Pretty the Ugly: An interview with Jillian M. Phillips

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the phenomenal Jillian M. Phillips about her latest publication success, her poetry collection Pretty the Ugly. 

Michael William Prince: First off, congratulations on this wonderful accomplishment. The book is fantastic. You should be very proud of yourself.

Jillian M. Phillips: Thank you. And thank you for your continued support of my work through Cellar Door.

MWP: It is always our pleasure. Could you speak to us on how you chose “Pretty the Ugly” as the title poem? Do you feel like it properly encapsulates the entire collection or was there another idea behind the choice?

JMP: Honestly, when I wrote that poem, I was really frustrated with the process of accessing the ghosts and trying to use them as fuel for my poetry. It was my attempt to suss out how it works and why it was such an attractive ideal to utilize the dark places and bring light into them. When I finished it, I realized that it described everything I was trying to accomplish with the other poems in the collection. Every poem was my way of trying to deal with what I find unattractive in myself, the world, and (yes) other people. I was trying to take “ugly” or “dark” things and make them into “art.” I was, quite literally, trying to pretty them up.

MWP: Excellent. Could you clarify the part of the process called "accessing the ghosts"? It sounds fascinating and I believe all of us can be inspired by each other's processes.

JMP: It is basically the process of figuring out what/who haunts me and creating a dialogue with them in my head. What do I want to say to them? Why are they still there? How to address the void without falling into one.

MWP: Really an excellent way to go about it! What amount of time do these poems span in your body of work?

JMP: These poems took a little over a year to write. I did an undergraduate project in the Fall of 2011 in which I interviewed women of my university and wrote poems based on their experiences, creating a poetic narrative for them.(A few of those poems are in the final section of the collection.) I became very inspired by their stories and realized that I really wanted to explore more feminist topics in my poetry, as well as address my own stories, the ones I had trouble making sense of. While interviewing those women, I was taken with their willingness to be so candid. I wanted to be like that in my poetry.  

MWP: Well I feel like you've accomplished it beautifully.Your poems speak volumes about the human experience. Do you see poetry as more a tool for self discovery? As an expression of things you have discovered in other ways? Both? What else?

JMP: I think it can be both. I see poetry as a way to comment on your view of the world. There is a lot of emphasis on the separation between “the poet” and “the speaker” but I think that, at the heart of every poem, the poet is always speaking. That isn’t to say the poet is always the character in the poem. I’ve written poems in which I take on the persona of someone else, but I am always the one choosing the words, the diction, the structure of the poem. No matter who the speaker is, the poet still controls what they are saying.

That said, I think poetry is a fantastic vehicle for self-discovery. For instance, many of the poems in Pretty the Ugly were my way of figuring out how I felt about certain things in my past. I knew there were things that haunted me, but it was only in writing about them was I able to figure out what it was about them that made them stay. Nevertheless, I sometimes I had to pretend to be someone else, use a different speaker, in order to say what I needed to. I was basically playing Cyrano de Bergerac with my poetry: “Here’s what I need to say, but I need you to say it for me.”

MWP: I know that you are also a mother, an academic, and an actress among other things. What is your strategy for establishing and/or stealing time to write?

JMP: I really want to be one of those writers that wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and writes for two hours before getting everyone off to school, or shuts off all communication after dinner to cloister themselves in their office until they’ve written a certain amount of pages. I’ve tried. It’s just not me. To be honest, there are months when I can’t write anything beyond a grocery list. I write in fits and starts, I always have. I have somehow developed the ability to become practically deaf when I need to write something. I can be in my office, a crowded cafe, even the McDonald’s Playland. If I have a poem in my head, I can write no matter what’s going on. For me, it really isn’t a matter of finding time to write, just finding something that needs to be written. Even if I was one those structured writers, and believe me I have tried, those hours at the desk with nothing coming out would be torture. This way, I can torture myself, but get other things done in the meantime.

MWP: Who are your influences? Are there both classic as well as contemporary poets that you call upon? Inspirations from other mediums?

JMP: I’ve always been inspired by music, movies, and art. To be honest, I started seriously writing poetry when I was about 14 because of John Singleton’s film, Poetic Justice. In the summers, I would watch it every night and just write the whole time. Maya Angelou is the poet that taught me that poetry doesn't have to rhyme, and she did it with that movie. I also did a lot of writing to Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, etc. I still do sometimes. I also love finding paintings that make me stare at them, like “Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida” by Ivan Albright. I saw it at the Art Institute of Chicago and it haunted me for a year and a half before I finally sat down to write about it. I love that.

Of course, I always to turn most often to poets, sometimes for education, other times for inspiration, even for courage. As cliche as it may sound, I have to give props to Sylvia Plath. If it weren't for her and Anne Sexton, I wouldn't have known how to even approach some the poems in this collections. I think their tragedy and popularity cause them to be underrated sometimes, but I know I can always turn to them when I just need some angry-girl-time. I also turn to Adrienne Rich, Jan Beatty, and, most recently, Matthea Harvey. I love how all of them access their past in order to create art that speaks to me as a person as well as a poet. Matthea Harvey, especially, has this insane ability to use structure and ekphrasis simultaneously to create amazing personal poems. I can’t even explain it. Her poem, “Triptych”, is the perfect example of what I’m trying to say.

I also love anthologies, especially Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics, edited by Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, edited by Stacy Lynn Brown and Oliver de la Paz. Both are incredibly diverse and inspiring. Of course I love other poets. I have almost two hundred poetry collections. I’ve only listed the ones I can think of right now. 

MWP: Your poetry flows so beautifully and the imagery is so stunning. What is the best advice you can give to those intimidated by the art of poetry? In both writing it and appreciating it?

JMP: I truly believe that anyone interested in literature, anyone who enjoys reading, can find a poet they love. It just takes time, patience, and a great library. Some people want structure, classic lines, a bit of history (see Shakespeare, Wordsworth, pretty much anyone pre-1900 in my opinion); others want poetry that’s easy to see in the mind and doesn't over-complicate what it’s trying to say (Billy Collins, Philip Levine, Robert Frost). Honestly, there’s poetry I don’t get either. I was once reading a very well-regarded lit journal that contained a poem that included the line, “My brain is like a microwave burrito,” and that was most comprehensive part of the poem. The rest was beyond me. You just have to keep trying until you find an aesthetic that you enjoy.

As for writing poetry, you just have to keep trying. Find poets you like and try to emulate what it is you love about them until you develop a confidence in your own voice. Don’t get discouraged if you write a crappy poem. Everyone writes crappy poems. The only reason you don’t think they do is that they don’t try to publish them. Want proof you need to keep trying? The first serious poem I wrote was in wood shop. It was called, “My Wooden Heart”. It was about my crush, and how “my wooden heart/ has yet to start” because he didn’t like me back. Every line rhymed. It was bad. I kept writing. I still have it. It’s awesome its catastrophic awfulness. 

MWP: Saving it for one of our legendary Sigma Tau Delta Bad Poetry contests perhaps? What are you working on now?

JMP: Last year, there was a documentary on PBS about the Big Apple Circus. I was incredibly inspired by it, so I’m working on a novel-in-verse about a boy who uses the circus to re-figure his reality into something he can deal with. He recasts the people in life as circus performers in order to deal with the bad things in his life. It’s slow-going. It may end up that pet project that I come to year after year, work on for a bit, and then step away. Other than that, I’m just trying to make sure I write stuff in general, be it a book review, an essay, whatever. I really want to be one of those people that maintains an interesting blog. I’ve tried three times. I don’t think it’s going to happen. In the meantime, I try to write things for other people’s blogs.

MWP: Well on behalf of one of those blogs, I thank you mightily. Is there anything else you would like to address for our readership?

JMP: Write what scares you, bothers you, pisses you off, makes you happy. Write about anything that sticks in your craw, haunts you, crawls into bed with you. And please keep reading whatever speaks to you, sings to you. Keep exploring what’s hidden in the dark corners or kept on the high shelves. And take a nap from time to time. These are the things that keep me going.

MWP: Excellent. Thank you so much Jillian!

Jillian M. Phillips' collection, Pretty the Ugly is available now on Amazon. Make sure to get yourself a copy! We will also be having a contest right here on the blog in the next week to win a free copy so be sure and stay tuned!

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