Interview with Emilia Phillips
Interviewer: Joey Kingsley
Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, August 2013) and two chapbooks. Her poetry appears in AGNI, Beloit Poetry Journal Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, The Journal, The Kenyon Review, Narrative, The Paris-American, Sycamore Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2012 Poetry Prize from The Journal, selected by G.C. Waldrep; Placed 2nd in Narrative’s 2012 30 Below Contest; and received fellowships from U.S. Poets in Mexico, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Commonwealth University, where she received her MFA in 2012. She serves as the prose editor for 32 Poems and will join the staff of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in July and, in August, Gettysburg College as the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer. She is from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Joey Kingsley: In the beginning of your manuscript, you suggest that you are “a hailstone / of nerves, the fist clenched at the end of a phantom arm.” How do you negotiate the divide between the body and the mind in your poems? Are you conscious of this gap as you write, or is this crucial disconnect “made” during the process of writing a poem?
Emilia Phillips: One of the hardest things for any poet to do is to make the insubstantial into the substantial, and I don’t simply mean the conveyance of an abstract, like an emotion, into the concrete; rather, that something concomitant to the particulars of the poet’s or a character’s life, however mundane, may likewise become consequential to a reader. I find that when I read poems that wholly subsist in the intellect, I feel as if I simply need to either agree or disagree with what’s being said. Although my brain’s at work, it’s a low-level engagement predicated on a slippery faculty: logic. When poems engage my body, however, I feel as if I’ve no longer been given a choice about whether or not to interact with the poem’s concerns.
In writing workshops, we often say things like: Why are there no images? Why are there no smells? Invoke all the senses. I want to feel like you/the speaker felt. Experience what you/the speaker experienced. But if you think about it, the only sense that a poet has relatively total control over and direct access to is sound. Even when we read silently, we “hear” the poem because we think, more often than not, in language. When you encounter a word, your brain registers the sound of that word. So, when your reader reads your poem, they’re hearing it. Of course, there are nuances that may be lost/warped because of a reader’s accent, associations, and attention. But still, as poets, we’re mostly in the driver’s seat when it comes to sound.
What about the other senses? Sight, smell, taste, and touch cannot be directly engaged in the written poem, only in the ambient sensations of reading (the look, smell, and feel of the book, for instance.) When we encounter an image, smell, or physical sensation in the written poem, however, the description is filtered through memory. Our brains locate a comparable experience from our past and identify that as the action in the poem. I’ll use the opening of Lynda Hull’s “Rivers Into Seas” as an example:
Palaces of drift and crystal, the clouds
loosen their burden, unworldly flakes so thick
the border zones of sea and shore, the boundless zones
of air fuse to float their worlds until the spirits
congregate, fleet histories yearning into shape.
Close my eyes and I’m a vessel. Make it
some lucent amphora, Venetian blue, lip circled
in faded gold. Can you see the whorls of breath,
imperfections, the navel where it was blown
from the maker’s pipe, can you see it drawn
up from the bay where flakes hiss the instant
they become the bay? Part the curtain. The foghorn’s
steady, soothing moan—warning, safety, the reeling
home. Shipwreck and rescue. Stories within stories—
When Hull asks, “Can you see… ?,” we can because we have seen “whorls of breath” and “the bay where flakes hiss the instant / they become the bay” or something like it, in person or in film. In that way, all description is simile—this (in the poem) is like this (in my memory)—and all reading is an act of engaging memory, the mind, both the poet’s and the readers’.
If one also engages the body through sound, as Hull does, one may, for a brief moment, unite the body and the mind, in the same way that they are (generally, barring obstacles) united in experience. I think we too often say that poetry should be all about what it says or that it’s the music that counts. For me, it’s when the two come together; that’s when a poem becomes an experience instead of a message.
When I’m writing, however, it’s hard to figure out how to do that. When I try to, the poem smacks of imitative fallacy; it’s best when it just happens naturally. And, by naturally, I mean that I’ve seen others do it time and time again and, by sheer luck or patience, I’ve somehow come upon it by accident in a poem. For me, the whole point of reading and writing poetry is to bridge that divide between the body and the mind. But that also means recognizing there’s a divide to cross.
JK: In many of your poems, you describe in both scientific and experiential detail the ordeal of being fingerprinted. What is the purpose of cataloguing the physical when the speaker in so many of your poems acknowledges the mutinous vulnerability of the body? How does fingerprinting serve as a vehicle toward being known and knowing others?
EP: Despite its fallibility and ephemerality, we have to put trust in our body, don’t we? Otherwise, we’d never seek pleasure, never experience pain. We have to have the body to connect others, even if it’s simply conversation. Without the body, why would we make art? Many say that artists create art in order to preserve their genius, that is their mind’s “vision.” For me, poetry is not so much an extension of my mind as my body. I think that’s why I’m a compulsive writer: it’s physical for me. I feel ill if I haven’t written in a few days. After intense sessions of writing, my body feels exhausted. The speakers in the poems often acknowledge the body’s vulnerability because, well, it’s also a way to acknowledge the vulnerability of poetry.
