Poet Tyler Mills discusses her new book “City Scattered: Cabaret for Four Voices” [INTERVIEW]

On the latest episode of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast host James Morehead sat down with poet Tyler Mills to discuss her new book City Scattered: Cabaret for Four Voices. Tyler is the author of City Scattered (winner of the Snowbound Chapbook Award), as well as Hawk Parable (winner of the Akron Poetry Prize), Tongue Lyre (winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award), and Low Budget Movie (co-authored with Kendra DeColo and winner of the Diode Editions Chapbook Prize). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New Republic, and Poetry, and her essays in AGNI, Brevity, River Teeth, and The Rumpus. She teaches for Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center’s 24PearlStreet, is a Founding Editor of The Account, and lives in Brooklyn.

James Morehead: Your new book City Scattered is built around four voices. Summarize the device you use in the book, and how that approach came together.

Tyler Mills: “There are four voices in the book. The book is in large part set in the Weimer era of Berlin, so I was imagining a mechanized chorus interrupting and commenting on the actions of the book. There is another persona of an imagined woman in Berlin at that time. She is working a white collar job during the period of hyperinflation and I thought about the issues she would have dealt with at that time. There’s also an interlocutor voice, a more contemporary speaker interrupting the scenes to comment on what it means to be writing about this subject. Finally there’s a voice of the study itself which adapts, borrows, and engages with language from Siegfried Kracauer’s ‘The Salaried Masses’. He studied wage laborers at that time and was interested and troubled by the idea of that collective identity. I found it really interesting that he included the voices of women in his study, so that was my inroad into this project.” 

James: You make use of borrowed language in some of the poems, from a 1930 study of wage labor in Weimar Berlin. What originally drew you to this source material? 

Tyler: “I was always interested in that period of history and art. I ended up at the Neue Galerie in New York on a layover. I was living in New Mexico at the time and was coming back East to see family. I was drawn to a Berlin Metropolis exhibit and was enamored with everything about the study of the city. I ended up splurging on the exhibition catalog, which was extremely heavy and beautiful, and I brought it with me on the plane to read closely. That is how I ended up discovering Kracauer’s text. I then read the study itself and I found myself wanting to write poems from the study.

“At first, the project was not working at all, it was a failure in my eyes, but I just wouldn’t let it go. The poems I first wrote were very static and too married to the text. The poems were not really filled with the life of the lyric voice that I think a book needs to breathe and live. I wasn’t allowing enough of my imagination into the project., I needed to have a reckoning with myself about that and I set the project aside for a while. When I came back to the book, I breathed more life into it using the voices. The book came from a personal exploration and interest, and then that had its own journey.” 

James: Your poetry employs empty space very effectively. In my poetry, I love playing with how words appear on the page as much as how they sound. What is your approach to visualizing your poetry?

Tyler: “For the I / Self / Woman in Berlin voice, I ended up double spacing the poems to allow more white space, pause, and breath into the work. That’s not really something I do across the other books that I’ve written, so it was a rather new technique for me. I felt that I needed that for this project to really invite me to focus on animating the voice, because I was also imagining the book as a performance. I called the book a cabaret for voices, even though it could not be performed on a stage as a functioning cabaret, but it takes its conceit from that idea. I wanted to imagine the voice being able to speak, energize, and enliven the way poems and persona can interact.” 

James: When constructing your poems where do you tend to begin? With an idea, or a phrase, or an image? The phrase:

      “The world is not as it is        but as it appears—

the splendid view of the city by night        star-spangled

       like denial.”

from your poem “The Study: The Delicate Language of Signs“, such a beautiful line, struck me as something that could have been the spark of a poem. How do your poems tend to begin?

Tyler: ”When I’m thinking about poems and relationships with texts, I often will find myself snagging on a phrase from the text that I just can’t let go of. Sometimes it’s a phrase that is so odd or weirdly enchanting that I feel like if I lifted it away it invites me to play with it and say something new. It invites me to reflect even more deeply with the text from an artistic standpoint. Other times, I am walking around in the world and a line or title will come to me. Yesterday, I was taking a walk and I had to stop and text myself titles so that I can just get it down. Sometimes I’ll get the snippet of a first stanza when I’m walking around as if a voice appears in my ear. Sometimes this happens out of nowhere, but often it occurs in relationship to something I might have seen or smelled or touched or tasted. So I think it’s about being open to artistic possibilities in the world. I really try to catch those glimpses of things when they emerge.

