Matt W. Miller is a poet, father, surfer, and teacher from Lowell, Massachusetts. His third book, The Wounded for the Water, published in by Salmon Poetry in 2018, explores the lure of the water, the pulse of the body, and the ways in which drowning and fluidity surface in the grit of daily life. Miller has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Walker E. Dakin Fellow at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and recently completed a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. He teaches English at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
I met Matt as participant in Philips Exeter’s summer Writers’ Workshop for teachers in 2016, which he co-facilitated with his colleagues Mercy Carbonell and Willie Perdomo. I called him recently to discuss his new book, craft, teaching, and navigating the writing world.
Alexa Garvoille: Did this whole book start with the long poem, “Ordeal by Water”?
Matt W. Miller: I think it started to organize around that poem. That poem almost made it into my last book. It wasn’t quite fully cooked, and I think the editor at UNT kind of felt that when I was trying to put it into Club Icarus. But I’m glad I was patient with it because it wasn’t done. It had a lot of fat on it. But then I was writing other stuff, and this theme was coming up again: water, physical wounds, drowning. They started to coalesce. But every time I actually tried to write a poem like that, a drowning poem, it would always be terrible. If I stumbled into it, I’d go, Oh, look at that, it’s another one. But when I was trying to do it and acting like, Oh, I’m writing a book, this is my next chapter, it always came off just terrible.
AG: And were you aware that you were working towards a book focused on water?
MM: Not at first, no. But as I was looking at a group of poems, I knew these were all kind of connected in some way. Connected in a temporal way and in a subject matter way. And then the final way, where there’s all types of drowning. It may not even mention water or literal drowning, but it’s happening anyway. Like the part where they guy’s drowning in his job working at a prison. You know, it’s just burying him.
I was getting closer, and then all of the sudden I had to cut stuff out, wait for more stuff to arrive. Literally, I feel like you have to wait for them to show up sometimes, some of these poems.
AG: When you’re writing poems that come from lived experiences, as many of your poems seem to, are you living that moment thinking, Oh man, this is a poem?
MM: Nah, I don’t usually know. I think if I do think, Oh, this would be a great poem moment, it usually turns out to be a really bad poem. You’re usually making it too conscious of itself. Usually kind of thinking back, you’ll stumble on something. And all of the sudden, it becomes something that could be a poem. And even then, it’s not always going to happen, but you sit on it for long enough—years, decades go by—and you say, Oh yeah, remember that thing that happened? Let’s see if I can get that down.
But especially stuff out of our youth, it’s never a poem. It was just a fight. Or an argument that later on, perhaps, becomes something else by sitting on it and looking at it, trying to make it more than just some moment. It’s just life happening. I just kind of look at it and think, No this is something worth looking at. Cause it is life happening.
AG: In a recent interview for an Exeter profile, you said, “Writing isn’t therapy, but it can be therapeutic.” Talk more about that and how it played out in this book, or how it plays out in your work right now. Just thinking about old childhood memories, some really intense memories—smashing your fist through the window, for instance.
MM: I feel like I’m quoting somebody who said that once, but I also kind of believe it. I had gone to college thinking about the idea of becoming a writer, but I got sucked into the script of just being a jock-football player kind of guy. And I was miserable. I didn’t like playing, it was just easy to do it. I wasn’t enjoying myself that much. I just felt sad all the time. And then when I got hurt my senior year, I starteud spending time in the library or standing on top of my apartment building, listening to the funk-jazz bands playing at the bar across the street and reading a lot. And I started writing again and realizing that’s what I wanted to do. It made me less sad. I don’t know if it was therapy as much as realizing that it was what I want I wanted to be doing. I’d been denying what I wanted to do.
But it’s not always therapeutic, either, because you could be just there picking a scab, something you don’t even want to look at. Like, Why don’t you just forget about it and not deal with it? Gabby Calvocoressi was here at Exeter a couple months ago. They were saying kind of the same thing, that sometimes you don’t want to look at this stuff. It’s not always an easy thing, something you can easily get by without thinking about. If you decide to look at it, and you keep looking at it, you feel kind of terrible sometimes.
