Meg E. Griffitts Interviews Emilia Phillips
In Emilia Phillips’ forthcoming collection of poetry, Groundspeed, preservation and reclamation are at the forefront of the narrator’s consciousness. The urgency evident in the work begs the reader to be both witness and participant in the rumination of the body—to cultivate a vigil. Phillips doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but is masterful at creating liminal spaces for the questions of mortality to flare in the reader’s mind. She is asking us to travel on the interstates of existence, but knows the language of the body won’t ground us.
Front Porch: Can you talk about how your observation and documentation of the body has evolved from your first book Signaletics, which dealt a lot with your father’s job as a forensics expert and contractor, to Groundspeed, where many of the poems deal with a cancer diagnosis? Is there a different approach to the body in these two disparate settings or are they inextricably linked?
Emilia Phillips: There’s more urgency and anxiety about the body in Groundspeed, and there’s certainly more personal motivation with this reckoning. I would say that the two approaches are linked, but the stakes are raised and the language about the body becomes much more candid.
FP: What is the significance of the title Groundspeed as it relates to the collection?
EP: The collection is concerned with transience: across landscapes in the car, in planes, through time, and from life into death. Groundspeed is the speed, [with] which a vehicle moves across land, but I couldn’t help but think about the idea of grounding, of being grounded, as well as going into the ground, and the speed at which these things take place, the speed we move toward it.
FP: Can you talk about the thought process behind organizing your collection? Did you have any aesthetic concerns when choosing the ordering of poems?
EP: Ordering is always an interesting process, and it’s something that doesn’t necessarily arrive at a neat step-by-step. I can’t necessarily speak to a specific organizing structure. It’s organic and intuitive, and I shuffled the poems around over and over again. It’s like reordering a room: some pieces make sense as focal points, and others are accents. You know it once you’ve gotten it right.
FP: In Groundspeed, I noticed the variety of forms you employ. How do you unearth the right form for a poem? Can you talk about your personal philosophy on the role of form in your work?
EP: A hard question, mostly because form, for me, is not something I often set out to craft. I never landscape my poems. I never think, I’ll plant this here and this here and this here. The poems are largely fragmented because I felt fragmented after my surgery. With this book at least, the poems became kind of visualizations of my internal life.
FP: Can you speak about how the themes of preservation and reclamation embedded themselves in your work? Were these themes a conscious choice during the composition process or were they unearthed after the collection was compiled?
EP: Preservation and reclamation aren’t descriptors I’ve thought specifically about before, but now that you say them, they feel right somehow. Perhaps I might also take it a step further and say that the poems are visualizations of the great swirling abstract of a self in grief and self-grief.
FP: I noticed when reading your collection that there was a lot of internal and external dialogue embedded in the work—could you talk about how you believe dialogue functions in your work?
EP: You know, I’ve never been asked about dialogue, and I think it’s mostly because Groundspeed, unlike Signaletics, begins to cultivate a confusion between internal and external dialogue. What was said? What was thought? How does utterance change a thought?
FP: In your poem “Lodge” and throughout your book, there seems to be a recurring theme of the topography of self in crisis with resonant lines such as, “Entering this room, I enter a room inside myself with four corners and a human form, crouched in a shadow the bathroom light falling on me and falling on me again the mirror.” Can you talk about the development of this theme in your writing?
EP: When the body is threatened, I think it’s natural to both enlarge the body in order for it to contain more, to contain every thing and aspect of memory. There’s also a need to want to make it separate, outside of the self. So there’s an embrace of the body through its enlargement and there’s a sense of downplaying its body-ness.
FP: A lot of your work seems to be evocative of a kind of vigil. What is the role of religion or faith in your poetry?
EP: I’m happily agnostic, but an agnostic mystic. I believe in a kind of secularly mystic connection with mystery, the ineffable, and that’s as much “faith” that appears in my poetry. I was exposed to a great deal of beautiful language—King James, Book of Common Prayer—in the Episcopal church I grew up in, and it’s this early experience of language that I think helped me appreciate poetry. I write about this in more detail in an essay, “All the Deceits of the World: Poetry and Spirituality,” on Agni’s blog.
FP: One of my (many) favorite lines in Groundspeed is from your poem “Static, Frequency,” where the speaker says: “Memories aren’t mercy, even if they rescue you into innocence.” Can you speak about how nostalgia or memories plays a role in your writing process?
EP: It’s hard not to engage in memory in poetry, especially if you’re writing about one’s personal experiences but you engage in memory when you’re writing about anything at all. Language itself, and our capacity for using it, is founded upon memory. We’ve memorized the words, a sense of their definitions, and we’ve built connotations around those words from our memories, our past experiences with those words. For me, poetry is as much about memory of experiences as memory of the words used to make the poems.
FP: How does teaching creative writing affect your own writing process?
EP: I give students a lot of writing exercises, and I often do the exercises in class with them. (I try to keep these exercises updated on my teaching blog, and I plan to put a semester’s worth of exercises up there soon.) I love working in a group setting, in a space where I know others are writing. That energy offers a great deal to us in terms of the discussion, too, and I think the students respond well when they see the instructor writing. What comes out of these generative exercises carries me into my own writing process. Oh, and then there’s the act of re-reading texts I’ve already read. Hearing their perspectives and arriving at new ideas allows me some freedom in terms of my own reading practice: I don’t have to have all the answers.
FP: Are there any prompts or exercises you’ve used recently that have been particularly productive for you?
EP: My favorite exercise that we’ve done this summer was inspired by Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped; it was intended to produce creative nonfiction, but I think it could easily work for poetry.
Exercise: Write about the story of someone else, someone you know—met once, grew up with them, et cetera—and how their story affected you. How did you find out about the story? How did the details reveal themselves to you? Consider what the ethics are of writing about someone else’s story.
FP: Who are writers you return to again and again for sustenance?
EP: Again and again? Let’s see. My rule of thumb for writers I return to again and again are those that I end up teaching, and/or writers whose work I keep with me at the writing desk. Maggie Nelson, Wisława Szymborska, Lynda Hull, Larry Levis, Lorine Niedecker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dana Levin, Eula Biss, Jesmyn Ward, David Wojahn, Tarfia Faizullah, Jean Valentine, Italo Calvino, Gustave Flaubert, Tom Sleigh, et cetera.
FP: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give your past self about writing?
EP: Have less opinions.
—Meg E. Griffitts
Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), and three chapbooks, most recently Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and lyric essays appear in Agni, Beloit Poetry Journal, Blackbird, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, and many others. She received StoryQuarterly’s 2015 Nonfiction Prize, judged by Leslie Jamison, and other awards. She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary College of New Jersey, poetry faculty for the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop, and the interviews editor for 32 Poems. She blogs about teaching and writing at Ears Roaring with Many Things: On Writing & Teaching Creative Writing.