Interview with Leslie Adrienne Miller
Editor's Note: Leslie Adrienne Miller reads as part of the Loft Mentor Series on Friday, April 20, 2012 at 7 p.m.
Chris Jones (CJ): When I read your new work, The Resurrection Trade, one line from a poem really stood out to me as a frame for the entire collection. The poem ends with the line, “the changed landscape of her womanhood.” I’m wondering if you can talk about how your research into historical anatomical studies of women revealed that changing landscape?
Leslie Adrienne Miller (LAM): It’s interesting that you quote that line, when I wrote The Resurrection Trade I started by being interested in feminist geography, which is a fascinating and burgeoning field of study. I read a few books on it, and I thought it would be interesting to try to map out space in poems as women experience it-- which is, of course different from the way men experience space neurologically and physically. For example, women have different notions about public space versus private space, and I wanted to explore how the mapping might be done in language. I was developing poems in that vein when I ran across Natalie Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography, a study of the history of the female body which includes a history and science of each body part and how people have thought about it over time. In the course of that book (which I highly recommend) she mentioned several of these images from the history of medical illustration that captured my imagination. I went looking for those she mentioned, and I found one, and then another and another, and I discovered a treasure trove of these images existed in old medical books and archives. At first, my search was just a sort of weird obsession/fascination, and I wrote a few poems about the images that most captured my imagination and then followed my curiosity to other books that could help me answer questions about these images. Who were these women? How did they end up on dissection tables and eventually in these odd medical books and collections? What did people know/not know about the female body in the past? By the time I'd written three poems, I knew I had the backbone of the collection and I would have to keep going.
Then I started doing more specialized research for the book and discovered history of medicine archives. It was new territory for me. I have no training in this area, but I found friendly and generous archivists at medical libraries were eager to help me. The archivists at the History of Medicine library in Kansas City were just great. They sent me facsimiles of anatomical collections and they talked to me on the phone, suggesting that I look at this or that new item. They knew the material very well and were elated someone was interested in it. The people at the National Institute of Health were generous too. In fact, the cover image comes from the NIH's "Dream Anatomy Exhibition, an online show of a few of their holdings that I found early on in the process. That cover image is by the medical artist Gautier D'Agoty, whose anatomical atlas of the pregnant female body eventually inspired the long central poem in The Resurrection Trade. Once the book came out, the NIH invited me to come and give a reading at the History of Medicine Library, and they, like the archivists I encountered elsewhere were pleased and excited to find that interest in their collection had gone beyond the medical profession.
CJ: You mentioned finding that backbone for a collection of poetry. There tend to be two schools of thought when it comes to books of poems. There is either, “these are my newest and best poems” idea or there are books which have more of that thematic backbone. Your work seems to fall more into that latter category. So I’m wondering if you can talk about how you find that backbone, and if that is something you prefer in books of poetry?
LAM: I don’t know if I prefer what some people are now calling the "project book." I didn't think about that when I embarked on The Resurrection Trade, but it's fairly specialized material, so I needed to build a context for it, and I was grateful for material that was both linked to my emotional life and yet very remote from it. More generally, I think having a project gives more shape to a book. The book itself becomes another poem, a book that’s more complex in many ways than a book of best hits because the poems interact more with each other. For most people, however, a first book is always a best hits. Certainly my first book was, but it also represented a much longer period of work. There were 15 years in my first book because it takes a long time to build an audience through literary magazine publications, and for first books, that's necessary to get across the publisher’s desk. They want to know you already have readers waiting for the collection.
But, as you write more books and you write them more rapidly, you have more sense of how a book works as book; you feel the structure of a book more completely as you’re finding your way to it. It's a pleasure that comes with writing multiple books, and it’s a pleasure that I’m now unwilling to give up. I can’t imagine now writing another best hits sort of book, unless at some future point I get to do a “collected” or "selected" volume.
