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).

One could say that I collected this image from my life. Once, I found myself in a city park, where I noticed a tree that seemed to promise the most delicious apples. They looked full and sweet. However, I quickly realized that many people had also been tricked: the grass was covered with discarded apples, each with one bitter bite ripped out. I could see the teeth marks; it was almost like the moment of realization—of the bitterness within the ripe appearance—was marked in each one. Of course, I couldn’t help but think of an allusion to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. But I also kept thinking about the image as a concept, as image itself. How are appearances deceptive? What is a symbol? In the case of “Circe’s Notes,” the image of the apples came to me as I prepared myself to work with the prior text of the Circe myth. I suppose I found this particular image to be one of the essential notes (as in musical note, though it does pun with the poem’s title) that I could play with in the goal of working with the myth.

However, I’d like to say that how I begin isn’t always like this, so tidy to explain. In reality, much of the time, I am not sure where the materials of the poem come from, other than from that well of internal quiet where the most vulnerable and raw part of the self can be found (or, more like, glimpsed). And, the material also comes from reading as many different kinds of texts as I can, and being open to what they can teach me.

Your question about the palinode is an interesting one. A conservative reading of the definition from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics would lead me to think that the answer is no, my poem is not a palinode, because my poem does not explicitly retract a prior statement about Circe or another statement made about her. But I’d like to look at the way H.D. and Anne Carson both investigate Stesichoros’s palinode for Helen of Troy, which absolves her of the blame of the war. I’d like to quote Carson’s translation of Stesichoros’s fragment (from Autobiography of Red):

No it is not the true story.
No you never went on the benched ships.
No you never came to the towers of Troy (17).

What interests me about Carson’s treatment of the palinode is that the recantation, in its negation, seems to even more fully realize the fictional narrative than had the statement been issued as that of a truth. In saying Helen is a fiction—that she “never went on the benched ships”—the speaker appears to fortify the assumed falsehood with the kind of believability that can only come from a place of inalienable truth. Perhaps this is what the rhetorical gesture of the palinode is supposed to achieve.

What interests me about H.D.’s treatment of the palinode is how Helen functions as a figure, if she is retracted. In the prose passage before the second section of “Palinode” in Helen of Egypt, Helen of Troy is said to be “a phantom, substituted for the real Helen, by jealous deities,” the result being that “[t]he Greeks and Trojans alike fought for an illusion” (174). For H. D., the palinode instantiates a duality between memory and forgetting. Also, the prose section before the second part of “Palinode,” reads “But Helen, mysteriously transported to Egypt, does not want to forget. She is both phantom and reality” (175). I suppose, if one looks at Tongue Lyre as a whole, one could say that the figure of Philomela functions this way, as a figure that is “both phantom and reality,” as she does and does not forget the violence.

The critic Allen Grossman has said that the mythic archetype of the song of Philomela emerges from the bird pressing her throat against a thorn; the thorn at the throat is a way back to that glimmer of memory that the song marks, the cause of the violence that she forgets. In other words, the song, the lyric, is caused by violence, yet it itself exists out of forgetting the violence. Memory is willed. In my poems, what is retracted? Is it this forgetting? Tongue Lyre ends with an insistence on memory. But is it redemptive? Or is it another kind of entrapment? I’m not sure I have the answer to these questions.

But to return to “Circe’s Notes,” inasmuch as the poem interacts with the myth as a kind of prior story, or prior text (what we might think of when we hear an allusion to Circe), I suppose one could say that it could function as a palinode: the Circe of “Circe’s Notes” chooses symbol as a choice—so that the transformation of men into swine, or the “cannibalistic masculinity,” as you so adeptly put it, becomes a symbol of something entirely different. It absolves Circe from the cultural blame of taking a power assumed to be male; perhaps she even dismantles what this assumption about power might even symbolize.

KZ: I very much like the idea that “ Circe’s Notes” is not a palinode, yet accomplishes the work of one. As I read it, the end of the poem exemplifies a sense of play so powerful that it can transform cliché; the cliché that “men are pigs,” which the poem conflates with myth and ergo transforms. The facts of Circe’s story are not recanted, but they are given new insight. Made new, if you can stand to be in contact with Pound’s phrase. The emotional tenor of your poem’s end:

O my potbellied pig,

I’ll eat you.
And when I cook pig,

one pig cries and cries
for another pig (30).

