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Reflections on an Unintentional Journey: Pulitzer Prize Winner Carl Phillips’ Poetry Odyssey

Carl Phillips, a distinguished poet who was honored with the Pulitzer Prize, shared insights about his poetic journey with an audience. As part of the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture series on April 1, Phillips, a Professor in the Poetry MFA Program at Washington University, delivered a talk titled “Pressure Against Emptiness: On Making, Being Made, and What is Made.”

Having dedicated three decades to teaching creative writing at WashU, Phillips revealed that his initial career aspiration was to become a veterinarian, not a writer. However, he expressed that writing poetry became a vital means of self-preservation for him in adulthood.

Reflecting on the etymology of the word “career” from the Latin root carrus, meaning a wooden cart, Phillips drew parallels between the utility and simplicity of a cart and the essence of his literary career. He emphasized that a career in poetry is not just about creating tangible works but also about forging a path forward.

Phillips candidly shared that his early poems, written while he was still concealing his identity as a gay man in college, heavily mirrored the style of Sylvia Plath. He admitted to feeling like a mere imitator rather than an authentic creator during that period.

It was only during his marriage to a woman that Phillips found the courage to confront his true self and embrace his queerness through his poetry. By delving into the discomfort of his own identity, he discovered a voice that resonated with his innermost being.

Describing his creative process as a surrender to the enigmatic nature of existence, Phillips likened his poems to fleeting responses to the mysteries of life. He acknowledged the delicate balance between embracing the unknown and being overwhelmed by its profundity.

In a post-event interview, a first-year student, Zachary Nowacek, related to Phillips’ use of writing as a tool to navigate uncertainty and introspection. Phillips’ ability to articulate this process resonated with Nowacek, highlighting the therapeutic power of self-expression.

During the interactive session, Phillips challenged conventional notions of poetry by suggesting that the majority of works labeled as poetry lack the transformative impact that defines true poetic expression. He emphasized the importance of transcending mere observation and offering readers a fresh perspective on life.

A sophomore student, Jebron Perkins, found Phillips’ lecture particularly relevant to their poetry class discussions on the limitations of poetic representation. Perkins admired Phillips’ vulnerability in both his spoken words and written verses, aspiring to embody a similar openness in their own poetic endeavors.