John Milkereit began writing poetry after taking a seminar on the poetry of Billy Collins in 2005 at his local church. His poems have appeared in Harbinger Asylum, Swirl, Poetry Revolt, the Texas Poetry Calendar and has been a juried poet at the Houston Poetry Fest the last three years. He also recorded several of his poems at Taping for the Blind. Pudding House Press published his chapbooks in 2010, and Paying Admissions was a Finalist-of Note in their 2009 chapbook competition. During the day, he is a rotating equipment specialist at a Houston engineering firm.
John Milkereit has been both featured poet and host at several FPL Poetry Series events. He will host our next poetry event on October 3rd at 7pm featuring poets Vanessa-Zimmer Falls, Kelly Ellis, and Carrie Kornacki (Garns). John agreed to answer some questions about his poetry and the creative process in a series of emails during the first week of September, 2012.
JM: The creative process is difficult to describe but I was just thinking that making breakfast is a creative act just like making a poem. First you have to show up, you need the ideal physical space to make it, you need the right tools, and you need time to make it. Along the way, something might go wrong, someone might say add this ingredient, or you might have other people taste it and they would comment which in poetry I would call “critique.” Editing and making adjustments is a big part of the creative process. I always know the subject matter of a poem before I begin, but I usually rely on the process to get at the meaning or intent of the poem. Very often I select the subject matter because I don’t know how I feel about it, and I want the process of writing to help me uncover meaning, which I hope translates into helping the reader.
MR: Could you describe the difference between intuition and reason in poetry? Or how these functions may affect your writing process?
JM: I think poets apply intuition and reason in poetry differently, so I can only say how this applies to my work. I think a large part of intuition enters a poem when I’m trying to figure out what would make a good poem. Every time I begin to write, I begin with a hunch that this could be a good poem. Usually that hunch comes from reading another poem that I just absolutely love, and I say to myself “I wish I wrote that.” Or the source could be a newspaper article or a personal experience. Or any strong emotional reaction, I usually listen and guess whether that would be something worth writing about. Reason comes into play when I’m trying to figure out how to deliver the language on the page. Elements such as grammar, line break, editing, I think have more to do with reason than intuition. So I would say that I’m using more intuition initially, and then as I complete the first draft, reason takes over. I always handwrite the first draft, and then as I transfer the words to the computer, my intuition leaps out again to craft a line a differently, or make a different word selection. My intuition does not like being ignored by reason for very long. Maybe I should name my intuition after a jealous sister I never had. How fun would that be?
MR: It is often said that a lot of poetry doesn’t make sense. This is often stated as a reason why a person does not read poetry. With this in mind, do you believe that a poem can be too abstract? Do you believe that poetry can fulfill other needs or desires beyond logical ones? I think of a poem like Folk Song, where your words describe, enhance, and elevates a musical experience. Sound from a plucked guitar string does not have meaning of itself but clearly acts as a catalyst for meaning and emotion in the listener. Do you believe poetry can work the same way, finding the right vibration through sound and symbol to elevate/enhance ordinary experience? I believe Folk Song provides evidence but I would like your take on the topic.
JM: There are several questions here. Yes, poetry can be too abstract. Each individual's personal experience with reading or listening to a poem helps define the word "abstract." Actually with poetry, almost every need and fulfillment to take away from a poem is not logical. Your emotional reaction to a poem is not logical. Poetry is the creation of what it means to be human and to describe the human experience. Can anyone sit down and write something to say the human experience is logical? Do we actually think in a linear progression? Does the sub-conscience think logically? When someone sits down to write a memoir, does their memory actually record every actual thing that happened? I would argue the answer to these questions is "no." So if you're engaging in a literary art form like poetry that is more concerned about language as opposed to a time-line of events, what logic is there? Merwin came to town recently and talked about this briefly with an example of how does one describe fear. There are poems where you definitely have the feeling of fear, but how do you describe that emotion? The poet is very often trying to access his or her sub-conscience in the making of the poem. Why is this? Because if they don't, then the work would read like a short story or a newspaper article. Really, a related burning question that is still raging in poetry, is how much access should the reader be allowed to enjoy the poem? Should a poet attempt to chase so vigorously what it means to be the human condition risking only smaller audiences that would understand the poem? Or should the poet open up access to the masses that would understand the poem, but sacrifice what is reality and what it means to be acutely human? I lean big on the side of keeping things real, and providing access initially and then moving in a direction that may be more abstract or absurd. You would see poets in MFA programs today that are doing the opposite. I will say we've had a lot of modern and now post-modern poetry for too long and I really don't enjoy that type of poem--which is a poem characterized by extreme disjuncture and fragmentation of the human conscience. I understand the reason for it, our conscience thinks in fragments, but I don't enjoy the extremes this type of poetry takes which limits accessibility. You can say that poetry doesn't make sense, but I think it’s important to understand what is happening in those types of poems which are trying to show reality. As one prominent poet said to me about his students--"the inmates are running the asylum." Poets are probably a little insane to begin with, I often think I'm probably getting more insane the more I write poetry. So taken in context with what I've said earlier, you can probably understand why I'm saying this.
