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Mike Miller - Writer in the Spotlight

Writer in the Spotlight

Fall 2011

Mike Miller is an MA graduate of the English-Writing program at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana, USA. He edits High Coup Journal, an online journal for snarky formalist haiku, and is the guru of Drafty Attic Press. His poetry has been published in Four and Twenty, The Ghazal Page, Semaphore Magazine, and the Boston Literary Magazine, and his fiction has been published in The Seahorse Rodeo Folk Review and Short Fast and Deadly. A current resident of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he now writes poems up in an attic, about 40 miles and 130 years from where Emily Dickinson did the same thing.

Hi, Mike, welcome! As someone who is familiar with your work, I knew I was going to enjoy Miller’s New England Haiku Dictionary. But I simply wasn't prepared for the absolute genius here! I'm not kidding, so many made me laugh, and several just sort of filled me with awe—they are all so incredibly clever! I really hated seeing it end—I would love to have read about a hundred more!

Being “clever” can be such a double-edged (s)word in the artistic world, but it is absolutely my shtick. I’ll never be a Sharon Olds-level confessional poet with stark anatomical terms jammed into every uncomfortable place possible… so if sometimes what I come up with is cute and makes people chuckle, I guess I’m okay with that.

Now don't undermine these... they're not just cute and funny - there's a ton of skill here!

Well, I guess I can handle the word “skill.” I’m really much more into the idea of poetic craft than the idea of Romantic (with a capital R) “genius,” and my experiences working with kids in high schools and now at the local community center point me to the idea that “genius” thoughts strike people all the time—they just don’t know what to do with them and tend to toss them aside to deal with more pressing concerns. A poet is a person lazy enough to ignore those pressing concerns and self-obsessed enough to think the ideas are worth writing down and sharing.

To that end, I think the haiku form is really the perfect way to capture an inkling of an idea. It doesn’t require development or any sort of problem solving, the way a sonnet does. Writing haiku is much more like capturing fireflies in a jar and saying you’ve made a lantern. For me, the 5-7-5 structure is that jar. That’s not a popular statement in the world of literary haiku, but I need boundaries like that or else all the fireflies float away.

I know exactly what you mean... haiku really forces you to be economical with your words, so there won't be any throw aways—every single one has to accomplish a purpose.

Though, to interrupt you for a sec—some of my best haiku have also come when I’m not being all that economical with my words at all. Instead of having throw-away words in a haiku, I just got a dozen throw-away haiku with a single gem buried in the midst.

The first question, obviously, is did the Big Idea strike all of a sudden, or did you come up with one, and then another, and then decide to write a collection?

Sort of a round-about explanation for this one, but that’s just sort of how my brain works, so here goes:

I’m a big gaming nerd and have been a fan of the Civilization series since its inception. (Maybe it’s a control freak thing, or maybe it’s some sort of god-complex. I don’t know.) In Civ IV, Leonard Nimoy provides voice-acting talent, reading little quotes from historical authors every time you discover a new technology. Upon discovering the “Corporation” technology, we get treated to a quote from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:

An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

Now I had read the Dictionary back in middle school at my father’s behest (thank you, Dad), but hearing Nimoy read it out loud over and over as I fretted about how to balance simultaneous wars against the Mongols and the Aztecs made even more of an impression. (I don’t know what he was like in real life, but in the game, Montezuma is such a dick. Seriously.)

One day, I’d been struggling to write some haiku and sort of hit the “what’s the point?” wall. So doing what any responsible just-graduated-from-grad-school-and-living-in-Grandma’s-attic would do, I went back to playing Civ, the syllable-counting still in my head. And hearing “COR-POR-A-TION-NOUN,” I realized that Bierce had started writing a haiku and didn’t even know about it. That was one of the only times I quit playing Civ without pangs of “just one more turn…” because I knew I’d hit something worthwhile in real life.

Or at least real life as defined by poetry.

After writing up the first seven poems and submitting them to the Boston Literary Magazine, I then realized that a book-length collection could be written out of these dictionary definitions, because… well… Bierce had already done so. From that point on, writing became an incredibly mechanical process: I browsed lists of four-syllable nouns [x-x-x-x (noun)], three-syllable adverbs [x-x-x (ad-verb)], two-syllable adjectives [x-x (adjective)], and one-syllable prepositions and interjections. A few pronouns made it into the list, and sometimes I had an idea I felt was good enough to stretch the structure into something like [x-x (noun and verb)] or [x (both noun and verb)].

