Carl Phillips vs. the Erotic

October 13, 2020

Danez Smith: She’s the lead singer in Black Pink Matters, Franny Choi.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) And they’re knock, knock, knockin’ on canon’s door, Danez Smith.

Danez Smith: Wow, and you’re listening to VS, the podcasts where poets confront the ideas that move them.

Franny Choi: Hi, Danez.

Danez Smith: Hey, Frannle. How you doing?

Franny Choi: I’m doing okay. How are you? How’s your hanging out alone inside all the time going?

Danez Smith: My hanging out alone inside all the time is going well. Not always so alone. I did have a corona hookup the other day—

Franny Choi: (GASPS)

Danez Smith: —who told me that I needed to do laundry, and I felt really called out by that.

Franny Choi: Oh my god!

Danez Smith: From my corona to his. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: That is like the kind of humiliation that you don’t want in the bedroom, you know what I mean?

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Like, one is a fan of some light humiliation stuff. But not that.

Danez Smith: Yeah. But I think I do need, if anything, I do maybe need like a do-the-laundry dom.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: If anything, of all the chores, you know. I’ll willingly do anything else, but somebody kind of does need to like—I am a bad boy when it comes to doing this laundry. And I was kind of like, you’re right. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) I love being like a bratty sub about the chores to no effect. You know? Like for nobody’s appreciation.

Danez Smith: Right. Exactly! And that’s the thing. I think like, I find the sub-dom scale to be so useful, everywhere in my life.

Franny Choi: Truly. Truly.

Danez Smith: You know like, I’m a cooking sub. I’m, you know, a road trip dom. You know?

Franny Choi: Yeah. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Question: what do you think your poems are? Are your poems subs or doms?

Danez Smith: Ooo …

Franny Choi: Or tops or bottoms, or like what ... you know, how would you categorize your poems in the kink and sex role scale?

Danez Smith: I feel like I want to say switch, but maybe it’s more of a bratty sub.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: I feel like my poems, you know, they do put up a good fight and there’s some tension on top, but eventually they always like, submit and release, you know?

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: And just kinda do their own thing. And so I think, yeah, that’s why I think they’re bratty. They’re putting up a fight at first.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: But they really know they just want to be laid down and told what to do. But I do think they’re tops. Yeah. Bratty service top. That’s my poems. Yeah.

Franny Choi: Wow. That’s incredible. And I think accurate. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) How about you? Definitely on the sub scale right?

Franny Choi: Yeah, for sure. I think that, actually, they used to be more … I think that my slam poems are tops. You know?

Danez Smith: Oh, for sure. Like hard top, you know.

Franny Choi: Right, right, right. Like, here’s the premise.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Here’s where—how we’ll modulate the premise—

Danez Smith: You will give me at least a nod—

Franny Choi: — and you get it. And here’s the ending. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Yeah. I mean, even if they’re sad poems, they’re just like, this is what we’re doing. Yeah. I think that my poems that work less well out loud are total subs and total bottoms. They’re just like, read me however you want. I don’t know. (LAUGHS) I don’t know how it goes.

Danez Smith: Yeah, that’s true. Bottoms never make any sense. (LAUGHS) So that holds true.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) Just gaping holes of-of uh interpretation.

Danez Smith: Oh, wow, sorry— (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: You said “gaping” and my brain like, went back to just, you know so many people’s…

Franny Choi: Yeah, I know, I know. Yeah, yeah. Well, speaking of the erotic and poetry and sex and sentences, we got an opportunity to talk to the master of infusing poems with the erotic in ways that you might or might not catch, uhm, Carl Phillips! We’re so excited to talk to Carl. We are both such enormous fans and pupils of Carl’s. And it was just great to get to talk to him in his rainbow gummy bear T-shirt and beautiful ring light lighting.

Danez Smith: Yeah, he had a ring light, which was so nice, because this is a podcast.

Franny Choi: Right, right. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: And so here is this well lit beautiful Carl Phillips, just for us. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Just for us. For us, literally, just for us.

Danez Smith: Just for us. So let us tell y’all that, you know, if you haven’t seen him, Carl looks good, y’all.

Franny Choi: Carl looks great. Carl looks amazing.

Danez Smith: Still here. Still writing the fuck out of these poems.

Franny Choi: Oh my god.

Danez Smith: And we really got to sit down and have a grand conversation about interiority, about sex, about the syntax, about everything with Carl. Carl Phillips is the author of 15 books of poetry.

Franny Choi: 15! Oh my god.

Danez Smith: 15. 15.

Franny Choi: That’s so wild!

Danez Smith: If his books were years, he can now get his permit and drive. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: And trust those books pay for the cars. Carl Phillips is the author of 15 books of poetry, most recently Pale Colors in a Tall Field and Wild Is the Wind, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Other honors include the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a Lambda Literary Award, the Pen USA Award for Poetry, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, the Academy of American Poets, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. That’s a lot of academies right there. Phillips has also written two prose books, The Art of Daring: Risks, Restlessness, Imagination and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and the Art of Poetry. And he has translated Philoctetes’s Sophocles for Oxford University Press back in 2014. He is a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. He is … it. He’s Carl Phillips.

Franny Choi: He’s it, yeah.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: And also, he’s so decorated and so kind, like so generous and down to just kick it. Like, what a fucking gift.

Danez Smith: What a fucking gift. Let’s get into it with Carl Phillips who’s going to start us off with a poem.


Carl Phillips: This poem is called “On Being Asked To Be More Specific When It Comes to Longing.”


When the forest ended, so did the starflowers and wild

ginger that for so long had kept us

company, the clearing opened before us, a vast

meadow of silverrod, each stem briefly an

angled argument against despair, then only weeds by

a better name again, as incidental as

the backdrop the ocean made just

beyond the meadow … Like taking

a horsewhip to a swarm of bees, that they might

more easily disperse, we’d at last reached the point

in twilight where twilight seems most

a bowl designed to turn routinely but

as if by accident half roughly

over: bells somewhere, the kind

of bells that, before being housed finally

in their towers, used to

have to be baptized, each was given—

to swing by or fall hushed inside of,

accordingly—its own name; bells, and then—

from the smudged edge of all that

seemed to be left of what we’d called

belief, once, bodies not of hunting-birds, what we’d

thought at first, but human bodies in flight,

in flight and lit from within, as if

by ruin, or triumph, maybe, at having

made out of ruin a light, something

useful by which, having skimmed the water, to search

the meadow now, for ourselves inside it where, yes, though we

shook in our nakedness, we lay

naked as we’d been taught to do: when afraid,

what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself—give; and you shall receive.

* * *

Danez Smith: Oof!

Carl Phillips: I could have worn glasses. But, you know, vanity.

Franny Choi and Danez Smith: (LAUGH)

Danez Smith: That … I …

Franny Choi: Yes, Nezzy?

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: I just. I just buffered really hard. No, I love that poem. And I love that, I don’t know, it feels as much of a denial of that request for so much of the poem, too. And then at the end, it’s sort of like, it’s like, and here you go. It was a great poem I feel like to read because, I don’t know you, but I know the you like, I’ve created in my head, and I know what people say. I’ve seen people like, you know, want that of your work, right? And be like, “Oh, Carl, will you make it easier for us?” You know, like, oh, will you … you know? So it was great to see you, in a poem, be like, “I will, and also, I won’t at the same time.” (LAUGHS) Yeah and I feel like its—

Carl Phillips: Yeah, it’s a personality problem.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) Yeah.

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: It’s very sassy. It’s a very sassy, bratty bottom.

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: You know, it’s just like, “Sure.” You know, it’s like, “I’ll submit, but Ima roll my eyes.”

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: And also not really. And I feel like a lot of the book felt like it did open up in a way.

Franny Choi: This book? The new book?

