Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 2 — Candace Williams

How do you feel about recent conversations about “literary success,” prize culture, personal brands, and the idea of “poetry business?” What are the best ways to support poets and poetry?

I think it’s important to talk about the influence of economics and class on poets and poetry. I hate it when these conversations lack nuance. Why do white folks from wealthy class backgrounds tell folks with less privilege to be “less careerist”? What are folks trying to access then they apply for awards—economic resources and survival? Access to an audience? The ability to have their book printed without bearing the risks and costs? I started writing poetry in the fall of 2015. I didn’t write poetry earlier for many reasons and one of those reasons was financial stability. It wasn’t until I had a job that could cover more than my massive student loans, expensive NYC rent, and other costs of living that I could even consider or afford to take workshops. There have been times when the work I did for a living didn’t give me the time, emotional space, or stability to write. I think the best way to support poets is to have a world where people don’t struggle to afford healthcare, education, shelter, water, food, and other basic needs. I think that creativity would flourish in better social and economic conditions. I admire poets and institutions that are doing the cultural work necessary to make this huge shift happen and giving artists under siege resources to sustain their work in the meantime.

What would you like to see change in the literary world, or how would you “Better” American poetry? Can American poetry be “bettered?”

I’d like for the distinction between the “literary world” and the “real world” to disappear. I’d like for people of different social, language, economic, race, ability, and other realities to have the time and space to access high-quality writing, engaging conversations about what they are reading, and writing communities and mentors without models that thrive on gatekeeping. I’d like everything we love about great art, books, and artistic communities to be available to anyone who wants to participate. Many institutions in the literary world are tied to neoliberal models of production and consumption. Some publishers treat books like “bets”—they are trying to make the right bets so they will reap rewards and sales that outpace the costs of the books that don’t “perform” well. Many universities treat writers the same way—either they want to invest resources in the “right” cohort of writers that will bring fame and accomplishment to the university brand down the line or they want to make money from charging tuition to writers who are willing to pay a premium for a university affiliation. Now, the university, the arts non-profit, and the publisher have resources and networks that many artists need to develop their writing and access audiences. They would not exist the same way in a world where the average person had more access to economic resources, leisure, artistic communities, and art that reflects their experience. That would be better. I’m excited to see institutions that are re-imagining how they allocate resources and collaborate with communities and artists who are under siege. I use the term “under siege” rather than “underrepresented”  because erasure has actors, processes, and victims. It’s not passive.

Do you think literature can influence social change, or reflect it? Or both? Are there any past or contemporary social movements that have affected your poetry? Can poetry be activism?

Yes. I think all works of art support and/or subvert the culture of power.  I talk about this at length in my VIDA essay “Against Hegemony, Toward Integrity: The Dissident Artist’s Struggle”:

“Hegemony is a state of cultural domination and culture is the domain of artists. We mold the collective imagination. We grapple with history. We imagine the future. We provide the intellectual and emotional infrastructure of society. Remember—prayers, schoolbooks, dialects, dress, stories, and songs are all the domain of artists. Artists influence the imagination, and in turn, influence how humans relate to one another. From Aristotle and Plato to James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, intellectuals have not only acknowledged the power of the artist, but have wondered how artists should use this power.”

My work is influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, the work created by black recipients of WPA grants, the Black Arts Movement, the Black Panthers, the Combahee River Collective, Contemporary Black Feminism, Black Lives Matter, and other movements and collectives. I’m inspired by artists who are doing the work of exposing and changing the culture of power.

Do you differentiate between poetry/art and “political” poetry/art? If so, how do you make that distinction?

