Welcome to Omnidawn Blog’s firstInterview 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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
the author ofc.c.(Krupskaya
Books, 2002) andOn Spec(Omnidawn
2008). Forthcoming books include theHero Project
of the CenturyandMI Howell. Joshua Marie Wilkinsonis
the author of four books, most recentlyThe
Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth(Tupelo Press). He lives in
Chicago and teaches at Loyola University.
the summer,Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Williams’ bookHowell (Atelos). Recorded August 21st. Transcribed by Maia
Andy Fitch: Normally I’d start with more general questions, but I last
interviewed Evie Shockley, and we discussed the complicated legacy of Black Arts Movement poetics—how BAM seems quite
generative yet also quite constrictive in its impact upon subsequent writers. And I remember, in the past, you citing BAM’s
personal importance. As a poet suspicious of stable identity formations, of instrumental language, your career could seem
antithetical to what BAM advocates. But have you found space for your work under the BAM umbrella, and can you describe this
space? Can you trace a perhaps convoluted trajectory in which BAM’s liberatory struggles help to produce your own liberatory
Tyrone Williams: Absolutely. I began taking myself seriously
as a poet during high school, the early ‘70s, in the middle of BAM (depending how you cite the movement’s historical
trajectory). Again, this is high school, so I thought of myself primarily as writing love poetry, occasionally some political
poetry. I remember trying to address what seemed an absence in both fields. I admired what I saw from BAM, to the extent that
I knew about it, but conceived of myself as trying to complete this other project, defined by traditional love poetry. Then
as I went to college and beyond, reading and thinking more about BAM, I began to sense its contradictions, its gaps, how I
could contribute in my own way. I didn’t have to restrict myself to one tiny sector of romantic poetry based on the
faulty premise that BAM already took care of all social and political and economic issues. Some of these same problems needed
to be addressed from a different angle. And I still see myself as operating (though you’re right that much of my work
could seem antithetical to certain reductive formations around identity politics and so forth), as following in the wake of
BAM and with BAM’s spirit—trying to create new spaces for African-American culture and people, not just in terms
of a popularized embrace of African-American music or whatever, but every aspect of what it means to be black in this country.
AF: When you mention the spirit of BAM, and say you detected absences within what BAM produced,
it sounds as though you also sensed an invitation to engage and address those absences, rather than an imperative to deny
TW: Well I never felt directly encouraged nor excluded, because I wasn’t
involved. I was so out of the loop. I read much but didn’t know anyone. Certainly my most supportive teachers did not
recommend that I follow BAM’s example. Nonetheless, I felt included. Though never personally addressed, I sensed that
this movement spoke to me.
AF: Perhaps BAM’s emphasis upon community engagement,
its thematizations of place and urban space, can lead us into Howell. If we take Howell literally as a place, a distressed
community, do you see yourself somehow speaking of/for/to/with that community? Alternately, we could explore how you here
have abstracted BAM’s modes of public address.
TW: In terms of that particular
community, and also one of Howell’scentral figures, Timothy McVeigh, I tried to enter, to a certain degree,
what you could call a sympathetic space. I didn’t want to write from some point of pure critique, pure abjection, whatever
those might mean in terms of slamming McVeigh or adopting a supportive point of view. Rather, I wished to enter a sympathetic
relationship with broader events that lead to the Oklahoma City bombing. So this book begins, in part, by describing relationships
between the colonists and their surroundings, their environments—in terms of Native Americans already present, but also
in terms of immediate flora and fauna (here the book’s first part pays homage to Susan Howe’s work). Though of
course it remains impossible really to enter another historical period, or another person’s consciousness, so points
for critique do soon arise.
AF: Along those lines, your endnotes, like many endnotes
from the poetic past, could be said to obscure more than they reveal. The first note opens by telling us that three online
histories of a small Michigan city inspired Howell. This doesn’t explain why you or anyone else ever would read those
histories. The subsequent sentence asserts that media reports mistakenly claimed Timothy McVeigh came from Howell. Here parallels
start to appear between the faulty logic of our political discourse and of McVeigh’s own quixotic project. At the same
time, McVeigh’s inscrutability seems to stand in for your own, or for your language’s, or for all language’s
TW: You definitely sound on the right track there. I understood why Atelos
wanted to include these notes. But I didn’t go into more detail because I preferred to foreground questions of mistakes,
questions of error, of misreading or inscrutability—both in relation to language and to history. It turns out that Decker,
not Howell, is where Terry Nichols, not McVeigh, came from. Still as you said, these mistakes show how misreadings actually
constitute our sense of history, yet remain references to real events which occurred. That provides the motive for including
such figures but also explains, from my point of view, the necessity of trying to enter a sympathetic relationship, rather
than presenting a cold critique. We all. . .I’m not immune to misreadings or misinterpretations or inscrutable tendencies.
