July 15, 2019KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingRemembrancesWriting

Verve {in} Verse: In Conversation with Emilia Phillips

Note: Verve {in} Verse is my poet-focused feature here at The Kenyon Review in which I converse with poets about their work and interests both on and off the page. In this segment, Emilia Phillips discusses her most recent book, Empty Clip, the (dis)connections between the physical body and a body of work, and why it’s good to step away at times to “fill my ears with silence.” Emilia is a poet especially close to my heart, and I’m so happy to have her here at Kenyon. -Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni: Can we start with “Denouement” in your most recent collection Empty Clip? The lines “One doesn’t have to/ believe in symbols// to see them” seems to speak to the rest of the collections themes on desire, trauma and betrayal, and how the self emerges from all of this, from the shadows as we the readers witness the speaker “focus and unfocus /in the mirror.” “Denouement” comes in the middle of Empty Clip, and seems to both foreshadow what’s to come later in the collection (such as in “Scar”) while delving into the speaker’s “present” struggle: “I didn’t eat for days./ I worried until it was a kind of prayer.” How does this poem in particular speak to the rest of the poems in the collection?  

Emilia Phillips: A denouement is the outcome of a narrative’s main conflict, of course, and I felt that this moment in time, this instance within the autobiographical circumstances of my life, offered a kind of “falling action.” I’d made it through three surgeries to excise melanoma from my right cheek, and I’d gotten the good news that the cancer’s severity had been downgraded from stage IV to stage II. I wouldn’t have to have chemo or radiation, which I’d feared more than the cancer itself. My only job was to go on living, but that proved harder than I imagined. There was so much mental health fallout from the cancer scare that I felt as if I could barely function; on top of that, it was winter in rural Pennsylvania where I was working and I was lonely. “Loneliness is solitude with a problem,” Maggie Nelson writes in Bluets, and my solitude seethed like a thundercloud with anxieties: would the cancer come back elsewhere, what would happen to my poems if I died, how would my parents cope, and so on.

The worst part was that I was experiencing problems with dissociation, specifically the phenomenon of depersonalization, in which my body felt completely and utterly unattached to the me part of me, my consciousness or soul or whatever you want to call it. That focusing and unfocusing of the eyes in the mirror is the predominant image I have of myself in that time; I looked but did not recognize myself. It was like living with(in) a stranger. “You must be so relieved,” everyone said to me, and I performed that relief for them, all the while shadowboxing suicidal ideation. My traumatized brain’s “justification” for those thoughts was paradoxical, maybe even oxymoronic: my body’s vulnerable so I need to sever my ties to my body. That split and the duplicity of my public relief and private terror undergirds the poem, and it introduces the falling action of one narrative (having cancer) and rising action of another narrative (confronting the traumatized self). This felt like the heart and hinge of Empty Clip’s work.

I’ve said it elsewhere, but I think it’s relevant to repeat: the poetry I wrote when I felt completely disconnected from my body functioned, mentally and emotionally for me, as a kind of surrogate body (oh, how I’ve always loved that we refer to the form of written works as a “body of text!”) in which I could live for a while, in which I could protect myself. Sort of Voldemortian of me, I know—ha!

RB: “Body of Text” has always tripped me up, as it seems to impose a detectible physique, a corporeal realness, onto language that I believe seeks to be free of form, especially poetry— meaning that all written language seeks to jump from the page and possess different “lives,” depending on who’s reading it. But this phrase has taken a whole new meaning for me recently, as I’ve been struggling with my own faulty wiring, or a nervous system that sometimes goes rogue. What you described as “that split and the duplicity of my public relief and private terror” . . . oh, Emilia. You named something— and you named it so, bull’s eye and in perfect tenor— that has haunted me as well. Thank you for sharing all this so candidly. . . .

Speaking of “bodies of text,” poets often are curious on how other poets break up their collections into sections. Empty Clip is divided into two sections., “Hollow Point” and “Split Screen.” Can you speak on these different sections as movements toward and/or from themes or progressions?

EP: Knowing a little about my experiences with depersonalization, you might be able to imagine my anxiety surrounding the ways in which mediated and augmented reality engineer depersonalization. The blip of my location on my phone’s map app, a drone warfare command center in the desert of Nevada, et cetera. A hollow point is, of course, a type of bullet, one that’s especially dangerous because it breaks apart upon impact. That term resonated with me for years. Hollow point. It’s tangible, it’s the physical threat, and yet it contains a kernel of nothing. There’s an ineffability to it, the unknown. It’s the not inside the isthat makes the is so dangerous. The book certainly concerns itself with gun violence, and that is its obvious connection, but a hollow point struck me as having figurative resonance with the book’s (bodily) concerns. The self within the body is what makes the body potentially so dangerous, and the way the body breaks down around the self is what makes the body so dangerous to the self.