“I think that writing poems is a mysterious process. I know that this book is by and large a ‘project book’. I put it in quotes because I know some people like to argue about what project books are and if they’re good or bad. Even though this book has a theme, structure and a driving idea, it really came from that place of mystery. It came from that interior, urgent speaking voice that comes to the ear.” 

James: It’s hard not to think of this book being interpreted as theatre, perhaps I’m biased by the subtitle “Cabaret for Four Voices” and the opening line of the book:

"I wake, put on a silk slip, a wool skirt, and cut

past the building bombed to rubble

in the war."

Could you think of this book as theatre in part? Maybe with some necessary modifications to make it theatrical? 

Tyler: “It’s something that I’ve been worrying about, and I wonder if it would confuse people or not if someone were to perform it. I would love to see it as a theatre performance, and I think that it could be done. There are these very distinct voices and I grounded them in place and time and with texture and lighting.” 

James: The vignettes, in different forms throughout the book, create empathy with the struggles of workers in a collapsing economy, phrases such as:

"waiting for Unemployment to open

with marks in their pockets

losing value at the shadows shift."

What did you learn going through the process of research for this book?

Tyler:  “I knew about the era itself and hyperinflation, but I didn’t quite understand that children were playing with cash and it meant absolutely nothing. Children would stack money into pyramid play structures and they would turn cash into kites to fly in the park. I was reading about the women who were wage laborers at the time and they had this odd position and privilege where they could renegotiate their wages throughout the day because of how quickly everything was changing. They could continue to reassert their status and be able to buy the bread that someone else who might have been waiting in line all day could not buy because the price would have radically increased by the time they got to the front.”

James: What is your advice for poets that are tackling a project where they’re creating a fictional voice that has to come to life as though it’s your own?

Tyler: ”Don’t assume you know what you’re talking about going in. Don’t assume you know the persona even as you’re doing research. Allow mystery and what you might not know into the voice so that it reads as real, and so that you are open to your own fallibility as the contemporary person trying to write about the past. It is really like looking into the void and wondering what comes back.” 

James: Many of the poems in City Scattered are visual, placement of words and empty space is important, in particular the second I / Self / Woman in Berlin poem. How do you approach reciting poems with a strong visual element? 

Tyler: “I try to invite the poem to live in the voice. I believe the poem has two lives – one is in the printed page and one is in the voice. I think back to how poetry is one of the oldest forms of human communication along with music and the visual arts. When I’m reading the poem, I want the voice to be alive. I try to invite the listener to perceive some of the gaps that might exist on the page, but I don’t try to force it in a way that would make it not feel like a living, breathing being.” 

James: A tricky challenge in poetry is tackling a subject where you have a point of view without that statement or belief or opinion making the poem too concrete. You’ve very effectively combined concrete images and examples from the time period, while leaving each poem open to multiple interpretations. How did you approach editing this book, to achieve that balance? 

Tyler: ”That was a struggle as I wanted to make sure that the goals of the book were clear without appearing overstated. I thought that the contemporary voice coming in to speak and comment on the study was important and that was a later addition into the book. The interlocutor poem called ‘What this study ignores’ does important work with that. In that poem there are the gold memorial stones in Berlin of the Holocaust victims. I really wanted to make space for that.

“Siegfried Kracauer was worried about what mass culture could be leading to due to the extreme politics of the time and he ended up fleeing to Paris first and then immigrated to the US and lived the rest of his days in New York to escape the Nazis because he was Jewish. My spouse is Jewish and my daughter is half Jewish, so I was thinking a lot about this when I was writing the book and what was at stake in this project.”. 

James: I’ve asked several guests on this podcast how they decide on the order of poems. Were these poems written in the order of the book, or, more likely, ordered later like most collections?

Tyler: “I think I had this very short poem, where a woman was interviewed about her life on a train to the suburbs, but she said you can already find all that in novels, as the very first poem in the book. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t working. I felt that I needed something to set the stage and place us more clearly in that time, and in my imagined persona, the I / Self / Woman in Berlin. I thought starting with that voice would start the book more strongly. I scattered the pages all over the floor. I think there’s a bit of mystery in trying to find motifs that speak to one another, while also making sure that the poems don’t become too static with too many similar poems grouped together. When I arrange any book I’ve written, I think constantly about leading the reader, but also surprising them.”

Listen to the full episode to hear Tyler read selections from City Scattered.

Tyler Mills

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