The proud champions of basketball leagues in remote Mongolia, an Argentinian schoolgirl explaining the terror of state-sponsored secret abductions, a homeless man dying beneath an Iowa bridge — the characters and scenes of Chuck Miller's poetry are as a rich and unusual as his life. He will share some of it at a reading in Winona on Tuesday.
Miller has never had much respect for the establishment, and he is not afraid to speak his mind. In conversation, his speech is peppered with cursing, and even the most revered writer is not safe from his exercise of free speech. "For some reason, I didn't really like Shakespeare; some of his stuff irritated me to no end," Miller said. "I think it was the way the professors tried to shove Shakespeare down your throat. 'You see, there's only one writer in this whole [expletive] world and it's Shakespeare, and you might as well just shut your mouth because you're never going to live up to Shakespeare.'" Miller then referred to Shakespeare's famous love sonnet. The English poet likens his lover to a beautiful summer day, writing, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
"What the hell?" Miller said. "There are good summer days. But really exciting women? They're certainly better than a summer's day."
Poor people, the mentally ill, and other disenfranchised characters are common subjects for Miller, who has spent much of his life living with little money. Winona Poet Ken McCullough described Miller's writing as "visceral" and "immersed in nitty, gritty, firsthand experience." Miller has spent much of his life in working-class jobs: cleaning toilets, working on factory lines, and picking fruit. He and McCullough were graduate students together at the University of Iowa until Miller's studies were interrupted by a 19-month prison sentence for possession of marijuana.
McCullough said Miller likened his life as a migrant worker to living in a hunter-gatherer society. "The people depended on the crops and followed them. They were a lot closer to the earth and the way it works," McCullough said. Their relationships were closer, too, he added. "There was something more genuine about society in that light because it was sort of stripped off all the pretenses," McCullough explained.
In the poem "Only for the Mad," Miller describes a flirtatious interaction he had with a woman he knew in the middle of a roadway median. The poem switches scenes at its end; the authorities abruptly take the woman away and subject her to electro-shock therapy. Miller explained the woman had manic depression. "I was just walking along the street one day; she comes up, she's arguing and joking, and I didn't know her that well, but maybe she was manic, so she was acting like we knew each other very well. She was laughing with me and tickling me and told me some jokes," he said. "There was something really amazing about her; there was just such intelligence about her. You could sense this sort of live wire," Miller continued. "She would get these manic episodes and jabber a bunch and then [the authorities] would lock her up and then they'd let her out and then they'd lock her up." Psychiatrists started treating the woman using shock therapy — in a punitive way, in Miller's mind — and the woman told him how scared she would become as she was waiting for the next shock.
In another poem, "Eskimo Dave," Miller describes trying to help an injured old man off the street and into a car. He and another man cannot even manage to get him off the street. Miller's frustration that he cannot do the simplest thing to help the old man is palpable. In an interview, Miller explained Eskimo Dave was a friend of his in Iowa City who was homeless. He had just broken both legs and his arm in a car accident. "As soon as he got out of the hospital he was drinking again, so we couldn't even get him to stand. His legs were so [messed] up and he was so drunk that he couldn't even stand," Miller said. In the poem, Miller regrets that Eskimo Dave may be rousted by the police for sleeping on the sidewalk, and that he may have to pay for an ambulance ride, which he cannot afford. "You abandon him there … human refuse waiting to be swept up by the night sweepers," Miller wrote. Eskimo Dave died homeless not long afterward.
Miller has also spent several years teaching English overseas. He said it has been one of his best jobs, and has afforded him the chance to travel to Poland, Siberia, China, Argentina, Mongolia, and many other places. Unique interactions and reflections from his travel are interspersed with American scenes in his latest book, "Parsecs to Go, Poems of Protest." A parsec is a unit of measured used to describe the distances between stars.
Miller is an anarchist. McCullough described him as an activist poet and unflinching from his convictions about justice. Miller explained, "You see all the rottenness and corruption in the world. If you stand against that, most people sort of understand what you're talking about, but they've kind of made a truce with the rottenness. Whereas, somehow I've never made a truce with it. So the only way I knew how to respond was to write something."
Many of Miller's poems are overtly political, like Miller's angry response to a discriminatory town, "Nest of Pigs." However, many of his poems are personal vignettes and reflections on love and death, like "For Wanda," in which the narrator wishes he and his beloved would retain the same beauty in aging as dried flowers do. "Or if that is asking too much of this life / go down with some wit / joking and grieving right up to the end," Miller wrote.
"He's really quite sweet," said Lynn Nankivil, a Winona playwright and McCullough's wife. "I figure you've got to accept the moments when they come, so mostly the poetry has to be personal and about your real, subjective life," Miller said.
"The breadth of his experience in the world is unmatched in many respects," McCullough said of Miller. "There have been a lot of writers like him before, but to see him and sit down and talk with a writer like him — you're not going to get very many chances at that."
Winonans will have a chance to see Miller at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 6, when he will give a reading at the Bookshelf and the Winona Poet Laureate's First Tuesday's poetry series. The reading will be followed by a poetry open mic. The Bookshelf shares a storefront with the Blue Heron Coffeehouse at 162 West Second Street, Winona. The event is free.