David James Miller is the author of CANT, and of the chapbooks As Sequence, and Facts & Other Objects. His poetry and critical writing may be found, or is forthcoming in: Jubilat, YellowField, Touch the Donkey, LVNG, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Jacket2, Drunken Boat, and elsewhere. He lives with his family in Lawrence, where he edits elis press, and SET, a biennial journal of innovative writing.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My life was already in the middle of major change when I got word that Black Radish wanted to publish CANT—I was literally driving a carload of my family’s belongings across country from the east coast. That news was an incredibly encouraging confirmation of what’s going on in those pages. I’m really grateful to the editors for getting behind books with unique poetics, and everyone at Black Radish has been wonderful to work with.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
From writing songs to poetry. I’ve been a musician for half my life, so playing guitar and singing in high-school indie-rock & punk bands, I had to come up with words for those songs. I wouldn’t have been able to say it at the time, but I realize now that I most liked song lyrics that were more surreal, and music that was more oblique. After I began reading poetry, I’ve since realized that I preferred poetry that was more dense and taut in its language. Now, I think I try to work out these influences in my poetry. In relation to the writing in CANT—this is maybe something more about affective listening through open constructions & subjectivity.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Whenever it starts is when it starts. Lines accumulate over time & in response to connected reflective observations. I tend to think of things spatially & sonically, so this usually gives me a sense for the need to position the poem in relation to space. Maybe this makes each ‘project’ more connected to others than they are separate.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Definitely short pieces—friends have commented on that aspect of my writing for as long as I’ve been writing. I’m always thinking about how a poem or a piece works with or against others. Individual pieces often arrive out of particular listening experiences and observations.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love reading. Though, I’m pretty sure I’ve noticed that some people are uncomfortable with the amount of silence I invite during my readings. I think about this silence/space a lot when I’m writing—how does reading reflect a concern for the space/s we inhabit, and how we inhabit them? How does a poem? Where is there & where should there be room? How can the poem—and how can I—respect these spaces?
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Probably something about affective listening. It feels strange to admit this but I often feel like I understand the world through listening. When I’m overwhelmed with sound, however quiet or loud, I start sensing shapes and colors. Sometimes I notice sounds from the immediate environment that our brains might otherwise tune out—I’ve also got permanent tinnitus, which complicates my listening & hearing experiences. I want to point out though that I don’t see this as a disability—hearing is a privilege in a lot of ways, & it’s often one that goes unnoticed. So I’m always aware of how attention to sound and its spatial-relations reflects attention to how language and logic works. The act of attentive listening is, I think, analogous with social relations, politics, and with our economic and climatic realities. So, for me, a lot of our contemporary concerns are deeply related to the bodily, attentive, & intentional act of listening.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
What I hope to be is someone who understands that my own experiences aren’t universal, especially through listening—& I think I try to work that out in my writing as well.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I welcome it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Someone once said something to me about the poem as a real thing in the real world, or at least that’s how I remember it, & I feel like that’s been especially important for me, in terms of thinking about the limits of a poem & of poetry. Even further back, another poet once encouraged me to keep pushing my writing in terms of its length—which is largely how I came into thinking about poems serially.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I like writing critical prose, it’s fiction I’ve always been terrible at. I love some fiction, & I really respect those writers that can do it well. Still though, I love the feel & sound of a good poem using language really well.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Right now, my daily routine consists of getting up, getting myself & then my kids ready, & getting all of us out the door on time for preschool & for my own teaching responsibilities. If lines come in the middle of all this, then I try to be as ready as I can to write them down. Usually, this is on my phone, so eventually all these lines add up to something I’ll expand or contract later on.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I tend to read in pieces, so I often find myself returning a lot to my favorite poets—though I’m always trying to explore other poets. Mostly though, I just wait it out until something comes. I try to practice patience as a general rule, and of course I fail miserably at that in a lot of ways, but still, I’m not getting good work done if I’m anxious about getting good work done. It’ll happen eventually, I trust my reading/writing process.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Maybe coffee? Dust? Guitar amp tubes warming up?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Visual art. Architecture. Religion. Politics. But more than anything else beyond poetry I’d say I’m influenced by music, & maybe some Onkyo musicians in particular—a group of Tokyo-based musicians performing around the turn of the century focused on silence, sound, restraint, performance, & improvisation. I don’t want to get too academic here so I’ll keep this short: their music especially resonates with my own interests in the political contingencies of environmental concern & attention, acoustic ecology, listening, sociality, presence, being & non-being, among other things. I won’t get into the extent to which they think through these issues, but I’m definitely interested in how their work & these issues resonate with poetry in particular ways. CANT is probably most onto this, though maybe not so obviously.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Prynne, Scalapino, the Waldrops, Césaire, Weil, Sobin, Trakl, Borges, Novalis, Reverdy, Celan, Guest, Niedecker, Jabès, Wang Wei…
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finish this current project, maybe some short fiction. To see my kids grow up into genuinely good human beings.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I did tech stuff for a number of years, before quitting because I hated my life & doing that work—luckily I quit a job in a financial firm’s bloated IT department just as the economy spun out in the early 00s, & took another at a university doing tech stuff. Also, there was a time when I wanted to ‘make it’ in music. But really, I’m super happy to be teaching & writing—I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Right now I’m at KU, which is a really supportive department, & the faculty here are great.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’d say it was something else that made me write.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve been reading a lot of Gothic fiction lately—Turn of the Screw, “The Lifted Veil,” etc. Brenda Iijima’s Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs is a fantastic press—she published two of my favorite chapbooks last year: Tyrone Williams’ Red Between Green & Laura Woltag’s Hush Hyletics. Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession is fantastic. I’m looking forward to having enough time to sit down & watch his On the Silver Globe.
20 - What are you currently working on?
The next project I’m working on is (tentatively) titled WOLD. It’s grounded somewhere in the middle of my ongoing interest in woodcut prints, ekphrasis, water, capital, trees, silence, architecture, the history of pacifism, religious & political radicalism. We’ll see if which poems alluding to these topics make the final cut. I’ve got over 100 pages of drafts written at the moment, & I’m only now beginning to send work out. Luckily, maybe 30 pages of that is already slated for publication. Really excited to see where this goes. Doing work now on the next issue of SET, & always reading poets whose work might be new to me.
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