writer interview with chloe yelena miller
Palmer Smith: When did you first start writing? Have you always known you wanted to be a poet?
Chloe Yelena Miller: I remember complaining that I was bored one summer as a child, and my dad told me to, “go write a poem.” While he probably just wanted a moment of silence and didn’t have any other ideas, it worked. I went somewhere by myself and wrote. After that, my parents would buy me notebooks and I would fill them up. I’m not sure that I always wanted to be a poet in particular, but I did want to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I’ve been lucky to be able to carve out occasional space and silence to think, write and read.
I remember Lauren-Anne Bosselaar saying in a Sarah Lawrence College MFA workshop that every poet is obsessed with certain topics. I think that I started to write as a more focused writer after my best friend died in 1989. I’ve been fairly obsessed, if that’s the right word, with loss, grief and what or who is missing.
Writing has become a part of who I am: when something difficult happens, I sit down to write it out. Sometimes those thoughts turn into pieces I feel comfortable submitting and other times they are simply private thoughts. The process of turning my emotions or questions into words, though, is how I translate experiences into some sort of attempted clarity (even if that clarity is only a better question.)
PS: Please describe your influences as a writer. Who are your favorite writers and/or teachers and how would you describe your own writing style?
CYM: Mark Strand was the first poet I read in a Norton anthology during a high school English class who really struck me. More recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading Sarah Manguso and Gregory Orr.
I remember writer Roberta Bienvenu talking about her choices during a writing retreat on Martha’s Vineyard. She directly said something like, “Sure, I want people to read my work, but I want to live the life of a writer.” Then she invited me for a walk on the beach and we looked at the cliffs and horizon and talked about why we write about what we do. The focus on an approach to life rather than publishing or winning awards was refreshing and encouraging.
Art, from the natural world to human creations, has an effect on my writing. I studied Italian language and art history in college and spent about five years living in Florence, Italy, surrounded by art. I’m always struck by beauty, from the obvious Botticelli painting to the way the light hits an architectural wonder like Florence’s Duomo seen between winding, cobblestone streets. We get so used to our everyday lives that leaving helps us to return and really understand the importance of looking. I’ve been watching the light – wherever I am – since I studied abroad in 1996.
My poetry is almost always free verse. It moves from narrative to lyrical prose poems. Sometimes I think of it as moving between the narrative, realistic storytelling in a Giotto fresco cycle to Monet’s interpretation of the changing light in his series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral. I write both the story as I believe it happened and around it, as it effects and changes its surroundings and, ultimately, itself.
PS: As Sarah Lawrence alumnae, we love hearing about writers who went to the MFA program. What did you gain from this experience?
CYM: The gift of time, knowledge and community is one that can’t easily be reproduced in the “real” world. I remember Thomas Lux saying that sure, we could achieve everything an MFA offers us on our own, but if we do it together, we will learn more deeply and efficiently.
I wasn’t accepted into MFA programs the first time I applied. Presumably since I was so young and sheltered, one school recommended waiting to apply again until I’d had more life experiences. I took a job at NYU in Florence. I was determined to pay attention, live life and write. On a side note, this desire to “live life” doesn’t translate exactly well. When I explained this goal to an Italian friend, I inadvertently translated it into an Italian euphemism for prostitution. Which is to say, I also improved my Italian language and cultural skills while there.
At Sarah Lawrence, Laure-Anne Bosselaar shared her personal collection of favorite poems. She asked us to read poems that we were reading and collect them. I’ve continued to gather poems for myself like mini-anthologies on my computer. This practice to hold a variety of poems close to our heart and study their craft can only help us.
My advisor, the wonderful and late Kurt Brown, was generous with his time and feedback. He encouraged me to write the stories I wanted to write. I remember asking him if I should write about a sensitive topic concerning someone else, and we had a long conversation about how a poem begins in a truth and then (usually) morphs into something else. Which is to say that early drafts might be direct, but the craft of poetry allows us to keep a feeling, add metaphor and other moments that (often) move away from that original narrative.
Meeting other writers really helped me to see that integrating writing into a life is possible. Keeping in touch with some friends throughout the years has been helpful as we each navigate life as people and writers. Sharing work and celebrating their successes has been a life-line.
I think the biggest lesson of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College was, “the writer’s life is possible.” The students came from different backgrounds and were different ages. The thought that we could all use our expertise in different fields and life experiences to strengthen our writing, and weave this life into our lives after grad school, was validating.
PS: Your poetry in this collection is about motherhood and its challenges, joys, losses, and triumphs. Can you explain why you chose this theme to write about? Was it difficult to write?
CYM: The theme really chose me. I miscarried and then suffered post-partum depression after a successful pregnancy. I had so many emotions that I needed to be able to examine and move past. Writing helps me to both experience and move beyond challenges. I don’t have to keep remembering something if I write it down.
I don’t think that the drafting part was the hardest. The first drafts came easily and quickly. They weren’t good, though. They were more like diary entries. The editing helped me to look more analytically at the experiences and then focus on the craft. It was helpful as a healing process.
Writing is a dialogue with the reader, whoever that might be. In pre-COVID times, I taught memoir writing workshops at Politics and Prose. These adult writers would come to the class with a story to tell. Some of them wanted to publish their work for a wider audience and some of them wanted to share their stories with their family. I remember one older woman saying something like, “No one asked me about my life, so I’m going to write it down in case they want to know later.” This instinct to record our lives and weave it into future lives is important. I’ve learned a lot from my memoir writing students as they work to look at the key moments in their lives and sort them into a story that shows their transformation. I hope that my story offers other parents a place to consider their own experiences and feel less alone.
PS:You use a mix of English/Italian in these poems. Why Italian specifically?
CYM: I am Italian-American and grew up speaking English. Like many families who immigrated in the late 1800s, my family Americanized and didn’t share the language with future generations. I learned it in college and studied abroad in Florence. Later I returned to work for three years and again more recently with my husband and child for a year. While Italian is a second language and I rarely think explicitly in Italian, some words have really become mine. They offer a different rhythm or meaning to an experience.
PS: What feelings or lessons would you like for readers to leave this collection with?
CYM: I hope that readers experiencing these feelings will have a space to think about them and feel less alone. I hope that those who love people experiencing these feelings will better understand their loved ones. Finally, I hope that those in a position to care for them (doctors, therapists, etc.), might understand their patients little better, too. The stigma or silence around miscarriage and post-partum depression is cracking, but we’re not entirely there yet.
PS: What are you working on next?
CYM: It has been difficult to work on anything in particular while our child has been learning from home since last March, but I’ve been both slowly writing poems and a memoir. The poems are mostly fitting into a collection tentatively titled, “Memoir of Light in Poems” and the memoir is, hopefully, a collection of comical tales from my childhood growing up as a hyphenated American in New Jersey and living in Italy as a young adult.
To parents, caregivers and folks experiencing the endless difficulties that this virus and current administration have presented to us, know that it is ok to take a break. First, we’re people. Then, we’re writers. As much as I feel that I am a full person because of my writing, sometimes our bodies and lives demand something else. And that’s ok.