Xandria Phillips will be reading from her new chapbook Reasons for Smoking (chosen by Claudia Rankine as the winner of our 2016 chapbook contest) at Open Books on Saturday, February 17, 7 pm and teaching a workshop at Open Books on Sunday, February 18, 10 am. As our excitement for these terrific events ramps up, we're thrilled to share this short interview with the author.
Gabrielle Bates: This chapbook ends with a series of poems (“Edmonia Lewis and I on Academic Leave,” “Anarcha and I Negotiate Trauma,” “Michelle Obama and I Self-Medicate”) that imagine circumstances in which the speaker interacts with famous historical figures. Each posits a specific and intimate “we” relationship. Would you talk a little bit about your relationship—or your work’s relationship—to the word and idea “we”? And/or speak to how this “_________ and I...” series came to exist? I’m interested in so much (how the conceit allows you to collapse linear time and physical space, the power dynamics at play when animating historical figures as characters, the sexual atmosphere of them...). Were there any particular challenges you faced in writing this series? Anything that made them feel particularly fruitful or important to the chapbook as a whole?
Xandria Phillips: Reasons For Smoking absolutely privileges the “we” pronoun as well as the implied “we” you mentioned in the “_______ and I…” series. I see the “we” particularly in my middle passage series as a kind of diasporic chorus made up of ancestral voices enslaved into the English tongue. I call this an assemblage voice rather than a collective one because assemblage better connotes a gathering that did not will itself as one. With all of my work that involves an assemblage voice or some notion of sameness, I want to cut monoliths down at the knees, and illuminate the grotesque nature of forced homogenization.
The “_________ and I...” series began with Anarcha, who I had been trying to engage with on the page for the longest. I wrote this poem during the 2016 Cave Canem retreat, when I was for the first time in my life, surrounded by other Black poets. Being there among so many poets I had cherished from the page changed me. I afforded myself all kinds of permissions within my writing practice that I had never fully considered before, one of them being communicating with people I had no access to. Of all the Black women I write myself in conversation with, Anarcha is the softest and most like me. My deepest concern was that the historic subjects in the poems could read or register as versions of myself more so than individuals. As a measure to de-romanticize and complicate, I build intimacy in these poems that is strained, labored, or at the very least, temporary. I am interested in what lives between the erotic and sex, especially in regards to relationships between Black women. I place myself at the mercy of Edmonia, Michelle, and Anaracha’s intimacy because I always want to peek at what lies beneath the bonnet.
GB: You’re teaching a poetry workshop at Open Books: A Poem Emporium on 2/18 (which sounds *amazing*), to focus on “un-grammar / marring language and the emotional resonance of sound.” For you, what is the role of destruction and violence in the making of poems? When you think of “the emotional resonance of sound,” do any particular sounds, words, phrases, or lines come to mind?
XP: In regards to destruction and violence, I make a point to use linguistic interruption as a tactic that is, in a sense, an involuntary prayer or tribute to the terrors cast onto Black bodies that the reader must utter. In my middle passage series, this interruption takes the form of an un- or invented grammar in which at any place I would write the word “us”, I instead write: “we”. The technical grammar of it speaks to a reclamation of agency with “we” being a subject pronoun and “us” being an object pronoun, the beings being acted upon. While the narrative stresses the inevitability of eternal objecthood for the enslaved, the language itself resists commodification. The language depicts a population who was not born into slavery, and had to make the existential commute into objecthood. This didn’t happen overnight. People lost themselves to colonial capitalism cell-by-cell. How does humanity mutate in the newly-enslaved body? I think language and communication would have been the first things to thrum under tyranny and to change irreconcilably.
Sound’s own resonance for me is linked to its context and the way it blocks the shortcuts my mind builds to navigate language on auto-pilot rather than with precision. A poem I read recently that is exemplary of this is “Bring Back Our Girls” by Marwa Helal.
 For those who don’t know, two brief biographies:
Edmonia Lewis (1844 – 1907): American sculptor of international fame; she was badly beaten while studying at Oberlin and spent most of her career living and working in Rome
Anarcha: an enslaved 17-year old in Alabama on whom Dr. Sims (still often considered the “father of gynecology”) conducted 30 gynecological surgery experiments, without anesthesia, after she went through a very traumatic birthing experience