OPA member John Miller has lived in Portland Oregon with his wife, Nicole Denham, since March of 2012. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and he has a degree in English from Amherst College (Amherst, MA). Upon arrival in Portland, he initially wrote poetry alone, but soon felt the need for community and a workshop. After experimenting with various groups, in late 2013 he founded his own, called Portland Ars Poetica, which has since become a mainstay of the Portland community of poets.
OPA co-editor Bruce Parker interviewed John to find out what motivates him, how the workshop has worked out, and his goals for the future. OPA members will find this an inspiration to build community where they are and to contribute to OPA’s being a robust state-wide community of poets.
BP: What prompted you to write your first poem, and when?
JM: From sophomore year of high school, I own a copy of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Inside the copy, there’s a bookmark from the Strand Book Store in New York City. On the bookmark’s blank back side are two short, bitter poems.
From the jagged, sloping lettering, I likely composed them on the subway. At the time, I spent hours every day on clamorous trains. I went to a competitive Jesuit high school, where failing two subjects in a year would expel you, and I was always close to that. Like any over-literate adolescent, I wrote initially from loneliness, alienation, insecurity.
But the most immediate prompt was probably all the poetry excerpted in Fussell – Great War poems from young men barely older than me, facing more literal transformation in the world of their age. I can still feel that connection.
BP: Tell us about your first experiences with poetry after you moved to Portland.
JM: I moved to Portland as a stranger, in the utter sense. I arrived without a job, and utterly failed at getting one. But I had all this time, suddenly, in a way I never had before.
I also arrived to Portland having driven across the country with my wife. New experiences on the ground, over weeks of travel and thousands of miles inside this gigantic country. Four seasons in three weeks, endless landscape. The poems of Raymond Carver instrumental for just getting to know anything about the Pacific Northwest. Shortly thereafter, Jack Gilbert – because he seemed to know something profound about being alone, and about uprooting, again and again.
We moved into a one bedroom apartment on SE Stark, and I wrote at a desk not amenable to long work, like into a novel. So I wrote poetry, and found something new, or new again — my previous poems were by then more than twenty years old.
For the first year, I wrote privately, showing no one. I felt in a state of disbelief.
BP: What was your inspiration for starting a workshop? When was that? Where did you first meet?
JM: At first, I followed workshops and events around town — 2012, into 2013. They abound, and I love that about Portland. But almost no one, throughout, was doing exactly what I needed. In the summer of 2013, I got to know a poet named Oscar, newly-minted MFA from the University of Nevada-Reno, who upon moving to Portland started a poetry critique group. We met at cafes around the Southeast.
By the following winter, Oscar left town, but enthusiasm for a critique of work persisted among folks I began to call friends. I decided to create my own experience, and I named it Portland Ars Poetica.
BP: How did you get Portland Ars Poetica started? Has the workshop evolved?
JM: I organize Portland Ars Poetica via www.meetup.com, which makes administration a piece of cake, and serves to publicize the group in a way a private email list or individually networking could not. In a way, it’s the perfect platform for a stranger.
The core of Portland Ars Poetica is its critique workshop. Over time, I’ve evolved that in two main ways – first, I’ve regularized its meeting, as close to biweekly as I can manage. Secondly, and early on, I created the requirement of bringing to the workshop at least a dozen paper copies of your poem. It has a literal function of making the workshop more than an open mic.
Metaphorically, bringing a dozen or more paper copies is akin to publishing a poem. Before the workshop begins, all poems are placed, in arrangement, on a table. Symbolically, the poem no longer belongs to its writer — it belongs, for the duration of the workshop, to the workshop. Just before we begin, members pick up a copy of each poem by circling the table. We take our seats with akin to an anthology in our hands.
Finally, as I further articulate in discussion of Book Club below, key members of PDXAP are helping me evolve Portland Ars Poetica into deeper explorations not just of poetry, but of poetry knowledge.
BP: What is your formula for a successful workshop?
JM: I want workshop members to leave, at the end of the night or afternoon, with an exhilarated fatigue, their concentration tested in the critiquing of others’ work, as well as of sustaining the attention to a critique of their own work. One result, I hope, is to “break” ego, to create a vulnerable path toward deeper work.
I don’t mean to denigrate ego – it takes a great deal of it to ever write poetry in the first place. But to remain in a place of ego means, to me, maintaining invulnerability, such as the impulse to “defend” a poem because the group is apparently misinterpreting the writer’s intention. This for me represents a plateau — the writer has not arrived to a true subjectivity: the different, perhaps better way to say what you’re saying, to make the poem and its attendant statement, its self-knowledge, fiercely and uniquely yours. Getting there takes vulnerability not just to arrive, but to address, and to progress.
BP: How does your workshop help poets? Have you seen improvement?
