Tongue Lyre (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013) is contributor Tyler Mills’s first book of poems and the winner of the Crab Orchard Series of Poetry First Book Award. Stories and legends permeate the collection as Mills weaves in lines from Joyce’s Ulysses, references to Homer’s Odyssey and also Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Philomela appears as a college student who finds herself unable to speak of her own rape. Circe buys meat hooks at the hardware store. The sirens lure pilot whales into shallow water, while the tornado sirens, with voices like wolves, call out to a child.
As Mills blends the mythological with the modern, Picasso, M. C. Escher and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz also make an appearance. The collection is full of deft, interesting poems such as “Cyclops” and “Nestor,” which first appeared in Memorious 18.
Tyler Mills is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois–Chicago. She has kindly answered a few questions for Memorious.
What made you choose the Odyssey theme?
The Odyssey is such an ancient story. I am fascinated with the way that this epic poem functions as a frame narrative—and how storytelling itself figures so importantly into its structure. When I first started working on the poems of Tongue Lyre, I had just finished spending time with Joyce’s Ulysses. I was intrigued by how Joyce uses episodes of the Homeric myth to enact a complicated, irresolvable modern landscape. In the poems of Tongue Lyre, I wanted to try using the myth like he did—but via the lyric poem, in which the Homeric episodes would enact sites of memory that include a contemporary landscape, as well as art and music. A particular violence is at the heart of this book. In Tongue Lyre, the narrative drive of Odysseus’s homecoming really becomes a kind of return where the female body is figured as the site of home for the psyche.
Could you tell us a bit about writing “Nestor”?
Many of the Homeric poems in Tongue Lyre started as giant blocks of text: prose poems like blocks of wood or marble that I chiseled down to their current form. “Nestor” started this way; “Cyclops” did, too. In the Odyssey, Nestor is a king and horse tamer that Telemachos visits in order to try to obtain information about his father, Odysseus. In the Odyssey, one of Nestor’s epithets is “breaker of horses,” which I considered using in the epigraph. But I decided to use “For we know what intelligence is hidden” because I thought it would draw attention to the way the image of the poem worked.
When I was writing the poem, I returned to a memory of a time I saw horses running at a racetrack. I spent some of my childhood living in northern New York, very far upstate, and I had gone to the racetrack in Saratoga once as a teenager. Some friends and I decided to check it out, and we ended up in the cheap seats, which were just a couple dollars. All around us, people were dining and betting on these animals. Seeing these horses run moved me; it was such a controlled, forced energy. And it horrified me: to me, it was like paying to watch an animal being abused. When I was writing the poem, I kept thinking about perception—how the movement of the horses around the track became a single image, and how that image is one of desperate recursion. The horses ran around, and around. As I returned to this memory in writing the poem, that motion seemed to become mimetic of an obsessive, trauma-driven thought pattern—one that fixates on shame, or fear. I think that is the driving force behind the final phrase, “the flush of recall.”
There are a number of musical instruments in this book, and especially the violin appears repeatedly. What influence would you say music has on your writing?
I once wanted to be a symphonic musician, and I spent a year as a performance major in a music school. I started playing in my public elementary school’s string program when I was seven or eight. My parents were surprised, I think, when I came home one day and said I wanted to play the violin. But they were very supportive of it, and eventually, I was able to study with string faculty at the local college throughout my teens.
I have three violins, and each one has its own personality. One is my student violin, one is my adult violin that I think has been with me since I was seventeen, and then one is a “junk fiddle” I “rescued” from the basement of a flea market. It was wrapped in a white t-shirt. The instrument had been given to an antique dealer as a trade; it had been someone’s father’s who owed the dealer money, so there it was. It came from Germany or the Czech Republic and had a flat bridge (it was a true fiddler’s fiddle). I took it to a violin shop to have it fixed up, and the violin maker kind of scolded me. He said, “There are tons of these everywhere. You don’t want to become the cat lady of violins!” I had to promise that this was the last junk fiddle I was going to rescue before he would work on it. He cleaned it and put a new bridge on it. It is very loud and does not like to hold a pitch. But it is really fun to play chords on that violin because the fingerboard is fairly flat. One day, I would love to record a soundscape where each of the three violins interact with one another.
I suppose all of this is to say that music is a part of how I think, see, and hear. When I am writing a line of a poem, I let my ear guide me through the image. In a poem I am working on, something can look right but sound wrong to me.
I still play violin, just for myself. Music is a way that I meditate on a problem in my writing or in my life. In Tongue Lyre, the violin appears repeatedly throughout the book as a kind of emblem. The poem “Cleaning Out the Lyre” comes from instructions about cleaning out the instrument: you really can put grains of rice inside of it and shake the dust out. But I was also thinking about how this action on a lyre can figure as a cleansing of the mind—and how an interior space can reverse with an exterior space.
What are you currently working on?
I am a tad superstitious about answering questions like this, but I’ll just go for it. I am working on a manuscript of poems that deals with radiation as a concept, stemming from the mystery of my grandfather’s involvement in the Nagasaki mission and extending through various ways radiation has become a force of violence, and even a construct of infinity, beginning at the edge of WWII and extending through the twentieth century (up to the present). I’m doing a lot of research; it’s a difficult subject. There is so much violence on the global and ecological level (as well as the individual level) to reckon with. Right now, I am working on the project at the Vermont Studio Center: sometimes, I just lie down on the floor of my studio and close my eyes because I am overwhelmed with nausea. I want to be morally responsible with this material; it is important to me that I do not appropriate someone else’s suffering. But I also want to give voice to the abuses of power and science that harmed so many people, cultures, and landscapes post-WWII. Now that I am at the point where I am able to envision it as a book, I am starting to think about how different poems communicate with one another or fight against one another. I have also been working on some criticism, a little nonfiction, and ideas for a personal essay. I would like to write a piece about gender and naming someday, since in language I often—if not most of the time—signify as male because my name is Tyler.
Poems from Tyler’s new manuscript in progress will appear in Issue 20 of Memorious, coming soon. Join our mailing list to be notified of the new issue, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter. For original poetry, fiction, interviews, art, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.