Books In Conversation
ROD KESSLER with Brooke Delp
A KIND OF REVERENCE
What I Am Always Waiting For
(Grayson Books, 2020)
I should have known it would be good.
When my former professor and longtime cheerleader, Rod Kessler, invited me to read What I Am Always Waiting For, I’ll admit I was apprehensive. The book, a collection of poems by the late Malcolm Miller, seemed a passion project for Kessler, but would it be my cup of tea?
Kessler and I met in 2014. I was a member of the poetry board for Soundings East, an annual literary journal of which Rod served as advisory editor. I enjoyed working with him and learned a great deal about poetry and editing. As it happens, Rod was nearing the end of his 31 year career at Salem State. By the time the Spring 2014 issue was published, he had begun his retirement. He would pass the torch of coordinating the university’s Creative Writing Program and take up a new position as conservator. In the wake of Miller’s passing in late 2014, Rod has shared the poet’s work in a number of literary magazines, narrated the 2017 feature film Unburying Malcolm Miller, and secured permanent residence for his numerous books and papers at McGill University in Montreal. Now, in 2020, he’s published the first (but likely not last) anthology of Miller’s poetry.
I’m delighted to say that What I Am Always Waiting For is very much my cup of tea. Kessler’s high praise for Malcolm Miller is sound. I hadn’t gotten through even a quarter of the book before I had to put it down and contemplate what I was reading. How disappointing, I thought, that I might never have discovered this poetry were it not for Kessler’s steadfast loyalty to a friend.
I rarely see Rod these days, and when I do it’s because he’s still showing up at events to support local writers. And though he can no longer be seen in the halls of Salem State University, he is ever-present in my own writing. I have, above my desk, a corkboard on which I’ve tacked a clutter of notes and photographs. I can see only the corner of a note I received many years ago by my advisory editor, but I know what he wrote: “Brooke! You’re a real writer!” In light of reading this collection of poetry, I am especially humbled by Rod’s brief but meaningful comment.
Brooke Delp (Rail): You recently released What I Am Always Waiting For, an anthology of Malcolm Miller’s poetry. How does it feel to finally see it in print?
Rod Kessler: I was happy to receive the author’s copies but sorry that the actual author wasn’t alive to open the cartons. The next day I put 40 into the mail to the poets who’d helped sort through Miller’s 3,500-plus poems and to others who had supported the project. The real pleasure has been getting What I Am Always Waiting For into readers’ hands.
Rail: How has the reception been for this book?
Kessler: The release was covered in the local press, and a human-interest piece aired on a commercial radio station about a dead poet’s belated recognition. What’s made a big difference was a glowing notice in the Boston Sunday Globe by literary editor Nina MacLaughlin. Beyond that, libraries on Boston’s North Shore and even up in Canada at Miller’s alma mater, McGill, are accepting the book into their collections.
Rail: I found many of Miller’s poems evocative of one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda. Poems like “She Passed Through This Way” demonstrate the same richness in imagery and interrelation between love and nature. Neruda famously said, “There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are.” Miller certainly succeeded in the latter—do you think he would agree with the former?
Kessler: Yes, I see what you mean about that poem. As for insurmountable solitude, he managed his share of it, but he always extended the invitation to readers to join him if they could … or if they dared. And he sought readers; he wasn’t writing only for himself. In total, he produced 61 volumes, all but the first two self-published. If they were plain-looking and cheaply made, he still sent copies (with an invoice) to the area's public and college libraries, and he made the rounds of his regular paying readers.
Rail: Back in 2014, while working on Soundings East, I remember the volume of poetry we had to sort through. Your approach to deciding on submissions was thoughtful and shrewd. You struck me as principled, particularly where your students were concerned. We, the editorial board, were encouraged to be honest with ourselves about the work we received and to choose carefully. We were interested in the best writing, you said—the strongest poetry and prose.
Kessler: Thanks for remembering my days as advisory editor. I recall one practice that I urged you all to adopt—to move the poet’s as-yet unread cover letter to the bottom of the sheaf and read it last. Let the poems make the first impression, not the author or some impressive list of publication credits. I wish all editorial boards did that.
Rail: Well, I’m back on Sounding’s East and we unanimously decided to do blind reads so your legacy lives on! I wonder, after discovering Miller’s poetry and later meeting with him, has your perspective on poetry changed? Has the bar been raised?
Kessler: Did Malcolm Miller’s poems change my perspective on judging poems? Not exactly. But reading them clarified my values and perhaps biases. I’ve read, and listened to, and loved poetry since I was in Dudley Manchester’s English classes at Hartford High School. (He recited “Daddy” to us freshmen when Sylvia Plath killed herself in 1963.) I’ve published 20 or so poems and taught poetry writing. But my primary genres are fiction-writing and nonfiction prose. I’m drawn to the narrative pole more than to the lyrical, if I can slide an oversimplification like that into our conversation—and that comes into my appreciation of Miller’s writing.
