Xandria Phillips is a poet, educator, visual artist and an extremely generous mentor. They are the poetry editor at Honeysuckle Press and a teaching artist for Winter Tangerine’s New York City workshops, where I met them for the first time. Their collection “Hull” came out in late 2019, published by Nightboat Books. The sense of time in “Hull” is fragmented—each poem is a surprise, every title a jolt in the gut. It is built on reimagined histories and trauma erotics. Historical and mythological figures make frequent cameo appearances. Verses weave into each other laying bare the historical and current threats to Black and queer bodies. Trying to build a narrative between the colonial and postcolonial, the collection plays around with words, language and using the page itself to deconstruct and decolonize. Astounding and utterly necessary, it felt only right when “Hull” won the Lambda Literary Award for Trans Poetry in June 2020.
So “Hull.” Can you tell me a little bit about the name? How did that come about?
I wanted to evoke a body with the name of this book, like a figure or a boat and most importantly, the holding compartment of the boat, especially for the Middle Passage series of poems in the book, where I am talking about bodies within a cavity. So I guess that compacted images encompass a lot of things that I am talking about. I knew I wanted either a slightly long title, or extremely small. When the word “Hull” came about, I liked the way that one word could branch out.
How was it working with Nightboat Books, since this is your first book? Was it everything you wanted?
It was great. They have a great balance of being really supportive and challenging me. They were helping me with decisions that I simply can’t make because I’ve never made a book before, like they let me put the art on the cover, which for me, was a big risk. I had already been going back and forth with the designer. It’s hard to translate what you want on your book cover. I was relying too much on their imagination. And then I thought, maybe it’s just on me to paint this. I wasn’t a big fan of the mockups and I was having a hard time communicating what I wanted. Eventually, I sent them an image of the painting and I said, “I painted it and I like it conceptually more than anything else we have.” A lot of folks weighed in. They were so realistic and generous. It had a human quality to it as opposed to the designs which are born in Adobe Photoshop and feel hyper-refined. It felt nice to come from another space of creation versus design. I was thinking of the design when I made it, but I like the fact that I made it. I like looking at the cover more now.
That painting, I made it specifically for the cover. I felt like I commissioned it. I treated it like—the client needs it. The client was me, but I treated it with a close deadline. They needed it for the ARCs [advanced reader copies] they sent out. After I painted it, we also got a professional photograph of it, the quality in general just went up.
I love it so much, I love that you can see the hand, the marks you left behind. I feel like poetry books have the most creative covers these days. Fiction books have gone into this weird trend of looking the same.
I have noticed things like layering, you can see them everywhere. But what is cool is that poetry books now have no rules. There are no rules, I am so excited about that. There have been some common motifs, but there’s not really a standard of how a cover should look and it is so exciting. It allows you to explore possibilities, like putting your own art on the cover.
There are fifty-seven poems in “Hull.” I imagine that must have taken a long time to build. How long has the collection been in the making?
I don’t even remember how many poems there are. Fifty-seven! Holy smokes. That’s a lot. I’ve been working on it spiritually, I don’t mean just inside my head, but I mean conceptually I’ve been working through these themes since 2012. I’ve been thinking a lot about dissolving the relationship to a certain degree between indigenous and Diasporic Black people, not in a way to oversimplify it, but just in this way of thinking about, we really boil things down to that. I like to think about the splendor of the universe and that I could have been born any person. And I just wanted to think about personhood and Blackness and the absurdity of Blackness, how wild and absurd our trajectories are and how where we are born influences that.
I was thinking a lot about that as I was in Ghana and also taking an African Studies class when I was an undergrad in Oberlin, but I didn’t have the poetic language at that time. I was still very young, still not as rigorous as I could have been, but I think that is just hindsight shaming. The title surfaced in grad school, and during that time, I had my first retreat with Cave Canem. I have some memorable poems, but they are not the poems I read more often, or the poems which are the most popular, but I know in my heart those poems are the root of this book. Like the “Anarcha” poem and “For A Burial Free of Sharks,” I wrote those two on my second day at Cave Canem. Those were my beginnings, the openings, the doors, that’s how I started conceptualizing this book. They allowed for so much to happen. There were so many things I wanted to do, but I didn’t have the language or the footing to do them until I was in a room full of Black poets who were also trying to do such wildly different things and I thought, let me do just anything, and that’s how I found myself writing those poems.
I love the way the Cosmology poems appear, in the book and on the page. You have a very interesting way of using the page in this collection.
For the Cosmology poems, that series, to some degree, the final poem, “A fruit we never tasted,” I was thinking a lot about the text “Zong!” and how M. NourbeSe Philip plays with the seascape, that plays with an oceanic landscape on the page. I was thinking of the dissolving of selfhood but also the actual pacing. These poems are very strange, that it’s working off a new kind of English, or skewed English where only the subject pronoun is used and never the object pronouns, in this active resistance against objecthood and objectification of these folks who are on their trajectory toward objectivity essentially. I literally wanted each word to weigh a similar amount and the pacing of it would allow for a slower read. if anything it’s a dirge. it’s not a prayer, not an ecstasy, I was thinking a lot about weight and sadness, and resistance. But more than anything—I liked the idea of it feeling like a seascape.
You mentioned objectivity. What do you think about objectivity—does it exist?
