Jennifer Stewart Miller

Elaine Sexton Interview


Poet Elaine Sexton lives in New York City. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Sleuth and Causeway, both with New Issues Press, and her third collection, Prospect/Refuge, is due to be released in October 2015 from Sheep Meadow Press. Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Art in America, Poetry, O! the Oprah Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University, serves as visual arts editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. 

On a humid summer afternoon, Jennifer Stewart Miller sat down with Elaine Sexton at her apartment in Greenwich Village, where they talked about poetry, the work of poetry, and containers—both verbal and artistic—while sipping iced coffee.


You lived through 9/11 in New York City, and wrote a poem about it called “Lower Manhattan Pantoum,” which was published in the May 2005 issue of Poetry. What it was like to try to contain such a huge event in a poem, and how did you come to use the pantoum form?


The pantoum, a so-called “obsessive” form that employs repetition, seemed a perfect container for the jolting experience of simply looking at flames in the twin towers before they fell. It took me years to write anything connected to that original experience, but when I did it was about the physical gesture, almost like movement in dance, of the people on the street looking up. That is what I saw before I, too, looked up. I was living on Carmine Street in the village at the time, maybe twenty blocks north of the World Trade Center, so the sounds and smells, and ash and anxiety, stayed with me a long, long time. In Prospect/Refuge, a dozen years later I wrote “I Wish You Were Here,” about the chop of helicopters as the city “lies on her back,” another physical and emotional response to that horrific time.


I’m always curious about the work of writing poems, and as I read your most recent book, I noticed, as in your earlier books, that a number of poems are set on public transportation—you even have a poem called “Public Transportation.” Do you write on your way to work?


Yes, I do. I travel on trains a lot, from the city to Sarah Lawrence, and downtown to lower Manhattan, and weekends to the east end of Long Island, so a good portion of my time is spent on trains and buses. Of necessity, I make use of this time to write, think, and observe, and I guess movement and transport, as subject matter, has seeped into many of my poems. I hadn’t realized how many of my poems took place in some form of transit until I was introduced a few years ago at a reading from my second book, as an unofficial poet laureate of public transportation.  


I’m curious about the nuts and bolts—how do you manage to work productively on buses and subways?


I am always taking notes—I keep poems I am currently working on with me, cut and pasted into a little flip-style reporter’s notebook that fits easily in a bag. I sketch and revise work all the time. I carry around a new poem for days or weeks or a month, until it’s done, and I’m always working on two or three poems at a time. I keep scraps of text, sometimes alongside newspaper clippings or photos. Right now I’m working on a poem based on my brother, who surfed. You noticed some pictures of his surfing and marathon t-shirts taped into pages here. This is my version of a “commonplace book,” a method I’ve taught students to try in the place of keeping a journal, and something I later learned writers like Wallace Stevens and Susan Sontag kept, books made up primarily of notes, quotes, and lists.



Congratulations on the forthcoming publication of Prospect/Refuge. The title derives from “a habitat theory proposed by geographer Jay Appleton in his 1975 book, The Experience of Landscapes.” As I understand it, the theory suggests that humans naturally seek a place in the landscape that offers a visual prospect, but also sanctuary. The theory has been applied to aesthetics, design, and architecture. How did you arrive at this title?


This manuscript was almost complete when I spent a few weeks at an art colony in the Languedoc region of France two years ago. I had a working title for the book but wasn’t completely satisfied with it. I was out walking through an intense landscape—with the artist Julie Baunet—along a roiling river in the Black Mountains there. As I described my thinking and work-in-progress, she said it sounded a lot like “prospect-refuge theory.” Before I even researched the theory, the words prospect and refuge joined together struck me as magical. It seemed to me that this spoke to what the poems in this collection were already grappling with: love, failure of love, and falling in love again. Relationships also need balance as suggested in the theory of landscape, the chance for the unexpected and of refuge.


You became serious about poetry later in life. As someone who also pushed poetry to the margins of my own life for years, I am curious about what triggered your decision to make poetry central to your life?


