An estimated one on four women will endure a miscarriage in their lifetime. Yet, the experience of miscarriage is often mired in silence. We sometimes struggle to find the right words to get across the complicated feelings wedded to this particular kind of grief. When reading Chloe Yelena Miller’s debut full-length poetry collection Viable, I began to think we might find that language in poetry.
Viable takes the reader on a journey from want to loss to renewal, and dissects the pressures of childbearing. It’s refreshing to explore this subject through a non-religious lens. Chloe’s poems seek to understand through definitions, recipes, apologies, and examinations of how cultures address pregnancy and loss, like in the poem “Objects”: “In Japan, mothers mourn / lost water children / Gardens of small statues / in red knitted hats, bibs.” The poems are both universal and intimate, marked by an openness that feels like the author extending a hand for the reader to take hold of.
I was first introduced to Chloe’s work at an event in Washington, DC, where she writes and teaches. She read from her chapbook, Unrest (2013). Although I now live on the other side of the Atlantic, I was thrilled to have a Zoom chat with Chloe, a poet and friend I deeply admire, to discuss speaking and thinking in more than one language, publishing during a pandemic, and the years that went into the making of her debut collection.
The Rumpus: You speak Italian, and you’ve spent time living in Florence—those influences can be seen throughout the book. Do you see connections between speaking another language and expressing the experience of miscarriage?
Chloe Yelena Miller: The definition poems have found themselves into other poems that didn’t go anywhere, but there’s been this sort of repeating. I have this desire to create a sort of dictionary of Italian, and maybe some English, vocabulary poems that express things in some way. And it kind of started with this poem I wrote about my Aunt Dora. It was called “Magari,” which is a word that doesn’t exactly translate into English that’s sort of like “I wish” or “if only,” and then I define it through an image. I’m not teaching Italian anymore, but when I was I would try to give an experience or show what a word meant so then I was pulling that into the poems, which felt like a really fun kind of prompt or beginning. And, there are some words that just come into my mind in Italian and not in English. Sometimes I feel like I get stuck. I’m comfortable in Italian. I’m by no means a native bilingual speaker, so I don’t think all the time in Italian, but there are a couple places where I’ll just fall into Italian.
Rumpus: Do you feel like there are certain situations or certain emotions that are kind of gateways into thinking more in Italian than in English?
Miller: I think so. I think it feels like it’s mine, since we’re living in America and it’s such an English language world… so it feels like sort of a private thought and a way to investigate, just with myself. It’s private but there’s a distancing of: Here’s this other way to say it. To present it to someone else and to pull it out of myself, which I think the poems do. It makes it possible not to have to—and probably you feel like this—you don’t have to keep remembering because you’ve written it down so now it’s out. It exits you. And then you have it, so you don’t have to keep thinking about it.
Rumpus: I was looking back at the structure of the book—you have it in these sections: “Carried,” “Carrying,” “Carry,” and then “Apologies.” I was wondering what led you to that last section, the apologies.
Miller: It felt natural. Those came later. There were a lot that got cut that were really explicit. I felt like there was a lot I wanted to say as my son got older, to explain the book to him. To kind of understand, think of him as the audience. What would he think of all this? Because for a long time he was just a baby… It was hard to imagine him as a future adult. And then, as he started talking and getting bigger and walking and obviously being this independent person, I really started to think about: How will he read this and what does it mean to him? I cut a lot of poems out that felt too either personal or explicit or not poetic. The publisher was like, You don’t have anything to apologize for. She wasn’t necessarily convinced that they fit, but they felt really important. Once they were pared down I could see that they worked better. I think that was a good choice. But there is a double-edged sword, apologizing all the time, and maybe we do that too much, but I think also being allowed to just say: I’m sorry that happened and I’m sorry I was having a hard time and that wasn’t fair to you. A sort of acknowledgement of this; I mean, I’ll always be sad in some way, but this is sort of closed and he and I are in a different place now. It’s really shifted. I think being able to apologize shows an ending of that period.
Rumpus: In a way, it almost felt like forgiving yourself, maybe, for feeling the need to apologize. Or just coming to, like you were saying, a new place.
Miller: I think so. Yeah. I’m hoping it’s ultimately optimistic. This is a sad book of mourning but there is a turn and change, and here’s this new relationship and self and ability to move forward but not forget. To still have this other possible baby, sort of in my heart but not in the forefront.
Rumpus: I could definitely see the twists and turns that your emotional state was taking, even if it was over years and years. It really comes through. I also don’t want this interview to completely focus on the miscarriage, because the collection is also about becoming pregnant afterward and then becoming a parent. Of course, every parent is terrified when they have a child. And that’s normal, but I think after you suffer a loss, the reality becomes more concrete. I could see that intensified fear, but then I could also see you coming through it. Over how many years were these poems assembled?
Miller: I started with the miscarriage, so that was in 2012, and then I wrote the last poem in the last year. A lot have kind of come in and left; there’s been a lot of… peeking in and leaving, and I’m picking which ones fit. I think there was a lot of repetition early on because I kept trying to say something and then figure out how to write it. There’s a line between the diary poem that’s really personal, and then you write a different one that backs up a little bit and makes it more appropriate for a larger audience, or feels more poetic in some way.
There are others that no one needs to see but definitely helped, too. It just helped to give words to what was happening, and it was easier to write, obviously, before my son was born and in the very beginning, when he would nap more or at least sit quietly and not run away. And I could do it with him because he didn’t know what I was saying, so I could sort of speak aloud and type with him in his little bouncy chair next to me. There were a couple months where that was possible, where he just wanted to hear my voice and be nearby and just kind of sit there. Then there was a bit of a pause as he became a toddler and zoomed off and it was impossible to think.
