Friday Feature: Interview with Robert Miltner
Each week, the editors of Jenny Magazine sit down with either fellow literary magazine editors or past Jenny contributors for short interviews. This week’s interview is with Robert Miltner, a past contributor of Jenny Magazine.
Describe your first publication. Where was it, when, and what was the piece about? How old were you at the time and how did it feel?
My first publication was like most of us — a poem in the college literary journal. I published some early poems — this was in the late 1960’s — at Xavier University, both in the campus literary magazine, Atheaem, and the writer’s club (we didn’t have any writing classes) publication, The Tavernacular. How was it? We felt like gods. No one else wrote creative work at the campus then, and I think we were the only ones who even read ourselves. When I saw the movie Dead Poets Society I thought maybe I had written the screenplay, you know? In the Athenaeum we published anti-clerical fableau and the university tried to defund us, but we won and we were like Percy Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators of the world, defying the cretins and defeating censure of original writing. Dick Hague, the Appalachian writer and National Book Award Finalist, and Robert Colllins, founder of the Birmingham Poetry Review, were in that writers group, and I learned an education-worth of craft and intention from those two writers — and looking back on it now, we were just undergraduates in our very early twenties.
What inspired your pieces in the Jenny?
“Braceros” is based on a painting of migrant workers, of the tenuousness of their lives and livelihood. “In Time” is a set of stanzagraphs on how our cultural concept of time has changed from the era of my grandfather to my own son: from church bells and pocket watches to digital configuration — from sound to circle to blinking image. “Song of the Servants” was written as a statement against cultural elitism, layered over a visual image in my mind of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” — that image of an almost still photo sequence of a cubist representation of a human form. “Guadalajara Holiday” is just that — experiencing Christmas in Mexico, and because travel is a powerful prompt for seeing our own lives vicariously through the lives of others. “The Bridge” is a memoirist prose poem about crossing the Black River in Lorain, Ohio — it was my homage in a very small Midwestern way to Hart Crane.
What got you into writing?
I read a lot when I was young. I was fortunate to grow up in a house where people read; my mother had books — from Raymond Chandler to Daphne du Maurier, which is to say Detective Noir to murder mysteries. When I was in junior high school, I drifted from sports to music — electric guitar, and so by high school I started writing song lyrics; they were awful. But I turned to poetry pretty easily — it wasn’t difficult to follow the song lyrics of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon or Jim Morrison over to poetry because Cohen and Morrison were publishing their poetry as well as their song lyrics and Lennon was publishing books of short stories that from my perspective today look like absurdist or surreal flash fictions. So: books to music to poetry. That’s what got me started writing.
What do you like writing the most? Is there a certain style you prefer?
At core, I’m a poet. But my movement from lyric-narrative to prose poetry was a major shift. I’d say about seventy percent of my drafts begin as prose poems, though some of them transition or blur over a boundary into micro fiction or brief creative nonfiction. So yeah, I like the prose poem best (sorry, you other genres!). Lately, I’m increasing drawn to brief nonfiction — these are such intriguing puzzles for me! Perhaps it’s due to finding myself of an age where I reminisce, so that brief memoir is a place I can explore my past through writing.
What are your influences? Who are your favorite writers?
For influences: Everything. All of it. From comic books I read as a kid to Shakespeare in college to my friends and students and my wife, Molly Fuller, who writes take-no-prisoners flash fiction — yeah, all of it.
For favorite writers: Lately Ann Carson, Carol Maso, Collum McCann, Mary Rueffle, Lydia Davis, Milan Kundera, Raymond Carver (always), Nin Andrews, Karen Schubert, Cornelius Eady, Phil Metres, the Scottish writer James Kelman, the Canadian writer Tamas Dobozy. Russell Edson. William Shakespeare, still. Pablo Neruda, always.
What’s your proudest moment as an author?
When my first chapbook of poems, The Seamless Serial Hour, was published by Columbus publisher, Pudding House Press: Holding a booked body of poems in my hands. Knowing someone believed in my work enough to publish it. And I’d designed the cover, with a woodblock print by Franz Masereel, an early twentieth century Belgian graphic novelist. It was a participatory gift.
How has your writing developed over time?
Craft development. Expanded vision. Genre movement from poetry to prose. Accepting working in multiple fields: both critical and creative. Intuitively trusting the work.
Are you currently working on anything?