I was an avid but closet poet from childhood. While I had always kept notebooks of drawings and attempts at poetry, I sublimated the serious practice of poetry to other things. I had a day-job in magazine publishing, and spent eight years as a dancer/performer, a member of a dance company of artists and writers who were largely untrained working with choreographer Johanna Boyce. At the age of 40, I attended a gathering that turned out to be a reunion of several members of the group. The choreographer made a nostalgic toast, suggesting our most intense and creative years were in our 20s and 30s. I had a terrible sinking feeling I had yet to have my most creative years, and the opportunity, the prospect of being a serious and published poet was passing me by. It was also a time when I had lost several close friends to AIDS, and was acutely aware how life could be cut short. I was really in a state of shock with what Johanna had said, and felt I had to do something about it that day. A friend had recently sent me a brochure for a writing conference in Maine. I dug it out of the garbage, and a few weeks later I was studying with Deborah Digges and Bridget Pegeen Kelly, who were both so encouraging to me. Not long after, I applied to graduate school. My life changed completely at Sarah Lawrence. I was part of a community of writers for the first time, and made lasting friends who are now my colleagues. My first book, Sleuth, was accepted the year after I graduated.


The last poem in Prospect/Refuge is “Poetry & Smoke: A Manifesto.” It’s a spirited, poetic manifesto—[you can hear Elaine read the entire poem here:]—I will only quote a few lines of it:


I am for a poetry that makes nothing


I’m for a poetry that is tart, that
barks a little, and maybe, sometimes,
a lot, a poetry that calls attention to
itself….but… then leaves you alone.
You know, the way you feel when
the neighbor’s dog down the hall has
finally stopped barking.  And there’s
suddenly silence. And you never
thought of silence that way before, of
the word: silence. But there you are
on the couch, grateful to the damn
dog for barking ….

And speaking of taste, I’m also for
a poetry that still smokes. A poetry
that sends signals, words that are
signs with their smells still
attached, a little ash, a little resin,
still sticky, still holding onto their
scorched antecedents. ….


I love the nod to Auden in the opening line, and the barking dog, and the smoking. What inspired you to write this manifesto, and why did you end your book with it?


I was teaching a graduate poetry workshop at City College, and thought it important that my students at this stage in their writing lives be able to articulate, or at least start to formulate, what they believed about their work. I had invited my friend, the poet Curtis Bauer, to speak to my class, and as I had assigned a manifesto to my students, I challenged him to write one as well. So, of course, I had to write one too. In gathering material for the class I was newly impressed with Frank O’Hara’s famous, “Personism,” his poetry movement made up of one: himself. I dug up manifestos by poets and artists and others, and latched on to one by Claus Oldenburg, “I’m for an art….” I borrowed some structural elements from both, the conversational tone from O’Hara, and the anaphora in Oldenburg’s:  “I’m for an art”.  Each stanza I begin with “I’m for a poetry…” By defining what I liked, I defined what I didn’t.

As to the manifesto’s position in the manuscript, I had considered starting with this poem, but decided it would be preachy to have it at the beginning. It seemed better to end with it; that way the reader, if they get that far, might weigh how successfully I’ve met my mandate.


You mentioned that you were thinking about confinement when you wrote this poem. Would you talk a little bit more about this? Do you think of poems as containers?


I do think of poems as containers, compressed matter. A single word contains what it means, individual lines, stanzas, are rooms that contain the meaning of the work.  As you probably know, the word stanza is Italian for room. So all the parts of a poem are structures we make to contain our ideas.

As to confinement, for years I drove past a correctional facility in Queens on the way to Long Island, where I live and work part of the week.  Every time I passed this building just off the highway I held this lingering dread, thinking of what a positive spin “correctional facility” puts on what must be a terrible place.  I started to speculate about this, how those two words might apply to what you want to change or correct in your life, from relationships to words. What happens to a relationship when you “commit” to one, or an idea you confine to a particular structure, the container you are going to fit your thoughts into? And so re-deploying the term correctional facility started out as a kind of a joke of the ball and chain variety, a system of beliefs in that one might be correcting the flaws in one’s character or refining one’s thoughts by containing them.


Quite a few poems in your forthcoming book have a nexus with art— paintings, the act of painting, movies, and art installations. I would love to hear a little bit about the genesis of your interest in art.


