Sunday, May 13, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Carly Joy Miller

Carly Joy Miller is the author of Ceremonial (Orison Books, 2018), selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2017 Orison Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Like a Beast (Anhinga Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize. Her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Blackbird, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, West Branch and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor for Poetry International and a founding editor of Locked Horn Press.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My chapbook, Like a Beast, was accepted and published before my full-length, Ceremonial, but was written a few years after most of the poems in Ceremonial. The poems in Like a Beast needed to happen, though, in order to make Ceremonial what it is.

Maggie Smith helped me tremendously with Ceremonial, which I was shopping around in an earlier form simultaneously with Like a Beast. When Like a Beast was a finalist for a contest, she reached out to ask about the chapbook. I thought they were such completely different projects, as Like a Beast was much darker in mood and tone than Ceremonial at the time, but once Maggie sent me her feedback where she put in a few poems from Like a Beast, I knew Ceremonial was done.

It’s still hard to think about the “new work,” since both books were accepted months from each other and there’s only 10 months between them being out in the world. I’ve been working on a series of what I’m calling “litanies but not litanies,” which I’m still trying to figure out. I think, in the few poems that have surfaced, I’m still exploring desire but in the sense of “Why do I love this word so much?” and “Where is desire taking me now?” I’m also working within moments of identity, particularly my Jewish upbringing, that builds into the type of faith I’ve cultivated for myself via the body and language.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I’d been writing songs for a few years in high school (when I wanted to go the singer/songwriter route), but the exact moment poetry felt like something I could invest myself in was when my AP English class read Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We had to write a paragraph or two about it, and I went to my teacher asking so much about it. I wrote poems ever since, and had even thought of majoring in English but wanted to be “practical” so I went the Business degree route, which didn’t last long. Once I found out that my undergrad, Univ. of California, Irvine, offered an emphasis in creative writing, I changed my major to English and pursued poetry.

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?

When I was working on Ceremonial in earlier forms, I was playing with so many poems from my MFA. Later poems, which play true to my current process, came a bit slower. I think it took about 5 months after I graduated to begin writing other poems, but then I averaged a poem about once a month. When I wrote Like a Beast, it was all in the span of writing poems quickly within a month (before I attended the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop), then worked on editing pieces for a few months after that. So I mean, it’s essentially a slow start toward a writing project, but once I’m in the poem, the poem takes anywhere from a few hours to a month or two to get to where it needs to go, with the first draft being very close to what becomes the final draft.

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?

Post-MFA, I found that a project/series helped keep me focused. These days, I’m actually returning to letting poems be poems, and not necessarily thinking, “This will go into a collection.” Some happen to fall into a sequence of “litanies but not litanies” that I’ve been exploring, but even then I’m finding that there are moments I’ve been writing that want to veer away from that ideation entirely.  

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

It’s definitely something that is part of my process—I read my drafts out loud as I write, and being trained in music and having a sister who is an actress, I definitely pride myself on reading well. I enjoy readings very, very much, as a sort of celebration and gathering space to listen and take a moment to be with each other.

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?

My questions revolve around desire: What do we do with it when it becomes too much to bear? What happens when it leaves us, whether in the beloved’s leaving or our own choosing to cut it off? And what, in that brokenness, can rebuild itself into joy?

In my newer poems, I’m also asking about heritage. Growing up in mixed faiths, but practicing Judaism for most of my life, I’m figuring out the pull in regards heritage. I’m not quite sure of these questions yet, but I’m open.

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?

We’ve all heard the “make it new” aspect of writing—we’re all revolving around topics similarly, but how do we make it new? I also think, especially in this age, we’re feeling more inclined toward citizenry within poetry—how do we lift our community, and in what ways? This brings up the idea of questions: I’m gearing up toward asking some of the larger questions that many of my peers have already asked. How we interact with those around us, and how we can do better.

