Joshua Marie Wilkinson interviews Tyrone Williams


Welcome to Omnidawn Blog’s first Interview Feature. We are re-publishing this interview with the permission of the interviewer: Joshua Marie Wilkinson, the interviewee: Tyrone Wiliams, and the editor of Denver Quarterly (in which this interview first appeared): Bin Ramke.

For information about Tryone’s On Spec, published by Omnidawn, click HERE.

ADDENDUM: AS A CONTEST, Omnidawn will send a free copy of Tyrone’s book to three lucky winners. Here’s what you have to do:

1) read the interview below
2) think of a thoughtful / intriguing question that you’d like to ask Tyrone in response to the interview
3) post your question in the comments field of this blog post.

at the end of the week, i will choose the three questions i like best. Good Luck!


An Interview with Tyrone Williams

Joshua Marie Wilkinson

JOSHUA MARIE WILKINSON: I’m curious about the gap between your first book, c.c., and On Spec, just out this Spring. How did the poems/sections for On Spec come together? Were you working towards a new book the whole time, or did you later go back and gather up the most vital pieces of the last six years since c.c. and arrange them?

TYRONE WILLIAMS: I wasn’t thinking about a new book but I’d been writing a little since completing the manuscript of c.c. in 2000. I continued to write poems while c.c. was in production–in particular, “Apocryph,” Mortal Facts,” “Character” and “Little x Little.” I quickly began to see these pieces as part of a book I was going to call p.s.: vocals by, an obvious follow-up to c.c. ( I may still write that book), but then went on to another project that I was calling AAB. When Bill and Lisa Howe called and asked for new stuff for a chapbook for the Slack Buddha series I threw together some newer pieces and “gave” them that title, AAB. By then (2004) I was calling the manuscript pseudoeshuneutics–which wound up as the title of the second half of On Spec.

JMW: I’m struck by a number of things in On Spec, but firstly your insistence on a variety of forms–using the page in myriad ways (from vast open spaces to huge
paragraphs, long lines and caesuras to terse couplets and tercets) –what determines the forms you take up? And secondly, the way you draw from influences: ranging from Kathy Acker and Cecil Taylor to Sly Stone and Jacques Derrida—How do these figures and their works play into the poems of On Spec?

TW: I think c.c. is, on a smaller scale, just as varied in its formal procedures. With the first book. however, the procedures were insistently purposeful, a lesson (or burden) I got from Eddie Hirsch when he was at Wayne State University. With On Spec I decided I didn’t want all the forms as obviously teleological, but the fact is, I’m constitutionally adverse to free verse forms in my own writing (however much I may admire them in other writers)–most of the forms in On Spec are dictated by the subject matter. As for the various artists and thinkers that wind up in the poems, it’s very much a situational matter, banal even—whatever I happen to be reading/listening to/viewing winds up finding its way into a piece. More important, the artist in question offers me new ways to imagine form and procedure in my work (e/g/, the formal 19th c. greeting card format of four of the poems in c.c.). Of course, it goes without saying that I’m huge fans of the people you mention.

JMW: Word play and punning are bound up with political and racial aspects of our subjectivity in your work. I’m thinking of (from c.c.) “White sale. Will not last.” and “I’m a black…I mean, African, American…” Even the punctuation here is integral to how the language is split, doubled, and re-cast. In On Spec, this seems true also: “black tape masking yellow // White sacrifice” and there are dozens of other examples that are layered in the cultural meanings they dredge up but also
play with. Could you talk about how this approach to a poetics works in your writing process?

TW: I’ve always been fascinated—since the age of 13—with the Black Arts Movement and some of its practitioners who insist/remind us that we always speak the language of those who kidnapped and enslaved us. At the same time, this “we” is crucial to my sense of our historicity, the obvious fact that “I” and everyone I know have only known “this” language. But the gap between what happened to our predecessors/ancestors and the experience of those born in the Western hemisphere is the space of play, of irreverence–I don’t “revere” the English language but I use it and, on occasion, abuse it. Having written that, I am a grammarian–I was taught by pre-integration “Negro” teachers who taught what we today call “linguistics” in ordinary English classes in elementary and junior high school. And what I learned from the Mrs. Ewings–for example–of the world is that every grammatical marker is purposeful, that every torque of the language renders “meaning” problematic–which seems to me the precise “condition” of African-American existence in particular and “American” life in general…

JMW: I’m curious, also, to know how you read this aloud. You seem very much to be a “page” poet—only insofar as there is a lot of extra-textual architecture in your books that would be difficult if not impossible to convey in a reading. What’s your relationship to the live reading? Is some of what’s on the page necessarily lost? Are there certain pieces you avoid or like to do especially for readings?

