Xandria Phillips is a poet and visual artist from rural Ohio. Xandria is the author of HULL and Reasons For Smoking, which won the 2016 Seattle Review chapbook contest judged by Claudia Rankine. Their poem “For a Burial Free of Sharks” won the 2016 Gigantic Sequins poetry contest judged by Lucas De Lima. Xandria has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, where they are the First Wave Poetry Fellow. Their poetry has been featured in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Poets.Org, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
Logan February: Xandria, I’m so glad to finally be having this chat with you. Congratulations on your new book, HULL, which I’ve been anticipating since I read Reasons for Smoking in 2017. How long was this book in the making, and how does it feel—who are you, really—now that it’s going out into the world? I’d imagine the creation of a work like this must have been a very self-developing process.
Xandria Phillips: Thank you Logan, for your kind words, and time. I’ve been looking forward to this interview. HULL coming out does feel like laying all my cards on the table. The book reveals my identity’s progression in embodiment and as a writer. HULL took root as early as 2012 when I spent a semester studying in Legon, Ghana. I was so entranced by the history and the ocean while simultaneously coming to terms with myself queering into who I would become. I took a long break from HULL after I finished writing it. I had never been so angry at a text before. Its finality felt fatal. How could the book be done if I wasn’t? After a month I read it through and learned a lot about myself. HULL is a vessel for baggage just as much as it is growth; the trauma I carry from Ohio, Ghana, Virginia, and Chicago, and how it manifests in my language. So often I was writing to remember, and to prove. HULL is a constrained population of the things that had to come out of me. Looking forward I’m keen on leaning into what wants to.
LF: That really comes through, the pull of necessity in the poems. It’s so fascinating to hear that the ideas behind this project were discovered while you were in Africa, so I want to start with your poem “You and I,” which opens the collection. I’ve often wondered about that first sentence: “you and I have never left […] / Yorubaland,” (being Yoruba myself). Tell me about choosing Yorubaland in conceptualizing this internal tension of pre- and post-colonial realities, the choice to cross out state names, and this poem’s form, that “partition made of circumstance.”
XP: My time spent in Ghana was so formative that I found my return to the States to be far more jarring culturally than my first days in Legon. As I re-entered these predominantly white spaces I became tinged with the sadness of potentiality, and what I had left behind. I often think about all the period pieces we are inundated with in film and television, and how rare it is to see Black folks doing their thing without white intervention at any point in history. The closest thing we have is Wakanda, rooted in a smattering of African ethnicities. Even in speculation, indigenous Black people become abstracted out of context, and diasporic Black people remain unrooted to a place or a people. “You and I” is my response to this void in speculation. I chose Nigeria Biafra Yorubaland as a student of African history for several reasons. This place having known many names articulates for me the severity of language as a tool for erasure. What if I refuse to evoke a colonial border? On a non-colonial timeline how do I come to know myself? Nigeria is such an acute example of borders drawn out of cultural context, and Yoruba heritage is a known direct lineage for so many people throughout the Americas. I so often dream of what specific cultures could look like unwarped by European manipulation.
LF: Word. So you often use film and other visual media as a sort of conduit into thought and imagination?
XP: I would say I absolutely aspire to. I’m definitely a television monger. I love settling in to re-watch and re-think a series. The areas of lack that both TV and film illuminate are so very glaring. When I watch Atlanta, I wonder where that absurdist outlet is for Black women and queers. My whole life I’ve been attracted to media that pulls me into a kind of chaos. Lately I’ve been calling this phenomenon I am so often drawn to in shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and King of the Hill, and movies like The Hangover, a white minstrelsy. My engagement pitches somewhere between hate-watching, entertainment, and anthropological study. It’s the spectacle of it, and what a wonder it is to find one-self often the target, but in this case thrilled and safe within passive witness. I plan to flesh out this concept of white minstrelsy a bit more in my next writing project.
LF: Hopefully that soon becomes a thing that we can all read! I love the way your mind works. I also agree, largely, with your opinion of Nigeria as a nation draughted out of context—it still is something of a contemporary dilemma for us. Our people cannot unknow the fact that we are a congealment of distinct tribes being asked to be one people. So it’s a fundamental flaw, truly. You spoke of the “severity of language as a tool for erasure.” Is this a tool you ever apply in your work? I feel like the “we” poems in HULL (“We Cosmology,” “For A Burial Free of Sharks,” “A Fruit We Never Tasted”) reinvent the pronoun for a simultaneous documentation and undoing (of colonial violence, generational displacement, and gender rigidity, possibly). I’m wondering if you consider the language here a reparative severity.
XP: Severity was absolutely on my mind while writing the middle passage series. These poems do not sit comfortably in the mouth. In eradicating the plural object pronoun, “us,” I wanted to demonstrate a population that was hanging on to subjecthood for dear life. Even changing a single variable creates a new form of English.
