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A conversation with Miller Williams

Miller Williams, the Arkansas poet, is in fantastic but scant company. Arkansas is better known for its blues, country, and jazz artists. But almost anyone who reads Williams’s poems will realize that they can also be sung. Are song lyrics really poems set to music? Williams’s poems are poems, and the music comes through with reading, aloud or in one's head. I think I heard the music of Miller Williams’s poems before I had even known of his daughter, Lucinda Williams. When I did hear her music, I had a glimpse of where it might have come from. Miller's abilities also extend beyond the music of the English tongue, as he has published translations of several major voices of European and Latin American literature, lending his own dialect to the poems of Giuseppe Belli, Nicanor Parra, and Pablo Neruda. What I mean is that Miller's poems are like music. His manner of speaking is formal but rarely uptight. His fabric is cut from the everyday; it's the simple vision of life littered with pitches and notes.

What was it like growing up in rural Arkansas? What do you remember about Hoxie, about your family during that time?

I was born in the small town of Hoxie, but my family moved away in the middle of my second year. My father was a Methodist minister, and all Methodist ministers at that time were itinerant, meaning they were usually reassigned to a new church every three or four years. I grew up in Hoxie, Paragould, Blytheville, Russellville, Jonesboro, and Fort Smith. I was one of six children who lived to adulthood.

What is your poetic process? How do you write? Where do you write? Has your process changed over the years or has it become a ritual?

Usually a poem of mine will begin and stay awhile in my head, until I recognize what it wants to say and in what pattern and tone of voice. Then I scribble it out—most often on a legal pad—writing one copy after another as it affirms its pattern and tone. When it seems to be about finished, I type it out on my computer—no longer on my typewriter. That's the only change in the ritual.

Your official educational background is not in poetry or literature in general. Could you talk about your early scientific interests, how you came to poetry, or how it came to you?

Poetry held my attention and affection from the time I could read. I entered a college in Central Arkansas at eighteen, declaring a double major in English and Foreign Languages. Before the end of my first semester I was called into the office of a school official who had administered aptitude tests to all incoming freshmen, where I was told that since my test results showed absolutely no verbal aptitude, I should change my major to the hard sciences immediately. I had been taught to obey my superiors, and I eventually ended my education with what my dear friend John Ciardi called an ABD (all but dissertation) in biology and biochemistry.

During my years in college and graduate school, and the years in which I taught science on the college level, I continued to write and publish almost nothing but poetry, stories, and literary essays. When I was teaching in a college in northern Georgia, I met Flannery O'Connor, who lived only a few miles away and came to give a reading on campus. We became close friends, and I drove to her farm house once a month or so. She would show me her fiction, finished and unfinished, and I would show her my poems. After a few months, when she heard that Louisiana State University was looking for a faculty member to direct writing workshops and teach regular English classes, she wrote and told them that the person they wanted was a professor of biology at the college near her home, in Georgia. They couldn't believe that but they couldn't ignore Flannery, so they wrote and asked me to send them some things I'd written. I did that, and a couple of weeks later I got a telephone call from LSU asking me when I could get there. I got there at the start of the 1962 fall semester.

How did you first get around to publishing poems? What was the relationship you had with your early publishers?

My poems were published in journals in my college days. In 1952, when I was twenty-two, I paid a small printing company in Imboden, Arkansas, to publish a paperback collection of fifteen poems, entitled Et Cetera. Three years later Pageant Press in New York published a collection entitled Letters to the Editor and Other Poems. My next collection, A Circle of Stone, was published by Louisiana State University Press shortly after I joined the faculty there.

In your collected poems, Some Jazz a While, you dedicate the book to the memory of your teachers, Flannery O’Connor, but also John Ciardi and Howard Nemerov. Could you talk about your kinship with these wonderful writers?

I met John Ciardi when he read at a college where I was teaching in Macon, Georgia, in 1960. He invited me to attend the well-known Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont.  I joined him there in ’61, where he introduced me to Robert Frost. John became almost a brother to me; we got together annually at the Bread Loaf conference and wherever I was teaching at the time, as he came to read his poems and talk about mine. Howard Nemerov I met at Bread Loaf, where he took a very encouraging interest in my poetry. He was Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress. In 1963, he asked me to record quite a number of my poems for the archives of the Library of Congress, which I gladly did. In the fall of 1971, he came to spend a week with [Williams’s wife] Jordan, and me and speak to my students at the university in Fayetteville.

Did you ever engage with other Arkansas poets, such as C. D. Wright, Maya Angelou, Frank Stanford, or Besmilr Brigham?

