“This final, glowing image”: A Conversation with Kristen Renee Miller — curated by Naoko Fujimoto

Kristen Renee Miller is an English-French translator who has been working with Ilnu Nation poet Marie-Andrée Gill from the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, home to the Pekuakamiulnuatsh community. Their newest book will be available from Book*hug Press as their Indigenous Poetry Literature in Translation Series this March. Miller is also the Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief of Sarabande Books. It is headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky; however, she joins the Third Coast Translators Collective (TCTC). I met her through their gathering in Chicago.

Naoko Fujimoto: Heating the Outdoors by Marie-Andrée Gill, translated by Kristen Renee Miller contained two writing formats – short sentences like a haiku, and long paragraphs like a prose poem— the style is almost haibun in a way. Could you tell me the most difficult decision of translating Gill’s writing format and line-breaks?

Kristen Renee Miller: I love that you mention haibun—some of my favorite moments in this collection struck me the exact same way. The pieces have that resonance between them, with the prose poems unwinding the speaker’s ruminative moments, and the micropoems serving a sensory punch (or punchline!). One challenge was preserving the simplicity and openness of those very, very short poems, which echo in a single line or image the complex themes of Gill’s longer pieces. I returned to the shortest poems often and obsessively—refining, rewording, finding ways to develop emotional resonance beneath a single image or expression without breaking the smooth surface.

NF: Towards the end, I think that the core of this collection appears. Gill is a member of the Ilnu Nation, the indigenous people rooted in Nitassinan. This writing also contains her traditional oral narrative as an Ilnu and Quebecoise woman. It is like a diary, intimate and sensual, yet surprisingly warm hearted. Could you tell me the story behind you translating the following part?

I touch wood; I close my mouth, but I keep on repeating
to the encompassing silence:

if you are looking for me, I am home
or somewhere on Nitassinan;
all my doors and windows are open.

           I’m heating the outdoors.

KRM: The collection takes its title from the last line in this poem, Chauffer le dehors / Heating the Outdoors. It’s fitting—here we see the speaker at her most self-actualized. The member of a displaced nation, in this poem she’s returned home and also she is home, a powerful reclamation. And, because it’s Gill, there’s a self-deprecatory twist as well. The reprimand, “fermez la porte, on chauffe le dehors!” is a common household refrain in the Canadian arctic tundra. “Shut the door!” —to keep out drafts, to keep in warmth. But in Heating the Outdoors, the speaker sheds her protective layers, poem by poem, choosing vulnerability. In this final, glowing image she is standing solitary on her ancestral land with “all [her] doors and windows open,” radiating heat and light. 

NF: For the last question, you recently became the Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief of Sarabande Books. Congratulations! The publisher produces many notable books and supports your writers and creative community. As the executive director, would you like to tell me a bit about any upcoming projects?

KRM: Thank you and yes! I’m especially proud of two guest-edited collections to be released later this year. In October, we’ll publish Another Last Call, edited by Kaveh Akbar and Paige Lewis—an anthology of poems on the subject of addiction, featuring poets Joy Harjo, Ada Limón, Sharon Olds, Jericho Brown, Ocean Vuong, and many more. And in June, we’ll publish Once a City Said, an anthology of poets from Sarabande’s hometown of Louisville, KY, edited by Joy Priest. This anthology is a project of sustained protest following Breonna Taylor’s 2020 death at the hands of the police, which “takes the city’s narrative out of the mouths of politicians, news anchors, and police chiefs, and puts it into the mouths of poets.” It’s a profound honor to be sharing these two projects and the brilliant work of so many poets.