And that one poem you were just talking about, where I put my arm through a window after my father’s act of violence against us—the second part of that poem is me being violent with my daughter. And I hate that poem. I hate that I wrote it, my wife doesn’t ever want me to read it, but I couldn’t not put it in there because that was also something that I needed to have there. I’ve thought, I’m going to come off as an awful person in this. And I’m doing a similar thing. You know, the sins of the father type of thing. I think to not put that in would be a cop-out. To make yourself look all nice and, you know, Oh woe is me, my dad was tough sometimes. So I gotta go, to myself, Well, you’re kind of a prick, too.
That’s a tough poem for me. I flip by it in the book—I don’t know where it is. It’s there. “Of the Father,” it’s called. I do not like that that me is in there, but that is me, too. And I had to be honest with that. I don’t feel like I walked out of a nice session. Having that poem in there? No, it’s a terrible stain in that book that I have this, me slightly slapping my daughter about. God, I keep seeing it over and over again. And reading that poem makes me see it again and again and again. And even though I try to pull back from it in the poem, try to explain to her anger and what this word that set me off was—all she knows is her father betrayed her. He struck out at her. And I can never take that back. That’s forever. I hate that poem so much. But it had to go in there, I think.
AG: You were talking about “Ordeal by Water” not being quite ready for the last book. For you, when do you know something is ready?
MM: You know, you never know. “You die without knowing.”
AG: But you can know it’s not ready.
MM: Yeah, yeah. I still wonder on some of them. Like, I don’t know if that’s quite right. Or you look back at something you’ve written before and, even if you publish it, you’re like, Oh, no… That shouldn’t be out there like that. But you’re not the same person who wrote that, either. Somebody else wrote it. Somebody else put it out there. The experience of writing, it changes the person who wrote it. And every other experience you have. You know, that idea of you can’t stand in the same river twice because the water changes, but so do you. You can’t take off on the same wave twice.
I mean, sometimes it helps, in some ways to throw them out there. To submit them to publications or to let people read them. That can give you a false sense. You might get two hundred rejections and think, This thing’s terrible, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. And then you read it to somebody and they cry. And you know it’s working on that level. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? And you’re totally confused. You don’t know.
But sometimes you get to a point where you’ve got to say, This is as far as I’m going to take it. I’m not going to do any more of this. I need to move on. We had a good time together, but it’s not you, it’s me. We have to go our separate ways. You go over into some other place where I’m not going to keep playing with you, tweaking you, changing you, because you’re just not going to change any more. You don’t have that same space creatively or energy-wise.
AG: Are you one of those people who writes a draft and then puts it away for a while, then comes back to it? Or do you work on a piece in a chunk until you’re done with it, sick of it, or ready to abandon it?
MM: I keep playing around with it, put it away. And then if I think it’s really good, I might send it out, and then I’ll get a bunch of rejections. And then go, Wait, why are they rejecting it? Oh, wait, this is terrible. And I’m right. And I know. You’ve gotta wait because, you know, you write something and the first couple weeks, you think, This thing’s awesome! Look what I did! And then if you would have waited three weeks you would have realized, No, it’s not there yet. Why did you send it out? But sometimes I’ll send stuff out just so I won’t look at it.
AG: You’re the person who makes a copy of the poem and works on the newer version in the same document right above it?
MM: Right, I do that, yeah. A lot of times I’ll start from a notebook, a first draft. Then I’ll type it out. Copy it, paste it above it, so I have the same poem, and then I’ll start to play with that one. And then I’ll do that again and again so I might have twenty pages of a twenty-line poem that’s only one page long, but I’ll have twenty pages deep of it. I just keep playing with it. I don’t want to lose something that might have been good, but I was just hasty, thinking Oh, that’s terrible, but then a week later, I’ll go, What was that other thing I did? That might have worked, actually. So I like to keep it around.
AG: That is exactly what I do now. Thank you, Matt Miller. You gave me that. It’s so great. Because those older versions—sometimes I edit parts out and then I realize that I lost something.
