Where to start - I am a child bewildered by firefly glow beneath a dusk dim tree on a summer night on Long Island. I am a school boy wearing a blue blazer and a school tie freezing in the morning walk to school in Scotland, and then I turn around, find some paper, sit at the kitchen table in a third floor, walk up Manchester, and the refrigerator door and the grandchildren gaze at me as I wonder how I came to be here, and I write from boredom and desperation and am surprised that it is not an essay or a short story but formal poetry and how did I come to that? I don’t have answers to any of the questions. That was 1998. Carthorses and Canaveral. Falling asleep to wake a continent away.
I was born in 1939 along with WW2, in Scotland. The government came to the conclusion that all citizens not needed in the war effort, all useless mouths, should get out of the country, if possible. My mother, brother and I came to live with an aunt in New York. My father and older sister stayed. As the war wound down we returned to Scotland in time for the victory celebrations. I cannot tell you how different life was in my native land which was strange to me – as were my father and my sister. No food. Rationing everything. No fruit. Everything seemed damp and cold. Everything had stopped. All the resources of the country had been spent on the battle. Our flat was coal heated and the coal was delivered on a cart drawn by a Clydesdale. There were cobbled streets, some of which were lit by gas. The rationing went on for years. The favorite play place was on top of the air raid shelter in our own back yard. The flat concrete roof was our stage for the wars we played.
We lived in a red stone Victorian tenement. A floor below was a Jewish family: Mother, father, daughter, who was older than the preteen gang I ran with. When we rattled down the stairs, if they were there they stood aside and never looked at us. If a police car warbled past the girl would freeze. The police cars in Scotland apparently sounded like the the Gestapo. We would run past her and play war on the air raid shelter. I wish I could find that girl and simply say I did not understand. I did write about her- will that stop the siren in her sleep? I digress.
The family came to the U.S. in 1956. Nothing much had changed. The nation was basically bankrupt. My father was the only one I knew who owned a car. No one had a phone. No one had a refrigerator. Homes were still heated by coal. No one had a television. I finished school in New York. I will compress the rest - what I have written is the core of my life. College as an English and Drama major. A brief try at the theater. Work. Marriage. A daughter. A son. Divorce and we are up to date. – Frank Miller
Tryst Interviews Frank Miller
Mia: You were born in 1939, at what age exactly did you come to the United States? What were your impressions of the early years in New York?
Frank: I was an infant sent from the country with my mother and brother as not useful in the war effort. I was knee high to a loving world of firefly and summer on my uncle's boat and my aunt's home made ice cream.
Frank: Perhaps Burns- Oh would some power the giftie gie us/ To see ourselves as others see us. I straighten out the Scot's dialect from memory. To think we have touched the moon and can be laid low by a virus- the best laid schemes of mice and men go oft astray.
Mia: In one of your first emails to me, you stated that you “hated computers.” I don’t think you’re alone. For my edification, what is it about computers you hate? What technological advancement(s) -if any - do you think has changed the world for the better?
Frank: Technology is, or can be a drug. That is not the machine's fault, but ours. I started writing when someone asked me what show I had just watched and found I did not know.
I was perfectly happy with a word processor I had. They stopped making the tapes. I do not own a television. Of course technology makes the world more comfortable in the moment but who can predict its final outcome?
Mia: In his Duino Elegies, Rilke wrote these lines:
First of all, what do you think Rilke meant by the “interpreted world”?
Frank: The observer changes the observed. Eden was untouched by perception, a new mint day forever. Twain has the angel say that the moral sense is what bedevils man. We always look for the answer to the question we were not asked.
Mia: Secondly, where is home for you? I know from your poem, "War Nest," Home now seems a day, an hour, a dance/of wave…an unmarked spot between two lands and neither mine.
Frank: Very observant. Often I think that that is, indeed, my home. A gray-green swell
Mia: Have you kept in touch with any of your relatives back in Scotland? Any other relative, near or distant, who also writes?
Frank: I did for a time but the ones I knew passed as my own family passed and their world was not the one I remembered, time takes - if you are lucky or work at it- it gives back
Mia: You’ve only been writing poetry for the last ten years. Where have you been? What got you started writing poetry?
Frank: No long journeys in that time. I lived, married, divorced in Massachusetts, moved with my job to New Hampshire and it was in the kitchen of my apartment in Manchester.
In college I wrote some short stories, essays. I thought I would be a novelist. At that table, in desperation with the empty life I lived, I started to write and found, to my surprise that I was writing poetry.
Mia: A poet friend of mine once told me that poetry was pretty useless, that it wouldn’t cure cancer. I’m under the impression that poetry was never meant to cure cancer; that it’s not a function of the physical world. What is your take on poetry? Why should we write or not write at all?
