An Interview with Tyler Mills 

Interview conducted by Karl Zuehlke 

Karl Zuehlke (KZ): When I read your poems in Tongue Lyre, I find myself constantly intrigued in the most enjoyable way by how you negotiate your subject matter. Greek myth, classical music, writers and visual artists often offer you the opportunity to write from a persona or to create a poetic conceit to express an emotion. To begin I would like to ask how you begin? How do you arrive at your moments of combined self-reflection and myth? Do you begin with language and evolve allusions and mythic capacities, or do you begin with a concept and work toward language, or perhaps you employ a process more masterful than I have yet to imagine?

Tyler Mills (TM): When I was working on the poems of Tongue Lyre, I was interested in the interaction between the mythic story—what is “outside” the poem—and the lyric material of the poems themselves, which are inspired by a love of language (such as sound, metaphor, citation, visible texture, and connotative meaning). I remember wanting to resist the idea that there would be an immediate one-to-one correspondence between what the myth already brings to the poem and each poem’s individual lyric arc. Allegories really become dynamic when one thread, the prior story, unwinds from the second thread, the materials of the imagination. What keeps bringing me back to writing poems that are, as you said, “moments of combined self-reflection and myth” (a phrase I love) is this dynamism, the tension between that unresolved space between both things: self-reflection (or, imagination, to draw from Stevens) and myth.

KZ: So perhaps then, you began these poems with play? Whether it is playing with language or finding play in myths? Your poem “Circe’s Notes” is rich with both elements. I want to read the form (the conceit of note-taking) as subverting the Homeric narrative that domesticated and disenfranchised Circe. I also want to read your play with language as aligning cliché and myth, and re-appropriating them both to reveal a cannibalistic masculinity. Is your poem a palinode in Hilda Doolittle’s or Anne Carson’s sense?

TM: I do begin my poems with play, perhaps in the sense of playing a musical instrument. I like to think of the way a poem begins similarly to the way I think of the start of a good practice session when I’m practicing the violin. If I know I want to work on something in a particular key, I’ll just have fun playing around in scales and chords in that key so I’m ready to work on the piece. Perhaps in this analogy, the myth functions as the possibilities within a score (Levi-Strauss compared myth to a musical score). Language itself is the delight I find in meditating on words, experience, and memory in order to open up the possibility within a prior text or narrative.

“Circe’s Notes” certainly began with this kind of play—as creative and destructive force. It begins, “Socrates decided to be executed. / And the execution of art?” (30). I kept thinking of how Circe typically functions as a symbol of power—she transformed Odysseus’s men into pigs—and then of the function of symbols in general:

In a public garden, a tree
wears a skirt
of hard green apples

with a white crescent bite
out of each skin (30).