MM: Yeah, that helps you get back to the original energy of it. Now the editorial side of you, the sculptor side, is writing the new drafts, but you lose some of the juice, the chutzpah, the just throwing-stuff-at-a-wall energy. You’ve gotta find a balance between craft and—I don’t know what the other word is—
AG: The gut.
MM: The gut, yeah. The “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” I think Wordsworth said that. You wanna balance that. But if you lose all that, then it just becomes really kind of dry. But well-crafted! But it might just have lost any of the blood. You have to keep the blood.
AG: So I’ve got a nerdy question about verbs and adjectives: in many of your poems, you match adjectives with nouns that are unconventional pairs, but the adjective would fit conventionally with a different noun within the world of the poem. Like, “stubbled light,” or “kettled bellies,” or with a verb, “sweat beetles down his face.” How do those happen? Does it just come out that way when you’re writing? Or do you revise toward that?
MM: I think what I want to do is shorten things and get there quicker. I remember in my first book, Cameo Diner, I was thinking about the traffic helicopters flying over Boston. The original version was like, “Traffic copters flying like mosquitoes over the upper deck.” And I’m like, Oof, flying like mosquitoes is so—So I just decided, I’m going to get there quicker, so “The copters mosquitoed over the upper deck.” I just turned mosquito into a verb. Probably, you shouldn’t do that, but it just felt better. Instead of relying on the simile, I just made it into a verb, and it had an energy. Something about a mosquito as a verb worked for me.
It might not work for people who might think you can’t break the rules like that. I know I shouldn’t always, but Shakespeare did it. I think maybe reading Kerouac when I was younger helped because I think he would do a lot of that stuff. He didn’t learn English until he was about eight or nine years old because he spoke Patois French, and when he discovered English, he just played in it, I think. I maybe saw some of that and what he had done when I read him when I was younger. And I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do it as much, and so it became fun to do it.
You know, “stubbled light”—that was just imagery. I just saw the early morning light and these guys’ shaved heads and shaved faces. Here’s the stubble. Here’s the light coming off it. It just felt right to say “stubbled light.” And that idea of a stubbled light—how does light stubble? I don’t know.
AG: It works.
MM: It works. Major Jackson was looking at one of my poems once, and there was a phrase in there, “assignments of lightning.” It was about the forest or something. And a person goes, “What does that mean? That doesn’t mean anything.” And he says, “Yeah, but sometimes somethin’ just works.” So I took that as permission. Sometimes if it works, it breaks the rules, but it just hits the right note. And it’s just a surprise in the language, and I love when I see that in other writers. Like, Ooh, you did—? Oh, that’s fun. You did something different. I hadn’t thought of that. It’s energizing. Language isn’t completely dead yet.
AG: Another thing I love so much about your poems, and hearing you read them, is how musical they are. For you, where does that musicality comes from?
MM: I think I start with a rhythm a lot of times, in my head. Where my head will be bobbing a little bit, like, Here’s the poem, this is what it’s doing. I’ll start writing with it. Sometimes words will be filler words that are going to change later, but it’s just to get the tune down with words before I actually have the words. If that makes sense. Even if I’m writing sometimes in a more formal verse, I’ll have a tune down, even if it’s a sonnet or a villanelle. I know what to do here, I know what I’m trying to do anyway. Let’s see if I can catch it, even in a stricter form like that.
AG: So you’re saying you have the rhythm and the sound of what you’re trying to say before you even have the words sometimes?
MM: Yeah, sometimes. And that’s why maybe I need to change a noun into an adjective or a verb, it’s because I need to make it match this beat in my head. There’s probably a little hip-hop influence there, a lot of early rap—Beastie Boys, NWA floating through my head. From middle school. The line’s too long, I gotta get the music right, so I’m going to mess with this word. I can’t afford a simile right now, it’s going to slow it all down, so I have to change it.
AG: I’m really interested in the poems that start in some lived reality and then shift into an imagined world. So, for instance, in The Wounded for the Water, “Under Blue Blankets,” starts with a man trying to pick up the speaker (in a Subway!), then tells the possible love story between them that might follow.
