“It’s about discovery, not preservation.”
PHILLIP B. WILLIAMS
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How long has Thief in the Interior been in the making?
I started writing the poem "Witness" in 2005, but the oldest section of that poem that's still in there is the section that deals with the duffle bag—"Witness: The Duffel Bag recalls dismemberment."
Yeah. "Once to the subway, twice to the recycling plant."
Yeah, so I think that’s as early as 2009 or 2010.
Wow. Was "Witness" originally all conceived as one poem, or did you think of it as being a series of separate sort of related poems.
Well, the first version that I wrote in 2005 was just one poem, but because of the effect that that particular case had on me, which was a very vast one, I just kept adding on to it. It’s like the story of the woman who kept adding on to the house when her husband died. It felt very much like I kept adding on to this poem because I was still mourning this person who I had no personal connection with. It was a way of dealing with the emotions that I was feeling at the time. That I still feel today.
I kept expanding and expanding it with each version of the manuscript—I always kept it in the manuscript. It would be five sections, then it'd be fourteen. I think the longest it became was twenty. And then, of course, I edited that down.
It’s an interesting project for a poem, and it’s something that you do again and again in this book. You’re sort of writing these poems as a mechanism by which to remember, or even to preserve, you know? I’m very interested in that ambition of a poem.
I don’t know, I wonder if all poems are a kind of mummification of experiences.
That’s a good way to say it.
Yeah, I mean things are going to be preserved. Even if I write about just sitting and watching a storm, and what I see during a storm, that is a documentation of an experience. It might not necessarily be the most compelling—it depends on the audience.
I think the questions that I’ve been asked in previous interviews revolve around the idea of a kind of politics of poetry, or the political poetry of witness, in a way that is considering me, the poet, as a documentarian with more focus than would be given to say, maybe Robert Frost—who in his own way was a documentarian. But I think in our moment, when we have so many things happening that deal with race and gender, you know, Black Lives Matter and Trans Lives Matter, and to have poems that reflect that, they seem to be very openly political in the way that we wouldn’t otherwise consider poetic. So, when I’m writing these poems, I am writing in response to all of these things happening, but I’m not doing so with the intent of saying, "Oh, I want to preserve this moment." If anything I’m just writing to better understand what it is I’m experiencing and seeing. And to really figure out why I’m even caring about this. It seems common sense to say, "Oh, as a person living in the world who has empathy and who may even be a part of these certain communities, of course I’m going to want to write about these things." But it’s not always necessarily the case that someone who is a Black poet will want to write about Black deaths or violence, as if those things—death and violence—themselves were inherently “Black”. So just trying to figure out the reason behind me wanting to write these poems is part of the act of creating the poems, you know; it’s all about discovery, not preservation. I don’t think I have the audacity to call myself a preservationist in that way. But I mean if anyone else wants to do that—I’m not going to stop them.
I love the idea of seeing writing poems as discovery and not preservation. I mean, you have those poems that speak to the horrors and atrocities levied against Black bodies and queer bodies, but you can look at a poem like "He Loved Him Madly," which is a poem written for the speaker's father. And it ends with that wrenching phrase, “Dear closest thing to God I know,” and that’s a way of discovering a relationship with a person who is gone. It’s a poem about two human beings, not necessarily about politics.
Though it's about that too. You know, the idea of the "war on drugs" and its effect, particularly in the 90's—it started in the 80's, well, it probably started even further back than that. We get so many ideas about the way things get started, but I’m pretty sure all this was much earlier than the Reagan era and stemming from the Nixon presidency. But to your point, it is about how that is an intersection between the relationship between father and son, family, and the community at large, the government, and narcotics. It’s really a war against the poor.
Maybe a better way to frame the statement that I kind of just circled around is to say that the poem isn't thinking about these sort of esoteric, broad political realities, and dealing with them as these sort of cultural fogs that obfuscate any sort of connection to that. You’re talking about a very specific relationship with a very specific person, whose life was ravaged by those sociocultural realities, and how his life being ravaged by that ravaged all those lives around him.
