An Interview with Phillip B. Williams

Phillip B. Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois and earned his MFA from Washington Uni- versity, where he was a Chancellor’s Graduate fellow. He is the author of Bruised Gospels (Arts in Bloom Inc., 2011), Burn (YesYes Books, 2013), and Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His poetry has appeared in Callaloo, Kenyon Review Online, The Southern Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, West Branch, Blackbird and others.

Williams is a Cave Canem graduate and the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award and teaches at Bennington College.

Interviewers: Our group found your poem, “Witness”, in Thief in the Interior, to be interesting in terms of the content and style. We’re wondering if you might be able to speak about what you were hoping to achieve stylistically, given the variety of writing styles and forms that were used, and how you thought this complemented the content?

Phillip B. Williams: For me, I just wanted to write a poem that interrogated the space of the page, the possibilities of form, in order to get across the difficulties of relying on anything at all to communicate how I felt while looking at my life through this story. I wanted to match all of the feelings moving through me but no form seemed reliable. I didn’t have any hopes per se, just a vision, and that vision was to keep attempting a thing until exhausted, to keep moving through my fear and anger until I just couldn’t anymore. The original poem is, I believe, 20 sections. I edited it down for the book (it was also what was best for the poem).

I: In reading “He Loved Him Madly,” (Thief in the Interior), we found it to be something like a tapestry of different aspects of what we suspect to be your environment in Chicago. We were wondering if you could perhaps explain or elaborate on how you weaved the different perspectives, voices, and references together to make this work; and how you think this work should be read?

PBW: The form is something I got from Terrance Hayes. He has a few pecha kuchas in his book Lighthead, one in particular called “Arbor for Butch,” which I really enjoy. He thinks about his father in that poem and it made me think about my own and how hard it must’ve been coming up in Chicago during the crack epidemic. But in my mind there is one voice, not many, thinking about Chicago as a place that has failed its residents, particular the working class Black residents in my neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods. The work should be read straight through but one could read all the odd sections together then all the even sections together if they wanted to. I just wanted to make sure that the community had an eye on it as well as my relationship with my father.

I: The final poem in the your collection, “Birth of the Doppleganger,” we felt, to be one of most surreal of the bunch. It feels like a very dark and ominous vision of a rebirth from the body of the wolf into something else; when combined with the title we suspect that it’s describing how a new ‘you’ has come into being. We were wondering, if this work is about you, how you see this transformation: what were you before, what are you now, and what caused this change?

PBW: This poem is closely related, in my mind at least, to the opening poem “Bound,” where the question is asked “Can I be more than one thing at once?” I consider “Birth of the Doppelganger” to be an answer to this question in some way. It’s neither a yes nor a no. More like a “Well, there is always transformation, but this is not to say that this other part of you wasn’t always in you to begin with.” It’s not really about me. Most of my poems are from a speaker that is merely an aspect of me. There are a few where the I is reflective of me, such as “Eleggua and Eshu Ain’t the Same.” That is a poem absolutely pulled from my life but also with exaggerations.

I: As an editor for Vinyl and a writer yourself, what kind of things do you look for when reading other people’s submissions? How do you determine if a work should be published or not?

PBW: I look for a poet who knows what they are capable of. So many poets come to us at Vinyl without and idea as to what they are doing and how to better achieve their aesthetic goals. Every poem has an aesthetic personality, and it is often times easy to see when a poet is still figuring things out, when a poet has not been reading widely or enough, and when a poet accidentally happened upon something cool instead of intentionally working with that cool idea to create something surprising, yes, but also cohesive. I look for work that somehow proves to me that it is different than things I’ve read before. We get a lot of poems that, if names were removed, I wouldn’t be able to say they were written from different people. I also look for poems that take chances with language, think about common tropes with unique vision, and are not ashamed of being beautiful, however that may look.

I: How does your role as an editor for Vinyl compare with your role as a writer? Do you feel your role as an editor strengthens your writing or at times interferes with your creative freedom?

PBW: It’s a mix of both but mostly editing interferes. I try to get one out of my system before doing the other. If I am writing,
I will not look at poems and vice versa. Reading other people’s poems absolutely makes for a difficult writing experience. It takes me out of my creative mind. I do enjoy that I see what seems to be fads happening in poetry and can build up a resistance to them as I write my own work. Analyzing a poem to see if the writer has written something that if shared, could make people think differently about the world is different than wanting to be on the creator’s side of thing, making the work that is unfamiliar and maybe even frightening for me and hopefully for the reader as well. I cannot wear the editor hat and the writer hat simultaneously, but I do learn a lot from reading the great submissions and finding those poems that are utterly generous and thought-provoking.

I: After reading your poem “Do-rag” (Poetry Magazine) we were curious to know your inspiration behind writing it? It appears you poke fun at a modern drunken love story, but we’d love to know if there is any deeper meaning to this poem.

PBW: This poem is less about a drunken love story and more about a love story where someone who is pretty open about their sexuality navigates, tries to navigate, a romance with someone who is in the closet, who participates in toxic masculinity in order to feel some sense of false comfort in a world that does not accept them, rather it accepts a shadow of them. The speaker is willing to keep this secret, though, but not without making it clear that the world is not going anywhere; it can merely be hidden, temporarily, and regardless of what the world says or thinks, in order for the closeted lover to be with the speaker, he has to make himself vulnerable. Vulnerability comes at a price. Both the speaker and the lover pay it.