Interview: Carl Phillips, Author Of 'Reconnaissance: Poems' Phillips' new collection is both raw and refined, drawing on intimate experience while shunning autobiography. "I become uncomfortable when people make an equation between author and poem," he says.
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For Carl Phillips, Poetry Is Experience Transformed — Not Transcribed

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For Carl Phillips, Poetry Is Experience Transformed — Not Transcribed

For Carl Phillips, Poetry Is Experience Transformed — Not Transcribed

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Artists are often told to take chances if they want to create the best work they possibly can. The recklessness, the danger - it's a romantic idea.

CARL PHILLIPS: There has to be a place for risk and for restlessness in any kind of fully lived life, and especially I think for an artist. I think it's the only way that imagination gets stimulated and continues. But it can easily go unchecked.

RATH: That is the brilliant poet Carl Phillips. It's hard to describe his work without making contradictions. There's a power both raw and refined, an eye that's omniscient and intimate at the same time. We sat down this week to discuss his new collection, "Reconnaissance." Given the detail, a lot of readers tend to think his poems are autobiographical. It's a notion he resists.

PHILLIPS: I think of poetry as being more a transformation of experience rather than a transcription of it. So to that extent, I become uncomfortable when people sort of want to make an equation between the author and the poem.

RATH: I was wondering, also, if this kind of interest in the personal - if it's a particular burden for you because given who you are, you're a gay, biracial poet - I imagine people want to bring identity politics to your work.

PHILLIPS: They do. And I think of my work as being quite political, but maybe not in conventional ways. Certainly, when I first began writing in the '90s, it seemed a political act to even speak of gay experience in poetry. It was a pretty new thing to do. But I also think it's a political act to assert one's right to decide what to write about and not what people expect one to write about. At the same time, I was asked recently about what, if any, relationship I saw my poetry having to the situation, if that's the right word for it, with the Black Lives Matter movement, all of the events surrounding Ferguson that have happened. And...

RATH: And we're talking to - you're sitting in St. Louis as we talk.

PHILLIPS: Yes. I realize I've, from the start, been writing about the body and power. And maybe more specifically, the gay male body and power in intimate relationships, but I feel as if there's a lot of overlap with society's views of how different bodies are treated. So to that extent, I think there's always a kind of political resonance to the personal and then vice versa.

RATH: Well, I think a lot of your poetry - it's pretty easy to read that through the lens of what's going on politically right now or just about any time.

PHILLIPS: I like to think so, sure. You know, I think a bit of Emily Dickinson. Sometimes people will say the Civil War was going on, and why does she not have poems that address that? But the fact that she's alive and aware of the Civil War means that some part of her is taking that in. To me, there's never one thing happening anyway, in any given moment. So it's why we need as many writers as possible, so we can get a full sense of what it was like to be alive today, at this moment in 2015.

RATH: I heard - I think you said that somebody once asked you a question along the lines of, why did you stop writing black poetry?

PHILLIPS: They asked why I stopped writing gay poetry.

RATH: OK, I'm sorry (Laughter).

PHILLIPS: I think any interesting person evolves. And so my concern became what it's like to negotiate a life with another human being - whether it's two women, two men, a man and woman, whatever it might be. And it is true, I have been told that I only have a handful of black poems and because I mention my father, who is African-American. I guess I think there's something very narrowing about that - to think that it's a black poem if you specifically mention that someone is black. I've also been asked why there aren't black people in my poems. And yet, I never identify the race of anyone in my poems. So why is there an assumption that they're not black?

RATH: Carl, I'd like to close with one poem. It's the one that actually closes the collection and probably you picked it for the reason that it brings together a lot of the stuff we've been talking about. This is called "By Force." It's on page 48.

PHILLIPS: (Reading) By Force. Look, they're turning. How gracefully each moves in the surprise of wounded-ness and where arrow meets flesh, the blood corsaging. Revelation, jackhammers, love, four hooves in the dirt. How speechless now. As if always, light must wed the dark eventually, and the dark means silence. I disagree. Touch not the crown. Don't touch me.

RATH: That's Carl Phillips reading his poem "By Force." It's in his new collection called "Reconnaissance," which is out on Tuesday. Carl, it's been a great pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Thank you so much, Arun.

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