Absence, Presence: A Conversation with Maya Phillips

Maya Phillips was born and raised in New York. Maya received her MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and her BFA from Emerson College. Her poetry has appeared in At Length, BOAAT, The Gettysburg Review, Ghost Proposal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Vinyl, and more, and her arts & entertainment journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Vulture, Slate, Mashable, American Theatre, and more. Maya currently works at The New Yorker and as a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.


Beth McDermott: Congratulations on the publication of Erou.

Maya Phillips: Thank you so much.

BM: This is your debut collection, right?

MP: Yes, it’s super exciting.

BM: Very exciting. I really admire Four Way Books, so I think it’s going to be great, and I’ve already read it, so it is, in fact. [Laughs]

MP: [Laughs] Thanks so much.

BM: You write in a note on the title that Erou is “a tradition, a stock character…a fabrication based on a true story, but, most importantly, a name.” Why is it important to the collection that Erou be a name?

MP: I’m thinking about it in terms of Greek mythology, in particular a story like The Odyssey, where there’s so much emphasis on naming. Odysseus is journeying around, and he gives various names for himself. He takes on various identities and at some point he says, “I am no one” or “no man” depending on what translation you go to. And I was thinking about the link between that process of naming and identity and how people perceive you. In terms of family, especially, Odysseus even presents different names to Telemachus, his son. I was just thinking about that and understanding the story from that perspective. In this story I am positioning my father as a character, as this epic hero, and I am giving him a name so he will become more familiar to me, so I can understand him better. So that’s why I think naming was so important to me in this collection.

BM: You mention The Odyssey being a profound inspiration to the collection. The book opens and closes with passages from Lattimore’s translation. At the start of the book, the opening passage is an erasure in which you’ve bolded certain phrases, one of which is “his own country.” And then the closing passage includes the phrase “your own country.” I thought that was really interesting, how you opened and closed the collection with the repetition of the word “country,” and so I wondered if that was important, and/or if Lattimore’s translation and his usage of that phrase was particularly meaningful to you.

MP: I was thinking about “country” being synonymous with an idea of home. I do like that those passages act as bookends and that phrase shows on both sides because I definitely wanted to build this collection in a way that it feels circular, to close a loop while keeping that sense of progression, if that makes sense, from beginning to end.

BM: Yes, it does. So, in addition to being a poet, you’re a journalist. I was thinking about the opening poem, “Augury,” which works almost like a camera to create distance between an omniscient narrator and a scene with female characters. Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a journalist, particularly as a film and theater critic, and how that might have influenced your work with this collection?

MP: It’s really funny because I don’t really think of those things as overlapping much, but they clearly do. Certainly in terms of the way I think about diction and the way I think about syntax—that is consistent across whatever type of work I’m doing. In terms of the question of perspective and distance: I think I was very much conscious of that in the poem “Argo,” which is actually a broken sonnet; it has these couplets interrupting the sonnet, and those are spoken in the voice of a chorus, a traditional Greek chorus. And there are actually stage directions in that, too.

BM: Yes.

MP: That poem was very much influenced by my relationship to theater and my love of that and thinking about how to set up a scene, how to have the characters talk to each other and have a sense of dialogue. In that sense that poem is actually a monologue, but there are other poems in the collection where I think there is more of an awareness of characters speaking together as dialogue. I really enjoyed dipping into that element of theater as a person who loves theater and reviews it.

BM: I’m glad you pointed out the broken sonnet; that actually didn’t occur to me, but now I realize that it is broken, which is really cool. So, your collection interweaves poems about Erou with other poems. These “Erou” poems are interwoven with poems in other forms; sometimes they’re more narrative, and sometimes they’re about the speaker’s life, you might say. But the specific Erou poems—I’m really fascinated by their function. They’re short, they’re lyrical, often times they’re unpunctuated, and they seem to provide continuous music in the same way epithets did for Homer or anaphora might have for Whitman. How did you decide upon this form? Was it a conscious decision or just something that, as you were writing, just took shape?

