Our Generation: A Conversation With Tyrone Williams
mary wants to be a superwoman (Third Man Books, 2017), the second book in the box set trilogy, retraces the history of the women in my mother’s family, starting with the Trail of Tears and moving into the present. It is a personal history of race in America. It is storytelling formed from oral history that uses the music of pop artist Stevie Wonder as a trigger. While the entire box set project is my take on revising the confessional, the poems from mary wants to be a superwoman delve more into my family history, specifically the women on my mother’s side and their voices within that history, and also take inspiration from a list of female poets and friends. My family history is complicated, like any family history in America. mary is all about processing that history, the day to day, dealing with a history that has been passed down, to an extent, stories and memories that I had nothing to do with, and how to live and move on from that history and its implications.
In his introduction to mary, poet and scholar Tyrone Williams begins what I consider to be a conversation about “generations” of poets, ancestors, and kin, who may or may not be blood relatives but are somehow related. I wanted to continue that conversation with poets of color from the very generations Williams designates, his generation and my generation, and invited a small panel to join us. I am hoping that these four conversations, interviews with Williams, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Tonya Foster, and Harmony Holiday, lead to wider conversations within the poetry community, inspire new works, or at least allow us to have a family reunion.
The first of these conversations is with Williams himself, whose writing, and to a deeper extent, friendship, has been invaluable. It helps that he lives and teaches in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, but more importantly, he is a reliable presence from the generation of black poets that came before me.
erica lewis (el): I want to talk to you about your upbringing in Detroit. How did being surrounded by all of that music and all of those black artists influence you?
Tyrone Williams (TW): As a child, I took the cultural atmosphere for granted. In middle school we had special outings and events. We went to the museums (art, natural, and historical) and we saw documentaries and films in the school auditorium. We also had visits from parts of the Motown Revue and jazz musicians like Kenny Burrell. However, at that time—pre-teen years—I was primarily interested in drawing, subatomic physics, and mathematics, vaguely seeking material “proof” for God, life after death, etc., since we were forced to attend Sunday school. I hated that waste of my weekends, but I began enjoying reading the Bible and made it a point, in my teen years, to read it cover to cover.
It was in my teens—13—that I first started writing, first short stories as part of class assignments in junior high (Miss Horn was our English teacher). I also began trying to write little songs with my toy organ and acoustic guitar (purchased by my mom). So I thought of “music” and creative writing as separate but definite interests as my interest in science began to wane, and since the hormones were kicking in, it’s hardly surprising that love songs and love poetry—if you can call either that—were my focus from middle school to the end of high school.
el: I know that you like music, but has it “shaped” your work? If so, how? What would be the soundtrack of your life?
TW: Music is something I listen to almost everyday—usually classical music in the car and everything at home. I have an old version of RealPlayer because it randomly shuffles playlists, and so I hear everything from classical to goa, jazz to world, pop to country, hip hop, folk, singer-songwriter, Tin Pan Alley standards, rock, punk, metal, etc.
el: People are always surprised when I tell them that I love metal—Soundgarden, classic Black Sabbath, Metallica—and country. I mean, Chris Stapleton is my country jam and I grew up listening to Kenny Rogers. My mother wore The Gambler out. And no one. No one. Can touch Willie Nelson. Except maybe Johnny Cash. I listen to everything and all of it informs my writing in some way.
TW: I don’t know that music has shaped my poetry—maybe unconsciously—but it’s generally true that my broad tastes in music are analogous to my broad tastes in poetry, and since I have occasionally written lyrics for songs with a couple of people in the Xavier University music department, I don’t feel the need to let music “shape” my poetry, formally, though I have written poems about music and musicians (about Miles Davis in “How Like An Angel,” and Joe Strummer in “a tornado in an eggshell”).
el: Early on in mary you write, “people like me…wore the capes, were burdened with the capes (whether we wanted them or not), of super—if not great—expectations.” Can you go into more detail about those burdens, i.e., what was your personal experience, and the great expectations put upon you?
TW: What I meant by “burdens” is that in middle school a bunch of my classmates and I were shuttled into college-prep classes, based on the various tests we occasionally took. It was only early on in high school that it dawned on me I wanted to “succeed” for my father, who worked like a dog (this was after my mother stopped working outside the house full time). This was all self-imposed—my own sense of responsibility to my parents.
el: I’m interested in the pressures that you faced being part of the post-Cold War generation. Why is this something you focused on as a main theme in your introduction?
TW: The generational take was prompted by the poems in mary wants to be a superwoman, with their focus on your relationship to the women in the family, the concern with the grandparents’ generation, and so forth. I think it caught my attention because your family story followed closely to that of my own family.
el: Talk to me about how these great expectations placed upon you/your generation affect(ed) you as an artist. Because you were supposed to follow a certain path and be “respectable,” not an artist, correct? And even though you’re in academia and your work is respected, it is far from the old fashioned or generational standard for “respectable”—it is scholarly on the one hand and completely experimental on the other.
TW: Fortunately, my parents didn’t really have a clue about what it meant to be an English major. They were happy I was in college, but when I got my PhD and became a “doctor,” my mom bragged to all her friends and my relatives that I was a “doctor,” and for years she would write letters to “Dr. Tyrone Williams.” My college girlfriend was a different matter. It’s an old story but the fact that I was a poet, music critic for the college paper, etc. probably seemed romantic to her early on, but by the time she was in med school and I was in grad school, the idea of being a doctor in a relationship with an English teacher seemed less romantic.
el: Who then do you consider to be your direct aesthetic kin? Can you talk about tracing your lineage (poetic or otherwise)?
