Emilia Phillips

February 4, 2016

emilia final“In my poems, that’s exactly what I want to create: a land on which to walk and a body to do the walking.”

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). She’s received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, U.S. Poets in Mexico, and Vermont Studio Center. Her poetry and lyric essays appear in Agni, Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary College of New Jersey. For more information, visit her website at http://emiliaphillips.com/.

bulbYour poems are full of fissures—in terms of lineation and syntax and white space. Is there a relationship between these formal structures and narratives of the body?

A year to the month after my brother died, I had a series of excisions to remove melanoma from my right cheek. My first two surgeons, plastics guys, botched the job, so my surgical oncologist removed most of my right cheek and dissected a lymph node, salivary and parotid gland. A little over a year later, a reconstructive surgeon performed a “wound revision” and grafted in fat and soft tissue from my abdomen into my face. Through the year and a half of surgeries, I watched my face change, become someone else’s. For a long time, I had the sensation that I was a mind without a body, but this time was one of my most generative and fraught periods of writing. The poems became a kind of body in which to live, and like a body, they had all of their own diegetic rhythms: a heartbeat, a breath, a shape, a sound. That being said, as physical as I felt inside these poems, I did not feel whole, safe. The poems’ bodies appeared as if they’d had something removed; they were scarred like my face.

I have learned to accept, even embrace, the scar and the experience, but the volatility of these forms has remained in my poems. The more poetry I read and write, the more sound has been metamorphed by synesthesia (something I experience more since the surgeries) into something that appeals to two senses almost equally: hearing and touch. Sound is just as visual and tactile as image. When I hear a poem that uses sound well, I often have the experience of feeling—as in a tactile, not emotional, sensation—as much as hearing. In my own poems, I’ve tried to capitalize on this experience and try to enact atmosphere, a space, in my poems through sound and form. The broken lineation and white space negotiate sound into rendered tactile space. “Fissure” is the perfect metaphor, because it’s so physical, even borrowed from geography and geology. In my poems, that’s exactly what I want to create: a land on which to walk and a body to do the walking.

bulbYou’ve mentioned before that you collect strange objects and ephemera, including medical illustrations—why are you drawn to these oddities and how do you make use of them in your poems?

For a long time I’ve been drawn to the aesthetic impulse of keeping a cabinet of curiosity, a wunderkammer (literally, “wonder chamber”) of ephemera and oddities, upon which to look and be mesmerized and bewildered. And I say “mesmerized” and “bewildered”—and not their second-fiddle synonyms—purposefully. We know “mesmerize” to mean to hypnotize or to hold spellbound, but the word comes from the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). Mesmer’s quack-placebic practice of “animal magnetism,” a rumored panacea, had patients literally roped to a “baquet,” a tub-like fixture with iron rods sticking out; patients experienced seizure-like convulsions and ecstatic sensations.

Sculptor Franz Messerschmidt made busts of Mesmer’s patients mid-treatment to produce many of his grimacing “Character Heads,” which I saw on display at the Belvedere in Vienna. I wrote about Messerschmidt’s busts and Mesmer’s practice in the long poem “The Study Heads” in Signaletics, and it was this ekphrasis that led me to the root of the word “mesmerize,” a word I always loved but in which I now relish more for its roots in the uncanny and bizarre. Much of archaic medicine was related to superstition, just as early poetry was related to the supernatural. By keeping strange objects, especially those related to the anatomy, I feel as if I’m honoring these anachronisms and giving over some of my answers to questions, my knowing to unknowing.

Like many writers, I first encountered the idea of encountering an object, place, or subject with new eyes in Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, and I furthered my idée fixe about not having any fixed ideas in Fanny Howe’s writing on bewilderment. She invokes bewilderment as both a poetics and an ethics rooted, I think, in Samuel Johnson’s 1752, literal use of “bewilder” to mean “To lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road.” Be wilder. Howe:

In the Dictionary, to bewilder is “to cause to lose one’s sense of where one is.”

