Interviewed by Danielle Susi
Emilia Phillips is the author of the two poetry collections, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming March 2016) from the University of Akron Press, and three chapbooks. Her poetry appears in many journals, including Agni, Crazyhorse, Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Poetry, and West Branch Wired.
She has received fellowships to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, U.S. Poets in Mexico, and Vermont Studio Center; the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lectureship at Gettysburg College; and the 2012 Poetry Prize from The Journal. Currently, Phillips lives in Richmond, Virginia where she teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and edits the 32 Poems Prose Feature interviews.
Emilia Phillips and I talked about process, loss, and the late, great poet Claudia Emerson.
It astounds me how prolific you are. Your first chapbook came out in 2010, your first collection in 2013, another chapbook in 2013, another still in December 2014, and your second collection, Groundspeed, will be released in 2016. You also have another poetry collection and a collection of lyric essays in progress. How in the hell are you doing this?
You know, a friend of mine was just talking to me about this very thing the other day. The conversation ended with her trying to convince me that I’m prolific. I don’t feel prolific in any way. In fact, I often feel like I’m not doing enough, but maybe that’s why I am always writing. It’s never enough. This poem is never good enough. And any time I take time off, I feel guilty! I jones for writing, and when I can’t, I feel physically ill.
On a more solemn note, I was diagnosed with stage-4 melanoma in 2013. It turns out it wasn’t that progressed, but the diagnosis scared me so much that I felt like I had to get the second collection finished. I worked obsessively on it while I was teaching a 3/3 load at Gettysburg College and editing the 32 Poems Prose Feature. I even asked my friend Gregory if he would be my literary executor and finish compiling the collection should something happen to me.
In retrospect, it seems like an overreaction, but I have to remind myself how uncertain that time was, how, when I was waiting for surgery and results from the surgery, I thought—my oncologist thought—the melanoma had metastasized. When my brother died in 2012, I couldn’t write; when I feared for my own life, I wrote and wrote and wrote.
Now I’m excited to be alive and excited (and maybe a little obsessive) about writing.
I don’t think it seems like an overreaction. When you attach your life to writing and suddenly you feel like you might not have that life anymore it feels very natural to want to obsess over the thing you associate with that life. So many of your poems that I have read recently are about your cancer and the surgery–I’m thinking mostly of “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” and “Aubade.” To me, those serve as both reflections of fear and of strength. Is that what we’ll see a lot of in Groundspeed?
Two autobiographical events guide Groundspeed. The first is my diagnosis and treatment for cancer, which is mentioned only in “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s,” “Aubade,” and two other poems. The second is my brother’s death. I finished my first collection and began writing the second collection around the time that he died. I wrote one elegy for the first collection, but I wasn’t done—I’m still not, may not ever be done—reckoning with it. As I mentioned, these two events happened within a year. Nick died on April 23, 2012, and I saw the first surgeon on April 30, 2013. (Eliot may have been onto something about April.) Not only was I not prepared for the diagnosis of melanoma, I had just seen my only sibling die. It seemed at the time so easy to slip away.
The poems I wrote—when I could write—immediately after Nick’s death tried to bypass all of my feelings about the loss. I wrote about stop-motion animation, Harry Smith, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and a nuclear test sight in Nevada. Most of these poems were horribly superficial, but a few survived.
The diagnosis of cancer was like an imperative to write, and I began to reshape and re-see what this collection was going to be. These two autobiographical events only appear in a few of the collection’s poems, but they inform the collection’s reckonings on transience. In Groundspeed, you’ll see small “pastorals” about traveling American highways that have seven monostrophic stanzas so that there’s white space between each line, creating a size-of-a-sonnet-but-not-a-sonnet feel, as if half of the lines are silent, erased, obliterated like the natural landscape.
It’s interesting that you point to fear and strength. Both are motivations for moving, for doing something. There are many poems about transitional spaces and moments, about movement from one thing to another. Erasure, re-creation, expansion.
I think what you said about those two events informing the collection’s “reckonings on transience” is so important. This idea of something existing for such a short amount of time and how we can only ever realize that in hindsight. And also that when you couldn’t write you turned to “superficial” topics. I did that during a difficult time too. I actually went on Wikipedia and hit random until I found a topic I thought was interesting enough to read about and then force a poem out of. I think, maybe, and you might feel differently, that when unspeakable things happen to us it’s easier to lean toward ideas that don’t belong to us or that we don’t have direct ownership of–like animation or a nuclear test sight. Did you feel that happening?
