Emilia Phillips

photo credit: Patrick Scott Vickers
photo credit: Patrick Scott Vickers
Forthcoming from The University of Akron Press
Forthcoming from The University of Akron Press

Emilia Phillips is the author ofthe two poetry collections, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming March 2016) from the University of Akron Press, and three chapbooks. Her poetry appears in Agni, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Poetry, West Branch Wired, and elsewhere. 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. She lives in Richmond, Virginia where edits the 32 Poems Prose Feature interviews and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and The College of William & Mary.

 

 

The Episode of Cops in Which My Father Appears

           never aired. The suspect surrendered
                      his life. No suicides on basic
cable, no mortal wounds or use. Only pump-
           action and hacked kilos,
           the call girl’s doughy blurs,

and the swing pixeled between a pantsless perp’s
           scramble—its reel
           quickened at the end
credits to match footfall
           with the rhythm of Bad boys / bad

           boys. Not my father

on the radio after the shot’s flash-coil
in the House of Windows or the bullhorn
           answered
by silence, the hostage (the suspect’s
           fiancée) and her scream too

           like a hostage
let loose as she returns
           from the bathroom—
to find him a spray, mouth open, funny

           she’d never
seen his teeth, not all of them, not that he
           had
all of them, capped in some cheap
metal, his rat tail precious as a lock
           in a Bible.
Or the women outside the chicken

processing plant: no, we won’t see them
waiting around for the blinking and winking meal bells
    (AM/PM) for the boys that like to
make jokes about breasts and thighs.

Some women
           lose what little they have
the backseat after a sting.
           Wash your hands.

                       Wash your hands of this.

            My father leaning against
the counter in my grandmother’s kitchen with a Yogi
            Bear jelly jar of milk the color
                       of his undershirt, almost
as translucent, after listening to my bad
            day at school, drained

the glass and said, At least
            it wasn’t a body stewing
in a house for a week, at least it wasn’t my tangent on that—
            the body’s cat
nibbling at its earlobe like a lover, like someone
            who would do whatever
you wanted them to do on the bench
            seat of the pickup, at gunpoint, in the rain

                         or no rain

there was to dapple and fog
            the lens, if only you had the right words
instead of these negotiations
to open the door instead
            of kick it in.

 

Roadside America

Where was I going with no other map than a mirror?
—Pierre Martory

Every year Jesus looks more
like Jesus, as a word

sets into the shape
of the word and less the shapes of

its letters once one understands
what it means. In Texas

a bowling alley was converted
into a church with twelve

altars and waxed floors that held
the icon of the saints

looking at their shoes. In the lot, a hand-
painted billboard: JESUS in red

futuristic script. But the future
the artist on his ladder and harness

proclaimed in the uvular curve
of the U never came. The future now

dated, like every end
of the world. Apocalypse is a matter

of scale. The model
town of Roadside America in Shartlesville, PA

met its first doomsday when the leaky roof
caved into the Wild

West, crushing the mill, eroding
the range, and scattering the cattle.

At half-past the hour, the lights dim for “God
Bless America” as an Anglo-

Nazarene is projected over Lady Liberty
painted on the far wall. Her robe

giving His texture, her torch becoming the Bible.

I believe absurdity is a miracle.
In the pale undersides

of leaves before a storm, I glance the shape
of Boiled Peanuts and Ajax,

the parable of the paper doll
thumb-tacked to a corkboard.

On every windy hill
along I-75, an aluminum cross blinds

drivers with sunlight. This is evangelism—
as are pies, blue lights, and return

address labels. One day Jesus will
look so much like Jesus we won’t

be able to recognize him.
It must be someone’s job

to pop the heads on Christ bobbles
on the line, to pour light into a mold

and smoke an American Spirit
on lunch and believe

in a union. Every faith is looking for
something too big to see. The common

names of our common demons are Kinked
Waterhose and Gnat Up the Nose,

Haven’t-Any and Get-Away. I brush
away my angel

of dandruff. My only devil
is a beam of light

through the driver’s side
window that falls on my shoulder

for only as long
as the sun remains

in one place or the road stays
straight and narrow.

 

A Conversation with Phillip B. Williams and Emilia Phillips

Phillip: Hello, Emilia! Thank you so much for spending time to speak with me today! How have you been?

Emilia: Thank you, Phillip. I’m so glad to speak with you. I have been doing well. I’m on my winter break from teaching, and I’ve been spending most days since the New Year working on some new poems for a third manuscript, now called Hollow Point.

P: It’s great to hear you are working on new poems! The ones we have for Vinyl are spectacular. I would like to begin with a general sense of how these two poems came into being. It’s exciting to read poems that deal with America in a way that is not spectacle rather digging into the malaise and ruin to find beauty, complexity, and critique of what I suppose is the “American Dream” or “Americana” writ large. Can you talk a bit about what led you to compose “The Episode of Cops In Which My Father Appears” and “Roadside America”?

