"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 This one of Phillip’s is previously unpublished, and I thank him for entrusting me with it.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 in the way this poem is critiquing. But what happens when the puppet decides to speak for itself and to act on its own accord? What happens when the puppet behaves outside 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.
Tell us what inspired the poem. How did it first arrive for you?
This poem is from a prompt that poet Carl Phillips created during the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop this past June. I won’t say what the rules are, but this poem follows those rules precisely. It is rare when I am inspired by a prompt, but Phillips’s are so unique and focused on structure rather than topic/theme that I felt freed from a lot of faulty expectations. I wasn’t told what to write, but rather how to write, and that makes a big difference.
The idea came from an incident where a poet read a poem with a white male speaker who objectified a Black woman and intended it to be complimentary. This speaker had also asked questions about race that were, in their formation, already ill-informed. I wanted to explore that moment when power pretends to be imagination and the artist (failingly) attempts to transform the painful status quo into something unique and useful.
I’m interested in your pseudo-scientific labeling of the self into two conflicting entities in this poem, Figures A and B. One lives in shame and recoil; the other in noise and externality. What were you driving at with these two figures?
Figure A is the one defined, quieted, silenced, objectified, and whose silence enables and solidifies the power of figure B who is the puppeteer, oppressor, and story-teller. Figure B tells all the lies, and figure A is the page onto which figure B’s torpid imagination expresses itself. This is why figure A’s eyes are to the ground and the figure’s eroticized body is described as being “hips and textile.” The latter is a word that evokes touch, because certain forms of touch can feel like an invasion.
But somewhere in all of this, the speaker is both figure A and figure B, the manipulated AND the manipulator who is not certain exactly how their “I-ness,” their ontological placement in the poem (the nature of its very being), operates. With whom can and does the speaker identify? What does it mean to the sense of self that the answer is “both”?
Isn’t that the truth for so many individuals, to constantly be asking who they are in their relation to power when the answer depends on the situation. With this poem you take the splicing, dicing and reduction one step further, with the talk of being a “sucker for nomenclature.” You drop the n-bomb as a verb, and you totally go there with the full morass of racialized expressions. Is this speaker at all “shamecracked?”
The speaker is, if anything at all, in a state of is-ness, of I-ness that is constantly in flux. It’s not so much the question of “who am I”, or the “to be” verb stranded in the ether, as it is identity blossoming in spite of constant shifts in power depending on who “I” is at any given moment. Figure A is racialized, other, and female/woman-gender. Figure B is written in a kind of echo of the white male speaker from that poem I heard at that reading. I don’t understand everything about this speaker, but it seems as though they exist to comment on is-ness while demonstrating their own placement in the configuration.
The image of “eating watermelon in the closet” comes from Petey Greene, a two-time Emmy award winner who was a radio and TV talk-show host in DC. The point of including that in the poem is to comment on shame and the need to break away from it. The speaker is pointing toward that, even as figure B’s behavior increases the feeling of shame. Whether the speaker feels shame or not is up for argument, but I think it is safe to say that by the end of the poem the speaker has made their own determination.
A feature of this poem for me is that the lines seem held together more powerfully by music than continuity in thought process. How did that come about?
It’s really the power of the prompt. My poetics, if I can call what I do “poetics,” leans on image and sound. Because I often and openly reject a more regular meter, I have to constantly figure out how to make what I say go in and out of iambs, trochees, etc. There are plenty of regular moments, but I love to break them up with syncopated ones. Being allowed to write about whatever I want but having a structural constraint like, say, a poem needing to have a turn every other stanza, makes so much possible.
I can feel the high stakes in this poem most powerfully in the last few lines, with the additional letter “O” and the hidden viper. But is the surprise in the last line that it conflates the viper with the speaker. I sense as if the speaker is taking their power back with that third entity, the “O.” There’s the uncaricatured O of dancing and ecstasy. And then there’s the O that’s the threat of death.
