The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Phillip B. Williams about his new book Thief in the Interior, how form gives a poem subtext, addressing God in poems, and balancing editing work with one’s own writing.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Camille D: Thanks for writing this beautiful, smart book. We need books like this in our world.
Phillip B. Williams: Oh thank you, Camille!!
Brian S: Yes, I agree with Camille. I hate to use the word “important” but this book deserves it.
Phillip B. Williams: It was terrifying to have it go out into the world because it reveals so much about my head space in the years it took to write it.
Camille D: You did the work. I remember coming across “Inheritance: Anthem” in a slush pile. So many poems in response to so many things happening in the world. But it takes a special someone to digest the horrors and find a way to make art that is also insight. The poem still blows me away.
Camille D: You say “the years it took to write it.” People are always curious how long it takes to bring a first book to completion. What’s your answer in this case?
Phillip B. Williams: Three. That particular poem was written in response to a friend of mine being arrested while protesting in St. Louis. I was depressed and feeling confined and the only thing I could do was try to figure out how to express that confinement.
Brian S: Yes! That poem works the visual level so well, and on the line level too.
Phillip B. Williams: How long it took is a hard question. I wrote most of the book in a year and a half but there is a poem in there that started from something I worked on in 2005 and a few from 2011. It took me working on several “collections” (all of which are abandoned) to get to this one.
Brian S: The outer ring on the first two pages seemed to me to resemble the rifling on a bullet, and then as the poem continues, I got the sense of that bullet tumbling as it flew through the air…
Molly: It was so interesting. It took me a long time—several pages—to determine that the lines outside were words, not just symbols. What drew you to that particular form?
Phillip B. Williams: The work of the several failed collections spans about seven years.
Camille D: And to follow up on both Molly and Brian’s questions/statements, are you one of the poets who composes in InDesign? I know Doug Kearney does that a lot. Or, did you start to compose this poem some other way and eventually you needed some design program to make it work?
Phillip B. Williams: ”Anthem” was my attempt at confinement but the poet friend I mentioned who was arrested also has a line about bodies making a circle around other bodies. I wanted to make that happen. The Miranda Rights seemed perfect because they are supposed to be part of a system that protects us and here we have officers slaughtering people and so many asking why.
I only know how to work in MS Word. I composed everything in the book using Word haha. It took some time, let me just say.
N: Along with all the questions about form and the play with formatting—was your choice to publish with Alice James Books and the fact that you as the author got to work on the publishing of the book a factor in choosing a publisher?
Brian S: You know, Word is a bloated program because it does a lot of stuff most people don’t need. But the upside is that it does a lot of stuff. 🙂
Phillip B. Williams: Brian, I thought “handcuffs” at one time. The poem was originally called “Inheritance: Halo.”
Camille D: WHAT!!!?? Both the noose poem and anthem are design feats! Especially with that new knowledge in mind. I’d love to hear you talk a bit about the way you use repetition in this volume. Titles, tropes, whatever angle you’d like to take on that.
Phillip B. Williams: N, Alice James is amazing. I got so much say in the book’s production and they took great care of me.
Phillip B. Williams: It took so long to write those poems, Camille. Let me see, repetition. Can you tell me a couple things you noticed? It will be easier for me to respond with my thoughts that way.
Camille D: Well, the easiest one would be the repetition of the title “Inheritance.” The different ways you take on that idea.
Phillip B. Williams: Oh that came from a desire to connect the poems dealing with racialized oppression. I wanted to connect them with titles so that they were connected directly outside of theme. In this way, the idea of escaping what has been inherited, forcibly so, is always at the forefront of readers’ confrontation with the poems. It’s also one of the reasons why the word “black” in the penultimate section is also in bold. I wanted deliberate action. I was exhausted by the idea, the demand, to be subtle about race.
Molly: Yes, and I noticed some interesting and really lovely descriptions of light, e.g., page 6 (the end of the poem “first words”), page 10 (“vision in which the final blackbird disappears”).
Brian S: There were a number of poems that addressed God directly. I’m always intrigued by that because I come from a fundamentalist background and though I am no longer a believer, I still feel the power of that mode.
I sense that same exhaustion in the idea, the demand to be subtle about your queerness as well.
Phillip B. Williams: For me, God is the Creator, the Universe, Love itself. I believe in the idea of God but for me religion has always made it much more difficult to want to believe, which I know runs contrary. I had to leave religion in order to maintain a belief in God. So when I am channeling God I mean very much so this all-encompassing energy of power, compassion, but also because we canot fully understand God there is a tinge of anxiety too.