I guess, no. But I almost feel like I don’t know if a human can answer that question. I think we need to look outside the species to get a solid answer.
I was thinking a lot about an attempt to write your own version of history. Was it something you were doing deliberately? The need to write your own history by rewriting the trauma of the past.
I love the speculative mode even though I never really thought of it that way. As I was writing something, like, for instance, someone like myself would be talking to Anarcha, to Admoia Luis, to Sarah Baartman, those pieces are highly speculative. Growing up, I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi. Things I am really drawn to are worlds like ours but with a twist, and also fan fiction. This idea of, if you are writing you can build a world of anything, reigns true. It is a ruse, but I really enjoy it. It felt like a tool I could use for good.
There are some people in history who hadn’t gotten a fair shot—either for being under-complicated and overly praised or for something around the exact opposite—being niche or unknown or under-complicated. You will read about it, but it feels so dry—like this woman was kidnapped, but what was she like when she woke up in the morning? I wonder about that so much about these historical figures. They all had to take a dump, what was that like? I don’t need to know that. I tried to pick things that feel like to a certain degree like coming to a common degree. Some of them are more dramatic, depending on the setting. But I do find it really helpful for myself to try to rewrite some of the wrongs that have happened. Actually weaponize the wrongs that have happened. I see these people I’ve written about as highly capable individuals that I often see within the realm of the victim. Some of them just need more. Sarah Baartman must have been amazing. She had a horrible life, but she knew how to have a good time—or so I like to think.
There is a poem called “Master’s Tools,” invoking Audre Lorde, of course.
I think that poem, if there’s ever, is a poem that came out of me very unbothered. I wouldn’t say that about most of my work. most of my work feels a lot more—there is a lot more movement. Me literally breaking the form apart, me experimenting, me inverting. It’s rare that a poem comes out of me top to bottom as it is. It had a flow to it. I was really taken by Lorde in undergrad. When I was coming onto myself, thinking about the erotic as power, the personal is political, these are the things that drive my work and the kinds of loyalties I have as a person and in my work. I wanted to write a protest song. As much as I am a wordy individual, I am fed up with words. I am fed up with the fact that I expect words to fix so much.
What are the people in your life that you have loyalties to? They exist in a way you conduct your life.
In my undergrad, I fell into my modality. I knew the people I am going to upload. Writers like Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde became the big three for me. These folks were a part of my formative years in college. I lived in a house one summer, and all of us were mostly people of color—within Blackness, there was so much in that space. Someone was researching Jamaican dance music, someone was researching church mothers in Cleveland, someone was doing research on homeless queer youth. We would just sit down and these are the people you meet in a setting like that. I was literally sharing food and thoughts and I was so well fed, more than I have ever been. That is what I am always trying to get back to, this feeling of comfort and academia, which doesn’t really come by often. We loved each other so much because we were outside the harsh reality of academia. That is the kind of culture I want to foster in my work, in my classroom—one of ease and safety, but also immense rigor. People called me out, people fed me, and I am so grateful.
So if “Master’s Tools” was an easy poem, what is the other half of the writing process like for you?
My writing process has warped and mutated a lot when I think through where I am in my life. It says a lot—the form you are writing in. In grad school, I wrote with a lot of density. I would write a lot of heavier pieces like the encounter poems. These were also a little longer pieces. When I graduated, I was worried about not having consistent feedback, but I realized it’s the best possible thing that could happen. But I started writing sporadically. I was in awe of this city and I was writing on the bus a lot, and suddenly short lines came to me. I started writing these short lines that felt a lot more personal—oftentimes more romantic. For me, that was coming from this place of being scattered. These short things that came in one stream were very new to me. Now I have a lot more stability than I have ever had in my life. Anything that happens in my life, happens because I want it to happen. Now that I am a teacher, life feels more like I am in control. I am writing a lot more prose and I have time to cultivate a long line. But yeah, I am so drastically changed by setting, I cannot escape that.
Hence the poem about a Dad Jacket! Bless the Dad Jacket!
Yes! I was walking one night back home in Chicago in my huge jacket and it just struck me how nice is it to be invisible in this big huge thing? Chicago is brutal. You are running errands and the Dad Jacket is literally a blessing.
In an ideal setting, how would you want people to read your book?
That’s such a dangerous question. I think I wanted to have a response that is the highest form of response. It is weird. I want a gasp, a pearl-clutching moment. Or a laugh, too. I know my work is not the funniest. But still, it will be amazing if someone had a really visceral reaction—a very genuine feeling when you gasp when there is no one in the room, but you still gasp.
It makes me sad that you will never know if someone gasped while reading your book. We should write a note at the back of the book.
Yes, a pre-addressed postcard. Like if you gasp, write to me. So I know that you had that reaction.
Last question. What is your favorite poem in the book?
I would say the ones that you know when you read a book and one poem sticks out to you? it is like an artifact from that big thing you are reading. It’s hard for me to say my favorite. I got to choose all of these poems! But when I think of the soul or the emotional stakes of this book, for me, two poems come to mind—”Poem Where I Refuse to Talk about—” and “Nativity.” There is an old pain carried into a new pain between those poems: around gender, being gendered, having to confirm the strictures of that. I was so tired, but those poems are when my identity was feeling undermined and I had to do some deep thinking. I am a lot more critical of myself and that is where those poems come from.