MM: It was a poem I was really worried about missing or appropriating. I think I was going for a poem about love and the ways that if you’re looking for it, it can show up. It’s probably not a poem I could have written at twenty-five, when I thought, This is the way it is, these are the lines drawn.
In the poem itself, literally the narrator talks about a dream he had about a girl he met when he was in college, and then he runs into her. And they have this moment of connection, but then it kind of goes away. Literally, that was a dream I had freshman year of college about a girl, wearing black jeans and a red sweater. And I called up a friend the next day and said, Yeah, I just had this weird dream about Emily and me, but it wasn’t sexual in any way. We were just hanging out at a party, and she was there. But all of the sudden, she became alive to me. Like I was aware of her womanness, or something about her. So then literally, maybe ten years later, I married her.
But in the poem, he meets someone else who he has a relationship with and it turns out to be a male, and that’s just the person he falls in love with. Maybe it’s just that the person you fall in love with is the person you fall in love with. You know, I think about that. I don’t know …Actually, I ran this by Meg Day, this poem. And she said, I love this poem! It’s about love. I thought, Oh god, thank god. I don’t want to be this white, male, heterosexual, cisgender who’s just like, Heyyy, I can do the gay thing, too! I’m not trying to do that—
AG: No, it’s actually so great.
MM: I’m not trying to check off a box. I just thought—that’s where the poem went, and I was going for the poem: He’s with him. They have a fight. And then he runs into the girl he had a dream about. It’s surreal how Emily shows up in this poem. But then, he doesn’t go with her. He’s in love with this guy. That’s the relationship. They put in time, and he wants to be with him. And it’s hard.
I remember I showed that poem to my wife. We were in a coffee shop, and she cried. She said, This is a love poem. And I tell her, Emily, it’s a poem for you. And she says, I know it is. It’s about working through the tough times. And it’s not always going to work out, but you stay with that person because you love them. And I think that’s what I was trying to do with these two people. They had a life together, and they didn’t want to throw that away, off on a chance meeting with somebody who maybe you could have liked, whether they’re male, female, whatever, you know.
AG: I think it’s so beautiful. And it’s even more endearing that you wrote it. You’re telling a story about love through this other narrator, through this side-step into a fictionalized world.
MM: If the narrator went home with that person, he could have had a wonderful life. Or if he went to a club that night and met some girl or guy. That other person, they could have had a life. It doesn’t have to be one person, really. People are looking for love, you know. Maybe broaden your look. You might find it in places you didn’t expect, or you weren’t told to expect.
AG: I think a poem that deals with a similar topic—the idea of love and what’s meant to be and who you’re meant to be with—is “Three Center Two Electron Bond.”
AG: What can you say about that?
MM: What can I say about that poem?
AG: How it came to be?
MM: That was a fun poem to write. That one, I just kind of let it rip. A three-center two-electron bond is a chemical bond… where there’s… I can’t remember now, but it’s a—
AG: It’s in your very generous notes in the back of the book.
MM: Oh yeah, I put a lot of notes back there. I was like, I gotta put a bunch of notes back here just for fun.
AG: I love it. [Reading:] It’s “an electron-deficient chemical bond where three atoms share two electrons. The combination of three atomic orbitals forms three molecular orbitals, one bonding, one non-bonding, and one anti-bonding.”
AG: From Wikipedia.
MM: I am not a chemist. But there are three people in the story. And one of the people might be focused on the wrong person. I remember I read something that had that bond, and I was like, What’s that bond? So I looked it up. Interesting. And then Bradley Cooper, the actor, was on the cover of People Magazine as the Sexiest Man Alive, right around that time. I think I was in a bookstore or a coffee shop and somebody had it. So I sat down, and I just started writing about this, having a drink with him and being fascinated by the person you shouldn’t be looking at because you’re just sort of drawn in by this appearance. Yeah, it was a weird poem to write, and sometimes I hate to explain it because I don’t know where it came from or how it came about and then how I arrived at that end. In the poem, they totally got caught up in this whole other thing. And they lost the thing they had.
AG: Right, and it’s almost like the opposite of what’s happening in “Under Blue Blankets.”
