Poetry Spotlight: Sarah Green Interviews Wayne Miller


Post- (Milkweed, 2016) is Wayne Miller’s fourth book of poetry. The collection—which covers such themes as the loss of a parent, new fatherhood, American debt and violence, and collisions of inner/outer worlds—is assertive, poignant, at times mysterious, and always linguistically muscular and controlled. “I was in this shade as it carried
you / You were in my house / as it held me. Don’t say that / means nothing, America!” Miller writes in one of my favorite of the poems, “House Near the Airport.” It’s an accomplishment of this book that it manages to reinforce the reader’s faith in meaning and connection despite—or perhaps as a powerful result of—its moments of bewilderment and alienation.

51rY3thaFfL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Wayne Miller is the author of three previous poetry collections: The City, Our City (Milkweed Editions, 2011), The Book of Props (2009), and Only the Senses Sleep (New Issues, 2006). He is also co-editor of the forthcoming Literary Publishing in the 21st Century (Milkweed Editions, April 2016; w/ Travis Kurowski and Kevin Prufer). That anthology, in Miller’s words, “offers a snapshot of the paradoxical and rapidly changing world of contemporary literary publishing through essays by editors, publishers, writers, and agents.” Miller lives in Denver and teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where he edits Copper Nickel.

How did you decide to put “The First Year,” your poem about the first year of parenthood, into third person? Does it have something to do with feeling at a remove, now, from the “I” of that year?  Or is it because this poem’s schema lies somewhere between realism and parable, the latter being served well by third person? Also: this poem follows father-loss poems. Is “the stone still with them” grief?

First off, let me say thanks so much, Sarah, for spending some time with Post- and for putting together such terrific questions. I’m really grateful for your sharp attention to these poems.

Regarding “The First Year”:  I think I was mostly interested in—as you say—the parable-like quality third person brings to the poem—more so than in having left behind that foggy, exhausted initial year my wife and I spent with our infant daughter (who’s now four). I’m generally more excited by how the imagination interacts with an experience than in direct reportage of the experience itself. In this case, third person allowed me to build a conceit through the pond and the stones that, if the poem were in first person, might have seemed too directly or personally allegorical. (At least that was my worry.) I also didn’t want to sound like I was moaning excessively about the difficulties of a first year with a baby, since there are obviously far more difficult things.

As for the stones: I see them as something of an open signifier for the various interactions parents have with a newborn. All that seemingly fruitless attempting to connect, to instill love, to impart language—it felt to me at the time like, well, like throwing stones into water. But then at a certain point the work comes back in surprising ways as the child begins to interact, to talk, to express emotion. Part of my discovery in writing the poem was working out how—once the triggering metaphor was established—I might manage to bring those lost stones back to the parents again.

When I wrote “The First Year” I wasn’t necessarily thinking about its potential relationship to the father-loss poems elsewhere in the book. That said, it’s surely very possible to draw a connection through the image/symbol of the stone. I really like that idea, actually.

I loved being fooled when I read your poem “Marriage”; you begin I was walking away, but in the end the speaker [arrives] at the warm engine of you / asleep beside me. I realize (I think) that it was a dream, but I love the interplay of the two: title announcing one thing, first line seeming to reject it. I love, too, the playful/poignant “see?” in the last stanza; it seems to say “it was just a dream, see?” but a threat still looms over. The reader’s left to choose which perception to invest in most—departure or arrival, sleeping or waking. Can you talk about how your formal choices here enabled the “choose-your-own-adventure” simultaneity and mystery this poem offers?

My wife likes to say that people clearly aren’t meant to be monogamous, and they’re also too selfish not to be. That makes such clear sense to me—and it’s that paradox I found myself trying, I think, to articulate as I was writing the poem.

I also wrote “Marriage” while we were living in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a seven-month stint. For the first two months we were there, it was 33 degrees and poured freezing rain pretty much nonstop. Spending day after day cooped up in a small apartment with a frenetic two-year-old was enough to send my imagination elsewhere at every available opportunity. Dreaming was a lovely release into other locations; just as waking was also a lovely release back into my life and family and the adventure we were on together. The simultaneity of those feelings was the trigger for the poem.

