Alice Miller has written poetry, plays, essays and fiction. She has worked as an historian for the Waitangi Tribunal, studied music, and graduated with an MFA from Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an MA with Distinction from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. She has gained numerous awards—from The Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize to a prize for the Landfall essay competition and the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Premier Award for Fiction.
Alice has been based in Vienna where she is the Associate Editor of The Vienna Review, but has spent the first part of 2014 at Auckland’s Michael King Writers’ Centre as its Summer Writer in Residence.
To celebrate the arrival of her stunning debut collection, The Limits, Alice kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf. The book was published by Auckland University Press in early March and will also be published by Shearman Press (UK) this year. I will shortly review this book (Bill Manhire gives it a terrific endorsement on the back: ‘At the same time, her book takes us far beyond its title, letting us glimpse again and again – in finite space – what it limitless.’).
Did your childhood shape you as a poet? Did you write as a child? As a kid I wrote long, interminable stories. I think I filled an entire exercise book with a single story about a chestnut pony trying to get home. One chapter featured a hundred and three exclamation marks, all in succession. I still feel very sorry for my teacher.
When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)? Yes! When I first read Eliot – that disembodied voice, those great leaps, and the result being such an astounding whole – it may well’ve made me a poet. A large part of love is timing, and The Waste Land was my first real glimpse of what poetry could do. It was so familiar and so foreign, like all the world was poured into this one voice.
Perhaps a large part of writing is timing! I love the way your poems abound in connections—narrative, musical, cerebral, material, enigmatic. What are key things for you when you write a poem? Thank you! I think of writing as basically a shift between the unconscious brain and the conscious. At first, the poem happens entirely in the unconscious; if you let the conscious brain in too early, it’ll try to explain the poem and kill it. But after some time away from the poem, the conscious brain has its part in editing, and re-editing, and re-editing –
After that, what I look for is a sense that a poem is working, that the machine o’ words has a functioning engine. I know a poem is worth keeping if, when I return to it after revision over weeks or months, it’s still a mystery to me; it’s still alive on the page.
You were once a historian. Is a sense of history an important factor as you write? A way of exploring how and where you belong? Yes, absolutely. The Limits is haunted by a particular image, that of a city which carries all its pasts at once. I stole this idea from Freud. If we translate it to Wellington, say, we have the untouched bush, we have the first pa sites on the headland, and we have every building that’s been built ever since, as well as those buildings’ ruins – and all of it is able to exist simultaneously. Freud used this image as a metaphor for the mind, which holds all its memories at once. We’re around on this planet for such a brief time, but poetry can, in a sense, cluster and compress space and time.
Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved. Because I’ve been overseas I’m behind on my local poetry – I’m about to catch up! – but I’ve heard great things about many recent collections. And I loved Sam Sampson’s first book, and Lynn Jenner’s, and Bill Manhire’s Selected.
What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer. Some poets of the last year (with the term ‘poet’ used rather loosely) would be Elizabeth Bishop for her precision and her use of abstraction, her embrace of specific geography alongside the unmappable; Chekhov for holding his sad and funny mirror to the world; Flaubert for his exquisite sentences; and Shakespeare and Yeats for, well, everything else.
The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life? I do like to play football, or rather, at my level, to run about a football field accidentally kicking people’s ankles.
Your new collection is entitled The Limits. Is it important for you to break boundaries, respect boundaries or a bit of both? Or to see poetry as a way of navigating the limitless possibilities of the world, both real and imagined? Great question. For me, the limits also suggest limitlessness; would we still recognise beauty if we lived forever? Or was Stevens right when he wrote death is the mother of beauty? That there are limits means there’s something to reach beyond. I’ve always been terrified by time and death, and I see poetry – and art in general – as the only way to deal with time, to momentarily lose that terror.
You know those moments when you see a puddle on the pavement and it seems astonishing? Are these the greatest moments of being alive? We can’t live in a constant state of awe, so we spend a lot of time stretching to attain it. Perhaps when I talk about a poem working, it’s actually reaching for awe.
I love that notion of writing as stretching—the way poetry has its feet in puddles (the ordinary) and its eyes on the distance (the awe-dinary?). Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read? Today I’m feeling a little anxious, so I’m going to say Whitman: ‘All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.’
Thank you Alice!
Alice Miller website
Auckland University Press page
Shearsman UK page
On Antarctica on New Zealand Book Council page
Alice Miller’s poetry duets — The Red Room page