Carl Phillips’ ‘Speak Low’ named National Book Award finalist

Poet Carl Phillips, professor of English and of African and African American studies, both in Arts & Sciences, at Washington University in St. Louis, has been selected — for the third time — as a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in poetry.

Phillips was nominated for his 10th collection of poetry, “Speak Low,” published in April by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Carl Phillips

The highly acclaimed poet also was a National Book Award finalist in 2004 for his seventh collection, “The Rest of Love: Poems,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in 1998 for his third collection, “From the Devotions,” published by Graywolf Press.

“I am honored, surprised, excited — and above all, grateful to think that my work might resonate with someone besides its maker,” Phillips said upon learning Oct. 14 of his third nomination.

In describing “Speak Low,” Phillips said, “I think of it as a kind of meditation on risk, restlessness, and the ways in which being human can come into conflict with how society defines so-called moral and responsible behavior, especially when it comes to sex.”

Phillips, 50, who wrote poetry as a teen, then stopped for some 10 years after earning his bachelor’s degree, only began publishing his poetry when he was in his early 30s.

His first book, “In the Blood,” won the 1992 Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize and was heralded as the work of an outstanding newcomer in the field of contemporary poetry.

His other books of poetry are “Cortege” (1995), a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry; “Pastoral”(2000), winner of the Lambda Literary Award; “The Tether” (2001), winner of the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; “Rock Harbor” (2002); “Riding Westward” (2006); and “Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems, 1986-2006” (2007).

He won the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry for “The Rest of Love.”

In the 2003 he translated Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” and in 2004 he wrote a book of essays, “Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry.”

In 2006, Phillips won the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, given in memory of James Ingram Merrill.The fellowship is awarded annually to a poet for distinguished poetic achievement at mid-career and provides a stipend of $25,000. The academy’s board of chancellors, a body of 15 eminent poets, elected Phillips.

Academy Chancellor Ellen Bryant Voigt wrote at the time: “It might be said that all memorable poems explore or enact what it means to be human. Carl Phillips’s work does both, looking steadily at his abiding subject — the complexities of intimacy and isolation — in sentences majestic and muscular, in lines taut and musical, and in language vivid and exact. These are indelible poems, and the voice in them entirely his own.”

Inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004, Phillips also is the recipient of, among others, a literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Witter Bynner Foundation Fellowship from the Library of Congress, two Pushcart Prizes and the Academy of American Poets Prize. He was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006.

In addition to contemporary poetry and the writing of it, his academic interests include classical philology, translation and the history of prosody in English.

His poems, essays and translations have appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, The Paris Review and The Yale Review, as well as in anthologies, including “Best American Poetry,” “The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997” and “American Alphabets: 25 Contemporary Poets” (2006).

Phillips earned a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in Greek and Latin in 1981 from Harvard University, a master’s degree in Latin and classical humanities in 1983 from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s degree in creative writing in 1993 from Boston University.

He arrived at Washington University in 1993 for a joint appointment in the Department of English and in African and African American Studies. He directed the Writing Program from 1996-98 and 2000-02.

This year’s 20 finalists for the National Book Award were selected from 1,129 entries. The winner in each category — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature — will be announced at the 60th National Book Awards Benefit Dinner and Ceremony on Nov. 18 in New York City.

Satirist Andy Borowitz will emcee the event. Each winner will receive $10,000 and a bronze statue; each finalist will receive a bronze medal and $1,000.

Phillips plans to attend the ceremony. Could the third time be the charm? “Many of our greatest poets have never won this award,” Phillips said. “To have been singled out is an honor itself. The real pleasure will lie in making the next poem that I have to make.”