Maggie Millner’s debut, Couplets, is an embarrassment of riches about one woman’s second adolescence after she becomes infatuated with a woman and abandons her stable partnership with a man. The story unfolds in a cascade of rhyming couplets and prose poems charged with lust and intellect. Her writing is gorgeous and simple, and is etched with intelligence and insight, like “Love has been, above all things, the engine of self-knowledge in my life.” Alongside the marvels of her lines and pleasures of the story, Millner slowly picks apart the knot of selfhood that is created in contemporary life and literature when author and narrator entangle. She brings in the voices of Jamaica Kincaid, Adrienne Rich, Natalia Ginzburg, and Vivian Gornick to tug at threads about the gap between truth and story and the impulse to tidily connect events to create meaning.
Millner’s poems have swiftly become centripetal in the literary world, appearing in The New Yorker, Paris Review, POETRY, BOMB, The Nation, and others. I could make all sorts of proclamations or predictions about the role Millner’s poetry will play in years to come, that Couplets will likely become a defining work of our generation, a cornerstone of queer literature, that it could retrieve rhyme from its long exile in the world of poetry and act as a tidal force pushing publishing to rethink its fixation with categories of genre. These are my wishes and beliefs, and you’ll have to read Couplets to understand why I am wont to make such grand claims.
Millner and I spoke in November about the purpose of poetry amidst the current moment of genre anarchy, the guilt and grief that come with revelations in sexuality, the playfulness of writing in rhyme which so many people see as antiquated, and how her book is less a coming out than it is a renunciation of heteronormativity.
The Rumpus: People are describing Couplets as genre-bending but I can’t help but notice how definitively this is poetry (I mean the title is Couplets for god’s sake), so first let’s talk about what poetry means to you personally. What has poetry done for you, or what is the particular draw of poetry?
Maggie Millner: Poetry feels, in many ways, very resistant to definition. When I teach poetry, I often come up against the fact that very few defining qualities really inhere in the genre. You could say that poetry is all about the line, but then what about prose poetry? Or you could say that poetry is all about prosody or lyric, but then what about conceptual poetries, or poetries that revolve around narrative?
All genre categories are super historically contingent and often have more to do with the practicalities of publishing—literacy, marketing, the economics of production and physical media—than with the experience of writing. Formally speaking, there’s almost nothing inherent about what makes a novel a novel or what makes a poem a poem. Genres are terms that publishers need, but I’m not convinced writers actually need them. So the older I get and the more I read, the more I feel like a genre anarchist, even as I also feel like a poet. In some ways, this was a hard book to sell because it didn’t slot neatly into a salable category where you’d know what shelf to put it on in the bookstore. I feel very deeply how arbitrary genre is when I’m writing, and I also feel very restless with the lyric poem and what it can do in a contemporary context.
At the same time, I do believe poetry involves a feeling of connectedness to an aesthetic tradition that precedes written language—that it flows out of a desire to communicate stories and create narratives that have some kind of transhistorical power and community ethic. And the long narrative poem in particular occupies a kind of exalted space in literary history. The most foundational and oldest surviving works of literature were all long narrative poems that were communally authored and passed down orally. Before writing, verse always had sonic or rhythmic qualities that made it more memorizable, more transferrable, which is where meter and rhyme and other elements of prosody (which I’m obsessed with) come from. It’s our original literature, which only later gives rise to novels and essays and lyrics and other written forms. This might sound super lofty, but I guess I want to feel tapped into some kind of larger human conversation when I’m writing.
Another thing that might be special to poetry is the way it operates on your attention. It requires some degree of alertness to the tiniest parts of language—not just its semantic units like sentences or plot points, but material features like sound and rhythm and syntax and diction. Which is also just how my brain happens to work. I’m a really slow reader; I’m a compulsive sing-a-longer; I speak in these annoyingly long, elaborate sentences… There’s something about my cognitive equipment that’s just very amenable to poetry, and I’ve written it really since I could write anything at all.
Rumpus: That inability to define poetry is really interesting in the face of everyone trying to categorize books. You are named as a poet in your bio, but for better or worse people are blasting this as a hybrid text, and that is its own sort of marketing jargon. It’s really interesting to proclaim this book as genre-bending when it still so clearly embraces poetry. You’re using narrative in a way that maybe people aren’t as accustomed to with poetry these days, but it’s written in rhyming couplets.
Poetry is that feeding source for all writers. Whenever prose writers that I know get lost in their process, they go back to poetry and poetry brings them back to their aims.
Millner: The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner is really smart about this. His argument is that one of the things that sets poetry apart is its aspiration to the ideal. There’s an almost a spiritual goal to poetry. It’s always failing because its desires are so impossibly lofty.
Rumpus: In Carl Phillip’s new book, My Trade is Mystery, he says the same thing, that poetry is always attempting to reach these lofty ideals and failing at them and that keeps writers continually questioning, even if their aims as a writer are really clear. You can never perfect your craft because of that spiritual quality.
I’m sad that I’m not hearing you read aloud because there’s a fantastic sense of play in your rhymes—they feel really slippery or glancing. Part of my interest in questioning genre with you is because in this book you very explicitly take up a classic form of poetry. How did you arrive at that as a form?
Millner: I was feeling a little disillusioned with a lot of contemporary poetry at the time that I was starting this book, and I had begun to read a lot of poems in rhyme: works that were a bit older and had some explicit relationship to traditional poetic form. I was reading Thom Gunn and Marianne Moore and Gwendolyn Brooks. Some living poets, too: Hannah Sullivan, Alice Notley, Marilyn Hacker, and Bernadette Mayer, who just died.
After reading all this formal work, I wrote a poem in rhyming couplets and then showed it to my friend, the poet Rachel Mannheimer, who said, “It’s interesting, but it could be way longer.” And that just kept happening, until I nearly had a whole book.
I had no intention to write a book made only of couplets. If that had been my goal, I’m not sure it would have been possible to do it. That’s not how I work—I’m not terribly project-based. But the more I wrote, the more the organic connections between the form and the subject matter started to reveal themselves. The couplet became this really helpful apparatus for me to think in a dialectical way about romance and partnership and jealousy and seduction and divorce. At a certain point, there was so much momentum that I couldn’t stop.
I wasn’t thinking about it consciously before I started, but once it became obvious that this was going to be a book, I started actively considering what the heroic couplet represented historically, as one of the primary forms of the English-language epic, mastered by people like Chaucer and Pope and Milton. The form traditionally tells narratives about masculinity and conquest and war, or (in the case of mock-heroics) about politics and the decline of public life. It didn’t traditionally have much to do with feelings or relationships or the erotic, and certainly not romance between women. I felt connected to a very old tradition, but also able to do something that felt fresh and cheeky and even defiant with it.
Rumpus: I want to talk about proclamation. This will also be talked about as a coming out book, but it never proclaims sexuality. That’s one of the delights of this. In the same way that there’s a lack of proclaiming form, there’s a lack of proclaiming sexual identity. I think it’s amazing and revolutionary to be able to take a form that most people think of as antiquated or twee and make something so consumable. What was formally exciting for you about the couplet?
Millner: I love that you picked up on those omissions. I think you’re right that the instability of the book’s form—the way it moves between prose and poetry, narrative and lyric, first- and second-person—relates very much to the speaker’s confusion and ambivalence about the form she wants her life to take. Monogamy, polyamory, queer, straight—these are all also kind of formal divisions, and not proclaiming an explicit or stable relation to any one of these ideas is part of the freedom that this speaker is able to find by the end of the book. I don’t believe that our relationships to these categories are static, or that we each possess a stable individual self that moves through the world impervious to having its mind changed or its self-concept exploded, or to being acted upon by new people and experiences and systems. So the book is perhaps less about coming into a specific, prescriptive kind of life than renouncing the idea of following a script in the first place. That ambivalence motivates both the form of the book and the lack of proclamatory language around queer sexuality or certain identity markers, I think.
