The Bookshelf: Poet Matt W. Miller on Metaphorical Drowning, Breathing

Jun 8, 2018

This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR, a conversation with Matt W. Miller about his new book, The Wounded for the Water.

Daily life can be stressful. There's work, family, social obligations. Bills need to be paid, the dog needs to be walked. There are birthdays to remember, funerals to attend. For poet Matt W. Miller, these little and other big stressful moments add up to the sensation of drowning. In his new book, The Wounded for the Water, he explores this kind of metaphorical drowning in musical, resonant depictions of little moments we can all relate to. NHPR's Peter Biello spoke to Miller about his work in his classroom at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he teaches English.


Matt W. Miller's Top Five (Plus One!) Reading Recommendations

1.   Land with Sex and Violence by Lynn Melnick. "This collection of poems about sex working and sexual abuse and misogyny is lyrically stunning. It is an absolutely stunning and necessary book, a perfectly pitched mix language, rhythm, humor, pain, and strength."

2.   Rail by Kai Carlson-Wee. "A spiritual journey into the self by way of train hopping, dumpster diving, professional skating, and cross country travel. In these poems, Carlson Wee revives the American adventuring spirit to go out into a fracturrd America to try to piece himself together with love and the hope of redemption."

3.   Land of Fire by Mario Chard. "A wonderful debut of poems that traverse the many levels of migration, from boyhood into manhood, from husband into father, as well as the literal migration into an often fierce America and all laced with the echo of Milton's Paradise Lost."

4.   I Know Your Kind by Will Brewer. "Rarely will one encounter so much beauty in so much suffering as in the book of poems that gets deep into the bones and blood of opioid addiction in West Virginia. As the perfectly crafted images and narratives break your heart, the language and lyricism lift you up leaving you torn apart in the way great art does."

5.   There There by Tommy Orange. "I've just started this debut novel that shows the looked over the disenfranchised and diasporic indigenous peoples of America as told through about a dozen voices in a prose that poetry in its attention to image, music, and language. This book might be the the book of the summer."

6.   Moby Dick by Herman Melville is "the greatest prose poem of all time."

I wanted to start by asking you about the overarching theme, the theme of drowning, both literal visions of drowning in your book and then, metaphorically speaking, drowning in the waters of life. What made you want to write about this theme?

 

I don't know if it's so much that I wanted to write about it as it was I was writing about it and it was sort of coalescing. It kept coming up as a theme, and maybe with young children at the time, having lost a father, having become a father, and trying to learn what that all means, with work, with the political climate and things just weighing down on us that make us feel submerged underwater.

 

And spending a lot of time in the water myself, I was writing from that place and I just started to see well, there's a sort of connection here. There were things I was writing that didn't have that connection but as I was thinking about a book, another book of poetry, I’m like I think it's going to be something about being underwater and being wounded. And that's how it came together.

 

And when you say spending a lot of time in the water, you're a surfer, yes?

 

Yeah, I spend a lot of time surfing, especially out here off the coast of New Hampshire in the winter through summer in the waves and getting pulled under a lot. It's an odd habit to have in New Hampshire but there are a lot of us out there.

 

I should say that we're sitting in a classroom at Phillips Exeter Academy and behind you there's a giant surfboard.

 

That surfboard actually is a board that my brothers and I got when we were little kids, not little kids, probably just past 12, 13 from the old board shop there used to be right in Hampton and is now Pioneers. It was a board we just messed around with. It's an old ‘60s pop-out board. I think we got it at the board shop for about $15 at the time.

 

Fifteen bucks for that giant thing?

 

Yeah, probably, it was cheap. It's not a board that people really wanted, so we got it real cheap. Or maybe it was a little more than that. And then it was sort of sitting around my mom's place for years and I’m like that’d make a great desk or something at some point or a coffee table. But finally I just put it in the classroom. I thought, yeah, I’ll put it up here, hopefully it doesn’t fall down on student.

 

Let's hope! So, you grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts. At what age did you know you wanted to be a poet?

