unburying malcolm miller

by Rod Kessler | April 2017

Salem’s eccentric writer Malcolm Miller died in 2014, but his story and poetry are getting a new life in Unburying Malcolm Miller, a documentary premiering on Friday 5 May at 5:30 as part of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

The film

The 60-minute work by filmmakers Kevin Carey and Mark Hillringhouse (both poets themselves) will be screened in the Morse Auditorium at the Peabody Essex Museum, followed by a brief discussion about the poet and the making of the documentary. In addition to a sampling of poems from Miller’s 58 self-published books, the film includes interviews with those whose lives crossed paths with Miller including Salem writer Rod Kessler, who published Miller’s poems in Soundings East, the literary magazine, and Salem’s state representative Paul Tucker, who as a rookie campus police officer years ago was tasked with escorting the poet out of the Salem State library (students would complain about the evidently homeless man’s disturbing presence).  Highlighted in the film as well are former lovers—and haters—and those, including Gerald Stern, who admired his poetry. Other poets making cameo appearances are James and J.D. Scrimgeour, M.P. Carver, Jennifer Martelli,  Cindy Veach, Colleen Michaels, Clay Ventre, and  the Massachusetts Poetry Festival’s executive director, January O’Neill.  The film’s soundtrack features songwriter poet Robert Evans.

The poet

Malcolm Miller in 2013 in his Salem apartment

Malcolm Miller in 2013 in his Salem apartment

Malcolm Miller, born in Salem in 1930, died of natural causes in his apartment in Pioneer Terrace 84 years later.  He attended St. John’s Prep and, after a brief stint in the Navy,  McGill University, where he began a lifelong friendship with Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen. Apart from occasional bus travel to and from Montreal and a few ultra-low-budget visits to Italy and Spain, Miller spent his life in Salem, a familiar figure often seen striding along Lafayette Street and other North Shore byways. If in his forties and fifties he was charismatic enough to draw women to him, in his later days his ascetic lifestyle included periods of homelessness. For years he made use of a friend’s kitchen table as a desk for typing out his poetry. Miller’s first book, The Emperor of Massachusetts, published by Tundra Press in Montreal in 1970, was an expensively produced oversize volume decorated withfull-color original art. Repelled by the thought of being a coffee-table poet available only to wealthy patrons, Miller turned his back on legitimate publishing to self-produce his many books. “If you like these poems,” he would write in a note accompanying one of his cheaply produced volumes, “please send me five dollars.”

Kevin Carey and Mark Hillringhouse previously collaborated on All That Lies Between Us (2013), a documentary about Maria Mazziotti, a poet of Paterson, New Jersey.