For the fourth time, Carl Phillips nominated for a National Book Award in poetry

As the number 11 has become the rallying number for the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans this season, could 11 also factor in poet Carl Phillips winning one of the most coveted literary prizes in 2011?

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 fourth time — as a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry.


While the Cardinals are pursuing their 11th World Series title, Phillips is nominated for his 11th collection of poetry, Double Shadow, published last March by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The highly acclaimed poet also was a National Book Award finalist in 2009 for his 10th collection of poetry, Speak Low; in 2004 for his seventh collection, The Rest of Love: Poems; and in 1998 for his third collection, From the Devotions.

He is one of 20 finalists — five in each of four categories — who were announced last week. The National Book Awards are considered the most prestigious of the major American literary prizes. This year’s 20 finalists for the award were selected from 1,223 entries.

The winners in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature will be announced at the 62nd National Book Awards Benefit Dinner and Ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City on Wednesday, Nov. 16. Actor, writer and musician John Lithgow will host the event.

The other nominees in the poetry category are: Nikky Finney (Head Off & Split), Yusef Komunyakaa (The Chameleon Couch), Adrienne Rich (Tonight No Poetry Will Serve) and Bruce Smith (Devotions).

In describing Double Shadow, the National Book Award Foundation writes: “Comparing any human life to ‘a restless choir’ of impulses variously in conflict and at peace with one another, Carl Phillips, in his eleventh book, examines the double shadow that a life casts forth: ‘now risk, and now / faintheartedness.’

“In poems that both embody and inhabit this double shadow, risk and faintheartedness prove to have the power equally to rescue us from ourselves and to destroy us.”

Phillips says of the book, “It’s mostly about the tension between living a life of risks and living a life of timidity and how you calibrate those two things. To be afraid to ever take chances physically is to live a very limited life and yet to live a life of risk constantly can get you in to all kinds of trouble — it’s how you balance those two.”

Of his nomination, Phillips says, “It’s a nice acknowledgement and very good for Washington University’s Writing Program, the English department and good for the school.

“It’s always an honor, of course,” Phillips says. “I realize that there are many people who never get nominated. But I try not to let things like this distract me from the next poem or the next book.”

He is looking forward to the awards ceremony, which he refers to as “quite grand.” He says it can be exciting and overwhelming to meet those attending the gala. “I’ve been reading some of them since before I was a writer myself.”

Phillips plans to sit with his book publisher at the event and to let him know he has a new manuscript he plans to send him soon. He recalls in 2009 being at the same event with his publisher and telling him then about his latest manuscript that would soon be on its way to him. That manuscript? Double Shadow.

Phillips, 52, 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.

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.