Tim Miller, The Pursuit of Poetry No. 2
Interviewed by Bryan Helton
I first became aware of your work after stumbling across your podcast, “Human Voices Wake Us.” Let’s start there and then work back to your poetry and background. Tell me about the initial idea for the podcast. How did it develop? How does it relate to your writing?
I remember sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store just as Covid was starting, and I wanted to find a way to record poems I liked so that I could put them all on shuffle and listen to them during the day. Months later, when I actually started the podcast, I was only able to because the platform—Anchor—made this pretty easy to accomplish. At first, I imagined just recording the poems, with little to no commentary from me, but slowly the comments crept in to introduce a poem or a poet, or my own thoughts. Then, bits of prose I admired—from Jung, or Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia—I saw a way of making a recorded library of stuff I really enjoyed. I never imagined that it would mean anything to anybody other than me, since it’s still just making the podcast I want to hear.
I think you were the first listener to contact me and say you wanted more autobiographical episodes, and that reminds me that I’m just as interested in the story of the artist, as I am in the art, sometimes more so. I realized that many writers and artists that I love only came to me through intense personal and idiosyncratic experience, or by reading about how other people have depended upon the same work I have. Writing and reading are such isolating experiences, so that suddenly making them shared experiences can mean a great deal. This has led, as you know, to all manner of autobiographical episodes.
What it also does, though, is make literature and art immensely personal. In a world where this stuff merely seems to exist as fodder for theory, the podcast puts poetry and culture on the level of something you depend on for daily living, something that is experienced, rather than passively studied and argued over (even the most intense arguments over poetry seem pretty hollow compared to an intense experience it).
You often have episodes in which you read from and discuss biographies or letters of poets, novelists, and other creatives. What attraction does biography have for you as a reader and a poet? Do you see any particular benefits in diving into the personal lives of artists?
As I say in the podcast, knowing or caring about a writer’s life, or how they wrote, or what their favorite books or pieces of music are—none of this is about slavishly copying them. What an interest in biography shows is that these people are as human as you are, so that just as the details of their lives and methods are now enshrined in a book, you should care for your own methods in the same way, your own forms of cultivation. You should take yourself and your writing (or painting, or music, whatever it is) as seriously as these other people. In a way, a focus on the biographies of others should show you how important your own creative life is, your own story, your own meaning.
The second part is that, for me, art is about alleviating the loneliness of the creator and the audience. And swimming in somebody’s biography and letters makes me feel less alone. It tells me that somebody has been here before, doing something very similar to me. This is immensely comforting.
The reply to this, often, is that biographies are biased, and certainly anybody’s autobiography or letters are biased, too, but the subjectivity and flawed nature inherent in our knowledge of anybody’s life, including our own, just makes me love the stories of their lives more. Since at some point they are just stories, and we take from them the things we need.
There is such a corrosive desire, in the humanities, to make the study and creation of art something like a science. But knowing how limited even the best biography is—Heather Clark’s Red Comet (on Sylvia Plath) Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, Naifeh and Smith’s Van Gogh (not to mention Van Gogh’s letters!), Jan Swafford’s Beethoven—well, that’s a comfort, too. As a poet and a human being, I’m not after certainty, I’m after the beauty of experience, emotion, and the gorgeous uncertainty underlying all of it.
Now let’s talk about your background. Why do you think you became a poet? What was it in your childhood and early life that led you in this direction?
Perhaps my favorite episode of the podcast goes into this. Maybe the conclusions are just my own myth, the story I tell myself, but around the age of four I began to have hearing problems, and I had surgeries at least once a year until I was twelve. Each time, I would have tubes put in to correct my hearing, but each new surgery was preceded by a period when I and my parents and teachers didn’t realize the previous set of tubes had fallen out. So there were always these periods when I lived in almost total silence. I was apparently used to this. I’d also get horrible ear infections, to where it was so hard to fall asleep at night, and that was my first introduction to listening to talk radio, or books on tape—or, as I used to do as a kid, I recorded the audio of movies to listen to them. (I can still remember stacking boxes and pillows up to the TV speaker, and putting my first cassette player up to it to record.) The comfort I associated with these disembodied voices out in the world is beyond measure.
