Miles Waggener is a poet, translator, and essayist living in Omaha, Nebraska. His book of poems, Phoenix Suites, was published by The Word Works and won the Washington Prize. A chapbook of newer poems, Portents Aside, is forthcoming from Two Dogs Press. A recipient of an Arizona Commission on the Arts fellowship, Waggener recently joined the faculty of The Writer's Workshop at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
What are your thoughts on the use of science-language and metaphor-in poetry?
I like reading and writing poems that work with the nomenclature of more than one field or sphere of knowledge. Of course poetry is ravenous for new diction and new modes of expression. And Amy Holman's assignment is a great opportunity to build a conceit, an extended metaphor. But such a process demands attention to the fields being compared, and sometime I fail at this. In my hands, an extended metaphor can easily erode into an analogically flat poem, where neither the extended vehicle nor the tenor get much stage time. I've written bad extended metaphors that end up being instructional and binary (gawd-offal and preachy).
Working with a new kind of subject and diction certainly invites a fresh approach. In fact, the hope of the submitted poem was to fuse or braid narratives together, rather than give, say, the science of memory a more figurative role, and ornithology a literal one. I tried not to make one field a crutch for the other. I'm grateful to have been given this assignment, for it reminded me to loosen my grip on the subjects.
How did you interpret this assignment? What were your first thoughts on what it asked you to do? How did that guide your composition?
As mentioned above, I first thought about the hope (and dread) of an extended metaphor and past attempts (train wrecks) at making them. Then I tried to think up a way to weave two fields together. I then turned to Donald Murray's idea of the dialectical notebook, which involves drawing a vertical line down the center of three or four notebook pages. The left sides of these pages were reserved for the science of long term memory, and the right sides were for the marsh hawk, the unlucky dove, falconry, and ornithology. I knew that I was going to make a mess and hoped for the best.
This poem relates the science of memory with the field of ornithology. Which came first during the writing process-the language of memory or the birds?
The birds came first. I had a larval/crummy draft of a poem about the hawk that was going nowhere, and I could draw from that.
What did you find challenging about writing this poem?
While it was liberating to proceed and not know where I was going, there came a moment late at night when all I had were columns of scratch and an empty head. Finding a form and a voice to channel the poem was difficult. I'm not convinced of the poem's form as submitted... but I probably shouldn't say this.
What do you like most about the poem you wrote?
I like the verb "to mantle," when a hawk spreads its wings, fans its tail and arches over prey to hide it from others. I've never used that verb before and want to use it again.
What are you reading right now?
I'm reading Port Trakl by Jaime Luis Huenún, which is translated by Daniel Borzutzky, a great poem sequence from Action Books. And I just finished Anne McLean's translation of Julio Cortázar's Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, which was wonderful. In fact, I've been buying copies of the Cortázar book for people. And, I've been reading student poems. Lots of student poems.
What can you say in terms of writing advice, opinions on the writing process or lessons learned?
Again, I'm grateful for Holman's assignment, which renewed my commitment to taking on new processes and subjects. The assignment made me listen to my drafts more carefully. It was important to remember that in the messy process of drafting a poem, an impasse can turn into a gate. It was good to work through the inertia and confusion, as hard as it was at the time. I need to remember to work through it. (I don't know if this will be of any use to others.)