Interview With a Poet: Wayne Miller
I was one of the last people to arrive for Wayne Miller’s morning presentation at last month’s South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood. He hadn’t started reading yet, and looking back, I’m glad I didn’t miss a minute of his presentation. His poems live well on the page, but as is so often the case, hearing the poet read his own work adds a dimension of emotion that otherwise does not resonate.
After his reading in Deadwood, Miller asked me if I knew where he could get a good breakfast in Deadwood. But being not so familiar with the town, I couldn’t give him any advice. Later, I overheard him telling another one of the festival poets how dreadful his hotel breakfast was. Sorry, Wayne. Deadwood’s just not a real breakfasty sort of place.
Had I read Miller’s “The Book of Props,” though, I would have tried much harder to make sure he got a decent meal. Anyway, Miller’s bio:
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.
AFTER LONG BUSYNESS: Who do you consider to be the biggest influences on your poetry?
WAYNE MILLER: Like most writers, I’m pretty much continually reading, and what I read affects what I write. Which is to say that, at different moments in my writing life, different poets have been important to me.
The first poet whose work I really fell in love with—back in what I believe was my sophomore year of college—was James Wright. I’d read poetry before; in fact, I’d had an excellent high school teacher in Cincinnati who’d brought contemporary poetry into the classroom, and I owned a copy of Leaves of Grass. My dad was an English professor, and I remember flipping around in his collected William Carlos Williams when I visited him.
But James Wright opened up doors for me. He was writing about Ohio, where I was from, in ways that made the Midwestern landscape feel charged with poetic possibility. And his work was deeply affected by contact with the works of non-American poets such as Lorca, Vallejo, Rilke and Trakl—something that, ironically, allowed him to write more directly and effectively about the American landscape.
Partially inspired by Wright, and aided by the fact that I attended Oberlin College, where all the poetry professors were also translators, I found myself very early on reading non-English language poets in translation—and it was then that I first discovered Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work (though I still can only read it in translation) has been perhaps the most enduringly important to me of any poet’s.
The other poet I go back to more than any other is Wallace Stevens, whose sense of music and rhythm is extraordinary and who, like Rilke, is interested in (among other things) the phenomenological complications of our experience of the physical world.
At this point, I feel compelled to list off the names of all the other poets I admire—whose work I go back to at least semi-regularly. But rather than miss folks and feel guilty later, perhaps I should end my answer there.
ALB: How much revision do your poems usually go through?
WM: I know some poets whose first drafts emerge pretty close to the poems’ finished versions, but I’m definitely not one of them. When my first book, Only the Senses Sleep, came out, a student of mine asked how much I’d had to revise the poems in it, so I went back through my drafts and looked at when the poems began, when I published them in magazines, and when they arrived at their final, in-the-book versions (which sometimes included significant revision after magazine publication). There wasn’t one poem in the book I’d worked on for less than six months—and many of them I’d worked on for several years.
Of course, that was also my first book. In the room of every new poem, I find myself stumbling around in the dark, but in those early poems the rooms were often pitch black. I’m a more experienced poet now, and though I still do quite a lot of revision, it’s somewhat more rare that my poems need the truly radical revisions that my earlier poems often did. These days I tend to spend several months off-and-on-again revising.
ALB: Your most recent collection, “The Book of Props,” has a sequence of 23 poems called “What the Night Says to the Empty Boat (Notes for a Film in Verse),” which sketches out a screenplay for a film. How did you arrive at the idea of using a screenplay as a device to frame your poems?
WM: “What Night Says to the Empty Boat” began with a couple drafty lyric poems that were failing because they were too sentimental and/or could too easily be read as autobiographical. In each of them, I found myself wanting to distance the speaker from the emotional content, so I switched from first to third person. But then I found that a random “he” in a poem didn’t seem particularly distanced—a reader could quite easily still read that “he” as me. So I switched one of the poems to “she.”
At that point, I thought, hmm, what if those “he’s” and that “she” know each other; in other words, what if they’re characters.
Then I decided that if pronouns without antecedents are annoying in prose, they’re probably at least as annoying in poetry (T.S Eliot notwithstanding), so I gave them names—based loosely on three particular people I knew.
I’d also, at the time, been trying (miserably) to write some fiction, and I think the resulting interest in narrative and character propelled my desire to allow a background storyline to accrue across these poems. I liked the visual, image-based nature of film, but I didn’t want to have a full “film in verse,” because that would require me to construct a complete narrative, and I was much more interested in the poems being lyrics. So “notes for a film” seemed to make sense—it further distanced those early failing poems and, in the process, added a fourth character—the filmmaker talking to himself about the film he envisions making.
At this point I think I had four or five poems. Then summer hit and I moved back to Houston to live with my girlfriend, who’d been there finishing up school while I’d been in Missouri in my first year of teaching.
That summer, when she left for work each day I found myself alone in her cramped apartment, with my laptop, little money and nothing to do—in a kind of limbo between my life in Missouri and my former life in Houston. Writing into a developing sequence seemed a perfectly good way to spend my time—which meant I gave myself more leeway to “play around” than I otherwise might have. And the experience of being reunited with my girlfriend after a year apart colored the overall themes and content of the sequence. In my mind, it’s all really one big love poem.
ALB: I assume that, as an editor of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing, you spend a good amount of time reading poetry by a wide range of poets. How is the state of the art these days?
WM: Every six months, it seems, someone or other is decrying some aspect of the state of contemporary poetry—whether it’s John Barr, Ron Silliman, or someone in between. From my Stylite’s perch atop the Pleiades slush pile, however, the state of poetry looks pretty good; the best work showing up in our mailbox is consistently varied and strong.
There was a time in the mid-1980s when what seemed to matter most about much of the poetry that was being published was that it was TRUE—that an uncle really had been mean to the poet, or that the poet’s grandmother really had been dying, or that the poet really did feel bad about failing as a parent, or that the poet really had fought off cancer. Form seemed less important than content, in other words, and content seemed primarily ad misericordium.
In the mid-1990s, a lot of interesting poets started resisting that baldly autobiographical impulse, and many of the poetic strains getting press these days are various versions of that pushback against post-confessionalism. For example, we have Steven Burt’s injection of confessionalism with aspects of Language poetics (“elliptical” poetry), a return to the Objectivists (what Burt calls the “new thing”) and other Modernists, a renewed interest in the New York School poets, neoformalism, a focus on personas and dramatic monologues (e.g., Maurice Manning and my colleague Kevin Prufer), a turn toward European surrealism and/or classicism, etc.
In my mind, all these diverse approaches to keeping form and content, technique and raw emotion, in balance are good for the art. And Pleiades has pretty consistently received—and enjoyed receiving—the work of many good poets mining these various aesthetic veins.