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Phillips hopes to connect students with their muses

Before arriving on campus, Sherry Poet-in-Residence Carl Phillips spoke in a phone interview about how he teaches poetry and where classic and contemporary life intersect.

Photo: Maroon Staff/The Chicago Maroon
Carl Philips is a Professor of English and of African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Poets spark many questions: What inspires you? How did you find your poetic voice? Do you have a muse? Do you have an income?

Sherry-Poet-In-Residence Carl Phillips will give a reading this Wednesday and perhaps elucidate some of these pressing concerns. He will also give a lecture Thursday evening called “Little Gods of Making.” Author of 10 poetry books, Phillips has translated Sophocles’ Philoctetes and is currently a teacher at Washington University in St. Louis. Before arriving on campus, Phillips spoke in a phone interview about how he teaches poetry and where classic and contemporary life intersect.

Chicago Maroon: How has your study of the classics influenced your work? How do you think classical authors relate to life and literature today?

Carl Phillips: The themes that haunt Greek tragedy in particular—those moments when the personal conflicts with what is socially expected of the individual—have turned out to be very much what I am interested in writing about: the flexibility of morality, or perhaps its slipperiness…. So, that is one influence that the classics have had on me. But I also have come to believe that the inflected syntax of Thucydides and of Tacitus in particular had some influence on how I work with syntax myself. As for the relevance of classical authors to life and literature today, they wrote about love, death, morality, fear, mortality—these are surely very much a part of contemporary life, given that they are key parts to being a human being.

CM: What are some poets who have influenced you, and who you think can help aspiring poets?

CP: Frank Bidart’s investigations into the human psyche have been influential to me, especially in how he brings together the sacred and the profane. I’ve also learned a lot from Randall Jarrell, the metaphysical poets, Dickinson…. The truth is that any poetry can be useful to aspiring poets. The more we read, the more we shape our own sensibility—or perhaps just as accurately, it’s how we come to understand our sensibility, our preferences, our likes and dislikes, our aesthetic.

CM: You mentioned in an interview in 2003 “the danger of being in love with argument and debate and intellectual conceits.” How does one balance creative freedom against academic knowledge?

 CP: Well, I’m not really a trained academic, so I’ve never really had to worry about balancing creative freedom and academic knowledge. I’ve never been in the position of having to worry about getting something written on a deadline that would ensure tenure. I’ve been lucky in that regard.

CM: What do hope to accomplish in the workshop here at Chicago?

CP: What I hope to accomplish with the workshop here is what I always hope for: to be able to help direct young writers toward their strengths, to make them aware of those strengths, and to help them to be the best writer that each can be. The goal is always to figure out what defines a particular voice, and then how to help that voice grow more resonant.

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