The Politics of Construction and Habits of Reading: An Interview with Tyrone Williams
Interview Conducted by Joseph Gunho Jang
CAAPP: First I wanted to start a little more outwardly. What are some of your favorite books of poetry released within the last ten or so years?
Tyrone Williams: That’s a good question. That’s a hard question. I mean there’s lots of good poetry—even great poetry—being published. Actually, this is a book that actually hasn’t been published yet but I’ve seen a preview of it, Erica Hunt’s upcoming book, VERONICA, A SUITE IN X PARTS, I think is going to be wonderful. I think people are really going to like it.
I’m a great fan—I don’t know if you know this—of Dawn’s work. I’ve reviewed almost all of her books and so forth. Her recent book, Good Stock [Strange Blood], is one of my favorites. Duriel Harris’s Thingification is wonderful. I’m a fan of Rob Halpern’s work. He’s put together a couple of new publications—one called Weak Link and the other, which is like a compilation or even a remixing of his previous books, called [————]Placeholder, are very interesting.
C: Your work draws so much from the world and other art. What are you looking toward these days?
TW: The book I’m going to read, at least in part, from tonight was in some ways based upon my experiences growing up in Detroit and growing up not in but near a couple of I guess you could say Middleeastern communities. So a great deal of the book is inspired by that. After that—[that book] came out last year—I had already started on a manuscript going back to issues around black culture and black identity and how complex those issues are. There are a couple of references to police violence, which of course has been in the news, in the last decade, but really throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
There’s another part to this. I don’t know what to call it. Right now it’s called Asterisk (although I think there’s a Sherwin Bitsui poem called “Asterisk,” and so I probably won’t use that title because I don’t want to confuse the two). Those poems are based upon iterations of the word star. There’s a poem called “Astra,” a poem called “Rats,” all of the words/combinations of that word. I have no idea what that means.
C: Reminds me a bit of On Spec’s “Brer R(g)” section.
TW: Right, right exactly.
C: The way you navigate the space or canvas of the page is so striking and exciting to me. Is space a concern of yours while approaching or drafting the poem itself, or do issues of space occur later in the process?
TW: No, it’s usually there from the very beginning. I work with old composition books. For the book Howell—and they couldn’t do it—I wanted it to be the size of a laptop because it’s a book about geography and geographical spaces so I really wanted to capture that. And I guess at some level I’d still like to do that at some point. Do a big, almost like coffee table book. But I am very much concerned about space because I’m always thinking about not only history and time but also geographical and geopolitical issues and how land and territory play into figurations of identity.
C: I can understand how a book the size of the laptop might engage with very contemporary issues of modern Internet exploration, et cetera, but for Howell, I almost have difficulty imagining that because [Howell] looks toward the historical. If it had taken that physical form, do you think the project would have shaped in a different way?
TW: Yeah, I think so. There were clearly things that I wanted to do in terms of size that they could not do, they being Atelos, so I almost pulled the project late in the process. I realized I couldn’t really—I didn’t have anything in place of that to use, so I just went ahead with that. But I did seriously consider pulling the project and sending it to Litmus or Letter Machine Editions.
C: Speaking of which, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, in an interview with you, mentioned that he was drawn to your insistence on a variety of forms–using the page in myriad ways. Can you talk a bit more about this?
TW: [Howell] is very complex. It has layers and layers of different forms. Even before I actually started writing the poems themselves, I was thinking about the shape that they would take. One of the things I wanted to do was use William Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty. So I said, “Okay, we’re going to have four parts for the book that are going to deal with each of those stages.”
Within those four parts, as you know, there are other thematic shapings going on. One of those has to do with a sort of historical overview because it’s about, in some way, Timothy McVeigh, but also about the culture in which he grew up. So it starts with Michigan and it ends with Michigan. So the state of Michigan frames that book in terms of geographical spaces. And then, of course, it goes to other places all over the United States, tracking their movements. It follows the path of McVeigh and the other two conspirators of the Oklahoma [City] bombing—Kansas, out to Denver, then back to Oklahoma.
C: And how do you decide which type of form to use?
TW: So Lyn Hejinian said to me, “I want you to go crazy. Do whatever you want.” So I said, “Great!” I’m a kid in a candy store, right? One thing I didn’t want was to repeat any form from section to section to section. For example, when I did the Aunt Sally section, I realized I wanted to do profiling, because it was very much in the news at the time. And I wanted to talk about one Black woman being profiled. The other thing about that section is the numbers. Before today, the old way people would text is they would hit numbers. So the numbers correspond to—
C: Oh! The thumbs! I see!