Miller’s poetry is sometimes narrative but always concrete, concise, straightforward. Were he a visual artist, his work would be original and “new,” but representational, not abstract. Does that make sense? There’s precision in his imagery, he’s as concrete as a plastic bag stuck on a tree branch, and he never tries to draw us down ambiguous paths suggested by the ephemeral, the associational, the suggestive.
Rail: You say that Miller’s writing made you question whether or not you were fully alive in your own life. At first, I figured he must have spoken to you in a very personal way or that his poems just happened to resonate with you. Having read the book, though, I shared your sentiment. For me, it was “The Sea Doesn’t Know” that elicited the most potent response. Was there one poem that grabbed you more than others? Was it his overall body of work? And did knowing the man behind the poetry—his lifestyle, his artistic credo, the conditions of his writing—affect your opinion?
Kessler: This is perhaps a good time to mention that the poems in What I Am Always Waiting For are just the tip of the iceberg, and that at least two other collections will, with luck, appear someday. The one poem of his that perhaps touched me most deeply—the one I thumbtacked to a corkboard in my writing room—isn’t in this collection. It begins, “I had not meant to take up / so much of your time / when I began these matters,” and I can’t shake the crazy thought that he meant me, that I’m literally the “you” of the poem. It’s a crazy thought because he wrote it in 2002, 11 years before he laid eyes on me.
this is how life is
I had not meant to take up so much of your time
when I began these matters
I in no way thought they were so
important as to take precedence
but something in how things have developed has made me continue more seriously
has made me raise my voice
as life becomes less really alive
I have sought to drive some indefinable music
through your blood and bones loud as a trumpet as if it were my business
to defend life
even the life deep within yourself
the life you have no time or words for
I have meant you harm also because that is how life is
I have sought to set in motion
to drive your mere noise out
of the world that in newly empty silent places
a great lost thing maybe greater
than a god might return
and rise and sing and be
How does he put it? “I have sought to set in motion / your discomfiture / to drive your mere noise out / of the world . . .”
Knowing the man himself, however briefly at the end of his life, only reinforced the power of those poems. He lived as he did—sleeping in a ratty bag on a hard floor and the rest of it—so that he’d be alive for that something “greater than a god” that would “rise and sing and be.”
Rail: It seems from your introduction that you felt a responsibility to not let Miller’s work fade into obscurity. You acted as a steward of his work, salvaging these invaluable poems. Is that a fair assessment?
Kessler: Yes, I might not hear the universe singing the way Miller evidently did, but I got the message from the cosmos to keep his work alive.
Rail: In addition to the book, you’ve participated in the film Unburying Malcolm Miller. Can you describe the ways and whys of unburying this man?
Kessler: Readers of the Brooklyn Rail might remember reading about this documentary by filmmakers Kevin Carey and Mark Hillringhouse. Poet Elisabeth Weiss did an excellent piece on it back in October of 2017.
Miller’s 83 years on earth were full of life, intensity, complexity, humor, passion, homelessness, eccentricity, even madness. It’s a hard story to resist. But it’s a challenge for a filmmaker when the protagonist is dead and there’s no film footage of him anywhere—just a handful of still photographs. The documentary is compelling all the same. It’s available here on YouTube.
Rail: Carey and Hillringhouse were also part of a community of writers who joined you in selecting 53 poems out of the 3,500 that Miller left behind. Was it difficult to narrow it down?
Kessler: We narrowed it down to about 800 poems, 800 poems that three separate readers agreed were noteworthy. And among the few hundred that only two out of three readers ranked highly, many are probably just as strong.
Rail: The book is organized into unique sections that set the tone for the poems therein. The pieces in the section “I Have Always Wanted” hint at a world-weary yearning and isolation, while “She Passed Through This Way” features poems on intimacy, nostalgia, and attachment. Did those sections come up organically after you selected your pieces? Or did you have an idea about those sections and work with poems that would form a more narrative arc?
Kessler: These divisions reflect themes and styles in the body of Miller’s work. Sometimes he wrote short, pithy, even funny poems, poems reminiscent of Stephen Crane:
you will fail as a writer until you encounter that
which is impossible to set down
but must be
It would be a simple matter to put together an entire book of just these. But the same could be said of his poems about the holiness of voluptuous love, or poems about living on the existential edge, or about writing or aliveness to the world. In devising sections, I drew on the major strands. Miller, a true fan of the Bard of Brooklyn, would not wince too much, I hope, if I describe this collection as a Whitman’s sampler of his voices and preoccupations.