Such a mix of empathy and justice. The poem’s line breaks become more severe, as the intensity of emotion escalates. Circe as she was, not dependent on masculinity for any power. And clever in the way most poets envy. I read this as the payoff to all your well-wrought images. Contradictory signs clash and meld. The bitter apple tree, the quarter glued to the floor that fools people who try to pry it up. Socrates, who preferred death over exile, works as a foil character to Circe, who found power in herself and outside centralized power structures.

I think “Circe’s Notes” is the counterpoint to your book’s book-endings of Philomela’s myth, by which I mean it expresses a moment of contrast, contradistinction, the ugly note that makes the sweet note that much sweeter. Or, the other way round.

Perhaps part of the story you take into mind when thinking about myths is that of Anne Carson and H.D.? And I do not mean to imply imitation on your part in the least. Yet both are such muscular women writers: I feel daunted and envious when I read either. You mentioned The Autobiography of Red, as well as, Helen in Egypt, both of which are canonical in anybody’s reading-list worth anything, and which I did introduce to the conversation. Before we return to Philomela, I have a two-part question: in what way and which writers have influenced you? And, in what ways and which musicians and composers have influenced your writing or your own musicianship? Is one stronger than the other?

TM: The idea of “influence” makes me think of Lethem’s“Ecstasy of Influence” essay from Harper’s a while back. Sometimes influence calls to mind the idea of citation, though I find that backtracking through my thought process can quickly become impossible. When I think about the question of influence, I always think about the rotating stacks of books next to my bed (right now there is Ashbery’s Houseboat Days, Carson’s Nox, and Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station). I pick them up and read them until my eyes begin closing and I turn the light off. I think about phrases I remember from conversation or the radio, or random magazines (Vogue, usually) I bought three months ago and should have thrown away by now, but I find myself looking at. These texts enter my brain: what do they do there?

When I was writing the poems of Tongue Lyre, I was deeply influenced by Joyce’sUlysses. “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” I wanted to make language do that. I wanted to try thinking about how a mythic subtext could allow a field of language to enact an emotion (in poetry) rather than a narrative—though I am often interested in subverting narrative in my work. I wanted, and needed, to work through the material of these poems, and I found that Joyce was a guide for doing that somehow. I was also deeply influenced by my teachers (particularly our shared teacher, Stanley Plumly and his Marriage in the Trees, which I read over and over). And, I read and re-read Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Bishop’s Complete Poems. And Plath’s Ariel. And Levis’s Elegy (“Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope” knocks the wind out of me every time.) And I read street signs. And newspapers (the Washington Post, theOnion, the New York Times). And the labels of works of art in the Smithsonian and the Hirshorn.  And I read different pieces of music I would work through when I picked up my violin. And the little notes I wrote to myself in the sheet music to help myself through difficult passages. And I read emails. And student papers. And my student loan deferment letters… The list of texts that might have influenced me is difficult, if not impossible, to track.

Playing the violin gives me such pleasure, but it is tinged with a kind of sadness—one that I have learned to welcome. I have to forgive myself every time I pick it up for not being as good as I used to be. I liked too many things to ever really become fantastic at the violin, but I did become serious enough about it that my senior year of high school I’d skip class to get an extra hour of practice in so I could prepare for my music school auditions. I was in music school for a year, but the violin taught me lasting lessons, the most important of which is how to work: how to break something down that seems impossible into manageable pieces. How to figure out why something seems impossible and approach it like a puzzle. It has also taught me to trust myself—the muscles of the body, the thought that is too quick to become truly legible. Sometimes the most difficult things to do with an instrument seem to just happen. Writing poems can be like that. The poem arrives, and it seems like it’s not even part of yourself. But, then you have to remind yourself that it is the result of reading, writing, discipline, revision, etc.

