In Matt Miller’s fourth book, Tender the River (Texas A&M Press 2021), Miller shows us the grace of listening and how it can shape and change you, as a river does land. The collection is an homage to Miller’s hometown of Lowell, MA, following a narrative of its multifaceted histories, including the geological, economic, social, and personal archives of the place. It is the art of the listener to hold space, and that is exactly what Miller does in this book. I recently had a conversation with Miller about all of this. I was so grateful to Matt for speaking with me about his new book and for his generosity and openness in sharing the contours of his own interior landscape that is held within these poems.
KG: The variations on rhythm in these poems viscerally evokes a sense of place. From the sonnet crown, “River Valley Hexamaera,” which omits punctuation, thus mimicking the river’s current, to “Textile Triolet,” a standard form encased in the phonetic sounds of textile mills, and the rhythmic free-verse poems about growing up. What inspirations did you have for approaching each poem so differently and how did you make weaving them together work so well?
MM: Originally, I conceived of writing the whole book in received forms and giving certain voices certain forms, like white male voices coming out in Miltonic iambs and syntax. But not all of the poems wanted received forms. “Insidious” has a kind of form but more about seeing things differently through anaphora. A lot of those rhythmic poems run with an iambic bass line. “Invocation”, “Boys in June”, “Winter Break”, etc. I think that gave a backdrop sound I could riff of with other poems, whether in received forms or if they found their own form. Tyehimba Jess’ Olio was a big inspiration for weaving history through forms and sort of launched me on my way. Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler had always amazed with its organic use of form. So I did that for a lot of the book. There are sonnets and sestinas and there’s even a villanelle, “Ceremony Drowned” that I chopped up to hide the form.
But not all of the poems wanted to fit a form. Some seemed to want their own and so then you just have to let it. And I was always conscious about forcing form and why does this story or this voice have access or not have access to a form. “River Valley Hexamaera” was something that came quick, after reading Brandon Courtney’s Hexamaera in This, Sisyphus. I had been doing all this research and had no idea what to do with it. Then Iread Brandon’s poem and it all just gushed out and it didn’t want punctuation, just places where it turned with the land or broke through the land. I wrote the first drafts in one sitting and was just exhausted by the end but what a ride through that corner of the world.
Triolets, even the name, are so lovely, seem too lovely for back breaking factory work. So a voice that starts soft in that, a young girl working in a mill, and then grows louder in chorus with fellow workers. But as loud as those voices are, the sound of the looms try to drown them out and perhaps does. That was one of the strangely hardest things in this book, catching the sound of the loom. I listened to a recording for hours trying to find letters for it. It was maddening. I can’t imagine working 10–12-hour days, hearing only that noise.
Another book though that helped lock this all in place was reading Willie Perdomo’s Crazy Bunch in manuscript and talking to Willie about it as it was being written. He was finishing his as I was starting mine. But we traded pages and pumped each other up and something he said that helped him was knowing who he was writing to. He was writing to his neighborhood, his boys, the crew he grew up with. He said as soon as he knew who he was telling his story to, the stories just came out. He just had to talk and then listen back. I’m writing these poems to my ’92 crew, my family, and that larger community. Not all the stories will sit easy with them but they all were written with reverence and love and a hope to set down what happened, to have a reckoning of our short moment on the river.
KG: So much of this book is drawn from memory and the stories are told with great detail and presence. In the poem, “Ars Poetica,” you write, “never really try to find out beyond Googling gang / slayings that happened in Lowell in ’92 for a damn poem”. What were your methods for recalling and curating your childhood for this book and was it more generative to visit Lowell or avoid it and let everything be conjured organically?
MM: Growing up, you get inundated with the history of the area, especially about the cotton mills, the Industrial Revolution, the mill girls, the bread and roses movement. I did a lot of research as well, about things I had less knowledge about: geological history, how the land was formed when the Laurentide glacier pulled away after the last ice age and bent the Merrimack from dumping out near Boston to empty out into the Atlantic in Newburyport. I researched the indigenous tribes, the Abenaki, the Wamesit, I looked into Passaconaway, the last great sachem of the area, and the Pennacook people, especially, and their place and relationship to the land. Then the arrival of white settlers and their guns and their God, the displacement of those first peoples, then the industrialization of the country which birthed in the mills along the Merrimack as they harnessed the hydraulic power of the Pawtucket falls power, and the labor movements that came out of there, often led by women, the waves of immigration, the 20th century decline into poverty and crime and all the attempts at new economy rebirth.
For my own personal history, I just returned, met with friends and family and listened to our stories. And my mom and mother-in-law still live there, other members of my family, and I have friends there so I do go back a lot. And it’s a town, maybe every town is, that lends itself to stories and storytellers. I mean, Kerouac wrote five novels about being a kid in Lowell. Then you have writers today like David Moloney, Diannely Antigua, Brian Simoneau, Kate Hanson Foster, Andre Dubus III, that write from that area. Hell, Hollywood made a Christian Bale movie about Lowell boxer Mickey Ward. And some stuff was so salient it was like it happened minutes ago. It’s in the blood. And I made sure to visit places I hadn’t since I was a kid, like ballfields or roads I hadn’t driven down since working as a landscaper, or the cement factory behind the train tracks where we used to hang out and drink beers after football games.
