In 2010, poet Carl Phillips agreed to become the next judge of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets. Author of In the Blood, Phillips represents a transfusion of critical vitality into the ninety-year-old literary institution. In this brief interview, he discusses his expectations of books worthy of the Yale Younger Prize as well as some of the questionable expectations surrounding his new position as its judge.

KYLE DARGAN: Most writers who have judged or screened for a contest find it to be a taxing effort that, as a “reward,” occasionally opens the judge to criticism. With that in mind, can you say a little bit about why you have agreed to judge the Yale Series of Younger Poets?

CARL PHILLIPS: Well, I’ve judged many contests at this point, and I’ve never really felt that way. I see judging, in general, as an opportunity for me to give back to the poetry community by helping a deserving new voice be heard—it’s a way of showing appreciation for how someone (Rachel Hadas, in my case) did the same thing for me with my first book.

With regard to the Yale specifically, I agreed to judge in part for the reasons I just mentioned, but also because it’s a great honor to have been asked; I look at the list of previous judges, and I am both daunted by and honored to have been asked to join their company. I’ve always read the Yale Younger selections with great excitement, both at discovering someone new, and at discovering something different about the judge’s sensibility as a poet.

KD: Is there a Yale Series book that has particularly stuck in your memory, or maybe one that you would have liked to have had the opportunity to pull from the manuscript pile?

CP: A book from which I continue to learn and to be excited by is Pamela Alexander’s Navigable Waterways, which was chosen by James Merrill in the 1980s—it was one of the first I read in the series, but also remains one of the most aesthetically wide-ranging, everything from narrative to lyric, to the language experiments of Stein.

KD: One of the distinguishing aspects of the Yale Series of Younger Poets is its multiple-year tenures for the judges. In what ways does this manner of judging present a challenge or opportunity for you? Are you entering the process thinking that each selection will be a unique and isolated event, or will you be gradually building a body of work with each selection you make over the years?

CP: At the moment I think each year will be and should be its own unique and isolated event. I certainly don’t approach this with any agenda, other than that of finding excellence and surprise—these are what I always hope for when reading a book of poems, a poet whose sensibility invites me to learn how to get to know it.

KD: Speaking of “surprise,” given the history of the Yale Series it would be somewhat surprising if a writer of African descent won the prize. That is not to suggest that ethnic diversity is the most important type of diversity to be observed (the Yale series books have been quite diverse aesthetically), but diversity of perspective—as much as it is influenced by one’s ethic background—is relevant. With your commitment to judging the prize, should writers of African descent feel differently about submitting their work over the next few years?

CP: Your question about whether writers of African descent should feel differently about submitting suggests that there is one fixed way that those writers feel—are you inferring that they have felt reluctant to submit because the judge wasn’t of African descent? If so, that isn’t really giving credit to the judges—or rather, it is making an assumption that any judge who isn’t of African descent is incapable and/or unwilling to consider the manuscript of a poet of African descent. Just as problematic would be an assumption that a judge of African descent would have a bias toward poets of African descent—I think the judge should be as unbiased as possible, looking for excellence where it appears, which could presumably be from any poet. I am hoping that a prize like the Yale Younger won’t have to get embroiled in those kinds of politics, which have nothing to do with poetry and the craft of it.

KD: Of course, characterizations of ethnic groups are suspect, if not faulty. My assessment of the attitudes of writers of African descent toward the Yale Series is based on my interactions with poets of that demographic over the last twelve years. Still, the problematic assumptions, in regard to you and the prize, interest me. Given that there has only been only one manuscript, Margaret Walker’s For My People, representing a perspective of someone of African descent, what I am anticipating is an increase in submissions by writers of African descent and, potentially, the difficult situation that may put you in. As you state, a balance of craft and ambitiousness is a judge’s ideal and goal, and if a Caucasian judge selected another manuscript with that quality by a Caucasian writer, it wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. But in the event that more writers of African descent do in fact submit knowing the best manuscripts will be going through your hands, there will be an increased chance—just on numbers—that you may choose a manuscript by a writer of African descent, which would, fairly or unfairly, raise some eyebrows. So, I guess what I am asking is, though not suggesting that you have an obligation to address it in your judging, have you thought about balancing the desire to meet your own standards with the hopes and anticipation that your eye might “open the gate,” anticipation that your eye might select manuscripts that change the face of a prize whose more than one-hundred volumes honestly do not reflect the ethnic diversity of America’s most accomplished poets over the past one-hundred years?

CP: I don’t think my desire to meet my standards of excellence needs to compromise the possibility of “the gate opening,” as you put it. I am as aware as you are of the lack of  range, in terms of ethnicity, in the history of the prize—in the history of most prizes in this country, for that matter. And yes, the more manuscripts there are by people of African descent, the higher the chances of there being one selected—but I feel I need to point out to you that there are groups of all ethnicities that are waiting for their particular group to be represented. To expect me to select an African-American, simply because I am half African-American, is, at best, narrow thinking. Am I expected not to have an affinity for work by Asian Americans, for example, for Latino/Latina writers—for white writers, for that matter, given that I am half white? Again, none of this has a thing to do with poetry.

KD: Lastly, as someone who has endured the process of submitting to book prizes as well as judged them and mentored writers who enter them, what mistake do you think younger writers often make when assembling their first manuscripts?

CP: I only submitted once around with my first manuscript, and was selected, so I can’t speak to that part of your question very well. But I believe the biggest problem with the majority of manuscripts that are sent out is that the writers themselves know they have not yet put together a manuscript of work that they entirely believe in. They have often been convinced by many of their teachers that they should put the best work up front, hide the lesser work in the middle, then close with a bang. But why submit a manuscript where you feel any of the work is lesser? I recently spoke with a poet who was pleased to have read a book in which five of the poems were wonderful. That isn’t enough, for me.  I want everything to be wonderful. There are many who would say I’m expecting too much. But lower expectations are, to my mind, the reason why there are so many unsatisfying books of poems in the world.

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Carl Phillips is the author of ten collections of poems, among which are In the Blood (Northeastern, 1992), The Tether (FSG, 2001), Cortège (Graywolf, 2002), and Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems 1986-2006 (FSG, 2007). His work has garnered many awards and distinctions, including the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize and being selected as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. Phillips has also received fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Library of Congress. In 2006, he was appointed a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Phillips is currently Professor of English and of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also teaches in the Creative Writing Program. His eleventh collection of poems, Double Shadow, will be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the spring of 2011.