Interview with Tyrone Williams (page 8)
JMW: I'm struck by this quote in a recent interview with Lisa Robertson: "Poetry remains an interesting and pleasurable vehicle because it offers almost infinite formal freedom and flexibility. Poetry's culturally marginal position is perversely advantageous I think. It's a largely invisible agent." In light of Robertson's words, what do you make of the contemporary scene of poetry? Do you also find these "perverse advantages" in its invisibility?
TW: I concur with Lisa completely. Poetry's relative “invisibility" is often invoked to assign blame, usually on poets indulging in poetry's "almost infinite formal freedom and flexibility." Of course, this isn't true only of poetry. The same could be said of certain forms of experimental music, painting, etc. It can be liberating to live off the grid.
JMW: What advice do you have for a young person appearing in your office hours wishing to become a poet?
TW: As you might imagine, that rarely happens. More often, I get the "how can I get this published" line. Still, I point out all the obstacles awaiting anyone contemplating a literary career. Actually, what I say to prospective writers isn't all that different from what I tell prospective graduate students: don't do it, your chances of getting a job/having a "career" are slim to none, the market is flooded with Ph.D.s/poets, etc. And then if they decide to go ahead anyway—well, then, they have the right (or wrong) stuff, which is to say, they're going to do it no matter what I or anyone else says. And they will absolutely need that kind of blind, perverse, persistence...
JMW: For folks unfamiliar with the terrain of African-American poetry, who would you most like them to read and know?
TW: Where do I start and how can I possibly finish? This is off the top of my head, but essential, for me, in the 20th and 21st centuries, have been Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Amiri Baraka, Melvin B. Tolson, Robert Hayden, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, Lorenzo Thomas, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Haki Madhabuhti, Michael S. Harper, Carl Phillips, Kevin Young, Ed Roberson, Elizabeth Alexander, Nathaniel Mackey, Harryette Mullen, Erica Hunt. I'm very interested in reading more of Carl Martin, Chris Stackhouse, John Keene, Reginald Shepherd, Duriel Harris, and Mark McMorris.