The Next Big Thing Interview
I wasn’t sure I was a blogger, but Traci Brimhall invited me to be part of TheNext Big Thing project, and I thought—OK, I’ll give it a try! You can check out her post here, where she talks about her forthcoming chapbook Bright Power, Dark Peace, a project inspired by a line from Robinson Jeffers, co-written with Brynn Saito.
For The Next Big Thing, writers interview themselves about an upcoming project and then tag other writers who have work coming out soon then interview themselves a week later (you can see who I tagged at the bottom of my post) if they would like to. Tagging is fun.
What is the working title of the book?
My book is called Tongue Lyre.
The word “Tongue” invokes the myth of Philomela, and it also refers to language itself. “Lyre” of course refers to the tradition of the lyric—and the singer who strums the string instrument and performs the poem. Because I play the violin (I was in music school at one point), the violin appears as a lyre motif throughout the poems. I love how in Rilke, the violin often appears as the figure of the lyre.
The lyre has a powerful tradition in myth: Orpheus could enchant anything in the world with his lyre song, but could not escape the bare fact of death. There is Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” And there is the bird of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The word “tongue” refers to language itself, and the capacity for song. In her myth, Philomela is transformed into a nightingale after her tongue is cut out. The epigraph for the book comes from Ovid’s description of Philomela, and her release into being a mockingbird post-violence: “Imprisoned here, my voice will fill the trees.” The book deals with memory, art, and representation. It also deals with violence and the reclamation of the body.
I recognize, and embrace, the dangerous pun that the phrase “tongue lyre” plays off of. But the story behind the title is kind of funny. My manuscript was originally called Tongue. When Jon Tribble, the series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, was working with me on the first phase of the edits, he suggested that I might consider a two-word title for the collection. When your book is a one-word title, and it is a body part, um…well… here is what could have happened in press materials: “Tyler Mills’s Tongue explores …” Yeah. Gross. Jon is so wonderful—he led me to this realization in a very gentlemanly way. Anyway, we were brainstorming ideas for the title over the phone, and we were trying out different nouns…all of a sudden, he said: “Lyre! Tongue Lyre!” One of the poems in the collection is called “Cleaning Out the Lyre,” which gave him the idea. And I loved it right away.
But I did have to reconcile how I felt about the pun. When you pronounce “Tongue Lyre,” it sounds like “tongue liar.”
But I embrace this double meaning.
The lying woman, as unreliable witness to violence, is an unfortunate trope in assault narratives. I want my book of poems to embrace this trope in order to turn it on its head. I want the language of the lyric, the voice in its flight, to say: so, you are trying to silence me. I am going to acknowledge that and refuse it. Instead of signifying a voice that has been silenced, as the tongue cut from the mouth, these poems instead speak with agency and urgency.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I had recently read Joyce’s Ulysses and found myself returning to the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey. Myth was a powerful driving force. I think that in Homeric myth, longing (often a convention of the lyric) is built into its very structure. It’s really powerful.
The idea for the very first of the Odyssey poems that thread throughout the book comes from an idea I had driving down Rt. 1 in College Park, Maryland. I am not sure if it is still there, but at the time there was a tiny green bicycle shop called “Proteus Bicycles.” I thought, “I have to write a Proteus poem!” And there it all began. I wanted to write poems that treated the episodes of the Odyssey as enactments, text fields, and sites of irresolution (after Joyce). After I had begun the Odyssey poems, I decided that I wanted to use the myth of Philomela as the frame for the collection.
What genre does your book fall under?
Lyric poetry, though many of the poems refuse resolution, disrupt narrative, and show memory to be protean. There are all kinds of poems in the book: prose poems, but also poems in strict forms (a ballad, a sonnet, and a free-verse sestina). Some are overtly persona poems (Athena appears a persona), and some poems that use the voice to enact myth as a site of meaning. There is also one found-text poem in the book.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
That is a fantastic question. Jean-Luc Godard would be the director. Definitely. And I would like the speaker to be played by a cast of different women from all different periods of film…though I would like the costumes to be 1960s and French.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
I think that Lee Ann Roripaugh, who selected the manuscript, generously summarizes the book better than I ever could! She writes, “Through the sensibility of a postmodern Philomela, the nature of unspeakable trauma is simultaneously interrogated, evaded, and—ultimately—recovered and given voice to in artifactual narrative fragments and shards.”
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
This is a difficult question to answer because I tend to revise poems obsessively… I would say that it was five years between when I wrote the very first poem and made the very last significant revision (and submitted it for the prize). Some of the original lines of these poems were written when I was 22. I did not think I was young, but wow. I was. But I worked on the poems throughout my twenties (I am 29 now). When I was working with the proofs and before that, with Jon, there were some changes made that might seem very minor, but I think are very important…if I counted those, then I would have to say it took me six years to draft. The critic Allen Grossman says that each new draft is an entirely new poem…I can see that! Stanley Plumly worked closely with me on these poems when I was in the MFA program at Maryland, and he really emphasizes revision as an entirely new vision of the original idea (check out his essay in The Practice of Poetry, ed. Twitchell and Behn). The book started as my MFA thesis, and my MFA was a three-year program…at the time, I wanted it to be a finished book, but it definitely wasn’t. I tend to think of Elizabeth Bishop as my long-lost poet grandmother and look up to how hard, and how long, she worked on each of her poems. I think I wrote faster when I was in my early twenties than I do now. I am amazed at poets who participate in poem-a-day projects for National Poetry month. I could work on the same poem every day for 30 days!
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I would have to say James Joyce, Ovid, and the Odyssey, as well as Sylvia Plath’s fierce energy and voice (I adore this poem) inspired the poems of this book. It came out of an intense energy—the poems just needed to be written.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Here are four fun facts about the book:
1. The fabulous people at the Crab Orchard Review fact-checked “Tastykake” (which is a kind of Twinkie-like cake, but from Philadelphia).
2. Tongue Lyre contains one Mrs. Dalloway reference.
3. A chorus speaks three of the poems in the book.
4. One poem contains one quote from one Johnny Cash song.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Tongue Lyre is the winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, published by Southern Illinois University Press (March, 2013). I would like to thank SIU Press and the Crab Orchard Review staff here; they have been so professional, generous, and kind. They do top-notch work and are so friendly.
My tagged writers for next Wednesday are: