Pulitzer Prize–Winning Poet Carl Phillips Finds Inspiration in Mundanity
Alum describes getting lost on the page, and winning the most coveted prize in literature
Carl Phillips had no idea he was in the running for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry when he won the coveted award for his collection Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007–2020. Phillips (GRS’93), a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., originally planned to be a veterinarian until he discovered a love for Greek and Latin, which he taught in high school until he began writing poetry again for the first time since his teens. Phillips was hooked. He went on to publish 22 books of poetry, including Silverchest, a finalist for the International Griffin Poetry Prize, and Double Shadow, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His many other honors include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Jackson Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
While the Pulitzer has launched Phillips into the limelight, he has long been recognized as one of the most influential poets of his time for his work, which grapples with the inherent tensions of humanity: our morality, sexuality, desire, identity, fatal flaws, and our capacity for tenderness. Then the War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022) spans 15 years of American social and political tensions, reflecting and refracting an unprecedented presidency, a global pandemic, and our rapidly evolving and increasingly global culture.
The collection “offers admirers of Phillips’ work a chance to revisit his masterful poems, and new readers an opportunity to see the evolution of a vital presence in American poetry,” says Publishers Weekly in a starred review. “These lyrically rich, insightful poems are full of palpable aching―‘like the rhyme between lost / and most’―and a human urge to understand. This remarkable compendium is a testament to the spirit of Phillips’s work.”
Bostonia spoke with Phillips about the Pulitzer, Greek tragedy, finding inspiration in the mundane, and why BU professor Robert Pinsky thought he might be “nuts.”
with Carl Phillips
Bostonia: Has it been crazy since the Pulitzer was announced?
Phillips: It definitely was for the first few days with email, social media, all that. But this morning seems like a quite ordinary, gray day in St. Louis. I’ve already gone to the supermarket and walked my dog.
Bostonia: How did you learn you’d won?
Phillips: My partner and I went out for Mexican food and when we came home I checked my phone, and there was all this activity on Twitter saying I’d won the Pulitzer Prize. I said to my partner, “I think I’ve won a Pulitzer Prize.” He burst into tears. And I started laughing because it was ridiculous.
Bostonia: Your poetry is infused with your love for the classics, from form to subject matter. How has Greek tragedy, specifically, played into your work?
Phillips: As far back as Greek tragedy there’s been a herd mentality, an assumed idea of what is normal. We see, especially nowadays in this country, how polarized things have become, with very strong views on how people’s bodies should be, what rights people should have, and what people think is immoral.
This is a timeless issue, and I write from that intersection, that particular point of tension, partly because of race. All my life, people have told me I’m somehow not white, I’m somehow not Black. It became all the more a point of discussion when I came out as gay in the ’90s. I’ve always lived in that weird moment of tension, and it makes sense to me that I would write from that.
Bostonia: You’ve been called a political writer. Would you define yourself as one?
Phillips: I don’t think of myself as writing topical poetry, but what I find interesting is how just writing the poems I write, people have started to see them as resonant with contemporary situations. Of course, I’m a contemporary person, so why wouldn’t they resonate? People have said, “Carl is getting more political,” but I’ve been political from the start, simply by writing honestly about queer lives.
Bostonia: You’ve said you find inspiration in the mundane or while doing mundane activities. How does that work?
Phillips: I don’t get up in the morning and think, “I’m gonna write a poem” and summon the poem gods. I’m more likely walking my dog when suddenly an idea or a line comes to me and I figure it might lead to something. When you’re not constantly trying to find an idea, it’s as if tedious tasks unlock your mind.
Bostonia: How do those ideas and lines become poems?
Phillips: A couple times a month, there’ll be an evening where I think I’ve collected enough stuff in my journal from the scraps that come to me along the way, and if I stare long enough, these might start to lead me to something. It’s a three- or four-hour session of moving words around and one thing leads to another, and it still feels like magic when it happens. I need to get lost on the page. It’s most exciting to me when I realize I’m writing into a space, and I don’t even know what’s out there. But that can only happen when you stop thinking, “I’m making a poem.”
Bostonia: Critics have said your approach to endings has changed throughout the decades. Do you agree, and is it a conscious shift?
I think it’s true. I used to like the idea of the big epiphany at the end. And, I guess, maybe I got bored. Our days are without conclusion; it’s not like a whole bunch of things are resolved before we go to bed. I like to think poems continue evolving, but not in ways that I can even predict.
Bostonia: Was there a poem you’ve written recently that surprised you by how it evolved?
One that begins by talking about animals and customs in older times, and somehow ends up with someone running late for a party and trying to decide which shirt to wear. I like the weirdness of it. I haven’t sent it anywhere, because I don’t know yet if it’s a real poem.
Bostonia: How will you know if it’s a poem?
Well, I know it sounds mystical, but it’s just a feeling. I’ll give it a few months, and sometimes I’ll think, “I don’t know why I thought this was a poem. It’s not really interesting, and it doesn’t surprise me after I’ve read it many times.” There are poems by Emily Dickinson I’ve read for 50 years, and they still surprise me. To me, that’s a poem. One where I just think, “Okay, this does its job” is not enough for me; my poems have to do more than that. They have to re-surprise me. I don’t want to look at anything I’ve done and say, “This could be by someone else.” I want it to be uniquely mine.
Bostonia: What is a uniquely “Carl Phillips” poem?
A poem by me is going to use language in unpredictable ways. It’s going to be a mix of long, syntactically complex sentences, and then ordinary statements that anyone might say on the street. I feel like my poems are physical. There’s a sense of having come through something because of sentence manipulation. I want each sentence to be a physical experience in some way.
Bostonia: How did you make the switch from studying the classics to studying poetry at BU?
I was in a PhD program at Harvard, and miserable. I learned that my first book won a contest and was going to be published, and my partner at the time suggested I apply to Boston University, but the application deadline had passed. He said, “We should go to Robert Pinsky’s house and give him a manuscript.” [Pinsky, a former US poet laureate, is a BU William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and of creative writing.] And, strangely, I agreed to do this.
I called him and said, “You don’t know me, but my name is Carl Phillips, and blah, blah.” And he said, “Okay, you can drop the manuscript off.”
So, I go to Robert’s house, and he just cracks the door open and reaches for the manuscript and closes the door. The next day, Robert called and said there was a spot for me in the program. Later he told me he thought maybe I was nuts.
That year working with him and his belief in me changed my life. I spoke with him just a few days ago, and it’s a strange thing to talk to your teacher about winning a Pulitzer Prize.
Bostonia: Tell us about that conversation.
Well, he’s thrilled about it. I wanted to make sure he knew how important he’d been to me. I’ve seen people rocket to some kind of fame because of prizes, and they seem to forget the people on the way who helped them. I make it a point of thanking people.