So when people call this book quite inscrutable I say, that’s the point.
a couple preceding books stand out as clear points of reference. Paterson seeks to embody both a gritty, post-industrial
city and its anthropomorphized poetic subject. Ginsberg’s Howl of course resonates, along with Whitman’s
line “what howls restrained by decorum.” And here we could draw some contrasts as well, between, let’s say,
the active embodiment that Paterson or Ginsberg’s incantatory delivery of Howl presents,
and the disembodied howls your book produces. I’m thinking of McVeigh’s displaced explosive howl, of Malachi Ritscher’s
implosive suicidal howl. Or this may veer off topic, but given the historical span in which you developed this book, I couldn’t
help re-hearing Howard Dean’s so-called “howl” following the 2004 Iowa primary—that supposed end to
progressive dreams. Do any number of disembodied or multi-bodied howls play out here?
For example, in one section, each of five poems starts with the word “how.” One refers to the aftermath of the
Six-Day War. One line presents all those symbols from a computer keyboard that traditionally indicate swearing or cursing.
But I also took this, as you say, to stand in for a silent howl. Malachi serves as something of an alter ego to McVeigh, since
rather than kill other people, he chose to kill himself. His howl gets counterposed to McVeigh’s.
as you refer to contrapuntal howls—I brought home a puppy two days ago, and suddenly a howl seems a form of call-and-response,
rather than an expression of solitary grievance. Howls I guess should be answered.
sounds like American history to me, in terms of the catastrophes that punctuate our history. One howl produces or elicits
another, and so on and so on.
AF: Here could you describe a bit Howell’s
structure, in whatever way you see fit? Do you conceive of it as primarily organized around the book-length concept, the section,
the poem, the line, the word, syllable, letter? And what role does the integral/arbitrary numerical scaffolding (like “Part
1,” “Part 1+”) play in binding together or dispersing various scales of meaning?
I began to think about Howell as a book, I wondered how to organize the various ideas I had. I didn’t write these poems
sequentially. Separate parts arrived at different points. So I thought in terms of assemblage, then came across 19th-century etchings by
William Hogarth, in particular his series sometimes called The Descent of Man. Hogarth produced these parables in
woodblock form that take you from one scene to another, illustrating moral lessons. One four-part sequence concerns a young
boy who starts out abusing animals, then kills a horse, then winds up in the third frame killing a woman. He gets arrested,
and in the fourth frame undergoes vivisection—live autopsy. Looking at Hogarth I thought, this is it, this is how I’ll
organize the book. So my book’s first half, if you will, raises problems related to the treatment of animals (horses
specifically) and the abuse of women. The last section, “Xenopsy,” celebrates Malachi, and this celebration allows
for the vivisection of McVeigh. “Xenopsy” plays on “autopsy” and so forth. Of course, amid the book’s
four basic sections, I include many smaller frames. You mentioned the “Part 1″ and “Part 1+” division,
which derives from the fact that the second online history I found for Howell actually attempts to refute the first. So questions
of where Part 1 ends, where Part 2 begins, get confounded.
AF: I guess Paterson seems
quite empirical by comparison, in terms of assembling scientific data. But for Howell I think of Jewish scholarship’s
midrash tradition, of endless commentary, unceasing argumentation.
TW: That writing
has fascinated me for a long time, which may explain why I’ve just started teaching (last night, to the horror of some
students) Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves—this 670-page tome containing every postmodern quirk you
can imagine, all organized around a guy who receives a manuscript from his friend, which someone who died in this friend’s
house wrote. This manuscript presents the story of a movie that never got made, so the narrative keeps getting framed and
framed, with footnotes to the footnotes. Do you remember Pale Fire by Nabokov?
TW: The students didn’t know that last night. And I pointed out how we think of all this
as quite postmodern, yet it also revives the 18th/19th-century frame novel, where a character finds a manuscript, say in Poe—or how Wuthering
Heights gets told in flashback, partly in letters.
AF: In terms
of such dynamics between architectural frames and mimetic scenes, Howell’s “Biographical Sketches”
come to mind. Do you conceive of these as having representational ends? If so, what gets represented? An actual, embodied
historical figure? Something closer to the abstracted/erroneous historical and mnemonic processes you’ve mentioned?
Or if we look at “Two Days in Chicago,” this poem seems to track a continuity in the Chicago Sun Times’ canned,
tickertape idiom—both before and after Malachi Ritscher’s November 3 suicide. This hints at interesting affinities
between the indexical and the elegiac. Does the piece’s depersonalized-seeming procedure offer a distinct means of evoking
or imagining Malachi’s lived historical presence?
TW: That particular piece
does get counterposed to the “Biographical Sketches.” The sketches do provide, albeit in lineated form, snapshots
of particular historical figures. But with “Two Days in Chicago” I wanted to say, alright, here’s someone
largely insignificant according to the media record. His dramatic act of committing suicide just provides another statistic,
another plain fact rolling across the tickertape as you watch television. The event only acquires significance in retrospect.
