Lisa Wells interviews Emilia Phillips

Emilia PhillipsEmilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and two chapbooks including Bestiary of Gall (Sundress Publications, 2013). 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, Poetry Magazine, Third Coast, and elsewhere. She’s the recipient of the 2012 Poetry Prize from The Journal, selected by G.C. Waldrep; 2nd Place in Narrative’s 2012 30 Below Contest; and fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, U.S. Poets in Mexico, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Commonwealth University where she received her MFA in poetry in 2012. She serves as the prose editor for 32 Poems, a staff member of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and as the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.

Lisa Wells is a poet and essayist. She’s the author of the chapbook BEAST (Bedouin, 2012), and a book of essays, Yeah. No. Totally. (PDP, 2011). Her work appears or is forthcoming from Third Coast, The Rumpus, Austin Review, Southern Humanities Review, Coldfront, and others. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, she currently lives in Iowa City where she’s an MFA candidate in poetry at the Writers’ Workshop.

Lisa: Can you start by talking a bit about the origin of Signaletics; when did it begin and what were its iterations?

Emilia: Sure. The poems in Signaletics began toward the end of my first year of grad school. I started writing some very tiny poems that were titled “Latent Print,” they were a series of poems; they all had the same title and they were all between, say, six and fourteen lines. They all had something to do with my father’s work as a forensics guy. He was working as a cop initially and then he started work as a contractor when I was in college, in Iraq and then later Afghanistan.

“Latent Print” refers to the chance recording of a fingerprint on any given surface. I was playing around with that idea, the idea of a poem being kind of a latent print. They were descriptive in the sense that they didn’t make much meaning, they weren’t evaluative, they were simply descriptive.

I ended up scrapping all those poems, but I held onto that idea for a couple of years. By the end of my second year of grad school I had pretty much all the other poems in a book set to go and then I wrote the “Latent Print” poems over that summer. The new versions were much more expansive, and later ended up in the book. I took the Signaletics title pretty early on as it was the word used to describe a 19th-century system of anthropometrical identification created by Alphonse Bertillon for use by police departments. They took nine measurements of the human body and recorded them onto cards. This happened right before fingerprints.

Lisa: There’s the thread of 19th-century science, and then there’s the ‘apparently personal’ in the book, with your father and his police work and forensics work, and then there’s a lot of backdoor ekphrasis happening in the book too. Can you talk about those threads and how you think they interact and overlap?

Emilia: I think it’s all driven by my own obsessions. I admit that I just follow the lead until it runs out. I tend to be interested in the bizarre; the crack-pot science, things that are presented to people as fact that aren’t fact, and I think that’s one of the big issues in the book. There are personal threads in the book but a lot of it is also made up, even the “real characters.”

Those imaginative re-renderings of what actually happened, or what I remember to have happened, are not necessarily beholden to the exactness of what happened, I think that more falls in line with the scientific theorizing in the book. Particularly the automata that are in that Triptych poem (“Triptych: Automata”). Descartes may or may not have actually made automata, but in my poem he did. I’m pairing those two things to test my own imaginative world rendering, ‘what am I going to allow to happen, what actually happened, and what happens when those two things overlap?’

Can something that didn’t actually happen, but seems to have happened, provide some insight into what actually happened? Theme-wise I think that’s running pretty heavily in the book. Also, I think, the anxiety of loss; what am I losing? How can I preserve it?

In a way, that’s what we’re doing as poets, trying to preserve things that can’t be preserved.

Lisa: I don’t think there is a moment that feels extraneous in Signaletics, or ‘put on’, which can be a danger in that kind of braiding. You’re also agile in terms of form. There are many different forms in this book, which seems unusual for a debut. There are prose poems, and blank verse, there’s a “Ghost Sonnet” … can you tell us a little bit about the forms?

