A Man of Poetry and Prose
An Interview with Miller Williams
by Pam Kingsbury
As anyone who has ever heard him read knows, Miller Williams is a courtly gentleman deeply committed to his craft as a writer. The same gentle wit, acute observations, and gift for narrative that permeate his poetry are prevalent in his first collection of short stories, The Lives of Kelvin Fletcher.
Miller Williams is the author, coauthor, or translator of thirty books. A University Professor of English and Foreign Languages at the University of Arkansas, his honors include the Prix de Rome for Literature of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academy Award for Literature, and the Amy Lowell Award.
You started your career in the sciences .....
I was writing poems and stories from the time I could hold a pencil, and enrolled in college as an English major. In those days, incoming freshmen at most schools were given aptitude tests during the first semester so they could take best advantage of their natural talents. I'd been attending classes for a few weeks when I was called into the office of the head of the psychology department, who said to me in a solemn voice, "Mr. Williams, your tests show that you have no natural ability to use language; if you don't want to embarrass your parents, you need to change you major right away to the hard sciences". I'd been taught to respect authority and learning, so I did as he suggested and continued on that path to what we used to call the AbD (all but dissertation) while I taught biology and chemistry on the college level for twelve years.
I was teaching at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, when Flannery O'Connor--who lived close by and had become a dear friend--contacted LSU and told them that they ought to talk to me about filling an advertised position for a poet. Preposterous as it must have sounded, they couldn't shrug off a recommendation from her, so they asked to see my work. When they did, they offered me the position. That was in 1962.
When did you become a part of the writing program at Arkansas? Were you one of the founders?
I didn't start the writing program at Arkansas; it was founded by James Whitehead and William Harrison, who asked me to join them in 1971. I founded the translation program, the comparative literature program and—in 1980--the press. I directed it for fifteen years, then returned to the classroom. Whatever I've been doing, I've always reserved the necessary time in the evening for writing.
Many of your poems feel like short stories ......
I said to Flannery once, "You call what you're writing stories, but they read to me like long poems". She said, "That's interesting; you call what you write poems, but they seem to me more like short stories".
Is Kelvin Fletcher an alter-ego? Did you set out to write a "coming of age" story?
Some of Kelvin's adventures were mine, some were events in the lives of my friends, and some began with "What if....?". This is true in the case of any fiction writer, I think.
No, I can't say that I intended to write any sort of story; I start the character on his way and follow him, writing down what I see and hear.
You've published in several genres -- poetry, translation, and fiction; have you noticed any differences in the way the books are promoted?
I've never felt that there was a difference in the marketing of the various genre. What's important is familiarity with the publishers--of journals or books--and submitting one's work to a publisher who seems inclined to publish the sort of work one does. This is what I try to get across to my students.
You were born in Hoxie, Arkansas. What are some of the changes in the region during your lifetime?
I was born in Hoxie in 1930, but as my father was a Methodist minister—all of whom were itinerant at the time--we moved every two-to-four years. By the time I graduated from high school in Fort Smith in 1947, I'd lived all over the northern half of the state. I did, of course, grow up around fundamentalist conservatives, and they do populate some of my work, but they didn't include my parents, who were integrationist populists; my father was co-founder of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, America's first integrated union.
The changes in the South during my lifetime have been more than gratifying to me. George Haley, one of the first black students in the University of Arkansas law school, is my spiritual brother--we call ourselves brothers--and we like to think that we helped some of those changes along, years ago. He's godfather of my daughter Lucinda.
Members of your family often have cameos in your work ....
I couldn't talk seriously about my life or my writing without bringing them in. My parents, my five siblings, the three children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren are an essential part of whatever I am and do. This is not to mention Jordan, my wife, who makes me possible.
What's your next project?
I'm currently at work on a collection of essays about poetry and the people who write it, a collection of poems, and a college-level textbook on the Form & Theory of Poetry.
Who were your mentors?
I've been extremely fortunate in the attention turned to me and my work by my elders. After Flannery, those who've thought it was worthwhile to turn me in a new direction, put in a word for me somewhere, or simply to read my work and tell me what needed to be done to it, have been Robert Frost, John Crowe Ransom, Elizabeth Bishop, Kenneth Patchen, John Ciardi, Howard Nemerov, John Nims, John Clellon Holmes, Maxine Kumin.... Let's just say that I've been greatly blessed.
Selected Works of Miller Williams
© 2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved