Teresa K. Miller’s second full-length poetry collection, Borderline Fortune (Penguin, Oct. 5, 2021), was selected as a winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series by former California poet laureate Carol Muske-Dukes. A graduate of Barnard College and the Mills College MFA program, Miller is the author of sped (Sidebrow) and Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky) as well as co-editor of Food First: Selected Writings from 40 Years of Movement Building (Food First Books). Her poems and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, AlterNet, Entropy, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. Originally from Seattle, she tends a mini orchard near Portland, Oregon. A list of readings and events for Borderline Fortune is available at teresakmiller.net/events.
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?
first published collection, the chapbook Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky,
2008), came out two years after I graduated from the Mills College MFA program.
It marked a big milestone and felt like affirmation that I was on the right
track creatively and personally. My first full-length book, sped
(Sidebrow, 2013), came out five years later, after being a National Poetry
Series finalist and getting “almost not quites” from a few other places. That seemed
like a long time, but I still felt like my work was on a good trajectory and
had incorporated memorializing my father. By June 2020, though, I was having a
conversation with my partner about whether I should keep writing at all,
because it felt too painful and like it wasn’t going anywhere. Six days later,
I received an email that my latest submission was a National Poetry Series
finalist, the third of my manuscripts to get that nod over a period of fourteen
years. Then the day after my birthday in August, I got a call from former
California poet laureate Carol Muske-Dukes saying Borderline Fortune had
won and would be published by Penguin.
this experience has been life-changing on a variety of levels, from receiving
much-needed encouragement after a long slog to having a wider potential
audience. Paradoxically, the external validation has reinforced the necessity
of my own internal validation or sense of having created what I needed to
create. It has also shifted my perspective on “what kind of poet” I am. Before Carol’s
call, I would have said I was an experimental small-press poet, but now this
book is coming out with the biggest publisher in the U.S. It shows the
categories are much more porous than many of us realize or admit. My work was
my work all along. I’m extremely grateful to and inspired by all the
small-press editors I’ve worked with and hope to continue publishing in that landscape
as well as this new one—while also feeling less inclined to categorize myself.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
mom started reading me Shakespeare before I was born, my dad gave me an
illustrated copy of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” when I was little,
and I wrote my first poem in crayon at daycare when I was 4 or 5. So it’s hard
to say what was taught and what was innate, but I’ve felt called toward poetry
for as long as I can remember. When my consciousness came online, poems were
already in the air. There was never any question about whether I would write
poetry—sometimes about how to integrate creativity with subsistence, but never
about what I wanted to be and do.
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?
of the above. It really depends. I spend a lot of time marinating, and I
question that part of the process every time, because it can feel disorienting,
like I’m adrift and might never find the shore again, even though I always have
before. I often say I wish I could perpetually be three-quarters of the way
through a manuscript, because at that point I know what it’s going to be, and
I’m in flow, and it’s just pure enjoyment letting the little world I’ve mostly
figured out unfold and become fully itself. After a manuscript is done, before
the next one starts, I’m bereft. Sometimes I collect notes and ideas; more
often I collect lines and parts of poems that I make talk to each other for a
while until they set some new machine in motion. Once upon a time, I sat down
and wrote about one page of Forever No Lo a day, from start to finish,
until it was done, and the published version was extremely similar to that
original draft. That kind of magical experience might only be possible before
the self-consciousness of publication, though. In any case, I have yet to
experience it again.
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?
usually working on a larger project from the beginning, even though it comes
out in shorter pieces. I’m not great at titling individual poems (so I generally
don’t, though I sometimes give them fake titles to try out in journals) or even
necessarily knowing where one poem stops and another starts. I tend to write in
series, and then the series combine into a book. sped and the
as-yet-unpublished California Building each have three titled series; Borderline
Fortune started with two but ended up breaking into four.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
do enjoy readings and have done quite a few over the years, but I’m about to
put that enjoyment to the test with a full-fledged tour for this latest book,
public health situation allowing. I have in-person readings scheduled in nine
cities plus multiple virtual events, including with above/ground authors Andrea Rexilius and Melissa Eleftherion Carr, a former Mills College classmate who is
now poet laureate of Ukiah.
write, in part, to join a conversation, and I think reading with other poets
for an audience is part of that conversation. At the same time, I’m intensely
introverted, so sometimes there’s a social hangover. That tension is just
part of the process for me. And booking a tour has been surprisingly
rewarding—there is terror in reaching out to strangers, but it’s also an excuse
to connect with people I admire but don’t know, and they’ve almost exclusively
been gracious, kind, and helpful. Readings aren’t just about the material being
read but also the community being built, which I value a great deal.