The wilderness as metaphor is in this case not evocative enough because causing a complete failure in the magnet, the compass, the scale, the stars and the movement of the rivers is more than getting lost in the woods.

Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.

Rebecca Solnit also wanders into this territory in A Field Guild to Getting Lost, albeit without poetry as its lodestar. Writing, for me, is about getting lost. When we’re imaginatively focused, we use the phrase “getting lost in thought.” Sometimes I need prompts for “getting lost”—for bewilderment—more than I need prompts for writing a poem, hence the collection of ephemera and oddities, my modest cabinet of curiosity.

Historically, cabinets of curiosity contained exotic objects that helped contextualize (often erroneously) the world and inspire imaginative inquiry. These collectors often felt that their cabinets offered knowledge, but sometimes objects were misunderstood, incomplete, or ineffable. I’m more compelled by the incongruencies between a society’s “certain” knowledge and actuality. It’s here where mystery exists, where the poem exists. I keep my cabinet of curiosity not for knowing but to indulge in unknowing.

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How does your poem “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” relate to the work by Ovid the speaker’s reading, as well as to Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room”, a poem about “reading,” but also about the experience of the body, of gender, of identity?

I’m a sucker for non-literary irony, especially if it’s inadvertent, as it was with the occasion on “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s.” On my way to my appointment for my second excision of melanoma, I grabbed Ovid’s Metamorphoses because I knew the stories and it was fantastical, and I wanted something I wouldn’t get too emotionally involved in—the day was already emotional and nerve-wracking. When I got to the waiting room and cracked open the spine, however, I kept getting distracted by the tv news about the Boston Marathon bombing and the talking of the other patients, who, I realized, were all there for cosmetic reasons. Some had botox, and others were otherwise enhanced; all were women. The first connection I made was between the women undergoing bodily change to become more attractive, a goal rooted in idealized sexuality and gender; my own physical change, the three-part removal of my right cheek; and the women of the Metamorphoses who were changed to evade the sexual advances of a male god—or as punishment for their beauty.

But then I got to that line in the text in which Jove makes a case to the other gods for wiping out all of humanity. “What is past remedy calls for the surgeon’s knife,” he says. There’s the obvert connection to the situation there, but then there’s the connection to the Boston Marathon bombing: the act of killing a large group of people in order to please a god’s desires. Additionally, I see the conflicts between gods and humans as a kind of racial struggle as well, and when I saw the news of the marathon bombing I began to worry, as I always do that the violence committed by a few individuals gives white Americans an excuse for cultivated racism against people of color, especially those who are also Muslim.

As for Bishop, “In the Waiting Room” plays around with this idea of removed witness and self-examination. Can one lead to the other? Are we removed witnesses to our own selves? By contextualizing the poem with the Bishop epigraph—“I scarcely dared to look / to see what it was I was”—I wanted to remind the poem—indeed, charge the poem—with looking at the self and others in equal measure.

(I talk more about “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” over on How a Poem Happens)

bulbHow can poetry be a space for creating understanding about the work of medicine and about the experience of being a doctor or a patient?

Poetry is a kind of dissection, an exploratory surgery, and so I think that there are motives that poetry and medicine share, even if I do think that they are hopelessly dissimilar. But perhaps poetry, as a kind of textual body, can help illuminate the physical body.

I think the poems of someone like Belle Waring, whose “day job” was a nurse, might show us how poetry can create a space for medicine. Here’s the first poem of hers that I ever encountered; it was given to me by one of my graduate professor:

It was my first nursing job

and I was stupid in it. I thought a doctor would not be unkind.
One wouldn’t wait for a laboring woman to dilate to ten cm.

He’d brace one hand up his patient’s vagina,
clamp the other on her pregnant belly, and force the fetus

through an eight-centimeter cervix.
She tore, of course. Bled.

Stellate lacerations extend from cervix
like an asterisk

She goes on to say that this doctor “wore the biggest gloves we could stock,” and one night, patient “delivered a dead baby boy.”

What a pity, the doctor said.
He seized the baby’s penis between his own forefinger and thumb.

