Carl Phillips was born on July 23, 1959, in Everett, Washington. His father, Carl Phillips, was a medic for the United States Air Force and his mother, Helen Elizabeth Phillips, was a painter and homemaker. Phillips’s early years were characterized by a sense of displacement as his family frequently moved to accommodate his father’s military assignments. He also confronted issues of racial identity at an early age as his father was African American and his mother, born in England, was white. This awareness of a dual identity would influence many of his later poems.
Growing up, Phillips did not aspire to be a poet. After completing high school, he studied biology and math at Harvard University. However, he soon found these subjects uninspiring and turned his attention to classical poetry. He was particularly drawn to the work of Sappho, and based on this newfound connection with poetry, he decided to major in Greek and Latin studies, receiving his degree in 1981. He completed graduate work in Latin and classical humanities at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1983. During this period, he also taught high school Latin and continued to do so for almost eight years.
He began writing poetry between 1988 and 1990 when he was coming to terms with his homosexuality. He decided to enroll in a poetry writing class, where his instructor felt that Phillips’s work showed promise. He was advised to apply for a state grant that aided new writers and won more than ten thousand dollars. The grant enabled him to take additional workshops, where he continued to hone his craft.
One of his workshop leaders, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Alan Dugan, also realized Phillips’s talent and encouraged him to assemble his poems into a book. Phillips entered the manuscript for In the Blood in the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize contest, which recognizes an outstanding first book from a poet. During this time, he also applied to become a doctoral student in classical philosophy at Harvard University. After learning that In the Blood had won the prize, he decided to withdraw from the doctoral program at Harvard and instead enrolled in the creative writing program at Boston University, from which he received an M.F.A. in 1993. Phillips worked closely with and was mentored by Derek Walcott (who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992) and poet laureate Robert Pinsky.
Phillips became a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught English, African American studies, and creative writing. After two years at the university, his second collection, Cortège, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Based on this achievement, Washington University offered Phillips a tenured position, and he became an associate professor in English and African American studies. In addition to his work at Washington University, he has also led workshops at Boston University, Harvard University, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Phillips continued to add to his repertoire with the critically acclaimed publication of additional collections of poetry, which garnered numerous awards and honors. Speak Low, published in 2009, was a National Book Award finalist. Phillips settled in St. Louis with his partner, Doug Macomber.
(The entire section is 915 words.)