentially troubling for me, that being guilt, that being you didn’t mean what I thought you did when you said that, and that’s just me, you know, responding to a trigger. But anyway…

CP: Yeah. Well, I’m with you. I think my problem, or issue or whatever, is specifically with guilt when it comes to fidelity. It seems to me a question of what is fidelity? And I would like to say that fidelity is when you’re truly honest with whomever you’re involved with. But then, I don’t know, where does one draw the line? Is one dishonest to spare someone’s feelings? I mean, it ties in with issues of monogamy as well. I know people who don’t believe in it at all, people who do but they aren’t monogamous, and they vary as to whether they tell the truth about that or not. I kind of want to say well why not just be true to whomever you are, but what if whomever you are is in direct conflict with the values of whomever you’re involved with? So, I don’t know. I don’t really have any answers. I’m just wrestling aloud.

BE: What do you think may be the origin of guilt and the compulsion to feel it in human beings, and how can we, and I think I hear you saying that we ultimately can’t, get beyond it and begin to truly live?

CP: Well, that’s a very big question, Ben.

BE: (Laughs)

CP: I don’t know, I guess… at least a certain kind of guilt, the one around issues of monogamy, I think probably comes from another human impulse, which is to be possessive. So, I think it’s natural to have relationships either with an individual, or a group of friends, or even a social group someplace in society… and then we develop these bonds that make us sort of feel as if we can rely on this person being with us, one on one or in our group of friends. But then we also have this impulse to want to know things outside what we know, curiosity. And I think that that leads people to want to look elsewhere and it triggers this sense of betrayal in the hurt party, and betrayal and the expression of it—to the one who inadvertently produced the hurt—seems to generate a feeling of guilt. And, you know, it doesn’t have to be a sexual relationship, it could be that feeling, I think we’ve all had, say (when) we had some best friends in high school and suddenly a couple of them decide that they just want a different group of friends, and it feels like a wound or something when that happens, as if we had somehow come to possess those people and they had no right to, in a sense, behind our back, develop other friendships. I don’t know, I guess I think guilt is tied in with possession, curiosity, betrayal…and something in us that seems to not feel it’s ok to just betray. I don’t know what that is, a moral consciousness?

BE: Huh. I think, it’s, it’s in some ways reducing human beings, you know, and our capacity to, to, to, feel truly without being infiltrated by the ego, which I think is the impetus of this guilt, this possessiveness, and even, perhaps, this curiosity. It’s strange, Carl, because I’ve come to look, a little bit, at some poetry, you know, as almost pointless writhing, you know, it’s like what are we trying to name? The unnamable. And, and, it’s really just an exercise, you know…I would never say in futility, because art in any manifestation is not…it is truly living and being, but, I don’t know…I’m thinking out loud here too. I don’t know…

CP: Well, my fear is that… I’m always afraid that I’m indulging in exercises of pointless writhing. I certainly feel that way sometimes about issues I wrestled with in earlier books about, I mean, I think they were questions that were valid then, but the world has changed so much, there’s so much more openness about sex, the definition of family. The kind of guilt that I once felt, I think, refreshingly, many people don’t feel anymore because… well just the fact of feeling guilty for being gay—that was a state that one could be in because there weren’t any gay characters on television, there were no out people it seemed, and so you start to think that there’s something wrong with you. And just the fact that there is so much more out there for people to see as, I guess, role models, has changed the need for some of those questions, even though, I like to think they’re not entirely irrelevant still because not everyone is living in a city, some people are living in very small rural places where they still, maybe, are isolated from a lot of the things that many people get to be exposed to now. But I do feel as if…I don’t know, I’m happy for some of the writhing, if that’s what it is, that has to happen because I guess I feel as if… I don’t want to not stop and question things, I just don’t want to question things to a point where it’s crippling.

BE: Yeah. Yeah. And certainly, you know, writing is a path to growth. I mean, it must be in the end, for it to be of any meaning. And I think you get at that in this collection. You know, the reader has to discover along with the poet. And the poet, writing, must be (in) the act of discovering something new, you know, or remembering, as Frost said, something I didn’t know I knew.

So, I received a speeding ticket two days ago and I observed a slight twitch of pleasure in myself at the thought of paying it, and I asked myself—I was actually on the way to the Salvation Army to donate stuff—I asked myself: do I crave punishment, and the order that punishment may or may not bring? I asked myself that question for about half an hour and found it very disturbing, very unsettling. Then I thought: I don’t crave punishment, what I crave is the chance to be absolved, again and again…And I wonder: what if the pleasure we may find in punishment is simply a desire to be re-absolved as it were; the chance for yet another knot to be untied? And, I guess, what if maybe writing or making is kind of the same thing?

