Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, Illinois native. He is the author of the book of poems Thief in the Interior(Alice James Books, 2016). He’s also co-authored a book of poems and conversations called Prime (Sibling Rivalry Press). He is a Cave Canem graduate and received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-, Callaloo, Kenyon Review Online, Poetry, The Southern Review, West Branch and others. Phillip received his MFA in Writing from the Washington University in St. Louis. He is the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetryand the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University.
His book of poetry Thief In The Interior comes out January 12, 2016, and is currently available for pre-order.
Bettina: Hi Phillip! Thank you for agreeing to have this interview—well, ongoing conversation, really, about poetry, but presently your debut collection, Thief in the Interior. I’d like for us to have a little context for this project and you, as a poet. Who has influenced you most in poetry, who or what gave you permission to write, and how are said influences reflected in this book?
Phillip: Thank you for having me. You’ve asked two difficult questions back-to-back, so let me see how I can answer you without writing an exhaustive list.
For who has influenced me? So many people. I started reading poetry seriously in high school and Sonia Sanchez’s Shake Loose My Skin, Li-Young Lee’s Rose, and Regie Gibson’s Storms Beneath the Skin were the first three books of poetry I purchased for myself. I could not put them down. I had been writing since the first grade so in many ways Mrs. Karen Bellamy from Morse School of Fine Arts (Chicago, IL) and my mother gave me permission to write and encouraged me endlessly to do so.
Sonia Sanchez’s use of metaphor has always been with me and shows up in the poem “He Loved Him Madly,” which is a pecha kucha about both Chicago during the pinnacle of the 90s version of the “war on drugs,” as I recall it, and my father whom I lost to an overdose. I think I needed her artistry, her surrealism and rage to really dig into those themes.
B: You also play a lot with form in the collection, yet nothing feels rigid for rigour’s sake. I’d like to talk a bit about that way you use the page to perform the poem with “Anthem” where the poems take the shape of halos with the text of the Miranda warning. Why did you choose this poem’s shape?
P: I think it chose me in so many ways. I was sitting in a friend’s apartment who had just been arrested while peacefully protesting in St. Louis, November 2014. He’d been back for maybe a day but I was still very anxious and depressed over what had happened to him. I had just gone to a protest with him a few days prior against my own health concerns re: crowds (I have really bad anxiety in large groups) so I thought nothing of him going to this one alone.
Miranda Rights represent fairness and justice, but putting poems within a circle composed of the Miranda Rights revealed that sense of justice to be a trap. So what was supposed to be me kicking it with a good friend for a month became something low-key traumatic. I had to contact his mother to let her know that he was arrested and not yet home. I really thought I would see him walking through the door beaten/bruised.
B: That’s really difficult to have to bear witness to that. Do you feel that witnessing has been a way into these poems in Thief in the Interior? In particular, I am thinking about the series “Witness.”
P: I have a tenuous relationship with the word “witness” when it comes to poetry. It seems as though “witness” dog whistles “political,” where political means a poem written about a specific occasion that deals with the law, litigation of some kind, rights and civility and all those things by which people seem terrified but in which we participate all our adult lives.
For me, the poem “Witness” was more about building a bridge from my state of being—panic that this cruel murder happened to someone who could have been my friend or a friend of a friend or a brother—to my desire to write the poem. I’d been working “Witness” into a poem since June 2005, which is when I found out about the murder. It took 10 years to finish and still isn’t perfect, which isn’t the point but what I mean is that I could have written for another 10 years. The poems was originally 20 pages long.
It was most important for me to talk about what it feels like to not be in a place, to be complicit in the mythologizing of Brazell, to be reflective about my selfishness to write it down while also making sure that I did not kill him again. I did not want to write out the violence of the act; I did not want to sensationalize.
An important question a mentor asked me was if I had contacted Ms. Brazell-Jones, Rashawn Brazell’s mother, in order to write the poem or just to say “Hey, I am writing this poem about your son,” as a show of respect. And, thinking about it, it felt like the right thing to do but it also felt immensely cruel because there was an article that I cannot find now that mentioned how after ten years it felt that Ms. Brazell-Jones was losing hope in finding justice. So, I kept the creation of the poem to myself. I did not want to open the wound of her loss again. That’s why I did not contact her and I hope I made the right decision.
B: Actually, this was an education for me. I did not know about Brazell before talking to you and reading these poems. I don’t think that I will be the only person who is introduced to this tragedy through your work. What is the difference between mythologizing Brazell and telling his story?
P: That’s the thing, his story will inevitably be mythologized in some aspect coming from my perspective. I have to, in my own way, create what is missing, and that slowly moves the real into fiction. The only person who can tell Brazell’s story is Brazell, and that is impossible. But the thing about myth is that it is used to explain the inexplicable and this murder, with all of its violence, is very much inexplicable.
B: Myths do teach us. This poem does explain, but it asks just as many if not more questions. For example, “Who’d recognize me without a head?” “Who will sing for me when I am gone?” There are a lot of questions here that are speculative—particularly about death and remembering or claiming the body. What are the myths/answers to those kind of questions?
P: I think the myth is that the speaker and the dead are united. Our bodies are very fragile such that life seems like a conundrum of trying to enjoy something that is inevitably going to end and when we least expect it. Will it be painful? Will it hurt those around me? I kept thinking “What if Brazell was actually me? Then what?” His death made me think very hard about my own mortality and the mortality of the people I care about. The poem allowed me to, in my own mind at least, configure myself as the conditional “if-then” of life and death. I think that is what was most painful about writing the poem.
B: Do you think you could have imagined different? Do you think there is room for speculation here where you or anyone could be safe from this kind of harm?
P: No, unfortunately. Not in my imaginative moment at least.
