Miller, David - Jonathan Evens
“Form welcomes the formless home”
Jonathan Evens interviews David Miller on his work and the “interrelation, symbiosis and overlap” between writing and visual art
Noted UK poet, fiction writer, painter, and musician, David Miller was born in Melbourne, Australia, but has lived in the UK for many years. His recent publications include Time, Wisdom, & Koalas (Chax Press, 2023), a work of fantastic fiction, and (close) (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2023), a deeply moving sequence of poetry and prose. A prolific writer, other recent publications include: Afterword (Shearsman Books, 2022), circle square triangle (Spuyten Duyvil, 2022), An Envelope for Silence (above/ground press, 2022) and Some Other Shadows (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2022).
Miller paints abstract images with brush and ink which often provide the covers to his poetry collections. In his visual art and poetry, he explores “visual poetics”, the title of a group exhibition he co-curated in 2013 which focused on ways in which poetry has moved into a visual dimension. His book Black, Grey and White: A Book of Visual Sonnets (Veer Publication, 2011) provides visual translations of the sonnet form through abstract art; his “shimmering lines of grey-black space gather and release intensity, swell and withdraw to elicit song from a reader’s white stare”. A current project “Things That Are / Things That Are Not” aims to bring together poetry, prose and paintings. He has also met, worked with and written about a range of visual artists. Additionally, he is a clarinettist who has performed as part of Blue Cross and The Mind Shop, as a duo with Ken White, and occasionally as a solo performer.
Meditation, ink & collage, 2022 © David Miller
Keith Jebb says that Miller creates “with a balance of minimalism, repetition and the abstract, words isolated and ringing.” He notes that Miller admires the poet Robert Lax immensely and says that “few have pitched words in space, found the pitch of words, like Miller and Lax.” Fanny Howe, another poet with whom Miller finds synergies, writing of his Spiritual Letters (series 1-5) (Chax Press, 2011), notes that his use of "The word 'spiritual' is … ripped away from the New Age and returned to its sources in Kabbalah and early Christian (gnostic) writings.” It “carries with it the world as we have it now;” a “heap of horrors, remnants, a sense of the feminine under assault, and the drive to love.” In Miller’s sense, to be human, she concludes, “is to be a spiritual entity more aligned with nature than with culture, and therefore to rebel.”
In this interview, we explore together a range of the ways in which he has engaged with the visual arts through his work.
JE: Although best known as a poet, you are a polymath – being artist, musician and writer – and have said that you originally intended to be an artist. How was it that creative writing became a particular focus for you, and what has your practice of visual art brought to that focus?
DM: I probably need to say that I come from a working-class family in Melbourne, Australia, which was largely bereft of music, art, and literature. How did I gravitate towards the arts? Indeed. I listened to the radio, which gave me access to everything from avant-garde jazz to Asian music, I went to exhibitions, I read art journals, and so on. Why? I was terribly curious and open-minded. But again, why? I was also reading voraciously, and not just poetry and fiction, but becoming interested in various religious/spiritual directions.
“Why?” is just inadequate. “Why not?”
We tend to think too much of socially determining factors rather than what leads us to seek what might be beyond them.
I was always interested in writing, visual art, and music. If anything, it was the fact that you can jot things down in a notebook or on loose sheets of paper that won out, for practical and economic reasons. Most especially, I was without a clarinet for many years after my instrument had been stolen in a break-in, and I was unable to play music.
Connections between the arts were of interest from very early on; for example, in 1968 or thereabouts I wrote a piece of music which was based on “correspondences” between colours and musical notes. It was never performed, as it needed several musicians to play it.
As I’ve said, I was without a means of creating music for some time. And I stopped painting. Why? Complicated. So we’ll have to come back to these concerns.
But the long and the short of it is that you can do things in music you can’t do in writing, you can do things in writing you can’t do in music, you can do things in painting you can’t do in writing, and so on and so forth. But there are overlaps! Also, there are paradigms that can be partially reproduced from one art form to another… but only partially!
JE: I've felt a similar compulsion both to create and also appreciate a wide range of culture. For me that's led to a desire to make connections across the different disciplines and to a confidence that creativity will always occur, even if I'm feeling blocked in regard to one discipline at a particular time. What understandings of creativity has your compulsion to create and appreciate formed in you?
DM: Creativity is definitely important. My late wife Doreen Maitre’s book Creative Consciousness is relevant here.
I know it’s a cliché, but the creative does have to be set over against the destructive. Always. Clichés are sometimes clichés for a good reason, they’re just plain right but have been said so often that people prefer ironies instead.
A human-centred view of things has left us with an estrangement from non-human animals as well as other earthly creatures, it has damaged our relations with the planet itself because of human greed and wilful ignorance. It has also separated us from the divine. We are now living with the dreadful consequences.
With cross, ink, 2022 © David Miller
JE: Together with other artist-poets, you create both paintings and poems. In your experience, does that combination change the nature of either or both and what synergies do you see between the two?
DM: You have to remember that I’m also an improvising musician, so that needs to be factored into the equation.
I don’t tend to privilege language when I write about art, poetry and music. I believe in visual thinking (see for example Rudolf Arnheim), I also believe in musical thinking, and I believe in trying to see and realise what goes beyond language. I think that art and music are, by their very nature, beyond language, even if, yes, we try to describe and explain them, always inadequately, through language, and if we might use language before or during their progress.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to give up writing. I’m stubborn, and also a paradoxical thinker who hates paradoxes.
David Jones was very good at this. He was an important poet and an important artist, and he saw both things in terms of making and in terms of disclosing.
JE: You’ve said before that the artist-poet David Jones – whom you met – is particularly illuminating on modern art and spirituality. What is it in Jones’ work and thought that has resonated strongly with you?
DM: I visited David Jones a couple of times in 1973, largely at the suggestion of William Cookson, who edited the magazine Agenda and was a staunch supporter of Jones’ work. Jones and I had long conversations, mostly about art. He was extremely nice to me, an unknown young Antipodean poet and artist, and I really liked him.
He said to me, “I don’t suppose you’ve come across a book of mine entitled Epoch and Artist?” I replied that I knew it well and had been very impressed by it. He looked away, as if moved by this.
His emphasis on the need for what he called “now-ness” (similar in a way to Pound’s dictum of “making it new” but also with a sense of what can still be achieved in societies and cultures that are increasingly subject to amnesia and fragmentation) was so welcome to me, as I’d been exposed to thinkers like A K Coomaraswamy who deified the past and denied any spiritual validity to modernist art. Jones clearly felt that you could fight against cultural amnesia, and that you could use fragmentation creatively – in a sense, rescuing it or perhaps just using it for other ends.
JE: Over the course of your long career, you have worked with or written about a large number of visual artists. Are there any common threads to the art and artists to which you have been drawn?
DM: I would not have worked with visual artists if I hadn’t been moved by what they were doing or seen a connection with my own work, of course. Ian McKeever stands out here, and in a more limited way, Mathias Goeritz, and also Jennifer Durrant. (More limited, mainly in the sense that there wasn’t very much active collaboration as such, although there was certainly a real exchange.) I’ve also worked with Australian collagist Denis Mizzi, a dear friend over the years, and even more, with Australian artist and musician Ken White, who is my oldest and dearest friend. But the relations here are really various. I would hazard a guess that this answers to aspects of my own ongoing creative activities, rather than anything stable or monolithic in nature.
JE: Many poets have written consistently and profoundly about art and artists. What is it that poems can add to the experience of responding to art that art criticism is, perhaps, unable to do?
DM: I doubt that any poets have really written that well about art, in their poetry the art tends to be more a jumping-off point for the poetry rather than the poetry being significantly disclosive about the art: Keats and Rilke come to mind. Some have written fairly well as art critics, for example several of the NY School poets. But how well, really? John Ruskin was a great prose writer – in English prose, you don’t really get any better, he’s up there with Traherne, Donne, Melville, Faulkner – and he was also a very good artist, so he brought a sensitivity to language to bear upon his art criticism as well as a practising artist’s sense of things. Élie Faure was not a poet (nor was Ruskin, apart from juvenilia), but he wrote with a poet’s sensibility, especially when he was writing about Chaim Soutine.
