INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Nora Claire Miller is a poet from New York City. Nora is the author of the chapbook LULL (2020). Their poems have appeared or are forthcoming in FENCE, Bennington Review, Washington Square Review, Bat City Review, Tagvverk, and other places. The editor-in-chief of Ghost Proposal, Nora earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a BA from Hampshire College.
Your poems are immensely fun and so different from the overwhelmingly archaic poetry that is taught in school classrooms. When did you realize that poetry can be more than traditional writing about serious subject matters and can exist outside of print form?
Thanks so much for the compliment—that means a lot! It's an interesting question. Working in visual and hybrid forms has always felt, for me, like a way to express my frustration with traditional structures. I think the first time I intentionally wrote a visual poem was in sixth grade. My English teacher had asked our class to write and curate a portfolio of ten poems. By curate, I think she actually meant we should type them up and print them out in a nice font. But it was the end of the school year and I was sick of Microsoft Word and following instructions. The teacher hadn't requested a particular format for our poems, so I gathered broken objects from around my family's apartment—bent eyeglasses, an ancient Nokia cell phone, an old wooden clock—and wrote poems on them in Sharpie. Instead of a report, I handed my teacher a large plastic bag full of sculptures. To my utter surprise, my teacher said the poems were "unique" and did not send me to detention.
Ten years later, I started my MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I was going through a period of creative flux, and wasn't sure what kinds of poems I wanted to be writing. Everything I put on the page felt wrong, so I would revise my poems until there was practically no substance left. All of my poems were very short and no one could make any sense of them, not even me. One night, frustrated during an especially challenging revision, I printed out a copy of my poem and deep-fried it on the stove. I took a photograph of this deep-fried poem and submitted it, with no explanation, to that week's workshop packet. Even though I was an adult in an MFA program at that point, I was still a little surprised when I didn't get in any trouble. After that, something broke open for me. I stopped being so afraid of what other people thought of me, and I began to recognize poetry as something that could be physical.
Thank you for sharing that, Nora. The story with your English teacher is so endearing. Is that deep-fried poem part of the ones that appeared in phoebe? You titled them “Deep Friend Poem #63” and “Deep Fried Poem #64.” Did you create a series of deep-fried poems? If so, are there sixty-plus more?
There are so, so many more—in all, I've deep-fried many hundreds of poems at this point. I have found that like any poem-writing, it's necessary to deep-fry poems in bulk. I am working on a book of full-color photographs of deep-fried poems. In assembling it, I've had to fry far more poems than I have ultimately ended up with. I've found that only half of the poems I deep-fry turn into objects worth recording or preserving, and of those, many break or decay before I can photograph them properly. Then, there are the deep-fried poems that look great in real life but just don't photograph well. It's a tricky business!
Wow, that's amazing! I’m so captivated by the uniqueness and ingenuity of each of your works. Do you establish the form of a poem before or after it’s written?
To me, the form of a poem is inextricable from its content. If the exterior shape of the poem changes, the language is altered too—either because I have to change the words to fit the particularities of the new shape, or else because their new orientation changes the way they look, sound, and feel.
I often shift my poems’ physical shapes as part of my process of revision, because it helps me understand and adjust the ways the words are working together. I don’t think of a poem as finished until I find its final shape.
How do you decide if a piece will be visual? Do you approach visual versus non-visual work differently?
That’s an interesting question. I think there's an artificial line between the idea of a visual poem and a "non-visual" one. At the end of the day, all poems that are written for the page have shapes and forms we can see. Even if a poet thinks they're making few visual choices in their writing, there's inherent visual work just in placing a poem on a page—patterning of letters, the places we break lines, the fonts we use, the punctuation, the capitalization, caesura. For performance poetry, slam poetry, sound poetry, and other forms that involve the human voice, there's a physicality to that too: sound waves are physical shapes that we create and share with our bodies.
That being said, as much as the delineation between visual and non-visual poetry feels arbitrary, it is (like many delineations) nonetheless real in its consequences: there are poems people would call visual art and there are poems people would call "regular poems" and there are things people would call "music" and these things get treated very differently by artists and by poets. The work I make often falls into a muddy category—too cross-disciplinary to be considered "real poetry," but too rooted in language to be considered "real art."
