September 12–18, 2016
Miller Oberman’s first book, The Unstill Ones, a collection of original poems and Old English translations, has been chosen by Susan Stewart for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets and will be published in the fall of 2017. A former Ruth Lilly Fellow as well as a 2016 winner of the 92nd St Y’s Boston Review/Discovery Prize, his translation of selections from the “Old English Rune Poem” won Poetry’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation in 2013. Oberman has poems and translations forthcoming in Poetry, Harvard Review, Tin House and the Nation, and he is currently finishing The Ruin, a collection of poems and Old English translations. He has taught workshops in poetry, poetics and fiction at Georgia College and the University of Connecticut, where he is completing his PhD in English. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, rock singer Louisa Rachel Solomon of the Shondes. During our fall 2016 workshop season, Oberman will teach Forms on the Boundary: Creative Translation as Poetic Practice from September 21–October 19 in Boerum Hill.
The process of through is ongoing.
The earth doesn’t seem to move, but sometimes we fall
down against it and seem to briefly alight on its turning.
We were just going. I was just leaving,
which is to say, coming
elsewhere. Transient. I was going as I came, the words
move through my limbs, lungs, mouth, as I appear to sit
peacefully at your hearth transubstantiating some wine.
It was a rough red, it was one of those nights we were not
forced by circumstances to drink wine out of mugs.
Circumstances being, in those cases, no one had been
transfixed at the kitchen sink long enough to wash dishes.
I brought armfuls of wood from the splitting stump.
Many of them, because it was cold went right on top
of their recent ancestors. It was an ice night.
They transpired visibly, resin to spark,
bark to smoke, wood to ash. I was
transgendering and drinking the rough red at roughly
the same rate and everyone who looked, saw.
The translucence of flames beat against the air
against our skins. This can be done with
or without clothes on. This can be done with
or without wine or whiskey but never without water:
evaporation is also ongoing. Most visibly in this case
in the form of wisps of steam rising from the just washed hair
of a form at the fire whose beauty was in the earth’s
turning, that night and many nights, transcendent.
I felt heat changing me. The word for this is
transdesire, but in extreme cases we call it transdire
or when this heat becomes your maker we say
transire, or when it happens in front of a hearth:
–Originally published in Poetry, March 2015.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I was working on translating this Old English poem “Wulf and Eadwacer,” and it was incredibly difficult—this is a beautiful, short, Old English lyric, one of only a few OE poems written in the voice of a woman. Most translators kind of invent a narrative and translate to it, because there’s just so much beautiful ambiguity in it. I wound up making my own translation of the poem—four times as long as the Old English version, which tries to keep all of the possibilities in it open, but “On Trans” came around the same time. The same week I think. I was also going through some pretty major life changes, and thinking about change and ambiguity in poetry was really helpful. “On Trans,” for me, was about trying to hold all of these doors open at the same time, and how to believe I could go through them.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve just finished my first book, The Unstill Ones, a collection of poems and OE translations, but towards the tail end of finishing it, I became obsessed with all these untranslated OE riddle fragments. They’re amazing—funny, sad, dirty, ghosty—and I’m working on those right now, along with new poems of my own.
What’s a good day for you?
Any day I write a poem. I’m a really streaky writer—something I’ve come to accept about myself. I used to get terrified every time it had been a while since I wrote something I felt good about, but I try to have a little patience with myself now. I tend to have dry spells and then write ten poems in a month. Working as a translator also helps with this—it really gets me going with my own poems, and even when it doesn’t I feel I’ve accomplished something.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Love! What else?
