An Interview with Jane Miller

By Karen Falkenstrom


Originally published in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter Volume 19.1, Fall 1994.

Jane Miller's latest collection of poem is August Zero, which won the Western States Book Award. She currently serves as National Pedagogy Trainer for Writerscorps, a Clinton administration social project. She has just returned to teaching at the University of Arizona after a year in California and another in Iowa.

Karen Falkenstrom: As this may be the most pressing question on the minds of our particular readership, I'll begin with, "What is it like to be back in Tucson?" Specifically, since you've written so eloquently on the relation of travel and place and culture, tell us about the transition from Iowa to the desert?

Jane Miller: It's a relief to be back in Tucson after travelling and living in other people's homes. It's very nice to feel grounded, and that has lasted now beyond the 48 hours I thought it would. I now feel I'm here.

Karen: Is this "home"?

Jane: I don't consider this "home,” although I feel "at home," I don't think I've found a home, a permanent home yet, and maybe I'm just a wanderer. Maybe that's a home. This feels very different from the Midwest, not just the weather, but the space. Although the Midwest has rambling, rolling fields, desert space has no water molecules in it. The distance from the ground to the sky feels much larger, and affects me very much. It's like I get that much more space in my head. I felt crowded in the Midwest. I felt I had entered someone's home that had too much stuff, on the shelves and on the walls. It's a wonderful calm, but it's too... too comfortable... too used... too defined. I feel much more magic in the air here.

Karen: Does that come from Tucson not being "too comfortable"?

Jane: No, from having left THAT discomfort and that crowded feeling, like all the corn is planted in rows very close to each other, TOO close to each other as far as I'm concerned. You can't even walk between them—and I'm a small person—and that seemed symbolic of the Midwest being used over and over, the earth turned, and being planted, being manipulated over and over. It seemed very much like the interior of Germany: landlocked, everyone rushing out of the borders for the summer, to Greece and to Spain and to Italy. I felt like one of those who wished to get out of the city, and I feel, oddly enough, in the desert, as if I have returned to that much space, the kind of space that oceans represent.

Karen: Were you writing much in Iowa? Are you now?

Jane: I wrote a few poems in Iowa, and I haven't started anything here. I've been reading a lot of books on architecture that have gotten me thinking, but I haven't written anything down. I played out a whole series of poems about the death of my father, and after that I was wiped out, emotionally, from going down into childhood again and out… his soul. It was fascinating. I'm spent.

Karen: Why the interest in architecture after that?

Jane: I got interested in a book of Robert Venturi’s called Complexity and Contradiction: Learning from Las Vegas, just by happenstance, and I'm so regimented in my life, in the way I exercise and sleep and eat three meals a day—I’m very organized, bathing daily and so on, in that American way—that when something happens by happenstance I follow it. The other reason I like Venturi's book: it's full of interesting words. Politically it's very incorrect. He's making a case for the "strip" as something not only characteristically American, but particularly beautiful.

Karen: Yes, the gap between theory and practice is particularly noticeable in architecture, since we have to physically inhabit a building that is theoretically sound, but horrible to live in.

Jane: Right. The theory behind it is fascinating, but then you drive down main street in Las Vegas, and [a sound and gesture of dismay].

Karen: I've seen you play piano, and I'm told that for the most part it is unstudied, but to my mind, very accomplished. Part of this is the strength of your being so present, your fingers on these keys at this very moment. Can you describe how you learned to play, and how this process relates to or informed your writing?

Jane: [laughs] Well, I never learned how to play the piano, but I play the piano. I don't read music, but I have a good ear. I play by emotion. I play my mood. It's the only place where I feel completely free. I just start moving through the sounds without knowing where I'm going.

It's a rare place where you can be free and not worry about other people's feelings, except the neighbors can hear you and it's four in the morning ...

You can use principles from poetry: repetition with variation; you can use dissonance, so long as you come back to some set of rhythms or even a single note that holds it together. But music does not OFFEND in the way that language can offend. It is not, on the surface of things, politically, and yet it's deeply political because it comes from the body. So it seems to me a very subversive activity, because it doesn't appear to be dangerous in that it’s not immediately translatable into some mean-spirited act or evil gesture or dynamic idea that's going to change someone. It's just what it is. I find it a very political act, and that's why I do it. It seems my political gestures are subterranean, not picket line. But the more spontaneous a gesture I can make the more I feel I am contributing to life—in some small way. That's my way of being completely free. Everyone should try it once in a while.

Karen: Then in writing, you don't feel completely free? I am reminded of a statement you made in Bisbee, that “Poetry is not natural," and how you advise students to work against their strongest tendencies, your own urge to "quickly counter" with a "corrective notion" movements which are "epiphanic and emphatic and illustrative ... also deadly" (from a forthcoming interview by Jocelyn Emerson in the Colorado Review).

Jane: Well, I have a strong will, and so I have to watch out for her. I try to be aware of what I'm doing while I’m doing it, and that can cross your eyes. I just prefer to move around in my work, so when I notice that I'm doing one thing, I quickly critique myself and try to evaluate how important it is, how long to keep going, and so on. When you get practiced—as I am, I've practiced a lot—you can write anything. But can you write it well? The only way to really write it well is to watch what you're doing. Not so self-consciously that you are taken with yourself, enamored of yourself in any way.

Karen: As with Ashbery, when I read your work, I am buffeted by and absorbed into the complexity of thought, the intelligence, the sheer wealth of information... afterwards it's difficult to say, in simple terms, what has happened...

