The 53rd Annual Wallace Stevens Poetry Program presented award-winning poet Carl Phillips Tuesday night at Konover Auditorium in the Dodd Center at the University of Connecticut.
The mission of the Wallace Steven’s Poetry Program is to promote poetry at UConn and in the Hartford area by offering two poetry readings each spring – one at UConn and the other at a high school in Hartford – by a poet of national or international acclaim.
Philips, who was “intimidated” and “overwhelmingly honored” to be chosen, admitted that he never felt like a writer. Although, according to the evening’s program, Phillips is referred to as “one of the most original, influential and productive of lyric poets in America.”
He is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, criticism and translation. His most recent books of poetry include “Reconnaissance” (2015), “Double Shadow” (2011, winner of the Los Angeles Times book prize for poetry and finalist for the National Book Award) and “Speak Low” (2009, finalist for the National Book Award).
On top of all of that, he is also a professor of English and creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis.
“The more I talk, the more stupid I sound,” he said quickly before diving straight into a reading of poems from three of his books.
His poetry focuses on three main themes: love, desire and mortality.
In the poem “Discipline,” one line reads, “You are the knife, /and you are also what the knife/has opened, says the wind.” Looking back on what he had written, Phillips said it was disturbing, but still somewhat pleasing to use a knife as a metaphor. He also prided himself on having written a poem as short as that one.
In-between poems, he mentioned his reading motto is “the less you say, the better you sound.” Which is exactly what he did, he letting the poems speak to who he is as a poet rather than explicitly saying it.
What he did have to say, were small comments that demonstrated how down to earth and funny he is. On the poem, “Brace of Antlers” he said his friends were disappointed after reading it to find there were no antlers in the poem.
“My friends lack imagination,” Phillips said.
The Wallace Stevens Poetry Program also hosts an annual poetry contest for students at UConn, as well as college-bound high school juniors and seniors who live in Hartford or are part of the Early College Experience Program at UConn. The winners of each were awarded at the beginning of the event.
Students of UConn’s Design Center – a class and active design studio on campus – also took part in the evening by creating a poster with original illustrations they felt represented Phillips’ poem “It Felt like Power.”
Eighth-semester graphic design major Sydney Roper and sixth-semester graphic design major Renald Louissaint illustrated two suspended pillows, creating an illusion of a bed.
“The poem was provided to us and we had to read it, analyze it and come up with a design around it,” said Louissaint. “We scrutinized the text and tried to do something to fit the poem and the theme of it.”
Roper said she spoke with Penelope Pelizzon, chair of the Wallace Stevens Poetry Program and an associate professor in the English department, who gave her more of an in-depth analysis of the poem and background on Phillips.
“We then worked with Laurie (Sloan) at Counterproof Press to print it on a really old printing press and put together the final product,” Roper said.
Roper and Louissaint both agreed that attending the event and hearing Phillips read his poetry gave their work context and a personal connection.