INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN PAUL MILLER by Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: Most of the long poems in Skinny Eighth Avenue, your latest book (East Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk Press, 2005) include extraordinarily relaxed conversational flow with casual topic shifts and a juxtaposition of fairly dense cultural theory and historical citations with dialogues with your young son Noah. It’s not easy to pull this off, but you do. How do you begin such poems, how do you keep them flowing, and how do you revise them to avoid excessive chattiness, cuteness, arbitrariness, etc.?
Stephen Paul Miller: In the eighties Phil Donahue asked Jane Fonda, “Jane, you do SO many things. How do you do it?” and I thought that was the ultimate softball question, so THANK YOU! Jane said, “Well, I’m Jane Fonda, people help me.” So in a way she didn’t choose to hit the ball out of the park, but I have a similar answer. I can write poems that are hopefully relaxed, conversational, topical, and yet also theoretically and historically engaging because I, like everyone, am different “people” in the same skin. The person and professor part of me interface because I don’t necessarily separate them.
So when I work on a problem, it’s natural for me to test it out with my son. I don’t mean make him part of a laboratory experiment but rather to note how his comments and actions might apply. That helps with starting and continuity. Note the beginning of the first poem in Skinny Eighth Avenue:
I’m Trying to Get
My Phony Baloney Ideas about
Metamodernism into a Poem
30 or 40 dollars.”
my 7-yr.-old son,
a stupid little man
who makes you
pushes what follows
like a vacuum cleaner
says Bruno Latour.
We turn and
valley between two
South Californian hills—
At the Delmar Hilton, we run into a new doctors’
and I enjoy coffee in a china cup
“Can there be
an invention convention?” asks Noah from
the back seat on the way to SeaWorld.
Greeks say “postmodern.”
“of the moment,”
—as modern means—
World War II,
so say “post-World War II/modernism.”
World War II
similar to it.
Noah sees me writing
“invention convention” and says
“anything you say can be a poem.”
Near three SeaWorld sprinklers
he reads Shamu the Whale’s
cartoon bubble: “Caution, Wet Area.”
In the bathroom Shamu says:
“Caution, Wet Floor.”
“Shamu really cares if
people slip,” jokes Noah. We soak in the sprinklers
though you never know
which sprinkler will squirt.
“We’re always naked,” says Noah,
“You have to grow clothes you can’t take off not to be....
I actually do come oddly close to getting some answers to the questions concerning nature and culture by the end of the poem, but I think I need different techniques of poetic misdirection to get there.
Also, I feel comfortable writing overly detailed, loose, and wacky first drafts because I know I can and usually do completely edit everything with extreme poetic concision and continuity in mind.
TF: When you say “continuity,” which has been a very loaded word in innovative poetry communities for the last three decades, about a poem like “I’m Trying to Get My Phony Baloney Ideas about Metamodernism into a Poem,” do you mean that there’s a unity of subject matter or attitude? And are you aware of it, say, in the second draft?
SPM: Good question. There are two continuities that feed off each other. Sure, I sometimes work with premise and inquiry. As a poet-critic that seems important to me. May I preface my answer with something I’ve been thinking about poetry criticism?
SPM: By the way, I just googled Poet-Critic Blog and something about you was the first thing to come up.
SPM: No kidding. It was about After Taxes. Check it out. Anyway, I was going to say that some poet-critics use poetry as a substitute for a PhD (understood in the best possible way as a “doctor of philosophy”—that is, as a way to operate on knowledge and communicate wisdom and information) in terms of English department teacher of literature job requirements, but I sometimes want to keep the best of communication in my poetry.
In other words, I don’t use poetry to supplant criticism as much as I use criticism to drive poetry. I mean I couldn’t have written interesting criticism in the first place without poetry in the sense that Aristotle described poetry as the comparing of incomparable things. Of course, though, as Stevens suggest such comparisons need to be grounded. I couldn’t have applied Watergate to “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” without a poetic attention to detail.
I’m fully aware that language is about play and not communication, but it seems amazingly powerful to cross that play with communication, letting it impact and even change the communication. I was asked to give a talk at Tel Aviv University about poetry criticism, and I just started writing it. Here’s the beginning:
“I accept your poetry as cultural criticism but
why,” asks a prof evaluating my promotion,
“is it poetry?”
