Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and two chapbooks. Her poems appear in Agni, Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. She's received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, U.S. Poets in Mexico, and Vermont Studio Center. She is the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, the prose editor of 32 Poems, and a staff member of the Sewanee Writers' Conference.
READING OVID AT THE PLASTIC SURGEON'S
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
to see what it was I was.
No one else with a book, the slick
weeklies gossip amongst
themselves on the side
tables as the ticker rolls the Dow
Jones down down down under
a profile of the marathon
bombers (the older, a boxer). Jove
argues for the removal of a race
of peoples that do not please
him: What is past
remedy calls for the surgeon’s
knife. They will take a hunk of my
cheek (cancer) & though I can’t
see during the procedure, I imagine
the site as an apricot, bitten.
This is a survival mechanism —
romanticism. David says,
If you’re out
in public & you don’t want anyone
to talk to you, bring a book
of poetry. Even as I enter the confidence
of the room, I avoid my reflection
in the window, for there, most
of all, I see myself as only I can,
as only the eye will have me —
as light, as light alone.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I started the poem in June 2013, the same week I had the minor surgery referenced in the poem. While I was in the waiting room, the fraught juxtapositions (patients of cosmetic surgery with the marathon bombers with the rage of Jove with my own cancer) sent up a flare of meaningfulness. The first notes for the poem began with the line from the Metamorphoses. The first draft was only six or seven lines.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Two, and that's a rarity. I let the six or seven lines sit for a month. In July, I opened a new Word document and wrote the rest of the poem in one go.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
"Inspiration" is a tricky word because it harbors mysticism, as if something external breathes an idea into us.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The poem began in a single stanza and then moved into couplets.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Well, other than the fact that it was written in so few drafts, no.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
This poem didn't sit for very long. In fact, I sent it off later in July and Don Share accepted it within a couple of days.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Did I look at my reflection in the window? I'm not sure. It was a cloudy day and I looked out at some landscapers while I waited on the surgeon. I believe I invented that whole part about looking at my reflection in the window. But who knows?
The poem does leave out another incident that happened that day that I wrote into another poem I eventually scrapped. He injected lidocaine into my cheek and began to cut, but I could feel everything! He had to do two more injections before my face went numb. My mouth could barely move and yet he kept on talking to me. He asked me what subject I taught. I tried to say "poetry" but couldn't sound the "p" or "t." He couldn't understand me. I kept trying. Finally, when he understood, he burst out laughing, scalpel next to my cheek. Then he realized I was serious. "Oh," he said, "I didn't know anyone taught that anymore."
Is this a narrative poem?
It's narrative in the sense that there's a clear dramatic situation and there's a progression of moving from the waiting room to the exam room, but I think the poem's rooted in lyricism in that it shows how the mind works to create associations and reflects on oneself.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Besides Ovid? Otherwise, I don’t recall what I was reading.
David Wojahn is the “David” in the poem.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Myself. (Is that navel gazing?) I guess I best know how I read and therefore try to address my own concerns and hope that appeals to others.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
It depends on how confident I am about any given poem. I tend to share things around when I feel less sure about the moves I'm making. I have several friends who are prompt and decisive readers with whom I share drafts. This poem wasn't shared until it was accepted for publication.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don't often write poems that overtly begin out of a reading experience. It's a subject that I fear others find boring, but this one seemed so charged because of its context that I couldn't help but write it.
What is American about this poem?
Boob jobs, CNN, and a sample of a population that doesn't read? I doubt I would have this exact experience elsewhere.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I've always had difficulty with this distinction. I felt that I was done with the poem. Is that finishing it or abandoning it?