So overall, yes—there was a moment of inspiration, and it was provided by Leonard Nimoy. But there was also a very mathematical construction process, and that’s where I came in. Not in the genius but in the craft.

Had you attempted any previous collections of haiku?

I’d done a few as sort of jokes. One, published in Semaphore Magazine in New Zealand, was a version of the 1980s text-based game Adventure, where all the prompts are in haiku form:

You are in a cell.
You see BONES and AN OLD SHOE.
The exit is NORTH.

> go west

Walking to the west,
you are kissed on the forehead
by a stony wall.

> damn it

Nothing too serious. There’s also an unfinished depiction of a game of Oregon Trail on my computer, as well as an attempt to translate Tractate Pirkei Avot from the Talmud into haiku. I guess that counts as a little more serious. Sort of. At least to a confused mind.

I know many came to you at night (“Insomnia (n) / haiku dictionaries come / at the worst of time”) but I'm guessing as you wrote you found yourself counting syllables constantly. Did you, and was it annoying?

Having switched majors in college from mechanical engineering to English (and thus having accepted that I would always be poor), I find myself counting things everywhere I go. And not just counting steps. I see the world as a triptych of forward, left, and right. Everyday speech pops out at me when its iambs line UP just RIGHT and THEN beCOME a PHRASE. It’s beautiful, and it’s constantly annoying, because I find myself ceasing to listen to the meaning of what someone is saying and focusing instead just on the rhythm of what is being said. I also enjoy the alignment between haiku first-lines and iambic pentameter particularly. Insert an unstressed syllable before each felt beat and you’re quoting Shakespeare.

Do you remember the first haiku you ever read?


I’d like to have some really romantic (capitalized or uncapitalized) answer for this one, but the truth is that I started writing haiku as a kid before I’d read anything written by a Japanese master. I was corn-fed on SPAM-ku. Haiku were an exercise—one that caught, mind you—and I started applying this stricture to several forms of communication. After a short run in the Kingdom of Loathing Haiku Dungeon, I started initiating long conversations with friends entirely in haiku. (To the uninitiated, the Haiku Dungeon chat room allows players to speak in nothing but haiku form. Those who fail at 5-7-5 can be banned from the game.)

Oh that sounds like a blast! Do you have a link?

Yeah! You can check out KoL here: www.kingdomofloathing.com.

Do you have any favorites?

Yup, though most are more recent faves. I’ve only recently really caught on to the spirit of haiku as opposed to the form. One that caught me early on, though, was from Rick Black’s Peace and War: A Collection of Haiku from Israel:

highway's edge
old armored vehicles rust
beneath cypress trees

Another comes from my friend and mentor, Darla Crist, in her book The God of Small Losses:

In lottery land,
Powerball is king, sporting
A belt made of corn.

I also love this one by George Swede:

I forget my side
of the argument.

Very dictionary definition-y.

At Boston Literary Magazine we receive not a lot of haiku but enough to know that this art form is alive and well... but there's more to writing haiku than just accommodating the correct number of syllables. Done well, haiku can evoke images and emotions, as in “Melancholy (n) / diabetic black fingers / on old guitar strings.” Not to go overboard with the praise or anything, but your haiku are masterful! Any advice you'd care to share?

I love narrative poetry. Chaucer and I are homeboys. Really. And I love verbs to death. What I am learning from haiku, however, is that sometimes you can imply a verb. Haiku are Polaroid pictures, snapshots of a moment, and sometimes you really need to let your reader piece together what is happening from the details you provide.

Perhaps it is better said in a quote referred to me by a recent amicable critic of my journal, High Coup Journal, who cited T.S. Eliot in saying, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” I think the same can be said of any photograph. And we know the Imagist poets were also influenced by haiku.

So I guess that would be my advice to haiku writers: juxtapose two images that imply action without exactly revealing your direct intentions. For example, nothing is actually happening in the “Melancholy” poem, but we get hints of BB King and the blues. The aforementioned Rick Black poem goes even further, observing a contradiction (military machines and nature) and documenting it without judgment.

