Emilia Phillips’s second collection of poems, Groundspeed, travels. Recently released from the University of Akron Press, this collection takes to the road through trauma, grief, and memory while offering a means of preservation. Like the roadside through a car window, these poems flash with brilliance as Phillips describes a passengerless wheelchair sitting in a hayloft, the body post-surgery, and lingering moments from childhood. The collection brings you to the edge of the earth and asks you to keep going. But even within these moments of movement and return, there is a quiet searching for the self, for strength beyond grief and loss. Through intensely beautiful—and occasionally grotesque—images and language, Phillips stills for an instant life’s relentless journey forward.
Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and lyrics essays appear in Agni, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Poem-a-Day, Poetry, Verse Daily, Memorious, and elsewhere. She received StoryQuarterly’s 2015 Nonfiction Prize, The Journal’s 2012 Poetry Prize, as well as the 2013-2014 Emerging Writer Lectureship from Gettysburg College and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, U.S. Poets in Mexico, and Vermont Studio Center. She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary University of New Jersey.
Phillips has recently completed a third poetry collection and is at work on new poems, a collection of lyric essays titled Wound Revisions, and Offset: A Poetry Broadside Digitization Project. In 2016, she is blogging for Ploughshares.
The collection is like a road trip, especially with poems such as “Wheelchair in a Hayloft” and the “Pastoral” series. There is a continual, seductive motion in this book. When putting the collection together, were you thinking of it as a type of journey? How did the collection come together for you?
The collection is all about transience, the literal and figurative kinds in equal measure: road trips and afterlifes, interstates and states of being. In some ways, the book was the vehicle for me to say, hold on, I want to still this object—this life—in motion. Some of the first poems in the book were written before two of the most consequential events in my life: the death of my brother in 2012 and the subsequent year’s diagnosis of cancer. The poems move and morph and evolve as I encountered those events, and so there is a kind of journey-like progression of the poems from those in which I was engaging in my subject matter from a very intellectual headspace to those where I’m engaging my subject matter from a very bodily point of view, the latter of which I’ll talk about in depth in a couple of questions. The collection, however, isn’t necessarily ordered with that progression in mind; I didn’t want the book to feel too linear. Instead, I wanted to demonstrate that these waypoints on my journey were visited again and again. My journey was made up of going in circles.
In “Lodge,” you have this wonderful line: “But a word might change us, our landscapes, our movements.” Was there a word, image, or poem in your work or someone else’s that you kept coming back to as you worked on this collection or that changed the original direction of the book?
For years I’ve been seduced again and again by two lines of Fanny Howe: “My vagabondage is unlonelied by poems.” In some ways, this statement has become a kind of mantra for me, especially in difficult times. My vagabondage / is unlonelied by poems. Not only does it recognize the loneliness of one’s life in that word “vagabondage,” it also speaks to the restlessness I’ve felt my whole life—this draw to move from one place, physical or otherwise, to another. As I was doing so much traveling around the time of writing the book, I think these lines also helped me think about the ways in which these ordinary movements of one’s life are relevant to the work I was doing on the page.
Last year, I also made a letterpress postcard of the quote, which also helped me see these lines in and of themselves as vagabonds.
While the collection keeps us moving, there are also moments of searching and of observation that slow down the momentum to hold us in place. Sometimes these moments involve childhood memories. How do you use memory in the collection or your work in general?
Memory is both an anchor and a current. In my poetry, it allows me to stop and to plumb the depths of my life, even as it tries to push me forward, to carry me with all the great movement of time. In this way, memory is both about what happened in the past and what’s important to you in the present and how that shapes the future. For me, the past and the present are equally relevant when I sit down to the write poems and, in some cases, they make a good justification for the inclusion of one another. In “Static, Frequency,” for instance, the memory of singing country music in the presence of my dad’s cop buddies allowed me to really interrogate my privilege while I exercised in front of a gym TV on which the video of Kajieme Powell’s murder at the hands of St. Louis Police was played over and over. For me, memory helps me understand the broad-strokes, both the moments of stillness and the moments of movement.
The book begins and ends with the body. The body is always present in one way or another from physical descriptions to the observing eye and the speaking “I.” Can you talk a little bit about the role of the body in your work?
This is a question I’ve been asked more often than not, and it’s one that I’ve wrestled with since I began writing poems. There’s a cynical (or even more practical) side of me that says that how can one not write about the body since so much of our experience—some would argue all—is rooted in the body. But then there’s another side of me that says that I wrote about the body because I wanted to reconnect to my own body, especially in the wake of a severe diagnosis that made me feel disconnected from my body, as if it was “out to get me.” Additionally, I think there’s something to be said for the ways in which we disconnect from the body every day—the internet, taboo topics, etc.—and I also can’t help but wonder if poetry, in the ways it reconnects us to the body through sound and language and mouthfeels, might also help us reconnect to empathy, the sympathetic string of the body for other bodies.
Within the three sections of the book, there is a wonderful range of formal variety from couplets to long, sectioned poems and poems whose text seems to float across the page. How does form play a part in this collection?
Sometimes I have a hard time articulating what I’m after in regards to form, mostly because it feels incredibly intuitive. Someone said to me recently that there’s really a lot of hidden/slant/internal rhyme in the book, and I was shocked to go back and find that there was. This was not something that I had intended or even realized. In many regards, that’s my approach to form: do what feels good for that poem. But that’s, of course, an easy answer, an easy way out of what you’re asking. I suppose I could go all meta on you and say that poetic form here is closely aligned with physical form, bodily form: it’s disjunctive and fragmented, and that’s how I felt. This is something that continues into my third manuscript.
You’ve just finished a third collection of poetry, and while working on new poetry are also working on a collection of lyric essays, Wound Revisions. How does practice of both genres affect your writing?
The collection of lyric essays allows me to go back and address some of the things I’ve addressed in my first two collections of poems, Signaletics and Groundspeed, but do it with much more fidelity to the facts while expanding the scope of those concerns through research, associations, and juxtapositions. So there’s essays about my brother’s death and my reconstructive surgery and so on, but they are elaborated upon and, I would say, complicated by new threads. These threads come in the form of essay sections and whole new essays. For this reason, I feel like I’m able to tap into another part of my brain, the part that wants to connect, to weave, to web together past and present, history and personal narrative. With the poems, I’m after something else: a representation, a translation of my experience into another kind of experience. In the lyric essays, I’m after the original experience. By writing both genres at once, I’m able to prismatically split the white light of experience into its composite colors, really appreciating each one for what it is.
Interviewer Anastasia Stelse is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, (parenthetical), and Meniscus, among others.
For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.