So I mixed up this two-day set of divergent stories, with passing reference to a man who immolates himself on the Kennedy
Expressway. I didn’t want to ignore the sense of desperation behind Malachi’s act, which had to seem futile except
perhaps to people who knew him. It lacked the kind of impact. . .I can’t remember the mother’s name who travelled
around a few years ago protesting the Iraq war.
AF: I can’t remember
either, though of course I knew it quite well then.
TW: Exactly. She had her
fifteen minutes. But Malachi Ritscher emerges as just a statistic counterposed to the “great men of history”—an
ordinary, unknown man, who commits what he sees as a heroic gesture, protesting the Iraq War’s injustice. Of course
McVeigh himself had served in the first Gulf War, which provides another connection, both in terms of the futility of fighting
that first war, and in protesting the second.
AF: I love how your work
often adopts procedural constraints, but for pieces that project something like the elliptical, ephemeral tonalities of the
lyric, rather than the monumental scope and glacial pace associated with much contemporary conceptual writing. You seem to
prefer these short units, not the tomes that you have praised. “Walk, Stop, Look and Walk (Live)” stands out for
prompting such questions about the fleeting concept’s place amid the disparate catalogue. Could you follow up on the
many procedural “hows” that comprise this apparently gray, uniform, monolithic “Howell”?
didn’t want to foreground one procedure, one method. I hoped to draw from as many poetic forms as I could. To back up
a bit more generally: I saw Language writing as an attempt not to erase what had come before, but (again, as with my own relationship
to BAM) to complement that—to say, here’s what’s missing, here’s what we haven’t yet done, here’s
one part of the larger picture. This suggests that narrative and the lyric still can possess a certain validity, even when
co-opted by the market or some ideological or institutional apparatus, such as the academy, the workshops, the prizes and
so forth. To me,Howell’s narrative and lyric pieces echo, even as they depart from, Walter Benjamin’s fragments
or feiulletons, like little particles that cohere in nuclear physics, which only exist for a nanosecond. To me this reflects
how we experience life, experience history, through fleeting moments of clarity. I don’t think we could exist as human
beings without those moments, however quickly they collapse. That helps to explain why my procedural poems tend to cohere
around specific (ordinary) people. Then other poems address more celebrated figures, such as Joe Strummer from The Clash,
because we do have bodies that get swept up in broader historical currents, over which we have little control.
Joe Strummer references appeared in the 60 books I read this spring. So his death had its impact.
did on me. I loved the band, but especially what he did after The Clash, which embodied the boldest hopes for this whole era
of music—that you don’t just fade and play Las Vegas, you keep pushing forward.
to the ephemeral, to capturing the nanosecond, could we talk about your Aunt Sally poems? Some seem to respatialize source
texts—presenting structures halfway between comics and sentence diagrams, both reifying and reconfiguring cognitive
sense as it passes from one medium to another.
TW: The Aunt Sally pieces
return us to Hogarth’s third frame, to that woman who gets killed. I had came across this Aunt Sally dream book, a book
used by people playing the numbers. I don’t know if your readers will know what that means.
TW: So I began researching the phrase “Aunt Sally,” which I hadn’t
realized once served as a nickname for the British game skittles. Skittles anticipates bowling, billiards, horseshoes. You
set up a wooden doll called an Aunt Sally, with a pipe, and try to knock the pipe from her mouth. People also called this
game quoits, which I use in the book. But that term “Aunt Sally” seemed to suggest some racist detail from the
British past, though apparently scholars do not consider this a racist toy or game. One just happened to throw things at this
Aunt Jemima-type figure. So here I decided to use Aunt Sally within the context of game theory, which circulates throughout
the book—to treat this character as completely innocent in terms of racist overtones. Nonetheless, in terms of race,
to say nothing of gender overtones…you don’t see a man standing there with a pipe in his mouth.
white middle-class British guy.
then what function does Aunt Sally serve in U.S. slave narratives?
TW: It provides
a supposedly kinder, gentler term for describing the nanny figure. Dream books then appropriate this image, since the grandmother
stands for the wisest member of the house—however problematic that might seem in terms of stereotypes and so forth.
AF: Again those translational, transnational, transformational trajectories for Aunt Sally somehow
parallel the status of your English pit ponies. A book about Howell produces associations with Detroit and the auto industry
and forms of labor that make themselves obsolete. Here could we talk more generally about processes of doubling that occur
throughout the book—how these might relate to questions of double consciousness, of an experimental poet addressing
broader social concerns?
TW:Howell’s pit pony part comes through more
research. I went to find out about these horses used in the mines, obviously thinking, as you said, about labor’s economic
value in present-day Detroit. But also, as problems of violence and violent suppression arise, these relate not only to labor
struggles, but back to BAM. When one horse accuses another of betraying the horse community, I had in mind this Invisible Manpassage,
where the protagonist mistakenly enters a union meeting and they start calling him a fink. He must be a fink because he’s
associated with finkism and so forth. This ridiculous send-up of politicized paranoia unfortunately anticipates certain aspects
of BAM. But the pit ponies don’t just present an allegory for human labor. They represent animal labor, too. That was
real experience. People more versed in ecopoetics, such as Brenda Iijima, can address this better than I can, but I wanted
to present these oppressed animals not just as a metaphor for human suffering, but as a sentient part of our lives, of history.
Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier
University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of five books of poetry, c.c., On Spec,The Hero Project of the Century, Adventures of Pi, and Howell (Atelos Books, 2011). He is also the author of several chapbooks, including a prose eulogy, Pink Tie (Hooke Press,
2011). His website can be foundhere.
experimental poetry/poetics An interview
of Tyrone Williams (2008-2009) Brenda
Tyrone Williams, teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. An experimental poet
of a rare breed,Tyrone
has authored two books of poetry, c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002) and On Spec (Omnidawn Publishing, 2008)and a number of chapbooks
including AAB (Slack Buddha Press, 2004), Futures, Elections (Dos Madres Press, 2004)and Musique Noir (Overhere Press, 2006).
The following interview was conducted over several months between fall and winter of 2008/09. .
Brenda: Tyrone, you have several book length projects
in the making. Could you speak about the working dynamics of these manuscripts?
Tyrone : Actually I have completed both projects,
a collection of pre-c.c. poems entitled the Hero Project of the Century, and a collection of new poems, tentatively called
MI Howell. The former is more narrative driven than recent work and concerns—again—the cultural ramifications
of empire building not only—not evenly primarily—in the political arena but also in the cultural, religious and
social arenas. MI Howell has, at its center, the Oklahoma bombing of 1997, though other parts of the work explore the ethical,
ecological and historical matrices from which McVeigh and his cohorts sprang.
Brenda: I liken McVeigh’s disillusionment
to organ failure within the internal system of the industrial military complex. His dubious, destructive actions point to
self-implosion of a system even as the system becomes ever more imperialistically outward. His is the botched/self-distorted
activist stance. The Unabomber and also eco terrorists come to mind as subversives whose quests fail drastically to adequately
address the menacing aspects of empire that inspire their actions. The specter of violence nullifies the activist critique
they are attempting to make, I think. Yet, their actions are systemic, problematic reactions in a system percolating toxic
social woes. Condemnation doesn’t seem a viable response. Their actions bring attention to the insidiousness imbedded
in cultural norms and self-righteous ideologies that prop the empire up propagandistically. What got you interested in Mc
Tyrone: I don’t recall exactly what got me
interested except a minor newspaper error that claimed Terry Nichols was from a small town “near Howell, Michigan.”
Well Decker, the township, is nowhere near Howell, so I began mapping the distance between the two places. I’m from
Michigan and I recall my dad taking us through Howell and other small towns and villages occasionally on those now defunct
“Sunday drives.” I began reading up on Howell, Michigan and that took me deep into the histories of the small
towns in Michigan, New York and Arizona from which Nichols, McVeigh and Fortier hailed. I agree that the bombings are symptoms
of systemic problems within the imaginary of empire and so the Howell project traces some of the other reifications of violence
in the 20th century. At the same time it also surveys some particular histories of cruelty to animals.
Brenda : You begin your most recent book, On Spec
(Omnidawn, 2008) withWritten By H’Self—a poem that aligns
(and jars) the individual (the self) and the social (public) in an impressively economic word play of addition and subtraction.
The first stanza equates "the signature public" as the "only avant-garde behind invention". This populist statement though
it reads a bit tongue in cheek, also mocks, subtly, what can be seen as elitist, stand-offish conventions for rarified meaning
making. The US has just witnessed a major transformation in the political landscape where participation in politics has increased
significantly. We elected a president who understands there’s agency in grassroots efforts. The idea that the individual
finds power in group formation has been an historical mode of the civil rights movement as well as other social struggles.
The way you situate the lyrical I is always in relation, always socially operative, always acknowledges historicity. Please
comment on these selves coming together with other selves...
Tyrone: That poem—and those lines in particular—refer
to the conundrum of literacy vis-à-vis African American history, though it applies readily to all immigrants to the United
States of America who must confront the irony of having those designated the "first" immigrants function as the standard bearers
for language, law, etc., even though they themselves borrowed, stole and plundered those "other" immigrants already "here"...The
conundrum refers specifically to the straitjacket of a literacy nonetheless deemed necessary to establish one’s humanity
even as the King’s English was being transfigured into Yankee English. Hence the necessary ambiguity of "behind" —as
in support of but also lagging…It’s also important that the "lyrical I" does not appear in that poem, though the
lyrical "he" and "she," as the objects "him" and "her," are announced by "H," a letter which serves to inscribe and erase
"gender" throughout the book...
