Interview with Phillip B. Williams on Thief in the Interior — June 4, 2016
Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, Illinois, native. He is author of the collection of poems Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books) and serves as the coeditor-in-chief of the online journal Vinyl Poetry and Prose. He is currently the Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University and will be a visiting professor in English at Bennington College (2016-17).
Christopher Nelson: One of the things I love about Thief in the Interior is its formal innovation—concrete poems (e.g., words making a noose), anagram rhymes, mirroring stanzas composed of the same lines that read in reverse, and numerous poems defying our expectations of how they should be on the page: reading in a circle, reading across the book's medial margin, etc. How much does form determine one of your poems, compared to message, to content?
Phillip B. Williams: Form and content go hand-in-hand for me. I do not write in form unless the poem demands it, and the poem usually demands it because something has to be spoken in a particular fashion. Be it obsession, rage, desire, or something not quite obvious, the shape of the poem and how it is executed matters just as much as the words.
For instance, in the poem "Witness," which is made up of about fourteen sections, there is one section that is a palindrome, and that reflects how there is no getting out of the trauma of proximity to the dead, even when that proximity feels or is actually superficial.
Nelson: "Witness" is about the murder of Rashawn Brazzell—and the aftershocks of his murder. A recurring subject of these poems is the barbarities black men endure. What is a poem against such a history?
Williams: A poem is a poem against such history, which is really for history if history is simply subjective expression of what happened in a particular place at a particular time. History tries to be objective, but if written by a person who is inevitably fallible then there is no real way to say that something is objective. Objectivity is mythical at best, blind of its own oppressive nature at worst.
The poems I write aren't meant to be documents so to speak, but rather utterances from the dense noise that we call history. It is subjectivity making clear its energies and intentions by being openly subjective. For these reasons I would like to consider poetry to be more honest.
Nelson: And when you talk about honesty are you talking about truth? Are those two in relationship?
Williams: I'm talking about the inability for poetry to remove itself or be removed from artifice. Even when a "truth" or fact is shared, it is shared through the lens of intentional craft that any demand for objectivity cannot remove. Poetry is placed into a realm from which it cannot escape, and that forces it to be honest about and immovable from its intentions, which is first and foremost the exteriorizing of the imagination.
Nelson: Who or what is the thief in the interior?
Williams: The thief in the interior is you as a reader stealing from very private and dark moments by delving into their language. The thief is me skimming through history and memory and feeling like a trespasser in other people's lives, perhaps even my own. The thief is the source of death, the taker of lives, the herald of violence who haunts so many of these poems.
Nelson: I love the evocative art on the cover by James Jean. At first glance the mask seems beautiful, floral, and ornate, but upon closer examination there are skulls among the blooms—the whole tenor changes: what appears glorious is from (or of) death. I imagine that as another manifestation of the thief in the interior. Tell us about the cover art—did you select it? How do you see it in relation to the poems?
Williams: I found the cover art by looking at Jamaal May's cover artist's, Brian Despain's, webpage. He had links to other artists and James Jean was one of those links. I instantly fell in love with the "Talib Kweli" piece, which is the cover image for Thief in the Interior. It was my first choice of fifteen images I sent to Alice James Books and theirs as well. I couldn't have been happier after hearing that Jean agreed to share it with us.
I loved the cover art because the headpiece is both mask (hide) and helmet (protect), both dainty and cumbersome, both beautiful and horrific. Everything about it is enhanced by an interaction of opposites and complicated relationships. I also wanted a dark-skin face on the cover if there were to be a face at all. The representation means a lot to me.
I wanted people to know that this is a book that deals with a lot of issues but with some sort of aesthetic interest. The book will protect and hide its speakers while wounding them. It will use the detritus of the world and our biggest fears to build a kingdom.
Nelson: There's so much to admire in your book, but one of my favorite poems is "Often I Am Permitted to Return to the City," which borrows from Robert Duncan's famous "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow." What draws you to Duncan's poem? Why that one as a pattern to emulate?
Williams: Duncan is one of those poets to whom I return frequently just as baffled by his work later as I was prior. He was a mystic, a magician, and erudite like no other. I am drawn to the mystery of his syntax and the baroque cohabitation of the occult, the political, the spiritual, and the archaic. I would love for my poems to reach that level of inclusivity.
I gravitated to "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" because it was one of the few poems of his that I immediately understood and through that understanding felt understood. I feel much longing in that poem and that spoke to my own feelings of placeless-ness so to speak. As an adult, I have had the hardest time figuring out where "home" is, meaning where I will begin to settle down and dig in roots. I have a hometown and a permanent address in said hometown where my immediate family lives, but I do not have a place that I consider my adult home. I emulated that poem in order to see if, indeed, I could express my own longing by mimicking what I felt to be his longing.
