Hi! My name is Phillip B. Williams. I am a writer and teacher currently living in Bennington, Vermont. I am originally from the west side of Chicago, IL.
Let’s take it back to the beginning, how did you first find your way into poetry?
I wrote every genre in first grade without even knowing it: stories, plays, poems. We had to journal daily and it was my favorite time. It wasn’t until high school when I really decided to take poetry more seriously, though I always thought I would be a fiction writer. At my high school, Whitney Young Magnet High, we had monthly poetry readings that inspired me to read my own work. Because even at a school as great as Whitney Young poetry was taught as an aside to novels, I took trips to Harold Washington Library on my own. This is how I discovered C.K. Williams, Sapphire, and Sonia Sanchez. I had to take learning into my own hands, which is a lesson I carried with me into adulthood.
What does poetry allow you to express that other parts of your life might not?
This is a tricky question because I do not see myself as writing poetry primarily to express myself, rather explore myself. That is what poetry allows me to do: explore myself via language. When I danced briefly in undergrad, I explored myself via movement. So, if I am thinking about your question, poetry allows me to express my exploration to others, but most importantly to myself.
You’ve been able to write a few books now, how do you get in the right mental place before each book where you find the deeper interior to write?
I don’t necessarily set out to write a book. I write a bunch of poems and eventually I find threads between poems where they seem to want to converse with one another. That’s when I begin thinking about how to get some of the poems to talk to one another in a single space: the book. Really, the process of writing a book is a long one and takes as long as it would to write each individual poem. I have no idea how I get into the “right mental place;” I’m not even sure that exists for me. What does exist is knowing when it is time to write, and that comes in spurts.
What’s your favorite part of the book writing process?
My favorite part is also my least favorite: ordering the poems. I am in a love/hate relationship with making sure poems are in the correct order such that the book flows. What “flows” means is different for every book, but that is the challenge because there are so many choices and possibilities. One can have the same poems of one book but, reordered, create a new book altogether.
I saw you ask this question on your social, so I decided to ask it back to you. If poetry has changed your life, how has it done so?
Poetry has changed my life by giving me a life that fits my personality, my disposition. It made me possible, first of all, such that the person you are interviewing now would not exist if not for poetry. I was originally a business major in college and switched over to English either at the end of my sophomore year or the beginning of junior year. I think that’s a big change. I know myself better as a thinker, as an inhabitant of this world, because of poetry.
While it seems like the obvious, but as you look back how much influence has Chicago had on your work?
I’d like to think that Chicago is all over my work sonically. I do not all the time name names in my poems. So Cicero and Madison, Harold’s Chicken, or Crane High School may not appear in my poems, but the quick-paced way Chicagoans speak is definitely in my work. Also, the way my neighborhood looked takes over all my poems, even poems that I imagine as not being sourced from my life in Chicago. No matter where I move, when I describe a place I am using memories of my birthplace.
You went on a long rant on twitter a few weeks back and you said, “I would like for more people to say less about how “good” something is and speak more to how the poem operates”. Give an example on how you would like to see critique:
This is going to be a very long answer because this is important to me on a historical level. I’ll give a couple of examples but, first, I wouldn’t call what I wrote a “rant” any more than I would call any artist manifesto a rant. Baldwin spoke frequently about the responsibilities of artists and state of art in the US. Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and Audre Lorde had powerful and influential beliefs about the way we honor and pursue our craft. T.S. Eliot shaped poetry by stating how he saw it operate on the page and among specific groups of poets. My concerns, critiques, and observations are in line with the history of poetics where what is often called “intellectualization” as a diss is simply a redundancy: language is sourced from the mind and the ways we access language move first through the mind then into feeling. It’s how the brain works; I didn’t make those rules haha.
Quick anecdote: a good friend of mine wrote a book that became incredibly popular. They hated the popularity because people kept misreading their work and, in doing so, kept erasing them as a person. Review after review, their biography was exoticized and put on the forefront while their poems were mere decorations. My friend had projected onto them all of the insecurities and needs of their readers instead of their readers actually seeing that the poems weren’t really about their needs at all. Ironically, this self-centered behavior was part of the book’s critique. So, thousands of copies of the book were sold and no one cared enough to give them a proper read because they were too busy feeling seen/heard, or what have you. It was a painful experience for them: to have a book everyone loves for superficial reasons, and when you don’t like those reasons people dislike you for judging how they “celebrate” your work. It’s mind-boggling, really, when people expect you to feel grateful for their small effort.
I wish for poets to qualify the work we share without emptily commodifying it. Qualifying can happen in the form of reviews, essays, or one sentence saying what a poem does. One sentence: “I like how this poem uses space on the page.” That one sentence can add so much to other people’s reading of the poem. What was most strange about that tweet was the response from poets who did not want to do anything but say how great something was though their own work found success and volition because actual critical support happened for their poems in lieu of popularity and empty praise. Many of these same poets understand the power (and dangers) of a book review, of a blurb, of an interview, and would not bat an eye to an “intellectualized” review or to even themselves sounding as smart as possible in an interview. Toni Morrison was able to build and sustain a career, her talent never in question because scholars/critics and other fiction writers did the critical work to help make that happen. They took her books, found how they operated on a level of craft, saw how they connected with work that came before her own, saw how it spoke toward a literary future, and they documented these thoughts and demanded she be respected as a crafts-person. It’s actually very loving work and requires a lot more energy than “liking” a thing, something that McDonald’s uses to sell billions of questionable (health-wise) burgers: “I’m loving it!” Sure, book reviews and such can be grossly capitalist in how we consume them, but at the very least a review or essay can reveal many sides of a poet’s work that enlarges the work, makes it more imaginable.
When it’s all said and done how would you like to be remembered?
I don’t really mind how I am remembered. I’ll be dead so…haha. I mean, when it gets down to it, I would like my work to be remembered, so I guess I would like to be remembered for my writing and involvement with my writing community.