Q&A with Carl Phillips, author of Double Shadow
This month FSG published three-time National Book Award finalist, Carl Phillips's new collection, Double Shadow, which critics have called "exquisite," (Basalt Magazine) and "delicately beautiful," characterized by "a somber, autumnal landscape, one that is illuminated by ephemeral, ethereal beauty" (Chicago Tribune). Phillips was kind enough to answer some of our questions about his writing process, the evolution of his writing, and some of the writers inspiring him right now.
Double Shadow is your eleventh collection of poems. How do you feel your writing has evolved from your first collection, In the Blood, to this one?
From book to book, I think I've been interested in identity and the conflicting nature of identity, many of the conflicts coming from how we perceive and present ourselves versus how people perceive us and impose identities upon us. So early on—in the first book—I would take on identity markers like race and sexual orientation, or what it means to be a murderer, or to be a religious ecstatic, or to be so infatuated with someone that one erases oneself. That's a wide range of identities. From there, there were books that circled the idea of relationships between two people (as opposed to society), and the ways in which even intimacy is no guarantee that we can really know or be known by another, and the ways in which, as much as we want to know and be known, we become our own and each other's obstacles.
One of the themes I noticed most in Double Shadow, inherent even in the title, was the idea that one can become someone unexpected, even to the self. Is this a somewhat accurate reading, and is that theme what the title is meant to invoke? To what extent is your collection about this kind of struggle within the self?
I'd say that's very much an accurate reading, yes. Any interesting individual deepens, psychologically, emotionally with age—but the ways in which we grow or deepen isn't predictable; that's my problem with the idea of swearing to love someone forever, because we can't predict who either of us is going to be as we get shaped by experiences along the way. The surprise of what we might become in the future is thrilling and frightening—frightening because it seems to me we spend our lives trying to get a sense of who we are, how we want to live, etc., only to find that it keeps changing from moment to moment. Without that change, life would be boring; but constant change means instability, which we're programmed to avoid.
So, yes, the title in part refers to the multiplicity of selves within a self, but also to what’s mentioned in the poem “Night,” where the self is portrayed as a restless choir that casts forth a double shadow: “now risk, and now faintheartedness.” It’s an old idea, of course, the idea that we have a restless, Dionysian side and a more stabilizing Apollonian side. And either one is useless by itself—the trick is to balance both aspects of our personality, but it can be hard to do, or so I have found . . . Which brings me to the third part of your question: I would say the book is very much about this kind of struggle within the self, and about how that struggle can both assist and hinder an impulse to make a life with another person.
In the Chicago Tribune review of Double Shadow, critic Troy Jollimore observes that "Fragmentation has been an obsession of modern poetry in English since Eliot's The Wasteland [sic] invented modern poetry in English; by now something of a cliché. But Phillips wryly acknowledges the cliché—'Brokenness you do surprise me, here I could have sworn I'd lost my taste for you' . . .—and by doing so manages both to subvert it and and to reinvest it with a surprising and welcome freshness." Can you speak to Jollimore's observation? What do you think about his reading of the commentary on fragmentation into your lines from “Glory On”?
Well, it’s not something that would ever have occurred to me, but I have noticed from my students that poems are being read very differently, these days, from how I read them—I would guess it has to do with the introduction of literary theory into literary study; it’s just a guess, because I myself have never read or studied theory. So I write pretty literally, most of the time—the sea really is the sea that I have spent so many years with, the trapped fox is pretty much the fox that ran for years behind my house in Massachusetts—and by the brokenness of “Glory On” I meant brokenness of heart, the broken world, the broken spirit, broken things, the brokenness of a speaker who can’t seem to lose his attraction to what’s broken, though he knows it can’t lead anywhere good . . . But I also believe that poems can mean and do mean many things besides what the writer may have intended, and that’s one of the exciting things about having one’s poems in the world—they are like the selves I mentioned earlier, they are a presentation of the self, which can be very different from how an outside viewer sees that self because the viewer—the critic—is again going to be influenced by his or her own variety of selves, inevitably. I would never write a line that was intended to comment on fragmentation, since I don’t really have any thoughts about fragmentation—but I think a reader who has studied and given thought to it is quite reasonable in seeing that particular line as being able to be about fragmentation. The bottom line is that I’m grateful that anyone wants to read and think about my poems at all, and I find I’m often surprised into a new understanding about my own work, thanks to readers other than myself.
You teach English and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. How does teaching affect and inform your writing? Does it ever complicate it?
I’ll often shape a syllabus around things that I haven’t read but feel it’s time I read—which is to say, my teaching becomes a way for me to learn and read more, and this almost always ends up informing my own poems. A few years ago, I assigned Augustine’s Confessions, knowing that I would have to really study it if I intended to teach it. And I would say that book hovers over many of the poems in my book Speak Low; Augustine was an excellent example of a conflicted self, and his struggle to understand and resolve that conflict has become, as we discussed, a very important theme for me. I’m always eager, as well, to discover new voices, and my students often lead me to first books I might not have known about otherwise, or even to older things—one of my grad students was recently asking my opinion about some of the long poems of Wallace Stevens, and I had to admit I hadn’t read them, and as soon as I got home that night, I took Stevens off the shelf and began catching up. So, if anything, the teaching fuels the writing rather than complicating it. I am fortunate, as well, not to have an onerous teaching schedule, so I can find the time for writing.
Is there a contemporary poet or book that you find influencing your work these days?
It’s hard to think of just one, since I’m always reading a lot of books at the same time . . . I can say that the short poems in Robert Hass’s Time and Materials made me rethink what a poem could be, and that thinking lies behind the relative shortness and, in many cases, open-endedness of the poems in Double Shadow. But other current challenges to my thoughts about what a poem can be have come from Susan Stewart, Susan Howe, and Brian Teare. And with each of those challenges, I think I get a little more reshaped as to who I am as a writer, just as—to take it back to where we started—we are constantly shaped anew by new experiences.
Carl Phillips is the author of ten previous books of poems, including Speak Low; Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems, 1986–2006; Pastoral ; Riding Westward; and The Rest of Love. Speak Low, The Rest of Love, and Pastoral were National Book Award finalists. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.