Aboutness (a conversation with Phillip B. Williams)

Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

One of the primary pleasures of editing a journal is coming across a writer whose work blows your mind while the presence of their voice in the writing landscape fills you with relief. Many thanks to TQ Senior Poetry Editor Tanya Jarrett for soliciting this work; I’m delighted to be able to share this conversation with Phillip B. Williams, as well as four of his poems, with readers. Enjoy. – Jessamyn
“Apotheosis” is a poem that floored us, and you mentioned in our acceptance-exchange that it’s been a hard one to find a home for: talk with me about the writing of it, the import of it, and why you think it’s been hard to place?

I wrote “Apotheosis” after reading a poem by Roger Reeves called “Cross Country” and a poem by Wallace Stevens called “The Latest Freed Man”. In Reeves’s poem, the speaker is called a nigger while jogging and the word repeats over and over again to different effects, becoming both something beautiful and a type of literal harassment as the reader is attacked over and over again: “Nigger in a body falling toward a horizon”, “Nigger in the reeds covering/ the muck of a beaver’s hard birth” etc. In Stevens’s poem, the speaker gives the man who was once the subject of the poem power to speak, his words in an 11 line stanza all their own, his words commenting on another man who gives off light (is the sun itself). Both poems in their own way have to step outside of the speaker to get into the nectar of the poem, and by stepping outside of the speaker the question becomes “Who is speaking? To what ends? For whom?”
I was completely shocked by this liberty to have one voice become another voice or become another version of itself:
1.) Reeves’s speaker becomes the litany for the word “nigger”–the obsession turned violent by abandoning heterogeneous syntax via the more homogenous anaphora while also leaving behind commentary (eg. “These blond bodies thrashing about above me/ were death’s idea of the morning passing.”)
2.) Stevens’s speaker leaves us with someone else entirely different to listen to only to return a stanza later wholly invested in the change that occurred in the freed man of the poem. The freed man, then, is the speaker and always had been as evidenced by the facility with which the other voice was taken on by a mere “He said” leading us into a thought we are to assume lies outside of the speaker.
So what Reeves said and how Stevens said made me go, “Well damn; let me see.” So I wrote this poem, it used the word faggot over and over again and the pronoun changed from first to third person halfway through. Why? Well, faggot is an awful word, but what does it mean? It has nothing to do with sexuality. Some people like to argue that it’s solely a word that is used against queer people, but it is a word used to dehumanize anyone who appears to step outside of expected gender norms and behaviors. A nerd can be a faggot because he is not seen as “manly” enough, never caught a football in his life. A skate boarder could be seen as a faggot because his jeans are too tight. Someone who is intersex can be considered a faggot because the language around intersexuality is that of invisibility. To be a faggot is to be wanted invisible, unseen, non-existent. I’ve read about women being called faggots because of a haircut that was too short. The word, therefore, is an attack on individuality and the word is not innate to the person, rather it is put on them like a mask and, unfortunately, put inside them to be internalized into self hatred. The word is about power and oppression, erasure and “shut the f*** up”. Weak-minded people use the word. I am guilty of having used the word, of having been afraid and irresponsible as to how I dealt with that fear. So the “I” had to turn into a “he”, because the speaker wasn’t “about that life” of being a faggot but is still afraid, still needs to be in control and put faggot everywhere else but on the self. I am still considering an edit to the poem where the “we” is “I” instead, though the “we” is the door for the reader to step inside with the speaker.
I had problems placing the poem in other journals and I think it was primarily because of the word “faggot”. It is such a dangerous word. I get that. It is also a misunderstood word. Again, my reading of it is not based on who sleeps with whom but with who is seen as so different that their existence is blamed for the ignorance and insecurities of other people. Faggot is a word of fear and I think the poem scared many editors away.

Your description of how the Reeves and Stevens poems felt and moved for you describes precisely how Apotheosis feels and moves for me–how does this exegesis of the word “faggot” and the intentional liberty of voice relate to the (in some ways simpler, but also dead-powerful) “Epithalamium”?

“Epithalamium” uses the word “faggot” in the most mundane sense: “man who sleeps with men”. The poem, in turn, strips the marriage of its perceived power by thinking mainly of the hatred and violence enacted against queer people who have the right to get married but few if any laws to protect their person and inconsistent assistance from police officers/political figures when hate crimes occur. The Civil Rights Movement was a fight for all rights for all Black people not just for a particular right for a particular set of Black people assumed to be everyone. Isn’t a similar movement for queer people needed at this time? The poem is aware that a marriage license does not keep either partner from being beaten, harassed, killed, left with little trust in healthcare services, unprotected on a state level, etc. The poem is not without its hope. That the act of public love is a radical move is not new but I see it at the end of the poem as a door leading to a positive future where public expressions of queer love may not necessarily be agreed with but are met without vitriol. However, the questions that linger in the poem’s final lines are: will these two men remain embraced on the train or will they separate once the empty train car becomes populated? What will cause them to make either decision? The plainspoken nature of the poem is in opposition to the openness in “Apotheosis”. There is no freedom to run away here.
Therefore, “Epithalamium” is a poem that I think is critical of the narratives presented on gay marriage, not the stories themselves but the idea that gay marriage somehow makes things better for everyone who is queer. It’s a major step but I’m not sure if it should have been the first step. I can see the strategy behind it happening first as though to ease the nation into acceptance. Surely, the right to marry is powerful and gaining this right is a testament to this nation’s promise to giving all of its citizens equal rights; however, there is a sense of glorification of a particular type of queer love that trumps others, as though the only people who deserve the fight for equal rights are those who want to be married, to be partnered at all. That hate crimes against queer people, LGBT teen homelessness, and increasing HIV rates among queer men of color are still pervasive means to me that the battle for equal rights has been lopsided for the past decade. So the poem wants to think about this relationship between what gets all of the news coverage (gay marriage successes and failures) and what gets little to no news coverage (everything else dealing with the struggles of queer life, in particular the numerous murders of transgender men and women). I want to make clear that I am not against gay marriage, but it would be foolish and politically correct to the point of deceit for me to say that its priority over the aforementioned issues doesn’t make me cringe a bit. I am fully aware that this stance is not popular; however, I’ve been around too much death and violence to say what I do not mean. I have hope that we will eventually have as big a fight for the right to live as queer people as we have had for the right to love.

I share your perspective, deeply, about the right to live being a wholly other, and much larger, civil rights struggle than that for marriage alone, profoundly good as that cultural and legal shift is proving in some ways, for some people. Perhaps it has been a turning point in acceptance of queer people, or perhaps only of some queer people, who are assimilating – and those who are able to assimilate – and those who are allowed to assimilate – and those who want to assimilate. How this really shakes down in terms of cultural impact for everyone, rather than only for some, remains to be seen, doesn’t it? And meanwhile, the daily lived experiences of those who are not privileged by media or cultural acceptance make incongruity in word and deed a question not only of integrity, of truth, but also of life itself, right now. To say what is real, with all its inconvenient-to-the-dominant-narrative complexity, has always been the core of human rights struggle, social change, individual and community survival.
The deep intelligence(s) of your work in this ‘saying’ are so apparent: here (to name one dimension among many), by the sonnet form operating as metaphor for the formalist structure that both does and does not contain the humans expressing within it.
Another aspect of the many natures of the intelligences at work in your poems is illustrated by the power of the images in “A Spray of Feathers, Black.”
This is One of Those Poems, for me: a life-restoring electric shock of recognition that comes when language has been turned into image so viscerally affecting that the reader shouts: THAT. That is what it is, how it is, that is true. That is the world. That is why poetry.
There’s so much in here, but the image of the title and opening line alone gutted me, precise as they are. It spoke immediately, urgently, glitteringly, and deeply to the pain of separation from the wellspring – which would not be painful if there had not at one time been unity with it.
There is a whole religion (way of life, worldview, continuity, history) in this poem, but certainly not only the Abrahamic one directly spoken: the crescent moon, the star-wounds and dying suns, the venom, the lilt of dust and song with no verse are also it.
It’s devastating. It’s food.

Wow thank you so much RE: your reading of and feelings for “A Spray of Feathers, Black”. That speaker is torn up and obsessed with controlling the situation by demanding a higher power to save him. The problem is that he suffers from being able to suffer, from not being “God”. That his affliction is his own humanity was a shock to me, but it makes sense with the form. The poem, like “Epithalamium”, is a sonnet but this one takes the form of an anagrammatic terza rima. It goes back to having control; he can’t seem to get what he wants to say perfect, so he finds all the ways a word can be changed in order to find the right combination, the right set. But nothing satisfies. So he takes those words and changes them up again, borrowing from what came before, manipulating until something fits, forcing things to fit that simply won’t do. He is dissatisfied and his imperfect body–the “lilt of dust”– is translated into this poem that “sits on the lips like a song with no verse.” His own body and fallibility then become the source of his faith but he cannot get it right because he wants a certain type of control disguised as giving himself over. He no more believes in the Abrahamic God than he does the beauty of his existence, which is beautiful enough to be compared to stars but only as a mean of expressing how messed up he thinks he is.

As we talk, I am beginning to think of you as having the poetic equivalent of the precision and grace used by a martial artist or a shiatsu practitioner, both of whom target (the same) specific nerve bundles with the pressure they exert. As with this language, both knockout and healing to hear: “he suffers from being able to suffer…his affliction is his own humanity” – yes.
The sense of complex communion we’ve talked about in “A Spray of Feathers, Black” – communion that is both real and “fetish” – is present in “Then As Proof The Land,” too. You do not take short cuts, or gloss over, or cut slack, but there is deep compassion in your work even as its intelligence insists upon real complexity.
The final couplet of this poem articulates, in many ways, what happens for readers of your poetry:
                                I am the question. Branches answer,
        it would be our pleasure, then, as proof, nod closer.

You’re so sweet to me, Jessamyn (please keep this in the interview haha). “Then as Proof the Land” is one of those poems that started in a completely different form. It was once six lines long, about 5-6 beats per line with an end rhyme in the final two lines. I wrote draft after draft of that poem and it wasn’t working. I don’t remember what happened that made me shatter those lines the way I did but I am thankful that it happened. In actuality, I don’t know what this poem is “about”, as though aboutness ever matters or can ever be 100% pinpointed. I do see a struggle and certainly there is a reference to lynching in the poem where the trees are participants in the kind of idol worship that lynching led to. But the speaker is aware of how writing about nature is always infused with something peculiar, a lingering danger. It could be because of his race (“the hue of bark”) or because of his gender that a tree can never be a tree, an idyll can only be an idol/fetish. And what is a fetish? An interesting sexual appetite or something that stands as a substitute for something else, an inanimate object infused with spiritual energy? Wasn’t the dead bodies dangling from trees a fetish with layers? Isn’t being a black writer something that comes with expectations that an audience might have? So then maybe the last couplet is really the speaker realizing that everything he says is a type of myth-making, a doubt, a rupture in normality. Will he ever be taken seriously or always be seen as something exotic and erotic, as something that is not only changed by the land around him but changes the landscape by simply being present, as something wholly capable of being destroyed and in that destruction being worshiped? So maybe the title means that what is being proved is the self and what proves the self is the environment in which it lives. That is possible.
Poems by Phillip B. Williams in TQ2:
A Spray of Feathers, Black
Then as Proof the Land