The Current Toast of the Poetry World
Carl Phillips honored with Kingsley Tufts Award
Carl Phillips has become only the second African American poet to win the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a highly coveted prize that carries with it a career’s worth of prestige — and a $100,000 check.
Phillips says the reality of following in the footsteps of Yusef Komunyakaa — the first African American poet to win the prize in 1994 — is just beginning to sink in.
“Some people have asked how I’m planning to spend it (the money), but quite frankly I haven’t gotten that far,” says Phillips during a break from his weeklong residency at the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing Program. “I’m still having my Sally Field moment, reveling in the fact that they ‘really do like me.’ But I guess what it means is that I can now believe that people really do find my work of importance.”
He admits that some might argue that’s a message that should have gotten across by now. Phillips’ very first book of poetry, In the Blood, won the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize in 1992, while his second, Cortege, was a finalist for both the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lambda Literary Award for gay-themed poetry. He’s won fellowships to support his writing from the Witter Bynner and Guggenheim foundations, among others. And now, with the Kingsley Tufts Award for his fifth book, The Tether, Phillips currently is the toast of the poetry world.
Although being recognized for your work is most people’s dream, Phillips says he did not have childhood aspirations of becoming a poet. “I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I thought that I would — all through my high school years,” Phillips says.
During his undergraduate years at Harvard, however, that dream died on the vine as Phillips discovered the academic subjects he loved in high school — calculus, biology, and so on — were suddenly downright dull to him. Instead, he fell in love with classical poetry, particularly the work of Sappho, and decided to major in Greek and Latin instead.
That choice parlayed itself into a career teaching Latin at the high-school level for nearly eight years. Indeed, Phillips says, becoming a poet was something that likely would not have happened but for a series of coincidences.
“I guess in around ’88 or ’89, when I would have been about 29 or 30, I started writing. And I don’t think I would have ever seen it as anything more than a hobby,” Phillips explains, had he not taken a class with someone from the Poets in the Schools program. The poet thought Phillips’ work showed promise and advised him to apply for an upcoming state grant. Phillips followed his advice — and won $10,000 on his first try.
The rest, as Phillips describes it, was “a whirlwind.” The grant allowed him to take a workshop to hone his writing skills — and the workshop leader was Alan Dugan, a Yale Younger Poet and winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, among other numerous honors. Dugan quickly became a believer in Phillips’ work, advising him to collect his poems into a book and start trying to win one of the many prestigious first-book prizes, which are the surest way to recognition for a young writer’s work.
Phillips followed Dugan’s advice, though he also continued making more traditional plans for his life — such as entering a doctoral program at Harvard in classical philology. Then came the news that changed his life: He heard his book, In the Blood, had won the Morse Prize for publication of a first book. “And it really made me question whether I belonged in a Ph.D. program,” Phillips recalls.
Quickly, he shifted gears, leaving Harvard to enter Boston University’s creative writing program, then basking in the glory of Derek Walcott’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Robert Pinsky, soon to be named the nation’s Poet Laureate, became a mentor, working closely with Phillips on his manuscript and advising him on his job search.
Phillips ended up taking a visiting professorship at Washington University in St. Louis. In his second year there — just as he had accepted another visiting professorship at Harvard — Phillips learned that his second book, Cortege, had been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. That, apparently, was all the administration at Washington University needed to hear: They rushed to offer the young poet tenure. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sometimes Phillips simply shakes his head in wonder at the turn his life has taken. “I hadn’t planned on being a professor, let alone a professor of poetry,” Phillips says.
Like many other successful African American poets, Phillips has found that the academy is an ivory tower both figuratively and literally.
Phillips says there are only five other tenured faculty members in his school’s arts and sciences division. “Yes, five when I arrived — one died, and they hired another,” he says. But while others might see that as a reason to leave, Phillips says it just makes him work harder at being “an effective presence” at the school.
“I think I’ve been able to have a good deal of influence over, for example, the courses that are taught in the English department. I know that African American poetry had not been taught before I arrived. I teach it now, and so do several other faculty members,” he says.
In addition, Phillips has incorporated a service-learning unit into the writing program, requiring his mostly White students to teach poetry in inner-city St. Louis schools.
“It’s, shall we say, a new experience for most of them, one that allows them to see what it feels like to be a minority for a change,” Phillips says. “And I have to say, from the point of the view of the graduate students teaching in the program, they love doing it — they all come out of the experience transformed.”
Phillips doesn’t think the experience he’s currently basking in — that of being the toast of the poetry world — is one that will transform him. The glow of the moment, he says, “is passing very quickly because this is, ultimately, about the work and Tether is now old work. It’s time to get on to the new.”
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