 

I don't know. I still don't know if I want to be a poet. I've always loved reading and stories and playing with words. And I had a lot teachers growing up in Lowell, like in fourth grade Mrs. Peterson would just let me go off and write stories and not necessarily what everybody else was doing, or read stories. I just fell in love with words. Getting to high school I know I was more into sci-fi fantasy stuff and maybe more writing novels but then I read a poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman. And I was like ‘What is this?’ because I didn’t like poetry before that. What is this poem that in eight lines just encapsulated me and how did you do that in so few words? So I started getting interested in that.

 

And I think as a kid I was getting into, at that time, The Doors, listening to Jim Morrison and thinking that was great poetry. And I went into the poetry aisle at a bookstore at a mall, probably the Pheasant Lane Mall or something, and oh, I’ll get a book of Jim Morrison poetry and what else? What else could I buy? Oh, who is this person? Sylvia Plath, I've heard of her. And I bought her book and that book really shifted, the worm turned there when I read Ariel because there was

something going on there. I had no idea what she was doing but it was so beautiful and so harrowing as well. And all of a sudden poetry started to get its hooks in me and so I wrote a lot of bad bad bad poetry during high school.

 

All poets do right?

 

All poets do, yeah.

 

And in this book The Wounded for the Water you have a lot of references to works by Shakespeare and also Moby Dick. Are these influential people and works for you as well?

 

Moby Dick is just absolutely my favorite book of all time probably. I teach a Moby Dick elective here at Exeter. It’s on Melville, but we focus on Moby Dick. I mean in that book he talks about whenever it is November in my soul I need to get to water as soon as I can. I think a lot of us feel that water and meditation, as he says, are closely connected. But I think at the time of writing the book I was reading, I was immersed in a lot of Shakespeare, that shows up in it. Eliot, Milton, Dickinson shows up in it and Melville, certainly. I was pulling a lot from him and using some of those references because there's a lot of drowning and kind of surviving that drowning in Moby Dick. And being lost in the drowning and never surviving it, even if the drowning is drowning in your own ego, your own desires, your own one-sidedness and not being able to see through the void.

 

What kind of drowning did you think you were experiencing that inspired some of the work here?

 

A lot of it pulls from the past too and I think I was probably, when I was younger especially, I felt a lot of drowning and sadness, maybe depression, that I was looking back at. And so, what was I drowning from? What was pulling me under? And a lot of it was me pulling myself under and letting things pull me under.

 

But then you feel moments of that where, I mean we all feel it every day. You’re like, I just can't do today. I'm so not going to do today. There’s so much today, too much work. I gotta pay those bills, I gotta get the kids here, the kids there, I gotta teach this class, grade these papers, or whatever your thing is. I got a thousand clients to meet or whatever your thing is that day where you just feel like I am buried alive. I am underneath this slag of waves that won't let go of me.

 

And I thought that was something everyone can feel on one degree or another. And I think a lot of it came out of that. And in digging into some of those stories where I’d felt like that or I'd seen other people feeling like that.

 

Yeah there's a beautiful scene in the first poem. It's an eight-part poem and it's a scene where it’s you, or a fictional you, at a bar. And you run into a person you haven't seen in a long time who works in a prison. And this person describes the awful thing that he had to do during the course of his day as part of his job. And then just kind of grin and smile anyway and say, yep things are OK, but things are really not OK.

 

Yeah, you'll do that. I'm doing good. I’ll smile and be alright. And you just feel yourself going under. But that's that idea, drowning doesn’t look like drowning. Literally, if you look up drowning, people don't know people are drowning. Right next to you, you don't know they're drowning.

 

They don't have the air to scream.

 

Yeah, they don’t have the air to scream. They seem to be calmly moving. They're like climbing an invisible ladder. But in that scene in the Gaelic in Lowell Mass, it was a friend of mine. We played football together, we were captains together. And I saw him one night and he was really one of the smartest kids I'd ever known but hadn't had the educational help to get him into that place where he knew how to use that intelligence enough. And great footnote to that story, that he went out West to Arizona, became an elementary school teacher and a coach and he changed his life. He just got out of that town and he stopped drowning. He went to the desert in Arizona and literally stopped drowning, and figuratively, and pulled himself out. I have to write that poem too because I don’t want to leave that as the last memory they have of him.

