Wayne Miller

Interviewed by Alison Gaines

My first question (and the others will likely hinge on it) is whether “On History” is autobiographical or not. 

The narrative bits of my poems are often not primarily autobiographical (or true in an autobiographical sense). But in the case of “On History,” most of the narrative details are, indeed, autobiographically true. I did know a man named George Trabing, who was a friend of my father in Houston in the 1980s. George did do significant time in prison for murder, then became a professor. I did see Salman Rushdie read in Houston the night before 9/11.

Both of the details you mention—knowing Trabing and hearing Rushdie read in 2001—seem like the kind of thing one might bring up in the game “two truths and a lie”— almost unbelievable. And even more strange, they are linked together by the Auditorium Hotel. Did this seem like the kind of thing that always needed to be a poem for you, or did it fall together over time? 

Ha! They do sound like “two truths and a lie.”

The manuscript I’m working on is often thinking about—and trying to complicate—judgment. I knew for some time I wanted to write about George Trabing precisely because there’s no easy place for me to stand in relation to his past. Aren’t we—particularly on the political left—supposed to believe in a criminal’s capacity for rehabilitation and redemption? And yet he was a Southern white man who murdered a black schoolteacher and attempted to assault a teenage girl—all of which make him a bit less forgivable than if he had, say, sold drugs or burgled a store. And still: he was an important person for me as a kid.

The protest of Rushdie’s reading in Houston was also complicating—the anti-art righteousness of the protestors, the elevated, almost aristocratic space of the theater. But it was only when I discovered the unlikely linkage of these two narratives through the hotel that the poem took off—and revealed itself to be about history as much as it’s about judgment.

To that point—the poem has a very neutral, almost newspaper column-like voice, particularly the first five sections. Do you think that laying the facts bare like this better enables a reader to confront their own judgment?

I don’t think “confronting judgment”—or prompting a confrontation with judgment—is my goal. I’m surely not against making judgments in the world! But I am very interested in the places where judgment gets complicated—where one’s own agendas collide. As Yeats said, poems arise when we argue with ourselves.

I think my primary reason for using such a direct tone is simply that a lot is going on. If the “plot” of my poem were, say, “I look at a leaf,” I’d better have made the “telling” of it inventive and interesting. But here, where there’s a lot of narrative to unspool—narrative that, as you say, feels “almost unbelievable”—I think my job is mostly to be direct and clear. I don’t want the poem to come off as embellished or inflated, which might make the reader mistrust the narrative.

I also think (hope!) that in the last couple sections the flatness starts to feel emotionally charged, like the speaker is finding the articulation difficult (as in Carolyn Forché’s “there is no other way to say this”). By the end of the poem it becomes clear the speaker is in the process of researching George Trabing and discovering these details from his past—details that aren’t easy to encounter.

Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” is a good parallel for this, I think! I definitely picked up on that change toward the end. It’s still direct and clear, but it feels like it’s becoming harder to sustain in some way, particularly when we get to the “My god” question at the beginning of section 6. You mention research—what was the research like for this poem? I’m also curious if the quoted phrases in section 2 came from somewhere, like a local newspaper or something.

And yet I don’t want to draw that connection to “The Colonel” too explicitly. The speaker in “The Colonel” is addressing a much closer—and a truly terrifying—personal experience (which we really feel in Forché’s clipped sentences throughout), whereas the speaker in my poem is only discovering difficult facts through research.

In terms of that research: I spent several weeks (off and on) digging around in newspaper archives—some of which were available online, others of which I could access through my university library’s newspaper database. The most detailed articles tended to be in local papers from Houston’s east side—the Anahuac Progress, the Baytown Sun—though pieces of the story also showed up in papers from Lubbock, Waco, Childress, Galveston, and (weirdly) St. Louis. Details varied a bit from paper to paper, so I had to make some decisions in the poem (and the quote in section 2 is indeed a quote from one of the articles). Other details I couldn’t find—when George got out of prison, for example. I guessed 15 years after learning that in Texas in the ’70s and ’80s prisoners serving a life sentence became eligible for parole after 15 years.