Emilia: Sure. What’s so weird about the forms in the book is that… in one way I’m very conscious of it, and in another way I’m not. It’s not like I set out to say ‘I have to have a prose poem, I have to have this fake sonnet that is not fourteen lines but is close to 140 syllables.’ But I think I ended up picking poems that formally ran the gamut, because if I am going to write on a similar subject in a lot of poems I want the form to rework it, so that the excessive tendencies in subject matter don’t seem so overwhelming.

I think form does a lot to mediate that. It distracts us visually and distracts us sonically, so that we inhabit the subject matter in very different ways. I was trying to provide different landscapes for the reader, and the landscapes may have the same foliage but the view is changed. So, that’s really what I was thinking about with form.

My main mentor in grad school was David Wojahn, and he’s sort of a surreptitious formalist. He’s often writing forms and then breaking them. I took a lot of form classes in grad school, and I also worked as a TA for an undergraduate form class. So I was playing around with form and navigating through what I wanted to take back to my own poems without throwing up all of my materials on somebody else’s framework.

Lisa: You’ve been an editor, I’m sure you’ve been through mounds and mounds of slush. It’s interesting… if you ever read for these book prizes, often it seems the imperative is in keeping the form consistent for 80 pages, above all else. But your book really does hang together, the themes and the different forms, and it feels of a piece, even though it’s making bold moves in this regard. I wonder how your work as an editor, seeing so much of what’s happening in the field, directed the formation of the manuscript.

Emilia: Being an editor, especially during grad school, was one of the best things for my own work because I was able to see trends in writing and then give myself permission to not write in those ways. I was looking at a lot of pieces where people wrote in cycles of couplets, or only in sonnets, or in this long discursive style—like Larry Levis, who was a close presence at Blackbird since he was teaching at VCU at the time of his death. Not that those were bad poets or bad poems, I was seeing an awful lot of good work, but I wanted to write something different from what I was seeing, and I was able to give myself permission to make my own decisions. So working as an editor had a huge influence on the work, and also upped the ante. I was seeing a lot of great work, but I was also seeing a lot of mediocre work that was quite competent. So, I wanted to push myself to write in a way that moved beyond. It raised the bar for me. It presented challenges and also gave me permission to do the things that I wanted to do.

Lisa: You didn’t want to write like everybody else. I don’t think you’re writing like anybody else, at least in your age bracket. Maybe there are hints of … I’m hesitant to say you’re writing like Bill Matthews, but there’s such clarity in your voice and your images are quite clear… you’re experimenting at times, but we never lose track of the speaker or of what’s happening in the poem. I wonder, who’s influencing you?

Emilia: Well, I can’t escape the influence of my teachers totally. So David Wojahn is certainly in there somewhere. There has got to be some Kathy Graber, and Greg Donavan, and Lynda Hull, David’s first wife, had enormous influence on me. Levis has been in my life, I was actually a big fan of Bill Matthews very early on when I was writing. I read him a great deal as an undergraduate. Lately in new work I’ve spent a lot of time with Hart Crane again and William Carlos Williams, and so I think in the new manuscript a lot of these things are coming back in again…

Lisa: I mean, that’s a vaguely interesting question I guess somebody always has to ask… maybe the better question might be: I know the themes of this book, but what is of interest to you as a poet in terms of balancing, let’s say, the personal and the research oriented, or in terms of form and music. Of course, it’s always in flux but—

Emilia: You know, I tend to draw on a lot of things that are outside of poetry. I think that’s important to say. I’m trying to expose myself to new cadences in music that I listen to, I’m always looking at images. I collect ephemera and I collect medical illustrations. I’m drawing from old photographs. I love stop-motion animation. I’m drawing on strange films…I think all of these in combination are coming into my poems. They draw me through the poem and pull me out the other side.

Lisa: The robustness of your source material is felt in the book, in its images… I wonder if your attention to those materials protects you in a way. To me, your debut is pretty remarkable because so much—and I’m not saying this to stoke the poetry war conversation, which really doesn’t interest me much—but there are a lot of poems coming out of our generation that feel pretty cute to me, you know, or glib, and this book feels very different from that. It takes itself seriously without becoming morose, there’s humor in the book but it’s never cutesy.