TW: I guess it’s obvious I took all the canonical English and American poets as well as those that preceded them…and it’s also true early on I developed passions for poets and their work before moving on...reading the Black Arts poets in Jet and Ebony as a kid was crucial (hard to believe but there was a time they often printed poems, stories, reviews of literature etc.), but so was reading Poe, Racine, and Eliot in school. A teacher turned me on to Alice Fulton and that eventually led to the poet that sparked my interest in experimental work, Susan Howe. I guess I see myself carrying on a tradition in the Michael Harper, Robert Hayden, Melvin B. Tolson line.
el: I love Susan Howe. The Midnight, though I read it almost 10 years ago, still haunts me to this day. What was it that attracted you to her work?
TW: Not sure why I was first attracted to her work, except it was, for me, so unlike anything I’d ever read. I was intrigued, though I couldn’t understand a word.
el: Since we’re talking about “favorites,” and you mentioned Amiri Baraka, I have to tell you that my favorite poem is Leroi Jones’s (later Amiri Baraka) “In Memory of Radio.” It always does me in. It takes me back to something familiar, something that feels like home but not of my own recollection or experience. I always feel like it’s an experience my mother would have had because she used to sit around in the evenings with her family and listen to the radio. Is there a poem(s) that does that to you?
TW: I love Ed Hirsch’s “Dawn Walk” and I have plenty of favorites among the Metaphysical poets (Donne, Dryden, Herbert), Romantics (Wordsworth), Victorians (Tennyson). In the Hirsh poem, I love the narrator’s love of getting up early in the morning before the city awakes, that feeling of isolation (Wordsworth has a poem with a similar idea—can’t recall the title now).
el: Speaking of isolation, I’m curious as to why you grabbed hold of the word “broken” as something to focus on in mary. There are other words in the poems that are also used numerous times; “broken” is merely one motif coursing through the book. What was your trigger in picking up on that word?
TW: Yes, there are lots of other words that repeat insistently throughout the collection, and in fact I started to include those but I realized that I was starting to write a book review and so cited “broken” as an example. That said, I am constitutionally drawn to despair, devastation, etc. in my tastes in music, film, and literature. My good friend in the Xavier history department and I often joke about who is darker, him or me.
el: Do you feel that the generations are talking to each other, that the works are in conversation?
TW: I’m not sure I can speak to individual poems talking to each other. In general, I’d say it’s rare that we see intergenerational conversations between poems, but the Black Arts Movement has been a target for following generations. I’m thinking of Carl Phillips’s first book, In the Blood.
el: What are your thoughts on new confessionalism and the Black Arts Movement?
TW: “New confessionalism” seems to me to be just a continuum from the “old” confessionalism. Besides Langston Hughes, I’d cite other figures from the Harlem Renaissance as accompanying Hughes—some of the women poets and even earlier Phillis Wheatley (including “On Being Brought from Africa to America”). As for Baraka, a confessionalist strain runs throughout his body of work, though it’s more pronounced in the early poems (e.g., “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”) and late poems collected in SOS. As for my generation, I think early Yusef Komunyakaa, Elizabeth Alexander (though she’s a decade younger than me), Edward Hirsch...too many to name.
el: So then, what is “authentic” blackness?
TW: I don’t subscribe to “authentic” blackness, but the essays I’m working on analyze that belief in several writers, mostly fiction—Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson, Zora Neale Hurston.
el: Do you feel that the current generation is being heard, and if they are, are they/we simply surviving or actually being heard?
TW: I agree about today’s poets trying to be truth tellers. “Heard”—by other poets, probably yes. By the larger public, probably not. It’s no fault of the poets—it’s just that poetry has limited capital.
el: Anything that you wanted to say in your intro that you didn’t say? Any thoughts that you want to add about history and kin and ancestry in terms of poetry?
TW: I watched this 3-hour C-Span book talk with Herb Boyd, who was talking about growing up in Detroit and talking about generational changes. He was really into minimizing differences, but I think your writing works against that old dream of unity, per Black Arts. But Herb was one of the teachers who helped me understand the importance of history beneath the surface and I think your work is doing similar excavation of what we think we know. It reminds me in many ways of the very different art and writing projects my friend Arnold Kemp is doing. By the way, I am writing all this to avoid riding my bike. Kind of tired so I’d rather do this!
el: I know Arnold. I read with him a couple years ago in New York. And he swears we read together another time before that, but I don’t remember it! I appreciate your not riding your bike for this. Keep going. Also, what’s for dinner?
TW: Dinner was fried pork chops, spaghetti squash, and leftover broccoli.
Arnold’s artwork is on two of my books—On Spec and Howell—and for years we have discussed collaborating, but he has moved around a lot in recent years and our schedules just haven’t meshed.
I’ve been operating under this feeling like we are all having the same conversation, just saying the same things in different ways. We are not just extensions of the Black Arts Movement or generational desires and societal and cultural change as much as we are still trying to be truth tellers, just trying to drive the same points home, telling the stories that need to be told, giving voice to our voiceless. You’re supposed to learn from the generations that came before you and pass that knowledge on. It’s starting to feel like a family affair already.
Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of five books of poetry, c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002), On Spec (Omnidawn Publishing, 2008), The Hero Project of the Century (The Backwaters Press, 2009), Adventures of Pi (Dos Madres Press, 2011) and Howell (Atelos Books, 2011). He is also the author of several chapbooks, most recently the companion works Between Red and Green: The Black Brigade of Cincinnati (Dos Madres Press, 2016) and Red Between Green (Portable Labs at Yo-Yo Press, 2015).
erica lewis was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her books include the precipice of jupiter (2009, with artist Mark Stephen Finein), camera obscura (2010, with artist Mark Stephen Finein), murmur in the inventory (2013); and the first two books of the box set trilogy: daryl hall is my boyfriend (2015) and...