TW: The readings offer me choices–and sometimes I read a poem one way, sometimes another. For example, the poem dedicated to the dancer Katherine Durham, a kwansaba entitled “Limb(o)er,” ends with the line “Under, away from, which b(l)acks arched toward…” Both the title and last line force a speaker to make a choice–I’ve said “limboer,” “limber” and “limbo” in different settings. For example, recently, for an audience with a somewhat “older” African-American population, I said “limbo” because I knew they’d understand the reference to the dance…There aren’t any pieces I avoid because of the difficulty of reading them, though sometimes, for students or those relatively inexperienced with poetry, to say nothing of my kind of poetry, I will try to choose pieces that are relatively listener-friendly…

JMW: I wonder if you could discuss how you came to poetry. What were the first poems you wrote and read? How long did it take you to put c.c. together and how long until you found a publisher? Who do you cite as your primary influences?

TW: Miss Horn—Durfee Junior High School, 1969-72 in Detroit. She had us doing “creative writing” and I wrote a few short stories that she liked, and since she was a young cute teacher, I’m sure I responded to her encouragement with hormones raging…But I guess it was my high school friend and neighbor, Anthony Luffboro, who really got me going. We wrote poems as a kind of friendly competition–we were our only audience. When we got to college–we both entered Wayne State University–we dropped the back-and-forth writing but we both continued writing on our own. From my sophomore year on I entered the WSU English Department’s annual contest–the Tompkins Award–and lost every year–until my senior year. That year I won first prize and a French poem I’d written won 2nd prize in the French Department. Thrilled by my coup, I organized a reading in the student center building, putting up flyers announcing “my” debut reading. I’d secured a large room in the building for my fans. In attendance–my mother, one of my sisters and my girlfriend. That was 1977….

I began writing the poems that comprised c.c. around 1999—the same year I completed my first residency at Djerassi (though nothing I wrote there made it in the book) and met my wife on my way back to Cincinnati. I wrote the bulk of c.c. in 2000 and the beginning of 2001. I sent it to Wesleyan and Chax early that year and got warm responses from Suzanne Tallman (Wesleyan) and Charles Alexander–both said it deserved publication but they couldn’t do anything with it. In June 2001 I was thumbing through the latest issue of Poets & Writers and came across an interview with the editors of two small presses in San Francisco, Mary Burger and Jocelyn Saidenberg. I’d never heard of them or the presses but, on a lark, sent it to both. Jocelyn called me in December 2001 with the good news, the same week the wife of a close friend called to tell me he’d attempted suicide; they too, as it turns out, lived in San Francisco…

Influences: my first influences were not necessarily poets, at least not consciously. When I was in junior and high school and college I loved French literature in translation–Rabelais, Racine, Baudelaire–probably because like most teens I was enamored of Poe (I read of his influence on the Symbolists). But there’s no question that the Black Arts Movement had a tremendous impact on me–though the figure I was told to emulate was fellow Michigander Robert Hayden (Phil Levine came later). I sent my first poems and manuscripts to Dudley Randall and Broadside Press, then Haki Mahabuhti and Third World Press–in fact, every black press that I knew of (Lotus Press–Naomi Long Madgett) got my work–all to no avail…But to return to influences…I was a Creem Magazine fanatic and loved Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs–given all the music criticism I wrote for the college paper (pop, disco, r& b, punk, rock, primarily) that has to be cited as a major influence. And since I was initially a Chemistry major, the sciences in general–especially subatomic physics–were and are important influences. Poets? Too many to name, but in college I started reading on my own Susan Howe (thanks to Charles Baxter who thought I would like her work), Alice Fulton, Chris Tysh, Barett Watten, Frank O’Hara, etc.. Of course, I had all the Hoyt Fuller, Amiri Baraka, Stephen Henderson, etc. anthologies, magazines and chapbooks–most of which I lost along the way. Today I read everyone from Carl Phillips, Donald Revell, Kevin Young, and Elizabeth Alexander to Claudia Rankine, Erica Hunt, Taylor Brady and Rob Halpern religiously. And I’m a huge Celan, Trakl, and Radnoti fan too…

JMW: What sorts of classes do you teach at Xavier? What’s your relationship to teaching? Does your life in the classroom stay separated from your work as a
poet or do they overlap much?

