The North American Review is proud to be published at the University of Northern Iowa, located in Cedar Falls, Iowa. In keeping with our pride in our academic community, the North American Review is sharing interviews conducted for the Final Thursday Reading Series in Cedar Falls. Now in its 19th season, the Final Thursday Reading Series features regional authors presenting their recent work. Prior to the featured reader, an open mic gives local writers a chance to find a friendly audience for original poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. FTRS takes place on the final Thursday of each month at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. FTRS is a collaboration of Final Thursday Press, the Hearst Center for the Arts and the UNI College of Humanities, Arts & Sciences. Today, we feature their reader from January and the original interview can be found here.
Can you talk a little about your decision to return to writing poetry? What led you back, and what has surprised you in the work that you’ve done?
ANNE MYLES: I was trying to write a hybrid memoir, and thought I wasn’t interested in going back to poetry as a form. But then it asserted itself. First I found myself turning something I’d worked on in prose in response to a writing prompt in a local workshop, just as an experiment. Then a couple of weeks later I was in New York continuing to clear out my family’s home, and came on the poems I’d written in college in a box. Now, with my professor’s perspective, I saw how good they were for college writing, and how much I recognized myself as the same person, with the same obsessions, in them. The very next day I wrote another poem that came to me, about selling the house to the family that had owned it for fifty years before my parents bought it. And then the poems just started coming. It felt like the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a miracle. Once I was writing again I knew poetry was my form, where I know what I’m doing and just feel right. It was amazing how much more fulfilling and centering and powerful writing poetry felt than pretty much any other activity I can think of. I was kind of rusty and stiff at first, but I think I’ve gotten my craft back.
What’s surprised me beyond the mere fact of writing...hmm. I am struck by how I can still see the echo of themes and tendencies and voice from when I was twenty. That either means those are really my core as a writer, or else I’m stuck in a place of arrested development! I’m also noticing how much the past figures in my poems – that is, a sense of how the past infuses the present and places, even as it remains unreachable. That makes sense given my life as an early Americanist, but I noticed it was happening even in poems I hadn’t thought of that way; I think it’s deeper than academia.
Also surprising in a great way has been – wow, hey, I can get my poems published! Maybe it’s not big time yet, but before I tried I didn’t assume it was possible. Back when I was writing before the message I got was we shouldn’t seek to publish anything until we’d served years of apprenticeship or something. So basically I never did. The world seems very different now. I started sending out work around the very beginning of July and have thirteen poems that have appeared already. It’s a confidence boost that I’m on the right track.
What poets do you find yourself thinking about or responding to when you write? Which contemporary poets are your favorites?
AM: This is the hardest question to answer. Writing again now in my fifties, I have the uneasy recognition that my voice and style are surely shaped by literature I read decades ago, mostly too far past for me to recall precise influences and effects. I wish I could trace it back! And I recognize with regret that for years I resisted reading new poets and going to readings; I see now it was too painful to witness others living out the life I had denied in myself. So I am honestly struggling to catch up with current poets; I’ve been reading around widely, but not with a lot of focus.
Some of the inspirations that stay with me most are not contemporary poets. I think I got seriously drawn to poetry after getting the top of my head blown off by “The Waste Land” in high school, and hearing the recording of Eliot reading it. I remember going to Florida condo-land with my family and trying to write about it the way Eliot wrote about post-war London. It also spoke to a spiritual hunger I was beginning to feel in my life – those incantatory final lines! I was obsessed by Yeats’s poetry in college and remember trying to imitate it. And I read a lot of 20th-century Russian poetry as a Russian minor – it uses sound-play very intensely, and that’s something I love. In and after college, I was drawn to the work of Seamus Heaney; I was influenced by the concreteness of his poetry and his masterful crafting of sound and line, as well as his commitment to place, history, politics, and moral vision, all qualities I aspire to in my own writing. His lucidity and seriousness is something I’m always seeking in the poetry I read now. I also was met and workshopped with him on two occasions in the mid-1980s, and can hear him sharing early writing advice he received that has stayed engraved in my brain as an essential mandate: “Seamus, tell the truth.”
Later on, I read (and continue to read) women’s poetry with the most hunger and attention; a women’s college graduate, I’d always read Adrienne Rich, whose political qualities it strikes me one might link to Heaney as well. But Marilyn Hacker has been especially important to me, showing how received forms (which I deeply love) can be brilliantly revivified with the particularities of the autobiographical, the quotidian, and the conversational. I’m reading another brilliant lesbian formalist poet, Mary Meriam, right now. That sense of a deep relation to place and to the sonic and lyric qualities of verse that you see in Heaney made a lasting impression on me in the work of Crystal Gibbins, who read in this series a year or two ago. I don’t think I was writing poetry myself yet when she came, but her work reminded me why I love it.
