Miles Walser’s work kind of demands an immediate processing. For those who have never competed in a poetry slam, it is often a tense, anxiety-inducing environment. I happened to find myself in an especially brutal one last summer with a handful of really talented poets, one of them being Miles. Having been aware of his work only through the all-too common lens of YouTube, hearing him perform such a beautiful, jarring piece like “Hierarchy” up close, and in range, really rattled me in the most positive of ways. Later, he came to Columbus to do a couple of features, and we got to know each other as people, but the way that his work approaches you never changes. There’s this scene I like in the baseball film “For Love Of The Game”, where Kevin Costner’s character, a pitcher, approaches the mound at Yankee Stadium. Locking in on the task at hand, he whispers to himself, Clear the mechanism. At which point, everything around him goes silent. And it is just him, and the person directly in front of him, free to engage in the way there were placed there to engage. Miles has work that clears the mechanism, at least for me. I’d like to think of myself as an active listener, but watching Miles taught me how to listen to work, and allow myself to be shocked, moved, and consumed by it with a new kind of energy.
So we’re both from the Midwest. Even though you currently live in New York, you have roots in Wisconsin, and also Minnesota. There’s real joy I find in the work of writers from the same part of the country that I am. I say this with absolute bias, but I think that living in the Midwest breeds a type of writing, or a type of art. How has your voice been shaped by where you grew up, and do you see a change in that voice since your relocation?
(Hey, thank you so much for taking the time to write up these questions for me, and for having an interest in my answers. I’m really excited to be a part of this project for you, and cannot wait to read the other 290 answers.)
Man, I’m so pumped to talk to you about being from Wisconsin. This is off to a fantastic start! I never really considered how the Midwest shaped my art/voice, but I absolutely believe it did. Madison is a city, albeit a small one, but I still believe that it has roots in more rural traditions. It’s still an agro-centric place to grow up. I knew cow before I knew skyscraper. And I think that impacts the way I see the world, so it’s naturally going to impact the way I write.
I met a potter/farmer in rural Minnesota once who said that he made pottery because he wanted to make art, but he wanted it to be useful art. While I obviously don’t agree that other art isn’t useful, I think this attitude is a common one in the Midwest. Everything you make/build/create needs to have a purpose. I try to write with that in mind. I try to always use my voice to say something useful.
I think that moving to New York has made small changes to my voice. Living here, I feel constantly challenged to push the limits of what I think I’m capable of, as a human and a writer. I feel more pushed to carve out a unique place for myself. I feel energized by how many different types of art are happening in the city all the time. I feel a desire to try more, to explore, and to push.
In your work, you give us a lot of yourself. There is an honesty there that I love, and that I imagine allows for an audience to really feel close to you. What calls you to share yourself with the reader in that way?
Short Answer: Therapy is mad expensive.
Longer, and Equally Real Answer: I couldn’t imagine not sharing myself in my work. I am always the most moved by personal work that uncovers a truth about the writer, and I strive to create work that, by sharing pieces of myself, invites the audience to discover their own truths.
I also think that as a transperson, living without an extensive canon of work that showcases experiences/lives that look like mine, it is my responsibility to help create the body of work that can be used to illustrate trans lives.
I taught some of your poems at a workshop with teens recently, and they were all really excited because they were EXTREMELY familiar with videos of work from your CUPSI days. Though it may not have been your introduction to poems, you really made a large splash with your work on CUPSI stages. What was that experience like? How has your approach to performing your work changed?
So when I talk about CUPSI, I am generally talking about CUPSI 2010 (my first CUPSI), which is absolutely an experience that changed my life and really made me believe that I had a future as a writer/poet/performer. I can still vividly remember the semifinals bout from that year, how I felt waiting alone in a corner right before reading my poem, how nervous I was, and how excited by how many people wanted to hear what I had to say. I was in love with every moment of that week.
Unfortunately, I also walked out of CUPSI with an intense drive to win slams. And that’s something that I believe negatively influenced the way I approached writing for months, if not years, after. I have spent the last couple years unlearning that drive, and working to balance risk-taking in my work with also sometimes loving to win (cause come on, who doesn’t like winning?). I think since CUPSI, my approach has changed in that I’ve worked extremely hard at challenging myself in how I perform, and what I’m willing to consider a “slam-able” poem.