 

Well that's the other part of the theme in this book too, not only drowning but learning how to not drown and adjust to new circumstances. There was a poem here where you were speaking to your girlfriend before she became your wife about how to just adapt. And that's part of the not drowning process, learning to adapt.

 

Yeah I think she had this great moment in the poem, and in the real life, where she dreamed of drowning in waves and I said “What did you do?” And she's like “I learned to breathe underwater.” And that was sort of like that click-off point. How do you learn to breathe? How do you learn to breathe when you're drowning. How do you learn to not let water be the thing that suffocates you and accept the immersion and find beauty in it. Yeah, you’re supposed to drown a little bit. And that was probably when she turned me around too and was like, if you want to be with me this whole drowning in yourself sadness thing, you’ve got to figure it out because I'm not gonna let you pull me under. I think that was in my 20s and I was like yeah, if I want to be with this person I have to find a way to not drown or find a way to drown better.

 

How did you do that?

 

I don't know. It's slow and in increments. And I think the writing helped me. I had stopped writing for a while when I was a college because I got sucked into, I was playing football. I got recruited to play football and it became an easy script, an easy role the play where everyone saw me as that. It was harder to get to classes with rehab because I had a lot of injuries and I just fell into that. And writing, 'Oh writing is stupid.' I think anybody who's worked in the arts has that doubt, like I shouldn't do this, there's nothing in it. You just start to self-doubt. What could come of it? Nothing, you know, this is silly. Or you start listening to the voices of people telling you 'What are you gonna do that for? What are you gonna do with that degree?' Like, oh jeez, all right I'll do something else.

 

And then I got a pretty serious neck injury my senior year of college and found myself in the library a lot. And I found myself reading again, writing, enjoying classes and finishing my homework which was great. And I'm like, this is what I came to college to do. I had one semester of that. This is what I wanted to do, I didn't quite do it. So I think that's why I ended up going to graduate school a couple years later just to try to get that back. And it was diving into the wreck, to steal from Adrienne Rich, of myself and writing these stories and seeing kind of the shared experiences with others, with the world, of beauty, of sadness. That helped me pull myself out of the water, or dive deeper as it were.

 

I wanted to ask you about the football part because I don't see too many poems these days that reference Gronk.

 

No, there's not a lot of Gronk poems out there. Not yet. I mean there's a whole anthology coming out one day. The Gronkology. Oh my god, I can't believe I just said that. That poem was supposed to be sort of misdirection where two friends of mine who love going to games and love the NFL but they're not allowed to be in love because they're two women. And Jill McDonough and Josey Packard. Jill McDonough is a great poet, they kind of have this moment in the poem where they get to touch hands. And then they have to pull away because they don't want to push too much onto this really strongly heteronormative environment. Or they're willing to go out there but they're like, you know what, we'll let them have their day because these guys need it, because they're little boys, just trying to pretend they're boys again.

 

And so they love all the references to the coach, to Gronk, Brady and stuff like that. And then, oh wait, this is actually about a love poem. Gronk and a love poem. I think there's going to be a whole series of them one day. People all around the world will write Gronk love poems.

 

Talk a little bit about the intersection of your writing and your teaching. Is there a relationship between the two?

 

I think so. I think being a writer and knowing what it's like to be inside an assignment, writing, so I'm not just telling them to do something. I know what it's like to struggle with this. Or I think I see what you're trying to do. I've been there before, that helps. Or really celebrating their writing. Like yeah, look, you got something here. This is great, you just have to build on this. And to tell him that nothing comes out right the first time. Very rarely, writing is rewriting most of the time. I think that from the teacher's perspective it helps me give them, I'm in this too. I'm trying to do the same thing. I'm just a little bit further down the road.