LF: Subjecthood. And invisibility. Your book is quite permeated with these problems of identity. (“I am only here because I am ineligible / to exist otherwise. I’m only here because I left and / returned through an Atlantic wormhole. I write to you as / the American version of me.”) The evocation of “you and I” appears in many of the poems—I suppose they constitute the “we.” Across the book, the “you” is never constant, I think, the “you” seems conjured from myriad people, times and places. Yet, I get the feeling that the “I” changes, too, and sometimes the “you” is the “I.” Can you say more about this more fluid sense of subjecthood, particularly with regards to the concept of “social death” that the quoted poem is titled after?
XP: The danger in social death for Black folks comes from interchangeability. As Black folk, we carry the sins of people who share our race. As Black folk, every part of our identity is mutable comparable to our race. Where it gets interesting for me is when interchangeability becomes invisibility. Fluidity is presented to a Black body that goes unnoticed. As someone who has inhabited predominantly white spaces, I know there is a different rule book for me, and I intend to flourish within the absurdity of the margins.
I spent a long time not knowing who I was, and now I intend to know all of my selves. At first I thought it might be too messy to write a book that straddles more than one gender. I decided much worse than messiness would be a dishonesty around the way that my gender has developed. The shifting “I” is at times symbolic of my many modes of existence.
LF: HULL is also populated by various forms of intimacy, with various motivations behind them; from the autoerotic “Ode to A Vibrator Left On All Night” to the “Intimate Archive” that follows it—a horrific love story (again between “you and I”) built on reimagined histories and trauma erotics. I’d like to hear about the “Intimate Archive,” really; it’s my favorite sequence in the book. Why is intimacy so central to your work? What inspiration/research led you into this sequence, and how long did it take you to write? I’m also curious about your choice of the Dawn Lundy Martin quote for the sequence, since that’s the only epigraph in the book.
XP: Intimacy comes up a lot in conversation about my work, and it used to surprise me, but only because I wondered what poets weren’t trying to access intimacy. It’s been a subconscious under-pinning of my work for some time now. I have come to realize that intimacy is where I get my best emotional work done. The people who have seen me at my worst know the most about me, and for me what intimacy comes down to is knowledge, of another, and of the self in ways that aren’t fixed. I wrote “Intimate Archive” in the thick of graduate school. When I think back to this time, I remember how starved for touch and connection I was as I researched Maafa, a KiSwahili concept that translates to “Black Holocaust.” I was thinking about how unbearably fragile love must feel within these historical instances of terror. In writing about these Black subjects, I wanted to move beyond resilience. That brings me to Dawn’s quote as the epigraph: “If you were to hang yourself you wouldn’t die, you don’t know how to die.” In Dawn’s work I am most drawn to her writing on the forced process of living. Survival is no longer a romantic concept. Survival is a drudgery. The accounts that make up “Intimate Archive” could be seen as survivor accounts. Even if these subjects have their lives, there is still the question of who is one’s survival for? Who does it serve?
LF: What a question—it changes for me the context of the poem that follows that sequence. In the voice of a pair of stirrups, it opens: “Thank you for your cooperation The soft bow of your heel / The air pushed open by your leg span Do you remember / when we met How no drugs were administered / How the hands that opened you were cold / and soiled …” But this coldness is offset by the next poem, which sees your speaker negotiating trauma with Anarcha Westcott (an enslaved Black woman who was forced to undergo gynaecological experiments and surgeries without anesthesia). This line particularly strikes me: “There was meat initially on the peaches that we halved off and fed to each other making sure to miss the mouth enough for the lips and neighboring skin to get sweet and wet.”
Tell me about the relational decisions in the crafting of these poems (writing a poem “As Told By The Stirrups” and then imagining Anarcha with such radical tenderness, trust and complexity right after). Is this driven by that same starvation for touch and connection? Or is it some other kind of remedy?
XP: I wrote “Anarcha and I Negotiate Trauma” during my first Cave Canem retreat in 2016. I believe at this particular moment I felt wholly saturated in the lyricism of my cohort. This poem poured out of me with a tenderness honed among peers. The major difference between these two poems is the subject’s proximity to property. In “The Black Body As Told by the Stirrups,” medical instrumentation lords over a Black body. I needed the poems to sit beside each other, their progression: history as a mastered being, followed by its inverse, history as a wayward speculation.
LF: Lastly, I have to ask you about the Michelle Obama poem—it’s stunning. As in “Anarcha and I Negotiate Trauma,” your speaker is once again face to face with a woman of Black history in this poem. But here you are situated in a liminality between anxiety and desire. What led you to decide on tea with Michelle Obama as the right context to explore the amorphous space of these concerns? Also, how do you really feel about chamomile?
XP: I love this question. Choosing the particular set-up for these historical encounters was the trickiest element of crafting each poem. First off, tea is just so polite. It pre-occupies the hands and the mouth, something a nervous party-goer like myself thinks about. Tea, like Michelle Obama and myself, is a foreign body in a colonial context. Chamomile never fails to disappoint me. I think it tastes like twigs.
Author photo courtesy of Chekwube O. Danladi.