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Chicago, Hip Hop, and the Poetry of Witness

Chicago, Hip Hop, and the Poetry of Witness

My encounter with Phillip B. Williams’ first collection of poetry, Thief in the Interior, happened in the best way possible: browsing the shelves of Women & Children’s First, feeling drawn to the book’s intricate cover, flipping it open to read a page…and then one more…and then another…until I found myself walking out of the store with book in hand, looking for a nearby bench to sit and continue reading.

I’m not the only one Williams captivated. Thief in the Interior is the winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and finalist for the NAACP Image Award, Lambda Literary Award, Thom Gunn Poetry Award from the Publishing Triangle, and the Foreword INDIES award. In March, Williams received the 2017 Whiting Award. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Bennington College.

His work immerses readers in deft language, in personal and collective griefs, and extraordinary empathy, always headed “toward the flourish-stillness-flourish of the heart.” Recently, I spoke with Williams about his experience of putting out a first book and of poetry’s ability to change how one sees.

Abigail Zimmer: There are poems that feel so steeped in nature that I can’t help but picture the rural countryside of the Heartland. Then, in other poems, I feel them distinctly set in the big city. I know you’ve called several places home. Is your immediate environment a factor of your poems? Do your poems long for a certain place?

Phillip B. Williams: The biggest factor in my poems re: location is my own imagination, which includes molecules of memory. Every place in the book is a fictionalized version of some real place. I grew up in Chicago but the Chicago I render, because it is filtered through my own subjectivity, is not the Chicago. It is a legitimate version of Chicago that is surely different from someone else’s, though it may resonate. My poems long for a place that is their own. Some want to be in a field. Others want to be in a city. Some want to be in a forest, a bedroom, several places and times at once. The poem dictates its place so that the longing lasts only as long as the poem’s making.

Abigail Zimmer: One of the sections that particularly struck me was “Witness: The Duffel Bag recalls dismemberment.” In desperation for a witness—any witness—you create one out of an object. In another poem, you write, “I hear, then attempt art.” What is the role of poetry in serving as a witness?

Phillip B. Williams: I think poetry points to what we wish had more attention, more critique, more ambivalence. The term “poetry of witness” can be tricky, as to witness something requires having been there to see. Most of the time it seems as though poetry of witness deals with our inability to have empathy and sympathy for those who suffer through various oppressions. When I’m writing a poem that many consider to be a poem that deals with seeing, I am mostly writing about witnessing many people not paying attention with the hopes that bringing that level of apathy to light would change the trajectory of how and where one looks.

Abigail Zimmer: You play with form throughout the book, most notably in “Inheritance: Anthem,” which, in the course of six pages, nods to Beyoncé, Talib Kweli, Star Wars, and the Miranda Rights in both form and content. What was your process like in writing this piece? How do you approach form from poem to poem?

Phillip B. Williams: All I knew is that I wanted verse trapped inside of a circle of words. That is the only framework I had. It took a lot of toying with MS Word to get it all together. Most of writing the poem consisting of just wanting to be free to do whatever I wanted in response to the lack of freedom, the removal of freedoms, my friends were going through who protested in St. Louis the fall of 2014 in response to Michael Brown’s murder.

Abigail Zimmer: Many of your poems, including “Inheritance: An Anthem” and “He Loved Him Madly,” take passages from hip hop and spoken word tracks. Can you talk about your musical influences and your relationship to music and writing?

Phillip B. Williams: Poetry has musical elements to it, though it is not music. I sometimes listen to music as I write in order to get a rhythm in my head, a shock through my system of some sort. And because I live in a world in which music also lives then it makes sense that music be included in my poetry as the rest of the world is included. I have no interest in separating pop culture from poetry. High/low art arguments, much like the people who make them in order to keep something out, bore me. It’s all about inclusivity and recognizing my influences, recognizing, how these influences intersect thematically and sometimes biographically (Miles Davis’s struggle with drug abuse reminded me of people in my own life).

Abigail Zimmer: First books are so exciting—and this is a stunning first collection! What was your experience of putting together the book and getting it out into the world? 

Phillip B. Williams: I was in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, working on my thesis, which was Thief in the Interior. I already had a manuscript coming into the program but graduate school helped me to rethink it. I sent it to a few open calls and contests and for the first time started finalizing or getting encouraging emails. Alice James Books’s, in response to my submission to their then-named Beatrice Hawley Award, called me to say that they wanted me as editor’s choice, and I said yes. This was March of 2014. I had not yet defended my thesis so I was going into my defense with a book contract signed, not knowing if that was proper etiquette or not. I was much more worried about having to write something new or coming off as a braggart, so I kept quiet until after I defended.

Putting the book together was facilitated by me being at Washington University. Like I said, I had what I thought was a manuscript but I could not get it right. I needed those two years of focus and camaraderie to get my life together.

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Abigail Zimmer: Because I’m always curious about this: When you give readings from the book, what poem do you like to end with, and why?

Phillip B. Williams: I typically end with “Birth of the Doppelganger” or “Selvage.” The former I end with because it ends the book and kind of brings things back to full circle. “Selvage” I like to end with because it is one of the lighter poems in the book.

Listen to Phillip read “Selvage” below.

Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams
Alice James Books
January 12, 2016

Phillip B. Williams is a native of Chicago. He is the author of Thief in the Interior and co-author of a book of poems and conversations called Prime (Sibling Rivalry Press). He is a Cave Canem graduate and received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His work has appeared in Callaloo, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, West Branch and others. Phillip received his MFA in Writing from the Washington University in St. Louis and is the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University.

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