Nelson: And in addition to Duncan, you allude to or take inspiration from several poets and artists: Roger Reeves, Beyoncé, Aime Césaire, and Mary Cornish. Some poets are in deliberate conversation with the voices and spirit of the times. How do you see your work in relation to contemporary culture and the tradition?
Williams: The contemporary has within it the past, and I am very much so a poet with a focus on the past. My lean towards popular culture is only to communicate how it is informed by what came before and too can be overwritten by the past as opposed to always being seen as the culprit of a type of amnesiac palimpsest. Sure, Beyoncé reminds one of Tina Turner, but it is the reminder that gives formation (no pun intended) to the way we can even imagine Beyoncé. So when I use the sentence "I woke up like dis" I am speaking to how even that song about empowerment for women specifically is easily dismantled (or renewed, depending on how you think about it) by the unlivable conditions to which many of us must wake. Surely, we can wake up beautiful and Black and proud, but the bullet has no conscience to feel guilty for making all of that moot. So my point was to move that very political call for self-love into a call for action against the very systems that make it necessary to say “I woke up like this.”
Indeed, I woke up like this, so what are my duties to others while having this body and protecting this body. Quick side note: I am much more interested in the message of a song like "Flaws and All" where mystery is allowed to take over. So relevant to today is "I don't know why you love me. And that's why I love you." "Love," arguably the operative word, plays second to "know." It is the lack of knowledge that intensifies the verb "to love," and I get a kick out of that.
I use the contemporary to build a vocabulary that will be an addition to the past. I am interested in what is fresh and new and rigorous because I understand how easily it is for all of that to be supplanted by time itself and memory's activation of time. The tradition is in all things regardless of how one tries to mask it.
Nelson: I like what you said about allowing the mystery to take over. That surprise of revelation may be what keeps me writing. What are a few of your favorite poems in which the mystery takes over?
Williams: Brigit Pegeen Kelly's poem "Song" does that for me. It is a narrative poem that doesn't necessarily tell a story that has a beginning, middle, and end as we know it. Rather it traces the story of a girl and her killed goat through an emotional trajectory pulled wholly by musicality: a rhyme here, a repeated phrase there. All the while "Song" plays with the tradition of the tragedy from the Greek tragos, which translates literally as "goat's song" and speaks to a misfortune that besets the hero, who would be our little girl, who would be ourselves as readers.
I'm also a big fan of Lucille Clifton and many of her poems hold mystery in their terseness. There is always the "point" of the poem, what the surface holds. But beneath that there is a deep sense of feeling. I feel similarly about Henry Dumas's poems. I'm thinking of his "Kef" poems that are spiritual calls, prayers in a natural mode, taut mythos. His poem "Kef 12" is a favorite of mine.
Nelson: Great examples. … You pose a question in the first poem: "Can I be only one thing / at once?" And the book's final poem is "Birth of the Doppleganger," in which an empowering but nightmarish transformation occurs. I think one can read Thief in the Interior as an investigation of identity, its various iterations, potentialities, and limitations. Does that resonate with you?
Williams: I think it does. That is certainly a way to read the book. Throughout Thief in the Interior, poems take on various traditional and nonce forms; the speaker, usually in the first person "I," is not in my mind the same speaker for each poem—I'm not one to believe that the "I" is more a reflection of the writer than any other non-first person pronouns are—; and lastly the registers are frequently mixed poem-to-poem or even within a single poem. To me, these are signs of a single way of being failing to satisfy.
I'm not sure what I wanted to get at with the book in toto other than to express several years of feeling trapped in an unsafe life to which I did not feel native. I know that many people go to poetry with expectations that are unfair. They want to feel healed or pleased or comforted by poems. A book of poetry is often considered "too heavy" or "joyless" without being read on its own terms. This may seem cruel but that is tragically simple-minded. The way we, particularly in the US, handle our own and other's pain seems so unhealthy and cold, as if to feel sadness always means something is wrong with the self or the person/situation making you sad. But, maybe our joy wouldn't be so fleeting if we paid attention to the vast emotional range we have as people. If anything, this book demands some readers be changed and find beauty in—possibly even a positive yet complicated relationship to—pain, instead of running away from it or feeling ashamed of being hurt. It's like when people cry at a reading and apologize or think that something was wrong because it gave them feelings other than happiness. Do not apologize for being a full person; I'm not going to.