I just finished a new book of fractured prose poems, Orpheus & Echo, that is knocking on publisher’s doors. A new book of prose poems on extinctions, ghosts, and photography, titled The Vanishing Point, is underway, as is a collection of brief nonfiction, titled Electric Boulevard. And I’m always paragraphing along (I’m the slowest fiction writer on the planet!) on Tempest, a novel.
What’s your writing process?
Answer the door when the poems or stories or nonfictions are at the door. Write the first notes or drafts straight through. Research the etymology of words in the draft, expand the vocabulary. Research anything that I don’t know how to talk about (physics, astronomy, torment, animals, flowering trees, rocks, insects, names of processes, stages of growth and decline, obscure deities, graphs of thoughts, relationships of emotions, grids of what conflict). Finish a draft. Read it aloud a lot of times. Put it away for a few weeks. Workshop it with friends whose work I respect and whose opinions I value. Then trust the work: send it out to magazine, read it at readings, put it in a book manuscript. Answer the door again.
What are you currently reading?
Books written by friends: Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, edited by Chad Wriglesworth, and Seige 13 by Tamas Dobozy.
Have you ever co-written something with another author? If so, what was that experience like?
I’ve been co-writing with my wife, Molly Fuller, who is a Teaching Fellow in the Literature program at Kent State University. This past year we co-authored an essay on N. Scott Momaday, the Kiowa Indian writer, and how he used the landscape of the earth as an ekphrastic prompt for his prose poems in The Way to Rainy Mountain. It was Eco-criticism meshed with these astounding brief memoir — prose poem hybrids in a eulogy to a lost culture, the Kiowa, his grandmother’s tribe, who were once the predominant Indigenous horse culture of the Western Plains, and who were forced onto reservations to become farmers. Momaday grew up on reservations because his parents were from different tribes and dedicated their lives to being teachers — though his father was also a visual artist. Momaday was the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize, and I’d argue that he should have been nominated for a Nobel in Literature — this guy was the seed for the Native American Renaissance in the US. And The Way to Rainy Mountain is a stunning book, in content, intent, and visual layout.
My musician friend and colleague at Kent State University at Stark, guitarist Erin Vaughn, wrote original music for some of my poems, and we were able to record them on a CD, Too Trains Too Many, that we recorded at Copperhead Studios in Canton, because Lee Copp, who built the studio, helped develop the music technology program at the campus, so some days we were the class. It was like, Lee would asks these metal head students how to record just a voice and a guitar — electric or acoustic with a set of mics, and they’d shuffle their feet and Lee would say, “Watch. Take notes. Learn.” It was an amazing experience, doing that music out a few places, hanging out in the engineering room, watching Lee edit the songs on computers. And it was so challenging to have to let go, to accept that the musician and the engineer were leading, so that in this collaborative dance, I had to follow. Being in a sound booth, hooked into the world with headphones, listening to Erin run those melodies, and watch his body language on when to come in with vocals — which is to say, parts of the poem — was like nothing else. I’d worked a few times with musicians — I worked with an upright acoustic bassist and a saxophone player on a porch in New Hampshire one summer day, doing call and response with sax and words, foregrounded over a walking bass line, and one other time I’d played with Ray McNiece’s Tongue and Groove band in the Cleveland Flats, but the difference between improvised riff and rehearsed performance is almost too hard to describe.
Have you ever worked with a medium other than writing? Or collaborated with someone in another medium with your writing?
Well, I’ve been playing guitar since I was a teenager, and about ten years ago I took up hand drumming — bongo, djembe, congas — which is more rhythm and my physical than guitar, which is more emotion and intellect. I’ve had some art classes over the years, but it never stuck. I’ve collaborated with some visual artists — printmakers, mostly — some through organized projects. I worked with Wendy Sorin from Zygote Press in Cleveland, through a program run by the Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland (this, sadly now no longer in existence) where I was paired with Wendy, she making a print based on one of my poems, then the following year, me writing poems based on her prints. I have them all in my house, some on the walls, so I see them often. I worked like this with Julie Friedman when she was teaching some printmaking classes at Kent Stark. And I’ve worked with Marc Snyder, a printmaker in Pennsylvania, who did the covers for one of my chapbooks and for my book of short stories, And Your Bird Can Sing (Bottom Dog Press, 2014) — after I’d done some poems based on his prints. As I look at it now, they all show up in my recent books of poems. Working with them was like an education for me. What a gift they all were to my writing, my life.
Are you a past Jenny contributor or an editor at a literary magazine and interested in an interview? Send us an email.