Danez Smith: In a new—yeah, the new book. Yeah, it did sort of like … I don’t know, it felt different, Carl. I can’t exactly put my word on it. Yeah. I think I was just trying to say like, thank you. I don’t know, as a longtime fan of your work and a continued fan of your work, it was just like, wow. Like, there was this little drop of something in it that felt … I don’t know, unexpectedly bright.

Carl Phillips: Well, I’m glad. I mean, I never set out to do anything in particular, but in hindsight, I feel like I’m not really—I don’t think of myself as a narrative poet, but I kind of wanted to tell a little story.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Carl Phillips: And one thing I think that’s different about this book is there is this traveling “we” that punctuates the book. And these people who always seem to be on some kind of journey or, you know, they experience the weather of childhood or whatever, but we never learn, like, who are they? And so I was interested in that once I was putting the manuscript together, like, oh, you have these poems that actually are more storytelling poems. But at the same time, I’m always suspicious of narrative poetry. So maybe that’s what you’re maybe getting at, too, Danez, is how the end is, because it kind of throws the narrative away, in some ways. And, you know, which sometimes feels like daily life. (LAUGHS) I don’t know. Like, you know, I don’t know, having been raised to think that life is kind of a straightforward narrative. But you don’t have to be too old to realize it actually is pretty patternless, so. So it somehow doesn’t seem true to just write a traditional narrative poem. To me. But it’s easier to say in the company of those who are not writing narrative poems, which I don’t think is the case for y’all.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Naw. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Well, why, I guess, can you say more about what you mean when you say that you’re suspicious of narrative poems? Like, why?

Carl Phillips: Yeah. I mean, first of all, there are things that happen in an order. But I think that sometimes those poems suggest to me that life happens that way. And I don’t think it does. It’s more like, we go through each day, and then we look back maybe after a week or two, and we realize, oh, there was actually a developing pattern, an arc to last week. But when we’re in it, it’s not like that. And, you know, in the same way, I think of writing a poem is patterning language and organizing thought. But that’s not how we are. Like, I don’t think anyone sustains one thought first, and then says, now I’ll move to the next thought. You know, we’re kind of constantly barraged by, you know, I’m thinking about what I’m making for dinner, do I have the groceries for it, what about the dog upstairs, and I’m doing this podcast. So, you know, those are all happening at the same time. That’s the falseness to me of poetry, because as soon as we write something down, it suggests fixity. And yet I feel as if most things aren’t fixed. And so, it’s like, to me, the ongoing tease of writing is that when I first finish a poem, I feel like, ah, I came up with the right shape and I’ve now pinned this sort of butterfly or something.

Danez Smith: Mm.

Franny Choi: Mm-hmm.

Carl Phillips: And then I walk away, and I see the butterfly is actually still moving. And it’s like, oh well shit, it’s still alive. You know, which is the reason it seems to me why the good part of it is that’s like the productive restlessness that means we keep writing the next poem, you know. Like, if you write a poem, a love poem, you say, I nailed love. Got it right there.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: And then, you know, the next thing happens and you think, fuck. I thought I knew what love was, but it’s actually more complicated.

Franny Choi: Right. But why write the next love poem if you think that you’ve got it figured out, right? Yeah.

Carl Phillips: Right. Exactly. So then, it’s like this constant push, like, now this is it. And then you keep refining. And then, you know, one day you’re dead. (PAUSE) (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: There it is. (LAUGHS) Yeah. Yeah.

Carl Phillips: I mean, there is an end. But that’s the only way.

Franny Choi: Right.

Carl Phillips: So my students will say, like, “Why did Shakespeare write so many sonnets about basically the same stuff?” And I feel like when you read all those sonnets, you start to realize, oh, sometimes he’s happy, and then he’s like, oh, I was wrong to be happy because you’re cheating on me. And then, oh well, I’m cheating, too. And it gets more and more complicated. So, yeah.

Franny Choi: Mm-hmm. Okay, well, shall we move to our big question? Our great big question.

Carl Phillips: Anything.

Franny Choi: Sweet. Carl, thank you so much for spending this time with us. What is moving you these days?

Carl Phillips: I mean, maybe this is an easy answer for many people, but I feel like, you know, after all these years of seeing, you know, Black people being shot, you know, all these things, I should be in … somehow numb to the violence of it. But for some reason, ever since the whole George Floyd murder, the whole summer, you know, and of course, this pandemic and quarantine and everything, it’s sort of brought me even sort of forcefully aware of something that I knew. But sometimes it’s easy, you know, in one’s own academic privilege and everything to sort of observe things and, not be detached, I guess, but not maybe feel them as palpably. And I have been very changed by the events of this summer. And I’m not really sure what the result is going to be, but I think it’s also because I’m contending with some issues in my department, too, that have to do with this. And I think that there’s some concern among some people that Carl has, like, suddenly turned Black on us.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: And it’s like, I always was, people. And, you know. But apparently I, you know, fell in line or something to their expectations. So, I don’t know, I’m not going to say that the summer has radicalized me. And it’s not as if I haven’t always been mindful and experienced, I feel I’ve experienced racism every single day, actually, in some way. But now it seems even more urgent.

Franny Choi: Hm.

Carl Phillips: And frustrating because I’m not really sure what to do with the urgency, because so many things, yeah, you can give money, you can march, you can do all these things. But as we see, each day, something else happens, more brutality. So, I don’t know. You know that 1619 project that—

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Carl Phillips: In the New York Times. They are doing some kind of book version of that. And they asked me to be part of that. And I ended up writing this poem that’s in response to the sort of exact moment when Jefferson is signing the Declaration and has decided to exclude slaves when they talk about freedom, the right to freedom and everything. So that’s almost like, that’s the exact moment when it’s consolidated. That kind of, what I think of sometimes as a kind of inextricable braid of racism between Black and white. It’s like the spine of this country. And it’s weird to be able to sort of see the moment that exactly gets codified. And that’s not the kind of poem I would have written before. And I had wondered, how will I write about this. So, I don’t know, I feel like some of that is to do with what’s going on this summer.

Franny Choi: Hm. Race and violence have always been like, part of your work, have always been present in your work. So I guess I’m curious about, like, what new things that urgency is bringing. You think that it might bring to the work, if it hasn’t?

Carl Phillips: Yeah. I don’t know. You know, I’m surprised to hear that you think it has always been there in the work, because one of the criticisms I’ve most often gotten is that, you know, the poems sort of take place in a timeless world that doesn’t seem to involve contemporary issues. And I was always frustrated about that because, first, you know, like I have a lot of people—in particular, a lot of Black poets—used to say to me that I basically wasn’t a Black poet, that “you don’t write Black.” And it was frustrating to me because—and they’d say, “you don’t write about Black stuff,” you know. And I thought, well, I write about love, sex, morality, whatever. I think this is stuff for everybody. And so … or people would say, “How come there are no Black people in your poems?” And it’s like, because I didn’t say that they were Black, you’re assuming they’re white? Is that what it is? And so, yeah, to me, I feel like I’ve always been writing about those things, but maybe not overtly in ways that some people want.

Franny Choi: Hm.

Carl Phillips: It’s kind of like, I don’t know, you know, this piece that maybe you saw that I wrote for Poetry magazine. Seems forever ago now, about the politics of mere being. And that’s kind of what I was getting at in that article. It’s like, it’s weird, you’re just writing your poems, and you’re not necessarily trying to be political, whatever that is. But people decide you’re either political or you’re not. And in one moment, some moments, you know, your poems are being tweeted as being relevant to something. Other moments, you know, people are wondering, why are there no cell phones in your poems? I don’t know.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Carl Phillips: I don’t know. I was actually asked that one time.

Franny Choi: Literally, “Why are there no cell phones in your poems?”