TW: My areas are American literature, literary theory and African-American literature but what I teach is far more diverse, due in large part to the small size of the English Department here (14 full-time tenure-track and tenured faculty). We have to be versatile and we often get to teach whatever we want in some of our general literature courses. So I’ve taught everything from the metaphysical poets to Central and South American novelists.

Like most literature graduate students from my generation, I was taught to focus on my own work first. Teaching was, for many years, just a backdrop to my literary ambitions. Over time I have come to see teaching as much more integral to who I am and I now take it with all the seriousness it deserves. I rarely teach poetry courses or creative writing–Xavier doesn’t attract students with those kinds of interests. But I’m just as happy teaching fiction and theory. So there isn’t much overlap between my own writing and my courses, although this semester is the exception that proves the rule: I taught the Nielsen/Ramey anthology of innovative black poetry, Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone, in a graduate course on the Black Arts Movement and I also taught “War Poetry” in a senior seminar–Mandelshtam, Duncan, Ginsberg, Darwish, H.D., Prevallet, Elrick.

JMW: What’s your relationship to the midwest? For folks unfamiliar with the midwest, Detroit and Cincinnati might seem vaguely the same—can you talk about your experience with this region, and how, if at all, it’s affected your life as a poet?

TW: If I hadn’t already criticized the use of the term in c.c. I might have said I’m “proud” to be a Midwesterner (as if I had a choice), and believe you me, Detroit is as far from Cincinnati–politically, culturally, socially–as one can imagine. I grew up in a working-class family–my dad worked in all three of the plants (Chrysler, Ford, GM) before driving a truck for a distilled water company; my mother was, for a while, a housecleaner in a home for retired women (all white) before she began working in the public schools–and I had a number of service jobs (shoe salesman, grocery store clerk, etc.). My Detroit is labor intensive in every sense of the phrase. So it’s safe to say that my poetry, though it has changed over the years, has perhaps become more complex (though I was writing “experimental” poems under the influence of the Cass Corridor radical/post-hippie scene around Wayne State long before I’d heard of avant-garde movements like the Language Poets), is informed by a working-class/labor ethos. This is why I’m also interested in poets like Bob Hicok, Phil Levine, Jim Daniels, etc., who all came out of the Michigan auto shop/tool and die industries even if my own experiences–I managed to avoid the auto industry entirely as a laborer–and poetics are quite different from theirs. I still wonder about my decision to take the job at Xavier and move to Cincinnati, the antithesis of Detroit in ways both positive–not nearly as dangerous in terms of personal safety (I and every member of my immediate family has been victimized by robbery in Detroit)–and negative–supra-conservative, German-Irish Catholic, etc. It has definitely forced me to push back, to not only articulate my own politics (when I got here my first foray into local politics was an editorial I wrote for the local Gannett newspaper, responding to the anticommunist/ anti-Russian spleen of a local university professor by offering several interpretations of what happened to the Korean airplane that was mistakenly shot down by the Russian military–my department chair received several calls for my immediate dismissal and I received a number of thinly veiled threats…) but to also get involved in the Over-the-Rhine community, an impoverished area of downtown under assault by the forces of gentrification and “population [read: homeless and poor] relocation.”

JMW: What’s your response to folks who say that experimental poetry, to quote of my student’s recent emails, doesn’t relate to “the average reader,” that it’s too caught up in self-referentiality to be meaningful to the uninitiated? What sorts of ways do you invite your students into various forms of poetry, from those you mention up through the Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone anthology?

