The Griffin Poetry Prize, to be awarded on Thursday in Toronto, is one of the world’s richest awards for writing, granting $75,000 each to an international poet and a Canadian one. This year’s short lists feature major names, including Canadians Anne Carson and Anne Michaels. On the international short list is Carl Phillips, the brilliant American poet whose body of work is as sombre, elegant and beautiful as that of any writer alive today. Ahead of the prize, and its perennially popular public readings, to be held on Wednesday at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, The Globe caught up with Phillips to ask about his art, his taste and his opinion of the prize, for which he has also served as a judge.
You've been nominated for this prize for Silverchest, your 12th book. How have your interests as a writer changed over the course of your career? What fascinated you as a younger writer that no longer holds your attention? And what new inquiries do you want to make that your younger self would never have anticipated?
I was a lot more interested in certain identity markers in my first couple of books – race, sexuality, the latter especially, as I was feeling my way toward understanding it for myself. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see these as only two of many ways of understanding the self, and perhaps not the most important ones. Perhaps predictably, the fact of aging has come more to the fore, aging and its relationship to restlessness, when restlessness seems to have no intention of going away.
What subject is, for you, the most difficult to write about?
The most difficult subject for me to write about is the only one I really do write about, the tension between how we behave and how we are expected to behave, and how that tension spills into and seems largely to define all of our most meaningful relationships.
What are the moral obligations of a poet? Are they different than they might have been in another era?
For me, the only moral obligation is to work as honestly as possible with one’s material, for lack of a better word – to be absolutely committed to the truth as one sees it, including a commitment to the likelihood that the truth, like morality, is more flexible than we’d sometimes like to think. The best poets of any era have adhered to this, from what I can tell.
What qualities do you admire most in the work of your peers?
When I turn to the work of peers, I turn to those for whom language is not to be taken for granted – those writers who make me think about language anew, even as their sensibility makes me re-examine my earlier assumptions about a given subject. I like leaving a poem with a feeling of having been shaken, transformed. I wouldn’t say this is common, but that’s why it’s so unmistakable when it actually happens.
What are the biggest challenges facing contemporary poetry (beyond the question of limited readership)?
Maybe the biggest challenge is the increasing lack of patience.… Many poets seem unwilling to stay with a subject long enough to truly say something meaningful about it – it’s easier, I suppose, to lean toward superficiality; and I think it’s a human tendency to prefer the superficial, it’s easier to understand, and it usually hurts less. But I’ve always thought what makes a poet is his or her inability to be at ease with the surface, an innate inability to resist pushing further, seeing further even than maybe he or she often would choose.
One of the criticisms of the Griffin Prize in recent years has been what’s seen as a certain coziness: judges becoming nominees, nominees being connected to trustees, etc. You yourself, obviously, have served as judge, and are now nominated for the prize. Are such overlaps inevitable within the relatively small world of poetry? Or do they concern you?
I do believe these overlaps are inevitable. It’s hard, for example, to be named to a panel of judges and not know some of them, because it is precisely because of their prominence that they have been asked to judge something. Actors tend to know each other, as do sports figures – I think that comes with any field. The only thing worth being concerned about is if there is clearly nepotism, insider dealings, etc. Familiarity with others in one’s profession doesn’t have to mean a compromise of integrity.
What struck or surprised you about Canadian poetry when you judged the competition?
I’ve long known that Canadian poetry is wide-ranging, both in form and in subject matter, so I don’t know that there were any surprises – Canadian poetry and poetry in the United States seems to have in common that they spring from especially varied populations, all kinds of races, all manner of backgrounds.
The nominees read selections from their work at the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist Readings, 7:30 p.m. on June 4 at Koerner Hall in Toronto (griffinpoetryprize.com).
This interview has been condensed and edited.