Monday, September 08, 2003

Miller Williams - Fayetteville, AR

Were we to begin work on the American poetry version of Mount Rushmore, I’d like to volunteer to start work on the chunk that would become the face of Miller Williams. It’s a miraculous face, one that is wise and welcoming, genteel and grizzled, open, inquisitive, and always alive. (And, we share that rare biological gift of a brilliant, beautiful, and smooth cranial dome. I'd think this would require some extra buffing up on the mountain, but it'd be worth the effort.)
Miller's home - a virtual treasure trove, museum, and love letter to his family, his countless friends, and his work - makes a terrific place to meet. We repair to an airy porch off the side of the house, where the sound of a burbling fountain eases into the infrequent gaps of our conversation.

We talk about Miller’s Southern past, a biography of travel, civil rights protests, music, family, and love, that pours out in his lifetime of work.

He recalls for me some of the stories behind his poems, turning pages in a collection, running his finger along lines, sometimes – surprisingly – reading with a sure and soothing rhythm.

We spend some time in his study, where the photos of his friends and family peer down on him as he works his way through yellow legal pads of new work. (These pads he fills, sometimes an entire one to create a single piece.) While I click my camera, he sits in his writing chair and points out Presidents, musicians, poets, and pals on the walls. He points out his family, the ones ahead of him and the ones behind. It's a small room, but comfortable, and it buzzes with the lives that his work has touched.

While I work on my camera, Miller reaches to a small table on his left and starts paging through some pages of new poems. He reads one, then another. These are unpublished pieces, but finished in the best sense. The forms are graceful, the rhymes elegant and transparent. He sets the folder down and shows me some more photos of his family.

His work is broad, inviting, and always exacting. The poems require only that the reader is equipped with an open - and working - heart. The shorter poems spear an idea, carving to the very marrow of the idea. The longer poems drift and pull you into the world as Williams describes it: a hotel in St. Louis, a tavern in Tennesse, standing beside his granddaughter's crib, or at the death bed of an old friend.

The cumulative effect for a poet reading his collected work, Some Jazz a While, is a lesson in using only what is required. There is not a single unnecessary utterance. The poems have been pared to their essence, and they - too often to seem reasonable - shine.

But rather than wax rhapsodic about the poet, let me finish with a few words about a fine dog. The powerful and dominating Shih Tzu - Sister - who allows Miller and his wife to live in their home in Fayetteville, greets me as I arrive, follows me as I set up my recorder and cameras, but then goes about dog business while the humans talk around whatever it is that humans find to occupy their time.

I look for Sister as I leave, but she must be involved in larger matters. I load my truck, and am backing out when I see Miller smiling, and bringing the dog to me in his arms. Miller says, "When you left, she followed you to the door. I think she wants to say goodbye." And indeed, when Miller lifts her head into my window, Sister gives me a little kiss on the cheek, the perfect Southern hostess. As I release the brake, she tells Miller to take her back inside, and that's the last thing I see them do.