Right, right, right. Maybe it’s a conversation about the difference between the public and private, and which of those can be more useful or more powerful. I will say this poem is a combination of both the public and the private. And just having that back and forth, that juxtaposition between being outside and being inside—outside of a moment or a communal circumstance and inside of this very intimate consideration of human beings one-on-one. And I wasn’t really thinking about it in that way, but the form of the poem—every other stanza talks about the community at large, and the other alternating stanzas talk about my father, but I wasn’t really thinking about it in the way that you were talking about it, that’s interesting.
That is definitely a borrowing of language. I grew up around it, but I never really had to use it. I’ve never personally dealt with drugs. I was never around my father while he was high, at least not to my knowledge, you know? I have been around people who were high, have seen drugs annihilate people, but never understood what was beneath that. So, I was looking to songs that seemed to bring to me a better understanding, possibly, of what my father was going through. I ended up learning more about the economics of drug dealing than anything else though, but even that gave me a glimpse at my father I didn’t have.
Sure. And that’s what we do as writers and as readers. The great hope of this craft is that we’ll create something that someone else will see themselves in. You went to the words of people who’ve been doing this in the time that preceded your doing this, and sort of carried their contribution to the conversation in your own dialogue, you know? And I think that that’s fascinating. I think that it’s a terrible gorgeousness. It’s terrible in its necessity, but in its execution it’s just gorgeous.
Thank you. I love terrible gorgeousness.
Haha. Yeah. Put that on your dust jacket.
People do ask me, "What is it that you write about?" which is a god-awful question for somebody to ask, anyway.
Oh, I know.
And the only thing I can tell them is that I’m really interested in the grotesque and whatever manifestation that means to me at the time.
I think every writer has a sort of work around for being asked that question because there’s no real answer. It’s like being asked what sort of music you listen to. But the grotesque is an interesting framework with which to approach this collection. Another favorite poem in the book is "Sonnet with a Cut Wrist and Flies,” a poem that bills itself as being a sonnet, and a poem is whatever the poet tells us it is, no matter what it looks like. And so we look at the poem, and it’s a pretty long poem, though it is broken up into fourteen sections. But then there are also thirteen sections labeled as section thirteen (XIII), which is such a fascinating move in and of itself.
So, just formally I’m already interested and invested in this poem. And then the language of it elevates it so much above its formal conceit, "His face a cut / a black hyphen from which all speech // from which all darkness was made legible."
This poem is a sister poem to the poem that follows, "A Spray of Feathers, Black." I wrote them together. I wrote them back-to-back. I wrote most of these at Washington University, and they were cleaned up because of my experience of working with Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips. I wrote the two poems in particular for a prosody class that Carl Phillips taught. The final portfolio was to write in a traditional form and then write a nonce form based on that traditional form. So the nonce form was "Sonnet with a Cut Wrist and Flies," which was in response to "A Spray of Feathers, Black," which is—
A traditional sonnet.
And in anagrammatic terza rima. I was doing a bunch of things in it and I wanted to be as controlled as possible with "A Spray of Feathers, Black," and then really break loose in the nonce version of that.
They’re two of my favorite poems in the collection and they’re formally both unified in that one is very recognizably a sonnet and one calls itself a sonnet and therefore is a sonnet. But the language in both of them is really exquisite. Which of the two poems came first?
As far as being finished, "A Spray Of Feathers, Black" came first. But what was started first was "Sonnet with a Cut Wrist and Flies," and it failed and I put it to the side. And then it came to the point where I had to do the assignment, and something drew me back to it.
It’s funny how stepping away from a poem for a while can just totally reveal its hidden beauties that were lost to us in the throes of making it. And it’s cool to hear that these poems came from an exercise with someone like Carl Phillips. There's another poem in here, "A Survey of Masculinity," that begins with "My horse, my stallion," which is a recurring motif in Carl Phillips’ work, and the poem also has longer lines than are found in a lot of the rest of the book. Maybe this is just me reading way too much into it, but it seemed like a nod to Carl Phillips.