MP: I actually had a loose idea of the Erou poem’s form very early on. I’m a person who does very well with structure. In the early stages of this project, I was thinking of ways I could compel my story forward. I was thinking maybe a long poem could perform that function. I don’t remember at what point I started dipping more into mythology—that’s been a consistent theme with me as long as I’ve been writing poems. But it then occurred to me that maybe I could have this as kind of an epic poem, but it took me a while to actually write it. I think I was kind of intimidated by the idea of stepping into this tradition and having it be this center part of the manuscript I was building. One day I just sat down and said let me just try to write this poem. It felt more like a fun exercise, and that’s where the sonic play came in, and the wordplay came in. It wasn’t as long as it eventually turned out to be—now it’s over twenty sections—but I just kept building on that. I built it up and it turned into a piece that I really felt confident placing in the manuscript and shaping my manuscript around.

BM: The collection would have been so much different, but you could have potentially kept that all together as a section of the book and then had a section of other poems, but instead you split them up and interwove them. Did you decide that pretty early on, or was that something later as the manuscript was going through the editing process?

MP: I originally envisioned it being split up but went back and forth and tried different ways. This book was largely written through my MFA program at Warren Wilson, and my thesis advisor, Gabby Calvovoressi, whom I adore, really helped me shape this and see the directions it could go. We talked a lot about that. I did like the idea of this drawn-out progression because I think if the poem existed in one piece at some point in the collection, it would feel clunky. I wanted to elicit a sense of walking along and becoming part of this character’s life and being a witness to that life as it unfolds and ultimately ends. And I like the fact that it’s spaced out because it gives the poem space to breathe, it gives the reader space for them to process what’s happening and get a fuller understanding of the character informed by these other poems, as well, and the character’s relationship to his family and anyone else who pops up. It also helps that you don’t get fatigued by the poem, especially with all the wordplay, especially with the repetition “Erou,” “Erou,” over and over again. It feels like a breath of fresh air, or I’m hoping it does, when you encounter those poems again.

BM: It does, and I think what I was experiencing in terms of its musicality, absolutely. I think what you’re saying about each section of the Erou poem being a kind of breath is like the way maybe breath functions in music. It does work really well the way you have it broken up.

MP: Great.

BM: Persephone is also important to this book. I wonder about her role in relation to Erou, or Hades, or even the speaker’s father. She strikes me as symbolic of a contrast between excess and hunger. I wondered if you could talk a little about that contrast, if it’s one based on power? If Persephone is hungry or restricted at times because she has no choice in the matter? I was wondering if you could talk a little about her.

MP: When I was thinking about the book, obviously the central character is a male figure; that’s just how a lot of these myths that I use as a framework function. You have Jason, you have Aeneas, you have Odysseus. But what really interested me in telling the story of my family is the dynamic between my parents. This is not a strict one-to-one kind of analogy, obviously, but Hades and Persephone became a bit of an obsession while writing this. You’re totally right that Persephone became the focus—her relationship to her marriage. There is obviously a feeling of entrapment and being boxed off, and there’s obviously the literal interpretation of what happens to her in the myth when she’s stolen away. But what really interests me is the emotional and sexual or intimate dimension of that. And how complex it becomes when you’re thinking about a marriage and two lives being entwined and that moment when you’re realizing that you may be trapped in a situation that is not your vision of what it should be. I think those poems bring that dimension, and the gender dynamics behind that dimension, into the collection.

BM: So that phrase you just used—two lives being entwined—and the emphasis in some of the poems on the individual’s body, especially in terms of its health and wellbeing. How important is the individual physical body, especially Erou’s body, to the collection?

MP: There’s certainly a focus on the body and there are various incarnations of the father’s body, Erou’s body. That shows up in thinking about the house as a body—that comes up a lot. But I would like to think that it is not super literal in that sense, that the body has to be a physical human body or has to be some kind of structural body like the house because there are also poems in which my father, Erou, is present as an incorporeal force. The “Poem Ending with a Scene of a Woman Alone” is all about the idea of absence; what I was thinking about was the idea that there is not necessarily a ghost (although my father does kind of appear as a ghost character throughout), but more so the idea that there is something beyond the body, that there is an understanding of him as an absence. Even in his absence there is a space there that is still present. You can use someone’s absence to recreate them. I think that is the part where mythologizing comes in for me. He was a figure in life who was absent, and obviously he is literally absent now, being passed. But from that absence I have been able to recreate him as this character.