Brenda: I understand the poem addressing divergent
forms of literacy too—the complexities of avant-garde poetry where variegated speech acts easily destabilize clear,
functional, power infused King’s English. Your poem addresses language’s capacities in this regard. At least that’s
some of its meaning for me as a reader. Please say more about the way you are addressing gender here…I find myself using
non-gendered Spivak pronouns lately for various reasons...
Tyrone: On a literal level, the elision of the gendered
vowel consonant after “h” is simply a shorthand for gesturing toward men and women who were slaves (the title
alludes to slave narratives); ditto for the suppression of consonants before that “e” in the penultimate stanza.
Nonetheless the capitalized “H” in the title links up, however deferred, to that “e” as evidence of
the inevitable return of normative gender rules in writing and reading—the male is always unmarked, always presumed
to be the case unless otherwise indicated.
Brenda: How do you see race operating within the
poetry communities you relate with?
I don’t know that race “operates”
at all except by way of the eye of the other beholders. Having been so used to being the only non-white person in a given
room, I am only stunned into race consciousness when I find myself in the presence of another “person of color”
amidst a sea of white. I’m sure those others feel the same way about me when I am the only other person of color: what’s
his/her story? How do you know these people? And perhaps, guiltily, why do you know these people? This consciousness is less
present, needless to say, when a certain critical mass (more than two? three?), however rare, is reached.
Brenda: Tyrone, how do you situate yourself within
an African-American experimental poetry/poetics? What vectors that are important to you come into play under the descriptor,
experimental poetry? What discussions are taking place around African-American experimental poetics at this time that you
are participating in ?
Tyrone: One of the issues under discussion on a
special listserv set up by Evie Shockley and Terrance Hayes for Jubilat is precisely the essence and/or attributes of the
"experimental," not only in terms of poetic and prose form and content but also in terms of cultural, social, economic, philosophical,
historical and political contexts. As one of the ethnicities marked--and self-marked--ethnic by hegemonic apparatuses situated
in the spheres cited above, African American, black American, Afro-American, colored and Negro artists have, by dint of circumstance,
experimented the moment we deigned to read--literacy itself was, and still can be, an act of insurrection, an experiment in
re-definition of self, others, etc. As several people--Geoffrey Jacques, Douglas Kearney, Fred Moten and John Keene in particular--have
pointed out, Phillis Wheatley's Augustanesque poems, like Claude MacKay's and Countee Cullen's sonnets, like William Stanley
Braithwaite's entire literary career, are radical experiments in articulation of sound, to say nothing of sense and form.
The same can be said for the poetry of Aime Cesaire, Derek Walcott, Kamau Braithwaite, Marlene Nourbese-Phillips, Dionne Brand
and others. All of the above--including me--are readers of not only poets and writers of the African Diaspora but also of
internationally known poets and writers in general. My "experiments" in poetry are not only informed by avant-garde and lyrical
poets within the American tradition, both past--Dunbar, Wheatley, Poe, Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes, Duncan, Eliot, Pound, Oppen,
Lowell, O'Hara, Baraka, Lorde, Feinman, etc.--and present--Baraka, Hirsch, Howe, Brady, Halpern, Palmer, Waldner, Phillips,
Toscano, Young, Prevallet, Hunt, etc.--but also by my limited but intense interest in Celan, Rilke, Trakl, Mandelshstam, Radnoti,
Lorca, Guillen, Neruda, etc. I think of my own work as specifically avant-garde (though it's been dubbed post-avant by Reginald
Shepherd), which is to say it is informed by experimentation with a specific purpose (it was Hirsch who emphasized to me the
importance of purposefulness), one that is largely political--to defamiliarize, retool, re-imagine, the languages and lives
with which, through which, we struggle.
Brenda: Akilah Oliver in an interview with Rachel
Levitsky (Coffee House press release) uses the term investigative poetics to describe her practice. Here’s what she
says, “…in A Toast in the House of Friends (Akilah’s new book) I use various frames that I hope house the
investigations (as I now like to think of poetry, as this investigative practice…). They are frames that hold in an
expansive way I hope, the shape of the thinking (which is also to say, of the imagining) of the pieces that also render themselves
up as an offering to the reader.” There might be more equity in the term investigation. I personally think experimental
is a fraught term, overly determined and missing the point of much practice that comes under the heading avant garde. For
me, experimenting relates a subject position that is fully in control of the terms of the experiment, how it is set up, what
outcomes are looked for and studied, etc. (This is so rarely happens to be the case.) It assumes a power position with tools
and materials that doesn’t really correspond to the practice of poetry, at least this is what I perceive through my
feminist lenses. In most cases, there is permission needed to experiment. Also, there is something nonchalant about experimentation.
The way you apply the term experimental is of course insurrectional to all the ways I just mention it functioning. Do you
have any reservations about the term experimental?
