Matt Miller is the author of the Loom Press-published collection of poetry Cameo Diner. His most recent collection, Club Icarus, won the University of North Texas Press’ Vassar Prize in Poetry. We asked him about his writing projects, past and present, and about Lowell, Mass. Here’s what he had to say:
Interviewer: During what span of time were you writing Cameo Diner? Were you living in Lowell for that whole time?
Miller: A lot of what became Cameo Diner started in graduate school at Emerson College. I hadn’t done much writing in college because I had convinced myself that it was a waste of time or that there was no life in it. But I dealt with a lot of anger and sadness over those years and sort of realized that the writing needed to be part of my life or it would not be a life. So after a couple post-college writing classes at UML I decided to try to reset and go do the whole MFA thing and make writing my life.
During and after grad school I was bouncing around between living in Lowell, Boston, coastal New Hampshire and even San Francisco. Sometimes I was teaching, sometimes working as an editor, sometimes bouncing or being a security guard. Working a second or third night shift as a security guard is a great way to find time to read and write with no distractions.
Interviewer: Did your outlook on the city change as you were writing the Cameo Diner poems, or perhaps after you had finished? What is your outlook like now?
Miller: I suppose my outlook on the city is ever evolving as I come at it from different experiences and at different ages. Heraclitus’s quote about not being able to stand in the same river twice applies to your city as well. You are never the same person as you were even moments before. How I saw Lowell as a kid and as a young adult was not the same. And looking at it through a poet’s eye made me look a lot closer at what I had always seen but never really noticed. To see beauty in the parts I thought were ugly and to see decadence in what I may have seen as beautiful. Looking at it now, I try to reconcile some of the violence we tended to normalize as kids in high school. But Lowell is the town that first formed me. I have a lot of personal and family history there. My grandfather was Ray Riddick, the former all pro Green Bay Packer and the great high school football coach. Growing up, everyone knew him and had a story about him and my grandmother. I think hearing all the stories made me see this town as a living thing, a character as much as a setting. It’s the source for some many stories from and about so many people. Richard Hugo spoke about writers having a triggering town, and Lowell is that for me, a point of entry into the imagination where I can then go anywhere.
Interviewer: Are you still living in the Merrimack Valley?
Miller: For the last few years I have lived up in Exeter, New Hampshire. I teach English and live on campus at Phillips Exeter Academy in the country with kids from all over the world. It’s a lot different from my high school experience, for good and bad. The kids are brilliant but a bit more cocooned to aspects of the world, but not all of them are like that. Many come from tough backgrounds. But for those with more gilded lives, I like to think that I can give them some perspective on things that they may not normally see. I like to bring a little Lowell to them. And once in while, a Lowell kid ends up at Exeter and that’s always a great thing.
Interviewer: What inspired you, perhaps it's not just a single thing, to begin the Club Icarus poems? There seems to be a bit of a shift in that collection in terms of approach and style. Can you elaborate on that?
Miller: A lot of the poems in Club Icarus began in California when I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and being opened up to new styles and aesthetics in poetry. More importantly I had also become a father, with all the joy and terror that comes with that. I realized pretty early on as a dad that by bringing life into the world you must equally bring in death. This thing you have helped create will have this little moment of existence and then be gone. This idea is harrowing but also beautiful because of how ephemeral and special each life is. And also while working on Club Icarus I lost my own father, which is pretty traumatic for anyone no matter what your relationship with a parent may have been like. So I had quickly become a father and lost a father. In a way, I’d gone from impetuous Icarus to the parentally cautious Daedalus in just a couple years. I was ecstatic for the family I had begun and wounded by the family I had lost and would lose. I was pretty raw nerved writing those poems. The poet Maggie Dietz read the early manuscript for me and when we met to talk about it the first thing she did was hug me and ask if I was all right. I actually didn’t realize I wasn’t totally all right until she asked. But the writing of those poems might have helped exorcise some of the fear and sadness. I don’t look at art as therapy, but the act of it can be therapeutic.
Interviewer: Lastly, are you working on anything in particular right now, a new project?
Miller: I have a book coming out from Salmon Poetry next spring called “The Wounded for the Water.” I suppose it picks up where Club Icarus leaves off, reckoning with marriage, fatherhood and adult responsibilities and how all that can really make you feel underwater all the time. But maybe drowning isn’t so bad if you can figure out how to do it. As Dickinson wrote, “Drowning is not so pitiful / as the attempt to rise.” As someone who spends a lot of time near the ocean surfing and swimming and just staring into waves, water is a real source of language and metaphor for me. The book looks a lot, as well, at definitions of maleness and masculinity and what it means to be a man today. Most of it was written before the recent governmental regime change but it sure stands in opposition to what our blustering new president seems to think it means to be a man.
And I, last summer, started going back to Lowell as a subject and to find out where I fit in, if at all, with it’s history and narrative. Nimrod International Journal just published a poem of mine called “Arthur’s,” which is about the diner on Bridge Street. It’s a poem trying to navigate memory. What is reality and what has been romanticized? In it I wonder if that famous Boot Mill sandwich will taste as good as I remember, and wonder about the consequences if it does not.
Posted on Tue, May 9, 2017
by Frederick Duquet