Both Scholarly and Poetic: A Conversation with Xandria Phillips
I first encountered Xandria Phillips’s work a few years ago while reading the always impressive Winter Tangerine, of which they are the poetry editor, curating the some of the best contemporary poetry while also serving as the creative director for the project “Love Letter to Spooks.” Their eye for expansive yet incisive work feels completely their own and they generously share it through multiple modes of curation. Their own poetry is as heart-wrenching as it is breathtaking, as tender as it is tough to hold. Phillips is a scholar, an excavator, a poet concerned with the collective consciousness, and we all benefit from how they live this out as a literary citizen and on the page.
I spoke with them for the first time this winter on the phone for this interview from half a country away. I was in my apartment in Brooklyn; they were in Chicago visiting loved ones. In both places, it was raining and serene. Considering the dichotomy between geographies while observing the water that drenches them both felt apt when talking about Phillips’s debut full-length collection, Hull, which situates itself in reference to the Middle Passage, and the hundreds of collective and intimate histories that stemmed from this violence across the African diaspora. Hull demands the reader to educate themselves and to think critically about how each of us got to the place we are in now, holding this book.
It was an honor to talk to Xandria Phillips about publishing, historicity, and their process for writing this unforgettable collection.
The Rumpus: How does it feel to have your first full-length book out in the world?
Xandria Phillips: It feels both underwhelming and overwhelming. People will tell you that everything changes when your first book comes out. Every poem, for the most part, in Hull is individually published, so I felt like people would already know the work. But really, no one except your friends or maybe another writer is going to be familiar. So that was a weird thing to move through, especially as someone who just likes to work. It felt like doing the same work, so it’s weird to get more recognition for it. That’s all to say, some moments it feels slow, like it’s out in the world but nothing changed. Other days it feels like there’s a microscope on me, whether or not that’s real. Mostly, I feel really excited to read from it for people. It reminds me of a more serious version of story time, and I used to love story time growing up, so it’s nice to just have the excuse to read these lyrics that I have been entrenched in and to share them with other people. To have these words as an object is beyond words. But it doesn’t feel how I thought it would feel. Like, it doesn’t feel like a Book ™. It just feels like this thing that some people read and that I read aloud from all of the time.
Rumpus: Does it feel distinct from publishing a chapbook?
Phillips Oh, the chapbook was very different. This definitely feels a lot more official. The chapbook felt a little more casual, if that makes sense.
Rumpus: Yeah, I think that makes sense. I was surprised to hear that you said that most of the poems were previously published. Would you say they were always a part of a project, or did you not really see those threads until you began to order the collection?
Phillips: They were definitely all in conversation with one another. The title Hull felt like the umbrella that I would shepherd all the poems under. They didn’t necessarily feel like they were a direct, succinct narrative, but that wasn’t the goal. I like to think that my pieces feel ornamental on the page. There’s a distinct kind of sense that each word has been placed in a particular way for the eye to come across. As I was editing the collection as a whole, I was thinking more about how those different forms would speak to each other, and that’s when a lot of the re-forming would come. I would want certain forms to be nodding back to other forms.
Rumpus: Yes, that’s something I noticed right away and really delighted in, the way that various forms come back and talk to each other later. One place that really stood out to me in terms of how you ordered the poems was near the middle of the book with the poems “Black Body as Told by the Stirrups” followed by “Anarcha and I Negotiate Trauma.” This collection is compelling to me because you trusted the reader to know various references, and if they didn’t, you trusted them to do that work of finding out. I love when a poet does that.
Phillips: First, thank you for talking about the sequencing. It’s nice when people talk about the order because it takes a lot of time and it’s the thing that I had the least experience with. I think that’s something a lot of people might say, that the ordering of the first manuscript can feel kind of dire and stressful. But I like taking people through my research a little bit, so you’re kind of following my impulses almost.
Rumpus: Everything in Hull is very much dealing with historicity, and in a way that is direct but not heavy-handed or overly dense. Even poems that seem to stand alone, like “Ode to the Vibrator Left on All Night,” are situated under the title of the collection. I’m wondering what the overall writing process was like for this book?
Phillips: The title came about for the manuscript when I was grad school and I was workshopping a lot of poems that were like these poems, but not quite there yet. They had a lot of the same impulses of wanting to situate the Middle Passage alongside the personal or these other instances. And it was a constant thing that I was talking with my professors and classmates about, often to my own chagrin. How much information do you put in? And it was really helpful to hear that you liked looking stuff up because I also really like when there’s a word I don’t know or a concept I don’t know; I’m the first one to want to look it up, make a note of it, bring it up to my students when I’m teaching a class so we can like think about it together if we’re unsure. It’s a part of coming together to learn about something that’s in someone’s lexicon. So it’s important.
But I didn’t always feel that in grad school. There was like this willful ignorance a lot of the time from my peers. And that was really frustrating that no one wanted to learn. So that’s something that I’ve been coming up against for a long time. But, if anything, that kind of attitude made my ambitions stronger. When it came to a height of frustration, I started heavily researching Maafa, which is known as the black genocide or black holocaust, which has been going on since, you know, just before enslavement to now. And like all the things that you can chalk up to that. And that’s where the longest piece in the middle of the collection came from, “Intimate Archives.” So that, for me, feels a lot like a centering. It’s about a “you” and “I” who exist within a tragedy. So I think everything else stemming from that, is either a large human tragedy or deeply personal, the thing that kind of locks it together. And that really solidified when I was in school.
Honestly, I felt really angry. I felt really unheard and really frustrated and really, really excited to prove myself poetically in some way. But I found that the person who began this manuscript is so different from who I am and the things I want to write about now. It was really fun when I started this book. And now, I still love it and I love that I have a little distance from it, too. But it’s been a hard first child to raise, I would say.
