#CrashawPrize The shortlist in profile: Alice Miller
I just got back from Antarctica – 24-hour daylight, and an ice shelf the size of France. It’s strange for a girl who grew up in a beach town in New Zealand, and moved to dusty Iowa City to study writing. But camping on the Ross Ice Shelf under an active volcano is much like reading a great poem: it launches you out of the world, and also drags you deeper into it. Now I’m back in Wellington, where I live with an opera director in a falling-down mansion, and I write, drink wine, and pretend I can play football.
So where did the book begin for you, how did the book come to be written?
It really began when I moved back home from America, back from little Iowa City, Iowa, and suddenly I wasn’t at school anymore. I missed the structure and the stimulation, and hanging out with other anxious workaholics who also believed Yeats was a superhero. After two Masters degrees, I came back to New Zealand and realized I was alone, and mortal, and I sure as hell better write something that was risky and true.
What was going on in your life while you were writing it?
I was trying to stay still. I’d come back to New Zealand but I kept escaping back to the States, or to London, or to see a friend in China. People kept asking me where I was living. I tried to date some lovely men, but I was always darting off to some shiny city or museum or cornfield. So, the poems’re about escape… and about trying to exist in the present.
What do you think were the real driving elements within the book — the things that moved it all forward for you?
What isn’t moving forward? The other day it snowed here for the first time in twenty years. And a guy died in a parking lot drain, trying to retrieve his carkeys. It seems to me that we’re constantly inventing systems to understand the world, models which overflow their bounds, collide, break their own rules.
How long did it take to bring it all together?
I started seriously writing poems six years ago, but most of the poems in the book were written in the last couple of years.
Who was important to you in developing your writing life?
Writers! – those I’m lucky enough to know personally, but also, those who I feel I know: George Eliot, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Virgil, Didion … all of whom, in different ways, understand the way humans function and malfunction. When I feel miserable, I pick up Middlemarch at a random page and read. And I feel immense gratitude for the earth again.
Where do you think you’ll go to next in your writing — what are you working on now?
I recently visited Antarctica, courtesy of Antarctica New Zealand, and I find it difficult to convey how bloody astounding it was. I’m writing a book of essays in response, generously supported by Creative New Zealand, that rips open landscape, the mind, and desire.
“Suggested tools to wrestle with poems (Scott’s hut at Cape Evans, Antarctica)”
Thanks to The Boston Review, in which the publication of this poem is forthcoming.
I drive an icy valley towards you, where the mountains
alone’re worth a thousand errors; where trees
shake slowly as if on film. Earth’s curtains have built
a frame for us that for once I can’t act myself
out of. I tried to write our bodies in a play; but I confused
our parts; and had to try to flee the stage
under the gold, torn walls of the ballroom.
When we dance I understand an orbit’s pull and circle.
Ours is a life worth losing; let’s unlace it
from its post and see what creature it becomes.
I fear our brains’ geology: their strike-slip faults;
their symmetry. But when driving
an island to see you, the roads open
the earth. And I want to know no other.
Discover more about Alice Miller
Author website http://ackmiller.com/
Dark energy beyond the reception rooms: The Mind, Love, and Tolstoy http://www.listener.co.nz/commentary/dark-energy-beyond-the-reception-rooms-the-mind-love-tolstoy/, essay in the New Zealand Listener, 2010, winner of the Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize.
Radio New Zealand interview http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/summernights/audio/2507017/alice-miller-antarctic-experience about Antarctica, January 2012.
The Windmill http://www.bnz.co.nz/static/www/docs/2009-KMA-The-Windmill-Premier.pdf, story courtesy of BNZ, 2009, winner of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Premier Award.
Best New Zealand Poems http://www.nzetc.org/iiml/bestnzpoems/BNZP07/contents.html, 2007.