Right, the O is both the mouth in pleasure, in joy uncaricatured, meaning not expressed to entertain others by behaving stereotypically. This is not minstrelsy. And the last O, of a mouth that is ready to snap back, to fight back, a crosshair with fangs. This is very much about taking back power and refusing to give power to those who mean us harm. One day, it will be safe to dance and enjoy life without someone turning that joy into something grotesque. Too frequently we have to deal with people pathologizing our lives only to later on take what they’ve made to seem “crazy” and claim it as their own. So these two Os answer the question “What does it mean to not have joy misread as violent or subhuman on our bodies?” The answer is freedom and fearlessness.
There’s a deliciously limber quality to your syntax. As you make a poem, how do you choose your words, play with their music? And how to you play with the tension between music and sense?
So much of that is educated intuition. I read so much poetry, and so many essays on craft, that I pick up on these kinds of things more than if I were actively running through drills of craft elements. What I can say that might be more useful is that regularity bores me, so I tend to lean away from it without trying. If something starts to feel bouncy or an image feels too expected, I defy that movement.
For many people, the power of poetry is the ability to memorize a poem. Readers feel as though they can participate more if they can engage with the poem without the page being present, and that rhyme/meter assist with that memorization. I don’t care if people memorize my poems or not, and actually prefer that they return to the page to engage with my work. I want my poems to be experiences that trigger thinking and feeling more than singing along, and though both are possible, I’ve found in my relatively small circle that folks have a poem memorized without having an understanding of the nuances of the poem itself, completely missing prosodic elements that I find are my favorite and the most revealing parts of a poem.
I want the way the poem is expressed on the page to be the foremost focus. This isn’t to say that this is the only way to enjoy a poem, just the way I want my poems primarily to exist. If people find a poem easy to memorize, I prefer that to be secondary.
As far as playing with the tension between music and sense, sound itself is a sense element, one that I’d argue is impossible to turn off. So much of what we hear is taken for granted. I enjoy what I’ve been told is a “primal” element of poetry, and that is alliteration and consonance. These things add texture to a poem, help to express emotional states of panic, harshness, desperation, etc. They are typically sharper to the ear, so in a poem with images that are themselves full of blades, why not throw daggers sonically?
The same with any poem with any other such objects in it, absolutely.
Now if you ask me this tomorrow my answer will surely be different. I do a lot of things in all of my poems. This is just one tendency I’ve found.
When did you know this particular poem was finished?
There was nothing else that I wanted for the poem and, more importantly, I don’t think the poem is demanding anything more from me. That doesn’t mean it is “finished,” but that it is in stasis. I could easily want to edit it next month. In its current form, though, it speaks in this way and I think that is fine.
Maybe tell us a little about your poetry education. And what advice would you offer to poets writing and practicing without the MFA?
I got my MFA in Writing from Washington University in St. Louis. Before then I attended different writing residencies where I met other poets, various prose writers, and teachers. The majority of the people I met and with whom I continue to talk poetry came from those places. So, Bread Loaf, Cave Canem, Furious Flower, and later on The New Harmony Writers Workshop all helped me to build a writing family.
Going where writers already are was really helpful to me.
Any “homework” you’d like to assign our readers?
The way I like to offer book suggestions is by offering a pair of books to be read together in the following order: Mother Love by Rita Dove, and Blues Triumphant by Jonterri Gadson. Questions to ask are how both poets render motherhood and selfhood in these poems. I would also suggest taking one poem from both collections and writing a poem that puts the speakers of the poems in conversation with one another. This is not solely to think about voice/persona, but to also consider form. How does form reflect something interior about the speaker, and how can that be experimented with in this assignment?
Share with us a poem you love, and tell us why you love it.
I really enjoy the repetition and vulnerability in Robert Duncan’s “My Mother Would be a Falconress.”
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 received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. Phillip received his MFA in Writing from the Washington University in St. Louis. He is the Co-editor in Chief of the online journal Vinyl, was the Emory University Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry for 2015-2016, and will be visiting professor in English at Bennington College for 2016-2017.