Poets very often try to use the senses just as any writer would to create an image or something that feels real. As far as sound is concerned, poets make choices about sound all the time. Every word of a good poem is carefully selected. A poet might select a word because it sounds better, but would sacrifice meaning which might also add to the poem being more abstract. What a poet wants is for the listener or reader to have a unique emotional experience. I have an emotional response to poems read in a foreign language like Spanish. I don't understand anything that's being read but I can love the sounds created by the Spanish language without understanding the meaning of the poem. There are also famous nonsense poems like Jabberwocky. There are words created on the page that aren't actually words in the English dictionary, but by the time you finish reading a poem like that, you can't help but feel that poetry is doing something unique and fun. Students love that type of poem.
You might say the everyday experience is ordinary, but what the poet actually does very often is say: well, Matt, didn't you realize that your ordinary experience is actually pretty incredible? Or your experience with the poem might start to challenge how you think about reality, or your ordinary view of things. If these things aren't happening, then the poem is probably not working very well. What I'm trying to do in Folk Song is to show the experience of listening to a folk song. If you're not feeling anything by the end, then I would say the poem is not working for you. But obviously something has happened, can you logically describe it? The only conscious thing I really thought about was the structure and that it would be a list poem.
Our language is what makes us uniquely human and language comes from the imagination. When we talk about something like metaphor: that can't be taught. When we use language in poetry and our imagination, it is really difficult, if not impossible, to use logic. If we were to say poetry was logical, then we would be able to teach the writing of poetry, but we can't. How we learn to write is to go to our local library, read poetry and also workshop our work.
MR: You have numerous references to visual artists, musicians, and films in your poems. Can you describe how other art forms inspire your work?
JM: Other art forms are a conduit for a different language. I have a real or imagined fear that my own language will get stale or boring. Since poetry is primarily concerned with language and how the language is delivered on the page, other art forms provide poets with another way of enriching their work. Musicians and painters do this also. In poetry, we call that an ekphrastic poem and I love writing ekphrastic poems. I think a good ekphrastic poem will provide the reader with a different way of looking at the world—that’s what I’m trying to do with my work.
MR: Can you tell us your favorite poet/s and why?
JM: That’s an easy question because I did not like poetry or have any interest in poetry before 2005. In 2005, a minister at my local church gave a seminar on Billy Collins' book entitled Sailing Alone Around in a Room. That was a watershed event for me, so obviously my answer is Billy Collins. I just couldn’t believe that was considered poetry because the work was so accessible and often hilarious. He has a dry sense of humor like I have. I’ve seen Billy Collins read in Houston several times which has added to my experience of the performance aspect of poetry which I enjoy. Like most beginning poets, I began writing in 2005 emulating his style.
MR: Favorite films?
JM: I like going to the movie theater and seeing all types of movies. “Sideways”, “Aliens”, “Gandhi,” “Out of Africa” are some of my favorites. Any art house film or comedy is probably a film I really enjoy.
MR: Your poetry is unique and I would say the same for your readings. There is a style to your delivery that I feel enhances the humor of your poems. You never fail to generate laughter at your readings here. Could you relay how you arrived at this style or would you say it comes organically from the words on the page?
JM: Some of that style probably comes from going to see Billy Collins, but I’ve been asked before even writing poetry whether I would ever consider becoming a comedian. I love going to comedy clubs and seeing how comedians perform. I took an acting class last year to help me enhance the performance. At the same time, adding surprise from the words on the page translates into energy and laughter. How do I add surprise? By eliminating conjunctive words and phrases. Obviously, subject matter is important or the approach I take towards the subject matter is important. You might consider my approach unconventional. The other aspects of my readings are the banter between reading the poems and the organization of the reading. I’ve studied some of my favorite singer-songwriters and they have something interesting or funny to say before and after some of their songs. And very often they have no idea what they’re going to say—it’s improv. They also have some idea of what they want to sing and intentionally do not want to come across as polished and organized with a set list of songs. I love that--you become to know they’re a good artist and they’re bonding with the audience. It’s almost like they have come into your home and sat down in your kitchen to perform only for you. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish at all of my readings.
MR: Finally, could you tell us a little about Net Poets Society and how working within a group may affect the creative process?
JM: Netposo began after 8-9 poets took a class at Inprint in 2006 and then we continued on after the class was over. We first met at a bar down the street from my house and we have met almost every two weeks for the last six years. There are some really incredible poets from the original group like Dede Fox, Erica Lehrer, John Rice, Mona Follis, Ada Fuller. Working with a dedicated group of poets is important in receiving critique or with the process of workshopping that I mentioned earlier. Since none of us have an MFA in creative writing and we want to place our poems out into the world, we need feedback. I would say with a great deal of confidence that Netposo has brought all of our poetry up to a higher quality level. We learn from each other and we create poems from prompts we give each other. I would encourage all poets to reach out and find a group of poets that are willing to share and critique their work. The groups are better if you find poets that are as good or a little better than you. There are even groups on-line if you live in the middle of nowhere. I’m fortunate to live in a large urban area with a large melting pot of poets.