Tyrone: Akilah's remarks are almost perfectly congruent
with my stance toward writing--every poem, every investigation, as she calls it, is a house. I do think of experimentation
in the way you describe, with all the attendant problems of the lab, the scientist, the object under scrutiny, etc. However,
the power dynamics you correctly note are almost always present. After all, the author is just that, an author, and however
multiple and egalitarian the source material selection process, be it flarf, Language Writing or deep image lyricism, the
author is the one who, in the end, has his or her name on the "results" of the experiment. I think John Keene said something
like all poetry is, strictly speaking, experimental and I agree. After all, a sestina or sonnet only determines form, the
circuitry of meaning, but neither determines in advance how the words and phrases, jostling up against one another, will "mean"
or if they will "mean." To that extent Language Poetry was truly experimental because it reworked these forms--to say nothing
of inventing new ones-- at the level of the sentence, phrase and word (depending on the writer or the particular work at hand).
The absence of closure in much of Language Writing was not in itself innovative--some of the Beats and Black Arts practitioners,
to say nothing of the Objectivists, were arresting the closed loop of epiphantic disclosure and semantic coherence associated
with certain modes of "mainstream" poetry--but what was new was the absence of recognizable procedures and assumptions about
what constituted poetry. In brief, the experimental is a horizon shaping and determining the normative. Without one another
both terms would be incomprehensible. And since the syntactic, semantic and formal spheres of "poetry" are always changing,
what counts as normative and what counts as experimental incessantly shift. Under the historically determined pressures of
originality, the experimental and innovative can, in certain contexts, be much more conducive to market absorption than the
normative since the market is nurtured on the obsolescent/innovative dyad. This critique, which we might recall as the cultural
conservatism of certain Marxists (I think of Adorno, for example, or the begrudging concessions of Benjamin), still has a
certain force, a certain validity, even if the marginal market status of poetry inoculates it to the more vulgar forms of
Brenda: The We comes through so strongly in social
movements—like the Black Arts Movement. The I isn’t diminished, it is in solidarity with ideas that take the personal
to a much broader level. There’s always this interplay between the self and the polis and a conscious effort to shape
society person by person. Efforts by individuals are never underestimated. There’s a powerful essay by Larry Neal in
Volume 12 Number 4 of The Drama Review, published in the summer of 1968—edited by Ed Bullins. The essay begins, “The
Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community.” How do
you situate your own work within a community framework, and do you see your work as activist? Neal quotes a Baraka poem in
We are unfair And unfair We are black magicians Black
arts we make in black labs of the heart
The fair are fair and deathly white
The day will not save them And
we own the night
Baraka’s concept of the lab is very meaningful
I think--to combine magic and science together IN THE BODY is poignant. I’m also interested in his use of We instead
Tyrone: As it happens I taught a graduate course
on the Black Arts Movement in the spring of 2008 and that specific essay and specific quote by Neal was scrutinized by the
class. Neal’s essay and quote remain significant because it de-romanticizes, or what amounts to the same thing, historicizes
the Western concept of the artist alienated from society as a relatively new phenomenon. The Western artist-as-alien can be
found in Eliot, Pound (but Stevens, for example, is more problematic), and the Fugitive Poets, but their alienation is of
a different order than that of Oppen or Reznikoff. This might explain why Paul deMan, for example, in the essays that comprise
Blindness and Insight, reinforces this Romantic notion (his book title can be read as analogous to Abrams’ The Mirror
and the Lamp) under the cover of deconstruction (see Derrida on Rousseau in Of Grammatology for a thoroughly anti-Romantic
reading): he too is heavily invested in a certain kind of Romantic anti-industrialism which kills two birds—mercantile
capital and its belabored workforce—with one stone. Driven by the Crusean notion that culture forges consciousness,
Neal and other Black Arts proponents had to insist on the organic artist, one at one with his or her community. As the literary
products of Neal, Baraka, Bullins and others demonstrated, the inalienable responsibility of the black artist did not foreclose
criticism; on the contrary, it made criticism the raison d’etre of cultural production. Hence their anathema toward
“protest literature,” literature directed outwardly, away from the community, toward a white “mainstream”
audience. This concept of the organic or inalienable artist meant that, strictly speaking, there was no difference between
the “I” or the “we” in literary work, another reason why so many black artists—me included—felt
like we were in the stands at a tennis match when the “identity politics” wars were raging between the Language
Writers and almost everybody else. As for my own work, I no longer see it as part of a community in the traditional sense
(I’ve written about this issue elsewhere). Even in the anti-establishment, alternative cultures that comprised the Cass
Corridor around Wayne State University, I understood that this community was hardly the community imagined by Neal and others
in the 1960s and 1970s. Still, I did think of my work as having an active function in relation to the Corridor when I lived
in Detroit. Now the community in which I imagine my work is more virtual, more “intellectual,” I suppose, though,
as I’ve said before, I still think of my work as addressing black men and women (not African Americans, usually) who
have ordinary jobs, sturdy families and bullshit-proof minds.
