“Isn’t that what desire can do—harm those even in its sweetness, its lushness, its genius to take over and fall into itself?”
Like a Beast (Anhinga Press, 2017)
Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook? And why did you choose this poem?
There are a few that come to mind, but “Dayshift as Conduit” is the one that led to the series that drives/ organizes the chapbook (and is the titular poem in the chapbook). I had one “Nightshift” poem (“Nightshift as a Waitress,” which opens the chapbook—and shhh, yes I snuck in an extra poem) at the time. There was an incident where I got hit by a car that was spinning out while I was on my way to a friend’s wedding, and I should have been hurt much worse than I was (which was nothing—my car’s license plate was dented and I was a little shook up). I was told that my “brother,” whom was miscarried, protected me, and I wanted to honor him and his presence. It’s also hard to claim being a conduit, but I strongly believe in the old philosophies that poets are as close to messengers/ voices as we can get without truly being psychics ourselves.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
The chapbook is written in a series of “shifts” that explores the beast of desire. Each shift is split into times—Night, Mid- and Day—that I view as moving from dark to light, lust to devotion/ clarity. I wanted to allow the speaker to take on multiple personas to explore how these moods impact the way the speaker presents herself—entirely female, entirely beast, but more so, entirely human moving through the world with a desire to live at the brink of emotionality.
Does the chapbook form impact the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I think it does, absolutely. Once I wrote “Dayshift as Conduit,” I figured out the mode to explore the obsessions mentioned above. I knew right away I wanted to flesh out a series of six poems per shift, although I do have two poems that act as the sort of “outliers” in the “Midshift” section but were written at the same time as a majority of the chapbook. The forms are not strict in the sense that each poem follows the same form, but they do follow the same mood that the section implies (“Night” being darker, “day” being lighter). The one section that connects via form/ content is the “Midshift” section, where each “Midshift” poem acts as a stream of consciousness only in regards to exploring the subject via bestiary and just writing toward the idea of “why this image/ word/ sensation? What about it is haunting you?” Each one is also, for the most part, a prose block where I also put an inch indent on each side to feel sort of boxed in/ allow the mind to be in this space and try to perform its speech.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
Slightly, yes! I mostly edit while I write, and will just read the poem back to myself when I feel stuck and then try to rearrange words or move a last sentence to the first, something like that. I also was told that when I let myself truly go, that’s when the poems are reaching their wildest potential, so I’m actually slowly working toward letting myself not edit until I get to the sense of the poem being “finished.”
One prompt, though, is the bestiary mode mentioned above. I studied with Natalie Diaz at the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop where I brought most of the poems in the chapbook, and one of her prompts was to identify why an image haunts you via a bestiary. This led to all of the “Midshift” poems that ended up being the last I wrote for the collection.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?
Here are a few I’ve read recently that knocked me down to the floor: Shelley Wong’s Rare Birds (I got to hear her read from it and kept saying “goddamn, this is good” under my breath the whole time), Analicia Sotelo’s Nonstop Godhead, Eloisa Amezcua’s Symptoms of Teething, and Chloe Honum’s Then, Winter. I have a few on my nightstand still that I bet are going to destroy me, too, including Monica Sok’s Year Zero and Claudia Cortese’s The Red Essay.
I read Meghan Privitello’s chapbook, Notes on the End of the World, about a year after writing Like a Beast, but I immediately knew that I had another poet sister in this world of spell-making. I’ve followed her work since reading her full-length, A New Language for Falling Out of Love, and the way she’s able to pile on nouns and emotionality all at once overwhelms me in the best way.
And while not a chapbook, one line that influenced Like a Beast exponentially (and probably a lot of my work) is from Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem “Guest Place,” where it ends on the line “Our own genius for harm.” Isn’t that what desire can do—harm those even in its sweetness, its lushness, its genius to take over and fall into itself?
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Anhinga is an insane joy to work with, truly. When they called to let me know that the chapbook won the Rick Campbell Prize, I got an email immediately saying, “Hey, we’re aiming to pre-release a few copies at AWP—is the beast more girl or animal?” And they did! I had no say in the cover for that, but they hit it on the head. And then when the real release came out, Jay Snodgrass did everything—he drew the cover! He designed the chapbook! And it’s everything I truly hoped/ wanted it to be. I’m so lucky that Like a Beast found a home with them, and love so many of the authors they publish—I still pinch myself.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I really wanted to be a singer for the longest time, and I ended up getting stage fright. Songwriting was one of the gateways to poetry for me, so it makes sense since I view my poems as me singing in a different way. That being said, I’m down to karaoke and have won a few very low stakes karaoke contests, so if anyone ever wants to karaoke, by all means, let’s sing.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Have patience and perseverance. I started “seriously writing” my sophomore year of undergrad, and it wasn’t until grad school where I decided to fully let myself go and allow myself to be vulnerable in my work, to let my poems have more than just a pinch of myself. I gave myself permission to dig, and it took a lot of reading and exploration of both my own work and others to understand why I was inclined to write the way I do. And perseverance is being able to recognize that every “failed poem” (I like to think of them as abandoned poems) is a step closer toward figuring out your obsessions, your voice, your style, and yourself.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m in the process of editing my full-length, Ceremonial, which was selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2017 Orison Poetry Prize (I’m forever grateful to him—I hope I get to meet him soon and try to express that in person). It includes some of the poems in Like a Beast, but has many poems that explore the beast within a slant of faith—how the body creates its own beliefs, however desirous, however broken and reformed we tend to be within the bodies we experience the world through. I’m also working on new poems, which I like to call “litanies but not litanies.” I’m not quite sure what I mean by that in the slightest, but the poems are showing themselves as turning another corner with my obsession with desire, with spells/ psalms, and seeing where the beast/ figure of desire wants to lead me now.
Carly Joy Miller is the author of Ceremonial (Orison Books, 2018), selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2017 Orison Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Like a Beast (Anhinga Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize. Her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Blackbird, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor for Poetry International and a founding editor of Locked Horn Press.