Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, IL native. He is the author of the book of poems Thief in the Interior, winner of the 2017 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and a 2017 Lambda Literary award. Phillip B. Williams also co-authored a book of poems and conversations called Prime (Sibling Rivalry Press). He received a 2017 Whiting Award and 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. Phillip B. Williams received his MFA in Writing from the Washington University in St. Louis. Phillip B. Williams is the co-editor in chief of the online journal Vinyl and currently teaches at Bennington College. Please enjoy my interview with Phillip B. Williams.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I say that I am a writer who teaches. I love both and, having recently started back teaching, I can say that it’s been a blast. Bennington College has wonderful students and my colleagues are amazing. The reason why “writer” precedes as my primary job is because I see myself as an artist first. It is what sustains me spiritually.
Not so much poetry nowadays but here is a list of books I am cycling through till I finish them all:
Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone by Janice Harrington,
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emeze,
Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon,
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng,
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor,
The Collected Stories by William Faulkner,
Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas by Henry Dumas,
Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones,
Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis,
and Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
Using that reading program Hooked On Phonics back in the early 90s. Had to have been four-years-old. I really enjoyed it. I breezed through those tapes so fast!
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be and why?
Depends on the age. I started out reading Goosebump books by R.L. Stine when I was in grade school because I liked the covers and was early into the occult. But one book that might hook the babies is Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. For high schoolers, Sula by Toni Morrison.
Can you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
Yes. I was in first grade. It was called “If There Wasn’t a God.” It was published in some vanity press book that at the time my family, teachers, and I were so impressed by.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
The worse job I’ve ever had was the one where you are looking for a job to complain about it being the worse job. It was 2008, right when the recession hit and no one was hiring. It was a hard time and the search was painful. There is something debilitating about wanting so badly to make a living, to keep busy without going hungry, and not being able to do so.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring poet?
Read and read. Read everything and read often.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
I do not but mostly it is my fault. Yes, I am often busy teaching and grading and meeting with students, but I have a stretch of time where I can just sit and read. The thing is that reading is very relaxing to me. I can hardly stay awake when I am doing it, so it takes me a long time to finish a book. One moment I am nodding to the rhythm of a sentence and the next I am nodding off to sleep.
What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path and why?
All of them. Seriously, I started in high school by going to the library and pulling books of poetry off the shelf. I looked at titles and author names then pulled what seemed interesting in those regards, but eventually, I began to just go for it without much expectation. I do think that writers who want to have a career in writing should really think about why. Is it for fame, for self-exploration, to constantly learn a craft, or simply to dabble? Some people dabble in writing and then wonder why their careers are not moving. It does not work that way. There is a lot of studying that needs to happen of not only writing but the field itself. One book that helped me figure out the field was Poet’s Market. How to write a cover letter for a submission, how to submit, to whom to submit, what journals, and how to write an inquiry email were all in this thick book. I hesitate to tell people to go to that book because before that tool is used, the writing has to first be solid. But it is a resource that helped me very early in my career.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
I read most of my books more than once. Erosion by Jorie Graham is one I frequently return to because it is simply brilliant. The way she moves through line, logic, syntax, defiance of expectation, poetic turn, and visual art is stunning and a study of someone who has themselves studied and taken seriously the art of making a thing and making it new, creating with the intent of breaking boundaries and exploring new possibilities. That interests me the most when I read the work of others. How can your work change me and how can you teach me how you’ve been changed?
If someone who has never got into poetry asks you for a tip on a good poetry book to start with, what would you recommend?
I would recommend the Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. Her poems are short, fiercely intelligent, syntactically masterful, and cover a wide stretch of material from family, to abuse, to womanhood, to mythology and religion, to race.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
The book that I tell people to read all the time is either The Rest of Love by Carl Phillips or, recently, Surge by Michelle Whittaker. Again, it’s about who is writing poems that make me think about the world and language differently. Most writers, regardless of genre, do not do that for me. These two writers/thinkers/artists absolutely floor me each time I read their work, especially with these books, Whittaker’s being her first and only but hopefully not her last. I’ve never read anything that handles the English language quite like she does.
Who would you say are the three poets that continue to inspire you?
There are more than three, but here are three of that many: Octavio Paz, Thylias Moss, and Jay Wright.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
Poetry most definitely. I enjoy fiction but often times I get to the end of something I invested weeks, sometimes even a year in only to discover that the book falls apart in the end. I am very careful about reading novels for that reason. If I feel like it has become a chore to get through, I just push it to the side and give it away. But when a novel has given me a pleasurable experience, I mourn having ended the book in a way that I do not with a book of poetry. You spend so much time with the characters and in their world that when it is all over it feels instantly nostalgic to remember those pages in your hand, flipping eagerly to see what happens next to the people you’ve grown to love or hate.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
I rather not think of something like that. Though most stories and poems were passed down orally before the technology of the book was implemented, to pretend as though books being taken away would not also be the end of stories is naïve. The reason for books to be removed from the world is because some power had it in mind that what was in them was dangerous. If books were not in the world, a world where change is inevitable, then too our mouths would be censored, either by muzzle or by removing the body totally.
But if I think about the question as one that is more supernatural, meaning that one day books just ceased to exist, I think what we would lose would be the amount of information and documented imagination we currently have, but this does not mean that there would not be other ways we could create in the world but what we do create would have to be fine with becoming temporary (inasmuch as people are temporary and a story no longer past on is a dead story, or a story passed on will inevitably change) and quick to recall.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
Yes, though I have yet to do that. Toni Morrison is one such author. Brigit Pegeen Kelly (R.I.P.) is another.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
I do not know. I have tons of paper books and will continue to buy them, especially out-of-print copies of rare or semi-rare books. I also have a tablet that doubles as a Kindle. I think I may have 15 books on it so far.
What book do you feel humanity needs most right now?
I’m not sure. I don’t do well with gargantuan questions like this. What may be great for one person may be awful for another. I would rather we all just made it a priority to read a couple books a month across genres. The book we need, then, may not be the question; rather, what life practices do we need the most as people on earth.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Beloved by Toni Morrison let me know that I could write anything I wanted. Anything. I could have my narrator do funky things with voice and point of view. I could use an important historical moment to write mythologically about my people. I could sing on the page!
Under a Soprano Sky by Sonia Sanchez made it possible for me to, and probable that I would become a writer. I learned how to write a metaphor by reading that book. I learned surrealism and love and politics and a caring Blackness from Sanchez’s writing. It astounds me how under-read she is. Astounds!
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
A lot of scholarship on Black queerness for this class I plan on teaching about Black Queer Poetry.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Welcome to Boredom.
Image credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths