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SubtleTea Interviews - Milner Place 



D: Milner, let's begin with some reverie. 


A quote from your poem, "Memory":

memory is desire


don't forget

our meeting


Please share your fondest experience (or one of your fondest experiences, at least).  This can range from a special trip to a glimmer in a damsel's eyes.


By leading this with that quote, David, you steer me to a romantic 'glimmer'. I was scraping a living as a photographer in Las Palmas, on the island of Gran Canaria, when one night I met up with a Swiss girl who was on holiday there with another girl. We fell for each other electrically. She resigned her job and stayed with me for about nine months. We were desperately poor, living in truly dreadful, cheap hotels, but were ecstatically happy. We both understood that this was almost certainly only a short-term affair, and so when the time came to go different ways, we parted in the best possible manner. As I was moving on, and she returning to Switzerland, I gave her the address of some friends in London, but, on calling to see them a year or so later, they said they'd had a letter for me from Switzerland but had lost it. This was, in fact, the basis for that poem. 





D: Your favorite writer(s) and book(s) and why.


My favorites are, I suppose, quite unexceptional. Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Lorca, Miguel Hernandez and Steinbeck. I won't go into any particular books because I can go with anything that these writers produced. It has just occurred to me (I'm very slow on the uptake), that apart from their wonderful powers of imagination and mastery of words, they also have an extraordinary ability to give dignity to even the most ordinary and despised people. A wondrous understanding of mankind allied to a great compassion that doesn't sink to sentimentality. Miguel Hernandez is the least known of these because he died young in one of Franco's jails. Neruda, who did all he could to save him, called it "murder". Lorca, of course, was shot by the fascists, but had a much larger body of work and had achieved international recognition. He also had a head start as he came from a moneyed family and had a good education, whereas Hernandez started life as a goat-herd.





D: You greatly respect Hispanic literature and culture.  Please share why.


I suppose it's because I spent so much time in Spain and Latin America. But perhaps it's deeper than that -- I always felt so much at ease in all those varying cultures. When you live in another country and speak its language you also get to think in and through that culture. Now, come wind or rain I'm part Latino.


The Latin Americans I've named, Neruda and Marques, may have an edge in writing because they come from much more recent cultures, not fettered by so much literary tradition. This was also may be to some extent true in the U.S.A., the break from the UK was more than just a break from colonial rule, and, added to that, there is such a cultural mix. Just an idle thought of an idle fellow.


 Incidentally, I soon learned in Latin America not to refer to the U.S.A. as 'America'. That is considered particularly ignorant, arrogant and offensive, so when I use it I'll always put it in inverted commas.



D: Wrecking Ball Press published your most recent poetry book, Caminante.  Please tell us about the press and your collaboration.


Wrecking Ball Press is a small but growing publishing business, based in the North of England and near where I live, and is already attracting some really fine British and international writers. It is edited by Shane Rhodes. My previous, sizeable collection was published by a London based house, Chatto & Windus (very prestigious), but I found it much easier to deal with someone local and with whom I could meet and discuss things over a pint. There are some disadvantages in choosing a smaller publisher, mainly that you doesn't get the review coverage in the national press and it won't be stocked in bookshops all over the country. On the plus side, the big houses nowadays will pulp a book after a year or two unless it's a major seller, whereas a small house will give it time. The other big plus is that I can do what I like in republishing anything from the book as I hold all the rights, but with the other I have to get their permission. Also, most of the publishers are overloaded with poetry offerings and have a long waiting list, so I jumped at the chance to get this one published while I was still breathing. Hope the same applies with the next one.





D: Perhaps the most curious and odd set of pieces in Caminante (at least in my reading) is the BATWOMAN set (which had been previously printed elsewhere).  Essentially, a mother bat births a daughter and sends her out on her own, perpetuating the natural cycle.  The primary narration is the mother bat's perception, spoken through human terms.  Finally, the daughter takes flight:


...feel the summer's air on fur;

drink dew that floats

above the lily's smile;

feed on fireflies

under a lace-veiled moon.


What inspired this subject?


