Poet Of The Week

Matt Miller

     August 6–12, 2018

Matt Miller is an associate professor of English at Yeshiva University in Manhattan, where he teaches American literature and creative writing. His book Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass was published in 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press. Miller’s poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in many journals including Denver Quarterly, New Letters, Open City, Prairie Schooner, Verse and Volt. He lived in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, for many years but recently made the exodus to Long Island City, Queens. “Particle City” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released last spring.

Particle City

City of tender particles.
Particle of tender cities.
Particle of silver birds.
Particle of clouds.

Particle of fissures.
Particle of enhanced sirens.
Silver particle of men.
Crying particle of porches.

Lying particle of numbers.
Numbered particle of lies.
Particulate little men and their sirens.
Particles of articulate men.
City of crying particles.

Dying men and their particular porches.
Lying sirens,
enhanced particular men.
City of enhanced particles.
Circuit of particles.
Circuit of particulate cities.

Particulate cities of cloudy men.
Particulate lying birds.
Lying particles of numbered clouds.
Clouds of particles of lies.
Clouds of particles of cities.
Particulate men of dying cities.
Clouds of particles of men in particulate cities.

Particles of lies on crying porches.
Particular birds counting clouds.
Fissured cities of particular birds.
Fissured particles of enhanced cloud.
Cloudy particles of fissures.
City of cloud particles.

—Originally published in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem is similar to the poems I’ve been writing off and on for the last few years. I feel that by simplifying the syntax and depending rather exclusively on anaphora and different kinds of parallelism I can, to the extent possible, make syntax both invisible and everywhere, a sort of homogeneous, life-giving element, like oxygen.

Repetition and improvisation have always been in love with each other, despite rumors to the contrary. I’ve found that if I repeat myself enough in a sort of calmly affectionate mood, some real sparks fly pretty consistently.

Then the question is usually what to do with the impulse to edit and revise. It’s irresistible a lot of the time, but it also seems to screw things up as much as not, sort of like similes.

What are you working on right now?

When I can write poems, I do. But that isn’t as often as I would like. Other than that, lately I’ve been working on a special issue of an online academic journal, focusing on the recent incarnation of Twin Peaks. I’m the guest editor, and I’m excited to see what serious work can do with the amazing third season.

I’m also teaching an online summer school course right now, and I sometimes check in with my second scholarly book, which focuses on the idea of influence in American poetry. I’m not in a hurry on it.

What’s a good day for you?

A day free of health care worries for my loved ones.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved to Brooklyn mainly because of a tenure-track job in Manhattan. I was in the Midwest before that.

Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I lived in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, for about nine years. That’s the longest I’ve ever lived in any one neighborhood either as a child or an adult. I mostly loved it. For one, it’s a stunningly beautiful neighborhood—in my view, Washington and Clinton Aves are among the city’s most gorgeous blocks. The architecture, spanning good times and bad, includes some Pratt mansions that I always loved visiting. The sculpture garden at the Pratt Institute was always a favorite place for me to walk and think.

I met my wife in this neighborhood and finished my first published book there. Clinton Hill still feels more like home to me than my current neighborhood in Long Island City.

Plus, Clinton Hill is Walt Whitman’s neighborhood. His last remaining home in NYC still stands at 99 Ryerson (for now—there is an ongoing effort to get the house landmarked and preserve it). Whitman walked these streets (which had the same names) while composing lines that later became “Song of Myself.” That’s pretty inspiring.

Then there were my neighbors. I loved them, and I still revisit, just to say hi.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

This wasn’t in Clinton Hill. This was at the Luke’s Lobster in Park Slope. I was eating lobster rolls and chowder there with my wife, and a classic Motown song started playing on the speakers. I wish I could recall the song. I have a deep singing voice, and often start singing along to music in public spaces without really thinking about it. So, I started singing a bass part to this song, and I was hitting the notes OK, even if my voice isn’t the greatest.

Then from behind me, these three African American women turn to my wife and I and start praising my voice and telling me how soulful I sounded. They were being sincere! They were having fun. Then one of them started singing with me, and she had a lovely voice and nailed the high part. We started dueting it together right there in the restaurant and did a credible job with the song.

It was glorious. I felt so at ease and so a part of Brooklyn at that moment. I just wish I could recall what song it was …

[ADDENDUM (9/18/18): The song was Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion.”]

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?

Poets form communities?

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

You don’t really need to be told about Walt Whitman, but have you heard the story about how he had the image of his penis enlarged on the famous image used for the first edition of Leaves of Grass? You know, the one with his hand on his hip, sporting a jaunty hat and a shirt with the top buttons undone? He had his dick enlarged in that image. Not once. Several times.

I am not bullshitting. Poet and Whitman scholar Ted Genoways has proven that Whitman had the phallic bulge of his trousers enlarged multiple times before he went public with the image in the frontispiece. For more, see Genoways’s essay, “One goodshaped and wellhung man.”

This is probably the only part of this interview that you are going to remember. I’m cool with that.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

The former poetry blogger, Poetry Snark, was my mentor. Also, Jorie Graham.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I enjoyed David Lau’s recent book, Still Dirty. Most political poetry rings hollow for me, but not this book. Plus, it’s very funny. I’ve also enjoyed recent work by Dan Beachy-Quick (soaring metaphoric language) and Lauren Haldeman (heartbreaker).

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I’ve been feeling like giving Hart Crane another go. For some reason, I’ve never been able to get into his poetry, but I feel like I should. I’ve never read a complete translation of the Divine Comedy, only The Inferno. I like Virginia Woolf a lot, but for some reason, I have only read Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. I adore Faulkner, but I have never read the Snopes trilogy.

I have several friends, who shall remain nameless, whose work I feel guilty for not having gotten to yet.

I’m not friends with them, but I wonder what Alice Notley and Mary Ruefle have been up to lately.

I haven’t read Ashbery’s last book yet. I am going to save it for a while.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I usually dip in and out of my poetry, while I usually read prose cover to cover, if it’s any good.

I only plan out my reading in advance when I am working on something like a course syllabus or a research project. I prefer physical books when reading for pleasure. Yes, I am a note-taker.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I would like to be able to write with a perfect calmness of mind.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

In the park, on a bench.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love the highest points of two Brooklyn parks. The highest point of Prospect Park is atop this hill near the lake on the south side of the park. You can bike to the top, then ride down at high speeds. The views are splendid up there in the winter when the leaves are gone and you can see pretty much all of Brooklyn.

There’s also a cool spot at the highest point of Fort Greene Park. The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument up there is pretty inspiring, and the views across the East River are great. There is a feeling of poetic power at this spot.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman with words of your own choosing:

I celebrate __________,
And what I ________ you __________,
For every ___________ me as good ___________ you.

I’m not interested in changing these lines. That seems like a bad idea to me.

Why Brooklyn?

It’s definitely not because of the Nets.