No. When I talk about politics and identity, I’m talking about power relationships. Everyone has a particular context of and relationship to power that is based on their geography, era, wealth, race, gender, ability, immigrant status, queerness, occupation, and many other factors. Even if the writer doesn’t acknowledge their power relationships and contexts explicitly, those contexts are there. To me, all art is political—it reflects the artist’s particular context. The artist makes many, many choices about the form and content of their work. Many works of art support hegemony. Some art protests against the culture of power; some art subverts and defies the culture of power; some art does both things. Sadly, sometimes just talking about my blackness and queerness is read as subversive because these narratives have been suppressed and erased by the culture of power. When people say their art “isn’t political” or they “don’t like political work”, they might not want to see those power relations changed. I’ve also noticed that many poets judge protest poems more harshly than work they don’t think is subversive. For example, many poets will say political poems are “too didactic” and then lump all protest poems into that bucket. I’ve seen many, many didactic poems about nature and animals but I’d never say “Oh, you’re writing a nature poem? Those just bash you over the head with details about nature, don’t they?”

What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do?

As a K-12 educator, I would say that under the current testing and budget-slashing regime, many (if not most) children and adult learners do not have access to empathetic learning environments that center their experiences, needs, hopes, and dreams. This is a problem for the cultivation of art and writing because writing tends to improve when there’s a supportive and rigorous learning community in place. The writing classroom can’t just be about drilling test answers and strategies, regurgitative essays and responses dictated by what the professor thinks is right and wrong, and competition for grades, praise, and awards. Literary educators at all levels must privilege empathy in their classrooms and help their students create a learning environment where they support each other’s work by reading closely, giving useful feedback, and celebrating each other’s accomplishments. I’ve been thinking about empathetic, responsive, and progressive teaching for awhile and think it can apply in both K-12 and higher education contexts in an age-appropriate manner. In my adult writing life, I’ve experienced empathetic and student-centered learning environments at Brooklyn Poets and Cave Canem workshops. Those communities didn’t emerge from nothing. The instructors worked hard to help us create a space that upheld our values. We didn’t just talk about the poems. We talked about how we talk about poems and treat each other.

How do you feel that writers can engage in topics of oppression and violence without falling into tropes of exploitation? Can editors or curators further disenfranchise marginalized writers?

In the New York Times article “The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far”, A.O. Scott says “’Moonlight’ also demonstrates that honest, alert storytelling and formal inventiveness can have political implications. Like Chiron, the movie never raises its voice or makes an overt argument.” I think all poets must be formally inventive and have a sustained interest in their craft. I think the bar is even higher for poets who subvert the culture of power because their ideas and content go against social and economic power structures that folks are heavily and personally invested in.

Editors and curators are agents of hegemony unless they choose not to be (and even when they choose not to be, hegemony still exists to some extent because it is pervasive). When we flock toward certain writing styles or craft choices, content choices, or writers, we’re drawing upon our context of power. You don’t just choose a poem because you “like it”. The things we like and dislike are informed by hegemony. I think great editors and curators recognize that and interrogate their personal affinities and the artistic, cultural, and social purpose of their institutions.

Do you have any cool selfies or pictures of your pets? Can I see them?

My lil pittie is named Madonna. Last year, Ruth Awad and I had a long conversation about lil Madonna and her influence on my poems. Lil Madonna also has an Instagram hashtag #Madonnatherescuepitbull.


CANDACE WILLIAMS is a black queer nerd living a double life. By day, she’s a middle school humanities teacher and robotics coach. By night and subway ride, she’s a poet. Her poetry has appeared in Hyperallergic, the PEN Poetry Series. Lambda Literary Review, and the Brooklyn Poets Anthology (Brooklyn Arts Press), among other places. Her first collection, Spells for Black Wizards, won the the Atlas Review’s 2017 TAR Chapbook Series. She’s earned a MA in Education from Stanford University, a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship, scholarships from Cave Canem, and a Create Change Fellowship from the Laundromat Project. Candace has presented original poetry, performances, and lectures at the New Museum, the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, the Museum of Arts and Design, Dixon Place, Eyebeam, the Obie Award-winning Bushwick Starr Theater, and other venues.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 2. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for these anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.