It was the first time I had ever seen a male not circumcised
And I was taken aback by the beauty of it.

Look, said the doctor, A little boy. Just what we wanted.
His hand, huge on the child, held the penis as if he’d found

a lovecharm hidden in his grandmother’s linen.
And then he dropped it.

Later, the doctor leaves without telling the baby’s father, and the speaker is forced to break the news. For me, this experience couldn’t have been related in any other form but poetry. It has the right about of density and intensity, breath and image for us to understand—to feel—what’s at stake here. Waring died of cancer earlier this year. I can’t help but wonder if she wrote about her own illness, what perspective she might have given the experience of being a patient. Selfishly, I also wonder if we might ever see those poems.

Earlier this year, I spent a lot of time with some of Claudia Emerson’s last poems. She had talked me through some of the fears of my illness, and she wrote about her own. Claudia’s husband Kent asked me to help send out poems from the book that’s set to be her third posthumous collection. It was hard for me to read, to spend a lot of time with, because I think the poems are some her best work and they are devastating, especially a poem called “On Leaving My Body To Science,” which we placed with Poetry. I hope you’ll go out and read it once its out in the magazine, as well as the other work. For me, she gets the emotional complications of illness right in addition to how it ravages the body.

bulbThere is currently an interest in bridging the worlds of medical education and more humanistic study through reading workshops or curricula focusing on “narrative medicine.” What ways might you propose to enhance medical education using poetry, and conversely, how might poets benefit from the interpretation of bodies that is the domain of medicine?

Claudia Emerson said to me (and, I think, in an interview somewhere) that she believed that the study of poetry should be as rigorous as the study of medicine. I like that idea, but I also wonder if the study of medicine couldn’t have more of poetry’s searching, questioning, and expressing. When I ruptured a tendon in my left hand earlier this year, the ER doc loved poetry and fiction. I’ve never felt as at ease with a doctor as when one was quoting Baudelaire to me.

To answer your second question, I think viscerality is often overlooked. My dad is a forensics guy, and he’s often reminded me how organic and literal the body is. Sometimes, I crave the organic and literal body in poems, and I think there’s as much resonance in the literal body as the figurative body.

bulbThere’s been a lot in the news and on social media this year about the defunding of the University of Akron Press, a premiere venue for contemporary poetry.  There’s also been a passionate outpouring of support and organizing from poets both affiliated with Akron and otherwise.  What do you think these events say about the current field of publishing poetry?  And do you have any thoughts on the importance of university presses dedicated to poetry to creative writing pedagogy? 

The University of Akron Press has been reopened, and the staff have returned to their positions. A transitional director has been hired to replace the outgoing director, and the University has demonstrated their commitment to maintaining ongoing support for the press. That said, the two-and-a-half-week battle to save the press has given me a lot to think about when it comes to “pobiz.”

For one, I think poets need to protect themselves and their work, and that also means that they have to be a little bit more business and legal savvy. I now think about poetry as a kind of business. It may not be super profitable, but my poems are my handmade goods and I have to treat them as such. Because I value my poetry, I think publishers should also value my poetry and show that value through time and energy or payment or both. Poets, unlike prose writers, are often sheepish or judgmental about this side of the writing life, but there’s no shame in protecting yourself and your work. I’m actually working on an essay about all of this, and it’s something I’m increasingly trying to introduce to students, especially those who are serious about publishing their work. I think of myself as an educator and mentor, and that means I’ve got to help poets get to a place where their work is good and help them navigate their careers as poets.

 

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In every interview, we ask the following standard questions:

 How did you come to poetry?

There are several roots that feed this plant. Let me dig them up as best I can, without any orderly design:

  1. My senior year of high school I had two wonderful AP English teachers—Mrs. Roland and Mrs. Richardson—who first introduced me to creative writing and slipped me books that my ultra-conservative high school had banned. One day, just before the AP exam, we were given excerpts from texts we’d read that semester. It was a game: we had to identify the authors of the excerpts. When we got to the poetry passage, the class had trouble. We were given two poems, one by John Donne and another whose author escapes me. I was the only one in the class that correctly identified which one was Donne. I was then asked to explain why I thought it was Donne. I had read “Song” by Donne earlier in the year, and the first poem seemed to come from the same impulse as “Song” even if it didn’t match in content or form, but the other poem seemed like a bad Donne imitation. (I wish I could remember what it was!) That was the first moment where I felt I had a real connection with a poet and the poet’s concerns.
  2. I wrote and illustrated books all throughout childhood. I bound them with yarn.
  3. My grandmother, a casual pianist, taught me to read simple treble clef music before I could read words. I started playing trumpet in elementary school, guitar in middle school; I taught myself drums, saxophone, and clarinet. I took tuba lessons one summer. In high school, I was in marching band (and I was the drum major my senior year), pep band, symphonic band, jazz band, and orchestra pit. My friend Aaron and I were first trumpets for many years. I had a rock band briefly and I recorded a demo of songs in my bedroom. For a long time, I wanted to be a musician, but when I went to college I was so burned out that I couldn’t stomach any more tryouts and practices that I dropped all music and started taking creative writing classes. Poetry especially seemed like a natural move away from music, especially with my first poetry teacher who priviledged sound and rhythm sometimes above sense.
  4. My second poetry teacher, however, ran a poetry boot camp rooted in heavy reading and brutal workshops. The first few classes of every semester, he’d insult the students to see who would stay and who would go. I don’t know how I stayed. For my first workshop, he told me to cut out everything but one line and then leaned over the table at which I was sitting and said, “It’s not so easy to write poetry, now is it?” But he’s the one who got me to read classical poetry and poetry in translation (especially Eastern European and Italian), and he convinced me to get my MFA in poetry, which I was initially skeptical about but chose to do because I didn’t have another plan. When I got into several programs, however, his wife confessed to me at a reception that I was the “dark horse” and that he hadn’t expected me to have success. He was proud of me, she wanted me to know, but the “dark horse” comment initially stung. But the desire to show him I could write well was what spurred me on, and by the time I got to VCU for my first semester, I wanted to be a poet more than anything.

Can creative writing be taught? How?

Like all crafts, one can learn—and therefore teach—the techniques of writing a poem but one cannot teach another how to write a wholly original poem. That comes from continued reading and writing. It reminds me of learning scales, modes, and licks on the guitar. No one can teach you how to solo, but they can teach you the gestures that others use to solo. It’s up to the player to fit them together and create something wholly original.

What’s your required reading list? Which five books should everyone reading and writing poetry today know?

This is so hard! I’m skeptical of “required reading” of any sort, but I can say which writers have had the most impact on me:

  1. My teachers and mentors, especially David Wojahn;
  2. Flaubert (and there isn’t one I don’t like, although Salome is my least favorite, and I even love the wacky Temptation of St. Anthony);
  3. Calvino;
  4. Lynda Hull;
  5. and probably Larry Levis.

I’ve returned to those writers’ works again and again, but they are certainly not inclusive of my tastes. I try not to be a creature of habit, and I don’t want to hem myself close to any particular aesthetic. As I get older, I find myself becoming a more and more generous and open reader. I love mystical, hermetic work as much as much straightforward and candid poems. Right now, I’m in love with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who I just discovered this summer! Her prose is just as musical as much poetry. I’ve increasingly been drawn to political and protest poetry, as well, which doesn’t necessarily reflect my love of poets like Jean Valentine and Fanny Howe.

Ultimately, I reject the idea of the personal canon, as I fear that becomes self-limiting. A reading organizer last year told me that I was such a “chameleon” as a poet. I disagree, as I think there’s a core vein of Emilia Phillips running through all my poems. I’d rather think of myself as a chameleon reader.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received or your favorite writing quote? What’s your advice for working young writers?

Take care of yourself. I grow weary of young writers and poets who feel that they have to adopt an unhealthy, even self-destructive persona in order to write good work. When I was a graduate teaching assistant, a student once asked the professor, “My parents never divorced, I’ve never known anyone who died, and I don’t do drugs, how can I ever write a poem?” I think there’s a particular kind of person who thinks that being a poet means living on the edge of society, poverty, and sanity. Not true. It’s the exception that writes from that place, and I find myself much more productive when I find a way to be at peace with myself. In that way, I don’t get in the way of the poem. You have to clear out the rubble if you want to become a vessel for something as strong as a poem.

What are you working on now?

Hollow Point, my third manuscript. I just changed the title this week! It’s named after hollow-point bullets, but there’s certainly some figurative resonance there, don’t you think?

It’s sitting at seventy-six pages now. The poems take on violence, especially how violence mars individuals’ identities. Some of the dramatic situations: the reconstructive surgery of my face; the shooting of the military recruitment center in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee; walking into my mother’s house to see my stepfather had shot my dog in the dining room; the erosive memory of possible sexual abuse in my first kindergarten; and encountering a verbal altercation in which one young woman revealed that she had been raped by the other young woman’s boyfriend. I’m trying to focus most of my writing energy on a series of poems in which Othello’s Emilia, my namesake, speaks about her husband murdering her and anachronistically comments on contemporary events. Once I finish that series, the manuscript will be reader to leave my desk.

Can you provide us with a poetry prompt for our students?

Yes! Let’s do a prompt based on my poem “Supine Body in Full-Length Mirror, Hotel Room, Upper West Side,” which originally appeared in New England Review and will be out with Groundspeed in March 2016.

Prompt:

  1. Stand in front of a mirror and study yourself for at least two minutes. Try to notice every detail you possibly can.
  2. Now go to the paper and spend three minutes writing down every detail you remember about yourself. Try to be as objective (non-judgmental) as possible; think of yourself as a neutral object that you’re describing. Use only specific, concrete, and literal details. (No figurative language: metaphors, similes, etc.)
  3. For three minutes, revise your description by removing details that aren’t as significant to your description. Ask yourself: What details reveal more than their existence. (Examples: The scar on my face suggests violence, injury, or surgery. A tattoo might reveal what you value. A bruise might hint at a narrative.)
  4. For the next ten minutes, rewrite your description in a form that alludes to your understanding or feeling about your body. Perhaps you have broken syntax because you feel injured in some way. Long lines because, like Whitman, you feel as if you extend beyond your bodily bounds. Couplets because there’s someone who you feel completes your body. Rhyming quatrains because you feel formal and stately. Be as true to your form as possible.
  5. If you have time, repeat step 4, but this time use an utterly different form. Share the poems, and discuss how the two forms change or alter the poem.

If you like this exercise, you might enjoy the exercises and prompts that I post frequently on my blog Ears Roaring with Many Things: On Writing & Teaching Creative Writing.

Classroom Portfolio:

Poems

Discussion Questions

  • What are the various threads of narrative that Emilia Phillips weaves together in “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s”?  How does the speaker’s medical narrative fit in with the narrative from Ovid?
  • Read “In the Waiting Room” by Elizabeth Bishop, the poem that supplies the epigraph for Emilia Phillips’ poem, “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” and compare how these poems handle their subjects?
  • The speaker of “Supine Body in Full-Length Mirror, Hotel Room, Upper West Side” focuses throughout the poem on “narrative” and “story.” What effect does this have on the poem? In what ways is this a narrative poem? In what ways is it not?
  • How do the various sections of “Bertillon: Three Measurements” correspond to their headings?  What changes, formal and otherwise, occur between these sections?
  • Read Emilia Phillips on her interest in “bewilderment” in her Lightbox interview.  With her thoughts in mind, trace the image of the wine bowl in “Bertillon: Three Measurements.” How does the speaker “get lost” in the wilderness of her chosen image?
  • Discuss various ways the body is represented in this selection of Emilia Phillips’s poems. What is the relationship between representations of bodies—in language, in image, and in thought—and description of the tangible, lived experience of bodies?
  • After reading “Saul Bass Redesigns the First Man,” take a look at the Saul Bass Poster Archive online. What relationships do you see between how Phillips uses language in her poem and the visuals of these posters? How do they imagine the body differently, the same?
  • In her interview, Emilia Phillips writes about how she often uses objects to spur on a creative “bewilderment,” to examine her knowing and unknowing. How does the telephone booth function as this kind of object in the poem “Dream of the Phone Booth”? Does the phone booth help project this poem into a space that is surprising, mesmerizing, or bewildering?