CJ: In one of the Mentor Series sessions, you talked about the rise of memoir. You said memoir has had a huge impact on poetry, especially confessional poetry. And I also read somewhere that you said that if you play with a reader’s sense of truth, you piss them off. So I’m wondering if you can talk about the role of a speaker in a poem, and whether poets can get away with a fictional self or not?
LAM: I think poets still can get away with a fictional self. I hope they can, but it really depends on what readers expect and assume. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a real self, especially in the written form. We like to think there is (or more precisely, readers like to think there is), but…I’m a huge fan of literary biographies, and if you read more than one biography about a particular writer, you will find, very often, that the subject feels like two different people even as the biographers may be working with roughly the same set of biographical facts. And that to me is a demonstration of the fact that there are multiple selves that depend as much on who is reading as on who is writing the self. Not to mention the fact that when you write a book, you’re presenting a very deliberately selected, even a constructed self. And the whole process that goes into writing that self is a process of winnowing away a lot of what might be closer to the self that your friends and family know, and highlighting a self that you want to present to the public, even while it may still be a self that feels intimate. Even the most biographical collection of poetry you can imagine, I would still say is in many ways presenting a persona.
But I think that readers like to feel like they know the poet's "real" self. They make very intimate contact with that self as they read-- it's one of the pleasures many have come to expect of poetry, and readers become attached to that self because it's part of them finally! That’s why they get pissed off if you tell them it’s not "real." It’s always certainly part of you because you wrote it, but once the reader has invested in inhabiting that self, it's disappointing for the writer to kill it off with glib statements about its being made up. Critics, I think, sometimes get in trouble when they assume the written persona and the biographical self are one person, but when that does happen, at least you know that you've created a convincing persona!
CJ: Who are some of your favorite poets to read?
LAM: Oh, I hate that question. Because it changes all the time!
CJ: Well, who are you reading right now?
LAM: I read different people for different reasons. There are a lot of poets I like to read because they teach me something I want to do right now. There are poets I read because I can’t do what they do and I envy it and want to see what part of them I can inhabit myself—and I think those are probably my favorite ones to read. I’m thinking poets like Anne Carson. I don’t know where she gets that voice, but I love it! Everybody loves that voice. (I think it’s because I’ve heard her read, too. [Then] you hear the real Anne Carson voice when you read her on the page.) So I love to read Anne Carson, but I don’t write anything like Anne Carson, nor would I want to, exactly.
Mary Ruefle is another one I love because she's wonderfully odd, and also because she manages intimacy without autobiography. A recent book I enjoyed was Laura Kasischke’s Space in Chains. Laura Kasischke and Mary Ruefle have some things in common in the way they use certain kinds of surrealism, and I'm attracted to it even though it's something I don't often do myself. I should say that I don't know any of these poets personally, and there's pleasure in that too because my experience of the work is more pure that way.
CJ: So would you say that when you’re reading other poets, you’re looking for something outside your own work? That you like to find voices that are different from your own?
LAM: Yes, absolutely. I do. I dislike poems too much like my own. It’s just too familiar. I don’t learn anything from it. I read because I want to grow as a writer, and I can't grow if I'm reading work that does things I already know how to do.
Jordan Smith, a friend I went to Iowa with years ago was recently quoted by colleague of mine as saying, “I know that when I read a book that I really hate, that book will be one I completely love in another year or two.” I've often had exactly that experience. I think if you read a book that you actively hate, a book that gets under your skin in some way that really irritates you, you’re going to eventually love it, because you’re going to have to figure out how and why it got under your skin, and once you do you'll have an enlarged sense of what poetry can do.
I asked something like this of the Mentor group too. “What was the last book you read that annoyed you? Or that you hated, that really got under your skin in some way? And why?” We talked about that in the first seminar, and it was fun to hear the variety of writers the group put forward-- and to hear how the wheels started to turn as they talked about the work and why it had gotten to them, even in a negative way. Of course, for people who read a lot, this process is something we go through continually. It's a way of learning who you are as a writer, where you think you fit, where you think you don't, what you’re pushing back against, why you’re pushing back against it. Very often what gets to us is something new that we’re not ready to let in to the space of our art yet. And once we’re able to let it in into the space of our art, the space gets bigger and better.