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm. And they also said—that same interviewer referred to a poem where I had a fox in the poem, they said, “So, where do you imagine these poems take place? Like, where do these foxes happen? And I said, “Well, actually like, in my yard.” And they were like, “What?”

Franny Choi and Danez Smith: (LAUGH)

Carl Phillips: And, you know, in St. Louis, I don’t live far from the park and there are foxes. But they acted like, you know … these trees, like, you know, how is it that you have this urban life, but, you know, there are trees in your poems. Like, there are trees in New York City.

Franny Choi: Right. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: I don’t get it.

Franny Choi: I mean, it’s true, though, I think of—there is a place in my mind that is like, Carl Phillips poem space.

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: And I didn’t realize it until now, but I was like, oh, no, this is like, this is a place that I imagine existing. I think of it as sort of like, I don’t know, a sort of psychic island in which poems—

Carl Phillips: I like that.

Danez Smith: Ooo.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: I like that. You know, it’s interesting, the poem that I read, you know, because that could seem like it’s some made up place. But, you know, at least when there’s that part about bells that used to have to be in their towers and named, I used to, in college, I drove a bus for my summer job in this little town Woods Hole in Massachusetts. And I sort of drove professors and their kids back and forth to their labs and the beach. And each day I had to drive past this old bell tower that used to have a bell in it, but everyone said someone had stolen the bell. And so I’ve always been fascinated with bell towers. But—

Danez Smith: How do you steal a bell?

Carl Phillips: That’s exactly what I said.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Like, how does that happen?

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: And it’s like, a bell is pretty heavy.

Danez Smith: Yeah!

Carl Phillips: So, you know, that’s just an image. But it’s still … I was just there actually, a few weeks ago in that town. And there’s the old bell tower still. And so, I think sometimes people think, are you making like these fairytales? And I think, well there are buildings with bells in them, you know. Or, like I live next to a cathedral, so, you know, I see all day, these nuns. A convent is just a few houses down. So there’s this weird spiritual energy around here. But at the same time, I’ve seen people shooting heroin right outside my door. And for some reason, this street is considered a place where the police might leave you alone. You can stop and shoot up and then move on. So, you know, it’s an interesting mix. But I feel like we all come up with a landscape that our poems take place in.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Yeah. And I think maybe what that critique then comes out, right, is people’s frustration with access to that landscape. It’s almost like that game, Animal Farm that like people play.

Franny Choi: Animal Crossing?

Danez Smith: Animal Crossing. Thank you. You can tell I don’t play video games. Animal Crossing.

Franny Choi and Carl Phillips: (LAUGH)

Carl Phillips: I was going to say, I’m pretending to know what you’re talking about.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) Okay, cool. So there’s this game called Animal Crossing. Everybody played it at the start of quarantine because nobody could go outside. And so you could like—you make your own little island, you farm stuff and then you can, like, visit your friends. Promise there’s an analogy going on here. But I feel like maybe what I’m hearing is that, Franny, you, even as a reader, kind of had the key to Carl’s island a little bit.

Franny Choi: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: To get to—

Franny Choi: Wow. Does Carl Phillips have the ultimate Animal Crossing island of contemporary poetry?

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: I mean, I think if we’re talking about, like, different psychic islands of poets, right. I think, in my experience, there have been poets, and Carl is one of them for me, that I felt myself growing as a reader, as I like, sought to like seek that island of what the poems were doing. Right? And so I guess I understand, not the critique, Carl, but I guess the question of like, “What’s happening here?” Because I, too, remember being like, 21 and encountering Carl Phillips for the first time and kind of saying like, “This is wonderful, what’s happening here?”

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: Or like, you know, or “When is this?” was even a question, right? Because I was experiencing—so much of it was about interiority and relationship between people that I was like, it did sort of have, I don’t want to say a timelessness, because I think that’s a dangerous thing that people say poems reach for, but it felt—I was so zoomed in that I actually didn’t care about any of those extra markers and all that. And some people, I think, need that in order to access the island, right?

Carl Phillips: Yeah.

Danez Smith: They’re sort of walking around looking for those things automatically. They’re like, cool, I know something about power and violence is happening here. And maybe my mind could let me do the dance about race. But I’m actually just like, I really need the sign that signals race, and that is a capital B Black. And that is a certain image. And that is sort of these things. And I had to fight against that in myself as a writer. To say like, how like, my poems can be Black even if I don’t take the time to announce it, right.

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: Even if I don’t take time to, like, casually, you know, scroll past the hot sauce. You know.

Carl Phillips: Yes.

Danez Smith: And it was a thing to wrestle. I feel like I’ve seen that happen for me in your poems, and in the work of others, where I’m just like, this opened up for me the longer I sought to trust myself to not need the signs about what was happening here.

Franny Choi: Mmm

Carl Phillips: Yeah.

Danez Smith: And to take these words, these sentences, these whatevers and like, take them at their worth and like really explore what is happening with power and all this other kind of stuff here.

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think—well, first of all, that’s very restorative to hear. And I also think it might have to do with uhm … interiority. You know, Charles Rowell did this anthology of African American poetry that was kind of controversial. I remember there was a—I guess Baraka sort of wrote against it.

Danez Smith: I remember that. Mhm.

Carl Phillips: But, yeah, and you know, Charles Rowell is sitting there arguing for, I guess, that first you have to—maybe it’s kind of like “First fight. Then fiddle” that Gwendolyn Brooks talks about. That, you know, first you do that and then you earn your way towards being able to talk about stuff about interiority. I can see how Robert Hayden at his time wasn’t the right poet for a lot of Black readers. I get that. Where somebody like Baraka is writing something that’s much more direct and doesn’t require a lot of, you know, analysis and meditation, because that’s not its point, I think. But I think it’s kind of human to be afraid of being lost. And I am drawn to writers where I have to commit to being lost. You know, early mentors—not mentors, but their books anyway, I hadn’t met them at a time—were people like Bridget Pegeen Kelly and Lucie Brock-Broido. Their first books, which are really weird. And they just became weirder poets as they continued along. But I would sort of open up a book by Lucie and sort of say, okay, here we go. You know, I’m not supposed to try to compare it to how my life is, but, you know, just open yourself up. I think it can be hard for people. But I also understand that sometimes that kind of work can feel like, you know, maybe for some readers, it can feel like privileged or self-indulgent when there’s something much more urgent going on in their lives. But I always thought that was the reason why there’s supposed to be so many different kinds of writers. You know? We don’t have to read everything. We don’t love everything. And I just feel like everything should just be respected as, you know, it needs to be there because someone wrote it. And you don’t have a responsibility to love it.

Franny Choi: Definitely. I don’t know. I’m like, sort of wrestling with this. But… because I think that there was, especially in my early 20s, mid 20s, I don’t know, the other day I was looking back at a picture of myself giving a reading when I was like 23 and, you know, it said something about like poetry as radical storytelling or something. And I was just like, oh my god! You know, like, was anyone ever so young. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: I’m here to tell you someone was. I’ve been thinking about how much I clung to the necessity of urgency. And I am continuing to cling to urgency. But I think that it feels different. I’ve found myself really pushing against the idea that a deep exploration of interior life is not like an urgent matter for people, for all of us.

Carl Phillips: Sure.

Franny Choi: You know, for oppressed people to, like, be able to be really fluent in that terrain. Like how is that not like an immediate and necessary thing for us, you know?

Carl Phillips: I agree. I think- I was actually just writing about this. I’m writing this book of essays I can’t believe that I agreed to do. But I’m writing a book of essays that apparently is due next summer. And talk about feeling old. They said they wanted me to write a book that would contain the wisdom that I would like to leave for young people.

Franny Choi: Oh no! (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: No! (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: And leave, like I guess when I’m dead. You know, that this will be a kind of portable book that people can carry for years when they want to understand, you know, what’s the value of silence? What’s the value of … how do you do a writing practice? You know, all that kind of … whatever.

Danez Smith: They basically just asked you to write your “letter to a young poet.” And then peace. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: They actually said, you know, think of Rilke’s—

Franny Choi: Oh my god, literally.

Carl Phillips: Yeah. They said, you know, something like that. And I thought, okay, I’ll try to be Rilkean. But anyway, I was writing about stamina and the role of urgency and stamina. And I was thinking about how at a Q&A a few years ago, someone said, “You kind of stopped being gay after your second book. What’s that about?”

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: It’s like, okay. And so in this essay, I was thinking about that, and thinking how sometimes I feel like in my first book I was writing almost literally to save my life.

Franny Choi: Mm.

Danez Smith: Mm.

Carl Phillips: There was a real moment of crisis. Then the second book, I feel like I was writing to kind of give shape to a new life that I’d realized was my own. But after that, of course, it’s not that I know stopped being gay or queer or anything, but I feel like, yeah, there was a lot of working my way through, like, the erotic and everything in the first couple of books—because I wasn’t even understanding about it and I didn’t have the same experiences. And then after a while, you know, like you’re in a relationship for many years, whatever, and it doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped being alive. But it seems to me that interiority is more what happens, you know. That you’re not trying to figure out, like, am I queer? Well, that’s been answered, you know. Or, can I be in a relationship? That’s been answered. You’re in one. But now the questions of, how do you sustain a relationship? How does that deepen or not become boring? Or why do you feel you need a relationship? You know, these kinds of questions, I think, are the questions of maturity. Which is also why I think it makes sense that a lot of people’s first books are packed with so much and so many directions because there’s just a lot to process. And I think that’s a real challenge for the books to come after. Or, like what I’m realizing now, I mean, I used to hear people talk about some old poet like Charles Wright and say, “Oh, you know, you just write the same poem over and over now.” And I think well, Carl, now you are finding out what it’s like to be in your 60s and still have something to say. That is a challenge.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Carl Phillips: But there’s still urgency to that, too, you know, to interior thoughts. I agree with you. I should’ve just said, “Yes, you’re right.”

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) No, no.

Carl Phillips: I could have said that.

Franny Choi: No, I’m glad that you didn’t just say that. (LAUGHS) I mean, speaking of the fact that you certainly didn’t stop being queer after your second book, can we talk a little bit about the erotic and—

Carl Phillips: Absolutely. I’ve been waiting all morning. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) For someone to come around the corner and say, “Can we talk about the erotic?”

Carl Phillips: Uh-huh. I mean now with quarantine, no one does it, so. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Well … (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS) Yeah. Find a way around it.

Danez Smith: The gays are taking risks out here.

Franny Choi: Yeah, yeah.

Carl Phillips: Yeah. You can find a way around it.

Danez Smith: Somebody every day on Grindr is willing to take that risk. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Yes. Yes.

Franny Choi: Well, we were talking before about like, about eroticism in your poems and specifically, like the eroticism of your syntax, you know. I was reading an interview where you described syntax as being … you’re likening the things that syntax can do to, like, the power dynamics of like BDSM and things.

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: And I guess I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and about maybe also, on the subject of finding new things to say, if there are things that you’re discovering or wrestling with right now in that terrain.

Carl Phillips: Yeah.

Franny Choi: The kind of Venn diagram of the erotic and the syntactical.

Carl Phillips: Huh. Okay. I mean, yes, I do think syntax is erotic. Though I didn’t think of it before. It’s more like people kept trying to explain this—I didn’t even know what syntax was, to be honest. You know, I was just writing and people were talking about syntax and I thought syntax was the same as grammar.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Carl Phillips: And I would always be frustrated because, like, why are people talking about that? So but when I looked at it, I thought, oh I see—

Franny Choi: God, that is so refreshing to hear. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Oh yeah, it’s like, you know, whenever someone says, you know, let’s talk about Carl Phillips’s sentence. It’s like, I don’t know. This is how I think, you know, I’m not trying—I think they think I take a normal sentence, then I spend hours figuring out how can I make it all screwed up.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: And, you know, no one will get it. And no, it’s like … but I do see how syntax is the element that allows the rules of grammar to be manipulated. And that’s when I started thinking about BDSM, which I’ve always—well, in my adult life—always been fascinated by. And the ways in which power shifts. And also BDSM, not just, you know, all the equipment, and all that kind of things. But I feel that all relationships are about power shifts. Constantly being recalibrated. Or at least all interesting relationships to me are. And so it seems to me that that’s also what syntax can do, is, in a way, become the power source for a sentence. And I like how it can feel in the actual reading. It feels as if you’ve been through something physical. And so I always think of it as giving a poem muscularity, in a way, you know, as opposed to just sort of what sometimes can feel like flat sentences to me. Even though if all you do is fancy syntax all the time, that’s also overbearing and horrible. So I guess that covers the syntax part of it. And the erotics part of it, I used to think that this would be something I would outgrow. I was told- I was in a very long relationship with somebody for 18 years, who would routinely tell me, “Wait ’til you’re 40, when you’re 40, sex won’t be the biggest deal in the world to you.” But that has been the reverse, actually.

Danez Smith: Mm.

Carl Phillips: It ratcheted even higher. And I thought, whoa.

Danez Smith: Yes, Benjamin Bottom.

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS) Yes. Or Tommy Top, you know.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Tommy Top, yeah. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS) And so what to me has been an interesting challenge is how to negotiate that. Because first of all, there’s how you—you may feel that way, but also, you know, the body isn’t always going to be that way. Like, I suppose, up for those things. And I don’t know. I don’t know when it happens that one realizes that maybe—it seems an obvious thing, but the quantity doesn’t have to be the point. In the same way that I feel like with subject matter as a poet, that instead of getting more broad, I’ve just sort of drilled in and deepened. I think that can happen with the erotic. That you don’t have to sort of—and this is no judgment if you do choose to have, like, many partners or, you know, be more promiscuous. That seems great, too. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can actually have the same sort of thrill with one person. Though it requires a different kind of work of commitment, it seems to me. To keeping -you know, that both people have to sort of feel like, oh, sex is actually a serious bonding force between us. And it is not something that we have to think, oh, we’ve aged out of it. And, you know, that’s great if maybe, if you do. But my mother died in 2008. And my father within a year or two met this woman. At the time he said, you know, “I’ve met this young woman, and I need to tell you about it.” And he was 80 at the time. And she turned out to be 76. I thought, okay, that’s- she’s not 26.

Franny Choi and Danez Smith: (LAUGH)

Carl Phillips: But he kept telling me about their sex life. And I mean, I had to tell him to stop. Because it was apparently out of control. You know, they couldn’t get enough. And I said, “Dad, I really don’t need to hear it.”

Franny Choi: Yeah, that’s a lot.

Carl Phillips: And he said, “I’m just letting you know how it’s going to be for you, son.” And I thought, wow. And they got married when he turned 81. And they’re still married. And I guess everything is hot.

Danez Smith: Yesss.

Carl Phillips: I thought, you know, I guess who knows how it’s going to play out. But you know, I kind of did think that probably like in your 70s, you just mellow out and you know, you just hug each other and fall asleep.

Danez Smith: Not if you’re in the Phillips family! (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Apparently not.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Apparently not. So, you know, I’ve got something to aspire to. You know, I’m only 61. We’ll see how I am at 86. That’s what he is.

Franny Choi: Yes. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Lord.

Carl Phillips: Got to get there first, though. Who knows.

Danez Smith: I’m wondering, in that long, deep engagement, right, because you are like … in the erotic writing, yes, syntax, but you’re also just like, one of my favorite folks. I think like, when I think about writers that I enjoy writing about sex, gotta have it in the top five. For somebody who writes about sex like you, and maybe in a way that like, for that woman at the reading, she can’t even read it as being about queerness or gayness or sex itself (LAUGHS)—

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: What do you find yourself now seeing when you look at sex, either in your life or in the work? You know, I think that has also been a sort of brilliant investigation that I’ve loved. Like, I’ll never forget, it’s in The Art of Daring. You like- you share a poem of your own—it’s a beautiful poem! And then you’re describing it, and you’re like, “Yeah, I saw two dudes fucking in the woods against a fallen tree.” And I was just like, “Word!” I was like, “Oh!” But that is the work of somebody who can look at sex and see everything happening around and within and all that kinda stuff. So, I guess, yeah, what do you look at or think about when you look at sex these days?

Carl Phillips: Well, hmm, I’m just thinking—now I’m thinking about that scene in the woods.

Franny Choi and Danez Smith: (LAUGH)

Carl Phillips: I suppose, in my own life, what I look at is the challenge of how to keep it different. I mean, one of the big challenges for me is, I feel like I’m a very sexually restless person. It took me a while to figure that out. And it took me several partners to figure it out. And during those relationships, I was also very invested in cruising. And it seemed to me that promiscuity was the only natural way to be. And, you know, because it also provides constant newness. That’s very thrilling. Then I end up in a relationship, which I’m in, where it was made very clear to me from the start, “This relationship isn’t going to happen unless you are monogamous.” That’s what I was told. And I thought, you know, I’ve met this guy that I do not want to live without. I can’t imagine living without him. And so, I’m going to do it. And so the challenge became like, how’s … let’s find, you know, first few months, it’s like, everything’s hot. And then how do you keep that? Because it was so unnatural to me. I just thought, oh, you know, like, I thought how you keep your relationship exciting is you supplement with a lot of outside activity. And so to learn that, oh, actually, that’s all within the relationship has been, you know, it turned out to be a rewarding challenge. So how I look at sex is, how, you know, how do you keep it fresh? And especially, you know, as we mentioned before the show, that I’m 22 years older than my partner. And so there’s this idea of like, you want to stay energized and in the game or something. And so I guess it’s that. That’s how I look at poetry, too, about writing. That, to me, each time, the challenge is, how are you going to make this new for yourself? You know, maybe the world won’t see it. They don’t have to think that. But how do you—how can you write a poem where you leave and think, “I’ve just experienced something new. Again.” And that’s how I want to feel after fucking. I want to feel like, wow, that was different. Even though you’ve done it a million times.

Franny Choi: Mm.

Danez Smith: Mm.

Carl Phillips: And so I guess that’s how I look at it. I’ve also been thinking about this quarantine, how it has affected a lot of queer culture, queer male culture, especially. Because I don’t have to think about that. But I was thinking if I were single, what would I do? And you know, I think I would hide in my house, but I know that’s ultimately not what would happen. And, you know, I’d probably have to have a small group of people in rotation whom I trusted and all that. But I don’t know. Rotation.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: The rotation … I will, I’m … I will report that you’re right.

Franny Choi and Danez Smith: (LAUGH)

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I mean, you have to stay alive. You have to live.

Danez Smith: Yeah. There’s some real deep rotations, and just contracts and like, pacts that I feel like are happening. But it’s so … it has changed hoe-ness forever, hasn’t it. Like I’ve been thinking about bathhouse culture and stuff like that. It’s just like, it feels like, I don’t know, it just feels kind of ripped away, and like, you know, it is this thing … I’ve been finding it really hard to sort of imagine the next for so many different things. Because I’m just like … you know, from within it just feels like the world has to be different for a while, and maybe will never be the same again. Especially as we lose physical spaces and stuff like that. I don’t know.

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: I’m just really … I’ve been mourning the way, the sort of sexual freedom of a lot of queernesses for—

Carl Phillips: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Mm.

Carl Phillips: Yeah. I actually think, though—and sometimes this gives me a little bit of hope—because, you know, when I was in college, the last thing you really thought about when you’re having sex was like, you’re gonna get a disease or anything or, you know, it was all pre-HIV, pre-AIDS.

Danez Smith: What a time! I feel like that’s the golden age of gay fucking, right? (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Really! Can you imagine? And the shift that happened, where something like the specter of possible death, the idea that that’s hovering, you know, seems really—and, of course, you know, by now, most generations, it’s kind of like equivalent to how I didn’t grow up where we had to think about shooters in classes. But the idea that as children, you just know that now. And so I keep thinking that, you know, people thought that, oh, wow, sex is going to be changed forever as a result of this. And it was in some ways. But in the other ways, I feel like queer culture evolved in a lot of ways to kind of … and, you know, medicine and things like that. To make it so that at least there was a different vitality. So that’s what I keep thinking here, that, oh, yeah, we’ve lost these spaces … it’s interesting, I recently drove past the bathhouse here in St. Louis. There is one. And it was packed. The parking lot was packed. And I thought, oh, it’s still going strong, I guess. But I was a little surprised at that. But I feel like, yeah, this social distancing can’t last forever.

Danez Smith: No.

Carl Phillips: I can’t imagine it. It’s one of those times when I think, yeah, it is handy on one hand to have a regular partner whom you live with. On the other hand, that presents its challenges, too, because you realize—like, I’m used to being alone in the house for at least eight hours every day. And so, when both people are working from home every day, that’s … I’ve heard there are a lot of people breaking up. Yeah. I mean, they just realize, “You know what? You were great until I had to actually deal with you all the time.”

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: You know? Or it’s like these straight couples when their kids grow up and leave and then they look at each other like, “My god, who are you?”

Franny Choi: Right. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Yeah. It’s like, “The kids distracted us, but now what?” You raised your hand, Danez, as if that’s—

Danez Smith: Oh yeah, I was just, yeah, I recently broke up.

Carl Phillips: Ah. I’m sorry. Or I’m happy, depending on how you feel about, you know.

Danez Smith: Thank you for both, I feel. You know, I think it was hard. It was hard and it was definitely corona-influenced, I think.

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: Yeah. It was a really beautiful and wild ride through the quarantine with that one.

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: Yeah. No harm done. No harm done. Still heartbroken.

Carl Phillips: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Yeah. But it’s all good.

Franny Choi: No harm, but heartbreak. Yeah.

Carl Phillips: Yeah. But then, you know, there’s always that … I don’t know, I can’t quote it exactly, but something happens in some Louise Glück poem, and then she’s devastated. And then she turns around, says, wait a minute, I can use this. And it’s like, yep! You know, so. I tell my students when they sort of say, “Do I have to suffer forever?” And I think, no, just once and deeply, because then you can live off of that for quite a few books.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: You know, you don’t have to have routine suffering. You just have to remember and reflect.

Danez Smith: Yeah. Well, you can do it two ways. You can either do one good deep one. And you get a couple of books out of that. Or you just do, you know, just a tiny suffering every couple of years.

Carl Phillips: That’s true.

Franny Choi: It’s like people who are like, “Oh, is it better to just like, eat a bunch of snacks during the day or like three big meals?” (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Uh-huh. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) What’s your trauma intake like?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Well, it’s like, you know, those—who is it, like Adele, you know, or Taylor Swift, and like it seems like a relationship breakup seems to be required for the next album, you know? So, yeah.

Franny Choi: Are you a … are you a one—sustaining on one suffering kind of writer?

Carl Phillips: No. I also tell my students—and this always silences the room—that I think it’s useful to be routinely heartbroken. You know, that happens. Like it doesn’t have to be in a relationship, a person.

Franny Choi: Right.

Carl Phillips: You can be heartbroken about a number of things. Your dog can die, you know, or you’re heartbroken by the news or something.

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Carl Phillips: But some way in which you get this reminder that to be alive is joyous and hurts. And I think, you know, without both of those, it’s hard to make something that’s believable in a poem.

Franny Choi: Mm.

Carl Phillips: Or, you know, any kind of art.

