- An Interview with Carl Phillips
This interview was conducted by telephone between Charlottesville, Virginia, and St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1994, and later edited and updated via mail during the month of November in 1997.
I’m using some of your poems in my undergraduate course on African-American poetry. I have spent quite a bit of time on “Passing.” I told my students that I thought that you, as a poet and a black man, are very brave in risking to make known, in the poetry and in real life, that you are gay. Some of the students, particularly the white students, wanted to know what it was that you were risking. I informed them—as most of the black students must know—that black communities, especially those sectors of the bourgeoisie and the nationalists, do not readily tolerate or accept gay people very easily, not to mention gay poets and other kinds of gay writers. Here in 1994 and for a few years to come what you have done is take an extra risk because you write poetry. Who needs poetry anyway? Where will you find an audience? Who in the USA is interested in reading the creative writing of a black man who is intellectual and gay? I believe your identities have a major impact on your potential audience. I think you are brave, here in 1994, to write as “a gay poet,” to announce your gayness to the world, knowing that black communities and parts of the white communities are still homophobic, immature, when it comes to forms of sexuality that are beyond the boundaries of heterosexuality.
Yes, well I guess I’m flattered that it would be considered bravery, but I don’t think of it that way. It’s never occurred to me not to write about or directly from who I am. And I suppose it’s also accurate to say that I simply don’t stop to think about what the response will be from anyone. I’ve been surprised to see how what, for me, are the incidentals of identity have sometimes been forced into a political arena charged with gender, race, and sexuality. The first political act, it seems to me, is to write a poem at all—it’s a declaration that the already-said—the available—is inadequate, and that the writer believes his own writing is the only remedy for that inadequacy.
With regard to the poem “Passing,” the inadequacy is that it seems to be forgotten that within a community there can be very many different points of view. The Famous Black Poet in that poem is outlining a black experience that is his, but which he believes the rest of us should also acknowledge as ours. His experience, as it turns out, is more easily shared by my father, who grew up black in pre-Civil Rights Alabama. [End Page 204] Here’s where the problem comes in. My father pretty much made it a point to “shield” us from that experience—I’ve still never been to the South, unless Missouri counts. . . . Between his desire that we not have to have the experience he had had, and the fact of my mother being white, from England, and my parents deciding to settle—after my father retired from the Air Force—on Cape Cod, Massachusetts—between all of these, I grew up in primarily white environs where a black sensibility wasn’t the main point; this is not to say that I wasn’t conscious of being black—I was conscious of being both black and white, of straddling identities. The inability of so much of what’s called Black poetry or gay poetry to be similarly inclusive is where I find an inadequacy in what’s already available. And because my parents never suggested that there was anything especially odd about my racial make-up, I’ve never seen it as an act of courage to speak up—it’s simply what one does. And this is equally true when it comes to one’s sexuality—to speak as a gay poet is to make homosexuality the central...