Interviewed by Jen M. Lagedrost
“our modern alchemy: / a finger tap floods the room”
Wayne Miller, poet, translator, and editor of Pleiades, shares here with poets, writers, and readers of PI his brand new book of poems The City, Our City (Milkweed, 2011), addressing his project, process and poetics for writers and readers of poetry. Important and powerfully written, the book’s poems and chorus of voices within them all contribute to the central entity of Our City that he conjures, historically and contemporarily throwing into relief ourselves, our communities, and the histories of which we are a part and that we continue to create.
Wayne, The City, Our City (TCOC) is your third book of poems in five years. What are some ways the experience of your first two books have informed the creation of your third?
I should start by saying that this is my third book of poems that’s been published in five years. I could never have written three poetry collections in that time. I finished my first book, Only the Senses Sleep, in 2003. I then spent the next 2+ years shopping it around while I was working on the poems in The Book of Props, which I finished around 2007. The oldest poem in The City, Our City I started in 2003, and I worked on the book up until about six or eight months before it came out (in Oct 2011). Thus, these three books were written over about a twelve-year period.
But, to get back to your question: it’s a cliché to say, but it’s also true that it would have been impossible to write The City, Our City without having written the previous two books. A few poems in Only the Senses Sleep attempt to address some of the more “public” (to borrow Richard Hugo’s word), historical subject matter of The City, Our City—but I just hadn’t written long enough to fully realize what I might want to do with them. The Book of Props tried to expand my poems formally (particularly in the “Notes for a Film in Verse” sequence), but not necessarily in terms of subject matter; it’s mostly a “private” book about loneliness and love. Without those first two books I wouldn’t have had the poems under my belt—and, at the same time, the place cleared in front of me—to see, and then focus on, The City, Our City.
History, alluded to in familiar historical events and periodic vocabulary, plays a large role in the poems that develop this entity of Our City you create in TCOC. What kind of research did you engage with, and how did you begin to gather and shape it?
In the wake of the 2004 election I became pretty obsessed with the notion that talking about “red states” and “blue states” missed the point. If you looked at an election map divided by counties, you saw urban counties voting almost exclusively for Kerry and rural counties almost entirely for Bush. (In 2008, even Salt Lake City and Dallas went for Obama.) This links current American politics to Europe’s long history or urban vs. rural conflict (e.g., in the French Revolution, Paris conquered the more conservative countryside; in the Spanish Civil War, the countryside one by one conquered the cities) and spoke to the things that cities tend to share: human proximity, diversity, left-of-center politics, a certain comfort level with collectivism, and, at the same time, the engines of economic and political power that have often driven nations toward war. Ironically, in 2003, those urban centers generally opposed the Iraq War, though if things had worked out according to the economic plans proffered by Rumsfeld and Co. those same cities would have benefited disproportionately. (Meanwhile, rural kids were overrepresented in fighting that war, though their generally dying towns would have seen very little economic benefit from its potential successes.)
With these things in mind, I started reading obsessively about cities—books on urban history and design, the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the plague—as well as books on the history of war. I was also reading Auden, and his poem “Memorial for the City” struck me particularly. In it, Auden sees Darmstadt devastated by allied bombing as a synecdoche for all European cities—those seats of Western culture ruined by the war (“The humor, the cuisine, the rites, the taste, / The pattern of the City, are erased”). It occurred to me that, despite Auden’s pessimism—and his accurate sense that after World War II Europe had ceased to be the center of the Western world—all those cities were rebuilt and today continue to be important economic and cultural centers. Wasn’t the period’s destruction and rebuilding merely a brief chapter in the larger history of “the City”?
In, I believe, 2005, I began writing a long, multi-sectioned “history of the City” poem that eventually divided into the roman numeraled sections of The City, Our City. When I looked at the other poems I’d been writing, I realized they, too, were obsessed with cities, human proximity, and violence. That’s when the shape of TCOC began to come into focus.
As for your particular process, how do you go about generating poems and moving toward the project of a book? Did poems addressing the idea of “City” start to accumulate and point to the project, or did the idea or issue of “City” come first to direct the creation of poems?
