A Prayer (O City—)
O arrow landed deep in Harold’s eye—
against the sky—
O light and steam.
(When the western windows
of the City go pink,
the rooms behind them
lock shut with clouds.)
(Slipping down in the morning
to part around the skyrises, to marble
the rooftop shanties and gardens,
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.)
(That breathes itself
into the glass—that pulls me to the window
I press my gaze through,
I press my face to—)
(And the makers,
who drew the City through the membranes
of paper and canvas,
giving the city to the
(And our tables and demitasses,
woofers and fire escapes,
kisses in doorways, weapons
and sculptures, concerts
and fistfights, sex toys
City of Joists—
(The City shot through with them.)
(The City opens us,
and we step through.)
you’ve opened the fridge,
opened your book, opened your room
to the room next door.)
like the nose of a plane.)
(It could be a
night-black, the instruments on auto,
the pilot asleep in his lounger.)
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
found pressed inside the lip of a broken jar.
He’s an archeologist. The prints are from the jar’s maker—just after
Battle of Hastings, near the end of the eleventh century.)
City in its ball rolled forward—
(the same City that, in its jar,
The City was the wall I lay
then the City
was the voice I spoke into.
When gunmen exchanged fire
my yard, the City
filled the bullets, which so briefly
breathed in their motion.
Later, the City was
threading through birdsongs.
listened from the sun porch,
which seemed to hang
above the rotting picnic table.
City was looped in the ring
I gave my lover to say: we would
live together inside the City.
July, the City hissed with light
at the sparklers’ blinding cores.
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
O Auden—O City—
what abstractions I had:
the illusions I swung from
your neoned, crisscrossing,
I once believed
formed a bower
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
hay from the fields, climbing
the fence posts, the woodpile,
rising in the sooted chimney
stone by stone, up the staircase
slide across the wood floor,
soaking the featherbed,
past the top of the banister,
the grayed vanity mirror,
the trunks of trees
until the leaves were swallowed,
the City then scaling the long
sides of the valley, dilating
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 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
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.
then on, things were better. We began to laugh. By eleven, I
thought the night was a real success.
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
-from The City, Our City
Watch Wayne Miller read his works here
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.
Poems - Bio - Interviews
Interview with Wayne Miller by Peter Burghardt
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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
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.)
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?
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
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