A Conversation with Chloe Yelena Miller
Former Literary Mama contributor Chloe Yelena Miller is a writer and writing teacher who lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and child. She earned a bachelor of arts in Italian language and literature at Smith College and holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her chapbook, Unrest, was published in 2013 by Finishing Line Press, and her debut, full-length poetry collection, Viable, was recently published by Lily Poetry Review Books.
Literary Mama Reviews Editor Autumn Purdy communicated with Chloe Yelena Miller via email about her literary influences and inspirations, her experience with writing and publishing during a pandemic, and how loss and motherhood are recurring themes expressed through her verse.
Autumn Purdy: Congratulations on the publication of your new book of poetry, Viable, recently released on Valentine’s Day. I imagine the experience of editing and launching a book in a pandemic must have been challenging. What have you learned in the process?
Chloe Yelena Miller: Thank you! This is my debut full-length collection, so I’ve learned a lot about submitting to be reviewed or to be considered for readings, festivals, or other events. I’ve been most moved by how some readers are touched by my story and moved to share their stories with me. This was my hope—to join in a larger conversation about miscarriage—and I’m really touched that readers have found my work.
I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I’ve been sad not to organize a big, in-person reading or party with friends to launch the book. I’m also sad not to have more time to focus on the book since things are so hectic right now. Countering that, I’m amazed by the new poetry-friends I’ve made through social media. And the ability to connect—through email and readings—with friends across the nation who wouldn’t necessarily be able to come to readings on the East Coast has been remarkable. I’ve really enjoyed personalizing books to send to friends and to thank those who helped me along the way.
I’m trying to think of the book as “not milk.” As in, the book won’t expire even if it isn’t “new” next year. I look forward to a celebration of all of our joys—including surviving the pandemic—after we’re all vaccinated and it is safe to get together again.
AP: I’m fascinated by poetry and prose that rise from motherhood stories. In Viable, you write so eloquently of the dichotomy between motherhood’s pleasure and pain: miscarriage, pregnancy, birth, postpartum depression, expectancy, hesitant anticipation, loss, and new life. Do you find your poetry often returns to these common themes, or was Viable an isolated poetic experience?
CYM: I’ve been writing about grief and loss since I started writing. My best friend died when we were in seventh grade. Most of my writing circles back in some way as an elegy to her, however oblique at times.
I’ve thought a lot about the moral and ethical issues around writing about my child. In these poems, he is a baby who, hopefully, stands in for all babies who are generally similar to each other. As he grows into himself, I haven’t been writing about his experiences to give him a chance to write his own narrative. Overall, I try to focus on myself rather than sharing other people’s stories.
AP: Three of the poems you’ve included in the collection, “Short Duets/Dualities,” “Figs,” and “Objects,” were first published by Literary Mama. For how long had you been writing about your motherhood journey before the idea of your memoir in verse, Viable, came to fruition?
CYM: I didn’t realize that I was writing a book until my child was maybe a year or so old, and I discovered that I had a collection of poems on a similar subject. Around that point, I started to put them together, edit, and revise them into a cohesive collection.
Before Viable was published as a poetry book, some of the poems became a part of composer Lauren Spavelko’s musical composition, Baby Book. I was really excited to hear a translation of the work into music—something I had never imagined. I was thrilled to see her composition which includes my words (even if I can’t read the music).
AP: Would you say poetry is or can be a balm? As you wrote the poems in Viable, were you able to write through the experiences that shaped your motherhood journey, or did you put down the pen for awhile only to return to that time in retrospect?
CYM: I wrote these poems as I had the experiences and then later returned to edit and revise them. Many poems were pulled out of the book as I realized, in retrospect, that in many cases I essentially wrote the same poem or idea over and over again. I do think that those early drafts were a comfort to me to name what I was experiencing. Gregory Orr writes in The Blessing, “Without a name for it, I had nothing to mediate between me and my amazement; no way to assign the tiny bird a neat, labeled place in my experience.” This naming really helps with understanding.
