Carl Phillips has become only the second African American poet to win the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a highly coveted prize that carries with it a career's worth of prestige -- and a $100,000 check.
Phillips says the reality of following in the footsteps of Yusef Komunyakaa -- the first African American poet to win the prize in 1994 -- is just beginning to sink in.
"Some people have asked how I'm planning to spend it (the money), but quite frankly I haven't gotten that far," says Phillips during a break from his weeklong residency at the University of Virginia's Creative Writing Program. "I'm still having my Sally Field moment, reveling in the fact that they `really do like me.' But I guess what it means is that I can now believe that people really do find my work of importance."
He admits that some might argue that's a message that should have gotten across by now. Phillips' very first book of poetry, In the Blood, won the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize in 1992, while his second, Cortege, was a finalist for both the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lambda Literary Award for gay-themed poetry. He's won fellowships to support his writing from the Witter Bynner and Guggenheim foundations, among others. And now, with the Kingsley Tufts Award for his fifth book, The Tether, Phillips currently is the toast of the poetry world.
Although being recognized for your work is most people's dream, Phillips says he did not have childhood aspirations of becoming a poet. "I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I thought that I would -- all through my high school years," Phillips says.
During his undergraduate years at Harvard, however, that dream died on the vine as Phillips discovered the academic subjects he loved in high school -- calculus, biology, and so on -- were suddenly downright dull to him. Instead, he fell in love with classical poetry, particularly the work of Sappho, and decided to major in Greek and Latin instead.
That choice parlayed itself into a career teaching Latin at the high-school level for nearly eight years. Indeed, Phillips says, becoming a poet was something that likely would not have happened but for a series of coincidences.
"I guess in around `88 or `89, when I would have been about 29 or 30, I started writing. And I don't think I would have ever seen it as anything more than a hobby," Phillips explains, had he not taken a class with someone from the Poets in the Schools program. The poet thought Phillips' work showed promise and advised him to apply for an upcoming state grant. Phillips followed his advice -- and won $10,000 on his first try.
The rest, as Phillips describes it, was "a whirlwind." The grant allowed him to take a workshop to hone his writing skills -- and the workshop leader was Alan Dugan, a Yale Younger Poet and winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, among other numerous honors. Dugan quickly became a believer in Phillips' work, advising him to collect his poems into a book and start trying to win one of the many prestigious first-book prizes, which are the surest way to recognition for a young writer's work.
Phillips followed Dugan's advice, though he also continued making more traditional plans for his life -- such as entering a doctoral program at Harvard in classical philology. Then came the news that changed his life: He heard his book, In the Blood, had won the Morse Prize for publication of a first book. "And it really made me question whether I belonged in a Ph.D. program," Phillips recalls.
Quickly, he shifted gears, leaving Harvard to enter Boston University's creative writing program, then basking in the glory of Derek Walcott's Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. …