It was previously published as Piltdown Man & Bat Woman. As you may know, Piltdown Man was a famous hoax concocted by one or more archaeologists, in the early part of last century, by putting an ape's jaw on a human skull and presenting this as the "missing link". Delightfully, for years this fooled the experts. This came into my head as an inspiration for a poem and then I decided I needed a female counterpart. Bat Woman flew in to nest in the cave of my head. I think of it as my "feminist poem". My mother was a militant suffragette and in 1913 was jailed for putting an axe through the window of a prestigious London store in the cause. My sister, Dorothy E. Smith, is well known in Canada and the U.S. for carrying that banner. They both considerably influenced my outlook. It's a shame my mother never got to meet Bat Woman, I'm confident they'd have got on well.




D: Many writers develop fixations.  Your fixation seems to be the sea, Davy Jones Locker, la mer.  Tell us about your marine fascination.  Please share your own experience with the sea and sailing, in particular.


As some 11 years of my life was spent in intimate relations with several seas, I suggest it would be strange if it didn't leak into my writing. I happened to arrive in the Bahamas and immediately decided I must learn to sail. On the advice of  a charter yacht Captain I met, I took the mail boat to the island of Abaco, where I bought a small island dinghy from a lighthouse keeper at Hopetown, got it rigged and taught myself to sail. Out of some money earned working as a surveyor for a developer(a retired Kentucky lawyer) I bought a local sailing sloop. These were wonderfully basic vessels; no power except the sails; the galley was a sand-box on deck, a tiny cabin with wood bunks; a fish-well amidships, which could be plugged when carrying freight and unplugged if going fishing. I made a living with this for a couple of years; it was hard but great experience and you had to learn fast. Then I was approached by a man to go buy him a yacht in Florida and skipper it for him. So I became a yacht captain, skippering a variety of sailing craft in the Atlantic, Baltic and Mediterranean waters. I was catapulted out of this life by a friend who offered me a job as a consultant to a tourist-orientated company in South America, a subsidiary of the now defunct Braniff International Airline. I had some time with a sea connection whilst with them, running and reorganizing a marlin fishing enterprise in Ecuador. Apart from being in command of a canoe going up one of the tributaries of the Amazon, that was my last adventuring on water. The seas and oceans are dangerous as well as beautiful, and those who survive must have both toughness and humility, and someone who can't be trusted, whatever virtues they may have, is no use to anyone at sea. I found sailing intensely satisfying, sometimes its frustrations could be very testing but never monotonous; it required constant alertness. But when I moved on, I moved on. That's always been my way.





D: Writer Ray Bradbury wrote: "There is more than one way to burn a book.  And the world is full of people running around with matches."  He was infuriated at sensitive groups, from "liberals" to "conservatives" and races and religions, ranting against writers' choices in their literature.  Fahrenheit 451's dystopia outlawed books on the premise that everyone is offended by something in some book.


I'm an outspoken critic of so-called "political correctness" (PC) and its frenzied assault on sensibility and thought-freedom.  Rather than producing better situations and status and outlooks, PC usually perpetuates its own agenda of bigotry, emboldens thought policing, and dehumanizes all involved.  The very "enlightened" who wield the PC sword against "witch hunts", "ignorance", and endless "isms" tend to be the most stubborn with hunters, ignoramuses, and ism-obsessed folks around.


What are your thoughts on this?


I agree with you largely on this, David, with some qualifications. The power of words is immense and continued use of some of them can really work powerfully on the sub-conscious. The problem then is how far you carry the discouragement of the use some words or expressions. If it is kept just to discouragement I would hold that this is OK. You can call a book trash but that doesn't give you the right to have it burned. What people may write is up to their own conscience; censorship is pernicious. As for those who cry "blasphemy", I can only say that that must reveal a considerable lack of confidence in their own beliefs.





D: I'm quite fixated on mortality and how the human foreknowledge of its fact plays with our worldviews, art, and mental health.  Anthony Burgess wrote: "Am I happy?  Probably not.  Having passed the prescribed biblical age limit, I have to think of death, and I do not like the thought...But rage against the dying of the light is only human, especially when there are things still to be done..."


In your poem "West of the Missouri" (from In A Rare Time of Rain) a man faces death, blood in his throat, and sends his horse running off.  The man thinks:  "these words are the hoof prints of my passing, these the shadows of lost birds, the sunset dreams of mariners.  Fuck it."


What are your thoughts on mortality? 


As I am, as Anthony Burgess says, past "the prescribed biblical age limit", I get more conscious of mortality each year. When younger, death is something that may happen sometime, or even anytime, but as you age it is something that's going to happen, any day now. As an unbeliever, it's not a problem, just a fact of life. The fear is only that it may be preceded by a painful and protracted illness, being unable to communicate, or just being plain crazy. It's going back to where you started, non-conscious. I find mortality comforting; immortality a vision of hell. But when the time comes my reaction may well be "fuck it".



