The Way Prayer Is — an Interview with Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips’ slim new Star Map with Action Figures, arriving next week from Sibling Rivalry Press, weighs less than it looks—in the hand, it wants to spread wings and take off. The twenty pages of poetry represent an integral unit of writing, beautiful and sumptuous and tenderly interrogative: a constellated experience given and received in a single reading that somehow, in its limited form, feels extensively palatial. We had the great pleasure and honor to ask Carl Phillips about the how and why of this turn toward the smaller form.


Frontier Poetry: There’s so much chaos in this little book, from the long, self-contradicting syntax to the way memories become dreams and dreams memories—and the unpredictable, ever-present “sense of being at sea”, the waves breaking on the shore—and like “How the petals lie pattern-less where they’ve fallen” in “Unbridled”—and the repeating qualification of “sometimes” in more than one poem—things aren’t solid in this little world of Star Maps with Action Figures. But there’s also a sense of freedom there, as “Honest in Which Not Gently” says: “like being lost, but free.” In this question of freedom and chaos, my heart feels pulled to the line in the title poem, where it says, “Constellate, / with me—” —what does it mean to constellate meaning into the ambiguity of living? How is that done? and what is poetry’s role in the effort?

Carl Phillips: I think poetry itself is the constellating of meaning out of – and on top of – the ambiguity of living. It’s a variation of something I’ve said in an earlier poem, how “it’s a human need, to make of shapelessness a form.” So, from the ambiguity, we make art – poems, in this case – as containers for that ambiguity, and it gives ambiguity at least a temporary stability, or the feel of that. So that’s one way that we constellate meaning into the ambiguity of living – through the making of all kinds of art, poetry, music, door handles, rugs…Another way is through connecting with others, bodily. To take someone’s hand is to have made a constellation between the two of you. To have sex is to constellate, as is to exchange a glance across a table. It doesn’t have to involve touch. A family is a constellation made of the individuality of each of its members. In a way, my idea of constellation may just be a variation of E. M. Foerster’s “Only connect.” Constellation is pattern-making, which I suppose is the antidote to patternlessness and potential chaos, including the potential chaos of loneliness…

That’s so lovely, a constellation of bodies, of glances, of entrances and exits, shining in the darkness. Thank you for that. It makes me think of your poem from the book, one of the love poems if I can call it that, “Dangerous Only When Disturbed”—there’s something the speaker says near the end: “… it’s true enough / to believe in.” I felt a pleasant sense of resigned hope there, a choice to love, to believe, when no choice is explicitly correct, or True. Is that your sense of what love is? Can you dig into that for us? This connection between our need to constellate and the inevitable experience of love?

I don’t know if I can speak definitively for what love is, ha! If I knew the answer, I probably wouldn’t write, since I sometimes think my whole career has been a vaguely public wrestling with conundrum, in particular the conundrum we call love…But I can say that love, for me, seems very much bound up in a double desire to surrender (i.e., trust) and to be surrendered to. And in order for surrender even to be possible, I think we have to establish some form of belief – you have to believe there’s something there, worth trusting. I don’t know. And/or maybe love has something to do with wanting a sense of fixity within the general restlessness of being a human body…

Ha, I think you’ve come as close as anyone anyway. Do you feel like writing this little chapbook, restraining the themes to less than 30 pages, employed that same act of surrender as love? Is it fair to say we’re holding the body of a lover when we read this Star Maps with Action Figures?

