Hold the Mirror up to Nature: An Interview with Matt Miller


Matt Miller headshot

Selected by Major Jackson as the 2012 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize winner for his sophomore collection, Club Icarus, and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow, Matt Miller published Tender the River this year with Texas Review Press. He is the winner of the 2019 Nimrod International Review’s Pablo Neruda Prize and has published poems in the Harvard Review, The Rumpus, and SouthwestReview. Miller also wrote The Wounded for the Water and Cameo Diner: Poems. He currently teaches at Phillips Exeter Academy.

In this interview conducted by Kerrin McCadden, you’ll find a poet engaged in an exploration of rivers as national symbols of disparity, dispossession, hope, and boundaries. The meaning of “being from somewhere,” or “home” is thoroughly examined in Miller’s responses, as it is in his poetry. McCadden’s inquiry ignites the discussion until it becomes a lesson on craft, self-reflection, the history of a place, and the biography of a country as told by a poet who can make cobblestone and metal dance, who can teach us how to listen when memory tries to speak.

Kerrin McCadden: Can you say a bit about your turn, in Tender the River, to writing poems that are so rooted in Massachusetts’ Merrimack River Valley? What motivated this focus?

Matt Miller: I’ve always written out of my town and stories of my youth, as many of us do. But I’ve never focused on the place as a whole topic for a book, as the reason for a book, as the land and water itself as if they were characters in the foreground. I guess it started with the river, the Merrimack, that starts in New Hampshire and winds through the top edge of Massachusetts. It cuts through so much of my life, historically and geographically, as I cross and recross it, driving around this part of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, surfing near it where it dumps out into the Atlantic by Plum Island. Even the town I live in now, Exeter, was taken by John Wheelwright from the Pennacook sachem Passaconaway, who lived up and down the Merrimack, whose son Wannalancit defended his people against the Mohawk tribes on a hill across the street from my middle school where kids bought weed in high school. The river, and its stitching of canals, cuts across and creates socioeconomic and even racial lines in Lowell and other towns. So, I went back to it to find the source of not just me but of us, as a nation, as humans having our brief stay on this rock. But by going back there in words, I realized how much I am not a part of it, even though my mom lives there, my mother-in-law, friends. I think I hit on that in “Echo Tourism,” where I recognize that I am a tourist there, a tourist in my own past. I’m not a local anymore and that hurts. My vision of the place is a mosquito caught in amber, not the living breathing place it is for the people still living there. I hope I honor their lives and their stories. But I know I came up short and I know I could not catch all of their lives in a thousand books.

KM: Tell me about how your language shifts in this collection—where the highly textured musicality and even formal inventiveness ties in to your investigation of place. Talk, too, about your process in carving such a sonic landscape into this work. I am thinking of lines like, “In your / hydraulic drop prayers are tossed like toasts / to tilted pints,” and “Make me small again, roll me in your lap, / your mud, your moon lit blood,” from “Invocation at the Merrimack,” and, in “Echo Tourism,” “There’s rattle // in the leaves, in levers / left to settle in the mortar // and granite of tunnels, turbines, / in the rule of a tower bell.” And “River Valley Hexaemera” practically sings, “stone // stitching lenticular hills of till birthing drumlin / after drumlin calving kettle ponds….” 

MM: I was trying to catch the language of chipped red brick, the cobblestone, the deafening shuttling metal of power looms, the vernacular of the people. I guess there’s a violence to the language as well. And that may be just the way English works. I’m reading Frankenstein with some of my students and one of them posed a question about whether language itself, especially a language like English that was once the language of the colonized and then became the language of the colonizer, has an inherent violence to it because of how it developed out of violent experiences. But nothing exists in itself, to borrow from Melville, so maybe the beauty is there as well, maybe they can’t exist without each other, maybe they can only be defined by what they are not, what they rebel against and at the same time dance with. 

KM: I’m wondering, was there a day you remember—or a single moment—when you knew you’d be turning toward the river in poems? Can you isolate that spark? I think in this question I’m wondering how the idea for the book came about—that moment when you knew where you were headed. Was this book written entirely after your last, or have you been collecting these river poems in a folder somewhere forever?

MM: “Invocation at the Merrimack” was the poem that launched me. I was in a coffee shop in Durham and it just sort of landed on me, most of it anyway. I caught this leaning forward iambic rhythm and just went with it. I started thinking I might have an idea for a book but I had no idea what I was going to do. I thought about a book length poem, a novel as poem, but nothing settled into place. I just kept my ears and eyes open—to memory, to the river and the town. I did research and read a lot of the geological history, the human history. There was so much about the indigenous tribes I didn’t know. What I did know was elementary school myth and bullshit. Anyway, poems started coalescing around that first poem. My last book was already at the press as I got into this one. This whole book came together quickly, but the ideas and the stories had been in my head for years. “Echo Tourism” was the only thing that was pulled out of an old file but at the time it was just a few lost lines. When I attached it to the language of looms and flywheels and clock towers it finally figured out what it wanted to be. 

Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler from some years back was in the back of my head as I was writing, the way it looks at a place and works through inherited forms. Tyehimba Jess’s Olio in the blood too. As this book was coming together, trying to find a way through, Willie Perdomo shared his manuscript for The Crazy Bunch with me and just that idea of catching the language of a time and place started to stick. And I really wanted to do what Hart Crane did with The Bridge, as much as I understand that book. “Crack of Light,” the last poem, is my weak-ass attempt to emulate that, but instead of a bridge it’s a smoke stack wrapped in Christmas lights named after a Pennacook sachem driven from his land. And being from Lowell, Kerouac casts a shadow. He wrote five books about Lowell and the Merrimack is ever a character in them, especially in Dr. Sax. He had his many flaws, and my grandmother didn’t like him taking off with my grandfather on benders, but when he caught the right beats and rhythms, he really caught magic. 

KM: You work in Tender the River with a variety of epigraphs, both as section markers and to begin poems—usually from non-poetry sources—and there are a number of poems that are inspired by other “source” poems—so there’s a lot of dialogue with a variety of other people in this book. I wonder if you could speak to the work you did to gather these. I find myself perhaps overly interested in this collection of yours as representing a large shift in your work—not just in focus (turning to the landscape, history, a depth of place through time), but also formally. There is a significant formal range across this collection. I’m wondering to what degree this dialogue with source material forged your formal inventiveness in Tender the River

MM: I heard Jill McDonough being asked at a reading what her process for writing poetry was. She said basically, “When I read a poem I like, I rewrite it in my own words.” It’s a kind of flip answer and Jill is funny as hell but it’s also true. Reading poems launches me into poetry. “River Valley Hexaemera” I wrote after reading Brandon Courtney’s Hexamäera in his brilliant book This, Sisyphus. I had all this research and all this language in my head but didn’t know what to do with it until I saw Brandon’s poem. They are very different, and his is way better, but it gave me a shape, and I pounded the first draft of that seven-sonnet sequence in one day at the Vermont Studio Center looking out the window at the Gihon River. Then Lynn Melnick’s “Twelve” gave me a way to look at how amazing a person my daughter is, especially compared to me when I was her age. That poem about Eve bumming a smoke—I was reading about the politics of gendering nature, like I do with the river, and then I’m suddenly down this rabbit hole for two days reading about menstruation and the taboos and myths around it and you could write a whole book about that. This book is a lot about boys getting lost on the way to being men, but that female element was important too, that voice that was not always heard even when it was most vital. Like in “Textile Triolet.” I had never written a triolet so I figured I’d give it a go. In trying to catch a sense of what the mill girls lived through, I listened to a loom machine video on YouTube at full volume for a few hours and realized I needed to get that sound in there and so I kept listening to it until I found letters for that machine noise. Formally, I had thought about doing a whole book of blank verse, and then as poems started to show up, the whole thing in inherited forms, like Rocky learning to fight righty, I would shift away from the open verse that dominated most of my past work, then send it off to the Donald Justice Prize and beat out Chad Abushanad’s amazing book The Last Visit. But not all of the poems agreed with that plan and I was thinking a lot about the politics behind these inherited, invented-by-white-men forms. There’s a ton of blank verse and iambic lines in here but when the river speaks as a woman, I didn’t want to corset her voice with Milton and Shakespeare. When the river talks in that tough-guy voice, I made it a double sonnet because as tough as he wants to sound, he’s still yelling from a basement apartment in his parent’s house. “Ceremony Drowned” is a villanelle and was published as standard looking villanelle. But I hated the tightness, the controlled lines on the page, so I broke it up all over the place so the sound of the villanelle was still there but was visually chaotic. So, it was a mix of what I was reading in poetry and the source material talking to each other and me trying to find shapes to hold those conversations on the page. 

