CAAPP names poet Xandria Phillips as new creative writing fellow


Image courtesy of Beowulf Sheehanif

Xandria Phillips was selected as the newest creative writing fellow at the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics from 2021-2023.

By Jessica McKenzie, Staff Writer

When Xandria Phillips was growing up, they wrote poetry as a way to cope with the ups and downs of being a teenager in rural Ohio.

“I was feeling things really intensely and poetry seemed like the best way to access that intensity,” Phillips said. “I also was into lyrics but I wasn’t a musician, so I think, in a sense, I felt like I was writing lyrics.”

They were named the 2021 Whiting Award winner for poetry and have been selected as the newest creative writing fellow at Pitt’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics from 2021-2023.

Phillips first discovered the CAAPP fellowship in 2017 during their time at grad school at Virginia Tech. They applied three times before becoming a finalist and ultimately earning the position that will start this fall.

“This is a position I have hoped to hold for a while, but never expected to,” Phillips said. “It’s very rare when the thing that you want to do lines up with the outside world wanting you to do it.”

According to Dawn Lundy Martin, the director of CAAPP, the sole purpose of the Center’s fellowship is to provide rising poets with the resources necessary to craft a new manuscript in relation to the University and its surrounding community. Phillips is the third creative writing fellow in the history of CAAPP since the program’s inception in 2017.

Martin said the mission of CAAPP is to learn from African diasporic people through the art of writing.

“[CAAPP] begins from a premise that’s actually a question,” Martin said. “What kind of knowledges are made possible when they emerge from African diasporic people, cultural practices, places and experiences?”

Phillips expresses their creative talents through multiple mediums including poetry, visual art and nonfiction writing. All of these are possible areas of development during Phillips’ fellowship. Their debut book, “HULL,” was published in 2019 and won the 2021 Whiting Award in poetry and the 2020 Lambda Literary Award. It is most notable for its 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 their career, Phillips said they were surprised at the positive recognition “HULL” received.

“If you’re an emerging writer, it can be very quiet and lonely, so it feels like a tremendous shock when suddenly a little spotlight is put on you,” Phillips said. “I never know what’s coming next.”

Phillips said the fellowship program at CAAPP offers them the time and space to further develop their unconventional craft. They also said 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 kinds of obsessions, interests and research,” Phillips said. “[Experimentation] is about finding ways to premise your own odd attractions — for me, that usually looks like bringing in a breadth of examples.”

According to the CAAPP website, creative writing fellows are expected to lead a community writing workshop, present in Pitt’s Studio in African American Poetry and Poetics course and give a public reading and Q&A session. They are invited to lead one session of the Writers’ Café and may also teach a creative writing class at the University. Fellows are given a compensation equivalent to a postdoctoral stipend for their work.

Aside from these fellowship guidelines, Martin said CAAPP creative writing fellows are free to do what they wish in order to produce their manuscript during their time at Pitt. For Phillips, this may mean incorporating their talent as a visual artist into their writing.

“One of the things that I’m anticipating [Phillips] might want to do is be in conversation with students through that interdisciplinary interest genre practice of being both a poet and a visual artist,” Martin said.

According to Diana Khoi Nguyen, an assistant poetry professor at Pitt involved in CAAPP, the committee of fellow application reviewers agreed immediately on which applicants would move on as finalists. She said Phillips’ work stood out to her because of their impeccable ability to write about historical events, such as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, in a new way.

“Xandria approaches topics so that they seem fresh, immediate and really relevant,” Nguyen said. “In their application, it wasn’t just about the work they produced, but also how they engaged the process of creativity.”

Nguyen said one of the elements that she finds most striking about Phillips’ work is found in their poem “Ars Cinema,” where Phillips engages with pop culture, specifically through contemporary film and television. The poem documents how various Black actors have been perceived throughout history.

“[‘Ars Cinema’] stood out on so many levels — it weaves through a lot of history, whether it’s through the archive of historical records or through media culture,” Nguyen said. “[The poem] shows us the Black American experience.”

As a finalist, Phillips participated in a two-week CAAPP residency in January 2020 to gain their bearings of the Pittsburgh area and see firsthand if their creative work was a good fit for CAAPP. Residents were provided with an artist studio as well as space to do research and speak about their writing with other professionals.

At the time before the CAAPP residency, Phillips said they were spending their time between Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin. Thus, visiting Pittsburgh was refreshing to their writing process.

“It felt like a really great change of scenery,” Phillips said. “The architecture and landscape is so different [in Pittsburgh] — everything about the residency helped, because the writing shifts when the body does.”

While waiting for the fellowship to begin this fall, Phillips will be participating in the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer through the University of the South. According to Phillips, this will be their first writing workshop since 2017 — they will be given the opportunity to give and receive feedback on writing alongside other talented writers.

Phillips is currently working on a book of poetry based around Blackness and television. They continue to explore different styles of writing such as sonnets. In addition, they are teaching themself how to better write prose nonfiction.

“I’m writing about the invisible infrastructures of our world like gender, race, color theory — the way that we are signaled,” Phillips said.

Although these projects have been giving Phillips some idea of what they will be working on during their time as the CAAPP creative writing fellow, Martin emphasized that it is difficult to predict what Phillips will achieve at Pitt by the end of their fellowship in spring 2023.

“There are very few places that are dedicated to supporting the work of Black and African diasporic poets in particular at an early stage in their career, giving them resources to expand their imagination,” Martin said. “We’ll see what naturally, organically develops — I think that’s really the exciting thing that this fellowship enables for poets.”