The split screen is of course a filmmaking term for when the screen is divided into two. This was an apt metaphor for how I experienced the world during bouts of depersonalization: my body’s experience and my consciousness’s experience. I’ve found it’s incredibly hard to grasp for those who have never experienced depersonalization before. It felt almost like being able to see two images, one out of each eye at once, rather than a composite. The split screen allows for the broadening of these concerns to include technologically mediated and augmented reality, not just the reality divided by the traumatized mind.

RB: I’ve had similar conversations about how it feels, as you put it, when “the body breaks down around the self” and how this is “what makes the body so dangerous to the self.” I’ve had them with family and friends, but it’s really hard having that conversation with doctors at time. Because they want to heal the physical body, and finding a specialist— or a neurologist who will listen, in my case— who understands the importance of the mind-body connection is difficult, as well as the necessity of having a self that interacts with others— because one’s own mind-body connection doesn’t leave in a vacuum— a self that communes, that loves and loathes and  hopes and reflects. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Before Hotel Security Got There,” poses this question: “But who doesn’t love the unrequitedness / of the self, its questions answered with a question.” Well, damn . . . I’d love to hear more about this, in reference to the poem itself, when “the lovers became/sudden hulks brawling,” as well as in a universal thought on the human condition.

EP: As a woman, especially as a long-closeted queer woman, my desires took the backseat to my (cis male) partners’ desires for most of my sexual life. (Until the last few years, and what an amazing couple of year it has been!) I think this deference is true of many women, especially those who have internalized heteronormative ideals. The poem’s half-asleep speaker hears what she misinterprets as sex sounds and begins to touch herself, her friend (another woman) asleep in the bed, but then realizes that there’s physical violence happening next door, a man hurting a woman. This, of course, chills the speaker, that she misinterpreted this violence as sex, and it seems to cause her to have a realization, at least the start of one, about the ways in which she may have misinterpreted other, more subtle forms of violence against her and other women as sexy. It’s terrifying to confront those internalized misogynies, to try to dismantle the ways in which your behavior may have been self-violating. That’s likewise where the unrequitedness comes in, that paradoxical situation of acting against your best interest but being told, even internally, you are selfish for it.

RB: What was the most difficult poem to write in this collection?

EP: The first one, “This is how I came to know how to.” It’s the poem where I begin to take on a memory of possible sexual abuse as a kindergartener, but the memory is incomplete, inconclusive, maybe even partially fabricated. Personally, it was the most challenging because of its vulnerability, but it also came out in a giant rush. I wrote this poem when I was a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop. Mary Szybist, the workshop leader, gave generative assignments every day. This one only required that we use a single word selected from a list of unusual words; I chose “anchorite” and somehow the poem arrived.

RB: Can we talk about how your tweets—including this tweet in particular— are poetry? Your presence on Twitter is one of the reasons I’m on Twitter, to be honest. How does tweeting affect and/or influence your writing and your sense of community?

EP: Twitter is funny because sometimes I believe in its capacity to build communities and sometimes I think it is destructive to communities. My general approach is to collage things that bring me joy or give me pause: a poem I read, a picture of my dog Grady, a selection of visual art, an interesting science article, a thought about teaching, a GIF of Gillian Anderson (swoon!) eating chocolate. But I’ve recently had a number of challenging, if not altogether troubling interactions on social media. More than once, I have taken a break, and while I’m finishing a book, I’m hardly on Twitter at all. Sometimes it feels like a lot of noise. Sometimes I love noise, but other times I need to fill my ears with silence.

RB: Social media breaks are completely necessary; while it’s really helped me to keep in touch with people I wouldn’t see otherwise and bridged new connections, I’ve found there are other ways to build community as well. Speaking of community, what does community mean to you? How do you balance it with the solitary nature of writing?

EP: Community is conversation, whether that’s verbal, written, visual, or bodily conversation.

RB: Who are you reading now? What poets excite you?

EP:  I am trying to read more poetry in Spanish. Gabriela Mistral. Alejandra Pizarnik. This has been one of the best experiences of my reading life, my life in poetry, in part because it has totally transformed my sense of language, all language including English.

RB: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

EP: I am at an artists’ residency in Iceland right now where I’m finishing the first of two nonfiction books. The book is called Wound Revisions: Memoirs. It’s an episodic and lyrically fragmented series of memoir pieces that uses the wound revision, the type of reconstructive surgery performed to repair my face after melanoma, as a figuration for the way that memory troubles and revises trauma, even keeps it from scarring over completely. Poetry wise, I recently finished my fourth book manuscript.