A Conversation with William Evans
BY LISA HIGGS
William Evans is an author, speaker, performer, and instructor known for founding the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam and cofounding the popular website Black Nerd Problems. He has been a national finalist in multiple poetry slam competitions and was the recipient of both the 2016 Sustainable Arts Foundation Grant and the 2018 Spirit of Columbus Foundation Grant. The Callaloo and Watering Hole fellow is the author of three poetry collections, including his latest We Inherit What the Fires Left (Simon & Schuster, 2020), and currently lives with his family in Columbus, Ohio. He is an MFA candidate at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Lisa Higgs, Interviewer: I’ll begin with how are you doing? While not my normal first interview question, it seems unavoidable in these crazy times. Has your writing process changed during the pandemic? What impact have these past months had on your art and on those around you?
William Evans, Author: Well, like so many of us, it’s a hell of a challenge. My priorities have shifted quite a bit. My family being in close proximity is amazing in a lot of ways and challenging in a lot of others, primarily in the creative process. I was spoiled to be creating in a still house, in a house I could leave when I needed to move my lens, so now discovering new ways to navigate that creative space has been the biggest challenge.
LH: Your latest poetry collection, We Inherit What the Fires Left, is an overarching exploration of fatherhood from multiple vantage points—as a father of a daughter, as the son of a father. Yet fatherhood is also seen communally as well. For instance, the “Inheritance” poems that are scattered throughout the collection are about both literal, spiritual, and communal inheritances. What draws you to this topic in your poetry?
WE: In this book, inheritance was my central obsession. I was taken in by this idea of what is passed between generations, whether we want those traits or experiences, or not. It was a reckoning for me to try and understand the mechanics of how I have inherited what I have and how aware I am of passing those things on. I don’t think, in our most selfish minds, we think of what passes through us or what comes to us that we aren’t meant to hold on to. I just found myself in that space a lot while writing these poems.
LH: The first section of your collection, “Grass Growing Wild Beneath Us,” offers many wonderful portraits of your daughter and also interesting moments of your wife as a mother. Oftentimes, intimate looks into family life are viewed as overly sentimental, something your poems avoid. How did you approach addressing the domestic as you wrote and revised your poems?
WE: I wanted to be as honest as possible in writing to the domestic, mostly because I had taken such liberty in describing a lived experience. One that incorporated other people. And those people, the people I happen to hold dearest in my life, can’t be objects in a story as much as having their own stories, their own agencies and movements. And of course, when you start to consider as many perspectives as possible, then the narrative isn’t as clean and in some cases isn’t as romantic or sentimental. But I wasn’t concerned with building imaginary tension into those poems either. What was most interesting to me, and most honest frankly, was showing strength and vulnerabilities that exist in a family unit. And the marks those left on the speaker.
LH: Images of storms, rain, oceans, and bathing reoccur throughout We Inherit What the Fires Left. Water, when identified with your daughter, seems to indicate softening and cleansing. Other water images are harsher, from the drowning in “Might Have to Kill” to these lines in “Turn Down for Naught”:
…Have you ever descended into
a bathtub or an ocean, trying to disprove
a baptism? Have you ever been dying of thirst
to discover that you are the drought?
What does this element, water, mean to you, the poet, and to the collection as a whole?
WE: I play with, struggle with the use of water a lot in these poems because I think they have represented different things to me at different stages of my life. When I was younger, I think about the ways in which water was being weaponized against me and people I knew. I recall drownings and not-so-pleasant baptisms (different occasions actually) and then of course my elders who talk of their experiences with how water was used against them. So I recognized that the presence of water in regards to my body meant something completely different in context to my daughter. And that, for me, was a way of recognizing the limits or the strain of inheritance when we were experiencing a body in a completely different way. The poems in which water symbolizes a cleansing or rebirth are really me trying to find an optimism where there once wasn’t.
LH: Do you think that the recurring fire imagery in your poems, including in the title of the collection, serve as counterpoint to the message of water? I am thinking, in particular, about your final “Inheritance” poem:
…I asked my mother if anyone
in our family opted for cremation
and she never answered but I knew from the way
her breath left her throat where no language
followed that we probably put our black in
the earth because at least
we know the ground ain’t supposed
to be on fire too.
Do fire and water carry the same level of threat, the same ability to cleanse?
WE: I think they carry a little different weight in that water was a thing that could be harmful, so there was a navigation or avoidance of it on my part. Fire felt inevitable. Fire felt like some necessary cataclysm that needed to be survived. Fire felt the price. So in these poems, I felt like its presence was this necessary part of the cycle that helps the speaker appreciate the world they are trying to live in.
