Saturday, October 09, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Teresa K. Miller

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

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 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.

So 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?

My 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?

All 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?

I’m 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?

I 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.

I 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?

I 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?

There 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)?

Sometimes 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)?

My 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?

They 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?

I 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 joined yet.

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

I 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?

The 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?

I’m 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?

My 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?

I’m 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?

Even 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?

Sarah 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 I.W.W. 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?

A 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.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;


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