As for the other part of your question, the couplet form also just allowed me to be a huge nerd and to really play in language. I could simultaneously make jokes and tunnel my way into literary history, which are two of the great pleasures of my life! And rhyme in particular is such a cool and fascinating thing. Colloquially, we use the word “rhyme” to mean perfect rhyme (two words that end with precisely the same sounds), but prosodists will tell you that it really means just any kind of sonic coincidence. Any kind of phonemic resonance is a rhyme. There are so many different types of rhyme, and so many different ways that rhyme interacts with meter and form and syllabics.
All of this makes rhyme an endlessly fun and iterative way to make words talk to each other—and to foreground the connections that words already share. To really surface the internal relationships that already exist between pieces of language.
Rumpus: There’s this interesting formal quality and subject matter around binding and coupling and interlocking and interweaving.
The speaker does a lot of wrestling with the act of writing, being the subject of or object in a story, and how different genres leverage certain tactics to create meaning. On some level, the subject matter of this book is selfhood and the fact that the self is not static. We have all these expectations of categories of writing to perform different kinds of self, which maps onto how we have expectations of sexuality to look a certain way. There’s an earlier part where you’re talking about Rachel Cusk saying that the narrative impulse is an instinct to avoid guilt. Do you feel like this book is guilty?
Millner: Well, I think there’s an automatic guilt response that is very much part of the emotional texture of this person’s life. She takes very seriously that she has betrayed the terms of her relationship with her ex-boyfriend, and the idea of harming him and detonating their life together is an unending source of remorse and distress for her. But I hope there’s also a movement toward a kind of radical understanding of the ways that individuals and communities and larger systems interact that undermines the notion of individual culpability. I’ve tried to hold both of those ideas at the same time.
In the end, I think there is maybe more grief than guilt in this book. Grief is one of one of the few feelings that the speaker can’t theorize her way out of. It is one of the most fundamental states by which we orient our lives and emotions. And perhaps the book’s guiltiest moments are laced through with grief on behalf of the ex-boyfriend, for example. She believes that the kind of deep love she feels for him comes with a certain amount of personal and moral responsibility. And she also comes into a greater understanding of his pain when she experiences a similar loss of control—and feelings of intermittent unsafety and boundarylessness—in her new relationship.
Rumpus: You move between first- and second-person, looking inwardly and outwardly upon the speaker. What do you feel like you gained from being able to look with the gazes of first-person in verse and couplets, and second-person with prose poems?
Millner: In those sections, which are in the second-person and in prose, it’s like the speaker is LARPing as a theorist, stepping into some other persona. There’s this analytical remove that helps her think less defensively about the concepts we’re discussing: individual subjecthood and blame and certain ideas of agency and choice. I believe deeply in claiming personal agency and I believe we are mostly unconscious beings operating according to environmental and organismic forces we don’t fully comprehend. And we have to learn to internalize both of those ideas at once. Getting outside the self and enacting the reversal of the gaze was helpful in thinking through these ideas. These are often the sections where she’s diving into questions about form and writing and composition, and the “you” lets her get outside of herself and initiates a dialogue with the other; if there’s a “you” and an “I,” then there’s a dialogue being staged intra-textually with the other poems, which is another kind of coupling or mirroring. The outward gaze confronting the inward one.
The “you” in poetry is this highly theorized thing. The dominant idea of the Romantic lyric poem—which comes from M.H. Abrams—is that it’s an address to an absent or silent auditor, so the reader is in this triangulated position of overhearing the address between the “I” and the “you.” Usually that “you” is someone external to the poem or external to the text, so the reader is more of a voyeur, an interloper. But what does it do when we invite the reader to witness this kind of claustrophobic conversation between a person and a different version of herself?
