FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
CYNTHIA MILLER: I started writing poetry as a teenager. After freshman year in high school, while my friends were off at summer camp doing ferociously athletic things like volleyball bootcamp to prepare for pre-season, I was lucky enough to attend a poetry creative writing camp. Two whole bookshop weeks devoted to workshops and discovering poets and writing our own terrible poetry! That was joyous and special. I never really stopped.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
CM: Being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize means, hopefully, that my book reaches readers that may not have come across it otherwise – readers that may see themselves or their experiences or stories captured in a way that feels new, important, different.
FP: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
CM: The poems that I feel are the beating heart of the book are also the ones that are most important, most vulnerable, most daring, most stylistically playful for me: ‘Glitch Honorifics’, ‘Homecoming’ and the ‘Portmeirion’ sequence at the beginning of the collection. The book is about mothers and migration and my mixed Chinese-Malaysian heritage, yes, but it’s also about the feeling of navigating multiple universes and alternate timelines. How memory and time, language and belonging, create an in-between-ness, a feeling of being in an “elsewhere”.
‘Glitch Honorifics’ in particular, as the (sort of) title poem for the collection, is really important to me personally. It started as a conversation with another poet about whether a three-dimensional poem could be written and how, and then evolved to prototypes drawn on sticky notes, tracing paper and greaseproof baking paper so I could layer slices of lines on top of each other.
The whole collection came together quite quickly. Although there are a few poems in there that are a few years old, the majority of the book was written in a heady first-lockdown blur in summer 2020. I took a couple weeks off work, went on a poetry course that fed us rapid-fire prompts daily – and it just poured out, unstoppable. I tend to have fallow years where I don’t write anything at all so I’ve had to train myself to write rapidly when it does come. Like a horse that’s already running away and I’m just hanging onto a fistful of mane for dear life. The poems in Honorifics are very much a product of that intense and surreal period where it felt like we were all moving through time very strangely; I don’t think they could have been written otherwise.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
CM: Solmaz Sharif, Sharon Olds, Fiona Benson, Caroline Bird, Bridget Pegeen Kelly, Nuar Alsadir, Maggie Nelson, Ocean Vuong. There’s a restlessness, an alertness, a sense that you never quite know whether you’re going to be sucker punched, seduced or startled by the next line. Benson, Alsadir and Nelson in particular are doing really innovative, boundary-pushing things with form, which I so admire – thinking about the experience of poetry beyond a linear reading, experimenting with how it shows up on the page in a way I’d love to do more of.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
CM: I have a strange, experimental crown of sonnets inspired by time travel sci-fi films that I’ve been trying to write for ages. I’ll probably work on that. But also – staying curious, reading unlikely things, tinkering with cutting room floor lines, seeing what emerges next.