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Matt W. Miller

Matt in front of the chalkboard in his Phillips Hall classroom.

"If you’re not doing the thing that you love, you start to die a little bit inside."

Matt W. Miller, now in his 11th year of teaching at Exeter, is also an award-winning poet and avid surfer. His third collection, The Wounded for the Water, is due out in February, and like his previous collections, it contains poems that hinge on the highly personal, from his father’s health and his daughter’s waterlogged sneakers to childhood friends and dorm duty. He also writes eloquently about inanimate objects (“The Beauty of a Nail”), and his poetry never feels self-involved: It’s a palpable form of connection. His poems — invitational, concrete, empathetic — linger with the reader, vivid and thought-provoking.

Q: When did you first discover your love of poetry?

Miller: I always liked writing and reading stories, but I remember in Ms. Matika’s 9th grade English class discovering Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” I had been all about big long books, and here was this eight-line poem that pretty much summed up me, my experience in the world. It’s about a guy dreaming during an astronomy lecture instead of listening to the science, and he starts floating through the stars and the cosmos, and I thought, “Yeah, I feel like that when I’m in class sometimes, like I’m just going to kind of depart. How did this guy do that in just eight lines?” And then, I think I was in high school, probably listening to The Doors a lot, and I went into a bookstore to buy a Jim Morrison book of poetry, of all things. But I also bought this other poet I had heard of — Sylvia Plath. Arial was the first real book of poetry that I bought, and I thought, “What is this?” It was doing something I couldn’t believe, and my love of poetry also started to launch from there. I really wanted to pursue it. Then, as an undergrad, I thought, “This is stupid, writing is not practical, it is not logical. I’m going to try to do something else more practical.” Because I had a very practical family, not a lot of people in the arts in my family, and I respected them a lot. So, I put it away.

But I started getting more and more miserable, and you know, if you’re not doing the thing that you love, you start to die a little bit inside. I was playing football in college and didn’t have much time to write or read stuff outside of class. Then I got hurt in my senior year and suddenly I had all this time, and I started reading and writing again, and I thought, “I think I have to do this with my life or I won’t have a life worth having.”

Q: Who are your current favorite poets?

Miller: Huge question! There are some younger poets, just starting to bubble forth. Malachi Black, who is teaching at [the University of] San Diego, is amazing. Brandon

Courtney, who I invited here, is a Navy veteran and a poet. Meg Day, she’s doing incredible work. Tyehimba Jess was just here, whose Olio just won the Pulitzer Prize. And, of course, the poets who do their lit work here — Willie Perdomo, Todd Hearon, Ralph Sneeden, Maggie Dietz, Jill McDonough down in Boston. ... I could go on. Danez Smith and Aziza Barnes are doing incredible work. ... Now I’m going to feel bad for the names that I don’t mention.

Q: You have a poem in your new collection, “On Nights When I Am My Mother,” with an acknowledgement, “after Meg Day.” What inspired that?

Miller: In her book Last Psalm at Sea Level, [Day] has a number of poems that use that title, “On Nights When I Am … .” There’s one where she’s Amelia Earhart, and another one where’s she’s Brandon Teena on the night he was killed, imagining that headspace. I thought this was a great exercise, and I use it as a prompt for my students: Write from the perspective of someone else, imagine their experience, what it’s like to be in their space. So I wrote one being in my own mother’s head because I know her experience of losing her husband and raising sons and the challenge of that — the challenge of me — of me being her son. I tried to empathize with that. We all can be tough on our folks, and then realize that it’s tough for them sometimes too. I wanted to try to reach across that, gaze into my own flaws.

Q: How does that work as an exercise in your Exeter classes? What kind of responses do you get?

Miller: I get great pieces. Lowers, when they do their roots projects, they research family members and, as opposed to writing about themselves, they reach outside and they often write about grandparents or parents or other relatives — their experience, say, in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. One student had had a great-grandparent who was on the Titanic and survived, but their best friend did not. So that student had to really dig into that time period and experience that fear. All writing and art, at its core, is about empathy. It’s about reaching across and sharing that common human experience no matter the difference in culture, background, gender, language, sexuality. If you can find a common moment between people, even just by making the attempt to do that, you’ve done something.

Q: What do you like most about being at Exeter?

Miller: The kids, the classroom, what happens at the table. You just see kids get fired up. They’re tired, they’re working their butts off — they’ve got sports, they’ve got plays, they’ve got music lessons — and they dig into a text like Moby-Dick or Hamlet or Beloved, and you just see their faces go, “Ah” and “Wow” and that’s how it stays fresh. Anytime you feel something is wearing you down, the classroom reminds you, “This is pretty cool.”

Q: I really loved your sequence “Ordeal by Water” in your new collection. I know we’re not supposed to conflate people with their art, but your poetry feels very personal. Is that something that is intentional or just what happens when you sit down to work?

Miller: I actually wrote “Ordeal by Water” while teaching a class that was doing senior meditation. I was slotted to do a meditation, so I thought I would write it as my students were writing theirs. I knew I’d have to present one but I couldn’t find the form — I was using prose and it was just terrible. And then a girl in the class, she was writing hers as a poem and I thought, “Oh my god, I should try that.” A lot of what I write comes out of personal experience; and digging into what might be significant or universal in that experience. I come from Lowell, Massachusetts, a big town of storytellers. Not all my poems do that, sometimes I get away from that, but then I get drawn back to that story again, that experience, examining my life and what that experience has given me. When I first became a parent, I wrote a lot about my daughter and the fear, that realization that once you bring a life into the world, you’ve also brought death into the world. You don’t think about that when you’re becoming a parent, but then they are born and you think, “This person is going to die; I’ve created death by creating life,” and you realize the way those things are combined and connected to each other. And the beauty of that too — this is a precious thing because it will not last. Sometimes I say I’m not going to write about myself, I’m not going to write about personal experiences, and then all of a sudden something comes out and I think, “I did it again!”

— Daneet Steffens ’82

Editor's note: This profile first appeared in the winter 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.