I Fell Into an Elegiac Mood: A Conversation with Jane Miller — curated by Lisa Olstein

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Jane Miller: While I was writing Paper Banners I was besieged by paper wasps in my yard. Poetic justice.

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

JM: One ambition of form is to record how time is experienced in the present culture. The communal predicament of living seems so intense that, paradoxically, I tried to slow down, using rhetorical commentary. That lasted through one section, with its line-and-a-half spacing support system. In two other sections the speed picked up, as reality set in, until the last poem, a coda to the book and a return to the first formal ambition.

LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

JM: I was writing two books at once (essays and poems). I began both books studying ancient Chinese musical instruments after my friend sent me a recording with a strange arrhythmia, a musical scale utterly different from what I knew from my amateur piano and flute playing, and it blew my mind. Simultaneously I read the Song dynasty poet Li Qingzhao and she swept me up in her music and imagery.  I fell into an elegiac mood, confirmed by a litany of debilitating climate and political crises.

LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

JM: I address some living and some dead people directly and, in other cases, an abstract reader or writer. 

LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

JM: The ”I” in my work is actual, messy, emotional me trying to feel fully and think reasonably. With memories and experiences of terror, anxiety, love, and hope, I consider what it’s like to be here now. Ultimately, I feel as though I am writing love poems—intimate poems to others, to the earth, and to language itself.

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?

JM: The riskiest part of putting the poems of Paper Banners together was to reconcile its differing influences—Chinese music, American landscape, and ideas about the function of art. The three parts don’t really harmonize. I kept going forward, and that didn’t seem deliberately disrespectful of what came before. In other writing projects, I’ve circled back and kept a consistent subject or at least a consistent theme.  Here, the book title tries to hold the “messages” together. Poetry’s project, for me, involves the sending out of encoded information, perhaps as fleeting as skywriting or banner headings, the difference being that poems hold sufficient shared experiences to help humanity imagine a healthy future. Poems can train the mind of the reader to slow down enough to comprehend, and to preserve, the complexity of existence. I risk being inscrutable.

LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

JM: I’m writing a new book in which every poem has the same syntax and diction and the same title.

LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

JM: Ever since our imaginations have gotten cut off from reality, in this mad age of dissociated, electronic, bodiless “life,” I’ve been desperate to keep the past in view. Wasn’t it Bob Marley who sang, “You don’t know the past, you don’t know the future.” Memory is as important to the future as reality is to the imagination. They speak to our responsibility to the truth of embodied experience, confirming that aesthetics and ethics are interdependent. The damage done to our physical world is a call to every artist to keep apprehending with our senses what it means to be alive. A matter of life and death.

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

JM: Valyntina and I spent a lot of time together during the writing of this book. Desert plants offer lessons for survival and made wonderful companions.

Jane Miller has written twelve books, most recently Who Is Trixie the Trasher? and Other Questions, and including Working Time: Essays on Poetry, Culture, and Travel. She has performed her creative work and lectured on literature and the fine arts at universities, colleges, libraries, community centers, and public arts venues for over thirty years. She is the recipient of a Wallace Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, the Western States Book Award, and the Audre Lorde Award. Miller served as a professor for many years in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arizona—including a stint as its director—and as a visiting poet at the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers in Austin.

Lisa Olstein is the author of five poetry collections published by Copper Canyon Press: Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (2006), Lost Alphabet (2009), Little Stranger (2013), Late Empire (2017), and Dream Apartment (2023). She has also published two books of nonfiction: Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press, 2020), a book-length lyric essay on the intersection of pain, perception, and language; and Climate (Essay Press, 2022), an exchange of epistolary essays co-written with Julie Carr.