What is the role of the writer? The writers I read and love create ways to explore humanity through various lenses. I think writers can crack open so much, but it’s up to the reader to continue carrying whatever they felt with them to share it with others. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I think it’s essential, but “editor” holds a lot of different contexts for me. The marvelous poet Erin Rodoni is my primary reader, so she serves as my first pair of eyes toward making any edits to my drafts.

When it comes to “editor” in the sense of magazines and presses, it’s still essential—they’re the ones advocating for your work. And when they offer edits, they’re suggestions toward how, in their minds, the poems can become stronger. And you can take their vision or not, but the exchange allows you to open your mind up to the other possibilities of your poems. In the end, we know our writing best—and can hopefully recognize opportunities to make it shine brighter.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

A lot of the advice deals with patience. So many writers I admire mentioned how long it took for their first collection to be accepted—some even saying 10+ years. When I felt even a touch of frustration with my manuscript, I kept this in mind. And in the end, the collection is truly the book that I want it to be.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

My routine has been a touch sporadic, but one thing remains the same: I listen to music as I write. I used to begin a writing session by listening to Feist’s “Bad in Each Other,” from her album Metals, which got me into a groove/rhythm that I could turn my ear toward. I’ve switched artists around every now and then (Sia’s 1,000 Forms of Fear was in heavy rotation for a year, as well as the xx), but I typically will start with Feist and move around.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I move to books! I read and read and read, and am just patient with the process. I’ll also try and watch TV just to give my mind a break.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Coffee is a big part of my home life, since I was a barista for a few years. Outside of that, there’s a perfume, Beach Walk by Replica/Maison Margiela, that brings me just a hint of beach salt to remind me of San Diego, where I’m from.

13 - 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?

Music is truly the biggest one, especially since I began writing via songwriting and was raised in music. I used to sing in public a lot more, then played flute and a bit of upright bass when stage fright got the best of me. Poetry’s a different type of singing: The words have no background music to rely on, so they have to make their own.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Katie Ford and Brigit Pegeen Kelly are two writers whose works led me to figure out my poetics. Ilya Kaminsky and Sandra Alcosser were my advisors in grad school, but have become dear friends. I’ve mentioned Erin Rodoni, who is my “check-in buddy” when it comes to writing, but I have to mention Carolann Madden and MK Foster, who also check in to say “hey, let’s chat about life, but also are you reading/writing?” Natalie Diaz, Carl Phillips, and Maggie Smith have me thinking about ways to push image, syntax, desire, and joy in various ways, and have been instrumental in having me consider how poems can interact and respond to our surroundings, both interior and exterior.

This could become a huge list of people who are writing exciting work (there’s so much work happening), but Eloisa Amezcua, Grady Chambers, Meg Day, Carlie Hoffman, Keegan Lester, Paige Lewis, Meghan Privitello, Leslie Sainz and Analicia Sotelo are writers whose works and persons are so instrumental—just everyday conversations with them keep me buoyed in the best way.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Bake a pie from scratch! Go on a residency! Write a long poem (more than 5 pages)! Go to Barcelona!

16 - 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 really wanted to go into fashion marketing when I was younger, but I ended up going into Internet marketing, which still involves writing but I act more like an editor. The really big dream was to become a jazz singer, which happens mostly on a car drive, in the shower or if I go out for karaoke (but I mostly sing pop music).

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing, as soon as I began taking it much more seriously, became a necessity. I write in order to make myself feel understood: It helps ease my mind when I’m feeling anxious or trying to work through some form of grief or desire within myself, particularly when I want to talk to another person about it but can’t for various reasons.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’m just about to finish Rocket Fantastic by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and it is setting off rockets through my whole damn self.

The last great film was Black Panther.

I think both of these are great in the sense of their world-building and myth-making—ugh, yes, they both just bring me a whole lot of joy.

19 - What are you currently working on?

With Ceremonial just coming out, I’m putting a lot of energy toward putting together readings. That being said, I’m letting the poems happen, however they do and when they do.

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