Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), and three chapbooks, most recently Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary College of New Jersey, poetry faculty for the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop, and the interviews editor for 32 Poems.
Your poetry collection, Groundspeed, is coming out in 2016. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about it?
I wrote it because I was afraid not to write it. The poems were written during or after the death of my brother and while I was being treated for melanoma. It was compulsively written, born out of fear for my own life and those I loved, so for me the stakes are incredibly high. Because of the poems’ insistence, the language is much more straightforward than the poems in my first book; Signaletics wanted to preserve a connection to mystery and Groundspeed wants to—but, I’m afraid, doesn’t—get answers.
I noticed in the poems “Phaeacia’s Orchard” that you reference the Greek god, “Eros,” and in the poem “Groundspeed,” you mention the Norse spirit “Valkyrie.” Do you have an interest in mythology?’
You know, our greatest mythology is a complex system of symbols whose meanings, narratives, and details differ depending upon the slant, background, and experience of those revealing the mythology to us. That mythology is language. If someone has an interest in language—and Western culture—that person should have an interest in mythology. Our language and our cultural narratives are established upon the backs of that great turtle. If you’re a writer, you’re conversing with it anyway.
When did you first start writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
As a kid, I had an ongoing comic series called The Adventures of Really, Really Big Eyeball Man, and I wrote songs (the first one I remember was about a health food cereal my dad gave me and I rebranded as “Dirty Teeth Cereal” because it looked like stained baby teeth). I had lots of imagined narratives that I would entertain for years, many too cliché to indulge and divulge now. I also had an elaborate character system on AOL Instant Messenger that I kept up for years—you laugh, but I really think those were some of my first exercises in persona. Later, I got really into music and so I wrote some bad love songs to sing with my guitar, and I spun my wheels in the mud of some (now incredibly embarrassing) fanfiction. I had a quarter-long creative writing class in high school, which was fine but it didn’t really ignite the fire. I had a couple of great English teachers that at least got me to declare an English: Pre-Law major when I went to college. I had an Intro to Creative Writing class with a poet named Earl Braggs, and that’s when I fell for writing. From there I took poetry and fiction workshops every semester. I got involved in the writers’ conference there, and I went to Europe with other creative writing students. I had two other teachers—Richard Jackson, a poet, and Tom Balázs, a fiction writer—who set me on a good path in writing and reading.
When were you first published? Can you tell me about the experience?
I was first published in my undergraduate lit mag, The Sequoia Review, and then shortly thereafter, Pamela Uschuk and William Pitt Root, who I’d met at the Meacham Writers’ Workshop at my undergrad school, selected me as the “Discovery Poet” for the journal Cutthroat. They took four poems, and I suddenly felt like I could actually do this poetry thing. They were so kind and supportive, and I’m not sure I would’ve made that leap from writing to submitting without them.
How has your writing evolved over time?
Oh, man. You know, I did a reading last year in Venice Beach and the reading series’ coordinator told me that he read a lot of my work but none of it sounded like it was from the same person. I agree and disagree. I’ve taken a number of formal approaches, but I think there are certain concerns and obsessions—the body, forensics, ephemera and ephemerality, the ineffable, etc.—that carry through all these poems.
I will say that that the first book, Signaletics, was interested in liminal spaces, particularly as that concept relates to the body, e.g. forensics, criminality, automata, and so on. I wanted to know, how can we reconnect the body to mystery? But it was also a book about anxiety, and so there are times when it uses mystery as a means for the speakers to be seen and hidden at the same time.
Bestiary of Gall, the chapbook after the book, was a palette cleanser; it was full of fragmented poems about animals or animalistic characteristics of humans. The poems were pretty experimental in terms of what they left out, what they weren’t willing to say.
Then came a chapbook-length poem in sections called Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike, which I wrote entirely in one weekend, in a lull while working on Groundspeed. This chapbook responds to a number of influences: stop motion animation, especially Czech surrealist artists like Jan Svankmajer and Jiri Barta and the American duo the Quay Brothers; photographs of abandoned places found on the internet, also known as “ruin porn”; and the poems of my dear friend Gregory Kimbrell’s first book The Primitive Observatory, due out in March 2016 from the Crab Orchard Series, which have no allegiances to personal experience but rather, in some zoetropic view of a imagined, occultish past turned immediate. Beneath the Ice recounts the “lives” of objects in a place once abandoned, now reencountered by a new wave of people—of wanderers, if you will—who encounter the place, but because they aren’t native to the place, of the “old stock” now gone, they have no names; they are known by their roles, The Citizen, The Diplomat, etc. We focus on objects, animals, and people in equal measure. Because of the abandonment, even apocalypse, these are sparse sections, many of which started out as simply four lines. In some ways, the poems themselves allowed me to wipe the slate clean for my own process, in much the same way that the land is wiped clean.
A lot of your poems evoke strong imagery for me. What’s your process when it comes to writing poetry?
Sometimes I write in my head when walking or driving. Sometimes I write in my notebook. Sometimes I write with my students when I give them an exercise. Sometimes I have to go to the word processor. Sometimes I have to write and rewrite notes on a poem for months, even years, before I can ever write it. Sometimes an idea comes to me and I sit down and I write a nearly complete poem. Sometimes I’ll think I’m done with a poem (or a book, for that matter) and then I’ll send it to someone and, before they can respond, I know what I need to change. Sometimes I need an outside reader to know if it’s a poem, and sometimes I just know.
I will say that I keep a writing notebook, a leather-bound Cavallini & Co. with watermarked paper; it’s just gorgeous, and there’s something about it’s materiality that makes me think of permanence (this nice, leather-bound volume) and impermanence (it’s just markings with a pen on a page). I keep disparate notes on anything and everything. I have notes about poems. Quotes from what I’m reading (“My vagabondage / is unlonelied by poems” — Fanny Howe). Doodles. Strange things I overheard (“I ate one pound of Swedish fish!”). Odd business names (“A Leg Up Dog Grooming”). Roadsigns and roadside sights (Abandoned church with sign “New Hope Church”). Reactions to art in museums. A record of facts about oddities or alternative history. Notes about what I did that day (although these I find less compelling). I also listen to books as much as I read them, as this reminds of our oral traditions and reconnects me with sound. I try to read widely and uniquely. I indulge my obsessions.
Right now, while I’m teaching, I try to keep Fridays reserved for writing. I’m currently at work on a third manuscript, which is at 70 pgs., but I have more to do. This book is called Hollow Point, after the type of bullet, and it explores what I’m calling “the choreography of violence” many people, especially women, have to step through in order to live. I’ve also been working on lyric essays, but I keep going back and forth between including them in this manuscript and reserving them for their own book. I like to work on projects, as that helps me get started every time I sit down and look at the page, but I don’t necessarily think I engage on “project books.” I like looking at the macro and micro levels of writing, and I think the arc and tension of a poem should be duplicated in the arc and tension of a book.
Do you have any advice to offer aspiring poets?
Be generous to others—and yourself. Don’t expect everything all at once and, better yet, never expect anything. But don’t ever apologize for the quality poems or your short stories or your essays; know what they are and be proud of them. But never be prideful! Never “find your voice.” Always search for it.
About the author of this post: Brittany Nawara is a senior who studies graphic design at North Central College. She loves art and music and likes to bake in her spare time.