CP: Well, hmmm, I’m still thinking about punishment as a means of being absolved, because that’s not how I see punishment.

BE: Isn’t it like tension and release?

CP: Yes, that is true. But I also see punishment, in some cases, as something one might crave, not in order to be absolved, but in order to have it confirmed of one’s total worthlessness. At least to have that part in oneself that needs that confirmation satisfied, even though there may be plenty of other parts that do not feel that way. I think that that is part of what the thrill seems to be, or at least the psychology, behind sadomasochism. I’m not an expert on that, so it’s a theory, but I do feel as if…even in sexual role play of many kinds, very powerful people will want a kind of humiliation, almost as if the power they wield has always been a way of standing in for low self-esteem, that they need to routinely have confirmed. So, I don’t know where that takes us with poetry (laughs), but that’s a different take on punishment.

BE: You, yourself, enact the very daring you advocate in the concluding essay of this book by disclosing that only last year (from the time the essay was written) you drove to a seedy apartment building in St. Louis and allowed a stranger you had met online to dominate you, kick you and have unprotected sex with you. Given your brilliance, and of that there is no question, it seems incongruous that you would succumb to such a base and primal need for what, exactly…?

CP: Well, that’s what I wonder myself. And I think that’s part of what generated that essay, because I thought, you know, ok, you’ve gone over the line, Carl. It’s one thing to write about these things, it’s another thing to get caught up in them. And, I’ve asked myself the same question. I guess I want to say…it probably ties in with, I don’t know, I don’t know how other writers feel, but I don’t feel a sense of conquest, or confidence, or career. And I know that may seem strange because then you can look inside the book and see a list of books I’ve written, and that’s all one truth, but then I think, yeah but there’s still the other person that I’ve always been, who, for a variety of reasons—from upbringing to how society treats people differently—for a variety of reasons there’s a conviction somewhere in there of unworthiness. And that’s what I mean when I say that that can lead someone to kinds of behavior that, in a sense, confirm that, yes, ok, you are unworthy, yes, we’ll treat you like this. It seems absurd to me, but also very real, and I really don’t think I’m the only person who experiences this, and I think it began as early on as being told in grade school that I was just fundamentally more stupid, based on race, than the other students and was automatically put in the lowest level classes every time my family moved to different air force bases. Within a few weeks they’d see, oh I see, apparently he seems to actually be doing work at a higher level. But they would (first) make that assumption. This was also back in the late fifties, early sixties when, I believe, that’s when they did the test when they showed a lot of African American children two dolls, a white doll and a black doll, and asked them to pick out the pretty one. And I guess they overwhelmingly picked out the white doll, in part, because there were no images of black people in the Sears catalogue or on television, and so there’s this idea that accomplishment and beauty look one way and everything else is the opposite of accomplishment and beauty. So, I think for me, growing up that way and, you know, even now, it seems there’s always some kind of having to account for whatever success…I mean I’ve had people say, like when I got tenure, someone said “Well, I wish I were gay and black then I would have gotten tenure as well.” Which, of course, is hugely insulting. Or, if one is recipient of a prize, then they’ll say “Well, they needed to pick someone of color, they haven’t done so in years.” It immediately diminishes one’s accomplishments, and somewhere in there that trigger lights up again of: yeah maybe they’re right, maybe it’s all undeserved and fraudulent. I don’t know, that’s a little therapizing out loud I suppose, but it makes sense to me. And I think it’s why a lot of gay men, especially in older generations, I think a lot of them acted out in various ways because of a feeling of being outcasts. And, on one hand there’s gay pride, and everyone’s proud of himself and herself, but somewhere in there there’s always this…there’s the pride that’s there to sort of outshout the other part that has taken in all this shame in the course of a lifetime. And, it’s hard to know what to do with that shame sometimes, except, for some reason, have it constantly recycled, which is, obviously unproductive, but we can’t always change how we work I guess. Very long answer.

BE: And a very fascinating one. Hmm…You know in your heart that’s not true, that you’re not getting prizes because you’re this, that, or the other. You know that in your heart.

