Poet Carl Phillips spent most of his childhood on the move. His African-American father, from Alabama, served in the U.S. Air Force. His white mother was an artist from London. “We never stayed in one place for long,” says Phillips (GRS’93).
Growing up on military bases reinforced a sense of isolation, of not belonging. “Mixed-race marriages were not common, particularly within the military,” he recalls. “The other kids taunted me, saying my mother couldn’t be my mother because she was white.”
To help sort through feelings of repression, Phillips spent hours scribbling poetry in notebooks and diaries. Years later, after he had abandoned writing and was teaching Latin in high school, Phillips took up a pen again, this time to help him come to terms with his sexuality. His collection of poetry In the Blood went on to win the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize. Since then, he has published nine collections, including From the Devotions (1998) and The Rest of Love (2004), both National Book Award finalists.
Phillips will read from his most recent book, Speak Low, tomorrow night at the University’s Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture. This semiannual event, which features a distinguished writer, a faculty member, and an alum from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Creative Writing Program, honors the former BU professor who taught young poets Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck in the late 1950s.
Also reading are Rosanna Warren, BU’s Emma Ann MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities, and Brandy Barents (GRS’06), a College of Arts & Sciences lecturer, whose poems recently appeared in Barrow Street.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture Series is funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
BU Today: You’ve been quoted as saying, “The first political act is to write a poem.” How is writing a poem a political act?
Phillips: When I write a poem, I make an assertion, presumably one that isn’t consistent with how other people view things. I see poems as a way of seeing something anew, often in ways that disturb. Even when I don’t intend my poems to be political, they’re often perceived as such because I’m writing from the viewpoint of a black gay man.
I imagine that you’re sometimes marginalized as an “African-American” or a “gay” poet. How do you handle that?
All I can do is keep writing, and ideally people will see that the work resonates beyond rigid definitions of identity. I hope that someday people will realize that a gay or an African-American experience is no different from a human experience.
You’ve said that coming out had a profound effect on your writing.
I hadn’t written anything for about 10 years, and then when I was in my early 30s, I suffered an identity crisis. I knew on a subconscious level that I was gay, but I wasn’t ready to face it. So I began writing the poems of my first book, In the Blood. Another poet, Rachel Hadas, wrote the introduction, in which she described my poems as gay, and I was shocked. I’d never been called gay before — hadn’t even acknowledged it to myself. But then I thought, she’s absolutely right. The poems speak of ambiguity and sexual identity, and there are poems that are about men who admire men. But I didn’t think the subtleties were so obvious. Before I came out to myself, I think I had to work it out on the page.
How has your writing evolved?
For the most part, my interests remain the same, but I see things differently, through the lens of accumulated experience. My style has moved from being very complicated to more spare. And for a long time, I wrote in very short lines; now I write longer ones. I don’t read my older poems and say, “Oh, I wish I still wrote the way I did in my second book.” Reading my older work is similar to looking at a photograph of myself when I was 25. I can admire it and say, “Hey, that was quite the Afro I had,” but I also feel happy to be 50 and bald.
In what ways has life in the Midwest influenced your writing?
Not that much, but it’s definitely influenced the way I see the country. Before moving to Missouri, I tended to assume that everywhere was like New England: liberal and progressive. But when I moved out here, I learned that many considered me to be controversial. Some people walked out of my readings, while others came up afterward to congratulate me for having the courage to write about being gay.
Tell us about Speak Low, your latest collection of poems.
In Speak Low, I continue to wrestle with issues of morality. What is morality? What is transgression? Somewhere in there is the desire to incorporate risk into life while at the same time retaining some semblance of stability.
Who is your favorite poet?
That changes every day. Today I’ll choose Larry Levis because I’m fascinated by his long sequences. I’d like to write long sequences.
Whose work excites you?
He can be dead, right? I’ll pick James Schuyler. I’m teaching his work in one of my classes right now. I greatly admire his ability to take things that are “normal” and bring out their greatness.
What did you take away from BU’s Creative Writing Program?
A belief that I could write. I’m especially grateful to Robert Pinsky, who directed me to a lot of work I’d never heard of and convinced me that my writing is authentic. Another professor, Geoffrey Hill, opened my eyes to metaphysical English poetry, which had a major influence on my writing. He taught a class that got me interested in the idea of devotion and how that fits in the sexual realm.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
It’s not very exciting advice, but the best way to be a great writer is to read great writing. I learn more by reading other poets than I do from writing.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture is tomorrow, Thursday, October 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Photonics Center, 8 Saint Mary’s St., Room 206. For more information, contact Maggie Dietz at 617-353-2821 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vicky Waltz can be reached at email@example.com.