In My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing, the award-winning poet Carl Phillips shares lessons he has learned about the writing life, an “apprenticeship to what can never fully be mastered.” In this Q&A, we talk with Phillips about his recent Pulitzer Prize, poetry’s impact on future generations, and continued reflections on a life of writing.
My Trade is a Mystery shares lessons from your life of writing. What messages from the collection feel apt in this moment of celebration?
CP: Probably the most apt would be the moment in “Ambition” where I speak about prizes being like flies to horses – my point, there, was that these things can be distractions, and that it’s important to keep them in perspective. Specifically, it’s important not to be writing in order to get prizes, since art is subjective, as are the people who award prizes; yet it’s also reasonable to be happy with winning a prize; the point is to remember that the real business of making the best work you can is what ultimately matters: the best work for yourself – what you must write, regardless of public opinion.
Do any of the survival skills in the collection—ambition, stamina, silence, politics, practice, audience, and community—have great resonance for you now, months after the book’s initial publication?
Really, they all apply. But maybe practice feels most important, since I’ve continued writing poems since the publication of the book – continued with the practice of reading, writing, being attentive to the world around me, being open to how and where the writing might next surprise me. All of this feels like the practice of writing, for me.
Have former Pulitzer Prize winning authors influenced your own poetry?
CP: Absolutely. Frank Bidart, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, Sharon Olds, Rita Dove, James Schuyler – these come immediately to mind…
What impact do you hope your poetry will have on younger generations of Black and queer writers?
CP: Well – without, I hope, sounding obnoxious – I think I’ve lived long enough to see already some of the impact. When my first book was published in 1992, there were very few openly queer poets being published, and even fewer queer Black poets. I’m sure plenty were writing, but they weren’t getting published in places where it was easy to encounter their work. I am honored to think that I broke some ground for writers who came up later – to name some who have actually told me so, I can think of Jericho Brown, Danez Smith, Derrick Austin, Donika Kelly, Phillip B. Williams…It has been exciting to see, to feel that I’ve made some meaningful difference in the lives of others. That seems part of why we’re here on earth.
You were awarded the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for your collection Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007–2020. What was your response to the news? What do you have planned next?
CP: My immediate response was total shock. I’d been out to lunch with my partner, came home a little buzzed from margaritas, and happened to check twitter while leashing up my dog for her walk. I didn’t believe it could be true, and told my partner I thought maybe I had some strange news – he googled until we saw the official announcement and he burst into tears and I burst into laughter, really out of shock, I think. It still seems unreal. “I can’t believe it,” I said, and then I walked my dog.
Carl Phillips is the author of sixteen books of poetry. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 2023 for Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007–2020. His most recent prose book is The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination. Phillips lives in St. Louis, where he teaches at Washington University.