Maggie Millner is the author of Couplets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry magazine, Kenyon Review, Bomb magazine, The Nation, and elsewhere. She was the 2020–21 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Poetry at Colgate University and the 2019–20 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University. She is currently a lecturer at Yale and a senior editor at The Yale Review.
Poets.org: Couplets holds room for multiplicities—it tells a “story and a truth” through a nonlinear narrative, a first- and second-person point-of-view, and through both prose and couplet forms. The “I” is both sovereign and interdependent (3.12). Aside from “sexuality [being] a formal concern,” (3.10) can you talk more about the relationship between queerness, poetry, and your experience with writing the book? How did you decide on its forms?
Maggie Millner: The affinity between the couplet form and the subject of homoerotic love seems totally intuitive to me now. But I’ll admit that, at the time I began writing this poem, I was motivated much more by the immediate, process-based pleasures of prosodic writing than by any highfalutin ideas about mimesis. The couplet form offered a clear grammar for my messy thoughts, and also gave me an excuse to exult in the textures of language (rather than address daunting metatextual questions like “Who am I?” or “What is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?”).
Like me, the narrator of this poem is obsessed with analyzing formal categories. If the book moves between forms and genres, it’s perhaps because the narrator is still figuring out which structures and habits feel most amenable to her; she’s earnestly trying out various ways of living by imposing various frameworks on her life. There are real stakes, for her, in understanding the differences between prose and verse as storytelling devices—just as there are real stakes in understanding the practical differences between a straight life and a queer one, or between monogamous and polyamorous relationships.
The prose sections arrived relatively late, after I’d written most of the verse. I was beginning to worry that a book composed only of rhyming, lineated couplets might feel claustrophobic or tedious to the contemporary reader; the formalism needed a counterpoint, and the narrative needed some air. But it also seemed sort of clunky to just interlard the poem with blocks of prose. Then I realized that, if I conceived of each prose paragraph as one long, hyper-metrical poetic line (especially since I had already decided to dispense with strict metrical and syllabic rules long beforehand)—and if I also appended a short rhyming line to every paragraph—I wouldn’t technically be violating the terms of the couplet form at all. These sections ended up looking a bit like Japanese haibun, the hybrid form from the seventeenth century that begins with a prose poem and ends with a haiku. Once I realized that there was a way to include prose without renouncing the logic of the verse, I started experimenting with other kinds of vocalizing, including second-person narration.
Poets.org: The proem of Couplets begins with the lines, “I became myself. / I became myself.” Like every other couplet in the proem (save the last), this couplet uses identical rhymes, which might be thought of as more perfect than perfect rhymes. Similarly, the Danish poet Inger Christensen’s Alphabet begins with the line, “apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist.” In both cases, the simple repetition seems to result in an affirmation, or an accumulation. How does this echoing—and its fracturing in the final couplet—provide the backdrop for Couplets?
MM: The book approaches love between women as, among other things, a reparative act within a patriarchal society. When you love someone who has been socialized within the same gendered conventions as yourself—someone whom culture has also treated, “on the basis of sex,” as structurally inferior—I think you also perform a kind of profound self-love. (I’m reminded of this quote from Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts that’s always, deservedly, resurfacing on the Internet: “But whatever sameness I’ve noted in my relationships with women is not the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.”) Even my most intimate relationships with cis men haven’t entailed quite this sort of identification or self-reappraisal.
“Sameness,” in other words, feels to me like a constitutive component of queer love. And identical rhyme, or rime riche, is one way of formally enacting that sameness. All rhyme involves some degree of sonic repetition, of course, but rime riche entails orthographic repetition too; the visual mirroring foregrounds the correspondence between two words, which reflect each other flawlessly. If the rhyme breaks down by the end of the proem, perhaps that has something to do with the limitations of identification, or the impermanence of the partnerships in question.
Poets.org: In Book Two, you explore the complexities of polyamory and, in Poem 2.5 particularly, the metatextual aspect of relationships—in this instance, the ways in which sexual partners can serve as conduits to other desired partners or experiences. What did you learn about the nature of desire—your own and others’—from writing this book?
MM: In the first half of this book, the narrator sees sexual desire as a kind of lodestar; she thinks physical pleasure can teach her totalizing truths about herself. And she’s right that sex has a certain exalted place in our lives; as Amia Srinivasan argues, “there is nothing else so riven with politics and yet so inviolably personal.” But while erotic desire might be the primary catalyst in the narrator’s journey toward greater self-knowledge, I do think she ultimately arrives—as I have—at a more nuanced concept of desire as a force that has as much to do with personal context as it does with bodily compulsion. Desire might dictate how we behave, but our behavior also dictates what we want.
To answer your question, I think I emerged from the writing of this book with less interest in the fundamental nature of desire and more interest in how different kinds of conditions give rise to different flavors of desire. By the end, even though the narrator still has no idea what she will desire in the future—does anyone?—she has a much greater sense of the role she wants desire to play in her life.
Poets.org: In Book Three, Poem 3.10, we “glimpse [a] whole existence,” the “different selves,” even the inner child and those wounds that surface solely in romantic relationships. What did writing through these triggers and different selves teach you?
MM: For me, writing is less about metabolizing raw experience than about getting outside it: reaching some level of analytical remove from which I can really see the limitations of my own point of view. I’m fortunate to have other venues—friendship, therapy, exercise, etc.—for working through the practical difficulties of being a person. Poetry, by contrast, provides a space where my “I” can become productively defamiliarized to itself: a space where I can better observe how received value systems have shaped my own mind, and so begin to resist and reform them. Whereas traditional prose narratives need characters to remain consistent, or else develop linearly in response to particular plot points, poems have no such mandate. In that way, for me, they’re more suited to the task of rendering the multiplicity and disjointedness of selfhood.
Poets.org: What are you currently reading?
MM: The Call-Out by Cat Fitzpatrick—another queer rhyming novel chock-full of prosodic treasures.
Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?
MM: I’ve just begun digging into Virginia Jackson’s great new book, Before Modernism: Inventing American Lyric, which revisits the work of several underread nineteenth-century Black poets, including Ann Plato, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and George Moses Horton. It’s been a joy to find more work by these writers on Poets.org to supplement my reading. (And now I’ll never scratch an itch again without thinking of Horton’s “Troubled with the Itch and Rubbing with Sulphur.”)