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Thursday, 10 May 2007

Talking to Kei Miller

"Kei Miller ... writes with passionate understanding of bruised, repressed, and deprived selves seeking, achieving, or failing to find release and freedom." So wrote Edward Baugh, reviewing the young Jamaican's debut books of short fiction and poems in the February 2007 CRB. Miller went on to be nominated for a regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize for The Fear of Stones. Two poems from his forthcoming second collection appeared in the May 2007 CRB. In this short interview, Miller discusses these new poems, "First and Second Book of Chronicles," as well as the role of Christianity in his work, and the evolution of his new book.

NL: The titles of these two poems ("First and Second Book of Chronicles") seem to be biblical references. Are they part of a longer sequence?

KM: They are part of a "sequence", though that's not exactly the right term. The relationship between the poems tends only to be in the titles. I found it a neat kind of structuring device. Each title became a way to contain a specific poem. I think poets are always looking for that--interesting containers, whether that is in the metre, the form, etc. These titles would suggest their own stories, and sometimes edit the kind of stories I wanted to tell.

They've grown beyond strictly biblical titles, though. The poem before "Book of Revelation" is "Book of Things Not Yet Revealed", and there's another poem called "Book of Sudden Lights at Night". I think in time these poems will grown into a whole book--a third collection, I think, that will be called "The Book of Books". But for now, I've used just eight of them as one of the six sequences in my new collection.

NL: The first section of Kingdom of Empty Bellies, your first book of poems, is called "Church Women". What is your own relationship to religion--specifically to Christianity--and why is it such an important theme in your poetry?

KM: I kinda grew up in the church, though my family was never all that religious. I was that kid who invites his parents to church. So religion was always my own decision, but I guess at some point I stopped deciding to do it. I still haven't worked that out completely--what was involved in this new decision, and when it was made. But I haven't been to church, really, in a year or two. I'm sure some of my friends still pray earnestly about this.

So my relationship with religion is strange--on one hand, I absolutely love it. I think my writing has always tried to mimic religion. It's a beautiful thing, full of the most interesting symbols. And then there is the act of repetition and ritual. And there is the rhythm and the colour and all those goose-pimpling moments on a Sunday morning--these are things I try to capture. It's the effect I've wanted my writing to have. So my work embraces religion, but at the same time it rejects it.

I wasn't always aware of this--I thought, for instance, that the cycle of poems you refer to--"Church Women"--was completely respectful of these religious women. But then critic after critic noted how the portraits were laced with critique--how I was always undercutting it. And they were right. I'm conscious of this now--that, essentially, I think religion--at least in Jamaica, and in particular Christianity--can be a pretty goddamned dangerous thing. It teaches people how to hate other people. It supplies every bigot with the right rhetoric to defend his hatreds, his intolerances, and his superiority--and then calls all of these things "righteousness". I write against that. So I use religion as a model--but as a model to attack itself.

NL: What's the relationship of your forthcoming second book of poems to the first--do the themes follow on, is it a fresh start, do you feel your style is evolving consciously?

KM: My first lesson in being published is that it takes forever. My first book of poetry was written a long time ago, and then it sat forever in the hands of a publisher that never published it, and we fell out royally--that publisher and myself. And then finally it found a home at Heaventree Press. The book only came out last year, and I've had to read from it as my brand new book, and in a way it is. But the poems in it are, some of them, five years old. I'm conscious of them not being so new at all.

I'm very proud of Kingdom of Empty Bellies, and somewhat relieved that the reviews have been generally quite positive. But the new book of poems, the one that comes out in October, is a superior one. I'm probably jinxing myself with critics to say such a thing. But I think it represents a serious improvement in--well, craft, really. Are the themes the same? I don't know. In a way they must be--and then perhaps a little or a lot more complicated.

I am conscious of one strange difference, though. Most writers start out confessional and then become less so. I've done the reverse. I've always distrusted poems that are too "personal", and so I challenged myself to write the very thing I would naturally reject. The poems, I think, are all truer. Even when they have nothing to do with me--even when they are completely fictional, they are truer.

[There Is an Anger That Moves, Kei Miller's second book of poems, will be published by Carcanet in October 2007. He has also edited New Caribbean Poetry: An Anthology, which will be published at the end of May 2007. • Read "Daring to intrude", a short profile of Miller by Lisa Allen-Agostini in the November/December 2006 Caribbean Beat.]

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I met Kei--or Andrew Kei as he then was--on the Cropper Foundation's writers' workshop here in Trinidad back in 2001. I remember reading some of the "Church Women" poems--or early versions of them, anyway--and being impressed. His fiction left a mark on me as well.

It's good to see Kei achieving the recognition and success that he so obviously deserves.