blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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A Correspondence with Leslie Adrienne Miller
Conducted October 29, 2022

In October 2022, poet Leslie Adrienne Miller participated in an email correspondence with Blackbird contributing managing editor emerita Hayley Graffunder, who is also a former student of Miller’s. Three of Miller’s poems appear in this issue of Blackbird—“Carcass Balance,” “Furs,” and “Swamp Lullaby in a Dry Year”—and these poems are the focus of the interview, from their associative and syntactic movement to their engagement with social commentary. Miller, who has published six collections of poetry, also discusses reading habits, her current project, and a manuscript she laid to rest.


Hayley Graffunder: When I was your student, you talked frequently about the daily habit of writing lines as a way to exercise the poetry mind and make observations without the pressure of creating a poem. Of course, practice often lays the groundwork for future poems, and I believe you said your book Yesterday Had a Man in It had largely come from your habit of filling pages with lines in this way. Is this something you’ve continued, and if so, has your practice shifted throughout your career?

Leslie Adrienne Miller: I’m surprised you remembered that! Yes, when I was writing that book, I was also doing a lot of international travel, so I worked in a series of small, portable notebooks where I collected information, facts, details, and descriptions done on the fly, and then when I had writing time alone, I wanted to synthesize what I was collecting. I forced myself to lineate as a way of making sure I wasn’t just writing travel journals but using what I’d collected to move into more lyrical territory. I’ve kept that habit to this day: I journal regularly as a way of keeping track of what I read, excavating things I might be sublimating, and just generally collecting my thoughts, but at some point I do have to consciously move over into lineation because that’s the only way conscious thought gives way to what lies beneath the surface and brings me to ideas—in Adrienne Rich’s words, “you don’t know you know.” Because lines are more artificial, more artful, at least in my mind, than prose, they invite a balance of interior and exterior thought—and maybe that’s because the crafting of them, the attention to sound and line and syntax and rhythm, distracts the conscious mind so the subconscious can sneak in the door!

HG: Your poems, especially the ones in this issue, feature expansive sentences with complex syntax—quick turns to propel the piece to the next idea or image. This sentence from “Swamp Lullaby in a Dry Year” is one example, spanning six lines and doing levels of work for the poem:

Ordinary deaths
that the seasons’ wheels leave in corners,
not portent, like the orange light
falling here and there through clouds
of smoke lying like mists at the rims
of our vision.

I’m curious whether these structures are innate to your writing or if you find them growing in complexity throughout the life of the poem.

LAM: God, I love the sentence. I do not know how I would find my way through an idea without the engine of syntax. It has a life and logic of its own, and once moving, I let it run until it catches something. How I envy poets who write in fragments, but I am not and will never be one of them unless I deliberately break things up after the fact—which is what I did in the example you quote: that’s actually a fragment sentence that spun out from the main clause of the previous sentence, but I wanted to put more pressure on “Ordinary deaths,” so I needed the midline caesura and sound layering of autumn’s/moths/wasps/deaths to slow the reader there and raise the specter of the opposing idea: extraordinary deaths.

Once the syntax has caught something, then I scale back and layer in shorter takes, but in initial drafts, sometimes I don’t even stop the sentence until the end because I feel the fragile links of a long sentence might be all that hold these disparate things together—and when I say disparate links, what I mean is metaphor: syntax locates metaphor for me as nothing else can.

Revision is often a matter of varying sentence structures, sharpening whatever idea the syntax brought, but it’s syntax that drives initial drafts for me and locates the metaphors, so I’d say it’s innate to my writing, though isn’t it to every writer’s work? It’s not me or mine—syntax is shared; it belongs to the language, and though, yes, I am gravitating to and through my own patterns for it, I feel it’s not so much mine as it is the residue of my lifetime of reading poets and riding the rails of their rhythms and syntax.

HG: Association is a considerable part of these poems, especially “Furs,” wherein we see both quick moves to an associative image (when the roadkill becomes “Oscar Wilde smoking a pipe in bed”) and more sustained threads, like the “old literary lion” and the women expecting a child. Can you speak to the role association plays in your writing process? Which ones don’t make the cut? How do you determine which can play out in a line, or need the whole poem to develop?