This tension, between silence and separation and loneliness, and the joy of hearing other people speak—but not myself being a part of the group that’s talking—is what I think led me towards poetry. Later, this was mixed in with grade school and high school experiences of first reading real books, Stephen King and horror fiction mostly, but always gravitating towards the heart of horror, which is fairy tales, myths, things like that. I also grew up Catholic, and was surrounded by the ritual and poetry of the mass, the songs, and the sense of importance given to readings, to the back and forth of singing the Psalms one minute, reading the Gospels the next, and then hearing a sermon. That’s basically the interplay of poetry, prose, and interpretation right there. (And it’s the strength of that experience that led me, eventually, to convert to Judaism) Add to all of this my sense of isolation as a teenager—or, let’s be honest, up until now—and I see I’ve always gravitated towards public forms of art to alleviate that loneliness. I became drawn to stories of poets, from Homer on up, who performed rather than wrote their stuff down. From well before I could articulate it, I gravitated towards poetry that was meant to be spoken rather than read quietly on the page, and the final verdict for anything I write (or read) is how it sounds out loud. This is also why, for me, narrative poetry is it: if you strip poetry of its place on the page, or how it’s laid out, what you’re left with are the words, and the words have to count, they’re the only vehicle.
Who were your early poetry influences? Which remain with you today?
If you look at the notes Eliot put together for The Waste Land, they’re probably all right there: Eliot himself was the big first poet I knew, but also: Shakespeare, the Arthurian legends, Classical mythology (Homer, Ovid and Virgil), Eastern philosophy and mythology (Upanishads on out, Buddhist Pali canon), and then other American and British poets and novelists—Whitman, Dante, Hesse, Joyce. I’d also have to point to early and intense experiences of movies as being just as influential as other poets—I’m thinking of Kubrick’s The Shining.
What are you working on now? Have you found a particular direction you want to take your new poetry?
I’ve been on something for a while now called The Great Year. It follows three people—a man named Smith, a woman named Bruriah, and a child, Isabel—from Eastern Europe to Iceland. It takes place maybe a hundred years from now, after the world has been emptied thanks to war and environmental disaster. Their goal is to find another child, make it to Iceland, and … well, I don’t want to give it away. But what they do to pass the time is tell the stories from mythology and religion, and I’ve come to see it as a kind of post-apocalyptic Canterbury Tales.
Generally, the story of their journey is told in prose, while the stories from myth are related in poetry. But since these three (and eventually four) people aren’t just mouthpieces, eventually you hear the stories of their own lives, and how the tales from myth and religion relate to and prop up everything they do. I’ve just got to the halfway point, and am happy to see that it still surprises me, that sometimes their personal stories take over the stories from myth. I’ve been most moved by how early readers have become attached to these characters, and want to know what happens to them.
But it’s given me the chance to try out every kind of poetry—free verse, blank verse, rhyming poetry of various kinds, folk songs, approximations of Greek hexameters and Anglo-Saxon alliteration, etc. There’s also the opportunity to approximate other aspects of religious literature, which does involve a mixture of poetry and prose in telling a narrative, but also simply in dealing with fragments. There’s a sense from some books or collections that people just wanted to throw every tradition or variant of a story into the pot, if only to preserve it. That’s given me the confidence to leave things ragged and appearing unfinished. If I do it just right, it will have the additional effect of suggesting a huge, unspoken whole, the kind of thing later writers can imagine and retell or add to, in the way of the Arthurian Romances, or just so much of Greek myth and the Hebrew Bible.
Speaking of The Canterbury Tales, when I was reading it this past spring, and oftentimes laughing my ass off, I realized The Great Year simply needs to have some humor in it—especially since it is about the end of the world. If I can accomplish that on top of everything else, I’ll be pretty happy.
Which contemporary poets do you enjoy? Which books have inspired you of late?
You know, I’ve spent the last many months going through all of the English poetry I own, and putting together an anthology of favorites. So can I name a bunch from the past that don’t seem to get the attention they deserve?
I’ve really been moved by the blank verse of William Cowper (1731-1800) and James Thomson (1700-1748), or Oliver Goldsmith’s (1730-1774) “Deserted Village”—even though all of them can seem as if they’re just road signs on the way to Wordsworth. Anne Finch (1661-1720) knocks my socks of consistently, especially her “Nocturnal Reverie.” Henry Vaughan (1661-1695), who is usually lumped in as a Metaphysical Poet, beats everybody else in those anthologies in my book. And I’d say go back to Chaucer, to Piers Plowman, to Anglo-Saxon poetry (not just Beowulf).
But really, with all the talk of whether poetry matters anymore, the stuff I’d recommend more than anything else are the poems that have lasted the longest, and informed entire cultures. What can Homer, or Gilgamesh, or the poetry of the Hebrew Bible, tell us? Read Keith Bosley’s translation of the Finnish Kalevala. (It’s partly what inspired my own long poem, To the House of the Sun) The compiler of the poem, Elias Lönnrot, went around the countryside in mid-1800s collecting poems and songs, and cobbled together a national epic. Outside of the poetry itself, which is life-changing, we can learn a great deal just from that process, and the motives behind it.
How, when and where do you write?
Before I became a parent, the answer was “you’ve got to be able to write a poem anywhere, at any time.” Now I’ve gotten better at writing a first line down during the day, or putting a note on my phone, and only getting to it at night, or the next morning when my daughter’s at school. The ideal time and place these days seems to be 10am at Panera, or 10pm at my desk at home.