As for composers that have influenced me, I could ramble endlessly. I like a huge range of composers and bands, and I like finding new things and going to hear live music when I can. (I got to hear Neko Case live in Chicago recently and was really excited about it!) And I like making crazy play lists that I listen to when I go running so I feel like I’m dancing. I can say, though, that I’m obsessed with Jascha Heifetz’s recording of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony). When I was trying to train as a violinist, I would listen to it endlessly. I can’t listen to any other recording of it. I heard Sarah Chang do it once, and the whole time I was checking it against that one version in my mind. I could ramble about Heifetz’s recording endlessly (and probably not very intelligently).

KZ: Thank you for sharing so much of your writing process and what you were reading. I think you are really on to something when you compare muscle-memory built playing a violin to the process of writing a poem; likewise, the irreducible moment of spontaneity and clarity – the act of creativity – from which a lyric poem or piece of music springs. That moment cannot be reduced.

I like your attention to the “execution” of art. Vivaldi was introduced to me as a “one hit wonder” and yet I judge every recording against an out-of-print Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra’s performance of “The Four Seasons” in which the limited orchestra draws a heightened attention and resonance to each note. Everything is audible, in contrast to a huge number of musicians that can drown out the subtleties. In that state Vivaldi becomes transcendent for me.  As I experience classical music, some of it presents itself to me as myth simply because I heard the piece so often as a child (only later did I understand the instances in which the composer was evoking myth). Wagner, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Grieg: certain pieces snap me back to an almost pre-verbal state, expressing an emotion I was not complex enough to grasp with words at the time. How were you introduced to classical music, and does it have anything to do with your attention to myth?

The craft of your book is such that, I think also, we have been talking about Philomela all this while. Her myth works as a framework, a backdrop of backdrops against which your poems riff so successfully. “Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence by T.C. Mills” is where I would like to nest my argument here. 
To start with I would like to just step back and say “wow!” On its own this poem is worth attention, and yet set against Philamela’s myth, the referent in the title directs and redirects in such an enjoyable way. Dovetailing perhaps. I read an intent need to understand and think about innocence, where it starts and ends, in both this poem and your attention to and use of Philomela’s myth. How do you experience that boundary? Could you perhaps talk about how juxtaposition helped you create this poem?

TM: When I was writing “Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence by T.C. Mills,” I kept thinking about the opera: how in Wharton’s Age of Innocence, the opera is its own theatre of sex and desire. I kept meditating on desire and the body, identity and gender. Juxtaposition happened when I started working in couplets: how could I distill a series of images into their most vivid and visceral form in a way that still moved? As I was working on the other poems in Tongue Lyre, I was also reading Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The Philomela myth joined the poems of the book after the arc was starting to take shape. The silenced woman, the violated woman: how could I in different ways think about the relationship between the nightingale and memory, the victim and artist? The myth was meant to give form to the sequence of poems where the psyche returns to a home that is both the female body—and the will that returns us to memory.

KZ: Your poem sets up its scene, “New Years Eve in Central Park” and evolves to a moment of juxtaposition. Just the beginning and the end leaves out the entire narrative in between, and this creates an operatic tension. I focus on the moment, where, after the poem has introduced where innocence begins and ends. It breaks into repetition:

Or the age of innocence begins with my cousin
holding a green razor between her legs (4).

These lines activate about ten narratives in my brain, because the poem has established some expectations that this is a narrative. The first narrative I think of is a young girl who is about to start shaving her legs: a token of femininity. But this narrative seems too easy. The razor is stationary, held. Indecisive perhaps? Then I begin asking what kind of razor is it? There are straight razors that are green. But with all of this thinking I think I am wrong. This fascinates me because it is symbolic. Narratives cannot undo its power. It is a way of returning to safety in remembering. Narratives are, in one sense, an end to innocence if they attempt to situate a subject within a larger context. Innocence is the inability to recognize the culturally specific narrative one is situated in.

Your poem lulls me back to a moment before I could fluently read events, as a child. I remember in parts. I am convinced that the form accomplishes this, by introducing a narrative and then collapsing it. In this way, I think your poem enacts tension. Or as William Meredith writes in “About Opera,” from Partial Accounts that our words are mundane, but in opera, “they yearn to take the risk these noises take”(85).

I think “Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence by T.C. Mills” is emblematic of the dialectic your