C.D., Maya, and Frank were delightful members of a circle of friends at the university here. I admired the poems of Besmilr Brigham, but never got to know her well.

You have written somewhat extensively in argument for rhyme and meter in poetry. How has music informed your work? Arkansas, like many Southern states, has such a rich musical heritage. Has music always been of interest to you and your work?

I do believe that poetry is more satisfying when it has a pattern similar to those of songs. I wish that I could sing well, as I’m sure you know my daughter Lucinda does, and writes her own songs. Hank Williams (no kinship there) told me that since he often wrote his lyrics months before he set them to music, they spent those months as sort-of poems. I think the kinship is real.

Did you ever meet Hank Williams in person?

Yes, [in 1952] I was on the faculty of McNeese State College in Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he had a concert there. I stepped onstage when he and his band were putting their instruments away and when he glanced at me I said, “Mr. Williams, my name is Williams and I’d be honored to buy you a beer.” To my surprise, he asked me where we could get one. I said there was a gas station about a block away where we could sit and drink a couple. (You may not be aware that gas stations used to have bars.) He asked me to tell his bus driver exactly where it was and then he joined me. When he ordered his beer, I ordered a glass of wine, because this was my first year on a college faculty and it seemed the appropriate thing to do. We sat and chatted for a little over an hour. When he ordered another beer he asked me about my family. I told him that I was married and that we were looking forward to the birth of our first child in about a month. He asked me what I did with my days and I told him that I taught biology at McNeese and that when I was home I wrote poems. He smiled and told me that he had written lots of poems. When I said, “Hey—you write songs!” he said, “Yeah, but it usually takes me a long time. I might write the words in January and the music six or eight months later; until I do, what I’ve got is a poem.” Then his driver showed up, and as he stood up to leave he leaned over, put his palm on my shoulder, and said, “You ought to drink beer, Williams, ’cause you got a beer-drinkin’ soul.” He died the first day of the following year. When Lucinda was born I wanted to tell her about our meeting, but I waited until she was onstage herself. Not very long ago, she was asked to set to music words that he had left to themselves when he died. This almost redefines coincidence.

Translation is a definite cornerstone of your work; you’ve published several books of translations. Who all have you translated, and how does translation fit into your poetic process?

I’ve translated works of twenty poets from Spanish, Italian, and German. Most of them are from Spanish. The poets I’ve translated who are best known in this country are Giuseppe Belli, Nicanor Parra, Pablo Neruda, Enrique Lihn, Raúl Ruiz, and Jorge Teillier. Works of the Italian poets Nelo Risi and Antonio Porta presented me with very satisfying challenges, as did the poems in German by Horst Bienek and Christoph Meckel. I’ve long felt that a translated work is the two poets meeting; I wish I could shake hands with every poet I’ve translated.

You read at Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address. Richard Blanco, the fifth poet to read at an inauguration, recently read a poem at President Obama’s second inauguration. Could you talk about your insight into reading a “political poem,” or the poem’s use in a mass reading such as an inauguration?

I was surprised, pleased, and honored when President Clinton asked me to write and read a poem for the inaugural ceremony. I was to be the third inaugural poet; Robert Frost was the first, for President Kennedy, and Maya Angelou was the second, for Clinton's first inauguration. I didn't feel that my poem—“Of History and Hope”—was so much a political document as a consideration of how a look at a nation's past might help determine where it could be led in the future. I knew that the poem would be listened to by a great many people, reprinted around the country, and discussed in a lot of classrooms, so I wanted what it said to be true, understandable, and agreeable.

What has it been like to be a poet in Arkansas? It sometimes seems a bit lonely because poetry is not valued as much as other art forms. Did you ever have a notion that it was impractical to write poems, or does the poem’s strength lie in its impracticality, its mystery?

I’ve enjoyed all the years I’ve lived in Arkansas, and was pleased—once I started writing—at how well my poems are received here. A reviewer said, a few years ago, that “Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry because, though his poems are discussed in classrooms at Princeton and Harvard, they’re read, understood, and appreciated by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.”

One tool the poet likes to keep in her belt is an ear for spoken language. Do you believe that Southern idioms and turns of phrase are an advantage to Southern poets?

I do, so long as every phrase in the poem is understandable to everyone who speaks English.

Do you consider your poems individually, or do you see the poems as one long life’s work?

My brain holds both visions gladly.

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Jackson Meazle

Jackson Meazle is an Arkansas native and a former Oxford American staffer. He is the author of the chapbooks HH: Poems of Heinrich Heine and Jack of Diamonds and the Queen of Spades.