MM: Yeah. That’s probably why it’s toward the front of the book. I think I organized things so, hopefully, there’s a lot of ups and downs, but the end of the book, I wanted to end on these affirmations of love in some way. Yeah, it’s harrowing but it’s possible.
AG: Speaking of the Sexiest Man Alive… I went on this memoir retreat with Garrard Conley, which was so great.
MM: [Screams] Ah! Garrard!
AG: It was amazing. It was on his birthday, a couple years ago. It was at the Holes in the Wall Collective which was then in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania and there was a lake and we had one-on-one writing conferences in a boat. Anyway, at one point—I hate to objectify you—but at one point during that weekend, we were just sharing about the common people that we knew, and how I found his book through you giving it to me after he gave Exeter a bunch of copies of Boy Erased. And then, we were all like, Yes, Sexiest Man Alive: Matt Miller. I have to admit, there was a moment where somebody pulled up a picture and showed it to other workshop participants.
AG: Is it difficult being handsome?
MM: There’s a poem in the book, “Bully Pulpit.” It’s an idea that I write a lot about—blue-eyed, blond men…
AG: “Our handsome / is a lie” you say in that poem.
MM: Yeah, well the handsome is luck of time and place. Like this Western or European ideal of, This thing is what looks pretty. It’s temporary, and it’s toxic as hell. And it’s doing a couple things. In America most of the kids shooting up schools are blue-eyed, blond-haired kids. I’ve been writing a lot about how these kids’ baby pictures look like my son’s baby pictures. These are my children. You know at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” where the grandmother reaches out to The Misfit, and she realizes, “You were one of my own babies”? She’s the reason he exists because her cruelty and meanness to the world has created something like that. And, so, I think to myself, I’ve created this. I’m complicit in this. Because I’ve benefited from a certain time and space. You’ve got these shooters, but on the other side you’ve got Brock Turner of Stanford, who uses his privilege to rape a girl and only have to do three months of prison for it. And all this violence. And it’s that same idea of, We have a right to other people’s bodies. Because we’ve always had a right to that.
AG: Lots of poems over the course of this book and in your last book Club Icarus, too, are about gun violence and having children in the world. What do you think is a poet’s job in terms of shifting people’s views or the political landscape?
MM: I think the poet’s job is to show the world. Hamlet says, “Hold a mirror up to nature.” And I think if you show it right, people might get something out of that. Especially in a capitalistic society when we ask, What’s this good for? It can’t make you money, it can’t do anything. It has no use. To do something that has no use is terrifying in some ways. It’s a political statement, I think.
I always think if you try to write a political view, it comes off as propaganda. If you’re just trying to show something as it happened, or show the reality of it, it should be apparent what’s right and what’s wrong.
AG: Do you find yourself reading those political poems more at readings, or not necessarily?
MM: That’s a good question. Sometimes it depends, I think, where I’m reading. A couple of those poems, like “Child’s Play,” that deal with gun violence right now, I feel like those poems are going to resonate. Because everyone has a stake in that.
Somebody was asking after the shooting in Texas, Did you ever expect this to happen at your school? And a student, Paige Curry, said, Yes, I did. The banal answer is supposed to be, I never thought it would happen here. That’s the basic answer we’ve been giving for twenty years. But now, kids are like, Yeah, I did.
I think about it every time I drop my kids off at school. I think, This could be a day. Or every time I’m walking across campus—god, my gut seizes up for no reason. I think, There could be someone here. Or I was at a beach two weeks ago, and I thought, Wow, this would be the perfect spot. Someone comes over the dunes… And I’m older, so kids, teenagers now, that is the reality they live with. And I think we’re all living with the trauma of that without necessarily knowing it. So when you read something like “Child’s Play” or “Repose,” even the person not thinking about politics feels it. That’s an exhaustion that they’re going through.
