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"When the poem finishes itself"

An Interview with Miles Champion

by Jeffrey P. Beck

Miles Champion is a poet and author of How to Laugh (Adventures in Poetry, 2014), Eventually (The Rest, 2008), and Compositional Bonbons Placate (Carcanet Press, 1996). Born in Nottingham, England, Miles grew up in South Wales and moved to New York in his thirties. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Brooklyn. He recently collaborated with painter Trevor Winkfield on the book-length illustrated interview How I Became a Painter (Pressed Wafer, 2014), and edited a selection of Tom Raworth's poetry, As When (Carcanet Press, 2015).

Jeffrey Beck: Do you consider yourself a British transplant, an expatriate, or a citizen of the world?.

Miles Champion: British transplant, I think.

JB: How did you decide to come to New York?.

MC: I first spent a few days there in October 1994, when John Ashbery and Trevor Winkfield suggested I visit from London. I'd spent some time with John earlier in the year, when he was in England to give some readings, and he kindly introduced me to Trevor. John was my hero at the time—I was writing shameless Ashbery imitations—and I knew Trevor's artwork from book covers and a couple of used copies of his old mimeo magazine, Juillard, that I'd found at Boutle & King in Clerkenwell. After that first weeklong visit, I went back whenever I could. The permanent move was never an intention, but that's how things worked out, and I've been living in New York for fourteen years.

JB: You worked for a time as a nonprofit administrator with The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. How have poetry audiences changed over these years?

MC: I don't have much sense of the current situation, as I have a family and tend to stay in rather than go out. I worked at the Project from 2002 to 2005: things seemed fine, and there were some decent readings, but Manhattan isn't what it used to be (i.e., it's no longer cheap), and it's just not possible for poets to socialize in the way they did in the early years of the Project—everybody's too busy working. I would say the average audience is smaller than it used to be, but I could easily be wrong; certainly a lot of people will turn out to hear, say, Eileen Myles or Alice Notley.

JB: When you read poems aloud, you do so at a rapid (not to say breathless) pace. How does the speed improve appreciation of your poems?

MC: I'm not sure that it does, but it feels right that way, and a little pace in the delivery goes some way toward offsetting the slowness with which the writing gets done. The basic situation of the reading—a person reading something they wrote to whoever is on hand to listen—unavoidably tips the balance toward biography, even when what's being read doesn't overtly contain that kind of information; the hope—a flawed one, no doubt—is that not lingering over details opens things out a little more for the listener, and reduces the shadow cast across the poem by its maker. But this is too highfalutin; it just feels right that way, and the language of the poem is meant to be different from everyday speech. Slowness might be just as effective a marker of that difference as speed, although obviously you wouldn't be able to get as much read.

JB: You've collaborated with British artist Trevor Winkfield on the book How I Became a Painter. He illustrated the cover of your recent poetry collection, How to Laugh, and provided two illustrations inside the book. How would you describe Trevor's art to someone who doesn't know it?

MC: I'd describe Trevor as a Pop-ish post-Symbolist abstract heraldic narrative painter. But I talked to him earlier and asked him the same question, to which he replied, "Tell them I'm a raging queer who thinks of nothing but cocks."

JB: Winkfield collaborated with you on the short poem "Curve." What part of the poem did you write, and what part did Trevor write?

MC: Trevor gave me the title and opening two lines, and I added the other two lines.

JB: What is "the blade aesthetic knife" in "Curve"?

MC: I have no idea, but knowing Trevor I imagine he had something vaguely Mallarméan in mind: the uncut pages of the virginal book, the "confirming appropriation" of the paperknife, etc.

JB: The poem refers to (apparently a painter with his brush) "Halt[ing] at the jockstrap." Does the poem allude to the curve of buttocks, or could this be any curve that an artist makes with his brush?

MC: Any curve.

JB: Does the title How I Became a Painter also describe you as a poet? Do you consider yourself a painterly poet? An imagistic poet?

MC: The title is partly a reference to one of Trevor's early collaborations, How to Be Modern Art, with Ron Padgett, but it's also a straightforward description of the book, which is an illustrated interview with Trevor about his life and work. I can't speak for Trevor, but I think he'd agree that we have a shared interest in keeping the surface up, in Frank O'Hara's sense. We both like a very worked but flat surface, with clear, hard outlines and no mess. But, no, I don't think of my poems as painterly, particularly, and certainly not imagistic.

JB: Several poems in How to Laugh are dedicated to friends for their weddings or anniversaries. I don't think of you as a ceremonial poet, but there it is, this list of ceremonies. Are you an Anti-Ceremonial poet (as Hero is to Anti-Hero or something of the kind)?

MC: Those three poems—"Garage Door Opium System," "Providence," and "Glass Table Shoe"—were written out of friendship and love. But I'd like to think they're as available to other readers as they are to their dedicatees.

JB: Would you describe your process in writing a poem?

MC: A somewhat labored stumbling from word to word. Sometimes it goes more quickly, and that's usually to the good, but it's always one word at a time.