“Attention to language,” I answer but screw it,
I don’t want to be a poet anyway!
The committee’s confidential but thank you!
Thank you Prof. Kinkley!!! Isn’t
poetry the only thing duller than criticism?
I’m a poet-critic!
But no-poetry derails criticism, p-critics chose
the absorbent mess, says Charles Bernstein, over
the neatly false reflection—
Poetry-criticism contextualizes non-stop,
blotting out criticism!
I’m a shmegege poet-critic.
Of course, I’m being coy. The point is I respect the wild mess of poetry, but criticism can be messy poetry too. By the way, this is a weird poem for me to write because I pride myself in writing poetry-criticism about subjects other than poetry like the way Andy Warhol would tell his actors to talk about anything but the camera, but anyway....
So to answer your question, the criticism part of poetry-criticism is the macro level that aids in settling a ground to go wild in, the way Chuck Close says he can go crazy within a photographically-derived gridded pattern. Poetry can’t be separated from this level because you need to compare the incomparable, which is the life of your argument. Criticism and poetry meet halfway between, where the macro and micro meet, with superb attention to detail.
Poetic continuity is in smaller elements and the continuity in the discontinuity of how one relatively non-random string of words follows another. Sometimes a surface continuity can bridge a wild theoretical juxtaposition, giving you an opening to play off and develop that juxtaposition.
Greater order comes without forcing it, like how it’s said ants, for example, don’t know from order and have nothing to do with the totalitarian stereotype of them. Instead they relate to the ants near them. From small responses, more effective orders emerge. Similarly, birds maintain complex flight patterns by noting the birds next to them. That's how I spatially and semantically arranged “I’m Trying to Get My Phony Baloney Ideas about Metamodernism into a Poem.” Continuity in my poems means partly not bumping into the "bird" nearby.
I hear pleasing music in the seemingly unrelated, and this makes poetry possible for me. It allows for continuity and relation, but it varies links of relationship in a completely unforced manner. Sometimes the question of relation is completely up for grabs, Continuity is fun. Of course, John Ashbery implied some of this when he spoke of O’Hara and him hearing an aleatory Cage composition in, was it 1951, and the poets realizing that chance could be so much more beautiful than anything they meant. I tend to assume continuity, so drawing it out is pleasant, an affirmation of both continuity and discontinuity.
TF: What’s tough is to arrange extremely heterogeneous verbal materials in such a way (in a long poem) that the birds don’t bump into each other. On the second page of the “Metamodernism” poem, Noah makes the anti-totalitarian assertion, “’anything you say can be a poem’” (4). That’s a bit different from “you can say anything in a poem.” Do either or both of these permissions seem right to you? Why or why not?
SPM: A poem isn't the willing suspension of disbelief as much as suspension itself. Anything can be a poem, but it’s not necessarily a poem—I guess part of what a poem is keeping language in play even if there is a referential function happening up front—I mean there can also be referential play. Also, you can say anything in a poem, but it won't be that good unless it generates and sustains a kind of suspension (suspension bridge?). Part of what suspension is is never quite knowing the context or truth value. That's part of the flight pattern.
TF: This sounds a little like Keats’s negative capability but with a lively deconstructive troping on “suspension” as both temporal delay and spatial continuity. To stick with the “Metamodernism” poem for another minute, what impelled you to give it the intriguing zigzag shape that you did? And later in the book, what gave you the idea for the lovely architectural tilts of “’The Hustle’ and Its Liquid Totems of Holocaust, Suburb, and Computer”?
SPM: I guess, as you say, it is Keats with a John Cage-like foundation and Derrida-like motor. Does that make sense? I'm reminded of telling John Cage when he asked me what poets most influenced me that he had, because he made me aspire to a poetry that didn't disturb nothingness. I forget the exact words but they are close to the words I use in one of my poems about John Cage in The Bee Flies in May (East Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk Press, 2002).
John Cage has a little to do with the line breaks and indentations in the “Metamodernism” poem. I wrote a poem for him that he responded to through chance I Ching operations. I was impressed by the elaborateness of his work on line length and indentation. My poem had a soupy, prosy quality that I also admire. However, it occurred to me that my attention to language might not be apparent. I recall showing the poem to the poet Kenward Elmslie. Maybe I was paranoid, and I guess I should have asked him, but I had the feeling that the tangibility of my language got lost in the long lines. I had used relatively short lines before then, perhaps a bit influenced by James Schuyler, but that format didn’t seem quite right for my super-discursive poems.
When I wrote my book Art Is Boring for the Same Reason We Stayed in Vietnam (Domestic Press, 1992), this problem was forefront in my mind. I figured out a way to write what seemed to me a new kind of expository poem, a form that could convey ideas and debate of a somewhat mainstream nature while using academic, though not necessarily overtly poetic concerns, and still satisfy a thirst for reflexive language. I experimented with extremely short lines that made the flow and segmentation of the language apparent.
It was as if the whole poem were one long line that also accommodated a plethora of lines. It was uncanny. It provided both the flow and attention to and play with detail I wanted. (I think you have to give Dana Gioia credit for noting that line breaks in particular and visual presentations in general add greatly to poetic form.)
The format of the “Metamodernism” poem similarly creates attention within flow while allowing me to mix long, medium, and short lines as the situation seems to warrant. I simply placed a line under the previous line but started it after the start of the previous line. I did this until the right-hand margin was reached and then worked in the same manner backwards toward the left-hand margin and so on until the end of the poem. In editing I occasionally left the spacing rough to vary the pattern, I used this form, among others, in the “Liquid Totem” poem, but I used a more regular version of it in which I only moved each preceding line a space or two to the right or left of the previous line so it seems more geometric and the unformatted rough edits seem more idiosyncratic.
TF: I remember you told me when I was writing about Art Is Boring in the late nineties that, before composing the poem, you determined, in Cageian fashion, that each line would not exceed one inch. Since you strictly adhered to this rule, many lines had a single word or two, though even three small words occasionally fit. I’m impressed with the paradox of very short lines “equaling” a single-lined long poem, especially because the poem’s discursivity is so fluid.
In The Bee Flies in May, your son Noah’s drawing appears on the front cover, and in Skinny Eighth Avenue, his drawings grace not only the cover but are interspersed with poems. How do you regard the relationship between the son’s drawings and the father’s poetry? How do they “perform” in concert as parts of the “field” of the book?
SPM: I'm sorry, I was just thinking, the reason it can be hard to theorize in a poem getting back to your first question, is because poetry is in things not ideas, as Willliams and then Stevens says. So what's the point of ideas?
I process ideas through solid symbols and characters, and from a theoretical perspective, this makes sense since ideas are grounded in history and experience. Also, a “thing” can be an impression. In fact, isn’t that the main “thing.” You want to imply something that seems to have a life of its own that is more than the author’s limited reality. A poet can give the impression of a limit, a reality, a tain of the mirror, and you edit the chattiness and all based on (and against) the larger impression’s limits. I don’t think I answered the first question.
TF: No, that answer makes sense.
SPM: Also, I don't think I conveyed to you the idea behind my line-breaks. In poems like “Overflowing Pockets” and “Officer Stephen Paul Miller,” which I wrote before Art Is Boring, I discovered that it was beautiful to hang "enjambed" line-endings to the right because the eye can flow with them. Art Is Boring continues this through a flow oddly made of chops. “Metamodernism” continues the “Overflowing Pockets” idea by continuing the flow from margin to margin. I think it creates a Mobius strip kind of effect wherein the three-dimensional becomes two-dimensional and flows. I like the notion of the seemingly solid liquifying.
In Art Is Boring, I maybe foolishly had some lines—I don't think too many—made of words like "the." Maybe I was fooling myself, but I felt that in the context of the poem those words were worthy vehicles of attention and contemplation. I thought of making some of the lines bigger but it didn't feel right. I didn't think of it at the time, but I guess it was like Cage doggedly following the rules he started with no matter what, despite any advice to the contrary. I remember him being so proud that he wouldn’t give in to pressure. I don’t know what the pressure was.
As regards Noah's art in my books, it started with a performance we did at The Drawing Center. I wrote some stories centering around things Noah said. This became “You Think You Are Dreaming Because You Can’t Feel the Bed.” Then in “Metamodernism,” I had Noah illustrate some of his quotes. But in Cageian fashion, I asked the designer of Skinny Eighth Avenue, Claudia Carlson, to select which of Noah’s art to use. Interestingly, most of the overt connections were deleted, which is interesting since it produced a visual music of the unrelated. Something ekphrastic is going on in that book, but I don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?
