Ohio Apertures (2021) is Robert Miltner’s latest work, a collection of short creative nonfiction pieces that comprise a memoir. The author of two books of prose poetry, poetry chapbooks, and a short story collection, his memoir represents a cohesive journey. From stories of youth to young and older adulthood; from reflections of Ohio to the American West and trips abroad; from journeys by foot and by car—the car such a potent symbol of the post-industrial Midwest—the reader journeys with the author, and it is a satisfying and solace-making trip that doesn’t look away from the remains of Midwestern heydays past. Miltner provides the objects of his looking and perceiving and also the vehicle of that looking, and I think that matters in studies of observation, in studies of life, which is what we readers want in memoir—the particular and personal expanded to the universal, expanded to include our lives, too.
The objects Miltner ruminates upon in these short essays are often small—he’s so good at detail. There’s the watch pocket in a pair of Levi’s; the pneumatic tube at the bank drive thru; the crescent roll of youth and croissant of maturity; the sound an old car makes, like “sarcastic laughter”; the song that was playing at the bar after he was robbed as a young man. There’s a lot of music in these pages—a few of these pieces feel like they have their own soundtracks—but most of the music comes from the lyrical quality of these essays. And the quiet, the white space, the musical rests, the silence that is, Miltner says, “both the context for prayer and prayer itself.”
Always, the author returns to Ohio, the name alone like a song, and to the state’s flowing rivers and Great Lake Erie and its shale coastline that makes for violent, crescendo-like waves at its cliffs. My favorite piece in the collection is the last, “Black River Bridge,” an ode to a bridge that the author has traveled many times to cross his home-town river. He speaks to it, lovingly, in this essay: “Poor Black River, you lonely stepsister in this sad fairy tale of Ohio rivers…No one, lost river of industry, dark river of my youth, kisses your mouth each night along your shale and sand shoreline.” Though somber in tone, the piece ends optimistically, or in a tone I like to think of as Northeast Ohio optimism—which is as tempered as our steel.
Recently, I asked the author a few questions about this collection, about his writing process and projects, and about writing in community:
Robert, Ohio Apertures is a lyric memoir in short pieces. You’ve written a lot of poetry and fiction, but this represents your debut memoir. What do you like about creative nonfiction? Were there things you could say about your life that you couldn’t say—or hadn’t said yet—through other mediums that you said in these pages?
I view myself as a writer, which I use in the comprehensive sense, rather than identifying by a single genre, because it feels restrictive. In terms of genre, I’ve felt compelled to “contain multitudes.” Writing in a new genre is like acquiring a new language; it’s like becoming bilingual or, for me with Ohio Apertures, trilingual. I used to think adding genres would be about learning the guidelines for new puzzles. Any new genre is like a puzzle, and what is produced is a piece of writing that is one solution to the puzzle. In that way, my collection of short stories was, for me, a collection of individual solutions to a general question regarding the art and craft of short fiction. What I discovered was an art akin to drama, to theater. I create characters then put them in situations; or, I imagine situations then insert characters. Variations on puzzles. What I learned was a way of speaking through masks, wherein the first person singular “I” is not me being lyrical, but some other person engaged in narrative action—it’s not me speaking.
When the first person singular “I” speaks in a poem or a creative nonfiction, that’s me. It’s like revelatory song lyrics or confessional poetry. And it’s risky to speak for yourself, and safer to speak through a character. In looking back at And Your Bird Can Sing, my collection of short fictions, there are several pieces that are very autobiographical, and so much so, that I can now see them as memoir that I didn’t recognize as such. So here is what my response to your question has been arching toward:
What I like about creative nonfiction, or lyric memoir, or lyric-narrative memoir, is the element of risk. Of being open and honest and as true as is possible to the material. It’s the risk of being vulnerable.