AG: So, what’s going on right now? What are you working on? You’re on sabbatical, you’ve got a new book out…
MM: I kind of started working on some stuff last summer that I’m going back to. I’m working on trying to look at my hometown and the river valley that I grew up in. Of the Merrimack, where the Industrial Revolution started in America with the mill girl and immigrant labor. Passaconoway was a sachem, an indigenous chief, who saw the Mayflower land. He was a major figure of this place. And then the Europeans came, and you’ve got King Phillip’s War in this area, and then the Industrial Age, and then the mills go under, the Depression, the War, Creative Economy, new talent. I actually started with the Ice Age and I’m trying to build up in this one little space. This little bit of an area where all this stuff sort of happened, this microcosm of the country as a whole. And I’m writing all these poems about that place. Plus, trying to weave in personal narratives, little poems that show up of my own experiences growing up in this funky little mill town.
Individually, the poems are doing okay. I don’t know if they’re ever going to come together, so it might not even work. I think reading Tyehimba Jess’ Olio gave me delusions of grandeur about what I could do with a project. I thought, Ooh, I could do this big thing about this area. He was here at Exeter and hanging out with us. And I’m like, Ugh, I’m totally screwed. I’m going to try to do that. Mix that with Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and just do this kind of Small Place, Big Story. I don’t know if it’s going to work. Probably, it’ll be one of those books that kills the writer.
AG: So you’re doing a lot of reading and research going into that.
MM: Reading a lot of indigenous people, reading a lot of geological history, reading narrative accounts of mill girls. Dickens, his accounts of going there and watching this stuff. Obviously Thoreau and his Merrimack and Concord River essay, his take on it. And then it’s just such an immigrant town, so there’s an interesting take on that because immigration is a hot topic, it always has been. It’s a thing where we say, We hate immigrants! We need immigrants. Or we dig in and go, Be American. What the hell is that?
As it gets bigger, I think, How can I get some other voices in here? And then the problem is appropriating voices. Not wanting to steal someone else’s story, not wanting to take. Persona poems are fun, but I don’t know if I have the right to speak in Passaconoway’s voice, or speak in the voice of the Cambodian boy killed on his way home from school when I was in high school cause he was trying to quit a gang. Do I get to speak from his voice? Who am I to assume a teenage Cambodian kid’s voice, or a mill girl’s voice? Can I do that? How do I get into these places? Do I have a right to their stories? Which is, you know, interesting. Because the time we’re in is just more, Just let them tell the story, dude.
AG: Right. That sounds fascinating and complex. And quite different from your other work that’s out there.
MM: It’s going to be less “I” and less family. My kids don’t probably want to be in poems anymore.
AG: Can we talk about teaching and assignments for a moment? There are multiple poems in The Wounded For the Water where I thought, I could write a prompt that would generate this poem, or I bet he wrote this while he was teaching Moby Dick, or Was this a challenge to rewrite Walt Whitman’s “This Compost”? Could you talk about the ways in which the prompt, the assignment, or other texts from class play into your own writing and discovery process?
MM: It’s not just me, but a number of people in my department will write from prompts like, Try to write a poem in the style of Emily Dickinson. Or, Take any line from “Diving into the Wreck” and write your poem from there. Or, let’s do, Find the missing chapter from Sula. Write the chapter that’s not there. You know, that kind of thing where it becomes this imitative work. And it’s fun to go from there. It gives you a start sometimes. And then you can throw that off. It becomes like a scaffolding, or the stone in the soup so that you don’t need it anymore, but it can really be a great way to get into a piece. When a kid asked Jill McDonough what was her process, she just said, “Well, when I hear a poem I like, I rewrite it in my own words.” Which is kind of brilliant. She was being kind of glib, but she was also saying if it’s something that stirs you, you write from it.
When I was working on “Ordeal by Water,” I was deep inside reading a lot of Hamlet and Milton and Moby Dick and Dickinson and Eliot. And all those things were just popping out as I was getting to them. And I thought, Oh my god, this is where I am. This is Ophelia. Or, like, I used “grendel” as a verb because I had been doing Beowulf. Yep, what’s the monster that pulls you down? There you go. And then the Moby Dick thing was a lot because that opening chapter of the book where Melville says, “Whenever’s a damp, drizzly November in my soul. […] I know I have to get to the water as soon as I can. It is my substitute for the pistol and ball.” You know, I know that. When I am in a down place, I get to the water and it can switch things up. And then that poem becomes, What is the water? Literal water, but you’re drowning in the water of the people you live with and love, and people in the world in general.