But there were moments, like for that poem “Ars Poetica,” where it felt false to make it a research project because a lot of the point of the poem was that I couldn’t remember the name of a boy who had been shot and I should have. It’s wrong that I don’t remember his name. I have been trying to write a kind of poem about that boy from homeroom being killed for years. I even tried it once through his voice, which felt very wrong. In this poem I try to question why I am writing about him, if it was more about me wanting a place in that story, and then being disgusted with myself for perhaps appropriating his death to make a poem. But I also want to recognize that his life and death have touched mine—I have been thinking about it for 30 years. I kind of hate that poem. I hate me in that poem. It may cast a pall across the whole project. On the other hand, if I didn’t keep it in the book I would have been lying, hiding. I just hope I did right by people and their stories in these poems.
KG: In an interview with Adroit, you talked about an idea that has really stuck with me while reading this book; that the process of writing is similar to the idea that you can’t stand in the same river twice—that the writer is not the same person after they’ve written. It wasn’t just the Merrimack River that had me thinking about this. There’s a palpable awareness in these poems, about gang violence and indigenous land, of colonialism and white privilege. How did writing this book change you?
MM: Yes, the Heraclitus quote. I throw this at my students all the time so it’s good to get it thrown back at me. I think this book, the process of writing it, did change me more than any other book. The first poem I wrote for it was “Invocation at the Merrimack,” where the writer comes to his place of birth and youth to ask for a song, for poems. That was the plan for the book but as I wrote through to new poems, that changed. I was like, “Why should this river, that has given us all so much in its own resources, want to give this sad little poet anything more?” So I had the river answer back in “Said the River When I Begged for Her Song.” And the river is saying “Screw you, I’ve had enough of your lies–white male lies at that.” Then I started thinking, why is the river female? Why did I go there and assign a female gender to this object? Where is that coming from? Why do I think that way? Later I use a male tough guy voice, angry but contained in a double sonnet, an inherited form, a form that didn’t come out of this landscape. And then again later, why assign a gender at all, why so anthropomorphic? —it’s a river, its fluid, so then the third poem uses the gender neutral “they” and “their” and really refutes that these words can even catch or contain the river or hold water with something so base, so humanly temporary as language.
But it wasn’t just the river. As I wrote through stories of my past, I started to see them in other ways. I hadn’t really intended to write so much about race, about white privilege, about ongoing actions of colonialism, but writing the book made me see how much these things were and are about this place and people. You can’t separate it. And with all that has been erupting in the country over the last years, it would be wrong to try, it would be a lie to look away from that.
The poem about the aftermath of the Rodney King trial, the LA Riots, my memory was of an intense situation that happened to me and my friends when the African American kids in school were taking action of their own, protesting or just looking for a fight. I understood their anger then but didn’t realize their fear until now. We were scared for a night or two. But I saw, in these kids, that this was the fear and frustration, the anger they carried every day. We got to put it down. They didn’t. I didn’t fully see that night that way until I wrote the poem. I think too, working with my students and seeing the hurt and hate they have to navigate even at a posh private school, woke me to something else.
Or the kid that had the machete wound in his head in “Boys in June.” A surreal moment my brother Jon and I experienced on a break home from school, where we ran into a guy we knew from little league with a healing machete wound in his head. But when I thought about that guy as a kid, playing little league—such a beautiful ball player—so much better than me, and how little chance he had to make it, to do something with that ability. It wasn’t pity for him. He was alright. He still is. It was more being pissed off at how many kids got screwed for systemic reasons and how many kids like me got passes even when we screwed up. Like in the poem when my other brother Paul throws down a cop while trying to buy beer illegally. If he’s a kid of color, does he get away without being shot? Does he avoid juvie and all that can lead to? The subtext of that story has changed for me as I try to decenter the white narrative while still being aware that was how I saw the world as a kid.
And so many of these stories are me trying to see stories through the eyes of others but without appropriating voices and experiences. I can only be outside them, trying to understand how they fit into this place and them and me. Even the story about my brother smashing my face with a skateboard because I smashed him in the crotch with one— I thought that was a story about me getting what I deserved but, you know, I read that poem once when he was in the audience and he said after, “Good poem, bro, but you did just talk about my balls in from of the whole room.” That shook me. Who am I to write this, or put any of this down in poetry? He was cool with it but I was suddenly very aware of the poet’s privilege. I have a forum that many don’t. There’s responsibility that comes with that. I was hoping in “Real Life” to show the boy I knew, who killed someone drunk driving, that I saw him, that there was a hurt in him that was as real as the pain he caused others. That what he did that night was not the only thing that defines him. That we are all more than our worst moments. But I don’t know if I did it right.
I think maybe the biggest change I also felt, looking at it from the outside like this, is that I maybe don’t fit there anymore or maybe I never did. Do we all feel this? I think of moving back but is it my home still? I can go visit, hang with friends for a while, but their lives have evolved beyond all of that, it’s not some rarefied moment of perpetually being 17. It’s their home and I’ve moved on, like the river, and given them new songs I missed and won’t ever hear. It’s not the place I imagine, if it ever was. Maybe this is my goodbye to that place that is no longer that place. The river rolls on.