Rumpus: I think getting a book together in a decade, with a child, is a monumental task, honestly.
Miller: Especially now. So, I keep thinking: Is this the time to share this, in this period of loss and the pandemic and hundreds of thousands of people dead? But all of this is still happening, and I think we need to look toward some kind of loss to understand any of these really large numbers and general loss. Sometimes it feels like we shouldn’t write anything that’s not about the pandemic and so many people dead and injured and hurt, but I think we still need all of our human stories and all the people who are having babies now, or are having a miscarriage in the midst of this, or losing their children and their kids are sick and they have to go to the hospital. It’s all still happening.
Rumpus: I understand what you’re saying about that hesitation. Going back to assembling the book, how did you decide which poems to cut?
Miller: Figuring out how to submit groups of poems to journals highlighted how similar certain poems were. In the early process of figuring out the whole manuscript, I tried to see which ones fit together but weren’t saying exactly the same things and actually had some push forward in the storyline. That really brought to light: Oh, these two are doing exactly the same job, whereas somehow when they were together in the book I felt like: Okay, this is the section about this topic. That sort of breaking them apart in order to put them together helped me to see the overall repetition. I put the book together chronologically, so it was easier to see overlap, too.
Rumpus: What was your revision process like?
Miller: I definitely read poems aloud, underline verbs, try to read each individual line on its own to see how it stands or doesn’t, to consider line breaks, probe it to see what happens in the poem. Then giving some readings, I noticed I was saying the same words over and over. A couple of words I was like: Wow, the same themes come up endlessly and explicitly with the same vocabulary. That really helped me to go back in and vary things or build on that and [ask]: Is there some kind of crescendo with these words? I think time really helps. And, reading the poems aloud and listening.
Rumpus: You mentioned making the poems more poetic. How did that factor in?
Miller: My general process is: start with that question or grief or emotion, and then write it all out. Then, I’ll pull out a few words or I’ll even put that completely aside and start over with the main ideas that came through as I wrote some more. And then I’ll step back and read through for the word choices or the line breaks. I think the line breaks and the gathering together of different ideas is where I start to look more at the craft and how it’s constructed as a poem rather than a raw feeling.
I’m really interested in seeing through something. I love taking walks at night and looking into apartments and seeing to the other side, especially new buildings that are being constructed or they’re empty and for rent and you can just see through the windows to the next street. I love that double distance. A lot of my poems will begin in this space of seeing through something. I think a lot of us keep writing the same thing over and over and then, finally, it appears somewhere else.
Rumpus: Where you least expect it, sometimes.
Miller: Yeah. I listened again to Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem… I feel like the only really personal moment was toward the beginning, and then she just pulls out so large. While our poems are completely different, I really admire that move from the super intimate to a larger idea, and I’m hoping that my poems do that for grief in some way, that anyone who’s not a mother or hasn’t experienced this kind of loss can still read them and be like, I remember this other thing and I felt this core feeling through the specifics.
Rumpus: In the book you also touch on postpartum depression. Were you still able to write while you were experiencing that?
Miller: Yeah. I think the hardest part was once I started the medicine it took a little while to kind of even out and have some focus or alertness again. There was a little bit of numbing that I think helped me get through the day, and then it evened out and I could think clearly again to write. That was a little bit of a lull and that was a little hard. But obviously that was most important thing, to be okay.
Rumpus: Absolutely. Were you reading poetry? Were you reading other books that helped you through?
Miller: When my aunt died, and I read The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke. It really touched me, how she was looking toward literature, and then she has all those resources in the back—which is why I wanted to put together the books that I’d read that seemed most useful at the end of the collection. That’s sort of where I was looking and finding some kind of solace. There’s the silence around the miscarriage and the silence of, but this is what you wanted; you had a miscarriage and you were sad and now you have a baby, why are you still crying? There’s a real lack of understanding of how much your body has physically gone through and the hormones, and the anxiety, and the fear, the difficulties, and just lack of sleep. It’s literally a form of torture to be so tired. Even if you’re fine, I think you can’t get through that easily. I, one night, thought there had been a fire. It was just so hard to focus on any tangible reality. And the doctors were so great. It really helped to just be recognized. That it wasn’t just: Oh, that’s how they are, those moms.
Rumpus: Oh, yes. And I wanted to ask you about the Baby Book project; you worked with the composer Lauren Spavelko, who adapted some of the poems into songs. How did that come about?
Miller: My friend was on Reddit, and she saw Lauren’s call for poems. I don’t even know if it was about family or loss or miscarriage. And my friend suggested: Send her some of your poems. I did, and then we formed this relationship. She created this drastically new thing, which I think is amazing. She said that all these women had come and talked to her. And the sopranos who sing with her, or people in the orchestra, or other teachers—they’ve shared their stories with her. I never would have imagined that these poems would have become something like that. They’re so short and little and then suddenly they’re pulled into this other art form with music and a different rhythm that I didn’t hear in my head, but she heard it. I think it’s amazing.
Rumpus: That is amazing—the transformation. I guess it’s kind of a companion piece to this book, maybe?
Miller: Yeah, and [the collection] had been called “Baby Book” …and I was never quite sure. But then for one of the poems, the publisher suggested the word “viable” in the poem, and I was like: That’s the title of the whole book! It even felt like a slightly private joke; the manuscript had been rejected so many times, it was like, are the poems viable? [Laughter] It felt like it all came together. It felt right.
Photograph of Chloe Yelena Miller by Hans Noel.