CJ: Tell me a little bit more about your Mentor Series experience, and working with the mentor participants, and what that’s been like.
LAM: There have been two very different kinds of experience in the Mentor seminars. There are the meetings with the larger group with mentees working in all three genres, poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and there are the more intimate meetings with the four mentees in poetry alone. At first, I wondered how I would address the larger group because they’re at different levels, as well as in different genres. Some are really new to writing and some have been at it for a long, long time and have been published and are well along in their careers. And so getting something for them to do as a group that’s meaningful to everybody in this vast range of levels and genres is tough.
I decided that I would give them a kind of project the first seminar weekend, which was way back in the fall, and then we'd check in about it as the year unfolded. The project was, essentially, to revisit a writer who may have meant one thing to them at some early point in their lives as writers, and who they would now revisit and reassess. The model for this project is an essay I've long loved, Robert Hass's essay "Looking for Rilke" from Twentieth-Century Pleasures, which I shared with the group. This revisiting of a long ago loved writer is something I’m doing myself as a project right now, so I thought that would probably work for anybody over the course of a year and give us a common struggle. Ideally, I thought each mentee might might get an essay out of it, but even those who may not have had the time or inclination to work toward a finished piece of writing about it could easily benefit from the process of looking again at a writer who surely must mean something different now than they did in an earlier stage of one's writing life. I hope the group is enjoying that project, and even if they aren’t, I’m enjoying hearing what they’re doing. They all chose vastly different writers for vastly different reasons, and in some ways their choices and what they've done with them have given me more insight into the mentees than even their own writing samples have.
CJ: One last question. You mentioned that you’re working on something right now. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
LAM: Yes, my sixth collection of poems, Y, (think Y chromosome) is coming out September 1st from Graywolf. It's in production now, so this period when the book is about to come out is one of the busiest ones. There are exciting decisions about design, cover art, cover copy, etc. to make. This period when a book is moving out of the hothouse of one's own mind and into the capable hands of the publisher is the first step toward real readers, and then reviews, so it's both exciting and frightening as it moves toward physical reality.
Y is a natural outgrowth of The Resurrection Trade's extended meditation on the relationship between science and art focused very specifically through a series of medical images of pregnant women, but Y focuses on the child. Y extends the meditation on (or mediation of) science and art, but in this collection, the subject matter and research materials include a more eclectic mixture of sources from the sciences (biological and social) on the Y chromosome; the social and cognitive development of children's language acquisition; the fabled "wild children" of Germany and France; the rift between theology and science (belief and "fact") that Darwin's theories introduce into Western thought (and subsequent disciplinary divisions); some materials on the history and training of boy sopranos (a science of its own that links male physical and spiritual development); as well as historical and contemporary materials on the "reading" of the human face. Uniting these interdisciplinary forays are more traditional poems addressing the moral and linguistic development of male children, the philosophical conflicts inherent in this task for the adults who must manage this development, and the parallel dilemma of the contemporary poet for whom traditional poetic strategies like narrative and extreme subjectivity are increasingly inadequate and/or in need of renovation. Taken altogether, the poems in Y attempt to find connections between and among these areas of study as they probe the elusive mind/body, nurture/nature dichotomies in human male development-- which cannot, of course, be seen or understood because they are dynamic, unstable, but they can, through metaphor's momentary magic be glimpsed, the only satisfaction we humans are likely to get in contemplating this complex of ideas.
Leslie Adrienne Miller is author of five books of poetry, The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See from Graywolf Press, and Yesterday Had a Man in It, Ungodliness, and Staying Up For Love from Carnegie Mellon University Press. A sixth collection, Y, is forthcoming from Graywolf in spring 2012. Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, she holds a PhD from the University of Houston, an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, an MA from the University of Missouri, and a BA from Stephens College.
Chris Jones is the Loft's marketing and communications director.