One of my many failings is that I’m very literal minded – so it’s hard for me to see the chapbook as anything but a chapbook that you’re holding in your hands when you read it; a chapbook with some poems in it. I love the idea of it being the body of a lover, but it’s hard for me to get there…sorry my answer here isn’t more exciting! And I’m probably going to seem no more exciting in answering the first part of your question. The question assumes that I was writing a chapbook from the start, but in fact I can’t write books of any length with the idea of writing a book in my mind. Instead, I just write individual poems, and at some point I’ll feel as if a door has shut – like there’s been closure to something. That’s usually when I find I’ve written around 50 poems, and I’ll go through them, sort out which are the most successful, which usually brings me to maybe 30 or so poems – that’s when I’ll sit and try to see how they speak to one another (another form of constellation?). In the case of the chapbook, I’d written maybe 12 of the 16 poems in a flurry of activity over the summer, and then I felt the door shut. When I looked at the poems, they immediately seemed different from what I usually write, and I also felt I wasn’t going to write this way again for a long time, or maybe ever. At that point, I saw that four poems from earlier in the year also worked with these, and that’s when it occurred to me that maybe they should all be a unit unto themselves, not saved for a future book. That’s when I thought of how they might be enough for a chapbook…So, since there was no intentionality, in the sense of aiming toward a chapbook, I never thought about restraining themes to a page count. As for surrender, I think every time I sit down to write it’s a form of surrender. The way prayer is. The way sex is. Poems are both those things, right?

We can hope so! Maybe it’s easier said the other way, both those things are poems.

That sense of closure you mention, have you found it to be rare among your peers, or common? maybe a skill developed? I feel as if many poets would likely be jealous of the feeling. To know a thing is done with you.

I’m not sure – I mean, everyone works differently, and poets tend not to disclose details about the “magic” of how poems come about, how books come about…But my sense is that there are poets who work almost entirely intuitively – I’m in that category – and then there are poets who work deliberately toward an end that they can already envision. Many books these days seem to come from poets in the latter category – it makes sense, if you’re going to do a project book, that you need a project, so you already know what you’re writing about. And say your subject is the life of someone from history; then of course you will end up going through that person’s life – the narrative is already there for you, so I don’t know that the end of that arc needs to be intuited. Other times, it’s not that the book is a project exactly, but some poets seem to have an idea of how many poems will be in a book. I’ve often had a friend say she was three poems away from finishing her next book, for example. That works for her. My way of seeing it is, what if the next poem you write changes everything about where you thought you were going? In which case, the book you thought you were finishing is in fact another book, that’s just beginning.

Yes, I’ve talked to poets who have set out to write a complete project in x amount of time—and then don’t write anything for a year while they edit and figure out the thing’s real shape. We’re all weirdos somehow, someway. Thank you for sharing your magic with us though! Just one last thought: do you expect, someday, to ever feel that sense of closure with writing poetry, with your The Adventures of Carl Phillips oeuvre?

Well, everyone works differently. I respect the differences – whatever works is what’s best! As for your question, I do feel I should clarify a bit. I have joked sometimes, when asked what I write about, that my books could all be the further adventures of Carl, yes. But I don’t want anyone to think that that’s actually the case. If anything, it’s the further consideration of a handful of subjects by a particular mind that happens to be mine – and the subjects are pretty vast: life, the body, desire, morality, love, betrayal. For starters, lol. And because I don’t think there can ever be closure when it comes to those subjects, I don’t think I’ll ever come to an end of pondering them, except of course by dying. Whether or not I’ll always be able to write about those subjects is another story. I’ve known several writers who just stopped, as they entered old age. But if I can be like Stanley Kunitz, who I think was overjoyed to write a single poem a year once he got into his 90s, then that will be better than nothing at all. Or I may not write and I may have no desire to write. As has been the case from the very start, I don’t think I have a choice in the matter. Star Map was an unexpected comet that shot across the summer – who can say what’s next?


Carl Phillips’ Star Map with Action Figures publishes on the 17th and is available for pre-order from Sibling Rivalry Press. He is the author of fourteen books of poetry, most recently Wild Is the Wind (FSG, 2018) and Reconnaissance (FSG, 2015), winner of the PEN USA Award and the Lambda Literary Award. He is also the author of two books of prose: The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (Graywolf, 2014) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (Graywolf, 2004), and he is the translator of Sophocles’ Philoctetes (Oxford, 2004). His honors include the Los Angeles TimesBook Prize for Poetry, the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Academy of American Poets. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

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