Snapshot: Wayne Miller
Interview by John Deming
Your poems are full of still lifes that also seem to contain action or motion – still, dark rooms that wait to be lighted, tire tracks in snow that “leave the driveway.” How does the tension between pause and the perpetual passage of time inform your poetry?
The passage of time is an essential and unavoidable subject for poetry—at least on some level—since a poem itself must be experienced temporally for it to have its meaning(s). Without time, a poem’s just a collection of symbols organized in a certain shape on the page. It’s moving through those symbols in their order that lets us read the poem. Yet, when we’re done reading, the poem is exactly as it was when we started it—though it’s changed, and will continue to change upon further readings, for each of us personally. Thus, poems themselves—or at least our experiences of them—are both still and in motion.
I think what draws me repeatedly to the particular kinds of scenes you describe above is this sort of paradox—the stillness and motion concurrently at work in our apprehension of a poem and of the world. In this way I’m in agreement with Cleanth Brooks about the essentialness of paradox to poetry—though I didn’t know that until I read Cleanth Brooks, quite a while after I started writing poetry with any seriousness.
Your poems contain philosophical conceptions, but also carefully rendered images and sometimes, scenes; often as in “Walking Through the House with a Candle,” an “idea” is enacted in the action of the poem (“The bay window reflects my light / back into this shifting space, // of which I am for the moment / so indisputably the center.”). Is it difficult to create poems that contain ideas without letting the ideas overwhelm whatever else is being enacted in a poem?
What you describe is what I tend to like in many of the writers whose work I admire, so I’m flattered by your description of my work. Thank you.
I guess I’m not very interested in poems that operate as something close to pure philosophy—at that point, why not just read philosophy? But at the same time, poetry is a poor medium for conveying pure images—photography is much more effective. (And, while I’m at it, I’m not particularly interested in straight narrative poetry—which, unlike fiction, is so often grounded in the idea that an experience matters because it’s true in a narrow, literal way.)
What I often love most about poetry is its capacity to give the reader an image or a scene and, at the same time, allow the reader access to a mind at work interacting with (or inside) that image or scene. I guess I buy into the Rilkean notion that if you look hard enough at something it will give up some essential thing about itself. In many of the poems in The Book of Props, the speaker is seeking that sort of connection or experience with the world around him.
There is a light touch in these poems, an ear for measure reminiscent of poets like William Carlos Williams, H.D., and Robert Creeley. Could you describe your revision process, and in particular, how you negotiate line breaks?
I can’t say how much I appreciate being called “reminiscent of” Williams, H.D., and Creeley—thanks again.
I’m an obsessive reviser—I work on poems for weeks and months after I finish a first draft. The image I have when I think about revision is that of a slide puzzle—that little plastic toy with letters or images on little tiles that you can slide around until you get a word or picture or whatever. Sometimes you get a corner done, but then to get the whole puzzle finished you have to take that corner apart before you can put it back together again. When I’m revising, I feel like the poem in front of me is one of those slide puzzles. I keep shifting words and phrases around, changing a letter here, a line break there, until the whole thing finally feels set.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I also record myself reading my poems out loud: I record, walk away for a while, then come back and listen. Often the wrong word choice or the wrong piece of rhythm in the language immediately jumps out at me.
In terms of line breaks particularly, I like the idea that the line operates as an independent unit of thought—as does the stanza, as does, potentially, the poetic section, etc. And all these units cut across the thinking conveyed by the poem’s sentences. It’s these multiple units interacting with each other that give us much of a poem’s multiplicity and surprise, that allow a sentence as it unfolds to complicate itself across a line break.
I’m not sure, exactly. I don’t personally like sleeping all that much. I find it boring—I’d rather be up and about.
