Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In this latest installment, Amy Watkins, author of Wolf Daughter, reads two poems by one of her favorite living poets, Carl Phillips. Amy discusses the act of reading poetry out loud, Phillips’ poetry’s intricate complexity, and Watkins’ new chapbook.
Of special note to regular readers: Sundress would like to welcome former intern Erica Hoffmeister to our staff as the new editor of LE. We’re excited to have her rejoin the team and know she will create fantastic episodes for the series. Thanks for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read these two poems by Carl Phillips for Lyric Essentials?
Amy Watkins: I wanted to read something by a living poet. Carl Phillips is one of my favorites, and I had just read his new chapbook, Star Map with Action Figures from Sibling Rivalry Press. I chose these particular poems because I love them; “Sea Glass,” in particular, is one I read over and over. Like a lot of Phillips’s poetry and a lot of my poetry, they’re about love and death, but they’re quiet, controlled. I love that calm, thoughtful voice. I love the metaphorical leaps he makes, and the way the careful syntax and punctuation and line breaks hold it all together.
I also chose these poems because, in spite of the heavy themes, they have a little thread of lightness. In “Sea Glass,” when he says, “some things maybe still a little bit worth being sorry for,” it’s not funny exactly, but there’s a little humor in that wry take on regret.
EH: You said in our discussions that you love reading poetry out loud (and your readings of these poems are beautiful!) – how do reading these particular poems express that love?
AW: These poems are not easy to read out loud because Phillips writes such complex sentences, and he uses line breaks and punctuation so masterfully. I don’t know if you can hear it in my reading, because I tend to read through line breaks a bit, but “Words of Love” has short, choppy lines—some only one word long—and if you read some of the stanzas alone, they momentarily contradict the meaning of the sentence as a whole.
For instance, the middle of the poem without line breaks goes, “I might have added that not only do I respect, I require mystery. Less and less am I one of those who believes to know a thing, first you touch it…” But there’s a stanza break after “Less and less.” For just a second in the middle of saying something, he subtly suggests its opposite. The form and punctuation are all in on the existential reflecting and reassessing the speaker is doing, so you have to read carefully. It’s a beautiful poem to hear, but also really rewarding to read on the page.
I’m a page poet more than a performer, but I do love reading out loud. I used to host a podcast poetry “magazine” called Red Lion Sq. I enjoyed reading the poems myself, but It was better to have a variety of voices. Sometimes poets would submit recordings, or I would ask other writers or actors to read. I prefer a heightened natural reading voice, but every reader has to find their own sweet spot. Making fun of “poet voice” just makes people self-conscious; however, I don’t think you could convey the meaning of a poem like “Words of Love” with a really affected performance—dramatically pausing and up-turning at the end of every line. My unsolicited advice for reading out loud is to remember that the point is to communicate; speak slowly and clearly, and focus on the poem. And if you’re giving a live reading, practice once or twice, have your material ready so you don’t have to fumble for it when it’s time, and pretend you’re not nervous.
EH: Has Carl Phillips’ poetry influenced your own writing?
AW: I’m sure it has; I’ve read a lot of it! His book The Art of Daring is the craft book I recommend to my smart friends. But I don’t think my poetry is much like his. My poems are more straightforward. Syntactically they’re a lot simpler than Phillips’s poems. Reading him does make me more aware of punctuation and line breaks. It makes me think more about what a powerful tool grammar is. And we both like similes.
EH: Is there any elements in your newly released chapbook, Wolf Daughter, that you find especially connected to what you’ve talked about here?
AW: Like “Sea Glass,” Wolf Daughter is both heavy and light. It’s about parenting an adolescent girl at this moment in America, only my girl has turned into a wolf. It talks about gun violence and fear of the “other” and alludes to sexual assault, but it also talks about radical confidence and self love, singing in the car, making art—many small joys. There are even two poems about reading out loud together!
Carl Phillips is a one of America’s most celebrated living lyric poets and the author of more than a dozen books of critically acclaimed poetry and criticism. Known as an accidental poet, Phillips earned an M.F.A. from Boston University after studying biology and math at Harvard University. A biracial, queer poet, Phillips’ writing explores themes of dual identities, and has garnered numerous awards and honors. He currently serves as a professor of English and Creative Writing at Washington University in St. Louis and was elected chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006. His latest collection of poetry Wild Is the Wind (2018) won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Amy Watkins is the author of three poetry chapbooks (Milk & Water, Lucky, and Wolf Daughter), a graduate of the Spalding University MFA in Writing, and a parent of a human girl. Find her online at RedLionSq.com or @amykwatkins on Twitter. She lives in Orlando, Florida
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently living in Denver, she teaches college writing across the Denver metro area and is an editor for the literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019) and writes across genres.