Brenda: How have Marxist ideas been important to
your work? Could you talk about how you see Marxist theory and practice shaping avant garde practices, specifically with African-American
writers? I will tentatively propose that Marx is to Europe what Fanon is to Africa and Asia (but very much also the USA—Malcolm
X, et. al.) What do you think? How do you parse Marxist doctrine? Anti-colonial liberation movements? Please talk about the
Négritude movement and its influence on your work as well as how you see its effects on your peers.
Tyrone: What you say about Marx's relationship to
Europe and Fanon's to Africa and Asia is, despite its over-the-top generalization, somewhat true if we think of these thinkers
in terms of their primary audiences and the contexts of their writings. Like a lot of college students in the Seventies I
read Marx and Fanon through the lens of my own interest and curiosity. But, like many students at Wayne State University in
Detroit, I read both through the lenses of the various revolutionary and radical movements in and around the Wayne State University
area—that is, the Cass Corridor, sandwiched between downtown Detroit to the south, General Motors and the Cultural Center
to the north, the Medical Center to the east and the John C. Lodge freeway to the west. I was and remain convinced of the
centrality of Marx's diagnosis of Western economic development up to its most recent iteration--global capitalism--even if,
like everyone who continues to read Marxists and Marxism's critical proponents and detractors, I understand Marx's and Marxism's
limits. Ditto for Fanon and the limitations of ethnic nationalism (though the work of Harold Cruse remains crucial as a diagnostic
tool). So, in the mid- to late-Seventies, at the end, so we are told, of the Black Arts Movement, in the contexts of Angela
Davis, George Jackson and the Symbionese Liberation Army, Negritude appeared to me as an important but not pertinent artistic
movement, no more or less important than the Harlem Renaissance. Because I was not involved in, did not "feel" the struggles
for freedom outside the United States except via their simulacra in media (journals, books, films, etc.), the relevance of
Negritude per se was lost on me. So my own writing was shaped by homeland issues, including the struggle against apartheid
in South Africa, though that struggle was as mediated as the ones in Cuba, Angola, and Central and South America. A poet like
Kim Hunter, with whom I became close friends after I left Detroit (though we'd hung out a little at parties at the university
school newspaper for which we both worked), is right on the media stuff, no doubt in part because he has worked for a number
of media outlets in Detroit. That being said, I don't know that Negritude has meant a lot to him in the way that, say, Baraka
or Madhubuhti has been. In fact, I can't say I know any African Americans for whom Negritude has been a central influence.
It's interesting that when I've attended academic conferences on Negritude or even on West Indies poets like McKay, the audience
and presenters have almost always been overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white...
Brenda Iijima and Tyrone Williams and the group after-party celebrating Tyrone’s reading in Brooklyn.
Photo Credits: Dottie Lasky and Thom Donovan
Brenda: Please say more about Harold Cruse…Also,
what’s your stance on identity politics at this juncture?
Tyrone: Cruse manages to combine a Marxist perspective--he
understands the relationship between the means of production, labor and the cultural sphere (inc. the arts)--even while emphasizing
black nationalism as a necessary, if strategic, maneuver for power (political, economic and cultural). Nevertheless, Cruse
appears aware that his critique--circa 1965-1967--has actionable value only for a specific period of time. That is, he understood
that civil rights "integratonism" [his term] would gradually dilute black unity as it siphoned off the most talented members
of the black communities. Consequently his 1967 book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was as much a clarion call to arms
as an incisive diagnosis of the cyclical rise and fall of nationalist and integrationist tendencies in black American history.
He would doubtless understand "identity politics" as a necessary component of the overall strategy for black empowerment even
if it, like Marxism, like every form of political and social activism, has its limits. I agree.
Brenda: The conceptual sparks in your work really
interest me. Your work has a way of localizing and then disseminating along nerve networks intense social, historical, political,
personal registers—succinct sonic flares. These registers are ignited spontaneously throughout your phrasings. Craig
Dworkin blurbs your book On Spec by stating, “Williams reminds us that the semantic skin of the word—like any
interpolated subject—is always a performance, adapting to the pressures and camouflage of context however hard we work
to fix it.” The axons and dendrites on the feeling skin (largest human organ) connect up these pulsations with the functioning
systems one lives within: the ecological, biological, social, historical, economic, etc. Could you comment about action, reaction,
interaction, performance (which I take to mean a highly conscious set of maneuvers) and intuition (which certainly informs
performance but is spontaneous and often subconscious) in your work?
Tyrone: There can be nothing to say, by definition,
about “intuition” in my work, nothing that is other than the poem itself, the way it does or does not manifest
aspects of the intuitive (and how one would know that is beyond me). About, however, more conscious maneuvers, I can say that
several tributaries feed the work—the phrase, the concept (I have an idea for a poem—not the same, obviously,
as a poem of ideas…), snippets of overheard conversations, etc. I work from these and other pre-existing materials—I
keep a journal—and go back and forth between writing and assembling along both the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes.
