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“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from poet Phillip B. Williams.
Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, Illinois native. He is the author of the chapbooks Bruised Gospels (Arts in Bloom Inc. 2011) and Burn (YesYes Books, 2013). He is a Cave Canem graduate and received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-, Callaloo, Kenyon Review Online, Poetry, The Southern Review, West Branch and others. Phillip is currently a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow at the Washington University in St. Louis and is working on his MFA in Creative Writing. He is the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry.
I teach today. What is a political poem? They raise their hands. They have so much to say. Everything is political. Nothing is political. The body is. Their voices are. Things that affect people’s way of life are. I try to teach them that their poems are all a part of their subjectivity and therefore carry the political weight of who they are and how they navigate this world. Perception. Process.
When I get home the first thing I do is take my shoes and socks off. On my laptop I find Spotify and look for something that will chill me out: Meshell N’degeocello, Sade, Nebraska, Oddissee, Wolf + Lamb, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane, Bonobo, Zero 7 etc. I’m usually browsing for books online, which is how I got my recent purchase of the Collected Essays of James Baldwin from the Library of Congress.
Around this time I email William about how this log is probably not going to be the most exciting thing in the world, considering while in my MFA program I spend most of my time indoors, reading and writing. I’ve never been the type to club and I don’t have random trysts with people. I’ve had sex once in the past five years. It’s not something that interests me as far as a recreational activity. He wants me to write it anyway, even jokingly suggests that I go party or have sex. I’ve decided against both suggestions. I spend a lot of time thinking so the most I can do is share my thoughts here, as I simply am not living as active a life as I did when I lived in other cities: Chicago, Atlanta, Boulder/Lafayette/Denver.
This semester I have poetry workshop with Mary Jo Bang. It is an invigorating experience, hearing all of these passionate voices talk lovingly and truthfully about one another’s poems. It makes me grateful for my experience. Usually after workshop I go to a sandwich place with a couple of the poets. It’s a tradition we started on a whim and just kept up with it to debrief on how our weeks are going so far.
We are the three black men in the poetry program. I am a second year and they are first years. There is another black second-year in the fiction program. We have the sense that this is historical on a national level for a two-year residency program. We have no proof of this except for complaints from other black students at other universities. When we meet it is with the intention of checking up on one another just as much as it is to have fun.
The semester before my cohort got here I went to see a ballet at the University Missouri in St. Louis. It was Carmina Burana. It was beautiful. The drive there took us from this street called Delmar, which is the economic and racial dividing line in St. Louis. South of Delmar the average income
per household is $300,000. North of Delmar it is $80,000. Seeing how abandoned most of the houses looked on the north-south street, Skinker, made me realize that I wasn’t far from the segregation of Chicago’s neighborhoods where one minute you can be on a street full of condos then moments later there are liquor stores and abandoned lots everywhere. There is a certain level of exhaustion moving from city to city and experiencing the same challenges. It’s as though all of our cities are becoming monolithic representations of so many systematic ills, becoming indistinguishable from each other. Even though I have a great support system here with my fellow 9 poets and 9 fiction writers, excellent professors, staff, and Deans, it is difficult to call this place home. It resembles everything I hate about my previous home, a place I’ve been trying to leave and get my mother out of all of my adult life.
I take my class to the Kemper Art museum on campus. They are to find a piece of art that speaks to them and write ten details they see in the painting. Then they have to write a poem. I walk around the museum expecting to see a little goofing off, some lounging, maybe even that some students are missing. But they are extremely focused, quiet, contemplative. Their fingers are writing those poems out and they were powerful, beautiful when they finished.
At the museum is an exhibit of Rashid Johnson’s work called Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks (for a biography and photos of his art visit here). Johnson uses a lot of crosshairs in his artwork. One striking piece is a giant crosshair made out of metal that people can walk around. The question that Johnson is interested in is where in the crosshair’s viewing are we: behind the trigger or in front of it. This is majorly important as a question toward black men who are often caught in complex relationships of gang violence, police violence, and the assumptions about who perpetuates the victimization of black men. It’s an agonizing piece where I saw myself as being viewed in the crosshair, not behind it, while others could view not only themselves as behind the trigger but me as someone who should be targeted because of my being seen as a criminal regardless of the truth (i.e. Trayvon Martin).
I saw in his gallery what I would like the cover of my not-yet-published book of poetry to be. It is a photograph of a black background over which are the bottoms of a black men’s feet, four pairs in a straight line that are reflected underneath such that the reflection and the feet are heel-to-heel. It is called “Manumission.” It is powerful, eerie, and definitely a good fit for my manuscript. I’m excited about the possibilities.
I’m talking to an MFA poet-friend of mine about Adam 4 Adam’s “Live shows” and how I see them working less as pornography and more as a medicine for the lonely. The men who make their money have different ways of interacting with their viewers. Many would just sit there, hardly smiling, teasing the camera by rubbing their bodies or showing off, flexing. The live chat box is full of men asking for favors, for the performers to do this or do that, knowing that anything beyond that requires a larger sum of money and private camera time.
