Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Conversation: Tanya Olson and Phillip B. Williams

A Conversation: Tanya Olson and Phillip B. Williams
written in response to the YesYes Books reading at Studio One on Friday, December 6

“I am rarely satisfied with a single representation of something, with a single idea.” 
- Phillip B. Williams
“…we use repetition to build our sense of self.” –Tanya Olson

Tanya Olson: I've had the good fortune to read Burn (YesYes Books, 2013) and some individual poems of yours; Last Friday (at our reading together at Studio One on December 6th) was the first time I got a chance to hear you read though. One thing that struck me about your work, both on the page and in your reading it, was the move from high to low in it. The language is often very elevated, you have a very formal kind of reading style, but dropped in to these poems are real low-culture moments— pop culture figures like Chaka Khan and Smokey Robinson and things like hopscotch, greens, and roaches pop up in the middle of all this grandness.

It's a lovely pairing and makes your poems far-seeing but understanding. Could you talk a little about this high/low pairing and movement that you do— are you conscious of it? What work do you think it does? 

Phillip B. Williams: O Tanya, your reading was a fortunate event for me as well. I suppose, to answer your question, that it has been considered a flaw of mine that I mix registers.  We spoke briefly about poetry workshops and how useful and detrimental they can be simultaneously. It is something that I do naturally, as I talk that way and I have no interest in creating a world in my poems that is not reflective of the world of my mind. The argument against it is that it reminds readers they have a poem in front of them, that heightened language is a way of saying "look what I can do". In some aspect, I cannot imagine anyone ever forgetting that they are reading a poem. From my experience, just having line breaks and rhyme make it impossible to get lost in a poem the way I get lost in a novel. I look for what makes a poem a poem. I enjoy poems that splurge on language. I'm all for beauty and mix notes and chance-taking that is incredibly unsafe. When I include "low culture" (don't you just hate that we have no other name for this?) moments, it is simply me trying to tell the reader that this is what I know: I know Chaka Khan and I know playing softball with a balled-up jacket as first base. To separate the high from the low seems disingenuous and why write a poem that I don't believe in just to make it more convincing for someone else?

"What other work do you think does this?"— Music does it, in particular jazz (playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in the middle of a composition for instance), but the assumption would have to be that jazz is considered a high-art, and high to whom? For what reason? I see it in a lot in ballets by Ulysses Dove and Alvin Ailey, how they have this hyper-technical footwork paired with really soulful, intuitive body movements that aren't articulated for the sake of perfection and beauty but as a way to get emotion and empathy translated from their bodies to the audience.

Tanya, what I really enjoyed about your book—Boyishly (YesYes Books, 2013)— was the fearlessness of repetition and hearing you read versus hearing myself read created a sense of "Yes, that is right" that I rarely get. "Notes From Jonah's Lecture Series" is a fascinating example of how I feel you and I read the poem in similar ways: quickly, with a slant of humor in the voice that softens into pathos every so often, ignoring line-end pauses and periods. It helps that the word whale is repeated 29 times (but drops out of most of the final stanza). I would love to hear more about how repetition works for you: what are your intentions, if any, when using it? Does reading your repetition-heavy poems aloud open up new possibilities/interpretations for the poem that you were unaware of? Who have you read that taught you how to do this so well or is this a natural instinct of yours? 

TO: How interesting that your fluidity between low & high (unfortunate terms, indeed) is sometimes read as a weakness. I really love it, because, as you note, it is life. And I think your elevated language doesn't read as "poetic" (in the alienating sense) but as poetic in the lifting sense. I like your comparison to dance—good dance does that—you remind us how dance is all around us, how we are already art. 

So to answer your question— I think of repetition as little handholds throughout the poem. I imagine someone rock climbing, the way your hands & feet must find resting & lifting places to move, to get from one place to another. That's what I imagine the repetition does—it provides those places to grab on, to rest, to move from. 

I first came to love repetition in Beckett. As an academic, I wrote about his 1970s women plays— Footfalls, Not I, Rockaby—that are really almost only repetition. They are beautiful, tender pieces that also show how we as humans use repetition to build our sense of self. As a poet, I love Stein & her repetition when she uses it to build meaning instead of hide meaning.  So while I'm less enthralled by Tender Buttons, I love the Making of Americans. That's a great piece to read aloud. I also love the way Van Morrison worries a word or line, repeats it over & over & over as a way to get inside a line. 

My next question for you is also an "influence" one. I like your "after" poems, especially “See No Evil, after Patricia Smith.” Could you talk about what the "afters" mean to you. After style? Subject? Theme?  

PBW: I see my poems that are "after" someone performing for me the task of training. I am copying theme or style, but usually it is a mix of copying form and structure when I say "after". I want the information in my poem ordered similarly as the poem it is after. With "See No Evil", I wrote a crown of sonnets after Smith's heroic crown "Motown Crown" and also kept the theme of soul music going. I learn my favorite techniques by writing after other poets and pushing past my limits that way. I also see the "after" poems working as homages to poets who have inspired me in some way.