E: Certainly. The two poems were composed around the same time, I think. For my second book Groundspeed, I knew that I wanted to touch upon the tropes of kitsch Americana and the ways in which America has idealized itself. Recently I’ve been reading a lot about utopianism, and I think that, at its heart, there’s an undercurrent zeitgeist that views—or still clings to the idea of—America as a utopia. It’s a false idea, of course, and that’s perhaps why I wanted to explore it.

For years, I wanted to write about the time my father, a forensics guy and hostage negotiator, appeared on the television show Cops. I’d originally intended on writing the poem for my first book Signaletics. It didn’t happen for that book, and I only came to it later after I’d been working on poems for the second book. “The Episode of Cops In Which My Father Appears” became that poem. The title leads into the first line: “never aired.” The incident filmed for the show ended in the suspect killing himself and, therefore, it couldn’t be broadcast on television. For me, this seemed like the ultimate response to this idea of a failed American utopia: a lost television episode, one that couldn’t be broadcast.

“Roadside America” came out after a trip I took to Denton, Texas to visit a friend. My friend took me to some junk shops near a church in an old bowling alley. Out front was a commercial-looking sign that said: Jesus. I dwelled on that image for many weeks until I came to the poem, which is ultimately a reckoning with the ways in which our roadsides are a kind of American self-portrait, I suppose.

P: We are taught that image is what drives the poem: what is seen, sensed through the body is what should prevail in a poem. This is what makes the many doors through which a reader may enter operable. In “The Episode of Cops…” what is not seen, what is not allowed to be seen, plays a pivotal role. You write:

“Or the women outside the chicken

processing plant: no, we won’t see them
waiting around for the blinking and winking meal bells
(AM/PM) for the boys that like to
make jokes about breasts and thighs.”

and

“ [My father] said, At least
it wasn’t a body stewing
in a house for a week, at least it wasn’t my tangent on that—
the body’s cat
nibbling at its earlobe like a lover”

Those are just a couple ways perception as negation work in this poem. We see everything here though it is not “actually” happening. How important is the invisible in your work and what do you think is the energy behind telling a reader what has not been experienced with such direct language?

E: For this poem, there was a lot I didn’t know and had to invent for the sake of narrative. I don’t know much about the actual incident that informs the poem. I only knew why it couldn’t be aired. I had to invent a lot of details here, and so, the negation and, indeed, the ineffable here are just as important to me as what I did know. When I actively engage in what I can’t know, what other characters don’t know, it’s a kind of mark of process—an ars poetica, if you will. The great thing about poems, of course, is that we can flex and warp the point of view and, therefore, the truth.

One of the things I say to my students, and I think it may be one of the most charged statements I make any semester, is that there’s a nonfiction of the imagination, a record of what didn’t happened but was thought about, conjured up, dreamed, considered. For me, saying that there were things that didn’t happened or that I—or one of the characters—couldn’t know, allows that detail or image into the realm of imaginative existence and is, therefore, a kind of truth in and of itself.

P: And in many ways the creation of those mental mythologies, the rendering of them via the poem, is just as viable a lens through which to see the truth as verbatim documentation of any one moment. It seems that is the purpose of myth, and I find in your poetry a density of experience that brings the epic into such taut and precise lines. What is the truth and what isn’t is a major concern in your work, at least I think so. What is poetry’s responsibility, if any, to telling the truth? Did you ever worry about getting moments that happened to you or real people wrong?

E: You know, I’m not that worried about documentary truth, as you said, but I don’t think I’m the only poet who feels like there’s a difference between fact, that documentary truth, and the kind of emotional, situational, and social truths that arise in poems that are well-made and not afraid to reckon with the poet’s experiences and those the poet witnesses. So, yes, poetry must create its own truth, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a journalistic record of experiences.

All of this has now gotten me thinking about the relationship between the poem and a reader, and how the reader approaches the poem. I never think that a reader should say, “I’m going to go read some poems so I can cobble together a biography of the poet.” But I have run into a number of readers who do approach poetry with that expectation: that the poems are “true.” Several years ago, I did a reading in which I read “Sublimation,” a poem from my first book, in which the speaker recounts a miscarriage. Immediately after the reading, I had two women approach me and begin to ask very personal questions. They immediately assumed that I’d had a miscarriage (which is neither here nor there, in relationship to the poem), and they also assumed that, because I had written the poem and read it with that particularly audience, that it gave them permission to discuss the matter with me.

I want poetry to come from truth-telling lies as much as my autobiographical experience, but I think that a reader can’t necessarily approach the reading of a poem or a poetry collection with the idea that they are going to sift out the “facts” from the fictions. If it’s in a poem, it is both a fact and a fiction: solid and liquid at once.

P: There is something suspicious about poetry for audiences and readers that seems to have them searching for the real in the fake instead of moving through the experience of the poem. Perhaps readers are constantly looking for some semblance of themselves in all things, poetry included, and it’s more difficult to do with a poem if the person reading it is also not the person within the text. That’s unfortunate because in your poems there is enough meat there to learn something regardless of who is “acting out” the occurrence in the poems.

