You’ve also published two chapbooks and are awaiting an upcoming 2012 book release, Y, on Graywolf Press. How have you changed over time as a poet and a thinker?
A: I’m certain that change has occurred, but I don’t think I’m the best person to chronicle or evaluate that change. Probably the most important agent of change is one’s reading diet, what we were reading when we wrote a particular poem or book—and what we read in general. Keeping that net as wide as possible has been a particular goal of mine. And wouldn’t I love it if my university asked me, every year, instead of the usual final report, to simply chronicle my reading influences for the year! I’m sure I’d be a better writer for it, and probably a better teacher too.
Q: In your collection, The Resurrection Trade, your work points toward some philosophical and historical notions of feminism, humanity and the meaning of beauty. You are able to weave important discussion points throughout your work. How important or conscious, to you, is it to create poetry that urges the reader to think about the way we see the world?
I can't imagine any serious poet who doesn't think consciously and constantly about the necessity of working toward this goal. It's essential, both in its gesture toward the reader and in its massive challenge for the writer.
Q: Your upcoming work, Y, is set to be released by Graywolf Press. What are the elements that have inspired that collection?
The forthcoming book is a poetic study of the y chromosome's portrayal in popular and medical texts, as well as an exploration of several famous cases of feral children, the historical and medical arts of reading the human face, and technical and popular accounts of vocal development in young boys, Y is ultimately an exploration in poetry, sometimes playful, sometimes deadly serious, of male developmental issues in biological, social, cultural, scientific and theological conceptions of male childhood (which is to say: meditations on toilets, toys, children's books and music, circus performers and other significant subjects in the contemporary male child's field of experience).
Q: Your aesthetic is grounded in beauty, including your descriptions, ideas and stories. Even while discussing topics of macabre or gruesome nature, your language doesn’t fail to shimmer. This is difficult for some poets. Many people hold the belief that poetry must be beautiful, while some modern trends show poetry that is so concise and experimental that it appears devoid of sincerity. A poet once told me that poets today are afraid of being beautiful. Do you think this is so?
A: Well, beauty is a mental construct, so many artists find absolute notions about it suspect, myself included. Fear of it is a different matter, perhaps, but we all should certainly be open to questions about it, and I try to stay conscious of the constructed aspects of the beautiful in language even as I am also very attracted to it. It is an essential part of the poet’s job to remain open to new and evolving conceptions of beauty both in language and in life, and I am always trying for that as well as trying to resist a kind of mourning for former conceptions of beauty.
Anyone who reads much poetry of the past will be caught sometimes in this mourning process, but I have to say that I admire a lot of new, young poets who seem quite a bit more free of nostalgias than I am, and can read and use poets of the past without feeling quite so attached to certain notions about them as I am. One “beauty” I really can’t give up, though, is my love of a gorgeous sentence: I love hypotactic unraveling of an idea, and I can’t quite get, in my own work, to what I think of as full complexity without that elaborate syntax. That’s not, however, to say that other poets can’t arrive at conceptions of beauty in other ways, elliptical ways particularly, and as we see more good poets working with a variety of elliptical styles, we will surely reach a point (if we have not already) where it becomes as conventional as a conception of stylistic beauty as any other.
Q: Who are some of the poets and writers that have inspired your work? Where do you find inspiration?
A: I’m not even going to attempt to answer this one because there are too many, and at any given moment, the sources of inspiration are different, often having less to do with what I "like" reading than what I need to be reading. My mind has an uncanny way of gravitating toward what it needs, and I might sample half a dozen different books before I find one that drives me (hence the great piles of partially read books all over my house just waiting for some moment when my mind shifts directions). A great deal of what has inspired my work has probably been outside the realm of poetry; even inside poetry, inspiration comes from odd places, as easily from reading uninspired work as from reading those pieces that take off the top of your head.
Q: What can you attribute to your successes and prolific nature? The path to becoming an established poet is always questioned, by emerging poets, students in M.F.A. programs and those whose poetic careers seem to have lulled out. How can one consistently work being seen in the poetry field?
A: It’s funny you should ask that question because I was just this morning thinking that my output has been much less prolific than that of many others my age, and though I sometimes fret about that, I like to remember poets like Elizabeth Bishop who made their reputations on a relatively small output which left us all with a taste for more. Public readings of poetry are often like that too. A wonderful poet who yammers on and on past the allotted time will certainly wear out his audience’s welcome, whereas the one who gets up and delivers several real gems and leaves the audience wanting more is the one I’d rather be.
I was lucky enough to publish my first book early on, but I write more and more slowly with each book now. I put a lot more poems in the “dead” pile than I used to, and that’s partly because I have the freedom to do that. I don’t feel compelled to publish everything I write, and in fact, I think a lot of successful poets probably publish too much. Even when the work is fully competent, putting too much of it out in the public tends to dilute it, but so many of us who teach are under great pressure to publish constantly. I think it’s better to publish a few strong pieces in a few well regarded journals than to blast dozens of poems out into the internet just to get noticed. For a poet, working under the radar of great notice is actually a blessing many of us don’t value enough.
In a world where we’ve all given up so much privacy with our presence on Facebook, Twitter and personal websites, there is something to be said for being hard to find! It might hurt our sales, but it might also keep us more honest, more focused on what’s important. Nobody gets into writing poetry for the fame of it, or at least nobody should. I love repeating poet Bill Matthews’ quip that “famous poet is an oxymoron,” and I think we will find, in retrospect that many of the finest poets of our time were working quietly behind the scenes, some even running from the limelight and the scourge of rampant careerism.
Q: What do you think are some of the ways poets can take their work from being interesting to being extraordinary? What are some key ideas you keep in mind when writing and editing your work?
A: There are probably as many ways of doing this as there are people writing, and so any answer I might give would be a bit ludicrous. There are the usual bits of advice, to take risks, to ask questions, to fight against your own strengths, but I think there is still probably no better advice than to read a great deal, and particularly to read and to teach, if you are lucky enough to have poetry classes, work that you don’t completely like, but which seems to be doing something interesting anyway.
My students are often incredulous when I admit to them, usually at the end of the semester, that I chose a text for the class I didn’t really love. They assume that we teachers are always picking our favorites for them, but if I did that, I wouldn’t be learning anything myself, and teaching situations in which we aren’t learning anything are also teaching situations in which our students aren’t learning anything. So I teach different books every semester and try to mix books I admire from the get go with books that operate under aesthetics very different from my own, and I work together with my students to find the value there.
She has been the recipient of a number of prizes and awards including the Loft McKnight Award of Distinction, judged by Alice Fulton, two Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowships in Poetry, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, the PEN Southwest Discovery Award, two Writers-at-Work Fellowships, a Pushcart Prize, the Billee Murray Denny Award in Poetry, and a number of prizes from literary magazines, including the Anne Stanford Poetry Prize, the Strousse Award from Prairie Schooner, and the Nebraska Review Poetry Award.
She has also held residencies and fellowships with Le Château de Lavigny in Morges, Switzerland; Fundación Valparaíso in Mojácar, Spain; Literarisches Colloquium, Berlin, Germany; the Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat in Lasswade, Scotland; the NALL Art Association Vence, France; and with Arts International in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Leslie Adrienne Miller’s poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Best American Poetry 2007, American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Georgia Review, Ploughshares, and Crazyhorse. A Professor of English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, since 1991, she holds degrees in creative writing and English from Stephens College (B.A. 1978), the University of Missouri (M.A. 1980), the Iowa Writers Workshop (M.F.A., 1982), and the University of Houston (Ph.D., 1991).