Wayne Miller is the author of three poetry collections: The City, Our City (Milkweed, 2011), The Book of Props (2009), and Only the Senses Sleep (New Issues, 2006). He also translated Moikom Zeqo’s I Don’t Believe in Ghosts (BOA, 2007) and co-edited New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008; w/ Kevin Prufer) and Tamura Ryuichi: On the Life & Work of a 20th Century Master (Pleiades Press, 2011; w/ Takako Lento). The recipient of six awards from the Poetry Society of America, Wayne lives in Kansas City and teaches at the University of Central Missouri, where he edits Pleiades.
Peter Burghardt is a current MFA candidate at St. Mary’s College where he studies poetry and edits Mary: A Journal of New Writing. He lives in Oakland, California where he also works for Omnidawn Publishing as a Poetry Editor.
A poem by Wayne Miller follows the interview.
Peter Burghardt: Wayne, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. While reading your most recent book, The City, Our City, I was really struck by the cohesion of the collection. It felt like the entire book was part of a larger meditation as opposed to a manuscript of independent poems. I was wondering, is this typically an intention in your writing?
Wayne Miller: First of all, thanks for your interest in The City, Our City—I appreciate it.
You’re right that The City, Our City emerges from a larger meditation, and I’m glad you think the collection is cohesive. While it’s usually true that poems arise from a poet’s recurring interests and obsessions, among my books The City, Our City is unique. It’s the first time I’ve sustained a sequence like this, and the first time a less personal, more historical subject has been a central focus.
I think part of that shift resulted from how I imagined the audience for the book. In my first two collections, I wrote mostly with a contemporary audience in mind. In The City, Our City, I started to imagine how my work might be perceived by an audience, say, fifty or a hundred years from now. How would today’s poetry look when held up against the historical backdrop of the last ten years, I wondered. I decided I didn’t want my poems narrowly focused on my own personal narratives, nor on ahistorical subjects such as the slipperiness of language, both of which would feel (at least to me) disconnected from the dominating concerns of the 2000s. Rather, I wanted my next book to attend more directly to sociohistorical context—and to consider how individual narratives operate inside that context. That’s when I began obsessing about cities.
PB: Where did your interest in “the city” originate?
WM: I think there are two answers to this—one personal (or psychological), one intellectual.
Personally, I’ve always been drawn to cities. I grew up mostly in the suburbs of Cincinnati, but when I was five my family lived in Rome for a year, and many of my first memories are in that massive and ancient city. What’s more, my father is from Brooklyn, and most summers when I was young we spent time there in my grandparents’ little apartment. After my parents divorced, my dad moved around the country, and over time I visited him in lots of different cities. Thus, for me, cities have always been semi-mythological places imbued with nostalgic longing, and since I graduated from college I’ve lived in them almost exclusively—specifically in New York, Houston, Madrid (for a number of months), and now for the past eight years in Kansas City.
Intellectually, I became fascinated with cities—and their history—during the 2004 election, when an electoral map of the US by county made it clear that talking in terms of “red states” and “blue states” missed the point. In fact, nearly every metro area in America (including Salt Lake City and Dallas) voted for Kerry, while exurban and rural areas voted for Bush. (The election was decided in the inner suburbs, as was 2008.) To me, this split linked us to a long transnational history of urban vs. rural conflict. (For example, in the French Revolution Paris conquered the countryside, while in the Spanish Civil War the countryside one by one conquered Spain’s cities.) What’s more, cities around the world now live under threat of terrorist attacks, though the militaries that fought in Afghanistan and Iraq were comprised disproportionately of soldiers from rural areas—areas relatively unthreatened by terrorism, and that would benefit far less from whatever economic spoils those incursions might have brought.
Additionally, I was reading Auden, and I was struck by his poem “Memorial for the City,” in which he employs a bombed-out Darmstadt as a synecdoche for European culture decimated by World War II. What happened to Auden’s synecdochic “City”? Well, it was rebuilt, and today those European cities once at the very core of Western culture are now interconnected with cities all over the world—cities that share many of their concerns and interests. What’s more, their citizens rarely set foot outside cities. (How often have I gone to Kansas City Airport, boarded a plane, and within hours been in another city—a city with more or less analog economic and bohemian centers, with a similar history and power structure?) These cities are seats of art, culture, and politics, and, at the same time, engines of war and colonialism. That stark duplicity complicated my own nostalgic, romanticized view of the City, and The City, Our City is really the product of that complication.
PB: Another aspect of the book that intrigued me was the variance of poetic form. For example, many of the poems seemed to exhibit qualities similar to dramatic monologue. However, on other occasions, such as in “The Beautiful City (In 32 Strokes)”, your technique is more fragmented and impressionistic. How do you see these different decisions informing each other and the book as a whole?
WM: I experimented with monologues and perspectives a lot in this book, which I hadn’t really done in previous books—except in the “What Night Says to the Empty Boat (Notes for a Film in Verse)” sequence in my second book, The Book of Props, which was, in retrospect, where I tested the waters. In The City, Our City, I wanted to draw a contrast between a kind of meta-voice that addresses the overarching narratives of history and the individual voices that live inside it. That contrast is most clear, perhaps, in the 14-section Roman numeraled sequence that serves as the book’s spine (where, for example, in section III we encounter the voice of a woman quarantined in a late-medieval plague house), but it’s also there in the tension between monologues like “The Assassination Lecture” and meta-voiced poems like “A History of War.”
The other poems in the book are a mix of more typical poems for me—impressionistic, phenomenological, and at times fragmentary. I guess since I realized early on that I was working on an interconnected sequence, I decided I should seek out as much variance of approach as possible. I hope the range in The City, Our City is enough to make the book feel prismatic rather than repetitive.
