Finding company on and off the page

Carl Phillips

I once heard a writer argue against figurative language—simile, especially—because of its implications about power. The argument seemed to be that simile, in suggesting that one thing is like another, suggests as well the equation of some things, therefore the unequal-ness of other things, which is to say that not all things are equal; once value is introduced, so is power. Simile, by this argument, becomes an insidious way for language to create and reinforce a system of unfairness, of power and the unfair distribution of it. I get that argument, and, without dismissing it at all, I disagree with it.

At the level of animal instinct, the ability to recognize likeness is a survival tool. It’s the way—or a chief way—in which we grapple with the potential danger that strangeness always, at first, equals. If we don’t know what a thing is, we don’t know whether it’s safe or threatening. The example I often turn to is an encounter with something in my path while walking through the woods. Something slightly twisted in shape, and motionless. I can’t tell from this distance, but as I get closer it seems it could be a snake—that is, it looks possibly like a snake, which is to say I’ve engaged in simile. If it is a snake, the motionlessness suggests it might be a dead snake—in which case, no threat . . . I get closer, and I realize it looks more like a twisted, leafless branch (another simile), which turns out to be the case. In this way, simile—thinking via figurative language— becomes the way in which I narrow possibilities down to identify what may or may not be safe. All of this happens in the brain within seconds, as I understand it, the mind sifting quickly through what it knows via the senses—what does this strange thing look like, sound like, smell like?

But it’s also true that the most powerful similes don’t so much equate like with like as suggest equation where it’s not immediately apparent; in doing so, similes have the potential to integrate—to invite an openness to diversity, by provoking readers to simultaneously revise their assumed understanding of the world and to include within it—as a valid, valued part of it—perceived difference. Understanding that “different” doesn’t have to mean “unrecognizable” and therefore “dangerous” is a prerequisite for compassion, without which, within a human society of many individuals—which is to say, a community of restless, ever-shifting points of agreement and disagreement—there would be no peace.

But what’s so wrong, inherently at least, with value? I don’t mean to ignore a long history of people using value to justify atrocity—money, over human decency, for example, one race above another, all the damage done—emotionally, physically, psychologically—by media-driven and -imposed standards of beauty, et cetera. But, like anyone, I care more about some things than about other things. I prefer a wild yard to a manicured one; books mean more to me than sports; I’d rather live in the woods than in a city; I dislike tapioca.

We carry inside us our own wildernesses, as particular in their obsessions as they are various in their surprises.

When I say we are not the same, I mean we’re individuals, individual in our tastes, ambitions, disappointments; we carry inside us our own wildernesses, as particular in their obsessions as they are various in their surprises. These differences give context to the points of likeness between us; or—to go further—likeness and difference require one another, the way shadow and light do. Or like love, and its absence.

The subject of community comes up a lot among writers. The idea seems to be that because we are all writers (or substitute here any form of making), we have even more than that in common, we share a mutual respect and empathy for each other’s work, and we are there for each other, as a support system, for when we flounder in doubt, as we each sometimes do—as we must. But in its origins the word “community” has to do mostly with shared physical space, and a community consists of people who have in common the buildings they’ve erected, from the Latin munio, to build or fortify. This latter idea of fortifying does seem a likely link to thinking of community as a form of support, for a group from within that group. But with the professionalization of the writing community has come the idea that such a community is required, even as an advanced degree increasingly can seem to be required to be an artist, when it is not. If I could impart to my students only one thing, it would be that there is no single right way to do any of this business of making a life as a writer. How can there be—why should there be—given differences in individual temperament and, when it comes to community, the different ways to define and think of it?

Growing up on various air force bases until age thirteen, I came to think of community as ever-changing and unpredictable, and therefore not to be relied upon. I’d make friends with a group of kids, only to move—or learn that they had moved—halfway through the school year. As a result, I quickly—subconsciously—revised community to mean the characters and the worlds they inhabited in the books that I kept with me each time my family moved. Which is to say, I still think of community, even now, primarily as whatever can provide reliable company, which has mostly meant things other than actual people: books and their characters, animals wild and domesticated, trees—maybe trees especially.

This understanding of community isn’t anything like, presumably, that of the adult versions of those kids I met when my father retired and we moved permanently to Massachusetts, where I began high school, the first school I ended up attending all the way through. These kids had gone to school together since kindergarten. For them, community meant sharing a space that had remained constant, as had their friendships, and feuds. That difference between us in understanding only reinforced in me my sense of outsiderness and the notion that when it came to people, community meant a sharing merely of space, and only potentially—not inevitably—of sensibility. There are negatives to this way of thinking (I’m not the best at collaboration; trusting others isn’t the most well-honed of my instincts), but the main advantage has been that working in solitude, without a community of fellow artists, has always felt right to me.