Formally I tried to capture the claustrophobia of that apartment—and, more generally, the long-term claustrophobia (good claustrophobia!) of marriage—through a sneaky little rhyme scheme that recurs just when you don’t expect it (A-B-C-D-E-C), as well as through the speaker’s relative neutrality as he relates both his imagined leaving and his subsequent returning to that space of the bedroom.

I’m astounded by the unexpected impact of “touchless car wash”—such a seemingly mundane or random thing—in your gun-violence poem, “Ballad (American, 21st Century)”. Though this poem like many of yours is about what feels like archetypal fatherhood, a man who’s lost his own father, protecting his child and that child’s mother, you manage in “touchless” an almost-sympathy (as I read it) for the shooter’s alienation or loneliness. I guess I’m wondering, were you aware of this moment of sympathy when writing the poem, and did it surprise you?

Thank you for that! “Touchless” was a moment of surprise when I was writing that felt immediately right—and for the exact reason you mention.

Though I’ve recently moved to Denver, for more than a decade I lived in Kansas City, Missouri, and commuted about 55 miles each way to the little town of Warrensburg, where I taught and where, in 2013-14, my daughter was in preschool on campus. For that year she was usually in the car with me when I commuted.

Like everybody in America I’ve heard far too many news stories about mass shootings. But that last spring in Missouri those stories came somewhat closer to home when a highway shooter in what’s called the Grandview Triangle—a tangle of highway my daughter and I drove through every time we made our commute—shot into twelve cars over a month or so before he was finally arrested. A few weeks later, a potential school shooter in Warrensburg was foiled as he tried to enter the town’s high school; he ultimately committed suicide during a standoff with police.

At a certain point I realized I had started to think of all of America’s shooters as one recurrent shooter who keeps popping up in different places at different times before disappearing back into the national fabric. The shooter is, in other words (and to paraphrase WCW), a pure American product—a nasty, unintended consequence of the American experiment. As such, he elicits from a tiny corner of my condemnation the faintest whisper of sympathy. Or maybe “pity” is the better word.

Debt comes up more than once in this book; of course in the very first poem, “The Debt”, but also in “Consumers in Rowboat” (“remember your debt.”) (When I read that, I can’t help reciting forgive us.) I can’t think of a poetry collection that’s worked with the oppressive financial reality so many of us live inside in this same way. Colloquially, of course, debt can describe a mood of grateful humility—I might say ‘I’m indebted to x for her kindness’. Perhaps “debt” in this book is what links the personal domestic poems and the more sweeping social commentary poems in the sense that all of your poems seem very aware of interdependence. In “House Near the Airport”, you write “I was in this shade as it carried you, you were in my house / as it held me
.” Would you say there is a Buddhist or spiritual dimension to the interdependence narrative in this book?

For a long time I’ve been interested in those places in poetry where the “public” and “private” intersect—on the levels of both language and subject matter. And though I haven’t thought of it quite this way before, I think you’re absolutely right that the multivalenced idea of debt—financial, emotional, intellectual, etc.—is a key link between the personal and the public throughout the book.

Whether there’s a Buddhist or spiritual dimension? In my own sense of the poems, at least, I’m not quite willing to go that far. I will say that the book was built from my belief in the power of the past to affect the present—both personally and collectively—and the simultaneous power of the present to affect the past. In the long wake of my father’s death, as well as in the context of our current historical moment—with its challenging economics and widening sociopolitical gyre—I’m persistently interested in considering how we ignore our human entanglements (again, present and past) at our peril.

That said, I’m also wary of reducing the book to a rhetorical position, since I like to think it contains more uncertainty and discovery than doing so might imply. Maybe it’s better to say: sometimes the private spaces of our lives do turn entirely on their own axes. But then a plane drags its shadow through the room, or a political demonstration starts up in the street beyond the window, or a war swallows a family member, or the next credit card bill arrives . . . These sorts of events, major and minor, encircle, contextualize, and often penetrate the private spaces in which lyric poems are typically found—which is a thought I kept returning to as I was writing the poems in Post-.

Interviewer Sarah Green is a reader for Memorious and the author of the chapbook Skeleton Evenings (Finishing Line Press) and her just released (March 1, 2016) debut collection, Earth Science (421 Atlanta).

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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