Black-led Community Spotlight: The Center for African American Poetry and Poetics fellow Xandria Phillips | Pittsburgh City Paper

Black-led Community Spotlight: The Center for African American Poetry and Poetics fellow Xandria Phillips

click to enlarge Black-led Community Spotlight: The Center for African American Poetry and Poetics fellow Xandria Phillips
CP Photo: Lake Lewis
Xandria Phillips
Xandria Phillips arrived in Pittsburgh this month, but it isn’t their first time in the city. They used to visit a relative here when they were a child, and returned in 2019 after being named a finalist for a local poetry fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I'm actually from about an hour and a half away from where I live right now,” says Phillips. “Like, a very rural northeastern Ohio town. So the landscape, you know, that kind of verging on Appalachia, but still kind of Rust Belt feels very, very familiar given my background, but it's the closest I've been to home since college, so that feels kind of nice.”

The University of Pittsburgh’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics has since announced Phillips as its new fellow for 2021-2023. A Whiting Award-winning poet, Phillips is the author of the poetry collection Hull, and the chapbook Reasons For Smoking. Their work has appeared in many prestigious literary journals, as well as in poetry anthologies like Best Experimental Writing (Weslyan Press 2020) and We Want It All (Nightboat Books 2020).

They are also a previous fellow for Cave Canem, a nonprofit founded by poets Cornelius Eady and Pittsburgh’s Toi Derricotte to increase Black representation in poetry.

The CAAPP Fellowship is a two-year fellowship awarded to poets who have completed a Master of Fine Arts or Ph.D. and have no more than one full-length published work. The fellowship's primary goal is to give writers space and time to work on creative projects, but they are also given the opportunity to lead community workshops, be a guest presenter in the course Studio in African American Poetry and Poetics, and facilitate one session of the Writer’s Cafe.

Phillips went to Oberlin College to earn their undergraduate degree. They later attended Virginia Tech to earn a master’s degree in poetry, where they began to form what would become their first book.

“I've considered Ph.D.s, but I can't fathom letting someone else tell me what to read again,” they laughed.

When Phillips wrote their first book, they say they were fueled by a feeling of displacement.

“I think I felt like when I went to Oberlin, it was like someone gave me all this ammo knowledge wise,” they say. “I was learning and I was writing these kind of terrible little college poems before I started taking Africana Studies classes and was, like, ‘Oh, there's something to write about. And there's a lineage of people writing about it.’ And I think that's when my ‘research’ started taking off. So I had all this Black history of the world, so to speak, which I had been denied to me through my upbringing.”

Phillips’ collection Hull explores both the history of slavery and the oppression of Black people in the U.S., and, on an equal level, the politics of a being a queer, gender nonconforming person. Their works are vivid and visceral, and find a way to puncture one’s world in a manner that opens readers up to each poem. Outside of the book, they have also written poems that explore society’s fascination with pop culture.

“How do I trick people into caring about these things that feel ridiculous or frivolous, but actually have a hold on me in such a way that I cannot stop considering them?” they say.

In addition to poetry, Phillips is also a painter. They find that to create, they often have to be in a state of movement, whether that’s taking the train to a secondary location or just going about the motions of everyday life. They describe being outside and on the go as integral to their practice.

They say that their education as a writer took precedence during their graduate and undergraduate years, but the call toward painting revived itself in 2018. After being introduced to artists like Adrian Piper and Otobong Nkanga, their passion for art was renewed.

“A lot of the forms in my book were trying to be paintings before I knew how to paint, but that's just a theory I have,” they added.

Since they will be in Pittsburgh for the next two years, Phillips is looking forward to all modes of creation. When they were in the city in 2019, they stayed at a studio in Radiant Hall at Nova Place on the North Side for two weeks as a part of being the finalist for the CAAPP fellowship, which solidified an appreciation for the city.

“I got to wake up, I got to read, I got to paint, and I just had a new place to do it,” they say. “And so that was kind of a great primer for getting me excited to be here permanently.”
The Center for African American Poetry and Poetics
Xandria Phillips