CP: I really don’t, because…I know that there is pressure, in a way that there is a pressure to hire people or to have certain students in an MFA program. I’m not going to pretend—for example, going to Harvard on a scholarship—I’m not going to pretend that race had nothing to do with it. You know, I’m sure that affirmative action helped me to be one of the students of color there, but what doesn’t have anything to do with it is then graduating Harvard with honors. I think, ok, that’s not something given to one, and, if anything, one has to, it seems, work harder, because I think a lot of times…Sometimes I have felt that there’s a kind of determination on the part of other people to corroborate their assumptions of inferiority in others. So, you know, one has to actually work harder to get to the same place sometimes. You know, it’s prejudice. But that’s hardly a new thing. So, anyways, sure, I’m happy with things I’ve accomplished, but that doesn’t mean that I can just take them for granted, and maybe I shouldn’t be able to.

BE: Carl, you know, you mentioned race, and I wonder if you could discuss…you live in St. Louis, in Missouri of course, where there’s been a lot of really horrible things happening lately. Can you just talk about how it has been being African American in St. Louis over the past six months, especially as someone who is a professor in a university setting, and kind of outside, I suppose, of the conflict zone, you know, both, maybe, spatially and intellectually?

CP: Well, I want to say it’s been awkward and strange, but actually it hasn’t been any more so than it has been since the first day I arrived in St. Louis some twenty years ago. Because, I hadn’t lived in a city that… I hadn’t really lived in a… I lived briefly in Boston, but I hadn’t spent any real time in a city where there’s both a lot of integration and there’s also a strange kind of segregation. In Boston, for a long time I guess I thought that there actually weren’t many black people in the city, and it turns out there was a whole neighborhood but where I was going never involved my even seeing that neighborhood, and there seemed to be no crossover in terms of people moving over lines into different neighborhoods. In St. Louis, I immediately noticed that unless you’re in a suburb, if you live in the city you’re going to see all kinds of people. Which is exciting, as it should be, it seems to me. I like living in the city and seeing people of color around, international types of people as well, and also a lot of different classes of people. Because we all live here and I don’t see why people should all dominate one neighborhood or be sectioned off. But what I have noticed at the same time is there’s a weird way in which, I feel, the communities have segregated themselves…I don’t know, I feel as if I’m going somewhere and not… It seems to me that from the moment I arrived here I wasn’t really seen by the black population as being part of their population, and I think that’s because it’s divided so much on class lines. So, there’s a way in which… I’ve had many people even question whether I am black. And also this is the first place where, I’d say the majority of white people think that I’m white. They think that I have a great tan, and many will ask me where I’ve been. And I find this fascinating. I think that they’re so used to seeing color in terms of what you wear, what you drive, where you work…so I don’t fit in with the majority of the black population. So then when this happens, when things like the Ferguson incident happened…obviously I think it’s horrible, also I feel strangely… it’s a part of St. Louis that I have never seen. It’s a community that I don’t relate to in terms of: these are people I know. On the other hand I very much relate to the inequality of power between whites and blacks in the city and the ways in which, it seems to me, the police have been completely out of line and that there’s a racist element to the police force for sure. So it’s almost like the position that maybe Obama seems to be in, I think he wants to speak to a certain kind of black community and show empathy, at the same time, he’s never even been part of that community. And that community itself perhaps looks skeptically upon him, because how can he know? I remember when I first got hired here I was teaching a survey in African American poetry, and I heard some of the African American students after class complaining and saying “Well, we asked for more faculty and they didn’t give us a real black person they gave us a white teacher.” And I thought this was both offensive and amusing, but their sense was: we thought we’d have somebody who would be, I don’t know, more stereotypically militant, or that we weren’t going to look at literature as literature. They seemed to mean a lot of things, but, again, a rambling answer. Aren’t you glad you asked for this interview?

BE: I’m finding it fascinating. It’s always a pleasure.

CP: (Laughs) It’s sort of unspooling, we should be drinking scotch near a fireplace…

BE: You know, I just really appreciate your generosity and your thoughtfulness, and, you know, when it comes down to it we’re all human beings, that’s it, you know, that’s it and that’s all and I love you, man. Thanks for talking to me today.

CP: Well, that was easier than I thought. Thank you so much.

Carl Phillips is the author of twelve collections of poetry and two collections of essays, the most recent of which is The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (Graywolf Press, 2014). His honors, among many others, include the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Theodore Roethke Foundation Memorial Prize and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry. He has four times been named a finalist for The National Book Award.