By Susan Muth and Tori Reynolds
I was lucky to get the chance to sit down with Tyler Mills to discuss her chapbook City Scattered: Cabaret for Four Voices (winner of the Snowbound Chapbook Award) and the process behind her research and craft. During my time at Penn State, Tyler came to campus to speak about her other, full-length collection, Hawk Parable. I was incredibly taken with the family mystery, military landscape, and depth of research required to pull of such a powerful project. City Scattered continues in this tradition. Inspired by Siegfried Krakauer’s The Salaried Masses, Tyler uses the setting of Weimer era of Berlin to great effect. Tori and I had some questions for Tyler.
Tyler Mills: First of all, I just want to thank you for interviewing me. It’s just lovely to speak with you. I did my MFA at Maryland, and so I love the DC area and love GMU, and I’m just so happy to connect here.
Susan Muth: We’re so happy to have you, thank you for speaking to us! For our first question, we were wondering how you would describe your relationship with your craft?
TM: To go way back, I did a lot of theater and music in high school, and I was always writing, but I don’t know why I didn’t think that you could pursue creative writing or poetry, but it was always something I did. Then I ended up in a music school for one year thinking I wanted to be a violinist, but realized it wasn’t the path for me when I was taking an English Literature class, and they were studying the Iliad and the Odyssey, and I was just enchanted by those ancient poems. I found myself wanting to read those poems instead of practicing violin. I would bring the books into the practice rooms and sit on the floor, leaving the violin untouched. So, I decided to switch.
But still, music has been something that always inspired me, and connected with my ear. And so, when I’m writing, if a word or a phrase catches in my mind, especially the sound of it, I’ll make sure to write it down, even if a part of me in that moment is saying what does that mean? Is that nonsense? Especially if I notice a self-critical voice with it, I know that it’s really worth writing down. So even if I don’t understand how it might end up being a poem, if something sonic has opened up a creative space for me, I try to honor that, and see if there’s an idea or a memory or a story locked in it that I can connect with.
In college I took a creative writing workshop at Maryland, and one of my first teachers was Shara McCallum, who I think you know, Susan, and it really opened my eyes to what poetry could do and how to have a serious practice and dedicate yourself to craft.
SM: Yes! Shara is so great. You mentioned moments sticking with you, whether that’s in music or certain poems, or just a sonically moving moment that could prompt you to write something later on. Was there a moment like that prompting your latest project City Scattered?
TM: I would say yes and no. I’m really recalling the way that I interacted with visual art and also an outside text. But I do think that the “I/Self/Woman in Berlin” poems, those were because of imaginative pieces where I was imagining a new woman in Weimar, Berlin speaking about wage labor and her work. There were moments there where I would catch a phrase and put it in the poem. And so sometimes they’re kind of embedded into it. Sometimes they start the poem. The poem that begins “If you ask me later…” the phrase popped into my head one day. I might have been teaching or driving. I was probably just repeating it to myself and might’ve written it down, and something about that phrase led me into the imagery of city and scattered and sequins and starlight. I started thinking about those “s” sounds. And though part of me at that moment was like, “oh, this is too much, it feels very echoey,” I thought I would dig into the sound here and just let it happen. Then the poem kind of got going for me. That’s an example of that process.
But the book started when I saw an art exhibit about the Berlin metropolis, and I didn’t know at the time that it would lead to this book. I remember going to the exhibit and thinking, Wow! This is amazing, and then reading the catalog, and then finding one of the texts that I ended up doing a deep dive with. For a long time, I didn’t know where it was going.
SM: But it sounds like you eventually leaned into it or gave yourself permission to just lean into the questioning of it.
TM: Yes, I think so. There were drafts of this book that didn’t work at all. And I was thinking, what am I doing? Am I just becoming obsessive? Because I can get kind of obsessive with my research where I’m like, oh, I’m curious about this thing, and I’m just going to try to read everything I know or find out everything I can about this one niche thing. Earlier versions of this didn’t have the “I/Self/Woman in Berlin” poems, and some were rigorously tied to that text and they weren’t singing. They were just kind of flat. And I just needed to give myself permission after a while to say, okay, cut some of these out. What do you have to say? What does your imagination bring? How does your creative spirit enter this project, and what’s at stake for you?