Oh no, not this one. "A Survey of Masculinity" is more of a nod to Césaire. It's based on the poem "Horse" from his book, Solar Throat Slashed.
Oh! That totally went over my head.
The problem was that "A Survey of Masculinity" started off being relatively close to "Horse." But then, you know, when you write something and work on it long enough, it kind of moves further away from the original. Césaire's poem is very surreal, and I wanted to borrow language from it—"hopscotch," "horse," "skulls"—and use it to try to dig into this territory of, "What does it mean to be masculine?" And now we have this term going around called "toxic masculinity," and that wasn’t happening when I was writing this poem. But I was thinking in a very similar way about this animalizing of man, and thinking, "What does it mean to be told the only way to be a man is to be destructive, to not have emotion?" You know, just silly things like that.
"The softened earth beneath our stampede."
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Well, I love that poem—from whoever's head it emerged. From whatever ocean’s froth it sprung up. It’s a gorgeous poem. In the past you've talked about avoiding sensationalism by avoiding adjectives, avoiding modifiers. Which I think is a really interesting and rich idea. You say, "I did not need to dress up the dead and how they were killed." And you have all these poems that sort of serve as elegies, or the term "poems of witness" has been used. That’s a distinguishing feature in your work; you don’t really romanticize with adjectives or with modifiers.
Yeah. In particular I think that is specific to "Witness." But I don’t necessarily pay attention to my own performance as a poet. Like, I said, "I don’t really use adjectives," but how the hell would I know? I’m not reading my poems to count the adjectives. But I know for sure that in the long poem, "Witness," which deals with the Rashawn Brazell murder, that I tried my damnedest not to do that. Because you’re always going to mythologize it if you weren’t there. So, you end up either making it such that it erases that person, making it into a completely different fable-like situation, which I didn’t think was useful for this poem. Or you end up killing them all over again, and try to describe something in a way that—you know, the police didn’t even know. There was no evidence of—
There’s literally not a body.
Yeah, there were pieces. I mean, we know how, and that things were cut, but we don’t know if blood splattered on the wall. We don’t know if he shouted or screamed. And that’s the kind of stuff that I don’t like. And I don’t want to do in a poem. I don’t want to write the dramatization of what happened to him as he was being killed because we don’t know the specifics. So in that particular interview, that quote, I think I was focusing mostly on "Witness," and even thinking in the future to a poem like "Inheritance: Anthem," which is pretty adjectiveless.
The “Inheritance: Anthem” poems are these circles of words and in the centers of some of the circles are short little bursts of language. One was all questions, like, "'Were there flies?' 'Was there the smell of grease?' 'Did they sing?'" I think if someone is just flipping through the book, those are some of the most visually striking. Can you talk about how those poems found their form?
If I may, I’d like to talk about that entire sequence of "Inheritance—"
Yeah, of course, because there’s the one that's shaped like a noose, too and—
Yeah, and there’s that one that’s a sestina, but it does something funky in the middle. The noose came first—I want to say from the end of 2010 and then going through 2011. This is also an earlier poem. And everyone asked how I created those “Anthem” poems, too. I did it all on Microsoft Word. It took forever. But it was a strange labor to make a poem in the shape of a noose. I was basically making a noose. It was the act of making this tool of historical death. I was very aware of what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it because I wanted to recreate this object that reflected how metaphorically, or even in reality, there’re still lynchings happening, it's just that they don’t always involve a rope or a crowd. You see the pictures, or the post cards from the past. But with these poems in particular I wanted to point to how the past is still the present. We’re not living in times that are so very different than when we had the scores of lynchings in the late 1800s all the way through the mid-1900s.
And we had people like Ida B. Wells-Barnett fighting against lynching with The Red Record . But what does it mean to say that people are still being lynched in 2011, 12, 13? It inevitably means that we’re looking at Black bodies as a form of entertainment. And to even say something like, "Black bodies" is dehumanizing. You get to the point where you're still alive as a Black person, a Black living human being, but you’re still being referred to as a Black body. And scholars have a bad habit of doing that, it’s really annoying. To call living Black people, "Black bodies." And so I’m very careful when writing these poems to know that, yeah, I am writing about the Black bodies of people who are dead. They are not alive. And we need to distinguish between the living and dead. And so the poems are inspired by that. The poems are inspired by making a noose. The sestina does this weird thing where the form’s pattern reverses in the third stanza. You know how the sestina spirals? It goes from A-B-C-D-E-F and then it goes F-A-E and so forth, so that whole thing reverses in the third stanza.
That’s awesome. I didn’t notice that when I was reading it.
That's why the pattern is “screwed up”. I did that for a reason because history is not really proceeding so much as it’s going back in time. And then "Anthem" is put in this entrapment, this cage of the Miranda rights. It’s how it feels nowadays to be trapped by the law, as opposed to helped or freed by it. To be handcuffed by the very thing that’s supposed to be legally like, "Oh, well you have these rights that are afforded to you to protect you," but there is no protection for those who are killed before they can even get before a jury. So that’s where these poems come from.
It’s so interesting to hear you talk about the way that we’re confronted with Black bodies and Black death. And it seems like every other day there’s some auto-play video that pops up on the newsfeed on social media, where it’s just like you can’t avoid it, and it’s almost like there’s a systematic desire to desensitize you, or to normalize it, you know? And that becomes—
I mean it becomes entertaining.
Yeah. It’s just like sharing a video of a newscaster misspeaking, or a funny cat video, or something like that.
Right, right, right.
It’s shared the same way, in the same spaces.
And what does it do to us to have to constantly be bombarded by this thing that becomes daily, like, "Oh, there’s another one." Like, oh really, "there's another one"? Okay.
Yeah. And you choose to write in this collection of poems for specific victims in a way that says that this is not an auto-play video that we all get angry about for a week or a month and then forget about. To go back to a phrase you said earlier, it’s like the mummification of experience. It’s a way of preserving something from the waves of time that are constantly lapping against the shores of the lives that are lost, you know?
Mmhmm. It feels as though, and this could very well be an illusion, too, there used to be a time of stillness between each death, or each show of death. I’m not sure how real that stillness was. Just speaking of today, and I can really only speak of today—I don’t know if, after Emmett Till’s death, and the public display of his body, there was some other case that has been lost in history, but let me not speak of the past. I don’t know about the past in that way. But I do know about today. We don’t have a moment necessarily, not even of silence, but of being still and just having to sit with a moment and sit with a situation and say, "This is what I’m being confronted with. This is how I want to process it. These are the ways I need to heal, and this is my plan toward healing." Because as soon as you get that name across the screen with the corpse, someone else’s corpse is on the screen, or someone else is writing an article that they wrote in an hour immediately after the news hit. And it’s so reactive. If you spent more time with that, let’s say you spent two months with that, as opposed to feeding on this desire to commodify the situation, if you spent more time with that essay or article—not days, not weeks, but months—because I’m pretty sure it takes as much time to write a good essay as it does to write a good short story, maybe I’m wrong, but if you really just sat and created an argument, and did research, and looked into the past, and looked into the present, and then tried to discover a new future, would we move forward? As opposed to us rehashing the same thing that we did when Oscar Grant was shot, or when Trayvon Martin was shot. And they are without depth, rife with illogical arguments, clumsily written “think pieces” with rushed or no thought at all. You know, we’re saying the same thing over and over, and we’re doing it in this kind of fast food idea of, "Oh, well this venue is asking for an article, let me write a thing for them real quick." Well, no! Just no. Don't. No.
I love so much of what you’re saying, and it seems to me like we’ve developed these sort of algorithms of outrage and this is how we process now, instead of sitting with something. And that’s why those specific poems feel so significant. They feel like the result of time spent sitting in that stillness, and time spent sitting in grief, and in deep thought, and in looking into the past. The poem that we keep talking about, "Witness," quotes the Rashawn Brazell website address as "Not Found" and that becomes part of the poem. There’s so much information from the situation that gets into that poem, and it’s clearly the result of time being spent with an experience. And time being spent with a person, you know?