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?
tend to come from an intuitive rather than academic place when I write, but
there are some recurring themes. I’m interested in trauma as a snag in the
space-time continuum, a time capsule of particular horrifying experiences we
couldn’t face in the moment—and how to tap into grief and healing to move
through it, rather than simply finding more and more elaborate ways to avoid it.
This concerns me on an individual level—my father, for instance, was killed
when I was 23, and that remains the major before/after moment of my life—as
well as on a societal and planetary level. I think the collective pursuit of
distraction and the denial of the pain we’re causing ourselves, each other, and
the ecosystem have led us here, and I seek through my work to wake up. How can
I align with truth as an individual? What does that alignment feel like in my
body? How can I individually contribute to disrupting family, social, and
political systems that try to recruit me and others into unreality? What would
aligning with truth look like as a collective? What might solutions look like,
and how can I be part of them? Since not everything is solvable or exists on a
problem/solution plane, what does it mean to live fully in the face of profound
pain and loss, some of it manufactured and some of it inevitable?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
are so many different kinds of writers doing so many different kinds of work
that I don’t think there’s one specific role, but we do have roles in the
larger culture, both reflecting the current reality back to the collective and
demonstrating what is possible that hasn’t happened yet, positive and negative.
In that way, we help shape the future. I want practical as well as theoretical
engagement, so I’m also engaged in more concrete, tactile projects, such as regenerative
horticulture. But even people who “only” weave ideas still shape our individual
and collective course. It’s also no exaggeration to say poetry has saved my
life; I have been in moments of debilitating despair and read a poem that made
me feel understood or sparked enough curiosity that I felt life was worth
living at least long enough to see what happened next. Poems have completely
altered my mental state. We mostly don’t get to know whether our work lands or
whom or it touches, but it’s certainly more than just window dressing.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
difficult, but only insofar as my ego gets in the way. No matter how much you
receive it, feedback can have an initial sting. It’s absolutely essential,
though. I make a manuscript as much itself as I can, then workshop it with my
writing group and my partner, then send it out. Sometimes an editor’s most
subtle question or suggestion has helped me see a piece with sudden clarity,
and I feel grateful the original draft didn’t get published without revision.
My editors at Penguin, Paul Slovak and Allie Merola, were indispensable in
making Borderline Fortune ready for the world.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
voice teacher, Linda Brice, advises giving away each note as a gift of love—because
trying to hold on to and control the notes ruins the flow of the breath and is
more likely to lead to hoarseness, tension, and an unpleasing sound. If you
don’t hit the note perfectly in a particular performance, she suggests saying,
“Oh, well—fuck it.” You can continually improve without berating yourself. I
think the same applies to any endeavor in life, including writing. We are
imperfect beings trying our best, and when we cling to what we have to offer in
an attempt to make it perfect, garner praise, or avoid criticism, we deprive
ourselves of the connection that comes through creating and often strangle the
idea. Some of my favorite songs are by bands early in their careers, when they
didn’t have full mastery of their instruments, but they went for it anyway and
moved people. As someone who tends toward perfectionism, it’s a continual
practice to follow this advice.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
serve completely different purposes in my life. It depends on what needs to be
said and what the best medium is for that saying. I find my poetry fruitfully
informs my essays as far as economy of space, leaps in time, evocative imagery
and metaphor, and so on. On the other hand, essay writing doesn’t help my
poetry as much and sometimes hinders it, because if I come to a poem or poetic
project with a linear narrator brain, I don’t achieve the result I want. It
feels forced, fake, didactic. There are good narrative poems out there, and
there are threads of stories in my poems, but I’m not a narrative poet in any
recognizable sense. So I usually have to tell the essay brain to go find
something else to do while I write poetry, whereas the poetry brain is most
welcome while I write essays.