You're the editor over at High Coup Journal. This is an absolutely great place of haiku lovers & haiku writers! Tell us about having a magazine that only publishes haiku.

Well, I guess I’d say that the journal started off on a single piece of paper in the Indiana State University Writing Center. Half the time we were sniping at our patrons, half the time we were sniping at coworkers. Add in a Yogi Berra half and we were pointing out the oddities of life. My friend Kaylin and I went on a weekend expedition around the library with a pad of Post-It notes and some heavy sarcasm, guerilla haiku-ing the student art shoehorned into the library. Eventually these efforts grew into a webpage, because I felt like this sort of joy needed to be shared with others. To date, Kaylin has not submitted a single poem. I feel justified in beating her about the head, neck, and shoulders.

I was a little nervous creating the journal and then throwing it out on Duotrope to see who would submit, but I’ve actually talked to some really neat people by doing so. It’s actually a point I would proffer to other aspiring writers—if you want people to take your writing seriously, take their writing seriously. Publish them. Showcase them. Go beyond just reading works in anthologies and start reading a fresh stream of poetry sent directly to you because you have professed editorial taste. Believe me, they won’t allow your lack of experience to prevent them from sending their manifesto.

Do I love only haiku? No. I think that actually allows me to be so strict in enforcing the Formalist mission of HCJ. I want to see how authors can jump through a declared hoop to create the greatest art possible. I’m rooting for people to throw on a leg-iron and develop a new technique in delivering what they’d naturally do otherwise.

Maybe I just like disqualifying people who can’t count. I don’t know. I never claimed to be an arbiter of taste.

Exactly. As an editor of a magazine, you always have to let people know it's not that you think the stuff is bad; just that it doesn't grab you. But re: people who can't count... yup!! Tell us a little bit about your publisher, Drafty Attic Press.

Um, I already introduced myself? Let me explain. Drafty Attic Press is… me! I have some friends from college who are currently earning experience as unpaid interns, but so far the organization has relied on my physical labor and my totally boss long-armed stapler to put out the sole book we’ve released. I do have Kwik Print, our local copy shop here in Great Barrington, run off the pages for me, but the other assembly work is done by hand. We are currently using a guitar capo as a folding bone. It’s high-tech.

We’re actually on the verge of releasing two more books, and hopefully a third: one is Toby Bielawski, winner of our New Word Order Publishing Project chapbook contest. Her book, Five Kinds of Fences, will be published in early September. I also have a book lined up for a younger cousin, Susan Rambridge, who has responded to Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys with her own series of “girl-ku.” It’s pretty great being related to this kid. I can’t wait to share some of her stuff with other people. Finally, I’m working to snare local poet Laura Didyk into publishing a chapbook. She’s been published in at least three journals I’ve submitted to, including Diagram, and I can’t in good conscience avoid clinging to that. Plus I just love her stuff.

Might Drafty Attic open up to submissions from people you don't know?

Well, the big issue is funding, but Kickstarter.com is making that a lot easier. We managed to raise the money for the first contest (the one that’s publishing Ms. Bielawski) in just under a week, mainly from friends willing to contribute $10 or $25 bucks for a book. One of the really nice things about Kickstarter is that if you can’t raise the total funding goal, the entire project is a no-go. And because of that, people are much more willing to pledge money, because if you’re not able to go ahead with the full plan, they’re not out any money.

So we’re looking forward to doing another fundraising project in the future, and will be certainly trying to find some more great talent to publish. One of the best things about running the contest (and the Journal, for that matter) has been the constant inundation with undiscovered literature. People in publishing complain all the time about the dogs they find in the slush pile, but it’s been a real joy. Plus, I secretly enjoy bad poetry (even if I don’t always publish it).

What's next for you?

For now? Continuing to work with kids to keep them from bullying and waiting on the fiancée to decide on a grad school and find an assistantship. Not anticipating this poetry thing is going to be a paying job any time soon.

I’m looking forward to pushing some of my longer works, but I am enjoying exploring the world of haiku as well. I guess I always saw myself as a sonnet sort of person, but the haiku community seems to be much more fractured and angry and meaninglessly exclusivist, and thus so much more the place for me. So I think I’ll try to stay involved.

Sound great! Thanks for spending some time with us!

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