LH: The second section of your book, “Trespass,” seems to be the most political, outward-looking set of poems. The section has ghosts and men being whittled down, neighborhood parks being literally given over to the dogs. Far too many instances of being pulled over or questioned in ways that are significantly less likely to happen to whites. In light of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing in Georgia, your poem about jogging through your neighborhood, “Before: Good Neighbors,” has a heartbreaking prescience:
…I know what it means to fall, not as a single
piece, but a collective scatter, where my remains are
given to wind and crunched underfoot, if you ever
wondered, we always end in the street, before
giving up on being whole…
In some ways this section seems to be a truth-telling for your daughter to read someday, perhaps a way for you to address male blackness as you raise her as a black female? Did you intend for this section to describe inheritances your daughter will face that don’t come from you or her mother, but instead from society as a whole?
WE: I definitely thought about what inheritances I felt helpless to. I think this is the saddest, if that’s right word, section of the book because there’s a recognition and a kind resignation that the speaker voices about the world around them. The constant view as threat. The attempted defiance but ultimate vulnerability of their existence. And this was important to include in a book about inheritance to me, because I wanted to illustrate that the external elements the speaker faces, as a middle-aged black male, are not new, but ever present. That in turn leads to the conclusion that the daughter in these poems won’t be immune to this either, despite our best progressive and civil efforts. So that section rings as a bit sad for me when I revisit, but the poems were absolutely necessary in this collection for me.
LH: One of the things that struck me about your poetry—in “Trespass” and throughout the collection—is your ability to reach toward tenderness in your tone, even in some of the harshest narrative poems. I think of “How to Assimilate,” a poem where the narrator points an unloaded shotgun at his first white friend, and the sympathy your poem shows both of the young boys:
…And yes, I know watching
my friend spread himself
in fear is a lot to ask of him,
hard to claim mercy for supplying him
with a parachute
if I’m the one pushing
him out of a plane.
I don’t say
that to say he was a jerk
to me or that he deserved
it—it means his parents
got him a Starter jacket
for every team he liked
and I never felt right about
not refusing the one
he handed me down…
I sense in your poems a deep recognition of human prejudice and error expressed alongside a hope for human growth. As you wrote the poems in this collection, how important was it for you to find compassion for the people and places found within its pages?
WE: For me, it was the only way I could write these poems. And honestly, if I wasn’t a father, I don’t know how long, if ever, it would’ve have taken me to search for that kind of growth. Again, I wanted to be honest about these scenarios, and it was very important to me that the speaker not feel 100 percent the target or the victim of these circumstances. I think a lot about my own complicity to narratives and how I have felt powerless. But also recognizing what power I had and what I did with it. I think being able be generous with myself and allow myself to grow has been paramount in trying to extend that to the people that show up in the poems as well.
LH: I’m interested in how you describe this middle section both in terms of sadness and in terms of power, both having and not having it. That black men are frequently viewed as a threat, as you mentioned, is inherently sad, yet that perceived threat comes from power attributed to black men’s bodies. Which ties into your thoughts on presenting an honest narrative that recognizes power structures in your own life and in society and with preparing your daughter to live with this imbalance. Is grounding your poems, and your daughter, in a solid homescape one way to feel safe navigating both sadness and power?
WE: I think the homescape can accomplish some of that. Like most people, I feel safest in my home, though I’m reminded constantly that security may be false. But it is the place where I feel the most power and the least threatened. Though I feel like that has less to do with the physical structure and more to do with the optimism that comes with having a sweet and popcorn explosion of a child. I think that’s something that pulls between these poems too: the idea that there may be room for optimism and hope compared to the voice of the speaker, which is weathered down and cynical by default.
LH: Given that We Inherit What the Fires Left unfolds narratively in the first person, how closely are you, the poet, tied to that first-person narrator? Many readers associate the poet directly with first-person narrators, even if the poet does not see such a clear delineation. Do you think a poet has any responsibility to clarify boundaries between the poet and the “I”—to allow for better understanding of a poem, its intentions, and its environs?
WE: God, I love that question. I think in this particular collection, the speaker and myself are pretty close. Many of the experiences are drawn very closely from my personal experience, and I think because I was occupied on an authentic voice in the poems, I was intent on not shying away from my lived experience coming through.
For the second part of your question, I think the most important element of reading poems that contain the “I” is how much you, as a reader, can identify with the voice itself, regardless if they are the poet speaking or not. I think it’s tricky. You have self-identification in poems (my poems included) that demonstrate a lived experience of a diaspora. So I don’t think it serves those stories for them to be appropriated by those trafficking in someone else’s experience. I think outside of that, the obligation of the writer when using the “I” is to demonstrate an empathy that readers can hold on to and experience.
