Green Creek native Gary Phillips publishes book of rich local characters

Published 10:00 pm Friday, December 9, 2016

Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips

Grandma Ettta was kind of a hill witch, shy and wild. It was from her that most of the Cherokee come into the Halloways, and I have a secret cunning that was transmitted directly from her to me. She’s my reminder ghost that I come from a people, not just a circumstance. 

 So reads an autobiographical passage from Gary Phillips’ latest work, “The Boy The Brave Girls” (Human Error Publishing, 2016), available at, a book of poetry, short stories and compact social essays “that untangle some of the liminal emotional spaces we inhabit in the early 21st century.”  

Phillips grew up in Green Creek, attending some of the earliest integrated classes at Polk Central High School. That racial mix made a positive impression. 

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So much did it, that when Phillips, a writer and poet, left Polk County to attend college, he did so “one step ahead of the Klan.” Phillips said he left Polk County on a very significant scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill.  

“The Boy The Brave Girls” contains many autobiographical stories from his Polk County upbringing.

As a boy, Phillips, who attended Green Creek Elementary School, also educated himself, reading under the sheets with a flashlight.  

Though his parents were always supportive of his choices, parts of the overall community were not, Phillips recalled. 

“I was inspired by literature from the beginning, which made growing up in an anti-intellectual environment very hard. I’ve kept a journal since I was 17. I’m still a prolific reader.” 

Phillips described his own family as “loving, supportive, diverse, interesting.” And, in spite of any anti-intellectual feeling in the overall community, Phillips noted that “Everyone in the community supported my mother in ways that were just amazing.”

“It (that support) is partly because my mom and dad gave so much back to the community.” 

Many writers keep journals; Phillips is no exception. 

He started journaling when he was 17. As a teenager, he became involved in the school magazine and wrote a good deal. At that age, he also attended an Appalachian Studies Conference when they published a poem of his. He went to the conference in Blacksburg, Va., where he met “some of the most amazing people” including Myles Horton who ran the Highlander Center. 

At the conference, they believed that everyone had a right to tell their story. Hearing some of those stories “blew my life apart,” Phillips recalled. 

In addition to having written a poetry column for the Missouri Farm Journal, Phillips is now the poet laureate of Carrboro, N.C., where he currently resides. He has also written for The Sun magazine, a Chapel Hill-based literary magazine.

He has also worked with Bill Moyers in community organizing in the South. 

“Every one of those people is still significant in my life.” 

On fire with civil rights sentiment on returning home from the conference in Virginia, Phillips became fully involved in the struggle for equal rights. He came back “with anger and outrage” at the community, so much so that he recalled his family being threatened by Klan members. Phillips remarked that his father announced his support for what young Phillips was doing. 

“I’m never just writing about myself,” Phillips said. He did note, “Poetry has come to be thought of as confessional.” 

Always writing, Phillips has attended the Bread Loaf writers’ conference, begun by Robert Frost. 

While much of Phillips’ work has been non-fiction, currently he is concentrating on poetry. To that end, he has a contract with a publisher for the work to be out next year.  

Putting those feelings in print “helped me clean out the attic of my brain.” 

Phillips will be conducting at least six poetry readings in 2017. 

Says Phillips, “I live in a rich milieu of diverse people.”