Here’s a chicken or the egg question: as a poet, do you start with a subject you want to explore and then work to find the right language and form, or do you begin with a form and/or wording you want to use and then figure out what your subject is?
AM: I think I am still learning about my process and have a way to go to fully recognize it – but probably that’s a lifelong learning for most writers, isn’t it? I sometimes have subjects in mind, but I notice I can’t sit down and just write a poem about them – anything I try like that feels fake. I have to sit quietly – often literally in meditation practice – and then if I open myself I seem to find a certain thought or feeling or voice that comes with a certain rhythm, that begins to suggest a poem. One of the things I notice about myself (and it’s not new) is that I can write in many different kinds of line even in open-form poetry; I’m not entirely sure if this is a strength or a weakness. But I really hear sound intensely and want each poem to have its distinctive rhythm, and it’s when I feel and hear lines of a poem moving in me that I know I’ve got something “live.” I think!
Participating in Vince Gotera’s UNI Craft of Poetry class in the fall semester – it’s explicitly a forms class – shaped my recent writing because of course the need to write in a particular form came first, but then I had to wait for the voice of a poem to arise that would be authentic in that form, because I wanted each poem I wrote to be truly good in itself, not just an exercise. I always started early to give the process time.
What connections have you found between your work as a poet and as a scholar of early American literature?
AM: That’s something I’m still exploring, and expect to be exploring for a long time, because I know the early American material is a source of inspiration I’m going to be mining for a long time one way or another – or I should be. I’d really like to try some erasure poems on texts from that period, though I haven’t gotten to it yet! The starting point has been my poetry on the 17th-century Quaker martyr Mary Dyer, who’s been my personal obsession for a long time. I published an article on her in 2001 that’s been pretty influential (I learned a year or so ago that the Wikipedia entry on her summarizes my argument at length!), and then when I first realized I wanted to write creatively again I was trying to write something that interwove memoir with reflections on her life and our points of connection. Anyway, it seemed obvious I should try to write poems about her, so I’ve been doing that, and really love it. I hope they can become at least a chapbook. I will say that at first I resisted writing directly in her voice, because as a scholar that imaginative identification made me nervous; I felt more “legit” keeping a distance between my subject position and hers, and historical fiction always makes me a bit itchy. When I finally let go into a persona poem, wow it was so much fun and flowed so easily. So I’ve given myself permission to keep doing those, although I still like to write about her as myself as well.
Conversely, I think my academic work on early American literature has encoded a lot of personal concerns that I also brought into my poetry. My scholarship has focused on 17th-century dissenters, and that sense of “feeling differently” resonates at many levels in my life, in addition to my brief but intense period in my early twenties of involvement with a Quaker group trying to revive the teachings and faith of the first generation. There’s a whole mess of things I understood and didn’t understand about myself that led me into a dissertation on early American dissent all those years ago. I guess it seemed safer to put it in distanced academic form, with lots of footnotes, rather than express it openly. I’m getting braver.
How would you characterize the poems in the “Circumference” booklet that will be distributed at your January 31 reading at the Final Thursday Reading Series?
AM: These were written at different times and with different feelings, but I thought they worked well for a reading where most people know me as an English professor since they each have some kind of intertextual relationship to earlier literature. Because of course, my brain is full of so many literary echoes; I’m not up on current poetry the way I’d like, but I really do know the tradition.
Two of the poems, maybe all three, arose from meditative states of presence, sitting or walking. Now that I think of it, they’re all set in my house or yard or the immediate neighborhood. In that sense they all make me think of Emily Dickinson, who’s referenced in “Circumference” – her intimate attention to very small, local forms of nature, yet with cosmic reach.
Where do you see your writing headed, or what are your plans going forward?
AM: I am currently submitting applications to low-residency MFA programs in poetry – I should know by March where I’ll be going. I’m nervous but excited! Having found my poetic voice again I don’t want to lose it, and being in my fifties it feels urgent not to screw around; it’s obvious to me now that you don’t have forever to do the things you want. I’m excited about the kind of intense one-on-one mentorship low-residency programs are based on; that’s something I’ve never had access to. And there will be extensive reading, individually designed to support my needs and writing, so it will be a chance to catch up on what I’ve missed. Plus everyone seems to talk about a finding a great sense of community that lasts beyond the program. A lot of the poetry I’m reading now is the work of faculty in the various programs I’ve applied to, trying to get a sense of whom I might want to work with.
I’ve also been asked to teach a monthly beginning poetry workshop through The Cottage writers’ studio in Cedar Rapids—teaching writing especially to adults is something I hope to do more of going forward.
I always want to tell creative writing students here at UNI to be appreciative of how much opportunity they have to take multiple classes with wonderful teachers, and not to waste this time. There was one poetry writing class in my college and one in graduate school and that was it. And I hope my story might be inspirational, showing that even if you lose your creative voice it’s never too late to find it again and take it seriously.