So maybe that’s it. I’m interested in the way sleep removes us from the sensory world—disconnects us from our thinking in time, and thus makes us vulnerable. It seems to me that we know ourselves best not when we turn inward but when we turn outward—when we interact with the world around us. From early on in my reading I was attracted to Georg Trakl’s “emotive landscapes” for this reason, and I like the Socratic notion that we don’t really know what we know until we put it into action—into language—in conversation with those around us. Sleep, in contrast, unlatches us from the world so that we swing, disconnected, beneath it—and that’s both a wonderfully calm and, at the same time, vulnerable place to be.
Do you tend to remember your dreams?
I had a wonderful poetry professor, Stuart Friebert, who insisted that his students keep dream diaries. Very quickly I remembered just about every dream I had. (I was amazed at how soon I had trained myself to hook my dreams as I was waking up and reel them into consciousness.)
But I also found that I wasn’t all that interested in writing about my dreams. They almost never seemed particularly interesting for me as material for poetry. Consequently, I haven’t kept a dream diary since I was in college. These days, I guess I remember my dreams just like anyone else—which is to say: sometimes.
In a short article in The Washington Post, you wrote that “Nude Asleep in the Tub” was on some level inspired by Pierre Bonnard’s paintings of his wife bathing. Could you describe the relationship between poetry and painting?
For me, some paintings—or photographs, for that matter, or simply spaces in the world—present an image that feels freighted in a way I don’t yet understand. Writing the poem is generally an attempt to figure out what “meaning” is buried there.
With those Bonnard paintings, my initial discovery was that looking at them made me feel like I was inside the bather’s thoughts in that contained space—of the painting, of the bathroom held inside it—which so effectively appeared to be filled with watery light. (Perhaps it was the light’s lambency that made the room feel like it reflected the flickering movements of thought.)
Later, I realized I felt similarly when I was in the room with my girlfriend while she was in the bathtub—and that strange spacial entanglement felt to be a particularly strong representation of domestic intimacy. But those paintings were moving and meaningful to me before I drew those later, more personal connections.
The Book of Props contains a section called “What Night Says to the Empty Boat (Notes for a Film in Verse).” Explain what you mean by “film in verse”; what drew you to the concept?
As I see it, that subtitle can be read one of two ways: “notes in verse for a film” or “notes for a film in verse.” I guess I like that both of those possibilities are there.
More than anything, in that sequence of 23 poems, I was trying to play with narrative while still writing poems that were clearly lyrics. I’d been trying to write some fiction and failing miserably, but the impulse toward narrative was still in me, and this project was an outgrowth of that. Also, my friend, Brian Barker, who’s a wonderful poet, had said to me one night that my poems always seemed to be about an individual sitting by himself just to the side of some sort of action—and he wondered if I could write poems in which people interacted with each other more directly.
Thus, the film conceit gave me a way to introduce many of the things I can’t stay away from in my poems—light, space, image, stillness—while still self-consciously writing poems that were more social than my previous work. And I also got to play with building a narrative through-line while writing lyrics that attended to image and scene. Perhaps, now that I look back on it, the film conceit was like a set of training wheels as I tried out new types of poems.
Was it important to tell a story, or to create characters whose stories are ambiguous, or are any person’s story? Do the characters’ names have any particular significance?
Yes, the desire to tell a story was important—and in my mind there’s a definite and complete narrative down there beneath the surface of these lyrics. (I think of the “notes for a film in verse” sequence as Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” enacted across lyric poems.)
Regarding the names: The two male characters—Clarence and Andy—are based very loosely on people I knew. I didn’t want either of them to feel particularly literary, so I gave them names that didn’t have famous antecedents in literature (at least that I could think of). In contrast, Justine—as the object of both Clarence’s and Andy’s affection—is intended to possess an aura of “specialness” that I thought I could intimate by giving her a literary name. “Justine” seemed a good choice, since my character Justine also strives to be virtuous, doesn’t manage to be wholly so, and is a touch naïve about the effect she has on the men around her. Those men, though, aren’t roguish, cruel, or unduly lascivious, so the reference to Sade is clearly there and, at the same time, a little ironic. (It also isn’t lost on me that “Justine” echoes my partner’s name—Jeanne—though I wasn’t consciously thinking about that when I wrote the poems.)