Ironically, while I was shaping individual pieces of creative nonfiction—memoir, lyric essays, narrative nonfiction, travelogue pieces—into a book where I was experiencing the most lyric freedom, I was concurrently shaping a new manuscript of poetry in which I was developing these sparse, minimalist prose poems that I can only define as not exactly a-lyrical, but more like lyric zero; they’re textual equivalents to Edward Hopper paintings: empty rooms where we sense the presence of people who are absent. Crazy, huh?
It’s like I transferred all my lyrical attention from my prose poems into my creative nonfiction memoir. The risk was exhilarating and the results of both manuscripts generated exciting new material through which I have discovered this: choice of genre is really about where I stand in relationship to the subject matter. It’s like the Wallace Stevens poem in which he writes, “I was of three minds,/Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds.” If I read the three minds as the three genres I write—poetry, fiction, and now nonfiction—the blackbirds can be seen as the creative impulse. But what’s most interesting to me is that Stevens isn’t really addressing the puzzle of the three minds—instead he’s telling us that the blackbirds are in a tree. For them, it’s about where they perch. And for me, now, writing is about where I stand, finding the site that allows the best relationship to the subject matter.
I asked your friend and mine, memoirist David Giffels once if memoirists have great memories—I thought, how else to capture a moment from one’s distant past? He told me that, for him, there’s a lot of research involved, even for personal memoir—research in the way of interviews of family and friends who might have a different perspective on a past event. Can you tell us a little about your research process for one of the pieces in this book?
David is a brilliant nonfiction writer; he came into the creative nonfiction room through the journalism door. His The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt really made me keenly aware of the necessity of detail, exactness, and precision in crafting creative nonfiction. His work showed me possibilities that lead me into the creative nonfiction room. I was also influenced by the Appalachian Ohio writer Richard Hague, whom I met when we were in college together; he came to creative nonfiction through the poetry door. In his Milltown Natural, about growing up in Steubenville, Ohio—a city that is categorized as both Rust Belt and Appalachia—Richard fleshed out his collection of creative nonfiction pieces with memorable details that made his Steubenville three-dimensional. But he did something else: as a poet writing prose, the level of attention to language, syntax, the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences showed me the possibility of lyrical prose. He wonderfully disrupted my sense of how poetry and nonfiction are like lost cousins.
One of the epigrams in Ohio Apertures is from W. G. Sebald, whose creative nonfiction is mesmerizing because almost every third sentence is like a labyrinth: “You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth.” Sebald argues for the craft of writing, the attention to make art—that the idea of poetic truth is akin to an aesthetic truth. Sebald laid down the dictum to balance the literal with the poetic, and, of course, poetic license is as valid here, due the lyrical nature of both poetry and memoir. But I learned in writing my book that while the poetic/lyric/aesthetic truth is the goal, it can only be accomplished when the literal truth—much of it sharpened into precision—is researched.
The piece I recall researching the most—or perhaps the most satisfyingly—is “Desperados,” which in early drafts was very much a linear narrative only. Denver’s Capitol Hill in the 1970s; a sort of “bank” robbery; the Broker Bar on 17th Street; the culture class of the bankers, lawyers, and part-time college student working for a shady landscape company. The need for such geographical precision necessary for linear narrative is like filming a documentary. But the challenge in this piece was to get the poetic/lyric/aesthetic to be equal, co-present, operating almost like it was a character in the narrative. I began to imagine this piece as a film I could see, with me as the director and lead actor. The numerous references to film, to movie acting, the final scene where I imagine film credits, I had to research that. And when I decided a good film needs a soundtrack, I turned to Glenn Frey of the Eagles. I had to know the songs that were released before the day of the robbery, and that had me running down song lyrics.
Those literal details, augmented by mirrors and movie screen allusions—as well as resonant images, emotion, language play, leaps and jump cuts—bring together the literal and the aesthetic for a poetic closure to the piece.
In a recent post here at Rust Belt Girl, I talked about the idea of writing companions, authors we avid readers and writers follow faithfully and who shape our work. In your essay, “Into the Bargain,” you describe finding a volume of Raymond Carver’s poetry, Where Water Comes Together with Other Water at a bargain book store, and you’re “entranced and transported.” The book becomes a “talisman” for you, for what it helps you discover about yourself upon reading and re-reading. Can you tell us more about what this writing companion did for you as a poet—and a writer and as founding editor of The Raymond Carver Review?
