Shuddhashar: What is it that you strive to explore and convey through your poetry?
Xandria Phillips: I write poetry to wade into the incalculable, which is often reborn in my work as abundance, loss, and history. I see poetry as an opportunity to break ranks from the mires of prescriptive daily language. Conveyance is a very sticky subject because it assumes a lot about one’s audience. The most I can hope is for my poetry to incite some kind of interruption in a reader’s life, be it knowledge-based, emotional, or of the body. When I began writing in high school, it was just for me. I’ve learned that the longer I am a writer in the world, the harder it is to maintain writing as a source of nourishment for me. I have become increasingly protective and interested in my writing process moreso than the writing itself. The time in which I play, experiment, and fail is the most crucial because in most cases no one is watching. Presently, I am writing through an obsession with television, and working in the ekphrastic mode.
Shuddhashar: How do you interpret the present world, and how have current events spurred you to write?
Xandria Phillips: I have been writing since before having any understanding of the world, but I have found the predicaments and histories of indigenous and diasporic Africans to be the greatest fuel to my craft. I see the world as a conglomeration of trajectories. When seemingly disparate paths intersect, I use poetics to pull myself deeper into the heart of my concern. Most current events feel too painful to write about. I find myself overwhelmed by an oversaturation of commentary on cyclical issues that we must relive time and again. I am more likely to unearth a forgotten historical figure or write in homage to the black side-kick on a television series than I am to write towards a linear news cycle.
Shuddhashar: What literary pieces – poetry, fiction or non-fiction – and writers have informed and inspired your own writing? How have they done so?
Xandria Phillips: As a new writer in the world, I turned to Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and Audre Lorde. A fellow Ohioan, Morrison’s work has been a blueprint for me. Though she is a fiction writer, I often think of Beloved as an epic poem birthed from the underworld. Because we both have a similar foundational landscape, Morrison’s counter-idyllic midwestern imagery is something that consistently haunts the language of my poems. Ntozake Shange taught me how to be bold and advocate for myself in my poetry. In a time when I was deeply mired in predominantly white institutions, I needed the pro-blackness in her poems and the experimentation in her forms. Looking back, Shange was one of my first interdisciplinary artists of influence. Audre Lorde helped me envision a writer’s life for myself outside of cis-heterosexuality. She was the first person I knew of who considered the gender euphoria of transcending the binary. In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Lorde writes, “I have always wanted to be both man and woman…to share valleys and mountains upon my body the way the earth does in hills and peaks. I would like to enter a woman the way any man can, and be entered–to leave and to be left–to be hot and hard and soft all at the same time in the cause of our loving.” I remember thinking as I read this: I didn’t know you were allowed to say that out loud. Andre Lorde helped me to name and work through the shame lurking in my writing.
Currently, I am feeling most revitalized as a poet by writing from Renee Gladman, Dionne Brand, and Jeff Vandermeer. Experimental fiction is shaping the ways I am experimenting with setting now.
Shuddhashar: In what way do your personal identity and experiences shape your poetry?
Xandria Phillips: I am black, queer, and trans. Even a love poem I write will be considered political. While my work is shaped by my identity as much as my life is, my craft is often eclipsed by white supremacy’s obligation to hyper-legibility, which manifests as a need to essentialize and reify themes one might read into my work. I would not say that I write the way that I do because of who I am. There is no singular aesthetic tied to blackness, for instance. Blackness is my locus, not what I do. I am one example of the way a poet can manifest in the world. One could say that residing in the margins makes one privy to nuance, but I don’t like to romanticize struggle. I will say that I feel incredibly lucky to be black, queer, and trans and to know love within those communities.
Shuddhashar: How do you use structure, language and grammar to accentuate the message of your poetry? Do you subscribe to conventions or break them?