JM: Members leave Portland Ars Poetica workshops with ten or more informed perspectives on their work, written critique that can be leveraged into a next version. And per the discussion of ego above, the member leaves the workshop exposed to the poetry of others: that their poem, like any poem, is one partly because it is a piece of all.
I ask, insist, that members bring to Portland Ars Poetica workshops only works-in-progress; poems that are giving them fits; first drafts of the most difficult poem they’ve ever tried. When I’ve occasionally read or heard finished work, I can usually recall fundaments of their prior, workshopped version. I have never been disappointed by what poems become as a result of the workshop.
BP: Do you have a target profile of a poet who can benefit from a workshop? Are credentials necessary, or is the very lack of credentials a criterion?
JM: Workshops are open to anyone. You just have to show up, relatively on time and with the intention of staying for the duration, and bring the paper copies of your own work.
BP: What makes a good venue?
JM: At a past Willamette Writers Conference, I took a workshop on how to make a good workshop. One of the basic lessons was that cafes or public spaces are rarely ideal venues for a thinking-intensive environment like a critique workshop — too many distractions, often too loud for sensitive conversation. Ironically, a private home is supposed to not be ideal, either — too much of an entry into other persons’ space.
Yet, a private home is where Portland Ars Poetica is currently at home. The difference? I think it’s twofold – first, the home and its hosts are extraordinary in the effort to make the home into a classic artist’s salon.
Second, I make each Portland Ars Poetica workshop a social event as much as a workshop. There’s food, there’s time to socialize – talk shop, or talk otherwise. I like the idea of breaking the intensity of an event, which can so often resemble a fever, with lighter atmosphere, for an appreciable interval. It keeps attention that much fresher.
BP: Tell us about the spinoff Portland Ars Poetica Book Club. What need does it fill?
JM: As the critique workshop to Portland Ars Poetica has matured, I’ve identified a need to deepen poetic knowledge that can only come from reading. Writing is not enough — I’m amazed, in casual conversation, how little some poets read!
Book Club alternates books of poetry one month, and books of poetics/craft on the next. I would describe the difficulty level of books and discussion as “committed, interested poet.” Continuity of what to read from month to month, so far, has come intuitively – for example, what poet is mentioned evocatively in this book of poetics; or what aspect to poetics does reading this poet call a need to know?
Book Club equally focuses on bringing the lessons of the poet or the critic/theorist to bear on our own work. A close colleague with Book Club is fond of calling it the “DIY MFA.”
BP: Do you have plans for any other spinoff groups?
JM: I would like to begin a workshop that focuses on longer work, perhaps the workshopping of chapbook manuscripts.
With the right leads to patronage and/or grant money, I would also like to encourage poets to self-publish. With the “edgy” (meant with multiplicity) status of poetry in contemporary American society (more below), publishing your work (from its root of publicare, a calling out to beyond the self) these days is by any means necessary.
And with the right community, informed as Portland Ars Poetica is by visual artists, I believe writers have the opportunity to bring a polish to their chapbook that working alone would not provide for most.
BP: The list of publications by poets in Portland Ars Poetica is growing. Do you think publication is important? Any advice for those who want to publish?
JM: First and foremost, I’m thrilled that poems out of Portland Ars Poetica workshops have found publication. From my personal perspective: at the level of individual poem, I believe publication is essential, as the creative goal of making a total stranger understand something about you to the extent they say yes where before or elsewhere, they might have said no.
At the level of third-party publication of a chapbook or, dare say, an entire collection, ask me again when one of those happens for me. I might have an opinion, then. But I will see that happen, eventually – I have no doubt.
BP: Poetry seems to be marginalized in the wider context of our American culture. Does poetry have a role to play?
JM: This is partly the question of what poetry can even be — of course, it’s not legal tender; it can’t fill the larder or make water run from the tap. I am attracted to what Robinson Jeffers is quoted as pointing out, how Greek democracy flourished after the brutal Roman conquest of ancient Greece itself, because of the strength of its idea.
Perhaps being on the margins means the meteor misses you. But more seriously, why not imagine the self as in the rich stream of a human current far older, greater than the self, subject to the understood universe or an understood God but nothing less? Poetry as one of the ways to say I am, like all the arts. I am is never marginalized; it’s in fact a statement of great power.
BP: Do you see yourself as an educator?
JM: I would love to take the Portland Ars Poetica method and demonstrate it to new communities. Under the aegis of Willamette Writers on the River, I was privileged in fall of 2017 to lead a day-long workshop in Corvallis. The “method” is not just a means of writing a single poem, but to create a sustaining community of poets.
BP: Finally, what are your goals as a poet and as a leader in the poetry community?
JM: Poetry has led me to revelation, empathy and vision that I never thought possible. Hardened New Yorker I may always be, I don’t think anything else could have broken through the shell. Where else can the muse take me? That’s what I’m asking these days.
I’m self-conscious of the term “leader.” I want to continue to follow what interests me. I want to continue to learn. Discover an unexpected interest. Bring others with me.