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Meet Amy Miller, 2021 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2021 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected eleven writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each.  Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. The 2022 OLF applications can be found here, and the deadline to apply will be in September 17, 2021.

2021 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Amy Miller

Pronouns: she/her

Category
Poetry

Bio
Amy Miller’s full-length poetry collection The Trouble with New England Girls won the Louis Award from Concrete Wolf Press. Her chapbooks include I Am on a River and Cannot Answer (BOAAT Press) and Rough House (White Knuckle Press). She works for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is the poetry editor of the NPR listeners’ guide Jefferson Journal.


Q&A with Literary Arts

What are your sources of inspiration?
For me, a fertile subject for a piece of writing is a thing/scene/experience that evokes one strong emotion, but also has a different emotion, at odds with the first one, running like an undercurrent. And there may be more layers of emotional complexity under those. For instance, there are these redbud trees in Ashland that bloom for a couple of weeks every spring, just spectacularly, in a dreary bank parking lot. Or I have a whimsical memory about how my sister and I used to split up who washed which dishes (I washed plates, she washed pots), but I also remember that our messy relationship meant that that dishwashing system never, ever worked.

Reading good poetry and hybrid poetry/prose germinates new ideas. I especially like work that startles me with unexpected language, structures/form, or jumps between seemingly unrelated ideas; that loosens up my expectations about what writing can do, and what mine can do specifically. Some of my favorite poets are Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Victoria Chang, Lucille Clifton, Claudia Emerson, Anne Sexton, Chen Chen, Jamaal May, John Witte, Mary Ruefle, Fady Joudah, and many others I’m forgetting now and will regret later.

I rely a lot on the subconscious for writing, and I often get ideas for poems as I’m falling asleep or in the middle of the night. Then I have to turn on the light and stay up and write the poem; it’s almost impossible to recapture the impulse or complex mix of emotions if I try to write it the next day. That’s inconvenient, since I work full time, but those “came out of nowhere” poems are often more interesting than poems I craft from “something I think I should write about”; the subconscious has better ideas.

How would you describe your creative process?
I’ve worked a 9-5 job since I was 17, so my creative process is mostly about just finding time for it. I get too tired if I try to write every day; that’s never been sustainable. So I get in my writing on the weekends, and otherwise it’s catch-as-catch-can. But in the past 10 years I’ve been doing 30-day writing marathons like NaPoWriMo and the Poetry Postcard Fest at least twice a year. Those work really well for me; they’re like mini writing retreats, and I can stay disciplined (barely) for 30 days. I know I won’t read any books that month because I’ll use that evening time for writing instead. And I give myself breaks during the marathons; some days I don’t write, and then I make up for it by writing two or three poems in the next sitting. Those multi-poem sittings often produce really interesting poems, with the second and third ones usually turning out fresher and more unexpected because I had to reach farther for them, or because I’m warmed up and playing by then. I do the writing marathons with groups of people in private Facebook groups; I do better with some accountability and peer pressure/camaraderie. Then I end up with 25-30 poems that can maybe be revised into something good later; raw material.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
The feeling of validation was strong and immediate. The news of the fellowship came at a time when I had been doubting my work (which is nothing new) and occasionally wondering why I bothered to send work out for publication, or even write at all (that was new). I suspect those gloomy feelings were largely due to the pandemic, as well as the social unrest and four years of disgusting politics in this country. And then there were our own wildfires in the Northwest, which have been really frightening here in southern Oregon. It was like, we have big problems, so who cares if I’m writing poems? Receiving the fellowship was like a rope that appeared out of nowhere and towed me back to shore. And now I’m enjoying thinking what I can do with the fellowship money—online classes and workshops that I normally wouldn’t spring for, and poetry books I’ve been lusting after but felt were a luxury on my modest income. It has made me look at poetry as something I do seriously, that others take seriously, and that I have a commitment to. I get to feed that commitment this year a little more than most years.

What are you currently working on?
I have a good chunk of a second full-length poetry manuscript, and am writing some more poems for it. A large part of it will be prose poems and other hybrid forms that tell the story of my oldest sister, who died unexpectedly three years ago and with whom I had a complicated relationship. Writing those poems has unexpectedly turned out to be an exercise in forgiveness; at first I was just telling difficult stories, but I found a lot of love underneath them. So it’s been a personal journey as well as a literary one.

I’m also midway through revising a novel that I wrote a few years ago that wasn’t quite right at the time. With a little more distance on it, I’ve been able to make some major revisions that I believe make it stronger. Although I’ve started a few other novels, that was the first one I ever finished, and I’m fascinated by the long form of novel writing.

Another project is a series of travel narratives about some trips I took in my 30s. I kept very detailed journals at the time so there’s a lot of material to work with, and it’s been fun revising them for a general audience. I may self-publish those as short books; I’m a former book editor, and I love designing books and publishing them on the print-on-demand platforms.

What advice do you have for future applicants?
My best advice is “keep trying.” This was the 15th time I’d applied for an Oregon Literary Fellowship. It’s such a generous gift that Literary Arts gives to the writing community—I mean, come on, it costs nothing to apply (except a little work), so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I think the writing package I sent in this time was probably the riskiest one I’ve sent, and it was more thematic than most of my past packages. But of course, who knows if that was what “worked”; the panel of judges changes every year, so you have no way of knowing what will appeal to them. Just give it your best; give it your self. Taped to my computer is a teabag tag with my favorite inspirational quote, by the great poet Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” Honestly, I felt a little silly applying for the fellowship year after year and not getting it. And then one day I got it, and I was so surprised. It was a great reminder to go ahead and try for those pies in the sky.


Baby (Appeared in Atlanta Review)

This ship needs a mascot, my sister says, so we take one in—a six-pound stray that a hairdresser found in an alley. Siamese Burmese cross, beautiful beacon—blue eyes brimmed with light. Afraid of every large object and us. When I bring her home, she won’t leave the hammock of my skirt, same gray as her face, a camouflage of wool. My sister wants a baby. Little starseed. The cat won’t come to her, won’t go near her cigarettes, her beer. But she wanted the baby. But it’s safe in my skirt and now I start to feel a warm valley in my legs, a gravity melt. My sister asked for this baby, but it only wants me—my lap, my bed. My sister and I are still comrades—this was long before the war—so it’s only a sweet joke, how she prayed for a baby to land and it landed on me. Later she would say that I took everything. Did I say I had her baby? No—aborted it years later. And never told her, all her life. For what she would say. But stop it, the cat was not a baby. She stayed with me. The cat. Sixteen more years. Became an old sure-footed dancer. Never questioned if she was wanted. Sat in a rocking chair next to me watching mice commute along the baseboards. Her blue eyes wide. At this marvel, our life.


Judge’s Comments

“Rippling with unexpected juxtapositions of diction and image, Amy Miller’s engagingly conversational style of writing feels somehow, both, deeply private and invitingly honest. Her poems contend with the travails of a sisterhood complicated by mental illness and substance abuse; with loss and grief; with our bizarre moment of plague, quarantine, and adjacent current events. Miller’s work is rife with sly humor even as it delivers so much tenderness, so much heartache.”

  – Jaswinder Bolina  

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