Emilia Phillips received her MFA in poetry from Virginia Commonwealth University where she was the 2011–2012 Levis Fellow. She is an associate literary editor for Blackbird and the recipient of a fellowship from Vermont Studio Center. Her poetry has also appeared in or is forthcoming from AGNI, Birmingham Poetry Review, Colorado Review, Ecotone,Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, The Kenyon Review, Sycamore Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Her recently completed manuscript is Signaletics.
Her poem “Bestiarium Exterminii” appears in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.
Here, Emilia Phillips talks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about eating buttons, nests, and classifications.
1. Could you please talk about how this poem came to be? Did you go looking for the sub-titles, or did you stumble upon them as you went about your days?
Each section was conceived initially as its own poem or lyric fragment. I wrote what became the fourth section, the veterinary log about a mare with the eating disorder pica, first. I had been reading about the disorder among humans—a woman who ingested hundreds of nails, buttons, and coins, for example—and also time indulging in a memory: a small farm that my father watched after when the owner was out of town. The owner was a police officer who took in retired police horses: all black geldings. Though there were no mares among them, the farm became a landscape that I could populate with the imagined narrative, a crossroads between the personal and the external.
The second horse poem (section VIII) came next. I always saw these poems as sister poems, as foils. The horse’s willful ingestion in the first countered the forced ingestion in the other. It just made sense that they would have some adjacency. The other sections were written over the period of a year and all of them seemed to expand or subvert the speakers’ stances in the horse poems. Once I realized I had all of these poems that were speaking to one another, I began to see the poems as one project.
I didn’t, however, want to lump them together—throw them on the ark—just because they were “animal” poems; rather, I wanted them to reckon with our expectations of these animals, how we imbue them with meaning or personality. In the course of working on these poems and the other poems in the chapbook manuscript that “Bestiarium Exterminii” appears in, I read classical and medieval bestiaries as well as accounts of animals in war.
Because we’re so interested as humans with classification and names (I’m hearing Dylan: Man gave names to all the animals…), I wanted each section to have a label, a placard, as if each poem (the form) was a cage within a curio zoo. Some of the section titles are straight description: species, place, time, action described. Others, like “Myotis leucopterus, Iran, 2011 (bloodsport)” begin to erode the poem’s conventions of naming. Myotis leucopterus is not a species. I took “Myotis” from a family of mouse-eared bats and “leucopterus” from several species of white-winged birds as well as the chinch bug. It made sense that the species name would allude to both the color of the aircraft—white—but also the pest-like nature of the American drones. It was all luck and amateur research.
2. In all of these poems, I was struck with how the forms shifted so starkly between the different sections. How did you decide which form went where, and how to do you think it affects the way that the poems are read (either in cadence or in emotional movement)?
I view “Bestiarium Exterminii” as a sequence that’s nesting in a sectioned poem. There are all these hatched eggs but only one mother bird feeding them. That said, each section needed a different kind of habitat, not to get too metaphorical. You’ll notice that the largest animals are in prose, the smaller animals have smaller forms, the dog in the first section has a very one-on-one relationship to the human figure (couplets), the drone has a kind of unidentifiable shape, and the human vivisection looks like a cross-section to me, a half that could be mirrored to create a whole.
That said, I didn’t really think about all of this until the poem was finished. I formed the poems based on their cadences, the delivery of information. But isn’t it funny how if we listen to the poem it tells us what it needs?
Like many animals, poetry has become a “living” tool for humans, a domesticated species of language, and, as poets: our beast of burden.
(This time, cue the Stones…)
3. These poems feel, to me, like looking through a small window into a diorama, within these dioramas the characters (that is, the animals, sometimes people) are paused in an important moment. Could you please comment on these figures in your poems? How do you think a figure so briefly touched upon in a poem can work?
At an antique store in Vermont, I stumbled upon a 1930s boxed game titled The Jolly Jungleers: A Novel Shooting Game. The original game included six half-foot-high animal lithographs on wooden stands. To play, each contestant fires wooden pegs from a spring-loaded pistol at the animals. Whoever knocks over the most, wins. It would be a relatively appropriate metaphor of big-game hunting for children, if there is such a thing, except that all the animals are personified, dressed in formal attire. President Elephant Hoover. Chimp D. Rockefeller. The incomplete set I purchased only has the wooden pegs and four of the figures: a giraffe in a striped smoking jacket and monocle, a lion in military dress, a polar bear in a pink muumuu, and a tiger in a blue tuxedo.
Why buy an incomplete board game? I can’t play it. It’s in the box on a shelf right now. There is a kind of fetishist novelty in owning such a strange item, of course, but on my own, it has no explicit use. I need someone with a spring-loaded pistol, a mechanism that lends importance and meaning to the figures.
A poem like “Bestiarium Exterminii” is like this incomplete set of The Jolly Jungleers in that I can only provide the figures that I have, dressed to the tens, colorful and imaginative, but I can’t provide the spring-loaded pistol, the action part of the game. It’s up to the reader to bring that to the table, to arrive spring-loaded, to engage with the poem, to knock down the stilled figures as I’ve presented them and therefore create consequence.
I don’t necessarily feel that the figures in the sections are touched upon any more briefly than an ordinary figure in any one poem. But because they are all dressed up and in a box together, we start looking at each figure as it belongs to the set. We start asking questions. Why is the polar bear the only female in the group? Why does the giraffe have a monocle? Where are the elephant and the chimpanzee? Were they the child’s favorite and therefore loved to ruin?
If a reader engages with the poem in this way, with questions and imaginative answers, then I say the poem is successful. That’s what all successful poems do: provide a catalyst for the reader’s own reckonings.
4. What’s on your summer reading list?
Sometimes I indulge in my fascination with outdated science and pseudo-science. Right now I’m working my way through the Hippocratic Writings and a 1924 medical book titled Dislocations and Joint-Fractures by Frederic J. Cotton. I find these types of texts to be wellsprings of metaphors for making. Just look at this line from “On Fractures” by Hippocrates: “In dislocations and fractures, the practitioner must make extensions in as straight a line as possible, for this is most conformable with nature.” If that’s not ars poetica, I don’t know what is!
Otherwise, I’m jumping around in Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, William Gay, Virgil, Othello, Michel de Montagne, Hippocrates, Ovid, John Berryman, Lynda Hull, Ruth Stone, Vasko Popa, and several books for review.
5. What other writings have you been working on recently?
I recently tightened the bolts on my first manuscript, Signaletics, titled after a late-19th century system of anthropometrical criminal identification. (Again, the weird semi-sciences, I love.) Also, I’ve put together a chapbook manuscript called Bestiary of Gall in which “Bestiarium Exterminii” is the main sequence. After resolving these two projects, I am slowly turning to work on new poems including a sequence titled “Heaven and Men and Devils” after a quote by the character Emilia in Othello, book reviews, and a couple lyric essays.