“Is-ness”, Throwing Sonic Daggers, and The Nature of Power: Phillip B. Williams on His Poem “Of The Question of The Self and How It Never Quite Gets Answered”
I first met Phillip B Williams at the Best New Poets reading at AWP 2015 in Minneapolis, after being moved immensely by his poem “Do-rag”. It’s a pleasure to interview him for the blog over a year later, having seen the release of his book Thief in the Interior, which could not be timelier reading in the wake of recent police violence in this country’s ongoing war on black bodies. With this poem, Phillip explores the workings of a mutable and constantly uncertain identity. Emotive as well as smart, probing as well as generous, the language in his poems carries both music and the invitation for the reader to look and think deeply. This one of Phillip’s is previously unpublished, and I thank him for entrusting me with it. — HLJ
Reading this poem puts me in mind of the Talib Kweli line you quote in your book Thief in the Interior: “But I never write to remain silent.” There’s a recurrence in your work of this theme of silence, from silence as coping mechanism (“If I don’t speak then maybe I won’t die”), to the silencing of the other (“no one listens”). How does this particular poem of yours connect to that silence?
I think in this poem silence operates as both an identifying marker for the powerless but also an omen; the quiet before the storm, so to speak. There’s a kind of puppetry that happens when power is wielded over in the way this poem is critiquing. What happens when the puppet decides to speak for itself and to act on its own accord? What happens when the puppet behaves within its true nature and acts fully human, rage and all?
OF THE QUESTION OF THE SELF AND HOW IT NEVER QUITE GETS ANSWERED
In the poem, figure A is distilled to shadow and floor-looking.
Figure B musics crane-necked, anticipatory for the nih-nih.
I’ve always been a sucker for nomenclature.
The many ways I nigger without knowing.
I’m so Black I’m somebody’s mama sewing
her eyes to the ground. Shamecracked. Akimbo in exclusive gaze.
Lawd, Lawd, Lawd—who is I talking to and where is I? One must
prepare to be seen at all times astounded into erasure, ill-imagined.
Some of us eat watermelon in the closet, breath fermenting
and vulpine, to be able to, at all, eat without being eaten.
Safe in the umbra room dancing ensues, uncaricatured O.
Figure B sniffs figure A. Figure A is hips and textile. Puppet-pulled.
History yawns from the Os of likely weapons, a viper in the shade.
I know because in me the dark is alive and the dark makes plans.