AG: As a writing teacher, what are some of the biggest hurdles you see young people struggle with as young writers?
MM: Some of the kids just not believing that they have a skill, a talent for this, or that they have a voice—they have a story—worth telling. Everyone has a story to tell and worth telling. You gotta get them to buy into that a little bit.
The tough part is, if the kids are trying to write for an A, they’re just going to listen to what you say, like, Tell me how to get it down so it’s an A. That’s not how writing works, you know. This is all about writing and rewriting. You might have something that’s terrible right now that in ten years might be amazing. It’s not ready yet, so you’ve got to let it cook a little more. But you might write something amazing right away. They’re like, What? I don’t understand how that works. Well, that’s just the way it is.
And then this idea as a teacher of writing, I think Richard Hugo had that great opening moment of Triggering Town where he says, “All the time, I’m not teaching you how to write; I’m teaching you to write like me. But I want you to write like yourself.” That’s the trick, to let them write like themselves and get away from your ego. You want to give them some guidance, but you also want to give them a voice that’s their own. And sometimes you’ve just got to step back from yourself. Like, What are you doing, dude? You’re trying to tell them how to write this like you would write it. So you’ve got to be wary of that. You’ve gotta get out of their way a little bit.
And then they always want to know: am I any good at writing? And I always think of that Merwin poem by Berryman that ends with the lines—Merwin sort of asking his teacher Berryman, How do I know if anything I write is ever any good? You don’t, he said. You die without knowing. If you need to know, don’t write.
AG: Oh, that’s such a good zinger.
MM: Yeah. You’re writing for a different reason. And that’s so antithetical to prize culture, to the culture even in writing, the capitalism of poetry. Like, What is it good for? What can it do? What prizes can I get? I mean, it’s nice to get those things. It’s nice to get into good programs, but is that why you’re doing it? If you’re still doing it for that reason… Maybe I’m totally wrong, and I could have been more capitalistic. I mean, you gotta write because what’s the alternative, right? You gotta do it because you wanna do it.
AG: It seems stressful to navigate the world of writing: the prizes, the programs, the submissions. Just seeing what you do in terms of connecting with other people, being a good person, and just making friends in a way that does not seem motivated by capitalism is great to watch.
MM: You want those successes. It’s nice to get those. But some days you sit back and think, Do I really care about it that much? What do I care more about? Is my daughter healthy? Is she being hurt at school? Is my son happy? Is he sad today? That’s actually what I give a shit about. But you can get caught up in all that other stuff.
It’s a different brain. It’s not the writing brain, it’s the PoBiz mindset. I can do that for a couple hours a week, you know. Just be like [Miller affects a nerdy but moneyed voice], Yes, I’m being a professional poet right now. I’m going to submit some stuff, look for prizes. Blah, blah, blah. You know? And then you go take a shower, get that off ya, and go do something else.
I feel gross every time I put something on Facebook. I ask friends, Is it too much? They say, No, it’s a balance, it’s good. It took me years just to get on Facebook. When Club Icarus came out, I once asked Emily, “Can you post that I published a book?” She was like, “Really? No. Come on.” So I’ve kind of come around. If you’re, I think, a normal person, you don’t want to do that stuff. But sometimes you can switch into a person who just does that stuff. Yeah, so find some way to check yourself. However you’re gonna do it.
The whole thing of being a good person—if there’s this little world you can be a part of, it’s a little easier to just have fun with it. Give love, if you can. People like Jill McDonough and—I can name a ton of them—Brandon Courtney, Meg Day, Malachi Black, all these people who I’ve met who are just good. They’re good people. You might read them on the page going, Oh, I’d probably hate them! They’re so damn talented! And then you meet them and you’re think, That’s it. That’s an awesome person. I love that person. You love when you love them as much as you love their poetry or their writing. When you think, They’re even better than their poetry! And their poetry’s freakin’ great. For the most part, I think it’s a lot of good people.