Wayne Miller is the author of three poetry collections: Only the Senses Sleep (New Issues, 2006), The Book of Props (Milkweed, 2009), and The City, Our City (Milkweed, 2011), which was a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award and the Rilke Prize. He also translated Moikom Zeqo’s I Don’t Believe in Ghosts (BOA, 2007) and co-edited both NewEuropean Poets (Graywolf, 2008 w/Kevin Prufer) and Tamura Ryuichi: On the Life & Work of a 20th CenturyMaster (Pleiades Unsung, 2011). Wayne lives in Kansas City and teaches at the University of Central Missouri, where he edits Pleiades. In 2013, he’ll be the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at Queen’s University, Belfast.
Tonight all the leaves are paper spoons
in a broth of wind. Last week
they made a darker sky below the sky.
The houses have swallowed their colors,
and each car moves in the blind sack
of its sound like the slipping of water.
Flowing means falling very slowly—
the river passing under the tracks,
the tracks then buried beneath the road.
When a knocking came in the night,
I rose violently toward my reflection
hovering beneath this world. And then
the fluorescent kitchen in the window
like a page I was reading—a face
coming into focus behind it:
looking for a phone. I gave him
a beer and the lit pad of numbers
through which he disappeared; I found
I was alone with the voices that bloomed
as he opened the door. It’s time
to slip my body beneath the covers,
let it fall down the increments of shale,
let the wind consume every spoon.
My voice unhinging itself from light,
my voice landing in its cradle—.
How terrifying a payphone is
hanging at the end of its cord.
Which is not to be confused with sleep—
sleep gives the body back its mouth.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The event that triggered the poem happened, I think, in the late fall of 2002, when I was a visiting professor at the University of Central Missouri (then Central Missouri State University), where I still teach. I was living for the year in one of four apartments in an old converted house on Gay Street. All the other tenants were students and, though they were friendly, it was clear that I, as a professor, wasn’t especially welcome at their parties. One neighbor had the bad habit of getting locked out when he went into the back yard for a smoke, and on at least two occasions the party was loud enough no one could hear him banging on the door to get back in. It sounds pretty foreign today (this was less than ten years ago!), but he didn’t have a cell phone. Soon he came up onto the little deck outside my kitchen and rather sheepishly knocked on my window so he could use my phone to call down to his apartment. His guests, I assume, could hear the phone in the kitchen better than they could hear the back door.
I started writing the poem, I believe, one night in the spring of 2003—perhaps after the second of the above occasions. I think I had a first draft in a night or two.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I like William Stafford’s idea about this. I’m paraphrasing, but he says something like: a poet is someone who has arrived at a method that allows him to say things he could not have said without that method. My method is nothing like Stafford’s (he wrote a poem every day before getting out of bed—and when a poem didn’t come, he would “lower his standards”), but I do think it’s the consistent work of continually touching back in with the possibility of a poem—and then, once I have a draft, with the poem-in-progress—that allows me to arrive at moments of genuine surprise. Moments, in other words, that feel “received” somehow.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I’m an obsessive reviser. Once I have a draft done, I carry the poem around in my back pocket, and when I have a few minutes I unfold it and read it to myself, then perhaps make a change or two (or more). I do this for at least a week, then set the poem aside for a little while. After another couple weeks I come back to it. As I recall, “Nocturne” didn’t change a whole lot between the first draft and the final draft, but I still carried it around and read it over obsessively.
Part of why the poem didn’t go through a lot of changes, I think, is that the stanzaic structure of the poem arrived more or less formally right. Often I find myself altering stanzas systems—regular to irregular, couplets to tercets, etc.—until the poem feels like it’s slipped into place. (I have a number of ideas about different kinds of stanzas and their effects, but that would be too much to go into here.) This poem I started in loose free-verse tercets, and the tercet’s generally off-kilter, syncopated feel turned out to be right for the poem.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Only that the first draft was already pretty well along and didn’t require a lot of revision. Many of my poems don’t fully emerge until a tenth or twelfth draft—that’s when I really surprise myself with something or I suddenly find the right formal structure. But this one was pretty well developed in its early stages.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I recall tinkering with the poem off and on over the next couple months, but when I look back through my files I don’t seem to have made many substantial changes. (In the system of my computer, substantial changes require a new Word document, and I only have one document for “Nocturne.”) It also looks like the poem got picked up one of the first times I sent it out. This, too, isn’t typical for me—and it especially wasn’t typical when I was a younger writer with few prior publications. Field published the poem in their fall/winter 2004 issue. I should also say that before the poem came out in The Book of Props in 2009, I made one final edit to the second line. It originally said “in a windy broth.” But that doesn’t really make sense if one literalizes “broth,” so I changed to the above, which I think is better—cleaner.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I think what I outline above is typical: I carry a poem around and read it over obsessively, tinkering, revising, etc., until I exhaust myself and put it away for a couple weeks. Then I touch back in with it. If it seems done at that point—when I no longer quite remember the particular details of writing it—I send it out. If the poem requires more revision, I continue revising, then put it away again. Rinse, wash repeat. Sometimes after one of those repetitions I just abandon the poem. Other times, I find it’s done and I put it in the mail. If it comes back rejected, I check back in with it to see if I need to revise further.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This particular poem happens to be lifted from my life experience. There are aspects of the apartment house I streamlined in the interest of avoiding unnecessarily clutter, but for the most part the background narrative this poem is “true” to my life. That said, I have other poems that are almost entirely fictional—particularly in my third book, The City, Our City, when I became increasingly interested in monologues. Overall, I’d say I’m not as interested in “truth” as I am in evocative situations—situations, perhaps, that reveals a larger, more complex or paradoxical truth than the limited truth of my own life.
Is this a narrative poem?
It’s a lyric poem, but it has a background narrative.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was reading a lot of Stevens at the time I wrote “Nocturne.” (Can’t you tell?) And I had just become obsessed with Francois Villon.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I tend to imagine a future audience—some person fifty or one hundred years from now who’s literate and has read a decent range of poetry. I’m by no means so confident in my work to be convinced I’ll be read in the future (are any poets so sure of themselves?), but I think it’s important—at least for me—to write with such an audience in mind. I try to remember that an important part of why we read poetry is to connect intimately with a mind that’s not our own—to discover as directly as possible how a mind in a different time or location lived and experienced the world around itself. When I’m thinking about the relative value (or non-value) of a poem of mine, I sometimes consider how well it some aspect our own moment in history—or at least of my tiny slice of it.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
If I’m stuck or unsure or a poem, I share it with Kevin Prufer or Brian Barker—two longtime poet friends whose ideas and work I respect a great deal. I think Kevin saw a late-ish draft of this poem.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
My more recent poems experiment with persona and think more directly about history—how it does and does not hold us as individuals inside it, etc. I began to arrive at that interest a year or two after writing “Nocturne.” Many of my earlier poems were interested in phenomenological questions, just as “Nocturne” is. So perhaps this poem is, for me, a kind of culmination of a particular type?
What is American about this poem?
Well, it’s set in a small town in the American Midwest—not just in America, but in the real Amurcuh. That’s pretty American. (Or, at least, so Sarah Palin told me.) The Stevensian phenomenological descriptions in the first 2/3 of the poem are clearly American-made, though perhaps the aphoristic assertions in the back 1/3 are more European import.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?