10 Questions for Devon Miller-Duggan
- By Abby MacGregor
1. Discuss: The Greeks said it all:
As with thyme—the scent of Greeks speaking Time,
breathing thyme, which grows even
when walked upon. On its own, spreads.
—from "The Test: Western Civilization", Fall 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 3)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My 4th grade teacher had E. E. Cumming’s “[in Just-]” on one of the bulletin boards. That was the first time I’d seen language played with. I also wrote my first poems in her class, and that was the year my parents gave me the Louis Untermeyer anthology of poetry for children. But I didn’t begin to use language to process the world until junior high, when it was the only way I could deal with the MLK and RFK assassinations. Those poems were terrible semi-Whitmanesque, semi-King-James laments and I am very happy that they are lost to history. I took up poetry seriously in college when I was introduced to James Wright, and, more importantly, figured out that it was an art form to which my father had no access.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Wright, Lorca, and Neruda taught me wildness. Bishop taught me risk and precision. Snodgrass taught me what he called “tact.” Leon Stokesbury and Goldbarth taught me that my own slightly baroque inclinations were okay in an age of linguistic austerity. Sexton, Clifton, and Fulton taught me the power of womens’ bodies and stories in poems. Forche, Reznikoff, and Hecht taught me about poetry and witness. Cummings and Berryman taught me that delight and darkness are not opposites. I’ve been at this for a long time; you tend to have quite a large lineage 40+ years in. I’m currently going back to Lucie Brock-Broido, who seems to embody a great many of my disparate influences.
What other professions have you worked in?
I waited tables, groomed race horses, worked as a prep cook, beaded wedding gowns, designed and made church vestments, and have been a part-time florist for several decades.
What did you want to be when you were young?
A ballerina, a fashion designer, a cat burgler, a geisha, a member of the New York Arts Scene making huge abstract expressionist paintings in a loft in SOHO and sleeping with a lot fascinating people.
What inspired you to write this piece?
My husband teaches Renaissance and Reformation history. He also brings me piles of scrap paper from his office to use for printing drafts. The questions in this poem are actual questions from a Western Civilization (Crete to the Reformation in one semester) exam. They were so old, they were purple ditto copies. They also made me very glad I never took that class with him. But there is a certain bravado, and an almost sensual relationship to history revealed in them, along with a not-at-all slight arrogance on the part of the writer revealed in his obvious pleasure in language that seemed to call for a conversation.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I mostly listen to Bach, Bill Evans, and John Renborn while I write, depending on what sort of voice I’m trying to give the words.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I gave up on that years ago when I decided that beating myself up for not having disciplines and rituals was getting in the way of my actually writing. It’s useful for me to not have rituals beyond drafting by hand and preferring black ink. I used to have a favorite sort of pad of paper, but I stopped being able to find them ages ago.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My husband. He’s Jesuit-educated and has a ferocious eye for grammatical infelicities along with a very good sense of whether a poem is headed in the right direction and where it veers off course. I’m very lucky that way.
What are you working on currently?
I have several series going. The two I’m most engaged with currently are poems based on James Wright’s “A Blessing” and a clutch of persona poems in the voice of a somewhat ticked off trans-temporal Virgin Mary.
What are you reading right now?
Kathleen Norris’s The Virgin of Bennington, the first book in N. K. Jemisin’s series, Brian Reed’s Phenomenal Reading, Steven Helmling’s The Success or Failure of Frederic Jameson, 8,000,000 back issues of Poetry, Lucie Brock Broido. It’s never enough.
DEVON MILLER-DUGGAN has published poems in Rattle, Shenandoah, Margie, Christianity and Literature, Gargoyle. She teaches creative writing at the University of Delaware. Her books include Pinning the Bird to the Wall, Neither Prayer, Nor Bird, and Alphabet Year.