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Thursday
Feb202014

"Multifarious as the Names of Rain": An Interview with Isaac Miller

Isaac Miller is a Writer-in-Residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Project and an Artist in Residence with Detroit Future Schools. He has also taught with Youth Speaks and the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. Originally from California, Isaac graduated from UC Berkeley with degrees in Ethnic Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies and received the Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic, Racialicious, English Journal, and the Berkeley Poetry Review.

His poem, "I-75 South: The Steeple of St. Josaphat Aligns with the Renaissance Center," appeared in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about movement, Detroit, and epigraphs as spatial mirrors.

What was your process in writing “I-75 South: The Steeple of St. Josaphat Aligns With the Renaissance Center”? I looked up a picture of what the title describes, and its quite stark: the church looks encapsulated by the Renaissance Center.

This poem probably went through more widely varied drafts than any poem I’d written previously. I started with the image described in the title, which is something that I drive past almost daily. Living in Detroit over the past few years this image started to nag at me until I knew I needed to seek out the larger questions that the image was nested within. This searching pulled me in several different directions. In one attempt it took the form of a pecha kucha, after Terrance Hayes. In another, it became a narrative of my grandfather’s memory of the city. I think as the poem approached its current form it began to synthesize elements of each of these drafts and the poem’s current narrative and imagistic threads came into focus.

The characters in your poem move a lot: they are driving, even “speed[ing]” down highways and familiar roads. Even when the characters park, the river—and as the poem says, “the world”—is “falling / away in the ice-choked current.” Could you talk about how you see movement working within this poem? How do you go about capturing that feeling on the page?

Well, living in Detroit you get used to spending a lot of time in cars. So I think this poem was an attempt to capture the movement of driving, and also how that movement continues to effect me even after I've left the car (similar to the feeling of leaving a movie theater and feeling like I'm still watching a movie). Its striking that while driving you don't actually feel the speed of your movement the way that you would while walking or biking, for example. I wanted the poem to contrast the relative stillness of the driver within the car against the speed with which they are actually moving through the landscape of the city.

In a larger sense, this poem was an attempt to grapple with a sense of not only spatial but also historical movement. We often think of cities as static landscapes populated by a skyline of inanimate buildings. But in reality cities are in constant motion, both through the activity that occurs within them and the ways that cityscapes themselves are constantly expanding, contracting, changing.

In writing this poem I thought about how the automobile has informed the way that American cities have been planned. Nowhere is this more true than Detroit, where car-based planning has left the city with an unreliable public transit system as well as decades of suburbanization and White flight. The I-75 freeway that I write about in the poem was built through what was once the historically African-American neighborhood of Black Bottom-Paradise Valley, which was cleared using eminent domain. This neighborhood, the social and cultural center of Black Detroit, was destroyed in order to facilitate the construction of I-75, one of the primary lines of flight for White Detroiters (my family included), who would leave the city for the de facto segregated suburbs.

Thinking back even farther, we encounter the displacement of the Anishinaabe peoples, who like indigenous peoples across North America (and the world), were displaced in order to create “the city” as we know it. With that in mind, I attempted to allude to these many layers of erasure, the “present absences” embedded within our experience of modernity.

So in many ways this is a poem about the limits of progress. The physical movement in the poem mirrors the historical movement of the city, as well as the speaker's own movement through time. Out of this the question emerges: movement towards what? Though we live in constant motion, always in such a hurry to arrive at our destination, do we really end up someplace better or new?

Epigraphs are always interesting to me in poems, because (I think) a single epigraph sometimes stands at the beginning of a whole novel, so it seems large in front of a single poem. How did you decide to choose this one by Rilke? Did it inspire the poem, or did you stumble upon it during revision?

In my mind the epigraph from Rilke responded to this question about the limits of progress. The reader can take it as expressing a pessimistic sentiment, that nothing is truly “new”, and that technological growth only masks over the more fundamental problems of human existence. I think, however, that the epigraph also contains an imperative to realize “The New” as a moment of transcendent illumination, one that human consciousness has always been, and continues to be, capable of achieving. Rilke is very much a mystical thinker, and his rejoinder to a world de-sanctified by the Industrial Revolution and the First World War's mass production of death is to say that “The New” in whose name all of this has been done is already within our grasp, if we choose to realize it.

In my eyes, this epigraph serves the purpose of creating a spatial mirror for the subject of the poem in the text of the poem itself. In other words, the epigraph and the body of this poem relate to one another much as St. Josaphat and the Renaissance Center do in the image described by the poem's title. There's the interplay between old and new, as there is between the poem's speaker and the speaker's grandfather, or between the wheel of the car and the wheel of the city. This doubling/mirroring is central to the structure and movement of the poem, so I thought it would be appropriate for the epigraph to reflect that and serve as a guide toward how the poem should be read.

To answer the other part of your question, I did come across the Rilke quote in revision, while reading the appendix to Sonnets to Orpheus. As I said earlier, it took me numerous attempts to reach a draft that even somewhat resembled the final version and I think this epigraph helped me understand some of the different meanings present in the poem and how they might be expressed through the poem's structure.

Could you give us some reading suggestions? 

Lately I’ve been reading Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey, and Lyn Hejinian's The Language of Inquiry, two collections of essays about poetry by poets whose styles and sensibilities are quite different from one another (and from my own), and who, as a result, are greatly expanding my thinking as a reader and writer.

In terms of poetry collections, I've sincerely enjoyed Jamaal May's outstanding first book, Hum, which is filled with poems informed by Detroit's many landscapes (both exterior and interior). The latest collection by A. Van Jordan, The Cineaste, has made me look at film and its relationship to poetry in new and startling ways. Lastly, I can't stop returning to Eduardo C. Corral's collection Slow Lightning, which I can only describe as breathtaking.

What other projects are you working on right now?

I have the beginnings of a manuscript clattering around in my head, and I'm hoping to make that my focus over the next few years. I have some ideas for poems that expand on themes expressed in “I-75 South”, such as the tension between the benefits of technological progress and the human, environmental, and emotional displacements that such progress results in. That's a very old theme, but one that I'd like to do my part in investigating. Of course that could all change. We shall see.

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