Toward the end of that piece, I contrast J. D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye,a book that I felt I identified with in my adolescence, with Raymond Carver’s Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, a book that I identified with during my mid-life transition. There are books and libraries and reading throughout Ohio Apertures. I was a shy, bookish middle child who stuttered, and I became a high school teacher and then a university professor, and an author. Actually, I went on to write my doctoral dissertation on Carver’s poetry, more from a sociological lens than an aesthetic one. Raymond Carver was a sort of mirror in which I could catch a glimpse of myself: an awkward child, a kid who liked to fish, a man who was drawn to rivers and lakes, a multiple-genre writer who began as a poet, eventually a university professor, and ultimately a man who came to understand and accept his human flaws enough to seek forgiveness and atonement.
The brilliance of Carver’s writing, and in particular his poetry, is his gift of stated or implied metaphor. The water of two rivers—one the past, one the present—that converge to carry him into the future resonates imagistically in Ohio Apertures. Carver was a very autobiographical writer, so much so, that at times much of his work can be read almost like creative nonfiction. Having read his letters and manuscript drafts in library archives, as well as interviews and biographical studies, many of his poems and stories are autobiographical. He wrote what his second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, especially in his late poetry and in many of his autobiographical stories, calls “lyric narrative poems,” that is, poems in which the poet, or more so the poet’s imagination, become the hero of the narrative. That sounds to me much like a way to describe a lyric memoir, especially one that arcs toward a “poetic truth.” As a scholar-writer, I founded The Raymond Carver Review as a scholarly journal that would recognize Carver’s impact as a writer, and the quality and value of the body of his work. He was just 50 when he died, in his eleventh year of sobriety. During his last few years be began to write essays, prose poetry, and screen plays.
From my perspective as a writer and Carver scholar, I can see he was finding new sites, new places to stand in relationship to his subject material, new ways to grow as a writer.
Can you get us up to speed with what you’re working on now?
The past two years have been an amazing culmination of several concurrent projects. I published a book of prose poems, Orpheus & Echo, in the three-in-one book Triptych by Etruscan Press in March 2020; I finished Ohio Apertures, which was published by Cornerstone Press in March; and I’ve finished a new book of prose poems, Capital of Sorrows, that is under review. The pantry is empty, so to speak.
I’ve been re-reading some of my travel notebooks, and working on some new drafts of poems; I expect I’ll see what tendencies the poems take, looking for a pattern to occur that may shape a next book of poems. I’m re-reading an early draft of a novel that I’m returning to, looking to reshape and revise it into a new draft. It’s an historical novel and there have been some recent books that I’ve acquired, as research, so as to expand my original draft. I put the book aside because I couldn’t solve the puzzles the genre posed, but I’ve re-imagined the book and will write my way to a different solution than I did the first time around. I’ve located copies of some letters written by the character whose section is epistolary, and two books, both recent, are packed with new information I will cull for what can expand the character. And for another character, one who is complex yet relatively unknown, I’m drawing from the use of cinema and documentary, the site where I’m going to stand in, as I revise that section. Also, I’m sketching out notes for a book of long pieces of creative nonfiction, tentatively titled Mid-Century. While re-reading my travel notebooks I’ve come across several pages of questions I would have liked to have asked my father if he were still alive. How interesting it is that I’m ending this interview with an idea for a second book of creative nonfiction, based on questions addressed to my late father, like one would address in an interview.
Robert Miltner is the award-winning author of two books of prose poetry, Hotel Utopia and Orpheus & Echo, and a short story collection, And Your Bird Can Sing. A professor emeritus of English at Kent State University Stark and the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing, Miltner lives in Northeast Ohio.
by Robert Miltner
$22.00 Cornerstone Press
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