The models who seem to get the most interaction are the ones who actually talk to the viewers, answering questions they read from the live chat box, some of which are explicit, some of which are pretty mundane. The conversation is always friendly but not too personal. One model even cajoles his viewers to talk to him and pay more for the private chat, letting them know he is willing to visually satisfy them beyond the teasing. He cracks jokes, he laughs, he speaks clearly and loudly. He is charming but still guarded. It is a lonely person’s best situation when all they want is to give someone a little attention and get some in return, making the monetary exchange less about seeing a naked body and more about having someone attractive pay them attention that they otherwise would not get.
The first-year fiction students held a reading at a second-year fiction student’s apartment. It was a wonderful, cool evening. St. Louis autumn is the best because the days are in the 70s and the nights get real chilly but not such that it is uncomfortable. The stories were exciting and highly original. I could tell that they were nervous, which is a sign of loving what they do.
It was also the first time anyone had seen me with a haircut in many months. Pair that with a shave and I was nearly unrecognizable. Though meaning to be compliments, I was a bit distraught with the idea that I somehow “looked better” this way. It’s a testament to what, I suppose, we are all attracted to: someone who looks in control and neat and what have you. However, I love my long hair and my shaggy facial hair. I am very comfortable with that look regardless of if it is “presentable” or not. So I rather before and after comparisons be kept to one’s self, but what can you do?
Before the reading, a friend of mine visited from Vanderbilt. We had not seen one another in years but I always loved my Donika! She’s an excellent poet. Check her work out here and here. It was good catching up with her, eating some veal meatball fettuccini for a late lunch/early dinner from this nice restaurant near my apartment called Nico’s. Hanging out with her let me know that I am missing a certain kind of energy in my life right now, one that is simultaneously confident and vulnerable, intensely intellectual without being haughty or abrasive, and just all around sweet while living the life of “Otherness.” She makes me feel calm in ways that I have not felt in a long time, but that comes with years of knowing someone and sharing so much.
The only part of church I ever enjoyed was the choir. The songs, clapping, shouting, and stomping in unison—that’s the only time I felt free in church.
Another assumption made about me is that because I am black that I too must be Christian. I don’t consider myself a Christian, though I do believe in a higher power (aka “God”). My relationship with organized religion is tenuous if not wholly absent, completely broken. Though I know Christians who have been great friends I know abundantly more who have not been so positive. I don’t think it is necessarily the religion itself that doesn’t work but that broken people are trying to find their way, as we are all broken and finding our way. In the wrong hands, though, anything can become a weapon and a self-afflicted wound.
The Stono Rebellion of September 9, 1739 in South Carolina began on a Sunday, a day when all the whites didn’t carry weapons and allowed the slaves to work for themselves. It has been said that the slaves that gathered for the rebellion were called by the marching, shouting, and playing of drums.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Many of us are still stomping and shouting toward salvation. That the drums of slaves were considered dangerous but not slaves under the authority of Christianity terrifies me. Interesting information: the enslaved Africans in the Stono Rebellion were allegedly from the Kingdom of Kongo (“allegedly” meaning I’m not 100% sure if my memory serves me correctly), which was a Catholic region after the Portuguese arrived in the late 1400s. Before then, I’m not sure what their traditional practices were. I do find it strange that slaves would rebel when it was the Bible that was used to help enslave them and keep them enslaved in this “Christian nation”—which is also strange because didn’t people come here to keep from being persecuted in Europe for their religious beliefs—that was never a Christian country until all of the Native Indians were eradicated and forced from their regions, their nations, into reservations a fraction of the size with zero of the resources they needed to survive. Perhaps, everyone had different interpretations of what they read and maybe it was the eventual realization that sometimes laws/metaphors/interpretations from cultures that existed centuries ago simply do not fit our contemporary moment that helped abolish chattel slavery. Now we have other forms of slavery to contend with, but that’s not part of this musing.
Themes of Manifest Destiny according to historian William E. Weeks (from Wikipedia and grade school education)
I have much more faith in what was lost than what was supposedly gained.
Monday is my day off but in the morning I will do a recording for the Poetry Foundation to read some poems from my Ruth Lilly portfolio and maybe answer some questions about them. I suppose in a lot of ways writing has been my friend and my lover. My confidant and my foil. My child and my safety net. It has brought me so much joy and pain. I cannot see myself doing much else with my life other than writing. I’ve decided that after grad school I will focus on my novel. I tried to do it while here but poetry keeps taking over. I need to get this manuscript taken so that I can move on and really explore the vast possibilities of my imagination, the stories that I’ve been wanting to tell but haven’t had the focus or time to do it. I’m already thinking ahead of the game and am excited about raising myself as a writer and my writing as something than can change people, challenge them, encourage them, make them angry, make them feel something they’ve never felt before.