Franny Choi: Mm-hmm.

Carl Phillips: Just stop me when I start saying things like that, like, “That’s what art requires.”

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Ugh, I don’t even know what art is. So, you know, and I don’t want to know. I actually don’t. I feel like as soon as you think you know, then you’re doomed.

Franny Choi: That’s incredible to hear coming from someone who is a highly decorated professor of poetry (LAUGHS) at a highly acclaimed institution for learning about poetry.

Carl Phillips: Yeah, but, you know, the thing that people I think don’t know or sometimes forget is, like, I’m not a real professor. This was told to me fairly routinely when I first got this job, which was as a Visiting Writer. I wasn’t supposed to be—it wasn’t tenure track or anything. It turned into that. But when I came here, only a year before, I’d been a high school Latin teacher. That’s all I’d wanted to ever be, is a high school teacher. And I love working with that age group. And it seemed kind of an important group to mentor. And so I’ve always, I always feel—you know, maybe we all feel fraudulent. But I’ve always felt panicked being this professor, because I feel like I don’t have anything to say except let’s all get lost in this together.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Carl Phillips: You know, now I just teach graduate students in this MFA program and they’ll ask me things like, “Am I a poet? Is this poem good?” And it’s like, I don’t know, I mean, there’s shit in the New Yorker every week that people apparently think is poetry. Whatever. You know, and there’s good stuff, too. But then whatever I like somebody else probably thinks is crap, so.

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Carl Phillips: You know, and there are plenty of poets apparently walking the earth right now, with books and prizes, and they’re not poets to me. So, you know! I mean, but, you know, we all have our opinions. Someone’s saying the same thing about me, too. That’s fine. And I kind of feel like the joy of making this stuff is that we’re always trying to figure out what it is. And to actually be able to say, oh, I—this is a poem or that is, I mean. Or how much is something I’m not ready for yet. Like when I dismiss poems in like, the New Yorker, as I just did, how much of that is I’m not there yet.

Franny Choi: Hm.

Carl Phillips: Ready for that particular poem, you know, so, I try to not be definitive, I guess. And I think the problem is that, for me anyway, and maybe for you both, too, I kind of grew up thinking professors do have the knowledge and I’m supposed to take it in. And then you start to realize, as with parents, that, oh, they’re fucked up, too. And they’re scared, and they don’t know everything. And the ones who act like they do, you should never trust them.

Franny Choi: Totally. Totally. Totally. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: I mean, like, the best thing I ever learned when I was a high school teacher and I had to figure it out really quickly is to say, “I don’t know” when a student asked me something, I thought I was supposed to have all the answers. But as soon as you say you actually don’t know, you win their trust, because they see, you know, that you’re not acting like you’ve got the secret box of lore and they might get the key. But like, yeah, we’re all kind of lost together. I’d be a lousy parent, because that’s what I’d be saying to a five-year-old. “You know what? I don’t know what life is either.”

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: “Yeah. Cry. I’m gonna cry with you. I don’t know what’s wrong.”

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: You know? And you look to your parents to be like pillars of strength. But I’d sit there and say, “You’re right. It’s a mess,” you know. Whatever.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) Your child would have a rough, like, first six years. But then they’d probably be pretty cool.

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS) I guess. I’d say, “You’re right to be scared. I’m damn scared, kid.” (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: I love it.

Carl Phillips: Anyway.

Franny Choi: Well, also, I think that like, the idea of the sage, wise, not just professor, but like, wise poet who knows all the things and has all of the wisdom to impart, I don’t know, I think I’ve just been finding a lot of joy in your cooking show, in your Instagram cooking videos.

Carl Phillips: Uh-huh.

Franny Choi: I mean, yeah, as the like, as the counterpart. Not like, I don’t know, an argument against the wisdom, your own wisdom or anything. But just to be like, I’m a person who’s cooking, going to cook a meal and sing karaoke with my dog and all that stuff.

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: So, first of all, thank you for the cooking show. And then also, how’d that happen? How’d you start cooking on Instagram? (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS) This is, to me, one of the best things the quarantine has provided me. Well, first of all, I used to, before the quarantine stuff happened, I used to do this thing where I’d be driving around in my jeep. My dog is always with me in the jeep.

Franny Choi: I love that.

Carl Phillips: And so we do a little karaoke, and you know, I thought the phone wasn’t capable of recording anything for more than 30 seconds.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Aw. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: So I would just do a snippet of a song. And then, my millennial partner told me, you know, the phone does this other thing. I’m like, “Oh, really?” So.

Danez Smith: There’s a 31st second. Yeah, there is. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Uh-huh. So I thought, okay. So I would do like these little five-minute snippets of making scones or something. And then I don’t know, it just—I learned about the video part of Instagram and how you can actually like, for an hour or whatever. So I just did one. And all these people started responding on Instagram. And I don’t—you know, I’m not a big, like, “How many likes do I get?” But what I really started liking was people were saying that this was—I’d only done a few, and people were saying that it was getting them through.

Franny Choi and Danez Smith: Mm.

Carl Phillips: And at the same time, I had joined this reading group through Twitter where everyone was reading War and Peace. Like, 10 pages a day or something. Because I never thought I would ever read that book. And so that was kind of getting me through, too, like this weird thing. And I thought, usually I feel, you know, I feel like, “Oh, Carl, all you do is write poems. What do you do to help anybody?” And they would start sending me pictures like, “Oh, I made the recipe.” You know, “I made this at home.”

Franny Choi: That’s so great.

Carl Phillips: And I thought, what? And, you know, it turned into that kind of thing, where, just yesterday I was talking to someone and saying, “Maybe it’s time for the show to end because, you know, it’s getting like, maybe it’s predictable.” And they were saying “Oh, no, you’ve got to keep going.” So, I don’t know. I don’t know when it’s going to evolve away. But it also has been the best preparation for me for Zoom teaching. I haven’t started yet. I’m starting in a couple of weeks, and I was on leave last semester, so. But I found that I’m actually pretty much at ease or, as my partner would say, “You’re a little too at ease in front the camera.”

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: And it’s been fun. It’s been fun doing that show. And what I like is like, the—I had a recent episode where the blender didn’t work. Or another one where the pastry didn’t turn out. And, you know, the people who are watching are sending these live comments saying, “You can do it, Carl, you can do it.” And I thought, you know, but what I like … I don’t like how the cooking shows are now. Nothing goes wrong, it seems. But in the old like, Julia Child days, I remember there’s an episode where she dropped a roasted turkey or something on the kitchen floor as she was taking it out. It slid off the plate and then she just picked it up and she said, “This is why you don’t let your guests into your kitchen,” you know? And she put it on the plate and brought it on out to serve.

Franny Choi and Danez Smith: (LAUGH)

Carl Phillips: And I thought, wow, like, they didn’t edit that because back then it was like these little live things. And they didn’t edit that out. But so I like how the cooking show sometimes doesn’t work out, or I taste something and it’s like, “This sucks.”

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Okay, people. Doesn’t always work out. Kinda like a poem. Maybe it’s another form of like with teaching. It’s another form of saying, yeah, we’re all kind of in this together and sometimes we’re, you know, I’m not going to get it right. Even if you’re the teacher, you don’t always know.

Franny Choi: It seems I feel like I would so much rather have like a companion in learning than to climb up to the mountain to get my wisdom from the sage, you know.