It’s hard to say, though, how much of this has to do with how I came to think of community through my experience with it, growing up, and how much is just sensibility: I’m an introvert. Others aren’t. But whether I’ve always been this way or I’ve learned to be, or I was forced to be by not being included—for all kinds of reasons, including being the new kid arriving in the middle of the school year—it scarcely matters now. Why explain, if for each explanation there’s a contradiction? As a high school Latin teacher, in a small town where I knew no writers, I was mostly a party of one. Sure, I was part of a community of teachers, but usually the only Latin teacher, and my subject matter made me the odd-person-out, the teacher who was asked more than once to explain to the school board why Latin was relevant enough to justify their renewing my contract. What sustained me over the years was my membership in CANE, the Classical Association of New England, which I’d joined more out of duty than interest, initially. Membership meant receiving an occasional newsletter, and being invited to attend the annual conference. Bringing my usual skepticism with me, I attended my first conference, and felt immediately changed. Who knew there were so many others for whom nerding out over the use of clauses in Caesar’s Commentaries was fairly routine? As well as our interests, our situation—teaching a “dead” language, having to prove how and why it mattered—was also a bond. I felt more than included—welcomed; I didn’t feel alone; what I realized was how lonely I’d sometimes felt, which I had assumed was just part of how it felt to be me. The conference lasted for a single weekend each year, but what I brought away with me sustained me through the rest of the year and made it easier to push through doubt and occasional defeat.

It’s true that I’ve often been grateful for having worked for years in the dark as a poet. Knowing no poets, and nothing at all about the existence of a “poetry world,” I had to find a “voice” (whatever that is) on my own, and instead of being given a reading list, I had to shape my own from whatever I stumbled upon in the library or a used bookstore. Not knowing there were “rules” or “trends,” I wrote whatever—and however—I needed to. But somewhere in there I must have had doubts or wanted some sort of confirmation. The first time that I showed a poem to a workshop—taught by Alan Dugan on a pay-per-session basis at the Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro, Massachusetts—the group’s unanimous recognition was that I’d not just shared a poem with them; I’d shared a good one. What I was doing meant something to others besides myself. My work had resonance, though what I called it at the time—erroneously, I think—was value. Or my error was in thinking the poem hadn’t had value until given such by a group of readers, when the poem had meant something to myself already—that should have been enough. Right?

It should be enough, and it is, but I’ll admit I often have to remind myself of this, even now.

Community often determines value; that doesn’t mean it should. But for all my introvertedness, I can’t underestimate the value of community itself. In the course of those summer weeks in workshop with Dugan, I learned to take my work more seriously, to think about it critically; I learned the strange usefulness of conflicting feedback; and maybe most importantly, I learned that an impulse to make meaning with words in lines and stanzas might feel isolating, at times, but (as with being a Latin teacher) I’d never been alone. Through my poems I came to understand and speak openly of my queerness (more openly than I realized, at the time), and in reading and speaking of my poems with no judgment as to their content, the workshop quite literally provided a safe space in which I came to take myself seriously as a writer, and to embrace who I was and am, as a gay man. As confused as I was about my sexuality, and as suicidal as I’d sometimes felt in the face of that confusion, I’ve said that writing my poems saved my life; but if so, that small community of a poetry workshop for two summers did its own share of saving me. I see that now. How do I assign a value to that?

Like finding love, finding the community we need and want requires patience and a bit of luck.

I don’t mean, though, to reduce community to a tool by which to navigate an identity crisis or a gauge by which to determine the legitimacy of one’s art. The larger importance of a writing community, at best, is as an ongoing reminder of likeness: not that we makers of meaning are interchangeable, in any way the same, but that we share something. This isn’t the likeness that I started off talking about—the likeness of equation that implies the lack of it, that implies power and the distribution of it, which had made the writer whom I mentioned dismiss simile—but a likeness centered in an understanding that we share a vocation, a passion. Likeness, then, as a system of exchanged support, community—again, at best—as a space of generosity, which can take many forms, including just being there, like taking another’s hand in one’s own for a time, and holding it, no words required. I think the best communities don’t just provide support but include, too, an understanding that support works in both directions, and that those who choose to be part of a community won’t just receive but give support back, not as a duty but as unforced and instinctive—as respect and compassion should be—as love itself.

