We Can’t Ever Do This Again by Amber McMillan
Amber McMillan published two poems in The Puritan Issue 16. Her first book, We Can’t Ever Do This Again, came out with Wolsak & Wynn in April 2015. Puritan editor Spencer Gordon asked her about teaching at Humber, composing this book, and how to break a line.
Spencer Gordon: Some people say that you have your whole life to write your first book; in other words, your first collection or novel or whatever is a byproduct of decades of thinking, suffering, working, and dreaming. How long have you been writing poetry? What are the surprise satisfactions of holding a full-length collection with your dang name on it? How has the experience differed from your expectations?
Amber McMillan: The idea that a first book is a culmination of decades of experience and thinking is a nice thought, but I don’t agree with the principal. One could say that about a lot of things, and I don’t necessarily believe in culminations in the first place. I think all things are a work in progress, rife with challenges, joys, and most of all, learning opportunities. All jobs, relationships, all changes in one’s locale, school, whatever. To say arrivals are culminations of experience coming together in a single moment of resolve is to miss the ongoing processes we are tangled up in, always. So, I don’t feel like holding my first book represents decades of thinking and so on.
A few years ago, I had written maybe twenty or thirty poems ever, and I sent a few out and they’d gotten published. Then a friend suggested I apply to the Writers Reserve program, and so I gathered ten poems together and sent those out. Paul Vermeersch at Wolsak read them and thought they were good and the next thing I knew we were discussing a book and a publication date. I can’t believe, given those circumstances, that this book is a culmination of decades of thinking—I have to believe that the timing was right, the poems were good enough, and I had somehow landed myself in this particular set of possibilities. This, though, is not to say anything less of the sheer thrill of having publishing professionals like the team at Wolsak & Wynn believe in my book enough to undertake the considerable work involved in putting it together and getting it out there. That is, and will remain, unbelievably flattering. I really am overjoyed.
Spencer Gordon: I feel a calm, quiet intensity (maybe another way of saying it is a “sober concentration”) in the poems in We Can’t Ever Do This Again. People talk about stillness in close reading, about carving out a rarefied space to redirect and hold attention (not totally unlike what some achieve through meditation). We live in such sonic, mental, striving, insane clutter. How would you describe your state of mind when you write a poem? How does it differ from your state of mind when reading a poem (and I mean really reading closely, not skimming on your smartphone in line to buy chips)?
Amber McMillan: So far I’ve needed to be alone to write a poem, and to have thought about the poem for some time before writing it. In that way, I work out a lot of the problems I have with the poem before I ever get it down on paper. I could say my state of mind is deliberate, private, and serious. These poems aren’t very funny—there’s not any jokes; I know—but maybe there are other ways to generate levity in a poem or in a collection as a whole.
Reading poems is very similar for me. I do that privately, too. This is the major obstacle to live readings for me that is an ongoing process of negotiation. I prefer readings that feel like a conversation, and I’m trying hard to be a reader like that too.
Spencer Gordon: I met you in 2011 in a hellish room called E140: an office for about 60 instructors buried in the North Campus of Humber College. I quit teaching there in 2013 and you got out in 2014, right? My question is three-fold: how important was poetry (your own, others) to you during your years teaching? How has teaching at the college-level shaped or influenced the direction of this book? Is the “Amber McMillan” in We Can’t Ever Do This Again the same “Amber McMillan” as the one who taught in those deadly fluorescent-lit classrooms?
Amber McMillan: I quit Humber in 2014 and moved across the country to a small island. That decision was and still is a complicated one, and I can see how it might also look like a dramatic one. It just became startlingly important to me and my family that we change the way we were living and to make whatever moves necessary to be happier. I don’t think teaching at Humber shaped or influenced the direction of this book because the life of the book was a very separate one from my day job, and in fact, my job often got in the way. There is no 9–5 in teaching; it’s all-consuming and spans weekends, holidays, and evenings. When you factor in traveling time in Toronto, there’s very little room to take up anything else on the side.
The Humber Amber is of course the same Amber in We Can’t Ever Do This Again, but it was a far more miserable version.
Spencer Gordon: In the preface to We Can’t Ever Do This Again, Jack Gilbert describes a moment of sensual beauty that “is worth / all the years of sorrow that are to come.” Later, in your poem “Put Another Way,” you describe how from time to time you might “look the other way” from an ever-present darkness. Are poems your way to preserve Gilbert’s beautiful moments? I mean, are you writing to make those moments realer, somehow, or more easily recalled? Are they composed to help you fight what in all moments is surely the threat of some plummeting horror? Your chance to look the other way?
Amber McMillan: It’s a theme throughout the book, I think. The looking the other way is what we have, it’s our trick. The excerpt from Gilbert at the beginning of the book seemed fitting to me, because it describes, to some extent, what’s to come in the book. And it describes a way of looking at things that I agree with.
Spencer Gordon: Some collections seem to house so many voices, but yours (I think) is a good example of some element of consistency. I know we’re done with the confessing “I,” but I really do feel as if most of these are very close to you, or the you who is thinking and reflecting, or the persona you use to face the world. It feels like “Amber” is talking in each of these (save a few, perhaps). Do you tell the truth in your poems? When you sit to write, are you trying to tell the truth? I think these are two different questions.
Amber McMillan: I had originally started writing these poems, a few years ago, as love poems to one person. In that way, if the poems were going to succeed, they had to be in my voice and they had to feel close. They also had to be the truth or that person would have had no choice but to reject them for lack of believability, lack of merit, and the poems would have failed as love poems. So yes, in this book, I tried to tell the truth the best I could, and with as much sincerity as I could. They had a job to do.
Spencer Gordon: We Can’t Ever Do This Again contains a number of sonnets; otherwise, the poems appear in what might be called “conventional” stanza and line break arrangements. What determines, for you, the shape and arrangement of your work? When do you know to break a line? How much of this is just a hunch, a suspicion? And what is your astrological sign?
Amber McMillan: I find the notion of a sonnet very appealing (three movements, 14 lines), and the length just constraining enough to force me to tighten up lines, cut words, rethink themes, and come out with a poem. I also thought that the mythology and history of a sonnet well suited my intentions for those parts of the book. As far as line breaks go, I heard once that one should never break a line on certain words like “and,” “but,” “that,” and so on, and I don’t. Otherwise, uniformity in line length is important, and so is the flow or metre of a line. I keep those thoughts in mind when I think about the lines.
My astrological sign is Virgo. I hope that’s good.
Spencer Gordon: Are you now writing more poems? I heard a rumour you were working on something involving Protection Island, BC, but that it wasn’t necessarily poetry. Want to dish?
Amber McMillan: Yeah, I’m working on stories and poems together for a project that has a lot to do with living here on Protection Island. It involves the characters and interactions and even the regional influences of living here. It changes a lot, and I don’t know where it’s going; I just know that I really want to write it.
Amber McMillan’s poems have appeared in The Puritan, CV2, Forget Magazine, and subTerrain, among others. She currently lives on Protection Island, BC. We Can’t Ever Do This Again is her first book.