Oh I love light!! It’s so intangible and too it complicates things when we think about morality and race. For “Final Vision…” that light was the idea that the young man could have been more than what he was but those things were not even part of his desire. We want so much to moralize our dead but we hardly ever get to know them as people.
Camille D: Another would be that repetition of the salutation, “Dear Ms. Brazell-Jones.” That insistence on naming and speaking directly.
Phillip B. Williams: I want Ms. Brazell-Jones to have space where she was never allowed space. She did not get to say goodbye to her son. I can’t imagine how that feels.
Camille D: Can you talk about the title of the collection as a whole? I’ve got my ideas about it, but I’d love to hear in your words why you went for the phrase.
Have you ever heard what Jericho Brown says about God? He says that whenever we are touching another human being we are touching God. It’s beautiful, especially the way he says it. And revolutionary, as well.
Phillip B. Williams: Subtlety is fine but poetry for me is most exciting when it shows that it understands traditions then does what it wants anyway haha. I am a very tough reader of poems. I demand what I want and want it right away all the time. Silence is fantastic, but there have been so many poems sneaking around their true feelings and I wanted to try something else.
Jericho is so brilliant and has been a great mentor of mine. He makes it possible to love and be loved. He makes it easier for all of us.
Brian S: Moralize our dead and mythologize them as well, I think.
Phillip B. Williams: Yes, Brian, and myth-making is a big part of Thief in the Interior. The title comes from a lot. Oh my
Camille D: I love the nod to your understanding (and challenging of) traditions in your cheeky title “Often I am Permitted to Return to The City.”
N: I love that description about knowledge of tradition, but doing what you want anyway. With that in mind, who are some of the poets, authors, thinkers, people that influenced this collection?
Brian S: Such a great poem in a book full of them, Camille.
N: I have a feeling that I missed some of the play on tradition as I haven’t been as big of a reader of poetry until recently and have jumped into more contemporary poets without really going through the traditional canon.
Phillip B. Williams: Like how are we as readers thieves of experiences when we read poems, as poets when we transcribe experiences of others. What does it mean to write a poem of “witness” while having never witnessed a thing? What does it mean to write about desire when one has not really been in love. And to be already inside says something about danger! Also, Hip Hop, Jazz, other poets (like Duncan) are all echoes in the book. Is that thieving or riffing or remixing?
N, I hope that the book still has power even without knowing what traditions are being dismantled or summoned. That to me is way more important and I hope that you found pleasure in the experience you had. It means the world to me that everyone have individual connections, unique connections to my work
Robert Duncan is in “Often I am Permitted…”
N: I still really enjoyed the collection and found it very powerful.
Phillip B. Williams: Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka are echoed in “He Loved Him Madly.” Tyehimba Jess and Natasha Trethewey‘s use of form are in “Witness.” Camille Dungy and Evie Shockley inspired “Spinning Noose…”
N: The idea of readers as thieves reminds me a lot of bell hooks’s comments about silencing of marginalized voices by retelling their tales instead of letting them speak. Was this something you were also influenced by with this play on ideas like being a witness without having actually been present? Or am I reading a bit too much into the idea?
Phillip B. Williams: Carl Phillips is throughout the book, as is Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Larry Levis, Roger Reeves… I read so many people while writing this book because I was trying to dig myself out of depression.
Camille D: N, Duncan’s poem is “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” A fascinating poem in its own right.
Phillip B. Williams: bell hooks got it right and I did not know she had gotten it right until I went to Fire and Ink, a queer POC conference, and Bettina Judd talked about hooks.
N: I feel I have so many new poets to explore! Thank you for noting the different poets you were reading while writing this collection.
Phillip B. Williams: I worried so much about being offensive to those who were still living with the memory of their dying, which is also why I wanted to write directly to Ms. Brazell-Jones to let her know that I am aware that she is still here mourning. It’s a sin to ignore the living as much as it is a sin to ignore the dead, I think, and of course I use sin to mean something hurtful.
Brian S: I don’t have a question about this. I just want to quote these lines from “A Spray of Feathers, Black”:
Angels know me by my scent alone. Precise
is their reaping my confessions. I am stained.
God is stainless.
Fucking hell, man. That is gorgeous.
Phillip B. Williams: HAHA thank you, Brian
Brian S: And later in that poem as well:
I speak as a creed-lit
failure, faith in me a venom, adder-
fire if the adder were God. I cried “Let
me feel You like Abraham poised to sever
Isaac, though I am filth, am derelict.”
