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"I Read as Male in Language": An Interview with Tyler Mills

Tyler Mills is the author of Tongue Lyre, winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (SIU Press 2013). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Boston Review, The Believer, Georgia Review, and Blackbird, and her creative nonfiction won the Copper Nickel Editor’s Prize in Prose. She is editor-in-chief of The Account and an Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Her essay, "Mr. / Signifier," appeared in Issue Seventy-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Tyler Mills talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about gender, being funny, and writing an essay as dialogue.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Mr. / Signifier”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start the first draft?

This essay started as a riff off of the idea of naming in a larger manuscript I’m working on right now, which is a mess of essays about nuclear testing and ways of seeing and being seen. I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, the environment, and the effects of military operations. This essay started out as a meditation on names. I started to think about how I’m read in language: often as a man. The essay then morphed into “Mr. / Signifier.” During most of my childhood, I had no idea why people were often confused when they met me. I didn’t know that I read as male in language. It never occurred to me.

Although this piece is an essay, it is written in a form that resembles free verse. What made you decide that what best suited this material was a structure closer to poetry than the paragraphs of traditional prose?

I was thinking of this essay in the form of a dialogue. I wanted both voices to engage with each other on different lines. When I put the essay in “the paragraphs of traditional prose,” as you’ve said, I lost that energy that happens when I split the voices. In separating them onto different lines, I was kind of thinking about theatre—how the voices of characters appear in a script. I also thought that doing this would help me think about what each voice could do. I wanted to record things that were really said to me, as well as my responses, and I wanted to recreate them in a work that functions—and looks like—a dialogue.

I want to ask about this section:

Mr. Mills, pending your revisions, we would like to publish your fine article.

Thank you. But I’m female. You may call me Tyler.

[No address] As submitted, the syntax of most sentences despite the revisions did not

                recommend publication.

The implication, in my reading, is that this publication venue chose not to publish your work when (i.e., because) they learned you are a woman. How do you see your gender identity affecting your interests as a writer and your publishing career?

This was in response to an article I wrote (and I don’t want to say more than this because I don’t want to call anyone out) where the work was praised up and down when I was “Mr. Mills,” and then the response significantly changed (as you can see) when I clarified things. That’s all I want to say about that in particular. But I can say this: I didn’t want to be called “Mr. Mills” in email after email, so I said something to the editor. What I quickly realized was that “Mr. Mills” could write a “fine article.” But when I “became” a woman, the article lost its value. Basically, I was being told I was incomprehensible, which is something women get all the time. It’s a form of gatekeeping. Could the article have been clearer? Sure, and it became clearer. That’s what editing does for a text. Anyone’s writing can become clearer through the editing process. As much as it would be nice to pretend that sexism doesn’t exist in literary publishing, or other institutions, guess what? It does.

This essay also has its share of lighter, amusing moments, from Urban Dictionary quotes to whispered-about breasts. How often do you prioritize having a sense of humor in your work? Is it a challenge to make your writing funny, or does it happen naturally?

I don’t try to be funny in my work. But it happens sometimes. I don’t think you can make your writing funny. In my life, I like to try to think of things to say to my friends that are really off guard—pushing the envelope, saying something outlandish. I used to love making my mother laugh in church (I’m a terrible human). I like making my sister laugh on the phone. I like trying to make colleagues laugh in meetings. (Basically, I’m the worst.) In the car or at the airport, I like to make my husband/partner laugh. If I get a good snort out of him, I feel like my work is done. It’s sort of a point of pride. I can be kind of quiet, though, so when people see this side of me, they’re surprised sometimes. As for writing, I think the sound of words as they relate to the sense of words is what can make something funny. You can’t force it, though. It’s a form of play, maybe. It just…happens. (Or it doesn’t!)

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve finished my second manuscript of poems and am looking for a home for it. Those poems are a companion to the essay project I’ve been writing. And I’ve recently finished a chapbook that engages with Siegfried Kracauer’s Salaried Masses (poems that engage with wage labor between the wars, but in a way that can speak to the present, I hope). And I’ve been writing some other poems aimlessly about theatre and the body (I think). And I’m also revising an article. But I’m trying not to think about that right now because then I feel guilty that I’m not working on it. For instance, I should be working on that right now…

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I just finished Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book the other evening and recommend it highly. The past few months have also brought me Dana Levin’s Sky Burial, Cate Marvin’s Oracle, and Gary Moody’s Occoquan. And Diane Seuss’s Four Legged Girl. Aaron Rudolph’s work is wonderful: funny and beautiful. I recommend Sacred Things. And just yesterday, I started re-reading Srikanth (Chicu) Reddy’s Readings in World Literature. I’m also slowly reading Sandra Beasley’s Count the Waves with Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Before I start writing, I’ve been reading a poem from each collection, and then I get to work for a half hour or an hour (whatever time I have). It’s a really great way to set my intention, clear my mind—and fill it with beauty—and begin.

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