A CONVERSATION WITH EMILIA PHILLIPS
BY DEMETRI RAFTOPOULOS
Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks, most recently Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and lyric essays appear widely in literary publications including Agni, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She’s an assistant professor in the MFA Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Thanks so much for taking some time to sit down with us and talk poetry, Emilia! To begin—your latest poetry collection, Groundspeed, deals heavily with themes of illness and mortality. How do you think your diagnosis with cancer influenced your writing and your view of it? And how do you think the role writing played in your life changed?
EP: My diagnosis certainly made the act of writing poetry feel more urgent. I had a lot to say and didn’t know how long I had to say it. For that reason, the book came out quickly, and I feel the poems are a lot rawer than those in my previous collection. There were also some formal techniques, including my approach to breaking lines, that changed without much conscious thought. My line breaks became more disruptive, uneasy. I don’t think I need to explain too much about why I think the illness had something to do with that shift.
All that being said, I’m very aware of when I’m entering too deeply into subject matter, those moments when I start to feel triggered by my subject matter, my candor, my symbolic craft choices. This act of writing until triggered—that is, the exacerbation of anxiety or depression, for me—isn’t something that our writing community often speaks about. I’ve only seen one poet speak publicly about this—Joshua Jennifer Espinoza has brought this phenomenon up on social media. I would love to see this explored more thoroughly, to see where other writers draw the line—what they won’t write about, what they will explore only sometimes. How do we take care of ourselves as writers when we’re engaging in our worst fears? Is there a kind of self-effacement necessary in order to write about oneself? Does there have to be?
Much of Groundspeed seems to explore the latent and overt differences between life and death. In “Lodge”, you write, “When dark times loom, we cliché…When we have hope, we cliché.” How did you find you were able to avoid the abstractions and redundancies of both so effectively?
EP: Having so many (well-meaning) family, friends, and acquaintances tell me things like “stay strong” and “this too shall pass” is a great inoculation against the easy responses to trauma and tragedy. I also had some incredible readers who provided essential feedback to the early drafts of these poems and the collection as a whole.
In both of your collections, Groundspeed and Signaletics, there seems to be a healthy balance of free verse poems and works that flirt more with lyrical essay. How did you come to write at this hybrid intersection of genres, and what made you settle on writing in such a way?
EP: You know, I have a hard time landing on an answer for this, because there’s not a logical progression of thought that led me to explore the lyric essay. I have always been drawn to hybridity, to the ways that poetry can expand to accommodate expressions that lose the artifice of “poem”—its forms, its linebreaks, and so forth—so that there can be intimacy between the reader and the speaker. This intimacy is a lot like having someone inside the house looking through a window at someone outside. If the window is sufficiently clean and clear, that viewer’s eyes are going to readjust and focus so that the viewer doesn’t see the glass, only what’s seen through it. That’s what I’m after when my poems push into hybridity. I am cleaning the glass, allowing light to filter in unqualified by the ornamentations of a lineated poem.
To shift gears a bit, I’m curious—what led you to begin writing? And what, or perhaps who, led you to pursue it as a serious interest?
EP: There are a lot of habits and experiences from my childhood that, on looking back at them, I recognize as early poet/writer behavior. I had an extensive, immersive imagination that pervaded nearly every second of my internal life. Wherever I was, I was also somewhere else, re-writing the present into fiction. I found outlets in drawing comic books about a stick-man character with googly eyes I called Really, Really Big Eyeball Man. Once AOL Instant Messenger arrived around the time I was in middle school, I had a dozen or so persona screennames I used to talk to strangers. Later, in high school, I wrote fanfiction and began composing song lyrics. It wasn’t until college that I started writing what were recognizably poems. I was an English (Pre-Law) major at first, but my first creative writing class, with a poet named Earl Braggs, converted me. I spent a lot of time in both poetry and fiction workshops in college, and I wanted to be a some kind of writer even if I didn’t know how to do that or how to support myself doing that.
You, of course, teach in the MFA Writing Program and the Dept. of English at UNC – Greensboro. What emerging writers have currently got you excited about the future of writing?
EP: I have many students, past and present, by whom I’m excited and challenged. These are the writers that, day to day, hold my interest, urge me forward, but there are also so many writers whose work I know through literary journals and public readings that keep me breathlessly awaiting their first books. I fell in love with the work of Sumita Chakraborty, a current finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, several years ago when we began a correspondence by email. She had edited one of my hybrid essay–poems for AGNI, where she serves as a poetry editor, and she ended up sharing her then-unpublished poem “Marigolds” with me. Since then, any time I see her name in a lit mag, I immediately turn to her piece and read. I need a book from this woman real bad, y’all.
What would you say to your younger writing self if given the chance?
EP: Stand up for yourself and don’t allow yourself to be mistreated just because you are young and a woman. It will take you years to fully shake the influence of older, male mentors who didn’t always have your best interest in mind.
Finally, what can we expect from Emilia Phillips next? And what can we expect from your next book?
EP: My next book Empty Clip explores a number of violences, including gun, domestic, and sexual violences. It’s shorter than Signaletics and Groundspeed, but I feel there’s more pounds of force per square inch in this book, which tends toward candor and meditative anger.
Demetri Raftopoulos received an MFA in Creative Writing at the New School. His writing has appeared in the Common, Under the Gum Tree, Prairie Schooner, the Good Men Project, Critical Mass, and more. He is a construction consultant and an editorial assistant at Under the Gum Tree. He's from Long Island, and lives in Bayside.
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