Phillip B. Williams: Brian, did you notice that poem uses three devices *clears throat*: sonnet, terza rima, and anagram. I did it to show Carl Phillips, one of my MFA professors, that I paid attention in class.
Brian S: I only got the sonnet part, I have to admit. I should have gotten the terza rima, much as I’ve read Dante over the years.
Camille D: Thank you for adding my name to the list of your inspiration, Phillip. Though, as Carl Phillips once said to me when I thanked him for the model he provided for my poem “Ease,” in the case of “Spinning Noose” your poem is all yours.
Phillip B. Williams: Thank you, Camille. The first time I saw acrostics were in Suck on the Marrow and in Evie Shockley’s debut collection a half-red sea.
Camille D: Acrostics are the world’s best thing. Next, of course, to terza rima. a half-red sea is everything. Love that book.
Phillip B. Williams: I mostly kid when I mention those things. But I want people to know that form is really important to me.
Camille D: So talk about form. How does it guide you?
Phillip B. Williams: While writing Thief I was obsessed with form but hated having to write in meter. I don’t like the sound of straight meter but it is so necessary to have measure for measure a sound device that makes the poem sing. I used form to create sound where meter fell away. So, like having words repeat in poems or having lines repeat throughout all of “Witness.” Form allowed me to use repetition to create music in lieu of iambs or dactyls, which are present but tucked away.
Form also allowed me to give poems subtext, like how the sestina “The Force of Aperture” has its spiral pattern reversed in stanza three. To show that there is no escaping this dark history.
Camille D: There is something so important about the constraint of form, especially when dealing with subjects the likes of these. Did you find that form provided you an avenue for joy and celebration even when you were writing about such dark and painful material?
Phillip B. Williams: Camille, yes! Though it took me a while to be able to read “Witness” aloud. It used to make me cry.
Brian S: Are you working on a new project yet? Or do you write poems and see if/how they form into a new manuscript?
Phillip B. Williams: I write poems and deal with them later. I am taking a break from poems now. The most recent poems I have are all out or about to be out and I haven’t written anything else. I am working on a novel now that I wish I could say more about but whenever I talk about it I end up stalling re: actually writing it.
Brian S: How do you balance your writing with your other work—the editing and such? I find it’s a constant struggle.
Phillip B. Williams: It is a struggle. When Vinyl, the journal I co-edit with KMA Sullivan, was at its peak of submissions I simply waited (or tried to wait) until I finished the issue. But it tooks me weeks to reconfigure because I had all of those poems in my head and I needed them to get out before I could do my own work.
N: Is this foray into novel writing new for you? How has the different form helped you think about how you write and how you write poetry in particular?
Phillip B. Williams: I originally started in fiction but I never took fiction classes. I ended up becoming more involved in poetry because of poetry workshops, Cave Canem (the biggest source of blame haha), and eventually having made so many poet friends. So, it feels a lot like coming home and finding all of the furniture has been rearranged and there is a strange dog in the corner of the room who won’t let you pet it.
Brian S: Any books you’re excited to see coming out? Or any new poets we should be on the lookout for?
Phillip B. Williams: I have Nate Marshall’s book Wild Hundreds. Love it. I have Camille Rankine‘s book Incorrect Merciful Impulses. I’ve always been a fan of her work. Lisa Faye Coutley is on my list to get. I had it on pre-order but canceled it when I moved and never added it back on my list. I did a reading with her at AWP and her work is so dark and intense.
Brian S: Guess who’s book we’re reading next month? Camille’s! This month, more accurately. It should be in the mail already.
Camille D: I’m proud to share a name with that woman. She’s a force!
Phillip B. Williams: Cathy Linh Che, Lo Kwa Mei-en, Rickey Laurentiis, francine j harris, Matthew Nienow, Keith Leonard…so many fresh voices. Camille is definitely a force. Oh she’s going to have such smart answers haha. Richie Hofmann was the winner of the Beatrice Hawley and his book was published in November.
Camille D: Phillip, it was a true pleasure speaking with you, and I think this book is amazing. Thank you for it.
Phillip B. Williams: I wish we could have a little more time. And fun! I hope everyone had fun.
N: Thank you very much! I feel I have so many new (to me) writers to read from all your inspirations and recommendations! Once again, I really enjoyed the collection and had a lot of fun in the chat 🙂
Phillip B. Williams: Thank you everyone for the love, too. You’re so welcome.
Brian S: I know I did. Best of luck with the book and with the novel as well.
Camille D: Good night everyone. May 2016 bring you poetry and peace!
Phillip B. Williams: Goodnight! Thanks, Brian.