Interview with Tyrone Williams (page 5)
JMW: What sorts of classes do you teach at Xavier? What's your relationship to teaching? Does your life in the classroom stay separated from your work as a
poet or do they overlap much?
TW: My areas are American literature, literary theory, and African-American literature, but what I teach is far more diverse, due in large part to the small size of the English Department here (14 full-time tenure-track and tenured faculty). We have to be versatile, and we often get to teach whatever we want in some of our general literature courses. So I've taught everything from the metaphysical poets to Central and South American novelists.
Like most literature graduate students from my generation, I was taught to focus on my own work first. Teaching was, for many years, just a backdrop to my literary ambitions. Over time I have come to see teaching as much more integral to who I am and I now take it with all the seriousness it deserves. I rarely teach poetry courses or creative writing—Xavier doesn't attract students with those kinds of interests. But I'm just as happy teaching fiction and theory. So there isn't much overlap between my own writing and my courses, although this semester is the exception that proves the rule: I taught the Nielsen/Ramey anthology of innovative black poetry, Every Goodbye Ain't Gone, in a graduate course on the Black Arts Movement, and I also taught "War Poetry" in a senior seminar—Mandelstam, Duncan, Ginsberg, Darwish, H.D., Prevallet, Elrick.
JMW: What's your relationship to the Midwest? For folks unfamiliar with the Midwest, Detroit and Cincinnati might seem vaguely the same—can you talk about your experience with this region, and how, if at all, it's affected your life as a poet?
TW: If I hadn't already criticized the use of the term in c.c., I might have said I'm "proud" to be a Midwesterner (as if I had a choice), and believe you me, Detroit is as far from Cincinnati—politically, culturally, socially—as one can imagine. I grew up in a working-class family—my dad worked in all three of the plants (Chrysler, Ford, GM) before driving a truck for a distilled water company; my mother was, for a while, a housecleaner in a home for retired women (all white) before she began working in the public schools—and I had a number of service jobs (shoe salesman, grocery store clerk, etc.). My Detroit is labor intensive in every sense of the phrase. So it's safe to say that my poetry, though it has changed over the years, has perhaps become more complex (though I was writing "experimental" poems under the influence of the Cass Corridor radical/post-hippie scene around Wayne State long before I'd heard of avant-garde movements like the Language Poets), is informed by a working-class/labor ethos. This is why I'm also interested in poets like Bob Hicok, Phil Levine, Jim Daniels, etc., who all came out of the Michigan auto shop/tool and die industries even if my own experiences—I managed to avoid the auto industry entirely as a laborer—and poetics are quite different from theirs. I still wonder about my decision to take the job at Xavier and move to Cincinnati, the antithesis of Detroit in ways both positive—not nearly as dangerous in terms of personal safety (I and every member of my immediate family has been victimized by robbery in Detroit)—and negative—supra-conservative, German-Irish Catholic, etc. It has definitely forced me to push back, to not only articulate my own politics (when I got here my first foray into local politics was an editorial I wrote for the local Gannett newspaper, responding to the anticommunist/anti-Russian spleen of a local university professor by offering several interpretations of what happened to the Korean airplane that was mistakenly shot down by the Russian military—my department chair received several calls for my immediate dismissal and I received a number of thinly veiled threats...), but to also get involved in the Over-the-Rhine community, an impoverished area of downtown under assault by the forces of gentrification and "population (read: homeless and poor) relocation."