The way you navigate social issues in your work impresses me, especially your work centered on race, privilege, and transphobia. What do you feel your responsibility is to give those topics a voice?
So in college I was lucky enough to take two semester-long courses about using art in social justice movements. What I learned through those classes was that some people aren’t going to be called to action through statistics or scientific reports—some people need to experience the world through an artistic medium, and some people need the truth given to them in a more artistic way.
I am definitely one of those people. I learn about the world best through art, and I express myself best through art. Given that, I think it’s my responsibility to give injustice a voice when I can do it in a way that feels good, and not appropriative. It’s also something I feel I’m constantly learning how to better do, and in that I feel it teaches me how to best be a part of my community.
How has it been folding into the New York poetry scene/community? I come from this really interesting scene where everything and everyone are kind of all (literally) around the corner from each other. From an outsider, the New York scene seems to be this beautiful, yet frantic thing, and yet you’ve made a large impact as a natural Midwesterner. Other than simply having the quality of work that you do, how have you made that happen?
Frantic is totally a great word for it. It’s all happening so fast, and right now, and oh crap you blinked and you missed your chance! I think I’ve made it happen by leaving my apartment as often as I can. In the city, there’s a show every night. Somebody is having an open mic right now as I write this, I’m sure. There are slams and reading series and poetry/improv comedy shows and all sorts of combinations you’d never think possible.
It’s been stressful to try to find a place in all of that. I really came into slam in the Twin Cities, and when I was in college, there were two main slams each month, and sometimes those were the only shows I went to. And because the slam was monthly, EVERYONE showed up. In New York, because things happen so often, I think it can feel easier to blow it off—I work early tomorrow, I’m sleepy, I don’t want to take the train into Manhattan, blah blah blah. There’s a different push required to get yourself up and out to a show. But it’s always always worth it.
I’ve definitely skipped a lot of shows I shouldn’t have skipped (see all the above excuses). But lately I’m starting to make more of an effort to put myself out there in the community, and just share my work as often as I can, and to make every opportunity to hear other folks read their work.
On the back of that, how important is community, or the idea of “community” to you? When you were in Columbus, I remember you saying something about how if the slam community fell apart completely, you would still be writing/performing/doing what you’re doing now. I felt that was really powerful, because there are many writers who are writing strictly for those opportunities and perhaps not as much for the other reasons you can outline.
Community, or the slam community? Cause I think those are maybe different things, or at least different answers for me. Community is absolutely important to me—as a person, as a writer, as someone trying to survive and thrive in the world. I think community pushes us to act our best, to create our best work. It challenges us when we mess up. It lifts us up when we need help. In that, I think community is beyond essential to any person.
The “slam community” is important to me so long as it is working to be an intentional community. I think the slam community is initially rooted in everyone showing up for the same types of competitions, and to me, that doesn’t necessarily make a community. And for that reason, if that slam community only ever strived to be folks in the same festival/competition, I could really take it or leave it. (And that’s what I mean when I say I’ll still be writing and performing and generally working on being a decent person even if slams stop happening forever.)
I am, however, excited about the recent upswing in conversations about how the slam community can be a more intentional community, create safer spaces, and generally be more responsible to/for each other. That is a community I am excited to help build, and I truly hope we can make it happen.
Congratulations on What The Night Demands, truly. It was a real joy to take that book in and get a feel for you as a person, not just a writer. What was the process like for the creation of that manuscript? How/when did the initial idea come to put it together?
Thank you! I am still in awe of the fact that there exists a book with my name on it. It’s been an amazing journey—temper tantrums and crying and curling up in the fetal position, oh my! While some of the poems in the book are older and have been in my pocket for a while, the manuscript as a whole really came together while I was a finalist for Write Bloody’s open book contest. I initially submitted three poems I was extra proud of, and was lucky enough to be in the top twenty. That meant I had about three weeks to compile my most perfect 40 poem manuscript (its worth noting that those three weeks were also my last three weeks of college—somehow I managed to graduate). It was during those frantic three weeks, and also the months of editing after I’d been selected as a contest winner, that I really got a chance to flesh out the themes and general arch of the book. I worked with Derrick Brown, Megan Falley, and Sean Patrick Mulroy to get the poems just right, and I owe all of them a huge debt of gratitude for not letting me get away with lazy writing. While it’s my name on the cover, the book really couldn’t have happened without all the support and help I received from the three of them, as well as all my family and friends who didn’t abandon me during the more stressful moments of the process, when I am sure I was the most unbearable mess.