Rumpus: Going back to that line about love being this engine of self-discovery, writing is an engine of self-discovery, too, and the subject matter of this book as much as love and relationships. There’s this incredibly interesting oscillation between familiarity, de-familiarity, and the sense of absorbing other people. “Conduits” is a word you used to describe the narrator when she takes certain approaches or learnings from her former partner to handle difficulties with her new lover. The first image in this book is of looking at a mirror and saying, “I became myself / I became myself. // No, I always was myself, / There’s no such person as myself.” Jumping around, you get this sense that all of it is true all at once.
Later on you say that self-discovery doesn’t look the same in prose versus verse. What does it look like in each of those forms? Why isn’t it the same?
Millner: The argument of that poem is maybe that whereas a prose narrative is traditionally somewhat cumulative and linear, verse is more episodic and defamiliarizing and unstable, relying less on characterization and plot. The concerns of poetry are less about characters growing and resolving conflicts. In novels, we have some expectation that the characters will develop progressively toward a sense of revelation or resolution; there needs to be some kind of psychic payoff for the reader. I’m not sure that has to be true in poetry! Of course, it’s endemic to the way our minds create stories; we want everything to mean something. But does it need to be the way we think about ourselves? I’m interested in cultivating receptivity to constant reinvention—“the second adolescence” as I say in one poem—and to a kind of continuousness of discovery and change.
Once I relinquished a heteronormative or mononormative idea of how my life was going to go, so many things felt possible. It’s like the Keatsian idea of “negative capability,” just simply not knowing, and not pretending to know, who I am or what my life is going to look like in five years. Poetry helps me get outside those ideas.
Rumpus: There’s a mandate for people to be self-aware because we’re in this time where the vocabulary of therapy has permeated everyday discourse. Of course, I believe in self-awareness and writing as a tool of that, but I think there are these pushes for people to be so self-aware that then indecision or not knowing or mystery or all the many kinds of not having an answer get squashed out. I think the brilliance of this book is that it’s not trying to name and affix things. Do you feel like every queer writer’s first book has to be like a coming out of sorts? Is it necessarily going to be that pronouncement or proclamation? And what do you write after that?
Millner: The short answer is I don’t know what comes next. I’m writing some things in prose and some things in verse—nothing rhyming! The concerns and obsessions that motivated this book don’t feel like the abiding obsessions of my work now, though I’m still obsessed with questions of form and queer life. But I think the next thing will be something altogether different. I suppose I want every book to be as strange and holistic as this one. As I was writing this book, I felt I was drawing on a very old and very deep tradition, but I was also in some ways inventing a form that perfectly-imperfectly spoke to the story unfolding in my own life.
Rumpus: You’re inventing the form of yourself.
Millner: Exactly. I want the next project to also involve finding or inventing a new form, one that feels organically arrived at but also deeply interwoven with the work’s themes.
As for your question about whether a queer writer’s first book is always a coming-out story . . . I’ll say I have great affection for writers who come into their queerness after they’ve already written books, like one of my amazing editors, Jonathan Galassi, or the writer Elif Batuman. As a reader, I think you can see that development, whether or not their work is ever explicitly about coming out. I loved that, in the new Elif Batuman novel, Either/Or, the word “queer” never enters the pages; it never seems to consciously occur to the narrator that she could be queer. But the book is also very clearly (to me) written from the perspective of someone who has come out, that the protagonist’s alienation in heteronormative spaces specifically anticipates her coming out. If you’re a queer reader, I think it makes that coming out seem sort of inevitable.
So I don’t know that I think that queer writers have to write a “coming-out book.” But for the reasons we talked about earlier—the interrelationship between questions of form and genre and questions of social categories and codes—I do think queer writers are many of the ones pushing literature forward these days. I’m thinking of people like Anaïs Duplan and Garth Greenwell and Tommy Pico and Jos Charles, who are challenging the forms and traditions and expectations we have of literature and art. Queer people are doing some of the most exciting things.
Author photo by Sarah Wagner Miller