2011 National Book Award Finalist,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Interview by Cat Richardson
Cat Richardson: How did you react to the nomination of Double Shadow?
Carl Phillips: I was of course very pleased—and of course I hadn't been expecting it. When I was nominated the first time, in 1998, I assumed it would be the only time, and I felt very lucky that it had happened in my life at all. To be nominated a fourth time is far beyond anything I would ever have thought could happen.
CR: Recently, you spoke in a panel at Poets Forum on repetition and refrain, where you mentioned that you had been working with shorter forms, and many of the poems Double Shadow are less than a page. Is that process markedly different from your regular writing process?
CP: I don't really have a process that I'm ever conscious of. Or by the time I'm conscious of it, it's been going on for some time. I think the shorter form developed for me organically, a few books ago, though the poems in Speak Low, from 2009, is where it really shows...I've always been a reader of the T'ang Dynasty poets, and longed for that brevity that didn't have to compromise resonance. I'm always reading them, and I've always read Michael Palmer, whose recent books do something very different, but no less resonant, with the short form. All of which is to say that I think the poems of Double Shadow are the latest stage in an ongoing writing process of which I'm not entirely aware, but I know from my reading that shorter forms have long been an influence.
CR: This is your 11th collection of poetry. Are you conscious of this book as some kind of progression or culmination? Either subject-wise, process-wise, or any other-wise?
CP: Yes, it's my 11th. In terms of form, I think I can see—across the books altogether—a shift from a certain kind of density, in terms of syntax, and in terms of imagery, a shift from that to greater clarity. Complex syntax shares more of the stage with straightforward language, I suppose. The subject matter has shifted in the way that any sensibility shifts, gets reshaped, according to the various experiences we have, the ways in which—ideally—our lives deepen as we get older. Someone at a recent reading said I seemed more tender in my poems now. I don't know
about that—but it could be true. I'll have to go back and reread.
CR: Can you talk a little bit about the threads in this book, and this idea of the double shadow in poems like "Roses" and "Night"?
CP: I guess I most get at the main thread in "Night," with the idea of there being competing forces in any given life: now risk, now faintheartedness. I very much believe that a life without risk is an unlived life, but I also know that risk can get a person in a lot of trouble. On the other hand, to be forever fainthearted, and always play it safe, can be differently but equally dangerous. Throughout the book, I'm interested as well in how we have to learn to live with the consequences of both stances, consequences that include regret and loss, but can also include
the possibility of a third life, one that we hadn't expected, that could end up carrying us into spaces we didn't know existed. On the threshold of that third life, the same questions remain—what to risk, what to make of fear?
Cat Richardson's poetry and prose has appeared in Tin House and Pleiades. She recently completed her term as the Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers and is working towards and MFA from NYU. Currently, she is the student coordinator for the Goldwater Hospital Writing Workshop and managing editor of Washington Square, washingtonsquarereview.com.