Xandria Phillips: My syntax is a blend of lexicons from various stages of my life. I write in inherited forms from time to time but usually prefer to dream up my own parameters edicts in my poetry. My favorite inherited form is the contrapuntal because it challenges me to build a short potent line with quick reflexes. I love a contrapuntal for its syntactical agreement and tendency to contradict itself. While writing one, I might work for hours so that the language flows between columns without obstruction, but may wield conflicting commentary.
When writing a series of poems that took place during the middle passage, I reoriented the language to reflect the subjects’ protest of objectification by eliminating all objective and possessive pronouns: “us” and “our.” This conceit had a haunting and jarring effect on the language that I also used to unsettle the notion of unity within the assemblage of speakers. It was my aim for the language to gesture towards enslavement’s attempt at corralling ethnic diversity into one common identity. For me, a form or conceit is most exciting when it feels structured into its context by design. Like a circulatory system, an exciting form will be active, vital, and inextricable from its content.
Shuddhashar: What is your opinion about the conflicts and solidarities between political poetry and the literary and artistic values of poetry?
Xandria Phillips: For me, this question asks me to pit a single trajectory against itself. Black writers and artists, in particular, have illuminated the fact that politics and art, or craft and content are something of an ouroboros. I most often encountered people who were of the opinion that craft and content existed in opposition during graduate school. The white men there seemed angry by the sucsess of writers of color who wrote about their lived experiences. It was clear to me that these men saw their privileged experiences as free from trauma and so a creative hindrance. I always found it odd that they appeared to be jealous of an experience rather than the talent and tenacity it took to write said books. I think poetry is most palpable when it invites a kind of involuntary double take from its reader, that compels the reader to consider a new way of doing or being.
Shuddhashar: Does your poetry transcend national boundaries? Does it appeal to different nationalities or linguistic groups?
Xandria Phillips: I am a writer from the United States who thinks about American essentialism a lot, especially within black experiences. Some of my work is a direct refusal of colonial borders. My poem “You and I” works backwards through naming and towards indigeneity with the line “You and I have never left Nigeria Biafra Yorubaland….” My book HULL has been taught in poetry classes, trans studies courses, and black studies classes. HULL has been called “challenging” by white, cisgender reviewers, and “a reminder to make a life” by black queer critics. As a first time author, I am still not fully aware of how far my book’s appeal may reach, but I suppose that it why I am here now, completing this interview, typing words on a page and hoping someone thousands of miles away will read and react.
In the dream where we switch places I barricade
myself in the wine cellar while you run through
my home in a dress made of flames. You make
quick work of the brittle wood, snapping support
beams. In this realm, the estate alights with the massacre
of inverse, we both know privacy and rape.
My skin is night-water black where
your shadow falls over me. The commute
to bondage was sickening. You see these dead
limbs? You see these pearls? Everything I need
is in another hemisphere. Everyone I love is here.
I take care not to swallow the children
I carry in my mouth. Some of them mine,
some of them yours. None of them
will learn my tongue. They are all so close
to dying the same way, it makes my mouth water.
You pull meat off the bone, raw.
The flesh surrounds you in rot. Flies walk
across your eyes as if they are iced-over lakes.
Your home is infested. Is this a metaphor
for Europe? you’ll ask when you read this.
I blink for you. I close my eyes on your behalf.
*originally published in HULL (Nightboat Books, 2019)
THE MASTER’S TOOLS
I hold this temporary sweetness in my mouth
a small wedge lopped off the mother melon
still tethered to the grove
watermelon is a social fruit
with many heads to a single spine
watermelon is a social fruit
I press its meat to your waterbed mouth
in your eyes I see the tool shed on fire
we won’t need the spades the anvil
heavy as a blue whale’s heart
you kiss me and the fruit look
like swollen bodies in a chain gang
you kiss me so deep I might never leave
the fields I’ve been leashed to
we bear no laborers
to wither with this empire
our instruments of desire chafe a blue flame
the thicket swelling with us to ash
we’re not here to dismantle anything
we’ve come to burn the big house down
*originally published in Scalawag Magazine
Profile photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan