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