Incidentally, Ruskin made mistakes – most disastrously about Whistler – but also about Ford Madox Brown, who he seriously underestimated. David Jones was noticeably mistaken about Eric Gill, when he called him “a very good man” – few would agree with this now. But we all make mistakes, of course. We’re fractured, limited, always in need of wisdom and occasionally open to it: that’s who and what we are.
Ticket, ink pencil collage, 2023 © David Miller
JE: You have published a book of visual sonnets and co-curated ‘Visual Poetics’, a group exhibition, which focused on the ways in which poetry has moved into a visual dimension. Could you unpack the way in which you think poetry has moved into a visual dimension, particularly within your own work?
DM: My own involvement in visual poetry only lasted from around 1998 to 2012. I started using words and visual elements together in various ways, and then purely visual pieces came out of this, culminating in the “visual sonnets” (which were sparked off by Jeff Hilson asking me if I could do something of a visual nature for his anthology The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, which was published in 2008). I’d always done paintings and drawings as well as writing, as I’ve said, but at some point I hit a wall with the visual work and couldn’t seem to move on at all. Combining the two things was my way of getting beyond that situation. After that I developed the visual work without incorporating words or notions of literary form, at least for the most part.
However, I also organised exhibitions of small press publications, starting from the beginning of the 1990s, and these took a decidedly visual/verbal turn from 1994, with an exhibition at Simon Cutts’ workfortheeyetodo, a gallery/bookshop in London. I curated this with the librarian Geoffrey Soar. This development culminated in the show you mentioned, which was curated with Chris McCabe and which took place in The National Poetry Library in London in 2013.
My interest in what I’ve called “interrelation, symbiosis and overlap” between writing and visual art goes back to my discovery of people like Heinz Gappmayr, Mathias Goeritz, Carlfriedrich Claus and so on, way back in the very late 1960s/very early 1970s. This was through the classic Concrete Poetry anthologies by Emmett Williams and Mary Ellen Solt, and to a lesser extent Stephen Bann’s. (I initially found out about Robert Lax from the Solt and Bann anthologies, by the way.) Like much else I was interested in, it was about stretching or extending the possibilities available to one, or if you like, challenging what was considered possible in many quarters, especially but not exclusively in the mainstream.
JE: Many of your written works use collage or montage as a method, although collage is primarily viewed as a visual medium. What have you taken from its use in visual art for adaptation within your written works?
DM: I’ve made use of collage from time to time in my visual work as well, but it’s never been a major preoccupation there. Of course other poets have also been collagists, very notably the late Keith Waldrop, and my good friend John Phillips.
Collage or montage in poetry and other forms of writing has been around for quite a while. The more extreme instances, where the text consists entirely or almost entirely of found material collaged together, include Charles Madge’s ‘Bourgeois News’ (in The Disappearing Castle), much of Paul Metcalf’s later work, Giles Goodland’s A Spy in the House of Years, Antony John’s collage poems, and Peter Jaeger’s later work. But you also get complex examples where the juxtapositions might include some found material or very little or none at all, yet still have the effect of collage. Pierre Reverdy, who is one of my favourite poets, never uses collage in the literal sense, but the abrupt shifts in much of his poetry are certainly collage-like, and of course Reverdy was close to the Cubists and would have been familiar with their use of collage.
Juxtaposition is the key term here. David Jones claimed that “The one common factor implicit in all the arts... resides in a certain juxtaposing of forms” (Epoch and Artist). In the particular examples we might think of with regard to collage, this is most likely to involve the juxtaposing of disparate material. This is true of my own writing, and whether one prefers to think in terms of collage, juxtaposition, assemblage, contiguity or arrangement, it’s about creating or disclosing unfamiliar relationships and subverting familiar ones, and about bringing together multiple and dissimilar voices, textures and references.
JE: Robert G. Hampson suggested that you have “aimed to approach the Divine through unknowing, through rational uncertainty co-terminous with belief and hope”. To what extent is negative theology a key element of your work and thinking and how is that seen within your work?
DM: Robert Hampson definitely knows a thing or two. That’s a very old essay, but it stands up.