And I’ve read articles—and the thing is that it’s easy to do so, because there weren’t that many news articles. The New York Times didn’t pick up the story until around 2008. They came to it relatively late. So, you know, there was nothing around. Different bloggers were talking about it, but I don’t want to rely on bloggers for the very same reason we already spoke about—I wanted facts, I wanted factual information and at that time blogging was not nearly as sophisticated as it is now. So it took a while for that to even develop. And then you've got the New York Post , you know, they write these really awful headlines. Wow, I don’t know how can you even mistreat people in that way. "Gay Beau Sought In Body-Chop Slay" is an actual title of a 2006 New York Post article written about Rashawn Brazell’s murder.
2006. His body was discovered, or the parts that they found were discovered, in February of 2005. And that article was published in March of 2006, so, a year after. It's like, not only are you late to be talking about this, but you’re also terribly disrespectful. You’re mythologizing him in a way as though you knew he was killed by a lover. But we don’t know who the person was that killed him. We don’t know if it was even one person. We don’t have any information about that. Maybe someone does, but there is no official report. And then to just have such an awful, awful headline, "Body-Chop Slay"—ugh. So it was stuff like that floating around. You couldn’t even find a reliable, respectable news source that had any kind of authenticity to it. It wasn’t really until even later than that when someone actually talked to his mother. It’s ludicrous. Ludicrous.
That they would wait that long to get to her.
That they would wait that long.
If I would’ve just had the first poem, which is the opening poem to “Witness” that starts "When Rashawn Brazell went missing, / the first trash bag of his body parts, / hadn't seen his head," then it would’ve just been a summary. For a while it was the only thing that I had, and that wouldn’t serve much more of a purpose than the single news article that floated around about him. I needed time. I needed time.
It’s hard to segue from that into anything—
Well, I can help you. No one has asked me about this, so let's talk about section three, with the little sonnet kind of poems. Is that okay?
Absolutely. One of the things that I always want to ask people, but I never want to put them on the spot, is what’s something that nobody has asked you about this book that you wished they would, or what's something that you think people haven’t noticed yet?
Haha. So many things.
Yeah, I mean, I love those poems, but what is it specifically about the poems in section three that you are hoping people notice?
Well, I hope they notice that it is a very open attempt to move from the dark mood of the previous two sections into something that is, in and of itself, trying to process the world. The book is a culmination of all of these really, really, hard years that I had emotionally. Nothing physically ever, you know, it wasn’t physically taxing, but emotionally I was just very worn out and depressed for quite some time. And so these poems are not necessarily mood lighteners, I don’t care about lightening a mood, but there's this kind of bridge of moving from—Okay, now we've had all of this death, and there’s going to be death to follow, but how are we going to move from a population death, a populous death, into a more private meditation on what it means to mourn and live.
Yeah, and to live in the wake of death, too. A lot of these poems seem to be about what happens after somebody dies. One of my favorite poems in the book is "Love Story." That second stanza, those last five lines. It’s just so horrifying because I have a lot of experience with addiction and it's like I know Rachel, though I've never met Rachel, you know what I mean? She comes up to the porch, looking for the uncle, and the speaker offers to pay the five dollars that their dead uncle owed her, and she’s just totally oblivious, and it just rings so true to experience in this horrifying way. But is there anything in this section that isn’t a sonnet?
They all play with fourteen lines. They all go out of their way to visually manipulate what a sonnet is supposed to do and what a sonnet is supposed to look like. And it’s a crown, too. "Who could turn their backs to them and survive," is the last line of the first sonnet, and then, "I was told I could turn my back to them," is the first line of the second sonnet. "No. Tell him," are the last two sentences of "Love Story," and then the title of the third sonnet is "No, Tell Him—," so it has this crown reaching out as well.
That goes back to one of the first things we were talking about, which is that this book seems to be very interested in forms and playing with forms. Do you want to talk about what it is that drew you to writing a crown of sonnets? What is it that these poems are doing playing with the fourteen lines and bleeding into each other in that way? What do you, as the poet, think that that’s doing for them?