Fingerprinting seems to be an ideal metaphor for poetry: a unique print created by an individual. That said, despite its metaphorical implications, there’s a more practical reason that I have fingerprinting in many poems: my father is a forensic scientist, more specifically a latent fingerprint examiner. So its presence provides narrative context. I’m not sure if I would have come to fingerprinting in my poems if I hadn’t learned about fingerprints throughout my childhood, spent time in the AFIS Automated Fingerprint Identification System) office at the police department where henworked. For everyone, though, I feel like there’s something that has been with them their whole lives that will work its way into their vocabulary and metaphorical history, something that serves as a touchstone for all of their concerns.
JK: Many of the poems in this manuscript contain fragments from recordings or “dispatch” that alert the reader to the fact that the speaker is in communication with the past, personal family history, childhood experience and, on a grander scale, some of the great minds of our literary tradition. This gives your poems torque and a transactional sense of urgency. Could you speak to the allure of the
EP: Ah, the dispatched: isn’t a poem a kind of dispatch? In Signaletics, an amplified guitar picks up a radio signal; my father’s police radio can be heard in the kitchen; we intercept messages from Dick Cheney’s Union ancestor, Captain Sam Fletcher Cheney. For me, it’s a natural extension of a poem, a kind of sonic prosthesis. It helps locate and open the physical space in which the poem, its dramatic situation, happens. It’s like a composer using bird song in a symphony, a rap mixing in police sirens, or Prince warbling over traffic sounds in “Lady Cab Driver.”
Every morning, when my husband’s alarm radio goes off, half-asleep I hear snippets of news between the snooze: Virginia bridges received a grade of D- … North Korea threatened … We encounter so much of that language everyday, and how that language, as sound, is transmitted through space reveals a great deal about setting and context. The other day, my friend Patrick, an audio editing maestro, and I talked about how sound embodies space. It’s the ephemeral presence that reveals the physical absence. He spoke about how certain frequencies will show up in recorded audio that may reveal the kind of room or space in which it was captured. A professional audio editor will often remove these frequencies in order to makenthe space seem, as I understand it, more neutral. A member of my artistic pantheon, Frank Zappa, however, used noise, ambient and willfully made, in some of his more avant-garde works. (Check out a clip from Baby Snakes in which Zappa provides the “noise-track” for Claymation by animator Bruce Bickford’s films; the noisy ambience of tracks like “Fire and Chains” from Make a Jazz Noise Here and “The Torture Never Stops” from Zoot Allures (1976); faux-dispatches like the suit commercial in “Eddie, Are You Kidding” on Just Another Band from L.A. (1972); or live performances/audience participation in which band members like Roy Estrada or Adrian Belew would use a gas mask or toy police car to make noise.)
In poetry, however, we often neglect noise. There’s a good reason, of course: we want focus, concision; we want something meaningful, not something accidental—something exciting and not mundane. That said, my concerns often color everyday dispatches like letters, news broadcasts, and the radio so that those exterior things seem interior. The dispatch, as you call it, does a few things: provides a kind of exterior (albeit projected) commentary on the poem’s concerns; reveals the space/setting in which the poem takes place without that narrative signposting; provides cues for my own (faulty) memory; and gives the reader relief from the poet’s voice.
JK: This manuscript is dedicated, in part, to your brother Nicholas who passed away after a long illness. So often elegies mourn the loss of the dead, but they also prepare us for the inevitable. Could you speak about the ways in which you negotiate the chasm between the living and the dead?
EP: Whatever conclusions I came to about death by the end of a poem dissolved almost immediately after writing. Isn’t that the way? One may set out to write a poem to find answers or, at least, some peace about what’s happened or the inevitable to come, but one merely slows on a plateau before tumbling down the next cliff.
Nick died at the age of ten from complications from a rare genetic disorder. He was my only sibling, but because of an extreme age difference, physical distance, his difficulty in communicating, and—if I’m being candid—my absorption in my adolescent and, later, adult life, we weren’t all that close. Dedicating the book in part to Nick is, in a way, an apology to him for my distance and an admission of my fallibility, perhaps after Thomas Hardy’s “Bitterly have I rued my meanness / And wept for it since he died!”
I am an unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to death. How can I know? Likewise, I think that we should remember that all readers are unreliable readers, no matter how well we know them or trust their opinion. Once we realize—and admit!—that, we know that the poem is inherently unreliable. I think an elegy mourns and must reckon with the unreliability of our experience, whether or not someone has died.
JK: Tell us a little about the image that was selected as the cover of Signaletics.