Discussion Questions (PDF)

In-class Activities

Getting Lost in the Wunderkammer

In her Lightbox interview, Emilia Phillips discusses the benefits of using a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, as a writer: “It’s here where mystery exists, where the poem exists. I keep my cabinet of curiosity not for knowing but to indulge in unknowing.” In this in-class activity, we’ll gather our own collection of strange items and use them to unlock new spaces for thinking about the directions of our poems.

Getting Lost in the Wunderkammer Activity (PDF)

Prompts

Lightbox Prompt

In her interview, Emilia Phillips writes about her practice of collecting strange, unusual objects: “It’s here where mystery exists, where the poem exists. I keep my cabinet of curiosity not for knowing but to indulge in unknowing.” In this prompt, we’ll ask you to explore a mysterious object of your own.

To begin, create a small Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. You might collect weird photographs, and other ephemera; strange charts or graphs that seem odd or inexplicable; medical illustrations or bizarre vintage advertisements; outmoded technologies; things people used to use in their everyday lives, but no longer do. You can do this with physical objects or by creating a digital cabinet online. If you’ve completed our related activity, “Getting Lost in the Wunderkammer,” you may already have some of these objects at your disposal.

Choose one particularly intriguing object in your collection, one that seems to suggest interesting possibilities, but remains mysterious to you in some way. You might start your writing by making observations or guesses about the object in language, but the purpose of your writing should be to allow yourself to wander into strange territories, to create an imagined world where this object could exist. Follow a line of inquiry into this new territory; see how far away from the initial object your poem can lead you.

Lightbox Prompt (PDF)

Emilia Phillips’s Prompt

Let’s do a prompt based on my poem “Supine Body in Full-Length Mirror, Hotel Room, Upper West Side,” which originally appeared in New England Review and will be out with Groundspeed in March 2016.

Prompt:

  1. Stand in front of a mirror and study yourself for at least two minutes. Try to notice every detail you possibly can.
  2. Now go to the paper and spend three minutes writing down every detail you remember about yourself. Try to be as objective (non-judgmental) as possible; think of yourself as a neutral object that you’re describing. Use only specific, concrete, and literal details. (No figurative language: metaphors, similes, etc.)
  3. For three minutes, revise your description by removing details that aren’t as significant to your description. Ask yourself: What details reveal more than their existence. (Examples: The scar on my face suggests violence, injury, or surgery. A tattoo might reveal what you value. A bruise might hint at a narrative.)
  4. For the next ten minutes, rewrite your description in a form that alludes to your understanding or feeling about your body. Perhaps you have broken syntax because you feel injured in some way. Long lines because, like Whitman, you feel as if you extend beyond your bodily bounds. Couplets because there’s someone who you feel completes your body. Rhyming quatrains because you feel formal and stately. Be as true to your form as possible.
  5. If you have time, repeat step 4, but this time use an utterly different form. Share the poems, and discuss how the two forms change or alter the poem.

If you like this exercise, you might enjoy the exercises and prompts that I post frequently on my blog Ears Roaring with Many Things: On Writing & Teaching Creative Writing.

Emilia Phillips’s Prompt (PDF)

Emilia Phillips Online

515T1VTs7iL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Buy Groundspeed by Emilia Phillips

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  • BULL PEN: 08 February 2016 – Bull City Press February 22, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    […] “The more poetry I read and write, the more sound has been metamorphed by synesthesia (something I experience more since the surgeries) into something that appeals to two senses almost equally: hearing and touch. Sound is just as visual and tactile as image.”  Our stunning writer, Emilia Phillips (Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike) interviewed at Lightbox Poetry. […]