AP: Your poetry is often infused with food and the flavor of the Italian language as a reflection of, or medium between, the story and emotion you’re trying to convey. Can you speak to how and why each infiltrates your writer’s mind and supports the verse that ultimately ends up on the page?
CYM: While some maternal relatives spoke a little Italian, I didn’t learn the language until I studied it as an undergraduate at Smith College and studied abroad in Florence my junior year. Later I returned to Florence to work for New York University for three years and again for a year more recently with my family.
I struggled to learn Italian. A lot. I think that I first really learned English grammar by working to learn Italian grammar. My memories of learning and using the Italian language are strong like childhood memories, even if they were later in life. I don’t exactly think in Italian, but there are words that come to me first in Italian at times. I’m very much in love with the language and how it feels different from English, and sometimes direct translations do different work than the original. I hope to continue writing definition poems. Right now, there are some in Unrest, my chapbook from Finishing Line Press, and in Viable.
AP: Because you write so intimately about food, I’m wondering if cooking is just as important to you as writing.
CYM: Cooking is sometimes a prewriting activity for me. The act of doing something with my hands which results in a tangible meal is really satisfying. I find the most comforting dishes to be those I can make easily and know I enjoy. I really enjoy sitting at the kitchen table and writing while listening to, say, a pot of beans boiling for soup.
AP: I find myself composing stories and poetry in my head, especially during my solo walks. When and where do you create your best writing?
CYM: Solo walks really help me, too, to move from thoughts or emotions into specific words. There’s something about the rhythm which really helps. I will sometimes come up with a word or line or two when I’m walking. I do find that the ideal writing process includes something physical first—walking, cooking, or sometimes even cleaning. The act of moving and being inside my own head helps me clear the way for something new.
AP: Who were your favorite authors and what were some of your most treasured books when you were young? What books are you currently reading? What authors have been the greatest inspirations to you as a mother and a writer?
CYM: I remember being assigned all kinds of readings from a thick, onion-papered Norton Anthology. When I started to read some of the more contemporary and modern poems, I was really taken by poems by Mark Strand.
I grew up in New Jersey, and around ninth grade, I somehow found out that Joyce Carol Oates was reading in a café in Hoboken. My parents took me, and I remember sitting on the floor listening to her talking about how running was connected to her writing process. I was really moved by the relationship between her physical and literary life. I think about that when I take walks and a line or word or rhythm comes to me.
I read and reread Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye many times when it was first assigned sometime in high school. I remember hiding my tears in English class when I learned that Toni Morrison’s given name was Chloe, like mine.
Currently, I’ve been savoring Gregory Orr’s memoir, The Blessing. The sparse language and introspection are really beautiful.
When I was pregnant, I read Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul, and I was fascinated by how she wove her research with her personal experiences. I liked the merging of her analytical, physical, and emotional self. Later, when Sarah Manguso (whose work I just love) came out with Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, I read it more than once. The subject of time for a mother was perfectly summarized. I aspire to write such lyrical prose.
AP: What is it that you hope other mothers and writers will take away from your work?
CYM: I think the silence around miscarriage is breaking recently with celebrities speaking about their experiences and more books being published. That said, I felt lonely during and after the miscarriage. I hope to offer the beginning of a dialogue for other parents experiencing the same or for family or professionals caring for them. Viable also offers a secular response to miscarriage. I had found many online forums for folks who find comfort in religion, and those didn’t speak to me.
AP: Now that Viable is published, what is on the horizon for you?
CYM: It is difficult to write regularly with the pandemic, to focus while also teaching and helping my second grader with his online classes, but I’ve had a project going for a few years. I’ve been very, very slowly building a memoir about my experiences as an Italian American growing up in New Jersey and later living in Italy. It feels good to think about light-hearted absurdities, love, and a larger, external world and community.