Pride and Poetry, According to Emilia Phillips

Posted on June 25, 2024

Person stands at a podium with a mic in a bookstore and addresses a seated crowd.
Emilia Phillips at their book reading for "Nonbinary Bird of Paradise" at Scuppernong Books.

On a dreary Thursday night in February, a group gathered at Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro for a reading of a new collection of poetry by Emilia Phillips. Phillips had just released their fifth collection of poetry, entitled “Nonbinary Bird of Paradise,” but this was no typical book reading.  

Phillips gathered UNCG students and alumni to read original works and selected text that inspired their latest poems. All in attendance raved about how the reading was a celebration of voices and art and the flow of inspiration. For Phillips, all of this is intertwined.  

An Artist Spreads Their Wings  

A UNCG professor since 2017, Phillips is an associate professor of creative writing where they teach poetry workshops and serve as core poetry faculty for the Masters of Fine Art in Creative Writing. Phillips also has cross-appointments in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and English departments teaching the Queer Poetry and Poetics class and the Women’s Health and Bodies class to undergraduates.  

Being a poet, a teacher, and a voice for the LGBTQIA+ community is all part of the creative process for Phillips. “I can’t teach poetry unless I’m writing it and vice versa,” she says. “My constant dialogue with students informs my work.”  

Book cover for Nonbinary Bird of Paradise with an illustration of birds nesting with flowers and a snake striking from inside the nest.

“Nonbinary Bird of Paradise” is a prime example of Phillips’ exploratory style of poetry, but this latest collection focuses on gender and the ways cultural, religious and mythological narratives support heterosexuality as “the norm”. 

In “Nonbinary Bird of Paradise,” Phillips’ challenge of compulsory heterosexuality cuts right to the chase. The first section includes twelve poems in the voice of Eve from the Bible. It imagines if Eve wasn’t born straight and was never desiring of Adam but had no other choices of partners. 

“My writing is definitely informed by my own worldview, experience, gender journey and sexuality,” says Phillips, who was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “I couldn’t have written the Eve sequence without getting to a certain point of my own reflections and self-work, but I was nervous when the book came out because it does deal so explicitly with sex and gender and sexuality.”  

The poem that inspired the book’s title is also extremely personal. “It’s a love poem for my partner,” Phillips explains. “I imagined if I was a bird of paradise, how would I woo my partner without the fancy plumage.”  

Phillips admits that most of their poetry is part autobiographical and part creative, but its fiction label opens doors for creative freedom, a principle they encourage in the classroom as well.   

Birds of a Feather Writing Together 

Phillips’ classes provide a safe space for building art and students appreciate the sense of community they find at UNCG’s English department. 

“Emilia prioritizes community not only in the classroom but outside of it too,” second-year MFA student Liz Bruce explains. “We are constantly sharing resources and opportunities and celebrating each other.” 

Student stands at a podium and reads for a group at a book store.
Kay Zeiss read an original poem at the “Nonbinary Bird of Paradise” book reading.

Recent MFA graduate Kay Zeiss is a private practice therapist working with adults who have experienced trauma. They are particularly dialed into using writing to process trauma. Self-identifying as genderqueer and nonbinary, Zeiss was particularly interested in working under Phillips’ mentorship and thrived in the department. 

“My goal isn’t to become this famous writer,” Zeiss confesses. “I just hope my writing can be of service to someone. Folks are really interested in being able to articulate their experience and find language for something that they didn’t have before. There’s a community and compassion there that I want to help facilitate.” 

Attracting creative minds like this to UNCG is exactly what Phillips had in mind when they joined the English department in 2017. Establishing a close-knit community within a larger campus community, which serves minorities and has historically been a safe place for LGBTQIA+ youth, provided the perfect environment for Phillips’ poetry to take root. 

“Having representation in the classroom and also having representation in my work out in the world is very important to me,” Phillips says. 

Artistic Reflections  

This high regard for representation and community made it natural for Phillips to invite students to share inspirational text at their book reading. “My students are among the most important people in my life,” they said. “Including them made it really festive.”  

“I’ve been to multiple readings at Scuppernong and this one was definitely different in that there was a huge crowd of people there to celebrate,” said Bruce, who read “[Poem about Naomi; unsent]” by Rachel Mennies at Phillips’ book reading. 

Zeiss read an original poem publicly for the first time at Phillips’ reading. “Hymnal to Transqueer Futures” reflects on grief following the death of Nex Benedict and ponders hope for the future of nonbinary and transqueer children. Zeiss dedicated it to Maddie Poole, another writer in attendance.  “I was so honored to be a part of this group,” they said. “It was very tender and sweet to have other people in the MFA program that I care about in this line-up of incredible poets. Reading my poem felt like an offering to the community.”  

Student stands at a poem and reads to a group at Scuppernong Books.
Liz Bruce reads a poem at Emilia Phillip’s book reading.

Bruce, and others who participated in the event, felt similarly grateful to be a part of Phillips’ unveiling of “Nonbinary Bird of Paradise.” 

“Because of Emilia’s decision to platform multiple voices and multiple authors, they recognize that writing isn’t created in a vacuum,” Bruce says. “It was a celebration of the community as much as the book, because the community influenced the making of the book in so many ways.” 

UNCG has nothing but pride for communities like Emilia Phillips’ that bring art into the world to spur curiosity and impart understanding. We celebrate this during Pride month, as we do throughout the year. 

Story by Becky Deakins, University Communications. 
Photography courtesy of Felipe Troncoso 

A woman sits outside writing in a journal.

Find Your Poetic Justice.


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