SM: We found the four voices in the book really interesting, especially for me, this idea of interruption—both the chorus voice and the interlocutor. But they seem to be intentional interruptions of the project, and I wondered what you think the need for that interruption was in the project, or how you arrived at that decision? It might go hand and hand with what you just said, but I was curious about it.
TM: I was thinking about the stakes, and I wanted a contemporary voice to look back at times with the knowledge of what would happen, because this was such a fraught period of history. And so, I mean the ethics of it for me required a contemporary speaker looking back. I know that the Holocaust is going to happen, and I know that everything is going to change. And I want to comment on what this study is ignoring, even though, like Siegfried Krakauer himself, he had to flee, and he luckily survived. But he never returned to his home. He ended up in New York and then stayed.
So, it was like the author of that text was deeply impacted, and he was worried about the kinds of things he was noticing when writing about the ways that companies were working and creating this cohesive collective identity. But he’s getting at it through a kind of capitalist critique. So, there’s this worry in his text, but it’s not tangible. It’s just sort of like it’s there, it’s embedded, but it’s not super clear, and I don’t think it could be because he didn’t have a knowledge of it, but I also didn’t want a contemporary speaker or speaking voice to be didactic either, and to come in and feel like it’s telling everyone what we know, and I also didn’t want it to feel like it was trafficking someone’s pain in there. So, I was trying to walk a fine line.
SM: I took a research poetics class last semester, and I thought a lot about your book Hawk Parable, because I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but it had to do with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Did you have a similar research or obsession with that project as well?
TM: In some ways yes, and in some ways, no. So that book started with a family mystery that I just couldn’t solve, and it actually led to a memoir which is coming out next year, because there are limits to what could fit into the poems. And then I ended up receiving a grant to do even more research and spend time at the New York Public Library with some of their archives, and then doing some travel related to that subject. And so, it sort of led me into as much of a conclusive answer as I will have with this book.
It started with that question and also thinking about just what it would mean if my grandfather was involved. That project was also thinking about the ethics like, what does it mean to investigate the subject? A lot of Americans don’t want to think about it because it’s so horrible. Just doing the research of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then also looking at nuclear tests in the Manhattan project, all of the tests conducted in the Marshall Islands, and yeah, I felt like I was coming across just something really horrifying. But I needed to speak of and about it, but I wanted to be careful about the ethics of that too.
Then there’s also historically a silence around this subject which I find troubling. I mean there’s a silence around it because of the classification of these tests and those missions, but it’s also something that is so horrible that it’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to think about. It’s hard to face. When I was doing this research, I gave myself permission to find myself kind of doing a deep dive into various archival texts and watching declassified test videos, and really spending time with my grandfather’s letters. So that process was similar in that sense. I think the poems in Hawk Parable encounter poetic forms more frequently than City Scattered, which I imagine to be a performance of different voices. Hawk Parable has a whole bunch of forms like sonnets, pantoums, and I think that finding forms for that content was important to me when I was writing those poems.
SM: Thanks for speaking on that. That’s so exciting about your memoir! I can’t wait to read it. Moving away from your work, since you are the poetry judge for the spring contest issue, we want to know what draws you in as a reader or what you’re looking for. What tends to pull you into a poem?
TM: It varies, and so I feel like I could say a kind of magic or energy, and I know that those words might not be specific. But I’m trying to think about what that might look like in language. I’m thinking about a poem that creates a kind of urgency or interest with the sentence structure and sentence patterns, and also sonic elements that are connected with its inquiry or form. I’m also thinking about the stakes of a poem, and how a poem doesn’t have to be about something big, but I like to look for how the speaker reveals themselves, investigates themselves, and what’s at stake for that voice.
SM: That’s very helpful, thank you. What do you recommend to poets who are just beginning their journey? Any advice?
TM: Believe in yourself. Don’t rush the process. And to be okay with working on a poem and letting it sit for a while, and then coming back to it. Not because you’ll have some idea about “editing it” but because over time, sometimes, as you distance from the poem, you might realize what’s at stake for you. What was hidden from you in the first draft. Also, don’t measure yourself on whether you’ve been published in a journal or not published, or if you get a rejection, because it’s a long game, and to really focus on what you need to say, honing your voice. And read widely.