Rumpus: I want to talk a little bit more about “Intimate Archives.” I think it is a centerpiece, exactly like you’re saying. The rest of the book is sort of doing this zooming in and out between various occurrences of grief and tragedy. I’m wondering what was your impulse to write those poems?
Phillips: I let things hook into me really easily. At some moments it was a lot more research-based and at some moments a little more heart-based. For example, Elmina Castle is a place I’ve been; it’s on the coast of Ghana. I remember I was abroad for a semester and the whole group went on this tour, and I ended up hanging back and not going and then going on a different day. It was just like three people. I just couldn’t handle the thought of being there with like, honestly, a bunch of white people. So that was an intimate experience to be there and to smell the things that still smell human. It’s a very intimate space. Then we have places like Dr. J. Marion Sims’s Hospital for Women, where we’re considering the experimentation and that’s purely research-driven; I really like reading nonfiction, and I find that that’s often the drive in the work. And for the longest time I felt like my work was a translation from the scholarly to the poetic, though I realized later that it can kind of just be both if I want it to be.
Rumpus: A lot of this book is dealing with “you” and “I” relationships. What was your relationship as poet to the “I” in writing this collection?
Phillips: I think a lot of the time it’s never really me; it’s like me with a hat on. It’s like, the closest “I” to me is still doing a kind of soliloquy. So there’s still that distance there. Nothing feels straightforward enough. I’m verging more into prose now, which feels a bit more like I don’t have to put on a hat. It feels a bit more like me. I’m thinking about archives for ancestry and I’m thinking about all the people I never got to meet and all the things they might need me to say on their behalf. And I think in poems like “Captivity Lessons,” that’s where it really came out, in that Middle Passage series. A lot of times I felt like a lot of the anger I was summoning at times throughout didn’t feel like it was all coming from me. I think a lot about M. NourbeSe Philip, who wrote Zong!, and how she had an ancestral guide helping her write it. That’s another person’s work that’s really informative to mine. I get excited thinking about all the different ways that blackness manifests and knowing that every single “I” speaking is one of those possibilities and that they’re all linked. The “I” is really just about kind of holding the dynamic together. I carried out the “I,” but it was less about preserving myself in the poem, and more about allowing for these figures to kind of break out of their historical boundaries and set within.
Rumpus: Yes, I love that. Are there other people you wished you could have interacted within your work that didn’t make it into the book?
Phillips: I had so many ideas. I would put like “name + me + activity.” There was “Phillis Wheatley and I learned how to swim” or something like that. But at a certain point it just started feeling forced. I think the last one I wrote was “Vester Flanagan and I escaped Virginia,” and it just made me feel like I couldn’t talk to anyone else after that. It was a really haunting experience. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Gladys Bentley and her trajectory as this is kind of gender nonconforming person. I wonder a lot about her and what her intimate life was like and who knew her well and what her thoughts were on gender. I’ve been thinking a lot about her and writing a bit towards her, but I think I want to give her a little more space in my work.
Rumpus: What does revision look like for you, both in writing Hull and your new project?
Phillips: I would say it’s a lot of returning and a lot of cutting. I have some friends I like to show work to. Some people are just so magic at things. I have a friend who’s a wiz at line edits. I have a friend who’s a wiz at visual forms. You know, you just have to send it to the doctor.
Rumpus: I want to draw attention to the fact that you created the cover art, which is so amazing. Did you create this piece “Linear Compounds” with Hull in mind? Or was it a separate process?
Phillips: I created it for the cover. I remember kind of having this idea, like I was commissioning myself. There wasn’t a way for me to pay another artist very well to do it. So, in a sense, I was like, “I can afford this artist, who I know, who is me. Let’s see if they can whip something up.” I like the idea of thinking about the book as I was painting it, not as though it would be a kind of literal interpretation, but I was thinking a lot about elemental things like land, ocean, air, nature, and how humans influence those things. I think that’s where the grid comes in over the more fluid shapes. It was probably the easiest part of making the whole book. It took just two days and I was like, “Hey, I like that.” It was a really uncomplicated, loving moment. It made it feel real, like a closing of the book.
Rumpus: I’d love to hear more about the new project you’re working on.
Phillips: It’s called “Presenting as Blue, Aspiring to Green.” Right now, it’s hybrid. I can’t tell if that means it’s going to stay hybrid or if it’s going veer more towards poetry or more to like a research-based nonfiction. It’s really concerned with taking things that seem casual but are actually really important and giving them time and attention, because that’s where most of my day goes. These things that aren’t grand in moments, the things that are actually what my life is about. When I was like eighteen, I thought being a writer would be like giving a reading every day and being able to afford your rent easily and being to eat even if you don’t work for an institution. But right now, I’m really focused on the wondrous things that I have between my friends. The conversations that we have, the media we love. I’m writing about stuff that feels really silly, like I’m writing a bit about It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and what it means for the show to present as a white minstrelsy. It feels deeply personal, but it also feels a bit like writing theory. It’s still in the early stages, but what I like about it most is that it feels like it could veer in a lot of different directions. That’s also what I don’t like about it most.
Rumpus: I can’t wait to read it. It sounds very different than Hull, both formally and conceptually.
Phillips: Yeah, I want to kind of dissolve the barrier between life and the artistic process. I honestly can’t even fathom the idea of writing a Poem ™ right now. People keep saying “I just wrote a poem,” and I’m like, “what’s that like?” I want that amateur’s mind again, where I’m excitedly looking up words. I feel that in an experimental way now, though.
Photograph of Xandria Phillips by Chekwube Danladi.