LH: The third section of your collection, “Aging Out of Someone Else’s Dream,” is full of acres and yards, fields and gardens. So much is growing in this section. Perhaps most importantly, this section seems to focus on having the choice of what to grow or not. For instance, in “First, We Dig,” your wife insists that a bush be removed from the front of your new home, despite others’ objections:
…my father said
that’s a good bush you probably want to keep it
and her father said why would you want to get rid
of it, what is it with you and ripping things
away from their homes? My wife has heard this
before. Heard men issue rattles to things
they can’t seem to let go of. She knows what
she wants to grow and what customs take on
Is We Inherit What the Fires Left, at its heart, about the choices people can make in terms of what to care about and what to leave behind?
WE: Absolutely, or at least the gesture towards that choice. As you know, my father has a starring role in this book, and so many of the poems are about me learning from him as a father to me. And more directly, what I choose to keep and what I don’t. I think constantly, in poems and out of them, about what effect I am having on my daughter, daily. You have absolutely no idea of what stays with people years later, which is true for all relationships but are amplified by a factor of 100 with your children. So the collection is very heavily interested in the choices we make and how choosing what we hold and what we let go does for us and for what we plan to pass on.
LH: How has your success as a performance poet informed the work you’ve had published in your first collection, Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair, and in We Inherit What the Fires Left? Do you have some writing you consider more performative and others you consider more for the page, or is the overlap great, the difference negligible?
WE: I definitely think that the difference is negligible. I think a couple things are important as I approach the work now. I will never not perform my poems. In which I mean, how I read a poem no longer needs to lean on how the poem is written. I didn’t always think that because it wasn’t always my priority. But I think a certain confidence that my ability to read a poem in a way that can captivate an audience has led to me never worrying about compensating for that in my writing. I can’t speak for all poets that came from a heavily performance origin, but I would imagine that’s a pretty typical transition. In a way, it became a challenge in that any poem I wrote need only be written with craft in mind because there was nothing I couldn’t perform and still feel fulfilled in how I read it.
LH: Part of your experience as an artist involves creating more spaces for artists of color to share their work and ideas. You founded the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam and co-founded and serve as editor-in-chief to BlackNerdProblems.com. How do these activities feed into your life as a writer, a teacher, and a father?
WE: They fulfill me as much as they create space, I assure you. I think I came into these spaces with the luxury of seeing people that looked like me hold space already. One of the great things about the Columbus, Ohio, poetry scene, dating back to when I began writing and earlier, is that artists of color were often the ones running open mics, holding workshops, etc. So, I was lucky that, in the beginning, I did not have this place of questioning if I belonged or not because I could see it with my own eyes. Not everyone has that. I wanted to continue that and provide it where I could. And in turn, it inspires me. I like being constantly challenged by new art and new perspectives, expanding what people think is possible of us as artists. I want to provide that space, but I also want to live in those spaces as well.
LH: With all the uncertainty of the pandemic, how do you think artists and arts organizations can overcome the many obstacles they now unexpectedly face? What role will the arts play in reestablishing a “normal” life once that begins to feel within reach?
WE: I think it’s already happening as people reach to art to fill this moment of loss and distance. I hate to sound bleak, but I honestly don’t think we know what a new “normal” will look like yet. I think what we can lean on is to be inspired or moved in ways that are familiar and unfamiliar right now. Can art do that? Absolutely. But I’m also scared about the fact that, when panic occurs and the markets are scared, arts funding is often first on the chopping block. I’m hoping, in this moment of uncertainty and tension, that there’s a recognition that the will to create and the energy and rebirth provided by the arts is a constant societal good.
LH: I imagine you are not the only person worried about arts funding in our communities right now. What might you say to politicians and those who make funding decisions about why arts organizations deserve a chance to survive the pandemic? Or, what might you say to people who have never supported the arts to encourage them to offer support in whatever way they might be able?
WE: I think arts and entertainment is what has pulled us through the last couple of months when our social flexibility stiffened. I’d say, if you enjoyed a DJ battle on Instagram Live, I guarantee you there’s a local group or org that tries to hold classes or provide equipment for aspiring DJs. We’re watching movies and TV shows in mass, but these forms of entertainment are the creative product of artists: writers, performers, etc. And those folks start somewhere. There are a lot of folks that may give up on an art discipline because they decide it isn’t for them, but so many abandon that ambition because they are told they need to get a “real job” or need to provide for family in a way that grinding away at a manuscript or a portfolio may not afford. And besides, if the ambition is to ever stop any of these forever wars or bounce back from this pandemic, don’t we want something to come back to and enjoy?