In reading your work, I get the feeling that you pull inspiration from more than just poems. What other areas give you ideas/motivation?
I really love storytelling. I am guilty of telling stories to people an average of 3-1000 times before finally remembering they’ve heard it before. I think a lot of my motivation to write poems comes from my desire to tell a story. I draw from my experiences a lot, from my family and my hometown, from my life as a trans person, and from working harder to be a conscious part of social movements.
I also work hard to engage with as much different art as possible. I come from a family of visual artists and dancers, so there’s always been a myriad of art around me. I love watching tv, listening to music, and interacting with pop culture. I used to want to be a rock star (but I am an incredibly mediocre guitar player and singer, so that’s not even a little bit an option).
And honestly, sometimes the only inspiration I have going for me is that I love writing, and so I am going to sit down and write something goddammit! even if it’s the worst garbage I’ve ever seen. And the funny thing is, that’s usually enough to start from. Eventually something good unfolds itself from all that trash.
During my college years, there weren’t many open discussions being had about things like hate crimes and violence associated with homophobia/transphobia. All of the talk was very surface, very, “well, I know I’M not the one oppressing anyone in that community, so I’m fine, right?” I was talking with a friend the other day about the glorious spike we’re seeing in awareness of transgender issues, which has opened up a lot of discussion/ideas/stories being perhaps more accessible than they’ve ever been, leading to this ability for people to self-educate in ways that weren’t happening even five years ago. While there are levels to any social justice conversation, what next steps do you feel can be taken to continue to build these spaces (not just in poetry) where necessary conversations can be had, and people can be pushed to take advantage of the access they have to educate themselves?
Janet Mock for President. For real. I think two things need to happen to keep pushing the conversation forward for the trans community:
1. As much space as possible needs to be given for trans women’s voices. It’s just a fact that trans women are more silenced traditionally than trans men, and I firmly believe that the movement will make change when we put trans women, and especially trans women of color, in the center of the conversation. We need to listen to their stories, and really truly hear them, and then start doing the work.
2. Anyone interested in being a trans ally or generally a good person needs to take to the internet to learn the most basic info so that trans folks aren’t stuck having the same Introduction to Trans Lives type of conversation over and over again. Janet Mock recently said on Stephen Colbert’s show that the most boring part about being trans is having that basic “I’m a person and this is how I identify and yes this is a real thing” conversation with folks. The internet is full of helpful resources to come to a basic understanding of trans terminology and history. If we could all just catch up and be on that basic page together, we could start having the more meaningful conversations.
Finally, though your book is still relatively new(ish), are you already locking in to any new ideas?
There’s nothing I’m locked into at the moment, but I am striving to write more and start compiling a second manuscript. I am also hoping to start dabbling in other areas of writing (I’d love to write a YA novel, and I’d really like to practice writing essays and other non-fiction work). I don’t really have anything to like, give you a sneak peak of, but I recently promised my girlfriend I’d work on living up to my potential and watching fewer How I Met Your Mother reruns, so you’ll definitely be seeing more of me in the future!
Thank you, Miles. I hope to see you soon and catch up properly.
MILES WALSER is the author of the full-length collection of poetry What the Night Demands, released on Write Bloody Press in 2013. In 2010 he represented the U of M at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational where his team placed 3rd in the nation and he was named Best Male Poet. He has also represented New York City, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Madison, Wisconsin at the adult national level in poetry slam, and appeared on Group Piece Final Stage with the former team. In 2012 he won the award for Best Poem by a Male Poet at the Wade-Lewis Poetry Slam Invitational. His work has appeared in literary journals Vinyl, Used Furniture Review, Radius, and The Bakery as well as the audio podcast IndieFeed. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.