Humboldt Park native Phillip B. Williams returns to Chicago this week for two readings in promotion of Thief in the Interior, his latest collection of poetry out this month by Alice James Books. Williams is a graduate of Cave Canem, a gold star marking talented African American writer/poets. He’s received scholarships from the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers Conference, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, graduated from one of the best MFA programs in the country, and is currently a fellow at Emory (all before turning 30).
Williams’ poetry exists in the aftermath of grotesque violence. For a poet inspired by “everything he’s read” and “everywhere he’s lived,” there’s an undeniable Chicago presence to much of his work and a rap rhythm throughout his verse. Williams claims his hip hop influence is owed to his sister’s taste in music, the music he listened to throughout his youth. Thief in the Interior is divided into four parts, the second of which explores a 2005 murder of a bisexual black man in Brooklyn. Poems inspired by Chicago can be found in the other three sections.
The bulk of Williams’ recent collection confronts the way that violence is processed socially. “I have an interest in trigger warnings, and sensitivities and the cause of trauma.” He explains, “I have an interest in how not all pain is evaluated with that strange sensitivity. Thief in the Night doesn’t shy away from provocative images of mangled bodies in parts, and the experience of mothers of deceased sons.” Williams says, “We have to confront death on certain terms. I’m trying to figure out how to talk about things people are squeamish about, finding beauty in ruin, treating death as a natural thing, and confronting how we won’t talk about certain things. We always want to be comfortable.”
Chicago magazine calls Williams’ Thief in the Interior a “relevant read” owing to the “specter of black death” present throughout the collection. Williams’ inspiration for this recent collection is once again front and center in the public consciousness, making now the perfect literary moment for its release. As #BlackLivesMatter trends on Twitter and the city grapples with the fallout of the Laquan McDonald video, conversations about police brutality and the culture of accepted violence in our segregated city are elevated to the national level. Chicagoans writing literature that confronts violence in black America have never been more in vogue.
Regardless of the renewed pertinence of the collection’s subject matter, Williams’ poetry is a musical, frightening and gripping experience. Despite not explicitly writing about Chicago, there is something so familiar about the place in which Williams’ poetry exists. It’s perhaps all the more unsettling because of that familiarity. Though it’s no longer his home, it seems impossible that Williams, himself a product of the Chicago Public School system, writes through a lens undimmed by his experiences in this cold, segregated, poorly policed, second city. For Williams Chicago is a “love to hate place,” a feeling that he attributes to segregation though not the kind we might expect. “It’s a miserable place because there’s no outlet,” he says, “no place to go to feel welcomed and cared for. The city has to restructure and reformat or it’s going to die. All the artistic institutions are concentrated on the Northside or downtown.”
Ironically, you can hear Phillip B. Williams read at the Poetry Foundation’s Wintertime Party on the city’s near North side Wednesday January 27 at 6:30 p.m., or catch him the following evening, January 28 (also 6:30pm), at City Lit Books in Logan Square.