Rail: In poems like “I Am Waiting,” there is a sense of hopelessness, but in others, like “The Man Who Was Wrong but Right,” I see hints of untroubled humor. Was this duality apparent in Miller himself? Was there a marked difference between Miller’s early work and what he wrote later on?
Kessler: Miller’s hopelessness, expressed in poems like “I Am Waiting,” is typically directed at his human fellows, at the lives they lived seemingly to keep at bay the intrusive glories of being alive. Things are brighter in his autobiographical poems, like “The Man Who Was Wrong but Right.” This poem actually commemorates his meeting with Sandra Zacharin, the Montreal woman that he would marry and who, not long afterwards, would die young of complications of diabetes.
The humor? It was there along with the intensity.
Rail: In “The Sad Girl Who Sells Gasoline,” there is an element of voyeurism, of watching the world from a distance. Your experience with him suggests that he was spiraling towards the end—in his own words, “a hermit, anchorite, almost leper.” Did he seem more of an observer than a participant in life? Did you sense a desire to connect with people that was simply out of reach for him?
Kessler: Two things. First, in his healthier, younger days, Miller was both a prodigious walker and a night owl. He was on the streets at all hours. He set several poems, including this collection’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place in Winter,” in one or another of Salem’s all-night Dunkin’ Donuts. And he had an eye for women. He was out there, out in the world of all-night gas stations and convenience stores. But the second thing is that when I knew him he was old and feeble. His walking days were over. But one time when I drove him to the Radio Shack—to replace his tinny, inexpensive transistor radio—he flirted with the young woman at the register. “Do you know who Walt Whitman is?” he asked her. (She didn’t.)
Rail: Has your own writing changed following your interaction with Miller? What other poets/poems have affected you so viscerally?
Kessler: My writing? Alas, my output lately is limited to left-leaning, progressive op-eds in the local paper. Miller would have laughed at this. I doubt that he ever voted. But I don’t mind mentioning the poets that have moved me lately. First among these is Tony Hoagland, my one-time friend from the University of Arizona MFA program. His death in 2018 came as a shock. He was not quite 65, four years my junior. There’s a young poet I’ve been reading with pleasure lately, Mikko Harvey, whose Unstable Neighborhood Rabbit appeared that same year, 2018. Harvey was one of the poets who sorted through Malcolm Miller’s poems.
Rail: Miller rarely uses punctuation in the poems you’ve chosen for this book. Even his questions, without the question mark, feel more like his musings are self-contained reflections. “What Is That Sound” and “Where Is Home” are two examples of this poetic hypophora. What do you make of this device and of his overall eschewing of punctuation?
Kessler: Sometimes it’s like a walk in the woods with a few trail markings missing, isn’t it? Miller cared little about metrics or the length of his line. As a poet, he wasn’t much of an architect of structure. But there was method to it. He forces us to slow down, pay attention, to do some of the work of construing. Perhaps some of this is a pose—the anti-conventional guise of 1950s beat writing. He’s got a foot in that cohort. I don’t know—if I’m asked to read his poems aloud, I “repair” the lines on the sheet I’m reading from to clarify the syntax, and I don’t hesitate to add punctuation when it helps.
Rail: You wrote that Miller asked if any good poetry was written today. Do you mind sharing what your response was?
Kessler: I recall almost nothing beyond agreeing that Robinson Jeffers, albeit not a contemporary poet, was worth reading. Miller wanted to tell me what was wrong with John Updike’s writing, too.
Rail: What would Malcolm think of this book?
Kessler: He produced a few poems, actually, about the fate of his writing in bookstores and libraries. In one he claims that as soon as his works are stocked, “popular books run quickly / away to hide in the cash register.” As for this collection, perhaps it would recall him to this short poem, not in this collection but apt:
Ivan the terrible
no one suspects me no one knows I am terrible
no one knows I am me
my air of pleasant distance is seen as harmless
no one suspects me
If they took my books out of the library they would know
I am tearing to bits their awful lives
Rail: In your introduction, you say he was, “Distressed at having become a coffee-table poet for the well-to-do.” I felt as though this collection is the antithesis of that—is it melodramatic to call it a labor of love? At the very least, it seems a project born of reverence.
Kessler: Yes, a kind of reverence. Anyone can visit the Greenlawn Cemetery in Salem, Massachusetts, and find Malcolm Miller’s stone and marker. It’s in the veterans’ section (Miller had served in the Navy and his ashes were interred with an honor guard in attendance). Ironically for an unobservant atheist Jew, the grave marker bears a cross. This book, I like to think, is a memorial that might last long into the future. But what unintended ironies it contains time will tell.