In your poem “Roadside America,” we again get an investigation of the “truth” versus “facts.” If we are to say that the difference between the two is one of subjectivity versus objectivity, I think your poem brilliantly investigates the metamorphoses of a single object, expectation, and experience through the filter of both a community and an individual. Jesus is both literal sign and amorphous symbol here. The landscape is imagined as prepared for some ultimate conclusion but true suffering comes from the minute:

“Apocalypse is a matter

of scale. The model
town of Roadside America in Shartlesville, PA

met its first doomsday when the leaky roof
caved into the Wild

West, crushing the mill, eroding
the range, and scattering the cattle.

At half-past the hour, the lights dim for “God
Bless America” as an Anglo-

Nazarene is projected over Lady Liberty
painted on the far wall. Her robe

giving His texture, her torch becoming the Bible.”

Just gorgeous movement here. Is it fair to say that expectations are not only meant to be shattered but are only interesting when they fail to come to fruition? Poetry seems to perfect vehicle to describe this phenomena, this scaling.

E: This poem helped me see poetry as a kind of miniature scale replica, like that of Roadside America in Pennsylvania, of the world. The thing about changing scale is that there are a number of things that get skewed and rather than expecting the translation between one scale to another to be perfect (that is, without changes) doesn’t allow for the wonderful ways in which a change in scale—experience to poetry, a landscape to diorama—can help us notice things we wouldn’t normally see or understand things in a way we wouldn’t normally understand them. I’m very interested in the way in which poetry can bring us to questions rather than answers, reckonings without decisions, mystery instead of knowledge. Ultimately, poetry is also a way for me to connect with the ways in which to cultivate not having expectations, which is why I think everyone should read poetry: it allows us to get lost, to lose ourselves.

I also think that play is important too, and it’s something that our culture doesn’t value in a productive way. Sure, our culture wants us to seek entertainment (music, tv, products, etc.), but entertainment isn’t the same thing as play. Play can be entertaining, but unlike entertainment, it isn’t passive. Play should be an active challenge, something that continually rewires the way we think, that challenges us to make new associations, to follow the imaginative threads. Reading is—or can be—one of those playful activities, as writing most certainly is, but I think that there’s a play of noticing, of looking that is the most compelling, even the most challenging. It’s not just mindfulness; it’s the mind connecting and associating as it experiences.

P: I love moving play into multiple realms of our lives, especially looking.

I pulled this quote from “Roadside America”: “I believe absurdity is a miracle.” Let’s talk about Groundspeed, your forthcoming collection from University of Akron Press. How do you explore the absurd in your new book? What do you see as your major concerns in Groundspeed? I do hope that both of these wonderful poems are included.

E: Both of these poems are in Groundspeed, which is due out from the University of Akron Press in March. The book was occasioned in some ways by the death of my ten-year-old half brother in April 2012 and my diagnosis of melanoma a year later. But the book isn’t just a recounting of these two experiences; it really seeks to understand transience and ephemerality, especially that of the body. I was also doing a lot of highway traveling at the time, and the idea of the “interstate” seemed charged and resonate—as if moving on an interstate caused one to move between states. During this time, I’d also become really open to any sort of mental relief from anxiety, especially when my oncologist erroneously diagnosed me the cancer as stage IV, and I began to try to find humor wherever I could or I began to see so many of the symbols (the Jesus sign, for instance, and other visual clutter) to which many others cling in times of crisis as absurd. That said, all of this isn’t cynicism. I think the absurd can be poignant, as it demonstrates our flaws, our weaknesses, our failures of imagination.

P: I looked up a definition for groundspeed and read that it means the speed of an aircraft relative to speed as measured on the ground. In thinking about finding relief from anxiety, is there something about the act of writing a poem and too the minimal space a poem occupies that helps or hinders moving away from pathos? What about the title Groundspeed intrigued you the most? I think it’s perfect and creates useful tension between your travels on the road and the metaphor of flight or escape as I am reading it.

E: Thank you! The title came to me when I was sitting on a plane and watching the roll of flight info. I really hate flying, but there’s a kind of placebic (sp?) effect of looking at “the facts” about what the plane is doing. Our groundspeed went by, and it seemed perfect: it both helped me understand what we were doing and it helped me visualize being grounded. Of course, the idea of “being grounded” is a loaded one, but it was something I needed at the time. I needed to feel whole, physical, present.

The poems in Groundspeed are my attempt at reminding myself to be present in the world in which I was living, as opposed to being lost to the anxieties. At the same time, however, many of the poems are disjointed, and they have lots of white space and severe line breaks. Because I didn’t feel whole, the forms of the poems’ weren’t whole. But by giving the poems en masse the title of Groundspeed, I gave myself the gift of moving through them, of experiencing them and then leaving them behind. You got it right: the title encapsulates this idea of travel (or transience) and the idea of escape.

P: Emilia, thank you so much for this generous interview. If people want to learn more about your work, where should they go? Also, if they want to pre-order your book, Groundspeed, or snatch a copy of your debut collection Signaletics, how can they do that?

E: Thank you, Phillip! It’s been an incredible conversation. Groundspeed and Signaletics are both available through the University of Akron Press. Updates are also available via my website and my Twitter: @gracefulemilia.

 

 

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