When Xandria Phillips was growing up, they wrote poetry to deal with the ups and downs of adolescence in rural Ohio.
“I felt things very intensely and poetry seemed like the best way to access that intensity,” Phillips said. “I also liked the lyrics, but I wasn’t a musician, so I think, in a way, I felt like I was writing lyrics. “
Phillips first discovered the CAAPP scholarship in 2017 during his graduate studies at Virginia Tech. They applied three times before becoming finalists and finally getting the position which begins this fall.
“It’s a job I had hoped for for a while, but I didn’t expect it,” Phillips said. “It’s very rare when the thing you want to do aligns with the outside world that wants you to do it.”
According to Dawn Lundy Martin, the director of CAAPP, the sole purpose of the Center scholarship is to provide emerging poets with the necessary resources to write a new manuscript in relation to the University and its surrounding community. Phillips is the third Creative Writing Fellow in CAAPP history since the program’s inception in 2017.
Martin said CAAPP’s mission is to learn from people in the African diaspora through the art of writing.
“[CAAPP] starts from a premise that’s actually a question, ”Martin said. “What types of knowledge are made possible when they emerge from African diasporas, cultural practices, places and experiences?
Phillips expresses his creative talents through multiple mediums including poetry, visual arts and documentary writing. All of these are areas of possible development during the Phillips scholarship. Their first book, “SHELL,Was published in 2019 and won the 2021 Whiting Award in Poetry and the 2020 Lambda Literary Award. He is most notable for his lyrical exploration of the long-term effects of racism and colonialism on the black and queer community.
As a writer who is at an early stage in his career, Phillips said he was surprised at the positive “HULL” recognition received.
“If you’re an emerging writer it can be very calm and lonely, so it’s like a huge shock when suddenly a little spotlight is on you,” Phillips said. “I never know what’s coming next.”
Phillips said the CAAPP scholarship program gives them the time and space to further develop their unconventional craft. They also said that they find it beneficial to read as many genres of writing as possible in order to be comfortable with their own experimentation.
“All writers are very different from each other – we all have so many different obsessions, interests and researches,” Phillips said. “[Experimentation] It’s about finding ways to presume your own weird attractions – to me that usually sounds like bringing a multitude of examples. “
According to the CAAPP website, Creative Writing Fellows are expected to conduct a community writing workshop, attend Pitt’s Studio in the African American Poetry and Poetry class, and give a public reading and question-and-answer session. They are invited to lead a session of the Writers’ Café and can also teach a creative writing course at the University. Fellows receive remuneration equivalent to a postdoctoral fellowship for their work.
Aside from these scholarship guidelines, Martin said that CAAPP Creative Writing Scholars are free to do whatever they want in order to produce their manuscript while at Pitt. For Phillips, that can mean incorporating their talent as a visual artist into their writing.
“One of the things that I anticipate [Phillips] one might want to do is be in conversation with students through this interdisciplinary interest genre practice of being both a poet and a visual artist, ”Martin said.
According to Diana Khoi Nguyen, an assistant professor of poetry at Pitt involved in the CAAPP, the committee of fellow nominators immediately agreed on the nominees who would be nominated as finalists. She said Phillips’ work stood out from her because of her impeccable ability to write about historical events, such as the transatlantic slave trade, in a new way.
“Xandria approaches topics in a way that they feel fresh, immediate, and genuinely relevant,” Nguyen said. “In their application, it wasn’t just about the work they produced, but also how they initiated the process of creativity.
Nguyen said one of the most striking elements she finds in Phillips’ work is in their poem “Ars Cinema”, where Phillips engages with pop culture, particularly through contemporary cinema and television. The poem documents how various black actors have been viewed throughout history.
“[‘Ars Cinema’] has stood out on so many levels – it cuts through a lot of history, whether it is through the archives of historical documents or through media culture, ”said Nguyen. “[The poem] shows us the experience of black Americans.
As a finalist, Phillips participated in a two-week CAAPP residency in January 2020 to get their bearings in the Pittsburgh area and see firsthand if their creative work was a good fit for CAAPP. Residents benefited from an artist’s studio as well as a space to research and discuss their writing with other professionals.
Prior to the CAAPP residency, Phillips said they spent their time between Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin. So the visit to Pittsburgh was refreshing for their writing process.
“It was really a big change of scenery,” said Phillips. “The architecture and the landscape are so different [in Pittsburgh] – everything in the residence helped, because the writing changes when the body changes.
While waiting for the scholarship to start this fall, Phillips will participate in the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer by the University of the South. According to Phillips, this will be their first writing workshop since 2017 – they will have the opportunity to give and receive writing feedback alongside other talented writers.
Phillips is currently working on a book of poetry based on darkness and television. They continue to explore different styles of writing such as sonnets. In addition, they learn to write better prose non-fiction.
“I write about the invisible infrastructures of our world like gender, race, color theory – the way we are reported,” Phillips said.
While these projects have given Phillips an idea of what they will be working on during their tenure as a CAAPP Creative Writing Fellow, Martin stressed that it is difficult to predict what Phillips will achieve at Pitt by the end. of their scholarship in the spring of 2023.
“There are very few places that are dedicated to supporting the work of black and African poets in the diaspora especially at an early stage in their careers, giving them resources to develop their imaginations,” Martin said. “We’ll see what develops naturally and organically – I think that’s really the exciting thing that this scholarship allows for poets.”