JB: Complete this thought: "I know a poem is finished when.…"

MC: "…I can't stand the sight of it anymore." Only joking (well, partially joking). You usually just know, somehow, and it tends to be best when the poem finishes itself and pushes you away, not needing your services anymore.

JB: You have edited the poetry of British poet Tom Raworth. Has he been an importance influence on your poetry? If so, what did you learn from his work? And how are you a different poet than Tom Raworth?

MC: Tom is a dear friend and, to my mind, one of the great poets, but I'm not quick enough or smart enough to make use of the huge amount—practically everything—that's there to be learned from his work (he's an extraordinarily pure receptor, whereas I'm all but closed off). I was thrilled and not a little petrified when he asked me to edit a selection of his work. His friendship is one of the great pleasures of my life.

JB: In your one-line poem, "Under Heavy Manners," "They were visibly altered." Who are "They"?

MC: Just "they."

JB: Your poem "Fruit Shadows" is a delightful, impossible poem, with all of these shifts where the reader expects one word next in the sentence and then you slyly substitute another. The most obvious example is, "the waitress/ with ample/ blossoms," but there are many others. What kind of fruit do we have here?

MC: Oranges.

JB: Can the poem be read horizontally across the page as well as vertically down the columns? If so, what should one make of the differences between the horizontal and vertical readings?

MC: Vertically is better, I think—following the sense and movement of the poem—but I like the other column (whichever one isn't being read) to be there as peripheral interference, just a little something fun for the eye. Obviously you can read the poem horizontally, but it doesn't seem particularly interesting that way.

JB: You are sometimes described as a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet. Would you agree or disagree with that description? Why?

MC: Literary movements develop socially, and the Language poets came together—in the Bay Area, New York, and Washington, D.C., primarily—in the mid-seventies, when I was around six years old. So I would disagree, although I certainly read a lot of that work in the nineties and borrowed very freely from it. Content's Dream, Signage, and Total Syntax were all of interest, and I still love Peter Seaton's work. But I came along years later and was just scrabbling around, trying to find my way, and I was very interested in how Language poets were developing things that had been tossed up by Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath, Ted Berrigan's Sonnets, early Clark Coolidge, Larry Eigner, and others.

JB: Do you identify with American Conceptualism and Flarf? Why or why not?

MC: No, I've never read anything that I found of interest there. (I think the Conceptual stuff is supposed to be boring, but I'm not sure why that's supposed to be interesting, although it's almost interesting that so many people find something boring interesting.)

JB: In your poem, "Success Is a Job in New York," the second line reads, "the nouns and verbs take all my coats at the door." By writing a poem in which the "nouns and verbs" become actors, are you writing a Meta-Poem (as in Meta-Theatre)?

MC: I don't think so—or no more nor less than is otherwise the case, at least.

JB: The "Success" poem makes a high-speed mashup of allusions to Greek inscriptions at the Smithsonian, Gloria at Cooper Union, Mike Doyle, the crooner Bing Crosby, the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, the Keeper of the Keys (probably an apartment superintendent or custodian, but also possibly Saint Peter), Teresa's daughter, tulips blooming in Queens, Terry boiling air for the Duchess of Kent, a street repairman named John Godfrey, who writes "thousands of pocket-sized gospels/ about sidewalks," the light-verse writer Ogden Nash, the cast of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and a woman named "Edith Wetmore," who gives out free umbrellas. What does the mashup say about "Success" in New York?

MC: Memory says the title was the title of a dance made by one of the founders of the Judson Dance Theater—perhaps Fred Herko or Steve Paxton—but I've not been able to locate the reference. There was a little private irony at work, as I got so little done in my first few years in New York and producing a slim book of poems after twelve years didn't exactly seem to reek of success. "Success" is the last poem in the book, and I think of it as an answer or rejoinder to the opening poem, "Where to Write"—a less abstract poem, full of concrete, if slightly absurd, details situated firmly in the city. (I've just realized my memory is at fault: the poem's initial title was "Once or Twice a Week I Put on Sneakers to Go Uptown," which is the title of a Fred Herko piece.)

JB: Let me ask your opinion of current British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. If you were the royal deciding on the Laureate, would you choose Carol Ann Duffy? Or another poet? If so, who and why?

MC: I don't have an opinion of Carol Ann Duffy, and I'm not a fan of the royal family, but for argument's sake, if I were called upon to appoint a Laureate, I would consider approaching Tim Atkins or Sean Bonney.

JB: What is the most important thing you would want readers to think about when reading or listening to your poetry?

MC: That's not for me to say.

JB: Thank you speaking with us about your poetry.

Jeffrey P. Beck is Professor of English and the Dean of the Nathan Weiss Graduate College of Kean University in Union, New Jersey. The author and editor of four books of prose, he is a literary historian and a poet working on his first poetry collection. His poems have appeared in River Styx, Salamander, Cold Mountain, and other journals.

— posted September 2016

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