Well that’s true about “The Colonel.” The terrifying event in her poem is much closer to the speaker, totally immediate. Skipping back a bit, you said that the poem fell together for you when you realized the two events were connected by the hotel. How did you figure this out? Were you already researching Trabing or did you find out some other way?

was already researching Trabing when I discovered the connection. A couple years ago I wrote a poem titled “On Progress,” which is similar in form to “On History” and for which I did similar research. “On Progress” is about the last public hanging in US history, which my grandmother attended.

As I was beginning to pull together the beginnings of a new manuscript, I thought “On Progress” needed a companion; it was such a large, heavy poem to be the only one of its kind in a book. I had some initial ideas for what a companion poem might look like—all of which explored familial or personal proximity to violence, and all of which required some research.

I truly didn’t know about George’s past when I began poking around in the archives. I’d only been told that he’d been to prison, and that the crime had been violent—that maybe it was a robbery or something. I was genuinely surprised by what I found, and even more surprised about the Auditorium/Lancaster Hotel connection, which quickly shaped what the poem would become.

I found “On Progress” in the New England Review. Hangings have always freaked me out more so than other ways to die, maybe because they have the history of being publicly-attended events. The decision to attend someone else’s death is so deliberate. And today, we have this via the internet (you mention Saddam Hussein’s execution) so your idea of proximity to violence is complicated further. What do you think comes along with that proximity in 2018—are you trying to get into issues of accountability, or decision-making? Or am I putting too fine a point on it?

I don’t think I’m offering any clear answers or directives in response to that proximity. In the American context I think poems are poor political tools, since they primarily preach to a very small group of the converted. I am, nonetheless, interested in poems that think about concerns beyond the personal, and Czeslaw Milosz’s Witness of Poetry is an important book for me. The idea that a poem provides one mind’s observational record of the complexities of its historical moment is for me a key poetic value. I’m also persuaded by Milosz’s idea that the past “receives meaning from our present actions.” I love his restraint—the past can’t be repaired or made up for, but it does “receive meaning,” which is an intentional (but not impotent or hopeless) ambiguity.

It’s not profound to say that we in America live closer to violence than most of us like to think. Our nation was born partly of slavery and genocide and often wields power violently around the world. Those facts not only undergird our power structures but also trickle down into our daily interactions. At the same time, before we beat ourselves up too much, let’s remember that virtually every other nation has its own terrible, violent history.

My general sense is that we live in an age of righteous certitude—an era of either/or’s, in which we’re often rewarded for having clear and simplifying answers to complex problems. My poetic thinking right now is often about complicating for myself that certitude and those answers—particularly in places where the public and private intersect. I think it’s essential—and essential to the maintenance of humanism—that we continue to leave room for ambiguity. So maybe that’s the larger assertion I’m leaning toward . . .

I’m curious how this factors in to teaching for you. I ask selfishly, as a creative writing TA myself: do you find challenges (or successes) in encouraging students to write about “concerns beyond the personal”? Is that something you’re concerned with as a teacher?

In the classroom, I try to offer students a lot of different types of poems in the hope that they learn from a range of techniques/approaches and connect on a meaningful level with some of them.

It’s not original to say, but surprise is the primary thing I’m looking for in poems—in student work, as an editor, in work I just like to read. Surprise can arise in a variety of ways: an original manipulation (or exploitation) of form, an unexpected take on a particular subject, a startling leap or connection within a poem, an interesting angle or approach, a strikingly apt metaphor. Many of the poems I teach surprise me in their treatments of private subjects. I love the inversion of expectation at the end of Jean Valentine’s “High School Boyfriend,” and I love how far Julie Sheehan’s “Hate Poem” pushes into its rant, which suddenly curdles into self-awareness. For more than twenty years I’ve been in love with Rilke; even when he’s observing Paris he’s mostly looking inward.

And lots of public poems bore me—particularly if the politics are predictable. A poet is against violence? That doesn’t surprise me. A poet thinks he’s against violence but then finds himself behaving violently? That’s more interesting. More importantly, poems surprise with their details more often than with their broad assertions. Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact” is effective not simply because it elegizes Eric Garner, but because of Gay’s mirroring emphasis on breathing in the aftermath of Garner’s inability to breathe.

I want students to begin to feel those moments of surprise on a visceral level—and to reach toward that sort of sharpness or aptness or originality in their own work. Which is to say: I don’t think student poems are inherently better if they reach beyond the personal. I’m interested in that in my own poems right now because that’s where I’ve often been surprising myself.