B: That’s really depressing. I mean this question broadly: can we, Black* writers, speculate a future safe from harm?
P: I think, for me, a world without harm does not and cannot exist. We could be wiped clean from the earth tomorrow by a tornado or a plague. Then there is the intersectionality of Black lives that have compounded ways in which we are oppressed (homophobia, sexism and misogyny, religious bigotry, poverty, physical disability etc). Race for many of us is only the beginning. So what is safety? What is love, even?
I appreciate poets like Ross Gay who try to find the joy in the world, especially in relation to nature. I can imagine that world but to sustain it in a book-length work feels utterly dishonest coming from me. That Ross can do it and mean it is important. There is a lot to learn from his work about love and community and really paying attention to and appreciating the little things. Goodness, if we could all move through the world like that man moves.
B: But our current conditions are not at all absent. That, to me, is an important aspect of writing that speculates—that ponders that which we might see as neutral or free. I’ve been noticing that there is more of an interest and a push towards this kind of work.
There was recently a conference on the Future of Ferguson at Princeton University. There is rekindled interest in the work of Delany and Butler. The present is really difficult and bleak. How do we know what to ask for if we cannot imagine ourselves free?
P: I think we have to stop trying to imagine ourselves as being free and actually just be free. If our idea of freedom is still tied to the traditions of values of a world that we consider to be bondage, then freedom is not exactly what we’re fighting for. The real question is “Can we be free if our desires are still attached to the current oppressions of our lives?”
This is a critique of what we think is “order” and “structure” and of everything we value. I don’t think we are ready to get rid of those things so we are not, from my point of view, ready to be free.
For example, when we speak of rebuilding Black Wall Street, we should consider if we can protect ourselves if we 1.) rebuild Black Wall Street within the confines of white heteropatriarchal capitalism, as though our money will ever be ours in that system and, 2.) rebuild Black Wall Street with a similar if not the same infrastructure on which our current economic policies are built. We should definitely work toward economic self-sufficiency but we have to be incredibly strategic and careful that we don’t replicate the machine.
If we want to be free then that requires disloyalty to wealth, respectability, and intraracial essentialism.
B: You talked about how the term “witnessing” in poetry seems to be code for “politics.” Is there a place, a useful, thoughtful place for politics in poetry?
P: I’m going to go for the cliché answer here and say all poetry has its politics. The absence of what many people call a political lens is itself a kind of political engagement. None is free of politics.
To choose to write about a fishing trip during a time where countries are literally under siege is a political expression. I can make guesses as to what that poet means to say by not saying, and that is the risk of everything we write. There is always a place for politics in poetry. As long as the craft is present, go for it, but believe me when I say that the political is already quite present.
B: Clearly, Black lives matter has obviously become a heavily contested political statement. Your book very much engages with the precariousness of Black life. Both in the way that you talk about Black deaths, but also the language. Your poems delightfully resist code switching, or at the very least, code switch in the “wrong” context. Can you talk a bit about your use of Black English in the book? What does the language do for you as a writer?
P: I write how I speak, for better or worse. I speak in switching registers constantly. So the poems are pretty much a reflection of how I talk. Of course, the language is different because I consider myself to be “singing,” meaning I choose words for their meaning and sound, but to throw in an “ain’t” within a series of hypotactic sentences where the syntax is baroque is actually how I speak.
B: It makes sense that you are “singing.” The language is very musical. There were moments in the book where perhaps the removal of a verb made the line sing—yes—but also made the line speak in the most intimate of ways. AAVE is good for that kind of double-speak. How does this “singing” work, then, for your more concrete poems?
P: That’s a hard question, only because I feel as though it works in the same way as it does in the non-concrete poems and describing that is difficult haha. The basics are alliteration, rhyme, and syncopation.
I go out of my way not to write in meter. I wanted a choppy sound throughout the book, like a chisel was hacking away at the lines. It is also possible that sound can come into play with not knowing how to read the poems that take on particular shapes. That sort of spelunking through a poem’s depths for something to hold onto can create unexpected musical moments.
B: You spoke about Ross Gay, about the ability to write about nature. You do this beautifully, I think in “Then as Proof of the Land.” could you talk a bit about what inspired this poem?
THEN AS PROOF THE LAND
Because when I write “tree” I mean fire
of autumn. I mean wind moves through the failing
leaves like a man the hue of bark, chased
into that height, into god-hood,
which is a silence. Every cypress
stakes its claim in
what could be called idyll, making a fetish
of the land.
I am the question. Branches answer,
It would be our pleasure, then, as proof, nod closer.
P: This poem started as me wanting to get a line right. I was also toying with a twelve line poem written in couplets. The restraint was too much and it was the breaking of the couplets that led me to this poem.
I also had in the back of my mind the waning belief that Black people don’t write nature poems. We do. But for me it is difficult to think of the word “tree” and not think of lynching. Nature means different things to different people. Where some see beauty and the sublime, I see mystery and sometimes horror. I’m not overwhelmed by the vastness of the ocean; that’s what oceans are: vast. I am overwhelmed by who was lost beneath the waters. History frightens me more than the immeasurability of nature.
B: Does this book frighten you?
P: Yes. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Curated by Bettina Judd
Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern California, Bettina Judd is an interdisciplinary writer, artist and performer. She is an alumna of Spelman College and the University of Maryland and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the College of William and Mary.
She has received fellowships from the Five Colleges, The Vermont Studio Center and the University of Maryland. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her poems have appeared in Torch, Mythium, Meridians and other journals and anthologies.
Most recently, her collection of poems titled Patient. won the Black Lawrence Press Hudson Book Prize and is available here. As a singer, she has been invited to perform for audiences in Vancouver, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Paris, New York, and Mumbai.