In doing so I am trying to literally “perform” history, perform culture, as I understand it. That’s why
linear narrative cannot be dispensed with—history as narrative is oppressive and enabling. But that’s also why
surrealist and Dadaist effects, punning and wordplay , even play at the level of the phoneme, are also indispensable—the
rough edges, the bumps, the intractable, etc. constitute precisely the materials that history has to pave, has to smooth over,
in order to articulate, first and foremost, its own coherence. In a poem in the Hero Project book, this phenomenon gets articulated
in an aphorism: "I remember—but so do you."
Brenda: Your work finds so many flexible modes to
interrogate reality. There’s of course, “Four Dialogues, Five Fish, One Bowl (interrogation procedures)”—a
group of poems half way into On Spec. I don’t think I could possibly summarize what you are doing in those pages. Please
Tyrone: I got into reading Derrida as much for pleasure
as anything else, but teaching him is another matter. So I decided to write up my gloss on one of his books I was teaching,
The Gift of Death. I had that around for a long time. Meanwhile I was working on the Prefaces, which were going to be part
of a book I was calling AAB (eventually that became a chapbook). I was thinking about Baraka, in particular, his Preface to
a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, when I wrote those pieces. All four of them turn upon the question of responsibility and irresponsibility,
which happen to be one of the central theses of The Gift of Death. So in On Spec I stage a “dialogue” between
me and Derrida explicitly (all writing is at least dialogic, if not polylogic), and since at least two of the Prefaces concern
African American culture while the story of Abraham and Isaac is, for Derrida, a paradigmatic rendering of the interrelation
between irresponsibility and responsibility, that section can be understood as a conversation between race and ethnicity,
between African American and Jewish culture, thanks in large part to a Sephardic Jew.
Brenda: My last couple of questions focus in on
your manuscript MI Howell. I read in your work an operative sense that one of the responsibilities at hand (in the Derridaen
sense) is to switch focus from a lofty, abstract metaphysical conjectured possibility to the actual, physical, experiential,
intellectual strata of history and the lived social realm. Your work critiques metaphysics—whether its source is philosophy
or religion—yet it is presented in your work. Could you say more about the metaphysical as it pertains to your manuscript
Tyrone: I don’t know that metaphysics as such
is the immediate object of critique in MI Howell, but you are correct that religion and philosophy, to the extent they attempt
to build self-enclosed explanatory systems, are among the epistemologies under scrutiny. Above all else, however, is the nation
and the project of nation-building—these are the immediate objects of criticism in the manuscript. This concern derives
directly from my interest in McVeigh and his investments in the metaphysics of nationalism. And since the concept of the nation
is founded, in the West, on discrete systems of philosophy and religion, all three constitute the holy trinity I question.
Brenda: Three consecutive sections in MI Howell
contain a series of graphs: Le Sinthommee and Δunt Sally and unt Sally (Prisoner’s Dilemma). How did you
conceive of these graphs?
Tyrone: The latter two are derived from my readings
in contemporary game theory; Aunt Sally is one of the names of an English game from which we get bowling, horseshoes, billiards
and similar games. Le Sinthome is a separate section; its title and poem titles derive from Lacan. I read McVeigh as a symptom
of the larger problems discussed above, the mutually reinforcing agencies of nationhood, religion and philosophy.
Brenda: In MI Howell you include Malachi Ritscher’s
suicide note. Ritscher’s self-immolation was a protest against the war with Iraq. How did you decide to add that statement
to your manuscript? Several of your poems are dedicated to Rischer—did you know him?
Tyrone: Jennifer Karmin is largely responsible for
the inspiration for this section, a fitting coda to the manuscript, I think, especially to the extent it poses Ritscher against
McVeigh. She sent a note to the Poetics listserv in November 2007 reminding everyone of the anniversary of Ritscher’s
suicide in Chicago a year earlier. I went to his website—where the long note was still posted—and was moved by
his story, enough so that decided to celebrate his life and, most important, his ideas and courage in those sixteen poems
that close MI Howell. I did not know him, but I wanted his words to speak out from his website, to speak in a different venue,
in this case, a book of poems.
Brenda: Are you in-between projects now? What are
you working on?
Tyrone: I wish I were but what can I say? The ideas
keep coming. Arnold Kemp, a NYC-based artist and poet, and I are working on a long project structured around the format of
the daily newspaper. I’ve had this idea for a long time, long before I finished the poems for c.c. in 2000, so I hope
to get with Arnold in 2009 to discuss our ideas for the project.
Brenda Iijima is the author of Animate, Inanimate Aims (Litmus,
2007) and Around Sea (O Books, 2004). Her book, If Not Metamorphic was runner up for the Sawtooth Prize and will be published
by Ahsahta Press. revv.you’ll—ution, is forthcoming from Displaced Press sometime this year. She is the editor
of Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs: http://yoyolabs.com/. She is editing a collection of essays by poets concerning poetry and
ecological ethics titled )((eco (lang)(uage(reader). She is the art editor at Boog City as well as a visual artist. She lives
in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at Cooper Union.