 

On the other hand being really creative with them and for them can take a lot of your juice out of you at the end of the day. Like I want to sit down and write but I got nothing in the tank. And you kind of get fried on that because you're coming up with these ideas, you're workshopping with them and all these kind of creative ways they can take their work because we do a lot of creative writing here. But that sometimes will take you out. It's an exhausting job. It's very fulfilling. It's that kind of exhaustion you feel the end of the day when you know you've done something really great but you just want to hit the sack, like I feel good. I didn't waste today, but man I'm tired.

 

So are you off during the summer and, if so, is this a prime writing time for you?

 

Yep, off during the summer. You can teach summer school, I don't usually teach summer school. But I usually take the summer, summer is a big time to write. You get up in the morning, get the kids off to where they’ve got to go, to camp, write for a few hours, pick them up at camp and go be a dad, but you at least have a few hours. There's no papers, there's no homework, that psychic energy is not being used.

 

So you can kind of do a lot of reading and writing and rewriting, revising. I might dash off things during the year but this is the big time, those few months of precious summer months to kind of write and just take a breath. And take a break from these brilliant but, these kids are brilliant but they're teenagers and they got a lot going on in their lives. And you live with them so you give a lot to that. You're ‘in loco parentis’ as they say.

 

Yeah, you literally live with them. You even write in this book about having to be overnight with them wherever they live.

 

Living in the dorm, I was a dorm head for seven years. They'll knock on your door at 11:30 at night sometimes like, ‘Mr. Miller I got a question’ or ‘I got a problem’ or ‘Hey, can we talk about something?’ Because sometimes they just need to talk to an adult or they’ve got something they’ve got to work out. Maybe it's something about academics, but oftentimes it's about personal stuff which can be tough. You got to, all right, it's 11:30, I'm just trying to settle down by my family and stuff. Everyone's in bed, now I get to sit down like, nope, I gotta do this.

 

And some of those are the best conversations too. Some really great relations are made when you're talking about a kid who, you know, he just needs to talk about something. Or a kid's been missing, he's missed a couple classes for a couple days and it's Friday night, you're about to go get some pizza with your family and I'm going to check on this kid real quick. And you find out that he's really in a bad place. He's been skipping classes, he's sad, he needs help. So you spend the rest of the night in the health care just making sure he gets to talk to somebody.

 

Again that's some psychic energy that gets drained out of you. It's great, it's good work, you feel good about it but you're also like, that was a close one. What if somebody didn't check on him? What if I hadn't gotten e-mails from the Dean of Health saying ‘Have you seen so-and-so?’ I better go check on them. There's a lot of networks of people trying to take care of the kids and you hope nobody slips through the cracks.

 

So what advice do you give the aspiring writers in your classroom?

 

Stick with it. That it's not a short game. It's a long game. A friend of mine and former teacher Joe Hurka, he's always said, the most talented people might start off but they kind of give away, they'll stop writing. It's about staying in the game. And whatever they want to do, I tell them you don't have to be a writing or an English major, you can be anthropology. I love physic poets, you know, people who are working in the sciences and bringing that language to their work, to their stories, their narratives, their essays, their poetry. Like whatever field you end up in, you're a doctor, you're a lawyer, you're in finance, this can be something that still stays part of your life.

 

Some of them don't want to be part of it but some you can tell, this is something I want to do. Even if it's not the only thing I do. I'm like, pursue it, stay with it. It's about staying in the game. You know if you really love it. There's a great poem by Merwin about his teacher John Berryman. And he asks at the end of the poem 'How will I know that anything I ever wrote was ever any good?' And he says 'You don't. You die without knowing. If you need to know, don't write.' Which I love to show my students when they're struggling, like, I don't know if I'm any good. You'll never know, if you need to know… You can get all the As you want or you get all Ds and it's whether you need to write it or not. So you'll never know if you're really any good. That's a weird place to be. It's kind of like life though, you never know if you really did it right. But, you know, you keep doing it.