D: I believe humans are prone to be peculiar, mischievous, impish creeps.  Goodness is much harder to achieve or maintain.  The nagging proneness to evil is so bothersome, in other words.  Human experience is what I call "grappling for Good and slipping toward Bad".


 Many folks seem to reject the idea of standardized good and evil while judging certain situations or people BY such concepts, however.  Or as C.S. Lewis put it: "The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao [The Way] is a rebellion of the branches against the tree."


Though there are certainly gradations of behavior and actions, we seem to have an innate sense of basic goodness and evil.  Do you agree or disagree or just care to dispense with the consideration?  What are your thoughts on this?


 I don't go with any such entities as good and evil, only that events or actions may be described as good or evil are good or evil. I can well see that we may have inherited ethical codes -- all social animals, those living in herds etc, exhibit them -- even sometimes to the extent of self-sacrifice. However achieved, it's patently obvious that all social groups must have some codes of conduct, i.e. a sense of good or evil. Most people feel pleasure when doing "good"; have a guilty conscience when they've committed "evil". Pardon me for stating the obvious. Of course, the natural world we live in is remarkable for its cruelty, everything (we are no exception) is feeding, one way or another, on something else. But we can hardly call that evil. Evil is our invention, and a necessary concept for our survival as social animals. (Oh dear, I don't do this philosophizing thing too well.)




D: Americans, at least in the popular sense, seem to have a low self-esteem about their own nation -- especially in relation to other nations.  (I think much of this is fostered by social engineers and stupid celebrity.)  I've often heard Americans say, "Well, no wonder Europeans hate us!  We're rude, loud, obnoxious, and spoiled!"  Etc., etc.  (This isn't to say such doesn't exist at all.)


I find such self-battering, overall, to be foolish.  It's bitterly amusing that if such crap was said about ANY OTHER nationality, the speaker would be accused of bigotry and gross stereotyping.  But it's ok if it's directed toward America or Americans.


This silly, self-destructive notion doesn't seem as rampant elsewhere on this mad planet.  In fact, a cool smugness seems common among other nations.  Have you noticed such in your homeland of Great Britain?


I don't think you should be bothered by the "rude, obnoxious, and spoiled" stuff. I believe that this springs mostly from the behaviour of tourists. Tourists of all nations seem to behave in a similar manner (probably as a lack of confidence in a different environment). I'm sure the Spanish, for example, regard the English in a similar light.


As the top-dog nation, at the moment, you are bound to be the object of envy. Of course, in different parts of the world there are more particular causes of hostility.


In this country, I think "Americans" are probably better thought of now than before. Probably this is largely due to the fact that so many more people have actually been to the States. There is a contrary feeling about your present government, but that is directed at Bush and his cronies, rather than the people. And there is a feeling that YOU are SMUG, going your own way without consideration for others. Smugness is universal (we are terrific at it over here).


As said above, most criticism here is of a political nature. Past horrors such as in Chile, Nicaragua, and now there is a growing feeling that the justification of the pre-emptive strike in Iraq was based on deliberate misinformation. Our own Prime Minister is in the firing line on this, and may not survive it.


Then there's the ecological lobby, mad at your apparent selfish refusal to join other nations in restricting obnoxious emissions whilst using more fossil fuels than any one else. Again, it's all political, impersonal.


Incidentally, I'm more scared of nationalism than anything else. I consider "My country, right or wrong" to be a pernicious statement.




D: Milner, I'm quite pleased that I've become a friend and colleague with you.  Your work is cleverly crafted, often fun, unique, and variable.  You'll surely be revered as an important legacy in literature.


I wish your blessings on your path.  Any closing words for readers/fans?


It was a lucky day for me when you invited me to contribute to SubtleTea and the friendship that has developed from it. I like and respect your work -- how can I put it? For its colour, verve -- oh, just everything.


As to my becoming an important legacy -- unless I'm way out in my unbelief, I'll never know, will I?


What could I say to my readers?  Perhaps: "It's my luck that you're reading this". Also it is as well to know that any statements I make are really questions -- not "this is so" but "is this so?"   Lastly, I would like you to believe I'm more intelligent when I write poetry.



About Milner and the book




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