Phillip B. Williams Chats with AJB

Alice James Books: What’s the story behind the title of the collection?

Phillip Williams: I’m not sure there is a story so to speak. I can say that as soon as I left my first year at Cave Canem that I returned home wanting to write a manuscript and did. It all came in mere weeks. This was in 2008. I’ve since torn apart that first manuscript and written a few failed projects, one eventually becoming Thief in the Interior. So

though it took me about 2­3 years to write, it took me 5 years to grow, to become able to write well enough to complete what is now Thief.

AJB: Who are your biggest literary inspirations and how do you find your own voice among them?

PW: I would say that my own voice is in conversation with many, many poets, even those I’ve never read. I think I find my own voice by listening to my own quirks. I have certain aesthetic leanings and instead of editing them away I try to work with them. Mixing registers, using images to tell both the story and the emotional texture of a poem, and writing in hybrid forms are a few of my prosodic leanings.

Poets whom I love: Sonia Sanchez, Henry Dumas, Carl Phillips, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Suji Kwock Kim, and Larry Levis just to name a few.

AJB: “Inheritance: Anthem” features six uniquely formatted poems in which the Miranda Rights are circling around each of the sections. The Miranda Rights seem to close in on the words in a claustrophobic, almost threatening way, as if they were being shouted in the background. What inspired you to craft the poems in this way and what effect did you intend this to have on the readers?

PW: I wrote those poems during the protests in St. Louis that happened in November of 2014. I’d been to a protest one night and sat out on the following night which just so happened to be when a close friend of mine was arrested while peacefully protesting. The poem was inspired by my distress to say the least.

I didn’t think too much about the effect I wanted the poem to have on any reader. I knew what it felt like to write that poem, to feels as though I had to write that poem. What was freeing for me was forcing myself to write within this enclosure and thinking of the different ways systemic racism hides within the broken shell of the law.

AJB: In “Sonnet with a Cut Wrist and Flies” you write thirteen 13th lines before finishing with the 14th. The previous twelve vignettes flow into this moment where time feels like it is standing still. With this structure, the reader is lead to meditate on the contrasted images of lightness and darkness, godliness and humanity. What are your convictions about the good and evil that human beings posses? Can you have one without the other?

PW: Good and evil, those are two big words. What is good and what is evil? I think in asking that question it appears to assume that there is a definite way to determine the moral experiences/expressions of humans on this planet, but as with most things morality sometimes sits on a thin line, teetering as one discusses, say, the moral implications of stealing food when poor versus stealing donations when greedy. If theft is the illegal behavior does it matter the reason? That’s one of those occasions where right and wrong, good and evil share space.

Can one have good without evil? I suppose one could think it has one in absence of the other, but it doesn’t take long for one person’s evil to become their own and others’ good.

It might be better to ask a philosopher.

AJB: Many of the poems in this collection such as “Inheritance: The Force Aperture,”

“Inheritance: Anthem,” and “Witness” are in response to tragic hate crimes. What do you hope readers will take away from these poems?

PW: I hope readers simply read them all the way through and, without making any judgments about them, just sit with the work. Too frequently people interact with things that make them uncomfortable by reacting immediately, usually in the negative. It would be great if people learned to sit in silence and just engage with what has given. I want readers to realize that it takes a lot of energy to behave hatefully. But if readers take anything at all from these poems I would be happy. I cannot dictate my desires or expectations on readers especially since to even have the book, to release these poems from the private to the public is saying “These are yours now. Do with them what you must.”