Poetry is not a viable career path. And Leslie Adrienne Miller is OK with that.
“I like it that way, because it keeps poetry free,” she says. “It’s one of the few things you can do in life that is completely free of economics. It costs nothing to write poetry and there is no financial reward, and that means that the art form remains more free than, say, the visual arts, where money sometimes plays a huge role. And once money is involved, it changes the art form.”
Since neither money nor fame is available to poets, people who write it work elsewhere, and write outside of work, for the pure love of it — or from compulsion. Miller, a professor at the University of St. Thomas for two decades, has shepherded thousands of students through the practical paces of freshman comp as well as the useful art of reading poetry, and she loves her work. Around the margins, though, she compulsively writes poems. Her sixth collection, “Y,” is out now on Graywolf Press.
In “Y,” Miller engages in a part scientific, part observed exploration of the Y chromosome and boyhood. She was inspired by the idea of the “Wild Child,” the varied feral kids in legend and history that have been found living in the woods or outside of society. As the mother of a boy, Miller easily found a connection between the wild boy and the supposedly tame version.
“This collection is more or less about observing boyhood in a clinical way, as if it was a grand experiment to be a parent. Which it is,” she says. “I didn’t get Y characteristics that much until I had a boy. But I’ve entertained a lot of little boys in my house over the last 10 years, and they have taught me a lot. And my boy, and some of those boys, and some of those lessons and ideas appear in these poems. Maybe not literally, but the ideas that came from my observations of them. I was really conscious when I was writing that I not be invasive and that my kid, when he’s older, not be embarrassed by anything I write.”
Fortunately, writing poetry is not the same deal as writing, say, a blog. While parents with blogs eventually realize that writing about their kids is a venture with an expiration date, Miller finds that poetry allows the writer to blur the image and work around the idea of parenting in a more artistic way.
“When you’re writing poems, you complicate the questions, not answer them. I wanted to make the questions bigger and more interesting, not necessarily to answer them,” she said.
Miller began writing the book by thinking about the “Still-Face Paradigm,” a social and emotional developmental milestone discovered by researcher Edward Tronickm, who documented that when an adult holds a baby but withholds emotion expression, the child will eventually get upset.
“It’s such a robust reaction. From a very, very young age, tiny babies are reading faces,” says Miller. From there, she began researching face reading and the idea that facial expressions are a language. The book ultimately merged with her ideas about boyhood, but a certain aura of scientific study permeates the collection. Sections of poems are bound together with “Adversaria,” prose commentaries that bind together some of the ideas from her research that didn’t make it into the poems, but hold the keys to better understanding them. After all, Miller is still, by day, a teacher first, and she wants her work to be thought-provoking but ultimately accessible.
“I like to think of poetry as an interesting riddle to be solved. It can be read the same way people do crossword puzzles or suduko — there is a certain set of complex ideas and rhythms that need unraveling. The answers are individual to a great degree, with all of our individual associations coming into play, but the process is the same kind of challenge. Poetry is an art form that requires you to not just read, but participate.”