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I live in Brighton Beach, or, as it’s sometimes known, “Little Odessa by the Sea.” I’ve lived here for almost three years, and it’s by far my favorite place I’ve lived in Brooklyn. I’ve also done stints in Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Lefferts Gardens, etc. But living out here really takes the edge off the city for me. It’s really quiet in the winter, and I live right on the boardwalk, so instead of being surrounded by urbanity, I’ve always got the sea on one side. I can see it and hear it from my bed, and I love falling asleep to the sound of waves. I don’t speak Russian, but my father’s family was from outside Odessa (originally) so I feel a sense of connection here.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
In 2007, when I had just moved here, I spent a day in July on this extended date with my wife (although we didn’t even get together until years later) doing every possible thing we could fit into a day. We had breakfast in Manhattan, walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, played skee ball at Coney Island and then rode the Wonder Wheel. That day kind of defines Brooklyn for me. I couldn’t believe how much trash there was at Coney that day, but it was somehow glorious.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Poetry community is really crucial for me—I think working alone is always a thing, but I need a lot of back and forth at other times, I don’t work that well in a vacuum. The sheer number of poets here is incredible, and there are a few poets whom I’ve had great ongoing writing dates with over the years. I used to work a few blocks from Ana Božičević, and we’d have lunch a couple times a week and talk poetry. I was working a day job in a cubicle, and it really saved me. These days I often write with another great Brooklyn poet, Sara Jane Stoner, and it’s been hugely important. One thing I notice is that both of these poets’ work is incredibly different from mine, something that feels really generative.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Marianne Moore, whose work I discovered more recently—and reading her I finally realized that Elizabeth Bishop didn’t entirely spring out fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head. I love the intricacy of her work, and I hope to be the next poet to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game. In my case, this would be for the New York Mets. Hart Crane is also a huge influence on my work. I often feel a little out of step with contemporary poetry, and I see him a little bit the same way—this Romantic wading through Modernism …
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I had the extreme privilege to be an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College and worked with Tom Lux, Marie Howe, Suzanne Gardinier, Victoria Redel and Joan Larkin. A crazy list of talented writers and teachers. Marie Howe was kind enough once to sit me down at her computer during office hours and re-lineate an entire poem of mine. Into couplets, of course. But it was amazing to have such visceral help—to know things can look different, can change. Recently I’ve been working a lot with Penelope Pelizzon, who is my PhD dissertation adviser, and she’s fantastic. I trust her eyes and ears. She thinks of things I never would have and sometimes makes suggestions which save something I thought was totally sunk.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
This month, like nearly everyone I know, I’ve been crushing really hard on Solmaz Sharif’s Look—it’s gorgeous and important, and reminds me how much beauty and rage can be combined, and that political poetry doesn’t have to be flat or narrative. Last year I finally read Terrance Hayes’s Wind in a Box, which is still in my bag most days. I love how many different forms he works in, how many different registers.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, George Herbert (Penelope Pelizzon, I’ll get to it!)
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 often read a couple of things at a time, and I read a lot of fiction, as well, and I find it influences me a lot. I was actually reading Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow as I worked on “On Trans” and “Wulf and Eadwacer,” and I think I got ideas about how to hold a lot of possibilities open in a poem from the way he writes. I didn’t used to be a note-taker, but I am now—I can’t bear to write in my favorite books, so I use a lot of post-its. Anne Carson’s Nox is bizarre-looking on my shelf—it’s not even physically possible to dog-ear pages (which I do a ton of) so the thing is just twice its size with post-its. I despise reading on a screen, I just really can’t process poetry or fiction that way. I need to touch it, I guess.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Working on Old English fragments so much I really want to try an erasure, but I can’t seem to get it to work yet. I’ll keep trying, though. Maybe I should get someone else to do the erasing? But that could be dangerous.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
The beach, especially for reading. I’ve gotten pretty shameless about crying on the beach while I read. This summer I read Ken Liu’s amazing book of short stories The Paper Menagerie on the beach and cried on and off for a couple of days. I like writing outside, in nature, but usually not in city parks—I need a lot of privacy when I write.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The late night lifeguard chairs at Brighton and Coney. They’re transient, of course, because they get taken down for most of the year, but it’s an amazing place to write or talk or just think and watch. I love the slight remove of them, but you also feel so close to the air and the sea and the sky. The Brooklyn Bridge, obviously. What is better than that? Although I have to offer a little love to the Verrazano as well—I often come home on this bridge, and I find it particularly transcendent.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate __________,
And what I __________ you ______________,
For every _______________ me as good _______________ you.
I can’t! Whitman writes at his best, I always think, like god. If I were to fill in the blanks it would be just like that Borges short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” where the guy writes the novel the exact same, but his own.
I often say “I was born on this island.” I was born on Long Island, actually, and I know the good people of Brooklyn and Queens don’t like to think they live on Long Island, but we really do. Brooklyn for love, Brooklyn for poetry, Brooklyn for the remaining outfield wall of Ebbets field, which is so unceremoniously still standing, Brooklyn for the sea, the bridges. If anyone from MTA is reading this, it would be really great if the B train could run on weekends.