KM: I so appreciate hearing how research and the influence of source material guided your hand formally. The range of formal invention and variety in Tender the River is striking. I love how, in this way, the river “spoke” to you as you wrote. You don’t only write about your own experience when addressing Lowell and the Merrimack River—but also other cultures, both contemporary and historical. How did it feel to write in such a variety of personae? Can you address what you discovered was required of you, regarding writing and pulling together poems to tell this nuanced story of place and people, as a white person and a man? I am wondering what you weighed to build the poetic ethics that inform this collection. 

MM: I didn’t set out to write in these voices but after “Invocation,” I was thinking about the nerve of that guy to ask the river for more, after all it has given. So “Said the River When I Begged for Her Song” is the river pushing back on this kind of very white male entitled request for more. Then the issue of making the river a woman seemed to also be a very male move, and then gendering it all became so human-centered and problematic—so “Said the River When I Begged for Their Song” is the river sort of laughing off the assumption that human language and ideas of gender could hold it at all. 

I used to write a lot of fiction and I have always enjoyed writing in personae, in character, to inhabit another person and their experiences for a while. But it is obviously a difficult time to be doing it because of the danger of appropriation and robbing someone else’s story. But I wrote a few poems in female voices. I hope those work because I felt that those pieces only worked in first person and I felt in a way I was channeling the voices of strong women I know, like my wife Emily, as they take on blustering manboys, like me. I very consciously did not speak through BIPOC personaes because I knew it was too far away from my experience and ability to do well. I had one poem using a speech by Passaconaway so that it was his words. But even that speech is likely a translation so I scrapped it—I allude to it but didn’t use it as him speaking. And as my editor J. Bruce Fuller put it, you don’t really gain anything by doing it well and risk everything by doing it wrong. Even just sharing stories from my point of view that involved others, I wondered if that was appropriation. That’s what “Ars Poetica” is kind of about. What right do we have to use someone’s life or death for a poem or story? I don’t even like that poem. I don’t like me in that poem. But it needed to be in there. I needed to signal clearly that I was aware of how I was using other’s experiences, even if they involved me. 

I hope it is nuanced, that I did justice to their lives, that they are not just props but complicated and complex humans. I can’t write the Pennacook story. I don’t know what Marcus really felt after getting hit by a machete in “Boys Beyond June.” I can only write how my story touches and has been affected by their stories and these histories and to acknowledge the status and power I have because of some of those stories, because of the way history played out and how my gender and race and sexuality all have a role in a whole shitload of hurt and destruction. I can’t claim to be innocent of racism or misogyny because every second of the day I benefit from it. You don’t get to say things like, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” when the very bones that hold up your body were made strong over the centuries by the blood of those disenfranchised or denied their human rights. And I am also not looking for absolution or someone to wave a wand and absolve me of guilt. There’s no getting the spot out. So, I just want to show it, hold that mirror up to nature. Look at that. Two Shakespeare references colonizing my words, like some monster in my thought. Now it’s three. 

I don’t think I have any clear wisdom of masculinity and manhood. Most of my wisdom comes from Emily, from my children, my brothers, my mom, from the people I teach with, and tons and tons from my students. To paraphrase Malcom X, all praise is due to them, only the mistakes are mine. And I think anybody can come off wise in a poem or story. Revision is a hell of a tonic. But day to day I’m still a jackass way too often. Maybe recognizing that is the key. Own your faults. I guess what I am trying to do is reflect on it and try to be better than I was the day before. My dad worked in consulting, fixing sick companies, and he would always start with a question, whether the company was two years old or two hundred. He asked them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” No matter how old or sure of ourselves we are, I think that is what we all need to be asking ourselves all the time, as individuals, as a nation, as a planet—what do you want to be when you grow up? And then take steps to get there. 


Matt W. Miller’s Tender the River is out now from Texas Review Press.


Kerrin McCadden is the author of American Wake, out this year, and Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, winner of the Vermont Book Award and the New Issues Poetry Prize, as well as a chapbook, Keep This to Yourself, winner of the Button Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She is associate poetry editor at Persea Books and associate director of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching at The Frost Place. She lives with her family in South Burlington, Vermont.

Hold the Mirror up to Nature: An Interview with Matt Miller

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