A Writer’s Insight: Anna Lena Phillips Bell

Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s poem, “To a Skirt, Somewhat Faded, of Thick Cotton Jersey, Made by J.Crew and Purchased at a Thrift Store” appears in the autumn 2021 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses the wonders of long titles, the slow vanishing of local thrift stores, and finding ways to be at home in the world.

Jake Zawlacki, Editorial Assistant: The title seems to be pushing back against the conventional wisdom of short and concise. Would you say you’re trying to work the title differently? And to what intended effect?

Short skirt, long title! But there are lots of good precedents, especially in poems that are odes, or written on a specific occasion. Looking back, for instance, I love Elizabeth Hands’ sly title “A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement Appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant-Maid.” In it she’s imagining what readers of her first book will say. It must have been so satisfying to write. And in this issue, too, there are Anna Journey’s two splendidly long-titled poems.

A title like this could, and maybe should, unspool even further—to include, in my skirt’s case, the garment workers who cut and sewed it, the farmers who grew the cotton, the oil from which the Spandex was made . . . 

JZ: I really enjoyed the negotiation between the skirt and the wearer. Do you view other clothing as needing particular negotiations?

ALPB: When I’m wearing anything it’s a negotiation between not just me and the clothing, but me, the clothing, how it makes me feel, and what it might project about me. A lot of that is about being read as gendered—about performing gender in ways that people approve of or disapprove of, that elicit more or less comfort in others. Inhabiting my body, and inhabiting gender, in ways that feel more comfortable to my own self: that is my goal every morning when I get dressed. To attire myself with agency, integrity, cheer. Some days it works better than others.

JZ: Is this piece in conversation with “Place Card”? If so, how?

ALPB: I hadn’t been thinking of them as a pair, but when Jessica took the two poems together, it showed me something about them that I hadn’t seen. Which surprised me, but was not surprising: she’s a brilliant editor, and far beyond the work of pairing poems. Her edits always help me make a poem better.

“Place Card” is for the participants in an interdisciplinary artist’s residency I attended a couple years back with ILSSA (Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts), a union for reflective creative practice founded and operated by artists Emily Larned and Bridget Elmer. One of the residents, artist and filmmaker Mari Jaye Blanchard, had hand-lettered place cards for each of us and set them out on the table. As we sat down for our first dinner together, I had the sudden, exhilarating feeling of being at home among a new group of people whose talents and ideas and selves met my own and contextualized them. In the poem I was trying to get into that experience. “To a Skirt” came earlier, and from a more solitary place, but it’s also about finding ways of being at home in the world. And both of the poems needed rhyme to make them go.

JZ: Do you go thrifting often? Have any regular haunts? (I’m always on the lookout). 

ALPB: Oh, favorite ever: Bud’s Antiques, where I went as a teenager with a good friend. I found a home-sewn cotton dress there with tiny vegetables and squirrels printed on it, which I loved. The stall in Bud’s that had all the good clothes is long gone. Maybe Bud’s too. My fear is that all the weird little thrift stores will be overtaken by Goodwill, where everything is jumbled together and loses its localness. Then there’s the bigger problem of fast fashion and textile waste. Even the big stores like Goodwill can’t handle the volume of clothing folks don’t want any more—the EPA has estimated that, in 2018, 14.5 million tons of textiles were either put into landfills or burned in the US. This is bad for all kinds of reasons, including the (maybe more selfish) one that it’s harder than it used to be to find a thrift store with good, interesting stuff.

Which is something I do love to find—for several years I avoided buying clothing new (other than socks and undergarments), and I still aspire to that. It’s both exciting and an irritation, the necessity of searching in inventive ways for clothes that will work well. I hope you have some good places where you are!

JZ: I really enjoyed the levity of this piece. What kind of value do you think levity has in poetry more broadly?

ALPB: Sometimes it’s the only way available to say something about something hard, or the best way. Caki Wilkinson and Amit Majmudar come to mind for this—their poems do such powerful, particular work, made more powerful by wit.

JZ: When you wrote this, did you have an intended takeaway or emotion for the reader?

ALPB: Really, I just wanted to figure out what I felt. Often my strategy is to distract my mind (with sound, meter, rhyme, constraints, or just the interest of syntax) so that I can say something needful, and maybe have a good time doing it. 

JZ: Would you say there’s a deeper current operating beneath the poem?

ALPB: Under the poem are the ways people who present as women are told, from very young, how we ought to look, dress, act. An article of clothing, ideally, is a co-conspirator in upheaving those received ideas, or embracing them, as needed. This skirt was.

JZ: What are you working on at the moment?

ALPB: I’m working on the manuscript these poems are part of, which includes poems about being in a body, like “To a Skirt,” as well as a series of object poems, like “Place Card,” and some little anagrammatic poems on terms of endearment.

I’m also working on a series of poems, essays, and artist books that talk with and try to support the plant world, titled BELEAVE. A group of poems from this project are made using various of the French repeating forms, which I love—rondeaux, rondelets, rondels prime. I’m thinking about plant communities affected by settler colonialism, global trade, and climate crisis; and thinking in particular about the plants I love, some cultivated and some that show up and spread on their own account. So many things bloom in the spaces in between where people control what grows. Where I live now, it’s little asters in early spring, goldenrod, ageratum, different little asters in fall. I want to be closer to all of them.

Anna Lena Phillips Bell is the author of Ornament, winner of the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry, and the chapbook Smaller Songs. She teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she is the editor of Ecotone. Her poem “Place Card” was written for the 2018 Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA) Group Residency and its participants.
Jake Zawlacki is an editorial assistant at The Southern Review and a current MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. He holds degrees from the University of San Diego and Stanford University and has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. His creative work investigates questions of mortality, connection, and meaning.
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