I had a very different experience shortly after Dugan’s workshop, when I was asked to join—and was ousted from, about six months later—the Dark Room Collective, a group that had been established as a space for Black voices in a place (Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time) dominated by a White establishment that had historically tried to keep all others out. I wasn’t officially kicked out of the Dark Room; I’d say it was more that I was informed that I wasn’t welcome, and—this is a little fuzzier to pin down, but I felt it—the reason was that I wasn’t writing the kind of poems that were correctly “Black.” I’d wrongly assumed, as they had, that having color in common would mean we saw the world, and more specifically our craft and aesthetic, the same way, or that we’d have every cause in common. That’s naïve, maybe, but not a crime. Sometimes our differences, though we should do our best, I think, to respect them, mean we can’t get along. I don’t find that unreasonable. Isn’t that why, within a world of people all around us (a community of human beings, of fellow citizens within that, of shared identities and interests within that) we end up with the relatively small group of friends we do, whom we need, and want to love, who feel they can turn to us when they’re in need, who can love us back?

. . . I remember how, early in my career, a group of writer friends told me I needed to “straighten out” my sentences, that they were too long and convoluted and, as one person put it, “un-American,” whatever that means. But it turns out that how I build sentences isn’t an affect or style; it’s just what I come with, like the face I’ve got, or how I walk, or how nervous I get around bagpipes and clowns. If the community you are part of makes you doubt yourself, wants to change those parts of you that make you you—and make your writing, by extension, uniquely yours—then it’s not the right community for you. Keep looking. If you want to. Don’t discount, either, the community of one that solitude can be. Alone, as the saying goes, doesn’t have to mean lonely. For me, alone mostly has meant private; intimate; the place where poems find their start.

The community we need is often not where we expected it.

Like finding love, finding the community we need and want requires patience and a bit of luck. And again like love, our relationship to a given community often has a shelf-life. It’s not so much that we fail each other, sometimes, but that we can find ourselves traveling in different directions and at different speeds, though for a while we may have been inseparable in our traveling together. Community is an organic thing—unpredictable, therefore, and not necessarily for everyone, not even defined the same way by everyone. Our needs and desires are as various as we are, and our writing can’t help but distinguish us from others, just as our tastes do, and how we think, versus understand, versus realize a way through—the evidence for which is everything we’ll have left behind, be it in the form of art, gesture, whatever differences we made, for better and worse, in the lives of others, some of whom we knew, most of whom we’ll never know.

Being a writer has meant living much of my emotional and psychological life in uncertainty, a practice of living in readiness for what I don’t yet know, the surprise without which, to my mind, what’s the point of writing? To live always in uncertainty, though, would be maddening; an instinct for stability is a survival instinct, even if too much stability can lead to stasis, a lack of resonance: the death of art. As with so many things, then, the key comes down to a careful balancing, in this case between uncertainty and stability. Stability has many forms; different ones work for each of us. For me, as I’ve mentioned, daily routines (rituals, almost) not ostensibly connected to writing have been essential. But community is also a form of stability, or can be, if we find the right one, at the right time. Some people are part of a writing group, where they share each other’s work-in-progress on a regular basis. Alternatively, for many years now I’ve had exactly one writer friend to whom I show an occasional draft, depending. In the measureless space between those two scenarios, the possibilities are infinite, and include not requiring or longing for community at all, when it comes to writing. It includes, as well, making community of the writing itself. We tend to think of a writing community as a community of writers, but I find I still prefer the community that was the only stable one for me as a kid moving from one town to the next: not writers, but what they’ve written. And what I myself write in unconscious conversation—not with the writers, but with what they made, guideposts along/talismans for/sometime distractions from the quest that all writers share but must accomplish differently: the quest of making meaning with language, not because we were told to, but because there’s no choice in the matter. It’s just who we are, and just as mysterious.

From My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing, by Carl Phillips. Published by Yale University Press in November 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Carl Phillips. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

Carl Phillips is the author of sixteen books of poetry, most recently Then the War: And Selected Poems 2007–2020, which won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize. A new book of poems, Scattered Snows, to the North, will be out in the early fall of 2024. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
Originally published:
October 10, 2022


Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre


Renaissance Women

A new book celebrates—and sells short—Shakespeare’s sisters
Catherine Nicholson

Fady Joudah

The poet on how the war in Gaza changed his work
Aria Aber


Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.