BM: The idea of using someone’s absence to recreate them is really profound. I’m thinking of the poem “Say,” where it seems to do exactly that and create presence from absence.

MP: Yeah.

BM: I’m thinking of a line from William Carlos Williams—I think it’s the poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”—he talks about getting the news from poems. Your poem called “Dido” ends: “She thins like a tree in the winter. // Somewhere a woman is dying from this.” In the context of the collection, I interpret “this” as forgetting oneself. I wondered if that forgetting has contemporary relevance in this day and age to the point where you might consider “somewhere a woman is dying from this” newsworthy information or news that someone could benefit from hearing?

MP: I think that poem has moments where, when I writing it, I was thinking about it in a broader sense, maybe a more contemporary worldy sense; I was thinking about the myth of Dido—Aeneas’s lover, the queen who killed herself, on his sword, on a giant pyre, after he left her—but one of the previous incarnations of the poem had as its title “Sati: Dido.” And “Sati” is an old Indian practice when widows would commit suicide by throwing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres, in brief. That’s a very dramatic example, and I certainly didn’t want to feel like I was appropriating that term or that history. But I was reaching toward a gender dynamic that I was also playing with in the Hades and Persephone poems, and I was thinking about how society will see women in the context of their relationships with men and how women are expected to act or react when a relationship goes sour or ends. And, obviously, different cultures, different religions, different practices take that different ways. Some of them are a little more conservative, in that women aren’t supposed to have much of a life outside of or beyond that relationship.

BM: I know we already talked about the Erou poems, but it might be the part of your book that I admire most, although I admire it in many ways. But the phrase “Erou of” in relation to a typical subject/verb construction—why is it so important that Erou be “of” things or “of” places rather than using the phrase “Erou is” or “Erou goes”?

MP: Wow, that’s an interesting question; I like that. That construction more so came out of the epics and all of the epithets that come up frequently when you read myth, like Hector, tamer of horses. I was thinking about the fact that in writing Erou I am creating an origin story for my father. He is not present in the traditional sense. I can’t say, necessarily, that “Erou is.” But I can create him within the context of this book. That’s why there’s that preposition. That’s why he is an of. I have that poem “And/Or,” and the very premise of that poem is me playing with the idea of my father being present and absent at the same time. So to quite simply place him in the present and have him positioned with “Erou is” would take some of nuance out of the weird kind of existence that he has here.

BM: That’s really interesting because what you’re doing is—for me, anyways—you’re aligning the collection syntactically with The Odyssey, but then the content feels germane to The Odyssey as well… I guess the point I’m trying to make is that your collection’s relationship to The Odyssey or Greek mythology feels necessary, perhaps because you’re examining essential characteristics of heroes that also affect us on a personal or familial level, not always for the better. Would you envision this collection maybe working in the classroom? Is this something that a high school teacher or undergrad teacher/instructor could have students read in order to get at some of these myths, or to recast The Odyssey in a newer, more modern and obviously more personalized way?

MP: I don’t think I’ve really thought about that, but I think that would be delightful for me to experience as the writer, as the author of this, and as a lover of the classics and Greek mythology. Certainly writing this collection has given me access to those classics in a new way. I’ve loved them from the time I was a kid, but to re-imagine Odysseus—now Odysseus feels a little more personal to me. Now Telemachus feels closer to me. It’s kind of like I have a certain degree of ownership of these characters now, and of this story; I’ve made it my own. I imagine other writers working with myth—I imagine maybe Anne Carson feels the same way, especially with her work through translation or Autobiography of Red. To just think that there’s this whole tradition that still exists and these stories are studied and will continue to be studied forever, but that I kind of have a way to step into that history, in my own real small way, very small step.

BM: Absolutely. Well, I think you’ve done it very well. It’s a beautiful collection, and I look forward to the official release of it, and congratulations again.

MP: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

Author photo courtesy of Molly Walsh.



Beth McDermott

Beth McDermott is a writer in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Her chapbook, 'How to Leave a Farmhouse,' was published by Porkbelly Press. Recent poetry, reviews, and criticism appear in Kenyon Review Online, Tupelo Quarterly, RHINO Reviews, and The Trumpeter. Poetry from her new manuscript, 'If You Say So,' is forthcoming in Jet Fuel Review. She's an Assistant Professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL.

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