EP: I found the image through extensive searching of internet archives. Initially, I wanted a mug shot image that accompanied the measurement card from the Bertillon system of criminal identification (nine measurements of the body) that the book returns to again and again. But then I found a database of mug shots circa 1910–1930 from Sydney, Australia at the Historic Houses Trust’s Justice & Police Museum. The photographer is unknown but the strange positioning of the man toward the right of the frame, his smug expression, his last name of “Bede” (think Venerable), and the eeriness of the handwritten message “This Man Refused to Open His Eyes” on the image sealed the deal for me. That was it, I had to have it.
JK: In “The Study Heads,” you navigate the spiritual like a traveler who can’t bear to remain in one place for too long, your speaker never expresses an allegiance to anything other than memory, whose nature is resurrection, as stated in these lines: “resurrected, which is, after all, the byword of memory.” Why does this central and marvelously obsessive theme resonate in your work?
EP: I swear allegiance to memory with the caveat that I likewise commit myself to the ways in which evolves, damages, and/or nuances experience. But, if you think about stories of resurrection, there’s no way that the resurrected individual can resume their lives in the same way as before. So it goes with memory. If one is writing, at least partially, out of memory, then it’s important to continually remind oneself and one’s readers that you may not have gotten it right and, in writing, may have actually changed.
JK: As evidenced in poems like “The Ear: General Form & Separation of the Internal Windings,” you draw a bridge between human anatomy and its seemingly mechanical (and ironically organic) performance. How does the process of making an artificial tooth, for example, exemplify this?
EP: Kathleen Graber once said in a class: “If you can make anything, you can make a poem.” I often think of this and have even set up a schedule in which I write just after making something else, like supper. At the very least, this sets me up on the path of progression, making things happen or change. Poems that don’t, in some way, change between the beginning and the end aren’t, as far as I’m concerned, poems. They’re pictographs of static information, without tension and, therefore, without any stakes.
As I mentioned before, I see writing as a kind of extension of the body, an artificial extension, of course. To make a porcelain tooth or artificial heart seems just as intimate, if not more precise, than writing a poem. My husband Jeremy used to work in denture and crown-and-bridge labs where he made teeth. His stories from these labs were outrageous and the people this work attracted were as comparably eccentric as poets. How could I not take it on?
JK: From our first few poetry workshops at Virginia Commonwealth University, I knew that you were a ravenous and compulsive reviser, sometimes generating multiple and widely different drafts of a single poem in a day. Does this apply to the manuscript as a whole also? Can you tell us a little bit about the arrangement of the book?
EP: What I did early on, I’d call overhaul instead of revision. I often had no idea what I was doing when I was writing. I’d write something, read it aloud, realize it was terrible, put that draft away, rewrite from memory, change the line length, rearrange the form, read aloud, realize it was terrible, start over. It was all trial and error at that time. (Mostly error.) All I knew is that it wasn’t right. At least I knew that. Gradually, I began to see some of my strengths and weaknesses; my professors Greg Donovan, Kathy Graber, and David Wojahn pointed out others. I began to anticipate what my mentors and fellow workshoppers would have to say about a particular poem. I’d write around that (though later I began to willfully do something I knew wouldn’t be popular in workshop) and move on to a new draft.
Most of Signaletics was written during the MFA program in that overhaul manner, except “Sublimation,” “Mourner with Cowl, Hands in His Sleeves,” “Diaspora,” and “Vanitas (Latent Print).” These were all written at the very end of the program or just after. I would draft the poems aloud before I ever touched a pen or keyboard. I would begin each poem with a phrase that sounded right to me, I would say it aloud over and over until I found another phrase to follow it, etcetera until I had the poem. Often whole poems or, at the very least, sections of poems would be written entirely orally. When they were finished, I’d type them up and, wouldn’t you know, most of those poems already knew their forms by the time I got them on the computer.
When I first completed all of the poems in the manuscript, I didn’t have an order but I did have a starting point. Kathy Graber had suggested a first poem for the manuscript, “Subject in the Position of the Soldier with No Arms.” I went from there. The final order is one that came about after the book went to Akron’s peer reviewers; one suggested that I was frontloading some of the more difficult and erudite poems. I reordered so that the poems that seemed to “set up” the emotional concerns started us out, namely “Teratoma” and “Vanitas (Latent Print).” Those concerns should influence the reading of the more cerebral poems, at least I hope.
That said, even after finishing the collection, I don’t feel done with the subjects, particularly the death of my brother. In fact, I’m currently at work on a long poem titled “The Conflagration” for my second manuscript, Heaven and Men and Devils; the poem takes the framework of The Inferno to pace and order the narrative of a drive I took from Richmond to New York City a month after his death within a larger, fragmented narrative of memory. In some ways, I feel as if each poem we write is a revision of the previous poem and each manuscript a revision of the previous.
Joey Kingsley is a writing instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she received her MFA in poetry in 2012.