As a child I idolized my older sisters, one of whom is a painter. She’s ten years older than I am, and she started painting in earnest in high school. Her whole life, her clothes, hands, fingernails were always splotched with paint. She lived for a time in Greenwich Village, and in high school I would take the Greyhound bus from New Hampshire to visit her. Through her I imagined a life of making art, though it would take me many years to actually get here. I learned to look at visual art critically by watching her work and by cultivating a steady habit of looking at art in museums, galleries and books. Around the time of my first book, I met a critic who writes poetry who asked if I’d be interested in reviewing art, and then put me in touch with the reviews editor at ARTnews.  I wrote for them and later for Art in America. For a short time I was a senior editor at ARTnews. Looking at art, intensely and critically, makes me happy. You can go to a gallery in one state of mind and come out changed. Always. That’s what made me want to write about art and and want to create a physical manifestation of what my friend Mary Capello calls "mood rooms" in her forthcoming book on the subject. To me, writing about art—the act of compression and the articulation of a sense of what another artist is doing on the page—is a form of poetry.


You are also an artist, and recently you have been working on an art project that harkens back to the notion of containers. Would you talk about how you came to make these containers, and about the relationship between this project and your poetry?


Thank you for asking about this. I’ve just started publishing images of work I have been making for the past 5 years. Sometime after I began seriously looking at and writing about art, I started making collages, assemblages, and experimented with gathering and containing things, spent things, among them textiles. In my day job as a magazine publisher, I had a surplus of fabric samples (for a quilt magazine).  The samples were too small to do much of anything with, but they were just large enough to make something small, like a pin cushion. I started sewing tomato-shaped pincushions, fascinated at first by handling the material, then by what they were stuffed with: sand, silica, sawdust, cotton, horsehair, beans, rice, etc. I made literally hundreds of them, giving them to family, friends, students (as an example of craft, a reminder that poetry is a made thing). I was so curious about the texture and consistency and look of the interior matter, that I started using “tulle” (the fabric veils are made from) to expose what went inside… I began thinking of these as “containers.” I started gathering material that one might not otherwise think to contain, like lilacs, cigarette butts, snow, human hair. The more ephemeral material—berries, blooms, ice, anything that could rot or melt—had to be photographed. And this is what started my process of documentation. Now the photographs—snapshots really—are  the final container; the images in some ways are a kind of a poem—a container, contained.

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Prospect/Refuge is divided into four parts—the second section consists of one poem called “About You.” Would you talk a little bit about this poem and why you chose to give it its own section?


“About You,” is a poem about the specific, the collective, and the self-reflected “you” that appears in the poems we write, and in the poems of this collection in particular. I wrote this poem as a guide to the reader, a reminder that the poems, together, are not a story. There is no linear narrative. One “you” early on is not the same “you” that comes later in the book. The poem argues that maybe all those different yous are also some version of the self, the way an artist who paints portraits of others is often painting something of herself.


A teacher of mine, Major Jackson, advises his students to think about who is on their poetic family tree. Who is on your tree? And are there contemporary poets you particularly love?


This is such a hard and good question. I can say, right now, I’m reading Thomas Sayers Ellis and Jess Greenbaum—both are poets and people I admire. There are so many fantastic contemporary poets I love and learn from, so as a family tree goes, it is a very large family. I read voraciously and review a little, so some work sticks. Theirs does. If I were to work my way back I would have to say I’m influenced by the stridency of Maxine Kumin, the compression of Charles Simic, the complexity and pathos of Zbigniew Herbert. And going back, I admire the elegance and thing-ness of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, and the cerebral beauty of Wallace Stevens. My mother read me Robert Frost when I was a child growing up in New England, and we read William Carlos Williams in school, so those are probably the earliest poets I recognized as poets, noting how starkly different they were, one from the other. Of course, Emily Dickinson, whose work is so deep, complex, and mysterious. There is always something to learn from her. Skipping around, I think I always have the idea of how a poem twists as gleaned from Charles Baudelaire’s prose poems. And of the masters, going back further, a clear favorite is the metaphysical poet, John Donne.


Jennifer Stewart Miller holds an MFA from Bennington College and a J.D. from Columbia University. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Cider Press Review, The MacGuffin, Gravel, and elsewhere.