Visiting with Phillip B. Williams
by Claire Guyton
What inspired “Romulus and Remus: Pascere” and “Late Cartography”?
I’ll start with “Romulus and Remus: Pascere.” This poem was one of five sections to a larger poem called “Romulus and Remus.” The five sections were later created into five separate poems in a series, all beginning with, of course, “Romulus and Remus.” So the birth of this poem is literally explosive, a solid becoming pieces, becoming pieces of pieces. All five of the poems dealt with retelling the myth by expressing how one male force completely overpowers another. At that time I was reading Rigoberto Gonzalez who pretty much creates his own world by using Latino folklore and mythology as a vehicle to understand his environment. I wanted some type of fantastic element in this poem as well, as the other poems in the series were very dark and violent. Somehow I believed that myth would be less violent, or that the presence of something supernatural would dilute any presence of pathos. That did not occur.
“Late Cartography” had a different genesis. Though both poems are in couplets, my reasons for using couplets in “Late Cartography” seem completely unrelated to my reasons for using them in “Pascere.” “Late Cartography” started off as a meditation on what a perfect night would be for me: lover, peace, stars, sex, a big bed, and so on. Whether because I have masochistic tendencies or because the poetic energies of that evening were laced with duende, something eerie popped off very close to the center of this poem. Right around the point where the doe appears, hungry and dying, another narrative arrived: one of loneliness despite companionship, of wanting to get away but not being able to for whatever reason. Even the “shaking mess” of an inviting galaxy cannot pull the speaker away from this lover who only seems to fuck and smoke weed. The couplets helped with increasing the building tension of wanting to leave, feeling rushed by the little-longer-than-usual lines that slide from one enjambment into the next unsettling thought. Velocity and discomfort.
I used couplets in “Pascere” to basically tell this story in a way that emphasized the duels in the poem: wealthy versus poor, beautiful versus marred, controlled versus master, desire versus disgust. How everyone in the town thinks one thing when something else is the truth. How sadomasochism is so well hidden even though everyone wants to be a part of it. Or how money, beauty, and the obsession with power completely blind the people to the destructive omens of this man’s return. Irony and duality.
Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of one or both of these poems.
I sit down. I write. Or, I sit down and I stare at the page. My process is one of jumping into it and waiting to see what happens. Usually if I am staring at the page for too long, I’ll scribble down images. Eventually connections will surface and I find myself following whatever paths become available. This is definitely the case with “Pascere,” which is what, to me at least, makes the poem so fun. There is a sense of realism versus fantasy that really only comes when I let my guard down. Not often do water hydrants explode at the arrival of a human being (Do they ever? Goodness, I hope not!) nor would a town, seemingly empty of women, offer up its sons as sacrifices to another man. There are so many connections made possible by letting the mind take you where it knows it needs to go. All of the editing comes after the fact, not before it.
Raymond Carver said a writer should follow the command “No tricks.” Do you keep any quotes or reminders at your desk? Or just in the back of your mind as you write?
I keep in the back of my mind conversations I’ve had with other poets who are also my friends. Anything from poet L. Lamar Wilson demanding I write from the heart so that the rest will come naturally, or poet Rickey Laurentiis speaking passionately about the need for poems to be challenging from multiple angles (syntax, meter, image, etc.) in order for the poems to resonate. The only famous quote I know by heart by a poet comes from Emily Dickinson: she wanted poems to “knock [her] head off.” That is the key. It is the quote I live by and it affects the way I read other poems as well. I want to feel as though someone is, section by section, twisting me into something unintended and completely out of my and the poet’s control. I want my work to do the same. How visceral….
If you were to write a book on the craft of writing, what title would you use?
Carl Phillips used the title Coin of the Realm for his book of essays on poetry as a way of referring to, I think, an exchange rate: something you give as payment to gain access to a particular place, a particular understanding. For me, a coin is less important for its value as money than for its value of duality. I am fascinated with coins having these two sides to a single self. Even more lovely are die, with their six or more sides, depending on the game, on the rules. See, that’s the other thing: both of these multi-faceted objects come with rules that determine how each side is to be interpreted, created, and engraved upon. Because I can’t steal the Phillips title, for my own title I would probably go with “Rules of the Toss” or something equally terrible.