I associate discursive poetry with a hyper-childlike imagination that Noah inspires. Only by breaking things down to the seemingly overly simple can you move the sticks of poetry. Poetry is in this way like science. Einstein wasn't kidding when he said that he was mostly just a stubborn kid. He said that all he did was doggedly pursue what light was really like based on a childlike question. Similarly, Alan Turing invents the computer by wondering what you have to do when you figure out anything, and his answers seem almost too simple. But he realizes that they allowed him to compute mechanically and from there win World War II by breaking the German code. The “Metamodernism” poem juxtaposes the positive simplicity of these kinds of thinkers and the negative simplicity of neoconservatives and theocrats. Near the end of the poem I describe Noah's sandcastle. That kind of ekphrastic energy seems integral to that poem. It's a way for the poem to work backwards from theory to the trace of the concrete, a kind of trace that I think is so important to Einstein and Turing, who both risk being incredibly stupid, and I think you need to take that stance to write an effective expository poem. Sometimes you can be concrete in the sense of conveying things not idea by simply moving toward a paradoxically intangible concreteness. You can approach rather than rely on the limit, the reality, the foundation of thingness. After all, "thing" comes from the Old English for "a coming together." Right?
This relates to your first question. You work backwards to the sense of conversation. Didn't Elmore Leonard say something like when something sounds like writing he rewrites it?
TF: Well, you sometimes follow the rules you create, as in the example of “the” in Art Is Boring, but in general, your poetry insists upon the flexibility of conversation, of dialogue, over any formal programmatic structure.
In your three books, I find a good deal of critique of right-wing ideology and probably neo-liberalism, too. Some poems have delightful satirical heft, and so they’re not exactly reaching out to the opposition. However, I sense in the more sprawling, dialogic poems, including Art Is Boring, of course, that there may be an opening for right-wingers to sit down and talk, not necessarily to convert you or to be converted, but to probe for common ground. Am I just being naïve or is that so? And if so, where, how?
SPM: As concerns formal structure, it goes back to the seventies when I felt that you could somehow internalize what I thought was the aim of formal programmatic structure--to bypass the expected productions of the ego. I thought that by finding the music in life as it approached you and in yourself as you responded to yourself unexpectedly, you could achieve Cagian ends. I wonder what John Cage would have said if I ever told him that. He might have seen something in it. I remember Cage saying he liked Laurie Anderson's work for "her personality."
Anyway, I want to answer your question about the right. I don't write about politics to convert anyone. I write about it because there seems to be a lot of poetry in politics. It is in part where we all come together. Republicans and conservatives have often told me they like political work of mine like “George Whatever Bush, or It’s in the Bagh Dad” or “Iraq Iran the Clock.” I don’t know why, but they don’t seem offended or threatened by it. I suppose that's bad, but it indicates that whatever they think of Bush they can somehow suspend disbelief and see my Bush. Also, I suppose many on the right wing see themselves as rebellious, and they can relate to me. Another growing factor is that the neocons make older kinds of right-wingers feel they are dangerous, overspending risk takers. So if the Democrats could only navigate the cultural waters and vote-counting, election-running straights there does seem to be a Democratic majority emerging.
In terms of my poetry, poetry and politics come from similar places—our stock of what can work as collective productions and communications and miscommunications. Of course, everything does but the seemingly overt communication part is particularly big in poetry and politics. After I saw Jimmy Carter in July, 1976 I wrote a poem that ended—wait, I have it with me:
We see in him
His appeal to us as if we were guests at
Each other's dinner, the dinner-ware beside the point.
I have this overly grandiose image of Carter and I both thinking we are one another's guest—the political and poetic unconscious in double space, the way the Jewish temple and Islamic dome are really one. Getting back to your right wing question, yeah right, wingers start from valid premises. Now more than ever, though, valid principles of conservation and individual rights have gotten sidetracked in a big satire fodder, possibly hypocritical, School for Scandal-kind of way. No one's for that. It's just that a distrust of government for the public good more than private profit, distrust partially valid, partially unconsciously racist, blinds many to the obvious. Maybe the big emotional divide between left and right works to the detriment of the left since the left should almost by definition be for the majority, and the more we can de-bullshitize the conversation the better. The problem is that when you see the kind of murder and theft that goes on in the name of what the neocons are really against, the more that just pointing it out pumps up the volume. Did you know that Einstein was one of only three faculty at Berlin University to sign a petition against rushing into World War I?