Carl Phillips: Yeah. It’s why I’m doing, to me, this radical thing where I’m teaching this prosody seminar this semester that I’ve taught for years. And I’ve always used like these books, like by Alfred Corn, his prosody book and all these—but he has a sentence in his book where he talks about “many are called to the feet of Parnassus. But not everyone is allowed to scale to the top,” or whatever. And I thought, this is so obnoxious and off-putting to anyone who is trying to do this poetry thing. So I decided we’re not going to have any prosody textbooks. We’re just going to look at poems. And then to me, the real radical thing is when I decided that we will only read poems—well Shakespeare made the cut—but otherwise, we’re only reading poems by people of color, and our standard text every week is going to be Gwendolyn Brooks. And so there’ll always be that. I guess I feel like teaching should be an invitation, you know, and so often it isn’t. It’s almost like a challenge. Like, can you live up to this and learn? As opposed to, “Come on in. I’m inviting you to come in and let’s do this.” And I feel like you don’t need to have a prosody textbook that tells you—and really, who cares what … I don’t care about the terminology. I mean, I guess it’s nice to be able to scan a line of blank verse, but, you know, do we have to talk about normative rhyme and things that I don’t even understand? I realized I don’t understand the textbooks I’m using. So I threw them out.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS) That’s basically what it was. I thought, I don’t know what this stuff is, and I’m not going to pretend I do. And then the students are going be intimidated and think, “He understands it, but I’m a fool.” That’s how I felt all through college, like an idiot. So, you know, I try not to perpetuate that.


Danez Smith: We have reached the point in our show, we are going to play some giz-ames with Carl Phillips. This is wonderful. I’m like, living my dreams right now. I’m about to play a game with Carl Phillips.

Franny Choi: I know.

Danez Smith: That sounds dirty.

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Daddy to us all. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Uh-huh. I thought I was just an auntie.

Danez Smith: You could be that, too.

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Yeah, that’s cool.

Carl Phillips: Yeah.

Danez Smith: I feel, I feel like like gay men, especially, you are an auntie or a daddy, depending on the outfit. You know?

Carl Phillips: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Yeah. (LAUGHS) Auntie, until there’s leather, you know.

Carl Phillips: Yes. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Alright, so our first game is called Fast Punch or Speed Bag or The Best of Things, The Worst of Things. Carl, we are going to give you 10 categories and you are going to tell us the best of that category or the worst of that category. We feel like being an optimist or a pessimist for today’s episode?

Carl Phillips: I’m going to shoot for optimism.

Danez Smith: Wow. Everybody’s so optimistic.

Carl Phillips: Well, I guess I feel like, you know, there’s so much negativity right now.

Franny Choi: That’s great. Love it. Love it.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Carl Phillips: You know? I don’t know.

Franny Choi: For the people.

Carl Phillips: It’s also against my nature to be optimistic. So, you know.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) Cool, get a little stretch.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) We’ll exercise.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) We’ll exercise.

Danez Smith: Alright, we’ll start the clock. Franny, you wanna go first?

Franny Choi: Okay.

Danez Smith: Clock starts now.


Franny Choi: Okay. Best kind of pie.

Carl Phillips: If I liked pie—

Franny Choi: Ohh.

Carl Phillips: Probably blackberry.

Franny Choi: Oh, wow. A pie-hater.

Danez Smith: Wow!

Franny Choi: Okay.

Carl Phillips: But I don’t eat pie. I don’t like it.

Danez Smith: Wow. Those are both the correct answer. No to pie, but if so, blackberry. I agree.


Danez Smith: Alright. Best city to take a walk.

Carl Phillips: I was going to say San Francisco, but I forgot how steep it is. I’ll say St. Louis because it usually feels like an abandoned movie set. And so I kind of like that desolation.

Franny Choi: Mm. Best kind of vegetable to grill.

Carl Phillips: Oh, asparagus.

Danez Smith: Best plant in a poem.

Carl Phillips: Pachysandra.

Franny Choi: Whoa. Whoa.

Danez Smith:  (WHISPERS) I don’t even know what that is.

Carl Phillips: I know. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) I’m convinced. Best thing to hear said to you during sex. Is that too much? (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Oh. No, it’s not. “Stop. Don’t stop.”

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) That’s great. Stop, don’t stop.

Carl Phillips: I want a little struggle but, you know.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) Yeah.

Carl Phillips: But the struggle is understood as it’s necessary.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: What is this podcast! Alright, best dead poet.

Carl Phillips: Of all time?

Danez Smith: Yeah. Of all the deads.

Franny Choi: All the deads. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Oh, wow. I don’t know. I guess today I’ll say it’s … is Shakespeare too easy an answer?

Franny Choi: No.

Danez Smith: No, we’ll take it.

Franny Choi: We’ll take it.

Carl Phillips: But he really wasn’t mainly a poet. So I don’t know if I really—maybe I’d have to go with somebody like …

Danez Smith: They gave that one dude the Nobel Prize for literature. So it’s fine.

Franny Choi: Dylan?

Danez Smith: Dylan, there we go! (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Sorry, Stevie Wonder was my Dylan. I’m sorry, I don’t really ... (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Best kind of dog. Breed of dog.

Carl Phillips: Well, probably because this is what I have, Black and Tan Coonhound.

Franny Choi: Mm. Love hounds.

Carl Phillips: One of the best dogs I’ve ever had.

Danez Smith: Best of your book titles.

Carl Phillips: Oh, Silverchest.

Franny Choi: Yeah. That’s really good.

Danez Smith: That’s my joint- that’s my favorite. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Okay. Best thing that someone could say about your poems.

Carl Phillips: That they had helped them understand something important about themselves that they never had understood.

Franny Choi: Mm. Love that.

Danez Smith: Best rule to throw away.

Carl Phillips: That you can’t do X in a poem, which could cover anything, because you can. And those rules should all be thrown out.

Franny Choi: Amazing.

Danez Smith: Boom.


Franny Choi: Yay, we did it! Great.

Carl Phillips: Oh, okay. We survived it.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Carl Phillips: There was kind of some tension there.

Franny Choi: I know!

Carl Phillips: It’s like, wow, I don’t know. And I’m still regretting the Shakespeare. I’m not really sure about that. But, you know, he’s pretty good.

Franny Choi: Well who else would you have said? If you- if you were going to disqualify him?

Carl Phillips: I don’t know, you know, I was thinking, who are the people I actually turn to the most often? And I think, well, there’s the boring answer of the Homer of The Iliad. You know. But that’s important. But then there’s Robert Hayden. And I go back to those poems all the time, and keep finding more in them. And then there’s the Tang dynasty poets, like Li Po and Du Fu have been, like, super important to me. And I don’t know. There’s a lot of dead people.

Danez Smith: There’s a lot of dead people.

Carl Phillips: It could’ve been harder, though. You could have asked me about living people. And then that gets really touchy.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: No, slightly less spicy.

Franny Choi: Yeah. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Slightly less spicy to ask about the dead folks. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: Okay, cool. Should we do our other game?

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Carl Phillips: Yes.

Franny Choi: Great. Now we are going to play a game that we like to play at the end of every episode called This vs. That, where we will put two things into two different corners, and you have to tell us which one would win in a fight, a physical fight. And so for this edition of This vs. That, in this corner, we have sex. In the other corner, we have sentences. So who would win in a fight? (LAUGHS) Sex versus sentences.


Carl Phillips: I would say sentences, but it would depend on whose sentences.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Carl Phillips: I think sentences can outlast. A good sentence has more stamina than sex.

Franny Choi: Wow.

Carl Phillips: You know, sex comes to its end. But a good sentence is sturdy enough to go for generations.

Franny Choi: Whoa!

Danez Smith: Wow.

Franny Choi: Wow, wow, wow.

Carl Phillips: Yeah. I surprised even myself there.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS) Wow, Carl, maybe you are a little smart.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Huh. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Wow, what a sentence. You can go all night. I can go generations.

Franny Choi: Yeah, I know. (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: Well, I mean, you know … it’s like, we can have sex all our lives and then we die. But, you know, maybe we leave behind some sentences that people are still reading. So our sentences have outlived our sexual life.

Franny Choi: Ooo.

Danez Smith: Wow.