PB: You are also the editor of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing. I was wondering, do you feel that your role as an editor informs your poetic practice?
WM: Rarely does it do so directly. But at Pleiades we receive about 1,000 poems a month, most of which my coeditor Kathryn Nuernberger and I screen, and this affords me a front-row seat to what’s happening in poetry right now. It’s been interesting, for example, to watch aesthetics change over the last decade (I’ve been at Pleiades since 2002). In 2002, we primarily received two types of poems (though this is, of course, over-generalizing): a personal narrative poem and the slippery sort of poem Stephen Burt describes as “elliptical.” Now there’s more range—it seems like that early-2000’s binary has been absorbed and is in the process of synthesizing a number of other things.
Still, the focus on the immediate present that reading for Pleiades necessitates is a double-edged sword, since such a narrow focus can induce a kind of aesthetic myopia. For that reason, I always try to make sure that in my free time I’m also reading work from outside the present—and outside the U.S.—to balance my sense of what’s possible in poetry.
PB: The University of Central Missouri, where you also teach, sponsors Pleiades. Do you think your experience of editing the journal would be any different were it independently owned?
WM: That’s a really interesting question, and I’m not sure how to answer it, exactly.
I guess to begin, if Pleiades were independently owned it would probably be edited by different people, since our editors teach at UCM, which has a teaching load of four courses per semester, leaving little time for work beyond teaching (and Pleiades is a LOT of work). Without course releases, granted by the University specifically for Pleiades, it would be difficult to find the time to edit Pleiades and still earn a living.
I think it’s also likely that we would have a narrower, more pointed aesthetic if we were independent, since early on we would have had to raise start-up capital from donors, and wealthy poetry-lovers tend to want to fund a journal they see as filling an aesthetic lack—not a broad-minded journal whose primary selling point is that the editors (we hope!) have good taste across an aesthetic range (not to mention our dozens of small-press book reviews in every issue!).
It’s also worth noting that because we have a dedicated funding line—a line we fought for for many years before we got it—we’re less dependent on what we publish consistently comporting with the tastes of our subscribers, buyers, and granting agencies. Of course we want our subscription list to remain robust, and we hope granting agencies will continue to support us—but if we publish something that offends the tastes of our readers or grantors, we still have a core source of funding that allows us to move forward. Thus, we can spend less time anticipating what our readers might want and more time publishing what we think is broadly good, whether or not it adheres to the aesthetics we’re known for.
It’s worth saying here that our situation might be different if we were supported by an institution where a lot of faculty, administrators, and students kept up with Pleiades. But our school is one where the most popular majors are Education and Criminal Justice, where the Business College dominates and the most nationally renowned program is Aviation. There are relatively few English majors, and not a lot of people on campus read Pleiades—or even know what it is. And those who are aware of us understand the editorial flexibility and autonomy necessary for a successful literary journal. In fact, the only time we’ve been pressured to change our content was when our national distributor forced us to alter a cover because it showed a nipple; our school didn’t care. When we published Tom Fleischmann’s sexually provocative (and wonderful) essay “Fist” in 2008, no one on campus said a word.
PB: As we begin 2012, to what are you most looking forward in poetry in the year ahead?
WM: Well, I have a nine-month-old; right now she takes up most of my time beyond teaching and editing—so I’m afraid I’m not as plugged in as I might have been a year or two ago. Selfishly, more than anything else, I’m looking forward to finding some time to write again, now that my daughter’s mostly sleeping through the night and my wife and I have more or less adjusted to the schedules and rhythms of parenthood.
I’m sure there are a lot of books by poets I admire coming out but, as I said, I’m just less up on that sort of thing than I once was. I do know Corey Marks’ book Radio Tree is due out in the spring; his first book, the wonderful Renunciation, won the National Poetry Series about ten years ago. D. A. Powell’s fifth collection, Useless Landscape, should be out in just a couple weeks, as should Martha Collins’ White Papers (if it isn’t already). Hadara Bar-Nadav has a book—The Frame Called Ruin—coming out soon, too. I’m curious about Cathy Park Hong’s wildly ambitious-sounding Engine Empire, and Alan Michael Parker’s next collection, Long Division, is also on its way. We at Pleiades Press will be publishing Bruce Snider’s strikingly confessional book, Paradise, Indiana, in April. And I’m particularly excited about Mary Jo Bang’s playful and innovative new translation of Dante’s Inferno, which is also due in 2012. We were thrilled to print a canto from it in the current (winter 2012) issue of Pleiades. I’m sure there’s much more I should be thinking of (though that’s maybe that’s not such a bad list, actually!). Despite all the doom and gloom one hears, it’s an exciting time to be a poet. It seems like everyone thinks some other aesthetic or group is getting all the attention, but I suspect that’s because a true range of poets are being read seriously, which has to be good for the art.
The City in its ball rolled forward—
(the same City that, in its jar,
had engulfed the hill).
The City was the wall I lay on,
then the City
was the voice I spoke into.
When gunmen exchanged fire
across my yard, the City
filled the bullets, which so briefly
breathed in their motion.
Later, the City was silence
threading through birdsongs.
I listened from the sun porch,
which seemed to hang
above the rotting picnic table.
The City was looped in the ring
I gave my lover to say: we would
live together inside the City.
Each July, the City hissed with light
at the sparklers’ blinding cores.
When the City spread its darkness
over me, I loved the warmth
of the susurrations, and when the City
lifted me above the City
I leaned my head
against the egg-shaped window.
O Auden—O City—
what abstractions I had:
the illusions I swung from
along your neoned, crisscrossing,
I once believed
formed a bower of iron.