Emilia: Thank you.

Lisa: Well, yeah, thank you. But was that trend in tenor ever something that you had to resist?

Emilia: Oh absolutely. Sometimes I have movements where I drift in that direction. I know a lot of young poets who are using that sort of semi-ironic tone or the deadpan delivery in a way that is really interesting and provocative. One of them is a guy I’d been doing a poem exchange with by the name of Joshua Gottlieb-Miller, and I think he takes on a lot of that tone and makes it new. But I tend to resist poems where their whole reason for being is to utter and not actually reckon with what is said in the poem.

I like poems that are reckonings and poems that have a lot at stake. I also resist the sort of poem that says, “This very mundane thing happened but because of where my mind was I saw it as this greater thing.” I tend to resist poems like those because I feel at the end of reading them that I could continue on with my life and nothing has changed, nobody has convinced me of anything except their trust in their own voice.

I tend to not trust my voice and the things I say. Because I uttered it, it is immediately in question. It is a reckoning for me every time I write a poem, I’m constantly going back and asking, “Does that count for anything? Is there anything at stake in that phrase?”

That’s what I admire about poems that move beyond the motive of utterance, they’re stepping out on a ledge with every word. Every time I write a line I am on the edge of the cliff because I don’t know what comes next.

Lisa: This is kind of an abrupt turn, but part of this series is about looking at the poet beyond the poem. Can you talk about how poetry started for you?

Emilia: How far back do you want me to go?

Lisa: As far back as you have to.

Emilia: Okay. I think there are a few things here I should mention. One, my mother raised me in the Episcopal church so I was often exposed to highly poetic language, the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. There were a lot of those cadences, and also the hymns stuck with me. I would often sing hymns at night to get myself to go to sleep.

I was very into science as a child, which I think is apparent in my poems now. Language for me was only a means to arrive at some truth as a child, you know, a child speaks to get something. I think in a lot of ways poets speak to get something out of the speaking, but they have to make the language they have to speak.

I did have two wonderful teachers in 4th and 5th grade who were very much into reading. I had this very heavy writing curriculum in elementary school, which seems so odd to say that it goes back to there, but I think it does… although, I wanted to be a geologist or a veterinarian. Later on, in high school I was really into music, and played in a couple of bands. I wrote song lyrics that were bad and embarrassing, but that was the start of writing verse…

It’s so strange that I was drawn to that language even though it didn’t seem like anything would ever come of it. My father being science-oriented, there was always a big push for me to go in that direction.

Increasingly, I became more interested in language and less interested in the things that language ascribes.

Lisa: So, what do they think now?

Emilia: What do my parents think now?

Lisa: Yeah.

Emilia: You know, I’m not sure. My mom has always been very supportive. My dad, I don’t know. He just returned to the United States, so I’ll find out soon.

Lisa: He’s a central figure in your book.

Emilia: Yes.

Lisa: It’s interesting navigating that.

Emilia: Yeah, writing about family. It’s a tough approach, am I going to write about them truthfully, I am going to write it a bit more invented? Some of what’s in the book is invented, and I think that’s hard for the people that are written about to reconcile. I’m not totally sure how he has reacted to the book… we’ll see.

That said, I have written about what I care about, and I think that’s the heart of the book.

Lisa: Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

Emilia: The second manuscript is so much in response to the first book. It’s titled Heaven and Men and Devils after a line spoken by my namesake Emilia in Othello. The line is: “Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, / All, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.” The manuscript has some poems that feel like direct responses to some of the poems in Signaletics. It deals a lot with the death of my brother which is only touched upon in the last poem in Signaletics (“Vanitas: Latent Print”) which was the last poem I added to the manuscript. If the first book is about the anxiety of loss, of the potential for loss, this book is about actual loss.