I don't really care what my work gets called. Personally, I call all of my works poems, and I approach all of my poems in much the same way: I write something in a shape meant to communicate something. Sometimes a poem begins as a drawing in a notebook, or a screenshot on my phone. Sometimes the visual aspects creep in later, in revision, as I get to know my poem and what it wants a little better.
There are, of course, differences between different writing processes. For instance, I recently wrote a poem with a sharpie on the surface of a lava lamp's glass, the text wending around the bottle in a spiral. Unlike a poem typed on a computer, the poem I wrote was not one it would be possible to revise later: it was permanent and thus frozen in time. Reading it requires a more physical action than a poem printed on a page or a screen: the reader has to walk around the lava lamp in a circle in order to read the text in "order."
The lava lamp poem sounds brilliant—since it’s three-dimensional, how do you intend it to be exhibited? Would printing it in a traditional literary journal do it justice? I’m also wondering if you have a background in visual arts or design because you frequently play with font and form in your work.
Thank you! It was a lot of fun to make. There's something that feels almost wrong about writing on a lava lamp, and I think that’s what gives the process its power. I have taken art classes on and off over the years but don’t have much formal training—at least none that would teach me to do the sort of work I do. Instead, I’ve learned by doing, and by asking the visual artists in my life for advice when I want to do something I don’t know how to.
As far as publishing goes, it’s a complicated question. I had the opportunity to show the lava lamp in an art show recently. Art shows or in-person events often become the avenue for works like lava lamp poems or deep-fried poems, because it gives people a chance to fully experience the piece as a material object. On the other hand, if a poem can only be read in-person, it changes the work because it changes the work’s audience. Lit mags, especially online ones, expand access.
I recently became Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal, a journal and chapbook press. Our editorial team is working hard to make dimensional, visual, and multidisciplinary poetry more available to a wider audience.
Congrats on becoming Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal! How has leading the journal been and where do you envision it going?
Thank you! It's been an exciting journey. I first connected with Ghost Proposal when they published my chapbook LULL in 2020. I was deeply grateful to get to work with a press that valued experimental and visual work, and fell in love with their past chapbook catalog and issues. So when the former editors decided to pursue other projects and asked me if I'd like to take over as Editor-in-Chief, of course I said yes!
I am joined by two incredible co-editors, Alyssa Moore and Kelly Clare. We're dedicated to furthering Ghost Proposal's mission of publishing cross-disciplinary work that resists categorization by form and genre. We're especially interested in work that sits at the intersection of poetry and visual art. We recently launched the Ultraslant Prize, an annual award for one work of visual poetry; each year, the winning poem will be printed as a pamphlet. There aren't many prizes for this type of work and it's been incredible to be in the position to create opportunities.
I'm so happy about the work Ghost Proposal does to uplift visual poetry. You also directed a film, Egg Cream! How did you get into directing? Do you see yourself creating more films in the future?
Egg Cream was a film that I made in collaboration with my dad Peter Miller, who is a documentary filmmaker. We started filming when I was eleven years old and finished it over a decade later. The project began, as most things do, with a question: I wanted to know the story behind the chocolate egg cream, a soda drink that is said to have originated among Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Despite its name, the egg cream contains neither eggs nor cream—just milk, chocolate syrup, and seltzer.
To better understand the origins and significance of the egg cream, my dad and I took his video camera and wandered New York City, where we lived, trying as many egg creams as we could. We interviewed deli workers, food historians, relatives, and even my Hebrew school teacher. When I was thirteen or so, we put the project on hold, and the tapes sat forgotten in a box for about a decade. When I was in graduate school, we uncovered them and, with the help of the extraordinary film editor Amy Linton, we finally finished the film.
Though documentary is not my usual medium, I realized, working on Egg Cream, that the process of telling a story—the inquiry, the conversations, the research, the stitching together—is very similar from one medium to another. As a writer, I love studying films as much as I loved making them—I'm drawn to how a film can weave together elements of image, language, and sound all at once. I think poets can learn a lot from watching (and making) movies.