Cynthia Miller is a Warwick Graduate whose poems have been published in several magazines and journals, and who published Honorifics, her first collection of poetry, this year. It was met with outstanding success — it was awarded an Eric Gregory and is shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. She also co-founded the Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham, and works with the connected publishing house Verve Poetry Press
What drew you to poetry as a form?
9th grade English. I’m pretty sure it was Walt Whitman that was the catalyst – my English teacher at the time covered Whitman and Ginsburg, and it felt like a door to new possibilities had opened. I remember reeling and thinking, “Oh this can be poetry?!”. It was heady, it didn’t rhyme, it was boundary-breaking in all the ways I didn’t know poetry could be. My friend and I, who were both in the class and total literature nerds, started writing these ridiculous, surreal, rambling prose poems to each other in response to a homework assignment and then we just carried on.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Honestly everywhere – news articles, science and technology magazines, Twitter, poems shared on social media, games, conversations with relatives about family history. Lots of the poems that eventually ended up in Honorifics, my first collection, were sparked by the most random things: a video of a jellyfish in a Venetian canal during lockdown; an artwork by beeple; a video of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli talking about the nature of time.
I have an ever-growing Evernote file where I save clips of articles, blog posts, images, lines from poems – anything that is sparky and interesting, which acts as prompts to return to if I feel I need a starting point.
Some of your poems seem to explore similar concepts, what do you think the advantage is of exploring the same thing from different angles?
I think it allows you to delve deeper and read wider. For me at least, once I came across a topic I was interested in, I just got sucked in. It was like hitting a rich seam. Part of the reason there are so many poems about family and time is because the pleasure of researching, reading widely and connecting what I was seeing from different mediums (film, TV, academic texts, poetry) was a generative process in and of itself.
Let’s take the poem “Proxima b”, for example. It’s directly inspired by The Order of Time, a non-fiction book about spacetime. As I underlined and dog-eared the pages, I started reading more sci-fi, which led to re-watching the spectacular film Arrival, which led me to think about family history in a way that was more stretchy, more nuanced, more experimental than if I hadn’t marinated in that subject from different angles. In any case, creativity is about connected unexpected dots, so I think there’s huge value in exploring the same concept from different viewpoints and mediums.
Is there any advice you’d give to someone who would like to publish their first chapbook or poetry collection in the coming years? How was your experience with the industry?
Don’t rush yourself. Don’t be rushed. There’s a lot of pressure in the poetry world on debut books – prize culture very much focuses on blockbuster first collections – and it’s easy to get caught up in all of that.
It can feel like labouring away on a debut collection is a lonely, individual endeavour. It doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t have to be that way. There’s loads of support out there beyond the university walls in the form of writing courses, mentors, the community as a whole, that can help shape how you see your book. Don’t underestimate the value and support that comes from those relationships.
I had a brilliant experience with the industry. My first pamphlet and book were both with Nine Arches Press and I had the good fortune of knowing my editor, Jane Commane, ever since my Warwick undergrad days. We had worked together for years through writing workshops and the Primers scheme before a conversation about a first collection came up – I’m so glad I had those years to write furiously, experiment, be challenged, meet other poets at different stages of their writing journeys, etc.
Do you have any advice for submitting to magazines, especially for newer poets?
Sure, here’s a practical piece of advice that has saved me lots of admin headaches. Have a spreadsheet to track where all your submissions are. It sounds boring but if you go on a submission spree, make sure you know where they are; Jo Bell has an excellent and simple spreadsheet template to track what’s in progress, what has been submitted and what has been rejected.
Are there must-have books that aspiring poets should get their hands on?
I’ll recommend two books on craft that are sitting on my bookshelf right now, rather than specific authors: The Craft: a guide to making poetry happen in the 21st century, is a collection of essays edited by Rishi Dastidar that is a brilliant companion for writing poetry. It covers form and technique, it delves into how to approach poems from viewpoints you wouldn’t have considered before, it introduces new approaches and mindsets to poetry that are still refreshing and inspiring even though I’ve leafed through it many times. I promise it’ll be way more useful, interesting and practical than any poetry handbook on any course list.
What made you want to start the Verve Poetry Festival? What is your favourite thing that has come from it?
In 2016 I went to a poetry festival in the countryside. From Birmingham city centre, it took me two trains, a local bus and a lift from my put-upon B&B owner to finally get there. I remember thinking at the time that it was bonkers that Birmingham, as the second city, didn’t have its own festival. It deserved its own poetry festival – one as diverse and lively and collaborative and fun as the local poetry community was. There were a good five (or more!) regular poetry nights happening in and around the city, powered by such a lovely community, and it was just the right time and place to do it. At that time, Waterstones was hosting a lot of poetry events so I connected with the store Manager, Stu Bartholomew, and the rest is history.
Favourite thing about the festival… probably the fact that it’s grown beyond our wildest dreams. Physically we’ve grown every year, eclipsing the venue of Waterstones Birmingham then expanding to a ‘proper’ theatre space. It’s become a springboard for a publishing house (Verve Poetry Press). It’s brought together poets from around the country and the world. It’s shown that festivals can and should be a mix of ‘page’ and ‘stage’. That inclusive, diverse programming is the expectation. All of it, really.