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?
do my best work if I get in a groove of not looking at my phone or checking
email when I wake up and waiting to do so until after I write—something,
anything, even just for twenty minutes. (I work for myself, so I largely have
this freedom.) The more I allow screens to dictate my life and flash various
commands to think about what they’re telling me, the more scattered and depleted
I feel and the less productive I am creatively. It’s a hard addiction to break,
though, and I go in cycles. Do I know in my bones I should stay offline and
off-phone in the morning? Yes. Have I looked at screens first thing in the
morning multiple days this week? Yes. Sometimes I think that’s another reason why
I was able to write Forever No Lo so quickly, easily, and completely: It
was before iPhones were released, and social media was simmering, but I hadn’t
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
go back and read the poetry books I’ve essentially already memorized and let
the best lines evoke that lurching feeling in my stomach, like the first drop
on a roller coaster. I let them make me think I wish I wrote that. I try
to figure out what forces they’ve harnessed to have such a profound effect on
me. I also draw a ton of inspiration any time I go to a live event, whether a
music performance, a gallery show, or a reading. I almost always leave needing
to jot something down or at least feeling like I’ll be able to again.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
wet floor of a cedar forest.
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?
hugely inspired by nature and epic treks through nature in particular. My most
recent journey was thru-hiking The Enchantments in Washington state in one day.
It’s 19.25 miles with 5,000 feet of elevation gain and 7,000 feet of loss, with
a core corridor filled with swimmable lakes, all manner of striking granite
formations, and plenty of mountain goats. I’ve also ascended and descended
Cerro Chirripó in Costa Rica in one day; hiked the full Wonderland Loop around
Mt. Rainier, including a 20.5-mile section in one day; and trekked through the
world’s largest cave, Sơn Đoòng in Vietnam. I feel
the calmest and most myself outdoors, out of cell reception, particularly if
there’s a water view involved.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
early influences have stuck with me. I discovered Lawrence Ferlinghetti and
e.e. cummings in middle school, Lucille Clifton and Joy Harjo in high school,
and Lucie Brock-Broido and C.D. Wright in college. I don’t think I write like
any of them, but I feel them echoing through the work I do. They remain
touchstones. Of course I encountered all manner of other writers and mentors in
grad school, too, and my instructors Stephen Ratcliffe, Juliana Spahr, Elmaz Abinader, and Sarah Pollock had a huge influence on me personally and
creatively. In the last ten years or so, I’ve read more nonfiction than anything
and find its content influences my poetry to a great degree, even if readers
couldn’t draw a direct line.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Complete and publish a collection of essays, visit Chile, learn to let go of objects that I only keep out of guilt or fear of regret.
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?
always wishing I could get more momentum behind my musical pursuits. There was
a point earlier in my life when I decided to lean into writing rather than
music, so that’s a path I might have chosen and would still like to travel.
I almost went to law school concurrent with the end of my undergraduate degree, and for a while I was a special education program specialist charged with representing a large public school district in legally contentious meetings. I have the skills but not the temperament; those situations deplete rather than feed me. So I’m grateful I didn’t saddle myself with law school debt and also had the courage/naïveté to quit a tenured education job with a pension so I could work for myself—but it was a near miss.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
though I’ve danced with a maybe inordinate amount of despair around my writing
and occasionally considered abandoning it altogether, I can’t not write. When
I’ve worked in jobs that weren’t focused on writing or teaching writing, I’ve
always ended up being asked to incorporate my writing skills into my role, and
I’ve continued to do my own creative work through all manner of career switches
and cross-country moves. It helped that I went to a hippie alternative elementary
school run by my best friend’s mother, and we wrote creatively every day—early
on, I developed the sense that writing was an essential, ongoing practice, and
I’ve never found something more compelling.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
M. Broom’s The Yellow House is one of the best books I’ve read since the
start of the pandemic. She’s written herself and her family into history in
this subtle, ingenious, moving way that begs for rereading once you reach the
end, just so you can go back and fully appreciate how the structure builds on
itself. A book so good that I reread it in the not-too-distant past is Mathias
Svalina’s The Wine-Dark Sea. What I’ve watched in the last year and a
half feels like a blur, and I’m going to dodge choosing a winner. But an intriguing
documentary was Bisbee ’17, on the “Bisbee Deportation” of miners associated with the
in 1917 as well as preparation for a reenactment of that event on its
centennial. Both the subject and the approach to filming have stuck with me.
20 - What are you currently working on?
lot of publicity/logistics stuff of late. I saw Stephen King on The Late
Show with Stephen Colbert, and he said when you publish a book, you have to
go shake your ass a little bit. That’s more important for mere mortals like me
than for institutions like him, so I’m just looking at all the positives of the
process, especially talking to thoughtful people who love and care about
literature. But there are also some essay ideas in the mix that I’m chipping
away at. The next poetry project is a mystery. I’m in that bereft phase between
finishing and starting, but I’m keeping the faith that one day, I’ll be 75% of
the way through a new manuscript and high on the process again.