“With poetry, I’m always trying to make sense of the world.”
Amy Miller is a Publications Project Manager at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the author of eight poetry and nonfiction chapbooks, including Tea Before Questions(2010) and Beautiful/Brutal(2009). She won the Cloudbank Poetry contest, the Whiskey Island Poetry Prize, and the 2010 Cultural Center of Cape Cod National Poetry Competition. She has also taught workshops on writing and publishing for the Jack London Writers’ Conference, Oregon State Poetry Association, California Writers’ Club, and San Francisco State University, and was a co-founder of the Piccolo Poetry Series, the largest poetry open mike on the San Francisco Peninsula.
EB: What does it mean to you to be a poet? (What is the poet’s goal? Why do you think poetry matters?)
AM: I suppose poets are like any artists; there’s a certain mystery about why we do what we do. With poetry, I’m always trying to make sense of the world. And for me, making sense begins with patterns. That may come from the fact that I grew up around a lot of music and visual arts. Poetry has become a natural outlet for expressing ideas in language that repeats and rings and has rhythms and patterns of its own. And I can’t speak for all poets, but my goal is to try to turn myself on my ear—to make myself look at something differently than I might have otherwise. And then, if I can turn the reader on his or her ear, all the better. With that in mind, I think poetry matters very much, as much as music, as much as fiction. If a reader remembers a few lines of a poem while she’s standing over the sink doing dishes, then it calls up a creative force in her as well, an expansion, maybe, of what she thought was possible—I can say this differently, I can look at this differently. Poetry is an active art; the person reading the poem brings his or her own life and experiences into the transaction, and the transaction doesn’t stop when the poem is consumed, because it’s never consumed but instead takes root in the reader and grows into something else, something unique. That’s a powerful, organic process.
EB: How has being a poet affected your feelings about language?
AM: I tend to think about concepts in terms of metaphor. It’s a chicken-or-egg thing (also a metaphor!); I don’t know if I naturally gravitated toward poetry because I use metaphor a lot in everyday life, or if I use metaphor because that’s the way my brain’s been trained by poetry. But I often have trouble grasping a concept in everyday life until I can find a metaphoric way of thinking of it—oh, okay, this work project is like a train; people get on and off at these various stations, and other tracks meet up with it here and here. Often, processes and procedures are meaningless until I can explain them in terms of something else. This goes back again to making sense of things by finding patterns. And humor is often expressed in simile; a lot of good jokes come from simile, because absurdity is fun—It’s like [this other thing completely unrelated].
EB: When did you first begin writing poetry (and why?).
AM: I started writing poetry when I was 12 or 13. I remember being very taken with e.e. cummings; we must have been reading him in school. I used small i’s and wrote in fragments on drawing paper, usually at a slant so I wasn’t a slave to the line. I wrote about horses and boys and war and the usual preteen angst. I also drew a lot back then, in charcoal and pen-and-ink; I always planned to be a visual artist. The two arts had a similar feeling—that splash on the blank page, the brain taking the chaos of creation and balancing it into some sort of order. I got away from that cummings fragmentation for a long time, but recently I’ve been going back to it, and it’s very freeing.
EB: How do you write? (At a desk? Walking around? Filled with coffee?)
AM: I usually write poetry in my favorite chair in the living room, or in bed in the middle of the night. I almost never write poetry at a desk, and I always write it longhand. A computer keyboard is too speedy for poetry; I’m used to that delay between the thought and the word getting written down, which serves as a sort of first edit. I try not to have too many rituals about writing—coffee, etc.—because I get bored with routine. But I am superstitious about pens; some seem to have better poems in them than others, and most of my favorite pens are cheap ones from hotels.
Most of my best poems, the ones that I thought really took a creative leap, were written at 3 or 4 in the morning. I usually wake up during the night, and that’s a fruitful time to write, when the barrier between waking and dreams is thin. For a poet, the subconscious is an invaluable ally; it’s got all the best ideas.
Writing poetry is a very different process from writing prose. I can say, “I’m going to sit down today and write an essay about how it feels to quit a job.” And then I’ll sit down and do it. But I can’t say that I’m going to sit down and write a poem about it; if I try to, nine times out of ten, I’ll end up writing about something else, or I’ll just end up writing crap. Thomas Hardy said something about how poetry is a seedling you find in the morning, meaning that part of it simply has to come to you, and you don’t have a lot of control over that.
EB: Who are your poetic influences? Who are your poetic heroes?
AM: I already mentioned e.e. cummings—a big influence early on. My favorite poet is Anne Sexton. I went to high school in Massachusetts, and she was a Mass. poet and had died just a year or two earlier; she was a favorite of my poetry teacher and we read her all the time. Anne was a master of taking words that had never seen each other before and putting them together to make a surprising new phrase, like “the swan-whipped Thoroughbred.” She also wrote often in rhyme, but she used enjambment (ending lines where you wouldn’t naturally pause) so effectively that sometimes you don’t realize that the poem rhymes. There’s a certain free association to her writing—as if she pulled words at random out of the air and made them work in the context of the poem. Her writing is full of surprises.
Louise Gluck is also a big influence. One of her hallmarks, in my mind, is the ability to start a poem out in a particular direction in the title or first line, and then immediately veer off someplace else, someplace you were not expecting to go. She also has a blend of elegance and harsh cynicism that I like; she keeps the reader off balance. She lures you in, and then—the knife.
I was also influenced very much by Dylan Thomas. He had that free-association thing going on too, those wild turns of phrase that were like a well-trained horse jumping the pasture fence. And one of my professors at San Francisco State, Truong Tran, turned me in a new direction. He was always urging me to look at white space, to use the space available and give it meaning. He works in all these unusual forms—a single line that makes up an entire book (one line per page), skinny poems, prose poems. I also read a lot of John Witte, a Eugene poet who works in unusual forms too, tercets and intricately shaped poems. I’m also highly influenced by literate songwriters like Richard Thompson and Neko Case.