TF: When Michael Moore de-bullshitizes the conversation, he tries to expose to the working and middle class of this country how big corporate leaders, buttressed by their right-wing apologists, not only “stimulate the economy” and “service the shareholders,” but downsize, outsource, pollute, prop up oppressive regimes in poor nations, promote pointless wars, etc. Like you, he uses humor with much juxtapositional irony, but precious few in the audience who were not already leaning in that direction seem to rethink their positions—at least if the last Presidential election is any barometer. I enjoy his humor a great deal, but conservatives probably find it mean-spirited, divisive, and disrespectful. At times, I feel he is reaching out in a populist way to talk with those who disagree with him, but, more often, I sense that, since “Roger and Me,” Moore has solicited his opposition, in the Derridean sense of “shaking” (confrontation). Fahrenheit 9/11, for example, keeps going for the knockout punch, even if humorously, and that might make some in the middle question his overall credibility and might even justify the strengthening of a bushy inoculation against de-bullshitization. (The movie does include one concession to Bush’s viewpoint: it shows us what a powerful golf swing he has.) I’m grateful to Moore for all he’s done and am hesitant to put forth these quasi-negatives, but I’d like to ask you whether any of the dynamic that I’ve sketched in reference to Moore resonates with your own preoccupations as a poet for whom politics sit on the tableware.
SPM: First, it's hard to call the election a rebuke of Kerry, since he came so close to winning and might have won without what George McGovern recently called "shenanigans" against him. But, yes, I can identify documentary film makers. A lot of the truth-telling, editing, story-telling functions are similar in documentaries and poetry. It would be interesting to base a fictional poem on film fiction techniques. I wonder if I could do that.
In terms of Moore, I think he in part saw a good movie in beginning by pointing out some of the obvious hypocrisies of the Bush administration. When conservatives bash the opposition it is called energizing the base, and they tend to flat out lie. So how can you fault Moore?
I suppose some people feel that if Democrats were in office they would steal too, so I guess they have a point. The only difference is that there would be a little more of attempt to cope with real problems, and since Bush doesn't believe in government anyway there's not much to do besides appointing cronies and bullying whomever he can.
By the way, I'm just thinking that in terms of the question about people not taking long lines as real poetry, John Ashbery makes a point in interviews of saying that long lines are hard to write.
TF: You are a master of outrageous one-liners in poetry. An interview like this is an opportunity to “cheat” as a reader and ask for glosses of these, but I’m only going to do that once. In the poem-play, “George Whatever Bush, or It’s in the Bagh Dad,” the “American Economy” tells the “Right Wing,” “You’re the kind of guy a perky/ economy can be seduced by. You’re pure sex./ . . . I should be scared,” and the latter replies: “You’re right. I’m not LIKE the sixties; I AM the sixties” (Skinny Eighth Avenue 35). There’s a pun in “right”; the U.S. economy is regulated by right wing principles and is therefore correct, according to Bushistic/Cheneyvian standards, but hey, how could the right wing be the sixties, especially since, in your book The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance (Duke UP, 1999), you play the liberatory potential of the sixties against the coercive self-scrutiny and surveillance of the seventies?
SPM: Not exactly. I speak about Reagan and the new right wing appropriating an anti-government-, let nature take its course-rhetoric—at least in part from sixties counterculture. In addition, the notion of something not being like the sixties but the sixties makes me think of an abrupt change in cultural paradigms so, in that limited sense, “Right Wing” might think of himself as the sixties.
TF: Okay, I understand now. It’s shameless appropriation.
I just remembered another outrageous line I feel compelled to bring up, and in bringing up another such line, I’m not assuming that you write your “beliefs” in lines of poetry but that interesting possibilities jostle against each other. In “Living with You Is a Community,” you write: “I edit before I write from decisions I never/ think of” (41). Here’s my take: If you “edit before” writing, that means you think and rethink, and the criteria for the editing might not be something you’re consciously aware of, but floating in your unconscious. Close?