TW: Yeah, yeah.
C: I didn’t even put that together.
Speaking of the Aunt Sally section, on an episode of Close Listening, you agreed to the idea that when reading, you try to keep it as intimately connected to the script as possible and that you read it almost just like the sound in your head. I’m curious as to how you might approach reading some of your pieces that almost resist a singular reading like those in the Aunt Sally section.
TW: So one of the things I’ve done in the past, including in a reading with Joshua [Marie Wilkinson], is a “mash-up,” even though that word didn’t exist at the time: I just read the titles of the poems from On Spec straight across and then I read the last lines of some of the poems. So I was improvising, basically. I’ve done things like that, but other times I just choose. I just choose a way to read it if I have lines going in different directions, and sometimes I go back in other directions.
I’m sure part of this is because I’ve always wanted to be a musician, a songwriter in Detroit. So I think I’ve carried that desire into my writing to a certain extent.
C: I see that in a lot of the associations and sound play that enter your poetry. Do you think that beyond performance, it’s informing your language as well?
TW: Yeah. Part of what I’m trying to do is make the poem affectively appealing to the reader in terms of sounds, in terms of words, even before the cognitive. One of the things I’ve learned from reading poetry and teaching: instead of trying to teach students to read a poem and ask “tell me what this poem means,” I try to get students interested in poems by starting with “do you like the way it sounds?” and “do you like the way it looks?” Start there, not with what it means. I want them to start with the visceral. It’s a different way of learning; I think maybe it’s even a better way of learning poetry. You can imagine the frustration students get when they’re trying to figure out the meaning and they think you, the teacher, is there with a secret locked away in a little box. It creates this sort of dynamic—it reinforces the hierarchy of teacher to student and so forth. I try to get away from that when teaching poetry.
C: I was teaching students this summer and took a fairly similar approach and found that it worked better. It’s difficult, though, because they still have a lot of conceptions of how to learn poetry because of how they’ve learned it in the past. Do you have other ways to deconstruct that [preconception]?
TW: Not really. Partly because I don’t get to teach poetry at Xavier. We don’t have a poetry program at all. I might be teaching a class about the history of English in American poetry and I’ll [teach students to approach poems by sound and shape first], but, as you said, students themselves expect you to tell them what poems mean. So when you go off to other areas, they think of those as irrelevant, that you’re taking away from what’s “most important” in a poem (what a poem means). And then when you tell them that [that’s not necessarily the case], they don’t really believe that—they think you’re just trying to trick them.
C: Another thing that really struck me was that, in KAURAB Online Interview, you were talking about the experimental—and I’m someone who is skeptical of the avant-garde traditional/normative binary (I think of it more as a spectrum)—I was glad to read about your idea of the experimental as “horizon shaping” and “incessantly shift[ing].” Your definition seemed more dynamic to me, though, than a simple spectrum. Do you think of it in that way?
TW: What I was trying to get at is this notion that there is “narrative poetry” over here in this one little box and “experimental poetry” over here in this one little box. I was trying to emphasize is that “experimental” is a matter of habit and perception. What counts as experimental changes from day to day, week to week, movement to movement. We don’t think of Romantic poetry as experimental, but it was very much an experiment in language and so forth. For me, it’s all about habits of reading.
With my students, if I play old music—and for them old music is anything from five years ago—but especially if I go back to something with different technologies, say, prior to digital technology like old blues or old jazz, they’ll say, “I can’t get into this…” not just because of the songs, but because of the technology. For them, the current technology, digital technology, doesn’t even sound like technology; it sounds natural. It’s what they’re accustomed to. I tell them, five years, ten years from now, your younger siblings will say, “Jeez that music you listen to is so old.” That’s what I meant by a spectrum and habit. It’s based on what we’re accustomed to. And that’s not a new idea, some experimental writers and musicians have also made that point.
C: This based on a question Dawn [Lundy Martin] posed to Terrance [Hayes] and Rickey [Laurentiis] when they were doing their reading last year, but how do you define the lyric?
TW: I’ve used the sort of traditional definition of a short poem that relies primarily on affective modes of construction rather than cognitive. I’ve used that to talk about the differences of lyric and other forms of poetry. But obviously it persists in many different ways. I didn’t think of c.c. as a book of lyric poetry, but my friends, including people like Rob Halpern, said “Oh I really like c.c. you really sort of changed the lyric poem.” And I almost got like, “Man I’m not writing lyric poetry. I don’t know what you’re talking about!” But I see it. Of course it’s lyric. It’s not the lyrics of James Wright or Frost or anything like that, but it is still lyric in that way. Those categories are pretty amorphous in terms of what counts as lyric, what counts as narrative. Narrative is even more convoluted. You know, as a teacher, you pick a book that you think will be pretty straightforward to the students and sometimes they’ll be like, “I can’t make heads or tails of this” because it’s not straight narrative. So, again, what counts as straight narrative is very context dependent, habit dependent, and so forth.
C: Speaking of difficulty, I found both Howell and On Spec to be challenging books—and I admire their work in pushing the envelope of poetry and poetics—but do you worry that difficulty might obstruct your books’ political reach or impact?
TW: Yeah, yeah. I’m not sure that I worry about it, but I recognize that that’s part of it. This isn’t me saying this, this is Thom Donovan saying this, but I think he really captured what I was trying to do: I’m not representing politics thematically necessarily—although some of that does come, and some of the poems I’ll be reading are much more straightforward in that way—but, for me, the poiesis is also in the form and the difficulty in the form. And part of what I’m trying to do, particularly in c.c. and to a certain extent even in On Spec, is represent the difficulty of what it means to be African American in this particular moment in history.
One of the dreams of Martin Luther King, paraphrasing, is we have to work together as a group so that we can be free to be individuals. He understood the dangers of group identities and stereotypes and so forth, but at the same time, he recognized that individualized actions were not enough in terms of civil rights. That tension between group identity and the individual is part of what I’m trying to get at. And for me, it’s not straightforward. It’s not something that you can just write about or think about in straightforward narrative or even straightforward lyric. People will read your work and think, “This is what all Blacks or all African Americans think.”
[Xavier] University brought Ta-Nehisi Coates to speak, and the students, based on their readings of his books, were asking, “So, what do you think Black people need to do today?” That kind of thing. And he kept saying to them, “Look, I’m a writer. I’m just focusing on writing my individual experience and what I think. I’m not trying to represent or speak for anybody else, I’m just speaking to the way I see things.” They were not satisfied with that because they saw that book as representative.
C: Right, right. It’s what happens with “overtly” racial work that I think all non-dominant populations experience. It’s a sort of trap in which you’re expected to represent everyone.
TW: Right, exactly. So it can be very challenging. This happens in the classroom. If you’re reading a text that is by a non-dominant person, sometimes the students will look toward [a person that identifies with the writer] and when that person speaks they think, “Oh, so that’s the position we should be taking on that.”
C: It seems to me that part of your work as someone who pushes the boundaries of poetry and poetics is exactly to do that—to expand the ideas of what poetry can do and use. But what brings you to poetry as a medium? You could’ve done that elsewhere, like in music.
TW: And I’m trying to do that in essays and book reviews and other forms of writing, too. So poetry is just one place. I wish I could do it through other means. Unfortunately, my talents are fairly limited in terms of other means, but I’m trying to get this book of essays out. It’s called In Pursuit of Ourselves and it’s about the thorny issue of racial authenticity and cultural authenticity. I’m looking at writers like Elison, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes in terms of how writers have dealt with this issue of authenticity and how complicated it is in their work. And I’m looking at some critics like Lorenzo Thomas, who struggled with this idea too.
C: Other than Asterisk and your essays, are you working on anything else?
TW: I would say most of my attention is on those right now. I’ve started writing some new poems. Some might wind up in this next book. It’s [by] a small press by Ken Taylor called Selva Oscura. He did a few of [Nathaniel] Mackey’s chapbooks, and I think he’s only done two books, but he wants to do more books. He asked me last time I was in North Carolina. I think that’s basically it. I want to take on the challenge of doing something like Howell again, as crazy as that sounds. I think I’m ready for that. I’ve also been thinking of doing a book of cartoons/a graphic novel. I don’t like to repeat myself.
C: That’s incredible! That’s exciting! I’m looking forward to that. That is, I think, all I have for you today.
TW: Okay, thank you.
C: No, thank you so much.