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Take Five: Carl Phillips adds LA Times Book Prize to awards

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 8, 2012 - The vitality of St. Louis’ contemporary poetry scene has been underscored once again with the awarding of the prestigious 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry to St. Louisan Carl Phillips for his most recent poet anthology, "Double Shadow." Phillips, a Washington University professor, joined 11 other winners during a ceremony on April 20 at the University of Southern California.

During a career that spans 11 poetry collections, Phillips has racked up serious accolades: He previously was nominated for the aforementioned National Book Award in 1998 for his third collection of poems, "From the Devotions," again in 2004 for his seventh collection, "The Rest of Love: Poems," and once more for his poetry anthology "Speak Low" in 2009.

The critical acclaim for "Double Shadow" is, thus, just another benchmark in a prolific career filled with remarkable achievements.

Published last March, "Double Shadow," collects 34 poems that explore the duality of life with no regrets or hesitation. Phillips sees life as a "double shadow" filled with hope and disappointment. The works in this anthology contain a poignancy of candor that has become one of his trademarks. His poems balance the joyful and the solemn with the fragile, otherworldly and precarious to create emotional impulses of hope, despair, remorse and connection. All of this coalesces into a thrilling and stimulating collection.

One of the reasons for Phillips’ literary success is his meticulous attention the to technique of writing poetry. His work is respected for its unflinching honesty and persistent challenging of our emotional core as human beings. Phillips’ work contains constant themes filled with both a forthright bluntness that pulls no punches while at the same time exploring, questioning and extrapolating our emotional essence via multiple layers of evocative verse.

When not putting prose to page, Phillips can be found nurturing young writers as a professor of English in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. This past semester he taught two graduate-level classes, a Poetry Workshop and a course entitled, "Directed Writing: Thesis: Poetry." He also serves as a professor of African and African-American studies in Arts & Sciences for the university.

Phillips took time from his academic schedule to answer questions about winning the award and writing "Double Shadow" and to share insight into his creative process.

Beacon: How long have you known that you wanted to be a poet? 

Phillips: I've never really thought in terms of being a poet. I've just always used language as a way to express ideas, the way others might naturally gravitate toward painting or music. My own goal was to be a high school Latin teacher -- which I was, for 10 years -- and poetry was just something I did on the side, for my own enjoyment.

What does the award mean to you?

Phillips: On one hand, it's always nice to have confirmation that my work is resonating with someone out there beside myself. But I also have learned that the only truly meaningful confirmation has to come from myself. ... I have to know the poems are working, for me. All the rest is luck, and the tastes of whoever the judges might be in a given year. With all the good books out there, it's hard to say that any one of them is truly the best.

How long did it take you to write "Double Shadow"? What was the process like?

Phillips: I think the book probably came together over a few years. I don't think in terms of a book, I just write poems, and at some point it occurs to me that I've come to an end of something. By then, I usually have about 50 poems, and I start going through them, to see which are the strongest, and how they might work as a constellation.

There is an ethereal and risky feel to your work in "Double Shadow." How did you balance the tone and feel of the poems in the collection?

Phillips: It's a mystery to me, myself! I know that risk is very important to me, in life. ... I don't believe there's any growth, without risk, both of body and of imagination. On the other hand, I think of language and the natural world as having something of the sacred to them -- which means I believe in speaking and in passing through the world with care. Somehow, that balance of care and risk gets translated into the poems, I guess.

What is your next project? 

Phillips: My next book of poems is called "Silverchest," and it will be out in the spring of 2013. I have an essay deadline or two -- in fact, I think one deadline was last week, now that I think of it. ... And a very all-consuming current project is the taming of my new rescue dog, Ben. He's a poem in and of himself, you might say.


About the award

The Los Angeles Times Book Prize honors the best books of the preceding year in multiple categories, including current interest, fiction, first fiction, biography, history, mystery-thriller, science and technology, graphic novel, poetry and young adult literature.

Since its inception in 1980 the Los Angeles Times Book Prize has become one of the signature honors in the field of literature. This recognition is especially sweet for "Double Shadow," which also was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award and was named the 2011 Best Poetry Book by The Boston Globe.

Phillips' books

Prizes noted in addition to those in the article

2011: Double Shadow
2009: Speak Low
2007: Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems (Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award)
2006: Riding Westward (Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award)
2004: Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Art and Life of Poetry
2004: The Rest of Love (Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry)
2002: Rock Harbor (Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award)
2001: The Tether (Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award)
2000: Pastoral (Lambda Literary Award in Poetry)
1998: From the Devotions
1995: Cortège (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry)
1992: In the Blood (Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize)

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