TW: First, there is no “average reader”; even less probable is the “average reader” of poetry. Since I just finished teaching some experimental poets the subject/issue is very much on my mind. The truth is that most (American) people cannot, actually, read (I include most academics in this indictment). This broad generality includes students, of course, but they are by no means the exception that the town criers make them out to be. Of course, when I say “read” I mean reading “serious,” difficult, challenging books, magazines, etc. The advantage many younger people have over their elders is their visual literacy vis-a-vis computer games. None of this is a criticism, of course, but the canard that the “average reader” is going into bookstores and walking out with stacks of Mary Oliver, Albert Goldbarth or Thom Gunn–for example–is just that. What’s really behind those kinds of statements is not anti-experimental poetry or even anti-poetry per se but a residual anti-intellectualism in general which, contrary to popular opinion, is not an after-effect of the rise of television, cinema, popular music, etc.

As for my students, the process of acculturation–and it is that–depends on their suspension of disbelief. I tell them the bad news first: learning to read poetry–any kind of poetry–is like learning to spell: there are no shortcuts. It is very much akin to learning to swim; you have to learn to trust your body in the water, so to speak. The first thing most people want to do–given the way we are trained in pour educational system–is to figure out a poem’s “meaning.” I tell them to look for patterns, for forms, for the internal logic of the poem. Those old standbys–alliteration, assonance, rhythm, etc.–come in handy. Pedagogically, I’m trying to do a kind of regression, to get them to shed years of reading habits, to return to a kind of play and wonder, not in order to romanticize poetry but in order to re-open those alternative ways of engaging language closed off by public and/or private education.

JMW: Your relationship with Cincinnati is a curious one—how has it effected your writing? What are you working on now?

TW: Not sure what you mean by “curious”–lots of people work at jobs they dislike and live in places they’d just as soon leave. I happen to be lucky that only one of those applies to me. I have a few kindred spirits in the Tri-State area–Dana Ward, Keith Tuma (Miami, Oxford OH), Alan Golding (U. of Louisville), Norman Finkelstein–but I’m not part of any artistic “community.” I don’t want to give in to the exaggerations of memory but in Detroit I felt part of a community–literary, political, artistic, cultural, etc.—even if I know that one of the reasons I left Detroit (the second time, in 1987) is because I didn’t think there was anything there for me any longer.

As for current projects, I’ve been commissioned to write a piece for the Kootenay School of Writing conference in late August and I’m trying to finish up the last section of a project for Atelos. I’ve had another manuscript of poems on “hold” now for two years–it was supposed to come out last year. I could not let it come out this year since I knew On Spec was coming out. So I’m hoping that manuscript (comprised of poems older than those in c.c.) will see the light in 2009…

JMW: Can you give us a preview of the other (post- c.c.?) book on the way? It often happens that a poet’s books don’t appear in the order they were written (my fourth book will have appeared a full 2 years before my third)–what can we expect from this one?

TW: “the Hero Project of the Century” is its title, taken directly from a NY Times headline some fifteen years–maybe longer–ago. It is much more a “traditional” book, a collection of poems that traverse the landscape of black social life, its internalization of the predominant culture’s mores and ethos, and the problem of generations which, for those of African descent in this country, is almost inextricable from the names we give ourselves–colored, Negro, black, Afro-American, African American, etc.

JMW: And will you mind it being read as your “third” book–even if it’s not?

TW: I actually consider it my second book–I have an even older manuscript that Mr. Bergwal might find all too much “in your face,” the opposite situation of On Spec. Since I reject out of hand any kind of “developmental” ideology with respect to writing–it’s a matter of framing, not “maturing”–I don’t have a problem with the order of the books’ appearances.

JMW: What do you hope poetry can do with respect to the political? Can it be an effective political agent or do you find poetry at a remove from this realm?

TW: All poetry has political effects–as does marching in strikes, registering voters, and lying down in front of a tank. And though these effects are distributed unevenly along a spectrum or scale we might tentatively call “history,” their relative efficacy, as we know all too well, is never determined in advance. Still, poetry is pretty far up the causal chain–in a general sense–so those mediating links (for example, readers from all walks of life) are crucial to its dissemination. I see my own work as a contribution to the critique of calcification in all its modes–the objective/subjective divide, class/coterie scales, the construction of race and ethnicity according to a biologism dependent on an absolute nature/nurture distinction, and so forth. At the same time I’m interested in the very real paradox that political efficacy depends precisely on blocs, groups, social formations, etc. that, at least strategically, must put up a common front of solidarity…

JMW: Of On Spec, Hansa Bergwall writes, “Be warned though, this book is cryptic and often seems deliberately designed to confuse and obfuscate. If Williams were in the business of making crossword puzzles, I suspect he would incorrectly number the clues out of spite.” How do you respond to this as the poet under discussion? Is this just part of putting a new kind of book out into the world?