Franny Choi: Wow.

Carl Phillips: Mmm.

Franny Choi: Right. Right.

Danez Smith: New definition of having a good stroke. Wow.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Carl Phillips: But it’s also a reason to really commit to sex, because now you know that, oh, well, sex is fleeting. So, better really enjoy it.

Franny Choi: Mm. Truer words, man. Truer words. Shall we close it out there, I guess? Yeah.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Amazing.

Danez Smith: Carl, would you do us the honor of reading us one more poem?

Carl Phillips: Yes. It’s called “Is It True All Legends Once Were Rumors.”


And it was as we’d been told it would be: some stumbling wingless;
others flew beheaded. But at first when we looked at them, we could
see no difference, the way it can take a while to realize about how
regretfulness is not regret. As for being frightened: though for many
animals the governing instinct, when most afraid, is to attack, what about
the tendency of songbirds, in a storm, toward silence—is that fear, too?
For mostly, yes, we were silent—tired, as well, though as much out of
boredom as for the need to stretch a bit, why not the rest on foot, we
at last decided—and dismounting, each walked with his horse close
beside him. We mapped our way north by the stars, old school, until there
were no stars, just the weather of childhood, where it’s snowing forever.

* * *


Danez Smith: What a fun, intelligent, and surprisingly sexy time with Carl.

Franny Choi: I know! Truly, truly surprisingly sexy. But like, why would I be surprised? We have read his poems. (LAUGHS) You know?

Danez Smith: I think it was- it was more like … I’ve, you know, interacted with Carl and seen him before. I think I’m always impressed when, like, your people that you consider heroes like show up to you as just like, real people.

Franny Choi: I know.

Danez Smith: And it’s just like, oh my god. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Incredible. Yeah.

Danez Smith: We’re talking about sex with Carl Phillips. Like you know, like, even though that’s regular, there’s a part of me that’s always going to freak out about that.

Franny Choi: I know. Totally. Totally. Totally. Yeah. For a man who literally has 15 books, he is incredibly down to earth and down to chat. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Hella books.

Franny Choi: Hella books.

Danez Smith: How do you write that many books?

Franny Choi: I know.

Danez Smith: That’s a lot. I don’t know if I’ll get there, but I hope I do. Franny, do you have a 15th book in you?

Franny Choi: What are you—what kind of question (LAUGHS) uhm some…

Danez Smith: Like, what is your 15th book about? Like, let’s imagine.

Franny Choi: Oh, god.

Danez Smith: You’re on book two right now. 13 books later.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) 13 books later.

Danez Smith: What is Franny Choi on?

Franny Choi: How insane have I gotten? What have I allowed myself to start doing at book 15? (LAUGHS) I think that book 15 is like, a fucking pop-up book. You know what I mean? Like, it’s got slidey things that you can slide in and out. It’s got pages that you’re supposed to rip out. Not one single fuck is at all given anymore. It’s just the book that I want to make. Either that or it’s just like, my diary entries. It’s just like, me having recorded 15-second monologues to myself and then writing them down. Yeah.

Danez Smith: Both are so on brand. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Yeah. But just like, the common denominator is that like I don’t care anymore. Like I just don’t care about how you feel about this book and what you think about it. This is just what I want to make. And so maybe, I don’t know, it’d be nice to try to take some of that and imbue it into what I’m making now. You know? Just like a … yeah. No fucks given, except me and the poem.

Danez Smith: I want the Franny Choi pop-up book. I’m pretty sure it scares the shit out of me. But it sounds pretty cool.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: It sounds pretty cool.

Franny Choi: What’s your 15th book? What are you doing in book 15?

Danez Smith: Oh. I ain’t got a book 15.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Well, you know, I think around like—

Franny Choi: I don’t know, you are pretty on track to a 15th book, I think.

Danez Smith: Maybe. I think around like, book nine, I probably gotta pick up some new traumas. Just gotta make some shit happen in my life, you know.

Franny Choi: So mad at you. So mad.

Danez Smith: So book 15. I don’t know, maybe that’ll be when I actually write a novel. I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel, but like, if I’ve done 14 books, maybe I’ll write a novel at that point, you know, and … I want it to be…

Franny Choi: Or maybe you’ll just like, call it a novel. It’ll just be like poems, but it’ll be like “a novel,” you know.

Danez Smith: Yeah. You know, but it’ll be like some dude who’s like, trying to roll a blunt, but his kids keep interrupting him. And that’s the whole novel.

Franny Choi: I love that we’re talking about this as being like, I’m just gonna do whatever the fuck. And Carl Phillips’s 15th book is like, so good. And so beautifully crafted. (LAUGHS) You know?

Danez Smith: Yeah. I think that’s what you get, though, is like Carl has like, no … there’s no forgiveness for what he cares to pay attention to.

Franny Choi: Mm.

Danez Smith: You know, there’s absolutely no apology for that.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: And I think that is what you get to with the 15th book is that like, I’ve been paying attention for so long and this is what I’m looking at right now, and like, I really, truly don’t care if you listen or not. I know you might be doing it now because you listened 14 times before, but—(LAUGHS) But here it is, like you know.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Like what permission to, like, obsess and look in a way that I hope we all can invite into our writing lives earlier than the 15th book, right.

Franny Choi: Yes. Absolutely.

Danez Smith: We could write our 15th book first.

Franny Choi: Yes, absolutely.

Danez Smith: The spirit of the 15th fuck it. Yeah. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: The spirit of the 15th fuck it. (LAUGHS) Totally. Cool. Well, let’s pay homage to some stuff and get outta here.

Danez Smith: Yeah. First person I’m going to thank—we were talking about it earlier before we started recording, but I’m going to thank Krispy Kremes.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: For those delicious, delicious donuts. They used to have a brand here in Minnesota. They don’t anymore. I just looked it up. The closest Krispy Kreme is in Iowa. I might make that trip. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Wow. Wow, wow.

Danez Smith: Just might. Is that too much? Would you drive 227 miles for Krispy Kremes?

Franny Choi: No, I would not. One has family in Atlanta. One gets hot Krispy Kremes twice a year. You know what I mean? So.

Danez Smith: Right. Well, next time you hear me, I might have me some Iowa Krispy Kremes, so.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: So shout-out to Krispy Kreme. And you’re so delicious that you have me actually considering driving for hours in order to have your delicious, hot, and sparkly—sparkly? Wet-ass donuts.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Yeah, I believe the proper term is wet-ass. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Yeah. Wet-ass. Them wet-ass donuts. Thank you. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) I would like to, in a similar spirit, thank Waffle House.

Danez Smith: (GASPS) Waffle House.

Franny Choi: I don’t know if we have thanked Waffle House on the podcast before, but it’s been time.

Danez Smith: Shout-out Waffle House.

Franny Choi: Yeah. Yeah. So thank you, Waffle House. Thank you, hash browns, for making me possible. And all of my artistry possible. We also want to thank Ydalmi Noriega and Itzel Blancas at the Poetry Foundation. Thank you, as always, to our producer, Daniel Kisslinger. And thank you to Postloudness. And thank you to you for continuing to listen to our podcast and coming along for this strange ride that it continues to be.

Danez Smith: Make sure you like, rate, and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts and follow us on Twitter @Vsthepodcast. Like Franny said, thank you for listening to our strange little show, especially in these strange little times—not little at all, these strange big times we’re living in.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: We really appreciate y’all. As always, our hearts and prayers go out to y’all. Stay safe. Make good risks. Make good action where you live. We love y’all. Be safe.

Franny Choi: Bye!

Carl Phillips swings by the zoodio (zoom studio) for a ticklish and insightful convo on this episode. The poet and professor talks about the power of interiority, how his relationship to the erotic has changed as he’s grown older, and much more. 

NOTE: Make sure you rate us on Apple Podcasts and write us a review!

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