Flash Conversation: Prose on Poetry with Emily Jeanne Miller

by Laurin Macios | February 2017

We sat down with Massachusetts fiction writer Emily Jeanne Miller to talk with her about poetry--her relationship to it, as well as the relationship between poetry and her new novel The News from the End of the World, out this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

About the Book
Vance Lake is broke, jobless, and recently dumped. He takes refuge at his twin brother Craig’s house on Cape Cod and unwittingly finds himself smack in the middle of a crisis that would test the bonds of even the most cohesive family, let alone the Lakes. Craig seethes, angry and mournful at equal turns. His exasperated wife, Gina, is on the brink of an affair.  At the center of it all is seventeen-year-old Amanda: adored niece who can do no wrong to Vance, surly stepdaughter to Gina, and stubborn, rebellious daughter to Craig. She’s also pregnant.

Told in alternating points of view by each member of this colorful New England clan and infused with the quiet charm of the Cape in the off-season, The News from the End of the World follows one family into a crucible of pent-up resentments, old and new secrets, and memories long buried. Only by coming to terms with their pasts, both as individuals and together, do they stand a chance of emerging intact.

Flash Conversation: Prose on Poetry!
This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Laurin Macios: I was so excited to see the many mentions of poetry in the book. I loved the excerpt of the poem Vance sees on Amanda's bulletin board--Yeats' "When You Are Old." A few pages later, Vance is quoting Milton. A poetry lover is certainly at home throughout the novel. I'm interested in how you selected the poems quoted in the book, and what role poetry plays in your own life. Also, are there poems you think of that relate to the book? One poem in particular kept calling out to me as I read--a poem I wanted to send to Gina (and sometimes to Craig, too!). It's Marilyn Nelson's "A Strange Beautiful Woman." 

Emily Jeanne Miller: What fun to talk and think about poetry’s role in my life and writing; it’s not something I do nearly enough. I do love reading poetry, and try to do so regularly, though I have to admit I often end up reading the same poems over and over because I get so much comfort and enjoyment out of that, instead of branching out. But I really love how a great poem is both a constant and constantly changing: how a poem changes as you change. 

A few of my perennial favorites for rereading are “For the Anniversary of My Death,” by WS Merwin, James Galvin’s “Cherry Blossoms Blowing In Wet Blowing Snow,” “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” by Wallace Stevens,” “Birches” and “Home Burial” by Robert Frost, “Men at Forty” by Donald Justice, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” by WH Auden, and too many by Mary Oliver to list here. Poems I’m drawn to are often rooted in nature, and also examine the idea of being present, of noticing the world.

As far as the poems I included in the book go: I thought Yeats’ “When You Are Old”— also a favorite—would be just the sort of poem a literary-minded teenager would transcribe for his literary-minded girlfriend, and that the girlfriend—Amanda, in this case—would treasure. (I know I would have, at seventeen.) The other poetry I incorporate is from Book IV of Paradise Lost. (Every time I read those verses, in which Satan reflects on his expulsion from Heaven, I’m struck by how nuanced, complex, and “modern” Milton’s characters are, even though he didn’t exactly invent them. This is especially true of his Satan. To me, Paradise Lost is as much a novel as a poem.) Anyway, I saw Vance as the type of guy who would quote Milton to his niece: a semi-flunkie English teacher, who’s a little dorky and a little pretentious, but also intelligent and sincere, and also a bit of a goof. I guess maybe I was also drawing a parallel between Vance and Milton’s Satan (as absurd as that sounds!). Or maybe it’s that Vance—perhaps a bit absurdly, also—sees himself as a Satan figure, cast out of Heaven, bringing his own hell with him. He finds he can’t escape himself—or his past.

About the Author
Emily Jeanne Miller was born and raised in Washington, DC. She attended the National Cathedral School and then Princeton University, where she studied comparative religions. She lived in Missoula, Montana, where she co-edited an anthology of writing from the Clark Fork River basin (The River We Carry With Us, Clark City Press, Livingston, MT, 2002), and earned a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She has an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida. She has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, The MacDowell Colony, Aspen Words, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has taught creative writing and literature at several high schools and Universities. She currently lives on Cape Cod, with her husband, daughter, and dog.