Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Phillip B. Williams

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

I think there is an assumption that the first person “I” is always autobiographical in ways that the second and third person are not. I am of the school of thought that believes everything we write is autobiographical in as much as it reveals something about us: a thought process, aesthetic interests, obsessions etc. As far as details in my work pertaining to real life events or things I have experienced directly, that’s rarely the case. My life isn’t very interesting so my “I” speakers are generally personas. There are a few occasions when this is not the case but I don’t see why I should reveal when that is.

VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?

I say go for self identification if that’s what you want to do. I think it is important to give writers space to share about themselves what they want or feel is necessary. Should it be mandatory, which is not your question, I do not think so especially since identity fluctuates from moment to moment. I know editors and readers approach my work from a lens that not only do I not control but that can diminish the work. I encourage readers to understand that my race and my writing share a space, but that does not mean that readers/editors/publishers should bring with them the weight of their own ignorances to my writing as predicated on their own biases or misunderstandings of race. Same goes for gender, sexuality, level of education, hometown, and anything else that can assist in understanding me better. Sometimes, those things are used to pigeonhole writers.

Aziza Barnes asks in their poem, “How come black folks can’t just write about flowers?” Does this resonate with you? How would you answer that question? We’re currently living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence? 

Black Nature Cover

In that poem, I think it is their father who is asking that question of them and I think it is an unfair question simply because the history of Black poetics includes nature poetry among other thematic foci. Camille T. Dungy spent a lot of time editing Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and I think we should pay attention to the work that has been done to document what we have created. That in today’s climate we are under this police/surveillance state—which has always been the case if we pay attention to Rodney King, the history of lynching and prisons, how police have always been used by institutional powers to suppress the poor, and many other forms of community subterfuge including moles in and sabotage of successful organizations that are anti-oppression—this climate feels elevated because the media has found that it gets ratings by showing how “all of a sudden” the police are out of control. I’ve actually tried to go out of my way to avoid writing about this moment in future poems. I did that in my first book and in my newer poems I want to critique the surveillance state without utilizing the very bodies that empower its fear-inducement. The dead should get a chance to fall out of martyrdom that they did not ask for. Let’s critique the systems.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

Grow up. It’s that very expectation of 24/7 comfort that has made it possible for the surveillance state to exist and flourish in the first place. Some people live daily with the fear of being blown up for reasons that are founded in our sense of comfort and safety. “I’m uncomfortable” is a childish and dangerous way to maneuver in this world, especially when what makes us uncomfortable are the harsh realities in which other people live.


Phillip B. WilliamsPHILLIP B. WILLIAMS is a Chicago, IL native. He is the author of the poetry collection Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books). Currently, Phillip is the Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University and will be a visiting professor in English at Bennington College 2016-2017.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. 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 the anthology. 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.