TW: Well, it is a hard book, no question about that, and I have to apologize because late in the production process I realized I’d forgotten to add all the notes I felt would help contextualize–not determine–the work’s public life. Both Rusty and Ken thought it might have been helpful to have notes but they did not feel that the absence of notes was a major obstacle to the work. But it is a book that, like c.c., I wrote with a specific audience–black people in general and innovative artists in general—in mind.

JMW: I’m struck by this quote in a recent interview with Lisa Robertson: “Poetry remains an interesting and pleasurable vehicle because it offers almost infinite formal freedom and flexibility. Poetry’s culturally marginal position is perversely advantageous I think. It’s a largely invisible agent.” In light of Robertson’s words, what do you make of the contemporary scene of poetry? Do you also find these “perverse advantages” in its invisibility?

TW: I concur with Lisa completely. Poetry’s relative ‘invisibility” is often invoked to assign blame, usually on poets indulging in poetry’s “almost infinite formal freedom and flexibility.” Of course, this isn’t true only of poetry. The same could be said of certain forms of experimental music, painting, etc. It can be liberating to live off the grid.

JMW: What advice do you have for a young person appearing in your office hours wishing to become a poet?

TW: As you might imagine, that rarely happens. More often, I get the “how can I get this published” line. Still, I point out all the obstacles awaiting anyone contemplating a literary career. Actually, what I say to prospective writers isn’t all that different from what I tell prospective graduate students: don’t do it, your chances of getting a job/having a “career” are slim to none, the market is flooded with Ph.D.’s/poets, etc. And then if they decide to go ahead anyway–well,
then, they have the right (or wrong) stuff, which is to say, they’re going to do it no matter what I or anyone else says. And they will absolutely need that kind of blind, perverse, persistence…

JMW: For folks unfamiliar with the terrain of African-American poetry, who would you most like them to read and know?

TW: Where do I start and how can I possibly finish? This is off the top of my head, but essential, for me, in the 20th and 21st centuries, have been Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Amiri Baraka, Melvin B. Tolson,, Robert Hayden, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, Lorenzo Thomas, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Haki Madhabuhti, Michael Harper, Carl Phillips, Kevin Young, Ed Roberson, Elizabeth Alexander, Nathaniel Mackey, Harryette Mullen, Erica Hunt. I’m very interested in reading more of Carl Martin, Chris Stackhouse, John Keene, Reginald Shepherd, Duriel Harris, and Mark McMorris.

JMW: How does a poem begin for you? What’s your technique for revision? How do you know when a poem’s complete?

TW: I’ll take the last question first. I have few poems that I think are really “complete,” Even when On Spec came out and I had a look at it there were/are so many things–mostly tinkering–I wish I’d changed. That said, there are poems I go back and reread after years and think, yes, that’s just it, just how I wanted to write it. Tinkering, of course, is not revision–that’s an entirely different process. Like many poets, I imagine, keep a journal of phrases, images, snatches of conversation, etc. that I go to when I’m in the process of writing. I’m not a procedural or conceptual poet in the sense that I don’t begin with an interest in a specific set of formal problems to engage, though I admire poets who appear to work this way. However, once I have a specific idea for a poem I do think about the formal matters most appropriate–or most inappropriate–to the subject matter (and by appropriate and inappropriate I mean, of course, sedimented traditions). And I do believe in serendipity as I believe a poet must make his or her luck. My sense is that, for me and many others, the antennae are always up even if we are not aware that they’re in reception mode.



Tyrone Williams is the author of c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002) and On Spec (Omnidawn 2008). Forthcoming books include the Hero Project of the Century and MI Howell.

Joshua Marie Wilkinson
is the author of four books, most recently The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (Tupelo Press). He lives in Chicago and teaches at Loyola University.