by Carl Phillips
I was once asked in an interview why cell phones don't appear in my poems. This was followed up with a question about where I imagined the things that occur in my poems actually occur: "You know what I mean," said the interviewer, "things like deer and trees, birds and light . . ." I had never considered a deer as an occurrence, though the idea appeals. What most interested me, though, is that—at least to this particular interviewer—the natural world so little existed anymore that it had become supernatural, archaic, and available mainly by force of a decidedly idiosyncratic imagination. As someone who spends the bulk of his time outdoors, experiencing landscape (which includes the urban cityscape) rather than looking at it through a window only, I'm perplexed, but what can one do except return to the supernatural tree in one's yard, sit beneath it, and watch the supernatural light pick out the supernatural birds, while slowly vision or hallucination comes, in the form of a deer at wood's edge . . .

When I began reading for this issue, I had only in mind that I wanted surprise at the level of language, or at the level of being made to see entirely differently something I'd thought I understood entirely—and I wanted both kinds of surprise at once, if at all possible. No one kind of poem or story is necessary to achieve this—as the dizzying range of styles and voices in the issue makes clear. Surprise is one of the characteristics that all of the pieces here, their differing strategies notwithstanding, have in common.

Another commonality that I came to recognize once I had all of the issue in front of me was a believable commitment to the world beyond computer, television, university, etc. I wanted the work to resonate with authentic, and therefore believable, felt experience, the experience of being alive, with having a body and being a sensual and vulnerable and emotional creature in a world that finally does not require us. I grew up in the "Question Authority" era—but that doesn't mean that we have no right to speak authoritatively and to commit to beliefs and opinions. We have been made to see how dangerously close emotion is to sentimentality—but that doesn't mean that we don't have emotions; and if we are to express ourselves honestly as human beings, then we have no choice but to express emotion—the degree to which we do that without falling into sentimentality is one measure of our strength as artists. As for beauty—well, in the form of a skyscraper or of a fallen birch tree, it's out there, isn't it? No getting around it—and if we are going to write persuasively in our portrayal of the world, beauty will somehow have to figure. Again, the trick is in having it figure without charging the writing with smarminess and a patience-trying, private nostalgia. 

In order to negotiate emotion in writing without waxing sentimental, in order to speak authoritatively without coming across as downright fascist—these things require intellectual discipline, an understanding (however intuitive) of art as a craft of making, and an ability to surrender ourselves to the truths—easy and difficult —that we finally are going to have to believe in for ourselves, if we hope to convince anyone else of anything. And in my own experience, anyway, convincing is what the writing is ultimately about: whether persuading the audience inside ourselves or the audience of readers that somehow, again, we want to believe in. None of this is simple—and I think that is why the solution many writers increasingly turn to is to deny feeling and thinking, and to argue that there is nothing to definitively believe in, thereby rendering authority and such things as truth and beauty irrelevant.

"Who wouldn't want to be happy all of the time?" asked my partner the other day, reading from an article on the number of people who take antidepressants daily not because they are clinically depressed, but because the pills make them feel happier. But to feel the world fully is to know suffering also—and the latter is as important as joy when it comes to development of individual character, in a human being and in the manifestation of that human being's individuality in the form of art. To be dull to the fact of the world makes for people who aren't distinguishable from one another, and the same happens in art. What I wanted was an issue where no voice was mistakable for any voice I'd heard before. That's what I'm always after.

Nothing gutless, and nothing without its ability to surprise.

Copyright © Carl Phillips

Spring 2003 Cover
Poetry & Fiction

Guest-edited by:
Carl Phillips
Carl Phillips