I think the conceit of the entire book is a sonnet.
Oh, that’s interesting.
So, of course there’s "Sonnet with a Cut Wrist and Flies," and then the poem that follows immediately after that, "A Spray Of Feathers, Black," is a sonnet. Then if we think about "Witness" as a kind of crown because there is a sonnet in it, maybe a few sonnets in it, I haven’t counted, but it also repeats certain lines over and over again. And then the last section is a culmination of different lines that happened within the poem, and that section is fourteen lines. The entire book is focused on the form of the sonnet. There are tons of them in there, "Of Darker Ceremonies" is a sonnet, "Visitation" is a sonnet, "For Joy Be Righteous" is a sonnet. They're all over the book. It’s just something that I noticed before I finished the book, like, "Oh, there are a lot of fourteen line things going on."
And I think what I like about the sonnet, and what I couldn’t move away from, was this compact form that tries to say so much, and tries to do so much with song, and speak so much to desire, but then it also turns away from itself with the volta. It has these movements in it. And I felt like that’s what the book was about. The book was about desire and trying to find love in these tough spaces. And when you get into an argument and you're figuring out how to answer the argument—when you get to the end, is the volta really a conclusion, or is it an opening up? I think that’s where I was going with the entire book. To speak specifically on section three, I don’t know. A lot of it just happened that way, but some of it was absolutely manipulated, like, "Rend," "Of Contour, of Cadence," and "Greatly Be Gentle" were three individual poems. They had nothing to do with one another.
Yeah, but then you sort of tethered them into each other.
Yeah, I thought that they were speaking to each other with a kind of beloved in them. And I think the section three sonnets have in them a love, or a love for something, or a looking for a love for someone. I wanted it to work, so I did have to figure out how to get them to speak to each other, and it just became like, "Oh, maybe I can connect them just by lines." And that's how they became a crown.
It’s so deftly done that it certainly doesn’t feel that it was imposed upon them, or implemented after the fact, or anything like that.
Well, if it ever does feel like that, then it means it failed and you shouldn’t do it anyway.
Haha. Sure, yeah. We could talk for another two hours and still barely scratch the surface, but we're over time already, so to wrap things up, I want to say that you’re someone I look up to a great deal, in terms of being very young and also being very involved with every area of poetry, from publishing your own poems, to also being an active editor. You interview people, you write reviews.
I think it comes from the idea that I would not be here if I did not feel like those things were instilled in me or done for me. Even though I’m relatively young, some would say very young, I still understand that there are some things that I know that a lot of people don’t know, and that they would like to know. And I try to make myself as accessible as possible to people in whatever way I can. I can’t do one on one mentorship with everybody. That’s not feasible. But I do that in private, and I don’t necessarily publicize with whom, but that definitely happens. It happens frequently, but not overwhelmingly so. It’s not something that happens to the point where I have to sacrifice other things. I just feel like editing gives me the space to say, "Hey, let’s pay attention to this person," because someone said, "Hey, let’s pay attention to Phillip." So I like editing just so I can point at other people and say, "We might want to really pay attention to this voice." I like writing book reviews, even though I don’t write them regularly. I only have three to my name, but I like doing that because I feel as though poets should be writing more book reviews instead of relying on people to do them for us.
Well, and the interviews, too.
I've done interviews and I continue to do interviews. There will be some coming out in Vinyl . What better way to learn about a poet than from the poet’s mouth? You know, there are these things we make assumptions about, like that we can’t have our friends write book reviews. I think we can as long as they're objective. We should use poems as primary sources. We shouldn't always go to the texts of critics. Critics frequently get it wrong and they don’t always necessarily respect the artist, or the artistry, when they’re critiquing, so you would get all these books about only a particular kind of poetics or poet, but we have all these poets that are alive and they can be their own resource, their best resource. It’s why I do the interviews. I just want to give space for people to create their own space.
Interview Posted: April 4, 2016
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