The how has never changed: all poems start by hand, in a notebook, but almost immediately they make the jump to being typed out. It’s strange, looking at those notebooks, where the poems are all in their worst possible shape, but those are the notebooks I treasure most, each one a timeline of three or four years, intense stretches of weeks where something is written every day, or months where there’s nothing at all.
Describe the journey your poems take from initial impulse to final revision. Does the pattern vary much?
Poets talk an awful lot about inspiration as a starting point—a first line, or an image. But since so much of what I do is based on a historical figure, something from myth or religion, or an object from archaeology—the inspiration is already there. I’ve already got this vivid story or person that I’ve been attached to for a while. It’s a great shortcut, or maybe better a short-circuit. The question then becomes how do I make the poem a poem, as opposed to a lecture or a bit of imitation.
A case in point is a scene in The Great Year. The guy named Smith tells a story from his childhood when he lived in Anatolia, and met a woman, a sort of prophet, named Vulture. The place he goes to, which I don’t name in the poem, is Göbekli Tepe, a site from 10,000 BCE or so with the earliest monumental architecture. The story of this meeting is also tied into a larger discussion in the poem about the history of cities. So I read up on Göbekli Tepe, and on the history of cities, and wrote out the parts from each bit of research that hit me the most. When I sat down to write the poem, the list was next to me, but there was no pressure to include everything, and no pressure to stay baldly with the facts—this isn’t a footnoted essay, it’s a poem.
Something else happens, though, when I’m dealing with a myth or person that I’ve long had an affection for. One book in The Great Year is simply a collection of poems on religious and spiritual figures, so I got to put my hand to figures from the Hebrew Bible (Miriam and Ezekiel), and from the Arthurian stuff (Merlin, Morgan le Fay, the Lady of the Lake), Tiresias and Circe from Greek myth, and the Buddha. For these, I sort of refreshed my mind on what interested me about them, and was off running. Each turned into fairly long poems where each person spoke in their own, distinct ways, and each surprised me. It’s very clear, for instance, that figures like Merlin and Morgan le Fay, are more on the margin, and in their poems they were happy to sit outside of societal norms; whereas Miriam and Ezekiel (and the Buddha) are all immensely concerned in being part of a community, even if their status as prophets or wisdom figures makes everybody uncomfortable.
It’s strange, when I get an idea I sometimes feel the weight of it, it’s nearly a physical sensation, in the back of my head. When this happens I know it’ll be a long poem, I can already feel it. And in quick succession, back in 2017 or 2018 or so, the idea of a book called Loners came to mind: three long poems, three historical figures, three different styles.
A poem about Lee Harvey Oswald was going to take on all I’d learned from The Prelude about blank verse. A poem about da Vinci’s anatomical drawings would work in what I’d learned about the long line from Jeffers and Whitman. And a poem about Pythagoras’s life would be a place to figure out how Piers Plowman does what it does, and why it’s so compelling, the long alliterative line from the fourteenth century, which is a much different beast than the alliterative line of the Anglo-Saxons.
For Leonardo and Pythagoras, it was just a matter of sitting down with books about them—catalogues of da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, and details from his biography. And it was a good few months of just churning out poetry in response, treating the books themselves as prompts, and seeing what stuck. You end up with a stack of sections, false starts, but then you get really bright moments, or you just salvage a sentence or a phrase. It took a year or more to knock it into shape, and I didn’t see it become its own poem—that is, in a voice other than my own—until I started taking commas out, and let Leonardo ramble and flow a bit. Hearing it now, I have no idea which lines or phrases were taken from his own words. His thoughts and my thoughts have all been cooked together.
Pythagoras was a similar process, but much more difficult. I used to go off every Saturday to write, but by the summer of 2020, and with restaurants closed, I went to parking lots instead—strip malls, grocery stores, the library. I’d open the windows, shove the seat back, open the snacks I’d brought, and just sit in the car with a collection of the earliest writings about Pythagoras, and do the same thing I’d done with Leonardo: months of using lines from obscure writers from ancient Greece as prompts, and working with my own insights, and trying to tell the story of somebody’s life, somebody who was a myth in his own lifetime. The problem was all the alliteration—“Pythagoras” is easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever written, since you’re not just finding words in a line that alliterate, but you’re trying to soften the words around them so that the alliteration really pops out. But since what Pythagoras taught and believed is complex and secretive, the language that emerged from the poem matches that, it’s strange and unnatural but has its own charm; even if it isn’t your cup of tea, it’s like meeting a charismatic person: you realize he’s not bullshitting you, he’s running on batteries nobody else has, and he’s worth listening to. At least I hope so.