Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 2 — Xandria Phillips
What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?
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I was reading Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove in 2011, and I remember realizing I could write about what Black womanhood in Ohio looks like. I’m still working through how to write about spaces that feel utterly common-place to me. I was reading Zong! by M. Nourbese Phillip in 2012 when I got hip to Blackness as an often-forgotten continuum of trauma. I see the individual and the collective as inextricable, and try to trouble this false dichotomy in my poetry.
Do you feel that your writing is assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption? Does memoir play a role in your poetry?
Because I write about race and queerness, and am a Black queer person, I believe my narratives are usually conflated with my reality. Of all the assumptions I’ve encountered about my writing and myself this honestly feels fairly benign. I feel this assumption of writing autobiographically or confessionally allows me to expand the limits of reality in the minds of readers different from myself. One way I enjoy doing this is by putting my consciousness in conversation with remembered and forgotten historical figures that I find compelling or under-examined in some way. Poems like “Michelle Obama and I Self-Medicate,” “Anarcha and I Negotiate Trauma,” and “Edmonia Lewis and I on Academic Leave” examine my emotional truths alongside invented personas. There is a power with conflating these poems with reality because it not only brings these Black women to the forefront of consideration, but also allows us to consider a world where we have our famed and long-dead kin as imperfect guides through the current landscape.
Do you differentiate between poetry/art and “political” poetry/art? If so, how do you make that distinction?
I should start by saying that I don’t have the luxury of writing poetry that is considered apolitical. Given the body I inhabit, my intersecting marginalized identities, my poetry is instantly politicized. As much as this feels imbalanced, I love engaging with questions like this. I love it because I love telling white people that their poetry about flowers is political too, even if they have never meant it to be read as such. The optimism exuded in white art is absolutely political. I believe that all poetry is political because the act of writing a poem is the thing I have the most control over in my day-to-day life. Agency is political. Aren’t choice and the vocalization of it core democratic principles? Every syllable, line break, and edit is an election I’ve weighed in on fully.
Recently, I have been writing love poems and pastoral poetry. To designate creative space to interrogate my love and the landscapes I inhabit might appear counter-political under the current presidency and stakes, but for me it feels like a tender form of resistance that sustains me.
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?
I think we need to move away from pedestalling relatability in poetry. To quote Claudia Rankine in her introduction to The Racial Imaginary, “If we continue to think of ‘the universal’ as better-than, as the pinnacle, we will always discount writing that doesn’t look universal because it accounts for race or some other demeaned category. The universal is a fantasy. But we are captive, still, to a sensibility that champions the universal while simultaneously defining the universal, still, as white.”
I once had a professor in graduate school who attempted to make every poem emotionally accessible to everyone in the classroom. When we read Lucille Clifton’s poem, “mulberry field,” about the excavation of slave’s graves, he rationed, “This poem should speak to anyone who has ever felt discarded or rejected.” As the only Black person in the discussion, I felt extreme discomfort. When universality is the yardstick for success, the words that actively seek to dismantle white fragility and supremacy are stripped of their weight in order to be palatable to the oppressor. I cannot think of an ideology more dangerous to promote and more necessary to discontinue in the teaching and analysis of poetry.
What question do you wish we had asked?
I’m a Capricorn sun, Leo rising, with a moon in Taurus.
Xandria Phillips is the author of Reasons For Smoking, which won the 2016 The Seattle Review chapbook contest judged by Claudia Rankine. She hails from rural Ohio where she was raised on corn, and inherited her grandmother’s fear of open water. Xandria received her BA from Oberlin College, and her MFA from Virginia Tech. Xandria is Winter Tangerine’s associate poetry editor, and the curator of Love Letters to Spooks, a literary space for Black people. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem and Callaloo. Xandria’s poetry is present or forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, West Branch, Nashville Review, Nepantla, Gigantic Sequins, Ninth Letter Online, The Journal, The Offing, and elsewhere.
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.