Really, both: once I had the spine of the book in those roman numeraled poems, it became clear that many of the poems I’d been writing could fit in among them. From that point on, whenever I started a poem from some triggering image, phrase, situation, or imagined persona, I’d ask myself if the poem might occur somewhere inside “the City.” Not all the poems I wrote found their ways in, but “the City,” at least as I imagine it, is pretty big. Most poems I wrote in that period were able to find a corner of it in which to reside.
Since PI focuses on international literary and artistic consciousnesses, please tell us how the experience of translating Moikom Zeqo’s I Don’t Believe In Ghosts in 2007 enriched your poetics.
I began translating the poems in I Don’t Believe in Ghosts in collaboration with Zeqo and his daughter when I was a junior in college—when I was just starting to write poems with any seriousness. It would have been nearly impossible for Zeqo’s work not to leave a profound mark on my writing. Translation used to be a pretty standard way for a young poet to learn his craft, and my attention to Zeqo’s poetry since 1997 has greatly enhanced my understanding of syntax and my general sense of the elasticity of language. More directly, Zeqo is a master with metaphor, and I think my appreciation for metaphor as both a reader and a writer comes in part from the many hours I spent—and continue to spend, since I’m working on another of his books—with his poems.
How do you manage developing the project of a book like TCOC that demands vast exploration of many facets of a topic, and the many ideas that feed into it, without feeling like you might exhaust the idea?
I’ve been fascinated by cities since I was a kid. (I was a history major in college, and my first-year symposium was professor Geoffrey Blodgett’s “History of the American City Since 1835”—a class that left an indelible mark on me.) I’ve also lived in them (specifically Cincinnati Ohio; Rome, Italy; Anchorage, Alaska; New York City; Houston, Texas; Madrid, Spain; and Kansas City, Missouri) for nearly all my life. So the things that spark my poetic imagination tend to emerge from inside cities anyway.
I think the larger concern in writing this book wasn’t so much exhausting the idea of “the City” as maintaining a balanced perspective on “the City.” I didn’t want merely to condemn “the City” for its violence and economic rapacity, nor did I want to laud it blindly for its diversity and art. When I felt I’d been writing too many poems that were generated out of anger at our historical moment, I tried to turn my attention to those things I found beautiful about cities. When I felt “the City” becoming too idealized, I turned my focus to “the City’s” nastier history—its wars and colonialism, for instance.
As Editor of the journal Pleiades, how has your experience with the journal contributed to writing TCOC?
Editing Pleiades takes a lot of time and energy away from writing, but it also keeps me in touch with a broad swath of the poems that are being written right now, which I like to think keeps me on my toes. Plus, I’ve worked with extraordinary editors at Pleiades over the last decade, and our conversations about poetry, literature, history, etc., have been invaluable to my writing.
It’s also worth saying that the University of Central Missouri, where I teach and where Pleiades is housed, is the town of Warrensburg, 45 miles outside Kansas City (from which I commute). In addition to the University, the other major institution in the area is Whiteman Air Force Base, from which the stealth bomber missions during the Iraq War were flown. In retrospect, I feel deeply lucky to have been working in Warrensburg over the last ten years; without proximity to the base and contact with numerous students who work on the base, I might have had the luxury of a less complicated or conflicted perspective on the military—and I might have had a less immediate sense of the war’s presence. When you’re talking with your students about Voltaire and a stealth bomber swoops down outside the window—a stealth bomber that just a few hours ago was dropping ordinance in the Middle East—and when your students start disappearing from classes mid-semester because they’ve been deployed, it’s pretty hard to feel entirely sequestered in the abstractions of the Ivory Tower.
What advice would you have for PI’s writers and readers of poetry when addressing large, political and worldly topics in contemporary poetry, both as orchestrating writer and educated reader?
I hope The City, Our City doesn’t stink of polemic, and I guess not to do so would be at the heart of my advice. If a person’s goal is to have a political impact, then writing poems is surely not an effective means since poetry books sell at best a couple thousand copies (and these days almost entirely to a like-minded audience). But I do like Milosz’s idea (in The Witness of Poetry) of the poet as witness to history, and I think the role of witness asks a poet to speak to the future about the present, rather than to speak to a contemporary audience also immured inside the political moment. The larger goal of historically engaged poetry, I think, it to try to articulate the complexities and paradoxes of the time—and, in the process, to be an individual voice speaking inside of history, which generally seeks to erase the individual from the earth.