I always tell my students that no matter what they write about, what’s bothering them will come out. Maybe I should revise it to say that whatever is bothering us will come out and reveal itself through its presence or its absence. Some of those poems I wrote when I was avoiding those big emotions felt like poems that [were] avoiding big emotions. They read like censored letters, only instead of erasures, there were ironic mad libs insertions. So instead of talking about actual deaths, I was talking about the mannequins placed in a Nevada Nuclear Test site being blown to bits and melting; here’s the ending of that failed poem:
Get close. We smell
sweet. Our smiles
fission, wigs in burnt meringue.
Looking back, was I not reckoning with death? The body? Was I not, in some ways, attracted to these mannequins that smiled through their dismemberment and charring? Unlike us—unlike my brother.
My poems even took on the subject over covering up, disguising, even as I was covering up and disguising my own concerns. Another failed poem I wrote at the time—and would, some day, like to revisit—was about the topographical camouflage the United States used on a Boeing aircraft hangar during World War II. Essentially, the hangar was covered in fake houses, streets, and lawns so that it looked like an average neighborhood. In it, I write: “Isn’t irony / a kind of contrapasso?” Well, isn’t it?
One of the more famous contrapasso examples I remember from studying Dante was when some of the individuals in one circle of Hell had to walk backwards because their heads had been twisted to face the opposite direction. To me, it seems like what you were doing was sort of turning away from something, but you were then forced to walk backwards because you couldn’t see where you might have been headed. And in your effort to disguise your concerns, it still lead you down the same path but with a slight detour.
Speaking of students, I hope you don’t mind this shift, but one of my little Internet pleasures is checking out your syllabi and musings on teaching creative writing on your website and via social media. Could you talk a little about how you go about planning a course and, as a poet, what types of things are important for you to include in your instruction?
My approach to teaching is really two-fold; I want them to understand elements of craft as well as the motivations and implications of writing, meaning, I want them to understand the relevancy of poetry or the other genres. The thing about it is, no two classes are alike, and so they require different kinds of pedagogy—different assignments to match the dynamics of the class and the individuals in them. That’s why I create new exercises for every class I teach, and I tell my students that we have a flexible course schedule. I may decide to substitute assignments in order to better meet the needs of that course. Because I’m always changing the pedagogy—well, I do keep the good stuff—I often learn a great deal in the teaching. In the long run, it’s my hope that I will always been engaged, because I will always be challenged.
You were colleagues with the great poet Claudia Emerson and I’m so sorry for your loss and for the loss of an incredible contributor to education and to the practice of poetry. Did she have an affect on your pedagogy and your writing practice?
I first met Claudia in 2011 when I was a scholar in her workshop at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. During that time, she also met with me one-on-one to discuss a large excerpt of my first collection. So, my first in-person encounter with her was in a classroom, around a workshop table. Once I joined the staff at Sewanee, I got to know her better and, in 2013, she joined the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University. I had just left VCU, where I did my MFA and a year or two of adjuncting, for a position at Gettysburg. I moved back to Richmond this fall, and began adjuncting again. I am so fortunate to have gotten to know her through these experiences at Sewanee and in Richmond. This semester, my office was next to hers, and I also spent a little time up in her treehouse with others, most memorably in September with a friend, a pecan pear pie, and some wine. She looked at my work and visited my poetry workshop. Despite the fact that she was going through so much with cancer, she even offered to go with me earlier this fall when I had a follow-up CT scan. I declined her offer because I couldn’t bring myself to say yes, especially since she’d been spending so much time in the same hospital.
All of that is to say that, she was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. That’s what I take most of all from her, to my classroom. That, and toughness. She told me a few months ago that after all her cancer treatment, she felt like poetry workshop should be as rigorous as medical school.
In light of the idea that poetry workshop should be as rigorous as medical school, what advice or insight would you offer new or young poets?
Students shouldn’t simply wait for their poetry professor to prescribe reading for them; they should seek out poetry on their own. With that in mind, they should also read widely and outside of their own aesthetic. Reading should be challenging, and it should reflect in what they are willing to do in the workshop setting.
Additionally, turn pieces into workshop that aren’t finished—they need criticism. This justifies the workshop, and it also reminds us that the act of writing poetry is never finished. It’s always in progress. We should always be striving to do better. I’m often concerned when students get too comfortable and used to praise in a workshop. That’s when I take my criticism of their pieces up a notch and play devil’s advocate in my approach. Of course, workshops will always find something wrong with a poem, because that’s what they’re asked to do, but I think that’s healthy.
Danielle Susi is the author of the forthcoming chapbook The Month in Which We Are Born (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Knee-Jerk Magazine, Hobart, The Rumpus, Lines+Stars, DIALOGIST, and Midway Journal, and many others. Find her online at daniellesusi.com.