Phillips returns, reads from Double Shadow


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Poet Carl Phillips can often be found dancing to loud “club music” and attempting to combine the voices of Madonna and Sade to create his own.

“Most people probably think I stay home, read Greek all day, and listen to Bach,” he said. “But that’s not true.”

Phillips said his interests in singing and dancing help influence his writing in a way that is different from other poets.

This influence can be seen in his new collection, Double Shadow, from which he will read at 8 p.m. today in the Dey House’s Frank Conroy Reading Room. Admission is free.

Double Shadow was published around three weeks ago, and, as with Phillips’ previous books, it continues with the “ongoing conflict between how we are told we are supposed to behave and how we actually behave.”

The book contains 34 free-verse poems that move into each other to create one piece. Phillips likes to think of the collection as a symphony, in which each part is necessary for the concert as a whole.

“This book has a lot to do with finding some kind of stamina in the wake of loss,” he said. “Although I think it is somewhat gloomy in some places, I like to think it tells you how you can move forward and take chances and risks in life.”

He started writing poetry in high school and majored in Greek and Latin in college, where he became interested in Greek tragedy writers.

“I was influenced by Greek poets because I never encountered poems that spoke so rawly about love, longing, and desire,” he said.

The Washington native’s collections of poetry focus on the area of sexual relations, fidelity, betrayal, and being human.

David Baker, the poetry editor of The Kenyon Review and close friend of Phillips, said he is one of the most influential poets of the middle generation.

“[Phillips’] poems feel like they carry a great historical weight and purpose, yet he speaks with real power of a contemporary life, a gay man, and African American, an artist, a lover, a human with an intense self-aware consciousness,” Baker said. “And this doesn’t begin to describe the sheer musical beauty of his language.”

Aside from being a poet, Phillips is also a professor for the Graduate Poetry Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis — he taught the same course at the University of Iowa in 1998.

As a professor, he encourages his students to read as widely as possible and to not be afraid to live life on their own terms.

“To me, the greatest accomplishment is when I run into former students and it turns out that what they learned [from my class] was meaningful to them and that they were inspired to keep literature in their lives,” Phillips said. “Even if they end up being something where they don’t have to read poetry, they have still chosen to do it.”

James Galvin, a poet and Iowa Writers’ Workshop professor, met Phillips when he taught at the university, and the two have remained friends since.

“I have always admired [Phillips’] work for its elegant complexity,” Galvin said. “His formality returns us to the body, and his mind accords life, mortality, and love the tenderness and wonder it deserves.”

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