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2009 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
Interview with Carl Phillips

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Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Carl Phillips

Speak Low
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.

Craig Morgan Teicher: You’ve been nominated twice before. How does it feel this time?

Carl Phillips: I think it’s a wonderful honor. I feel excited to be in such good company. It doesn’t help get the next poem written, though—there’s still that reality. I think it makes me more relaxed about it. I know what it’s like. I have a somewhat detached view about these sorts of things, and I think maybe that’s because of having done it before, which is not to say I’m not excited, but I know many wonderful writers who have never been nominated, or have been and never won. I try to keep it separate from any notion of the quality of the work.

CMT: You seem to be pretty prolific—a book every couple of years. Are you writing all the time?

CP: It doesn’t feel very regular to me. I’d say I write two poems a month, and that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily keepers. I seem to average about that. So it doesn’t seem like being prolific to me. I guess if you write at that rate, it’s not long before you have 40 poems. But I always think these things are kind of like walking—everyone has their own walk and there’s nothing they can do about it. The pace that works for them.

CMT: People always talk about the coiled, complex syntax in your poems. The poems in this book seems to be a bit looser than before, the sentences more straightforward. Is that an intentional move?

CP: I get bored easily and so I think that’s the only way that the work can evolve. I certainly didn’t sit and think, I don’t like long, convoluted sentences, but I too notice that it seems there’s more clarity in the last few years. For someone like me, it’s a challenge—it’s hard to write a straightforward sentence, when I don’t usually.

CMT: What do you think about the fact that so many of this year’s finalists are experimental poets?

CP: I know it’s cliché to question the word “experimental,” but I was speaking with Lyn Hijinian, who is a friend, and I was talking about the makeup of the list, and she was saying each of the people on the list is differently experimental, and I think that’s right. It’s strange, because now experimental and language poetry has become a tradition. Of course it’s not as well known as it should be, and I guess that’s’ one of the things that’s exciting about the list. I guess I’m excited because it is so untraditional.

Craig Morgan Teicher is a VP on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. His first book of poems is Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems. A collection of fiction and fables called Cradle Book will be published by BOA Editions in the Spring. One of his poems appears in The Best American Poetry 2009.


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