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04-30-2012

 
Wayne Miller

 

A Prayer (O City—)


O arrow landed deep in Harold’s eye—


O voice 

pressing upward against the sky—


O light and steam. 


(When the western windows

of the City go pink, the rooms behind them

lock shut with clouds.)


O clouds— 


     (Slipping down in the morning

to part around the skyrises, to marble

the rooftop shanties and gardens,

the hammocks and clotheslines.)


And graying water tanks— 

 

  (Our water lifted 

into the clouds—and me, drawing it 

down into my cup, my breath 

pressed to the shimmering surface.)


O City—


  (That breathes itself 

into the glass—that pulls me to the window

I press my gaze through,

I press my face to—) 


O City—


  (And the makers, 

who drew the City through the membranes 

of paper and canvas, 

giving the city to the City—) 


      O City—


(And our tables and demitasses,

woofers and fire escapes,

kisses in doorways, weapons

and sculptures, concerts

and fistfights, sex toys and votives,

engines and metaphors—.)


City of Joists—


(The City shot through with them.)


City of Doorways—

     (The City opens us,

and we step through.)


O Light-Coming-on-in-a-Window—


(Since you’ve opened the fridge,

opened your book, opened your room

to the room next door.)


O City— 

 (Pushing through the dark 

like the nose of a plane.)


O City— 

 (It could be a bomber, 

night-black, the instruments on auto,

the pilot asleep in his lounger.) 


O City— 

 (In the hull below, words 

are written on the bombs in Sharpie.)


———


(There’s also a folder of letters lying off to the side in the dark. 


In one of them, the pilot’s brother describes some fingerprints he’s

found pressed inside the lip of a broken jar. 


He’s an archeologist. The prints are from the jar’s maker—just after

the Battle of Hastings, near the end of the eleventh century.)

 

 

 

Dear Auden,


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, 

paperflecked streets


———


I once believed 

formed a bower of iron. 

 

 

 

 

Flooding the Valley


Then the City rose in the valley, 

filling first the long furrows 

in thin glassy lines, then 

the roads, the pastures, rising 


up through the porch boards, 

the floorboards, lifting bales 

of hay from the fields, climbing 

the fence posts, the woodpile, 


rising in the sooted chimney 

stone by stone, up the staircase 

to slide across the wood floor, 

soaking the featherbed, 


past the top of the banister, 

the grayed vanity mirror, 

climbing the trunks of trees 

until the leaves were swallowed, 


the City then scaling the long 

sides of the valley, dilating 

as it rose toward the sky, 

up its own great wall, where 


cars lined the roadway, 

where hands lined the railing—

then down the long chutes 

in white braids of froth, 


the City spilled out.



The Feast


1.


The table at which we sat had been destroyed in the war, then rebuilt

from its pieces recovered behind the glassworks.


The food was sumptuous. Beyond the leaded windows there were

hedgerows budding in lilac and white. When a streetcar passed clang-

ing, I suppressed a sudden urge to ting my glass with my spoon. 


Being strangers, we had little to talk about. So when at last Adam

stood, we tipped forward into the words of his toast with the zeal that

only strong liquor imparts. 


From then on, things were better. We began to laugh. By eleven, I

thought the night was a real success.


2.


I was lying just then—in truth we were terrified. We watched our-

selves twist in the bells of our water glasses. How could we know who

might stand to speak next, or what things he might say? 


None of the servers could talk in our language. When an airplane

buzzed the street, we all flinched in unison. 


In the hills, there were distant bursts of artillery—then vast swatches

of silence.


           -from The City, Our City

Watch Wayne Miller read his works here

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Poems - Bio - Interviews

Wayne Miller is the author of The City, Our City, The Book of Props, which was named the “Best New Book of Poetry of 2009” by Coldfront Magazine, and Only the Senses Sleep, which received the William Rockhill Nelson Award in 2007. He is also the translator of I Don’t Believe in Ghosts, a collection by Albanian poet Moikom Zeqo, and the editor, with Kevin Prufer, of New European Poets. The recipient of the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, the George Bogin Memorial Award, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and the Bess Hokin Prize, Miller currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and teaches at the University of Central Missouri, where he co-edits Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.

 

 

 

 

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Poems - Bio - Interviews

An Interview with Wayne Miller by Peter Burghardt for http://www.omni-verse.net/?p=2117

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.

 

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.

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An Interview with Wayne Miller by Jen M. Lagedrost for http://pionline.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/interview-wayne-millar/

“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.

 

Jen Lagedrost: 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?

 

Wayne Miller: 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.

 

JL: 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?

 

 WM: 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.

 

JL: 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?

 

WM: 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.

JL: 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.

 

WM: 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.

 

JL: 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?

 

WM: 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.

JL: As Editor of the journal Pleiades, how has your experience with the journal contributed to writingTCOC?

 

WM: 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.

 

Jl: 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?

 

WM: 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.

 

Poems - Bio - Interviews




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