LAM: Most of those associative images are surprises to me, and I like them precisely because they surprised me, and let’s face it: they’re fun! In revision, often I’ll come upon associations that were not much of a surprise to me, and unless they’re doing some important work to hold up the surprises, I try to cut them. Perhaps the one exception to that is when I write narrative poems; sometimes a narrative requires more set up, more deliberate management of time and space to help ground the reader. The surprise associations, though, are the ones I hope for, and why I love reading poets like Mary Ruefle, Diane Seuss, Dean Young, Patricia Lockwood, Natalie Diaz, who I think of as acrobats of the associative—because yes, it’s like watching someone do something dangerous and landing on their feet every time. I’m not one of the acrobats, but now and then I feel the surprise of a good landing and know I owe it to reading the acrobats!

HG: I love the idea of associative acrobats, it’s such an apt description of the excitement and relief of reading those really successful associative leaps. And I’m glad you brought up how crucial reading is to the creation of poems! What do your reading habits look like these days?

LAM: I always feel a bit guilty for being a poet who reads more novels than poetry collections in any given year, but there it is: I read novels as constantly as I can because they keep me in somebody else’s world for a sustained period of time, even if that’s just a few days. They have some of the same pleasures as international travel: they take you to places you aren’t likely to ever live and add to the brain’s store of what there is to see, hear, touch, taste, smell—and reading novels lets you live extra lives in places and skins you might not otherwise be able to access. My reading in poetry is more work-oriented: I’m reading for craft I can teach, craft I can use in my own work, and for a general understanding of where the collective poetic direction might be headed. I have favorites, of course, but I learn as much from reading collections I don’t love as I do from reading the ones that are closest to my heart. I do gravitate toward poets who have what we used to call “an ear.” I prefer subtle and pervasive sound patterns, complex syntax, and an understanding of the emotional weight of stress patterns, especially if I am going to read a whole collection by a single poet, but I also regularly read Best American Poetry’s yearly anthology and find that some poets are better one poem at a time. And I rarely read poetry at night when my mind is tired because there’s just too much to pay attention to in it, and I don’t want to miss subtle things—so I read poetry in the early part of the day, and prose later.

HG: All of these poems, while not working only as social or political commentaries, find room to engage with and critique aspects of our historical moment—homophobic comments online, climate change-induced wildfires. How do you view the relationship between poetry and social commentary, particularly in your experience, and with your own work?

LAM: So much social or political commentary these days takes place online and outside of the contexts that enfold the issues. Poems can fold those issues back into the contexts where they arise, and for me, it’s the only way to engage them with any honesty or complexity. I’m old enough to have been educated during a time when the directly polemical poem was suspect, and I still don’t trust my own social or political commentary when it is not grounded in the personal. To quote Rich again, “the personal is political,” and for me, one without the other feels inauthentic. My thinking about such things has always been grounded in a life lived in a female body, so I’m always beginning with my experience as a woman navigating patriarchal culture. Recently, I described this to a friend as “my wound,” the shadow of injustice out of which I am always writing, and I was as surprised as my friend was to hear me put it that way, but it made and makes sense to me. My understanding of all injustice is tied to my experiences as a female in a patriarchal society, and most expressions of sociopolitical emotional intensity in my work proceed from that source.

Maybe all your questions here are connected—or at least they are for me: I can’t separate the processes of lineation, syntax, association; they run concurrently and pressure each other until the poem happens. I wish there were a better verb for that movement from the arrangements of words on the page to something that feels whole and alive in the mind—even if the latter is momentary—but “happens” is the best I can do.

HG: We’ve talked about some of the similarities between these poems and it reminds me of another bit of wisdom you taught me—that poems written around the same time will naturally speak to each other, even if they feel unrelated at the time the poet writes them, because they capture the writer’s mind during that time period. It came with the advice not to worry about disparate ideas and structures, or to formulate too narrow an idea of the project while it was still “happening,” in the sense you described above. I’m curious if you’re interested in talking about the project that these poems are becoming or have become?

LAM: I envy poets who can be articulate about a book when they are in the middle of writing it, but as you rightly remember, I think pinning a project down while it is still happening can shut off some of the best avenues it might eventually take, so I stay quiet about what I am working on until I have a full sense of it. I don’t have a full sense of how these poems might come together. After my last published collection, I wrote another manuscript that was, in my mind, finished, but as I worked on it, I had the fear that it was not going to fly because it depended on a reader acquainted with literature and ideas of British Romanticism. It was the book I needed to write—I wrote it, and now it’s in the drawer. What I’ve done since has been more responsive to the present, to conversations about climate change, women’s rights, the pleasures and horrors of aging, changes in the literary landscape, including losses of poet elders—but those are subject matter, and a book’s structure, for me, is a performance and has an architecture that supersedes the subject matter, and while I feel the work is close to having a solid center, at present I don’t yet know what the full staging will bring to it.  

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