Jane: Everyone has to reckon with Ashbery, but he's unmemorable. I work with my own memory but I also believe that language has a beauty that survives us. I think Ashbery is working in a kind of "anti-aesthetic" in that he's erasing as he goes along; nothing' s important, he just keeps going forward.

He's very progressive in that way. I feel time is more important than that, that it's not disappearing behind us, and, so I do move around in the language more, and I do stop more than he does. I aspire to the ease with which he writes, but it’s so fluid that I think what is lost is a kind of memorability.

Karen: A quote that came to me as I was reading your work is Heidegger's "Poetry is the result of silence and accumulation." Your writing works in that way; it accumulates.

Jane: Well, it sure isn't silent! [laughs] There are a lot of words in it, my prose especially has a lot of words in it. I suppose it’s a good reason for keeping my essays short. I don't have ideas, I have explanations. My first love is poetry, so I try to always return to a discussion of the poem. In Working Time I often got carried away and would forget what I was talking about. I guess the book was an effort to be an elegant conversation, in that it did go back and pick up threads, but not completely, not thoroughly.

 Karen: Your writing, whether poetry or creative nonfiction, is what I call "fiercely contextual," meaning you are based very much in the now of your culture and in the act of writing. You've said that poetry is a "seam" or a border that "carries with it danger and possibility." Do you see yourself as an adventurer?

Jane: In some ways I feel very adventurous, and in other ways I feel stuck in an institution and in a role in that institution that I'm always trying to undermine and alter. But I myself am not always able to see in what ways to proceed. I think the temptation as one gets older and has written a few books is to rewrite those books. Not wishing to do that I often have long periods of silence: not knowing how to approach a border, feeling very comfortable in my life, feeling very lucky, very privileged, I get complacent. I really have to push myself in a way that one doesn't when one is just starting out. I think this is the middle of the way, as Dante put it, and I feel tremendous pressure within myself to create something new when I sit down to write. If it can't be that, I don't write.

About the border, I can say, that I'm always drawn to literal borders—that’s one of the reasons I live here. And because I am marginalized by my culture I feel on a border, and that's a wonderful place to be for a writer. It's not always the best economic posture or the best spiritual posture, but it seems linguistically to work for me. Whenever I get too complacent, all I have to do is remember who I am—I mean that in my soul—who I am, and I get in touch with the danger there, and am forced to write something down again. It gets more difficult to get from the depths to the edge—that journey gets worked and worked and more intimidating. I hope I can keep it up.

Karen: You've mentioned you've done a number of readings recently, in San Francisco, New York, and Washington D.C. I've seen you read several times, often in rather bizarre settings, such as the Temple of the Scottish Rite. You're very versatile, but what I'm almost always struck by is that you recite off the page. What are your thoughts on The Reading as a presentation of a written text? A performance?

Jane: I believe that poetry is an oral art, and to be performed. I don't think of myself as a performance artist in the technical sense because I make the distinction between someone who has only oral motivations—as I have—and theatrical motivations—which are not ones I have. I think of myself as a reciter of poetry.

Karen: Though the performance, thus the poet, can enhance or get in the way of the work...?

Jane: Language is the star, not the personal. I like to keep it that way. Not that I think my words are precious, but they're certainly more important than I am. Working from memory is easy for me because of how often I go over my work. I don't know why more people don't know their work. I don't remember everything, but I figure if I can't remember it, who will?

Karen: And as a sensory experience?

Jane: Yes, well, they say they're going to SEE John Ashbery, but they rarely say they're going to HEAR him...

Karen:  I once overheard you say (and took the liberty of scribbling on my cocktail napkin), "We talked mostly about literature, or about love, which is also literature." Most people would agree that you write "love poems." I happen to know you'll be moderating a panel this spring for the Tucson Poetry Festival XIII on the theme of Poetry and Love. With such disparate characters as Yehuda Amachai and Marilyn Hacker participating, this is bound to be an issue: what do you think about the politicization of love, from Adrienne Rich's statement that for women who love women, the very act of writing is a political act, to the politics of AIDS and art?

Jane: For me, poetry and love are one and the same. Poetry—which is love—is intimate and infinite. That is to say, love is of course sexual and sensual and spiritual as regards people or places, but it also reaches its long arms whenever you embrace someone or someplace. You're taking in much more than just that singular event or singular person, and we would be naive to think that our most intimate moment is not somehow available for scrutiny; self-scrutiny and world scrutiny.

We have no choice but to acknowledge that what is intimate is infinite. We are children of the 20th-century. We cannot go into the 21st-century thinking of ourselves as making private acts. Even when I am deep in my own bedroom and in love and least self-conscious, I am aware—because I am an adult—of what it means to be doing those things in this day and age, whatever it is, whatever magic it is. I think about love paradoxically. I think it is both private and public, and I am willing to stand up for what I love and whom I love in a rather impersonal way. I can give arguments for such a way of life or such a belief, but then I want my personality kept out of it. It doesn't matter who I am—in particular—but it matters what I do in general.

Karen: And on that note, how do you feel about your quotability? I've known you for six years, and I can, without even trying, reel off a number of Millerisms besides the ones already mentioned, my favorite being "All poems end with death."

Jane: Well, I didn't realize you had such a good memory or I'd have been more careful with what I said. But I love language and I try to be careful with it. It has power I respect enormously. So every now and then something gets said that works, isn't that what we love about poetry? What did Jorie Graham say, "every now and then something catches"?