I’m from the Midwest—that is, if you consider Cincinnati the Midwest, which folks on the East Coast surely do and folks in Kansas City mostly don’t. I think that growing up in a city that’s been in decline more or less since the Civil War—with all the history and dilapidation that entails—informs my work in that I’m often drawn to a kind of decaying urban environment that Cincinnati has in spades.
But I also traveled a lot when I was growing up. Between the time I was in grade school and when I went to grad school my dad lived in Houston (Texas), Anchorage (Alaska), on Long Island, in D.C., and in Tampa (Florida)—and I visited him a lot. Also, when I was five my parents and I lived in Rome, Italy, for a year; most of my first memories, in fact, are in Rome.
So I’ve always had one foot planted in the Midwest and the other relatively unplanted. As such, I feel both at home and a little out of place in a sleepy Midwestern city such as Kansas City.
In the Post piece, you mention that you used to live in New York. Is this New York City? If so, could you describe any difference in the way that the Midwest informs your writing and the ways that New York City informed your writing?
I lived in Brooklyn between college (in Ohio) and graduate school (in Houston), during which time I worked as a paralegal in the Appeals Bureau of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. I also spent a lot of time in New York when I was growing up—my grandparents lived in Ridgewood, Queens, where we visited many summers, and later on, as I mentioned above, my dad lived out on Long Island, in Hampton Bays. To this day I feel very at home in New York.
But in my mind, much of what informs The Book of Props—the sense of dislocation that hovers beneath the book—has more to do, I think, with moving from big cities (New York and Houston) to the small, rural Missouri town of Warrensburg, where I teach. I felt absolutely derailed and isolated there, and I lasted for all of ten months before I moved into Kansas City and started commuting out to work.
Now that I live in KC—in relatively urbanized Midtown—I don’t think the things that spark my imagination are all that different from those that excited me when I lived in Brooklyn. While Kansas City surely isn’t New York, it still has more in common with New York than it does with rural Warrensburg, just fifty-five miles down the highway.
When did you first begin writing poems, and why?
I guess I started writing poems in high school. I had an outstanding English teacher who sometimes brought contemporary poetry into the classroom, and that showed me that poetry was a living, breathing art. Many of the poems (terrible poems!) I wrote in high school I wrote for the same reason lots of young people write poems: I was heartbroken and wanted to give dignity to that emotion.
When I went to college, I knew I wanted to go somewhere I could study creative writing, though I wasn’t sure what that would mean. I ended up at Oberlin College where I studied writing, history, and literature. My writing skills, coupled with a research project on the post-Soviet mafia, got me the paralegal job at the D.A.’s office, thus taking me to New York.
But, as far as I’m concerned, it was when I was in New York, working 9 to 5, that I first felt like I was maybe, just maybe, a poet. I didn’t have any assignments or classes to push me, and yet I was writing more than I ever had before. I was also reading a ton of poetry, and I felt like my work was developing on its own. It wasn’t long before I was looking to get away from a steady workweek schedule and go to grad school so I could have more time and space to write.
[This interview took place via e-mail in January 2010]
Wayne Miller is the author of two collections of poems, The Book of Props (Milkweed, 2009) and Only the Senses Sleep (New Issues, 2006), which received the William Rockhill Nelson Award. He is also translator of Moikom Zeqo’s I Don’t Believe in Ghosts (BOA Editions, 2007) and editor (with Kevin Prufer and 22 regional editors) of New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008). The recipient of the George Bogin Award, the Lucille Medwick Award (in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2009), and the Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, as well as a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and the Bess Hokin Prize from the Poetry Foundation, Miller lives in Kansas City and teaches as the University of Central Missouri, where he edits Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.