SPM: Probably. When I wrote that I was thinking of the way Andy Warhol said he edited "in the camera," meaning I guess that he didn't edit but planned the continuity of it as he filmed. The editing was in the filming and the idea for the film itself (or in my case the impulse animating the poem). Even though I edit, I still try to get to a point where it doesn't seem that way. Of course, the line you are asking about expresses a sentiment that has a life independent of its truth value. In a way, a character in the poem is saying it. Sure, the character is me but I can act in lots of different ways. I felt very spontaneous at the time. Actually, that poem is probably more cut than edited. Some of the little parts of it didn't work. Other phrases I changed later simply because they didn't sound right. But that poem at its core is very spontaneous. So is the “Metamodern” poem, but I cut out larger portions. The original manuscript was book length.
TF: I started out this interview by mentioning cultural theory, and I want to close by asking you how you regard the relationship between your critical writing—not only book-length projects like The Seventies Now (which covers fiction and poetry, cinema, visual art, Derridean/ Foucaultian theory, and Presidential politics), but your work on New York School poets and art criticism—and your poetry? Are they fundamentally one entity in different formats, or are there important distinctions? Do they fulfill virtually identical or different functions for you?
SPM: When I was 19 and sitting in Meher Baba’s tomb, I imagined Baba saying “I want you to be a writer,” which was unusual to me because I was beginning to think of myself as a poet. Through the years, I’ve kind of heard that same tone of voice telling me to get a PhD, etc. Even in the seventies I thought my poems were driven implicit criticism and “theory.” I’m using my collaboration with John Cage as a springboard to publish some of those poems in my next book, Dip, which Jensen/Daniels is publishing. Here’s something from those poems:
...The concrete demands in space, a ferry riding into them, the lightness of
air a barge,
The plural tone of a lovely spread, the morning as crack of dawn.
It is this bridge that keeps the earth inside my teeth,
Tug and barge co-exist comprising a triad with the novel….
(from “Yankee Stadium”)
What could be better than substitution——purging through
a colored eraser?
(from “Keeping away from School”)
A journalistic energy of all the world,
A thing that will work because it embraces the gaps
Which breed skies and clouds in them.
This is content, a basis from which mist may be formed.
What I’m getting at is that I was writing in a world saturated with criticism and theory. I was interested in myself living in a world that could be perceived by criticism, and in a way theory is criticism with a worldview. John Ashbery’s work and David Shapiro as a teacher as well as his work not only gave me permission to explore but also the tools to do it. Even in the seventies, Barthes and other critics were important to me. Art criticism too was very powerful, in part I think because of its ekphrastic engine.
Anyway, I really couldn’t write criticism until I could do it as a poet. I don’t think there is a clear line between criticism and poetry. For me, it is not only about being creative but also starting out from a creative place. My criticism is hopefully well-reasoned, but that adds to the poetic effect. I like a demonstration of a thesis that is as fabulous as poetry as it is true with a truth you’d never suspected. For me, that’s exciting because it puts the very work on the line. I’m writing a critical book now about the computer, suburb, Holocaust, and liquid totems. Maybe when I am done I will try to write a book length poem that tries to synthesize my critical works and move beyond them.
Actually, my “Hustle” and “Metamodern” and “Pleasure” and “Row” poems help develop critical theory problems and personal problems in a kind of laboratory. So poetry and criticism come from similar impulses, but institutional pressures divide them. Although criticism and poetry have different advantages, criticism need not be as visceral. Personal experience and playfulness aren’t as much of an issue. Criticism provides a different kind work area where “truth value” can be enough. And that’s oddly easier than the kind of demands that poetry requires. Even though poetry can be a relative free for all, it has limits that criticism does not have in terms of concision, language, and tone. So we need both forms though sometimes I want poets to be more critically cutting and critics to be more stunning. Criticism is a little like rock in that the next step is always in front of you and tends to recapitulate the prior step but if you are good at it you get somewhere else very quickly. I’d say cultural criticism is harder than literary criticism and poetry is harder than cultural criticism. I think it can all get pretty exciting.
TF: I share the hopes that you hold for poets and critics. Thank you, Stephen.
A special note of thanks to Steve Tills for formatting help with this post. TB