Frank: I wonder if one without poetry in their soul would care about curing cancer. The painter paints because it is an aspect of his or her life not to be denied. Artists create art because it serves some purpose in their soul. If they have talent and passion they bring others along but- if you need to mold clay, need to weave words then you will do so whether you are noticed or not. Lord there are others with better explanations. Words to me are the world.
Mia: You say that you rarely submit. Why is that Frank? You have so much to tell and tell it well, in formal poetry no less, what is it in you that sings but doesn’t want to be heard?
Frank: I do not often feel the work is - is what? Good enough? I don't quite know. Perhaps it is not what I thought I heard. The first piece I had published left me- unmoved I suppose. It no longer seemed that these were my words. Requiem is the piece central to my life, the piece that almost seems complete. I do not wish to seem coy but I have watched poets scrabbling across the land trying to create fame which cannot feed you nor cure cancer. When I was in drama I was not interested in the applause but that feeling, sometimes painful but so satisfying when you and the character merged. The work is the reward I guess.
Mia: Furthermore, you revealed that you “write out of boredom and desperation” – but who writes a poem like, “Requiem for Remembrance” out of boredom and desperation? Where did this poem come from, Frank? It reads like a psalm. Very few poems of this breadth and length can sustain their strength. I am so in awe of this poem that I keep wanting to ask you, are there more poems like Requiem that you've shelved?
Frank: Boredom came from being a body in front of a television. Desperation because there were things to be examined and I was putting them off. The poem started with a letter I wrote to a poet friend where I told her that all by birth family were all dead and that with my death they would die again. That is the start. In Scotland I attended a Catholic school. We had the Latin mass, the rich robes, the incense spicing and smoking the air. Every day we had religion as a class. We read the bible again and again. I am pleased you think it holds together. Many poets told me, in the various drafts I showed them, that it was not one poem but several but for me it was always one long meditation- a high mass, a litany, not only for the passing of family but the loss of the very memories themselves - and no one left to ask.
Mia: Robert Burns is the only Scottish poet whose work I am familiar with. My mother used to hum, “Flow Gently Sweet Afton." Other than Burns, I’m not that well read up on Scottish poets. Are there any famous Scottish poets whose work you’re familiar with?
Frank: Poetry was taught as a dead language and the language was that of the English poets. Burns was not read in school- a commoner writing in peasant English. George Gordon Lord Byron slipped in an occasion poem. The short answer is that my writing was not formed by native poets. I rarely, as a child, read poetry. I read novels, short stories, plays. That goes back to a sense of place- I have a poorly developed sense of place. What may have given my poetry some direction was the different accents I heard, the Scots, English, Irish layered onto the American English of my earliest memory.
Mia: You majored in English and Drama and had a brief stint in theater. It seems there was a crossroad at some point in your life between pursuing poetry or drama. Did you make the “right” choice? In other words, would you rather have pursued acting?
Frank: I will borrow from Voltaire- "I am here in this best of all possible worlds because of all the pains that came before." Cassius says to Brutus - "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings." I did not pursue acting. On stage I found some sense of completion or perhaps satisfaction. Poetry is the same- I am more complete with it than without. In Frost's poem the paradox is, in the end, there is no difference in the roads.
Mia: You mentioned that as an actor you still have difficulty with some images (when you write poetry). How do you mean? Can you elucidate further?
Frank: I am not sure what I meant. I do not remember writing that I had trouble with images-I know that some images cause me pain, or sorrow, joy. Auden's Shield of Achilles where the three prisoners are tied to the stake and tortured so that they " died as men before they died" all of the imagery in Fern Hill. Sometimes in a part it is possible to slip down so deep that the control is lost.
Frank: I wish I had the eye and hand to draw and paint
Mia: Is there a book of poetry in the works? A novel or a memoir?
Frank: No. I had thought once of a book of poetry but that is as far as it got. I have written two short, and I do mean short, stories
Mia: Whether you like submitting or not, or writing out bios or not, or you hate computers or not really…I’m afraid that your poetry will get read by thousands of readers. That’s the beauty of the internet. And on that note, what advice do you wish to give today’s writers, young and old, beginner to advanced, the hopeful and the despairing?
Frank: I am the wrong one to give advice befuddled and word besotted as I am. I don't write for others. I write for the inner person, the child still wondering and wandering in your past. I read books on poetry advising poets to read journals and Craft their work for them. That to me is pointless. Surely the first urge must be to follow the urge you have and not be redirected by what you think some other wants to hear. I suggest all poets learn to handle formal poetry. You may not stay with it, that is you choice, but it is the music that runs beneath the surface of the words.