I wanted to know how you mix these many voices and personalities with what I call the open-political in your poems, poems that seem to have a message that leans towards something social and aware but open enough to be interpreted differently by the reader. Some of your speakers and characters so to speak are Muhammad Ali, a "retarded astronaut", wild animals, Jonah, a young girl names Rose, and Captain Coffin. Some lines that led me to the term "Open-political" are: "Decapitated mountains are the price/ we are willing to pay for in America" from your poem "My Love is Green, America" and the following lines from your poem "Gates of Beauty":

“The People's Act of Love is for the people.
The People's Act of Love never has enough people.
The people ask for more from The People's Act of Love
but The People's Act of Love is exhausted, frankly,
if you don't mind The People's Act of Love being frank.”

How do you control the voice and the content? How do they team up in your poems to leave something very nuanced and, in that nuance, very welcoming, to be read in numerous ways? 

TO: Hmmm, that's a really interesting question. I have to say it doesn't feel very controlled while I am writing it, but maybe I am thinking of “controlled” differently than you mean it. They don't feel controlled because the voice is what drives the poem and the poem's contents, its innards. The People's Act of Love is weary of all it does for the people; the speaker in My Love is much more lecture-y. But they each have the things they need to say related to that voice. 

Why are those things they need to say political or at least political in nature? I guess because that is how I see and understand politics— as a series of small decisions we make individually and then collectively. And since I understand politics that way, the voices in the poems do too. (This I would say is consistent across all my poems— people analyzing their choices in regards to bigger forces. And I know not everyone understands themselves or the world that way, so I am willing to say that shared characteristic probably originates in me more than it originates in the actual voices themselves.) The voices don't think of their choices as political choices but they understand they have implications outside themselves, bigger than themselves. Often the way their choices resonate is in children, in the next generation. So people tell stories about things that have happened, stories they think are important to keep alive. Children interpret those stories into their play. I will say, I like the term "open-political"; that seems accurate.

My final, written-down question for you is about what I think of as the "falling" nature of your poems. I like the way your poems use lists and the way those lists fall from item to item, in rhythm, in sound. It's lovely and I think lends itself to the formality of your work (I'm really thinking of the “Adam and Eve” series here) and drives the reading of your work. Are you aware of that? Do you consciously construct work that way? If so, how? If not (or if so), why do you think that happens? What do you think it does? It's a great technique.     

PBW: I had to reread those poems you mentioned. The “Adam and Eve” series is one of the longer series of poems in that chapbook and I was curious about looking for "falling" patterns in a series of poems about The Fall haha. I am aware that I make lists in my poems but I do not do so consciously. For me I am rarely satisfied with a single representation of something, with a single idea. I want to include everything that crosses my mind and for the images to be unstable because that is how they are to me; creating lists is a way of recreating the blur of my thinking. I see it mostly in the poem "Minutiae" where the details gather until the violence of the poem unfolds in a kind of narrative of accrual. Nothing really happens but there is a sense of building toward a climax that happens because of the list nature of the poem. I think it adds speed to the poem to have one thing move toward something else over and over again. What I hope is that it translates how my mind is not interested in the singular image, but interested in creating an emotional landscape through many images and juxtapositions. That I do not use this technique consciously intrigues me, because it is not that I have not tried, rather when I have tried to purposely create a list it always fails by rambling.

My final question for you is what were the most enlightening aspects of creating a book? What did you learn about your writing habits and poetic eye that you may not have been fully aware of? This has been great and I thank you for chatting with me about poetry, yours and my own.  

TO: It's a funny but good question. I'm not sure what I learned by making the book. 

I learned things about individual poems and presumably about myself— what ideas I worried again and again over the years, the way my understanding of the world and myself shifted slightly as I got older. I guess the most important thing I learned is that I had to be in the right head-space in order to be ready for the book, that a book is like a relationship. You might have books (and relationships) before you are ready, but you, the poet, the person, has to do the work to get ready for the moment the real one, the important one comes along. I believe that doors open and close and if you aren't ready to step through (or are too frightened to) then that opportunity is gone. There might be different opportunities, but that one will never come the same way again.

So I slog through, doing the day to day grunt work, the thinking the writing the reading, hoping I will recognize the door and its opening, hoping I will have the bravery to leap through it when it does.

Which seems like a lovely place to stop on this, the first day of 2014. Thanks so much for this conversation. It makes me even more intrigued to see what you produce in the future.

PBW: Thank you so much Tanya and thank you Casey for the invitation.


Tanya Olson holds an M.A. in Anglo-Irish Literature from University College, Dublin and a Ph.D. in 20th Century British Literature from UNC-Greensboro.  Her first book, Boyishly, was released by YesYes Books in May 2013. Her work has been published in Boston Review, Beloit Poetry Review, Southword (IRL), PANK, Cairn, Fanzine, Bad Subjects, Main Street Rag, Pedestal Magazine, Elysian Fields, and Southern Cultures. In 2010, she won a Discovery/Boston Review prize and was named a 2011 Lambda Fellow by the Lambda Literary Foundation.

Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, Illinois native. He is the author of the chapbooks Bruised Gospels (Arts in Bloom Inc., 2011) and Burn (YesYes Books, 2013). He is a Cave Canem graduate and received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-, Callaloo, Kenyon Review Online, Poetry, The Southern Review, West Branch and others. Phillip is currently a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow at the Washington University in St. Louis and is working on his MFA in Creative Writing. He is the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry.

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