My most extensive statement on negative theology in relation to poetry is a piece called ‘The Dark Path’, which was recently included in (close), a collection of my writings from Knives Forks and Spoons Press. It’s a very odd piece that’s somewhere between an essay and a poem of sorts. Otherwise, I’ve included quotations and references from Nicholas of Cusa, especially, in some of my poetic writings. I would have to check, but I think that’s mainly the Spiritual Letters (Spuyten Duyvil, 2022), a long series of prose poems which I wrote from 1995 to 2016.
I think the uses of uncertainty would be one way of thinking about this, also the notion of orientation in the sense of something that puts you on a path, guides and directs you in a particular and fundamental way. It’s more like that than it’s a matter of subject matter as such, although it can be that as well.
JE: You have been influenced by American poet Robert Lax - a friend of Thomas Merton, Ad Reinhardt and Ed Rice. What has Lax’s significance been for you?
DM: Robert Lax wasn’t very well known, and not always highly regarded when he was known, for much of his life. When I first came to England in 1972, I mentioned him to Peter Levi and Michael Hamburger, and the responses were not positive. But it wasn’t just the mainstream poets: Eric Mottram, who saw himself very much as an experimental poet and an authority on experimental poetry, told me he didn’t even consider Lax a poet at all! On the other hand, I visited the visual and sound poet Bob Cobbing, and he was far more positive; he put me onto a man named David Kilburn, who had an active archive of Lax’s work and also copies of various of Lax’s publications for sale. I went to see Kilburn in his flat in Covent Garden – of all places; probably an impossibility nowadays! He gave me Lax’s address in case I wanted to write to him – just like that. In those days it was simply Robert Lax / Kalymnos / Greece. (He later moved to Patmos, “the holy island”.)
So a correspondence ensued, and also a series of meetings. I also wrote about Lax, and eventually Nicholas Zurbrugg and I put together The ABCs of Robert Lax (Stride Publications, 1999).
Bob Lax was exemplary for me, both as a writer and as a person. He appears as a character in one of my novellas, in Time, Wisdom and Koalas (Chax Press, 2023). Orientation? Oh yes.
To go back to why his writing was met with such negative responses. I think part of it at least was that he didn’t really fit into an easily recognisable literary classification. Yes, he was sometimes thought of as a Concrete poet, and he went along with it to some extent but he wasn’t really at home with it. It’s interesting that Emmett Williams admired Lax’s poetry but didn’t include him in his famous Concrete poetry anthology. Other than that, there is a strong, even severe strand of minimalism in a good deal of his work, and some readers don’t respond well to that sort of thing.
Merton and Reinhardt were Bob’s friends from university days… and onwards, until their deaths.
Brancusi was an influence. With me, also.
JE: You’ve written that Lax and Reinhardt both “use structure to get beyond structure” and also use form “to let the ‘formless’ manifest itself.” To what extent is this aim shared within your work?
DM: Structures are not especially interesting or significant – unless they’re tied to something else, such as imagination, emotion, vision. I think that’s true with architecture, it’s certainly true with art, writing and music.
Form and formlessness – they’re in a dialogic relationship. Form welcomes the formless home. Formlessness accepts form as its home. When that’s possible, viable and fruitful.
JE: A recent project “Things That Are / Things That Are Not” brings together poetry, prose and paintings. How important is it for you that all the strands of your polymathic practice are seen to be inter-related and speaking one to the other?
DM: That book will be published by Chax Press. I’m excited by it. The various activities I’ve been involved in over these many years are not unrelated. But just how they are related cannot be seen, even by me, unless they’re presented together.
Jonathan Evens is Team Rector for Wickford and Runwell in Essex, UK. Previously Associate Vicar for HeartEdge at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, he was involved in developing HeartEdge as an international and ecumenical network of churches engaging congregations with culture, compassion and commerce. In that time, he also developed a range of arts initiatives at St Martin’s and St Stephen Walbrook, a church in the City of London where he was Priest-in-charge for three years. Jonathan is co-author of ‘The Secret Chord,’ an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief, and writes regularly on the visual arts for national arts and church media including Artlyst, ArtWay and Church Times. He also blogs regularly at https://joninbetween.blogspot.com/.