Books In Conversation
The Making and Unburying of Salem Poet Malcolm Miller: KEVIN CAREY, MARK HILLRINGHOUSE, ROD KESSLER, KEVIN CAREY JR., and R.G. EVANS with Elisabeth Weiss
Unburying Malcolm Miller is a documentary film collaboration between five very talented men who give Malcolm Miller’s poetry new life. The subject of the film made me skeptical. In 1991 or so, someone crawled through my next-door neighbor’s window and made off with a large expensive oriental rug and her son’s leather jacket. Malcolm Miller was allegedly the culprit. “It was an inside job,” my neighbor whispered. She didn’t want to talk about it further. Later she told me to keep away from Malcolm. He had broken into her house on numerous occasions, threatened her, stalked her, and took off with bottles of her scotch. This fear, mystery, and intrigue made me wonder about this man.
Some years later, I questioned Rod Kessler, then a colleague and English professor at Salem State University, as to why he was featuring this miscreant’s work in the University’s national literary magazine, Soundings East. I warned him about Malcolm’s threatening ways. Malcolm had sent Rod multiple self-published chapbooks over the years and Rod paid for and appreciated his work. When Rod finally came face to face with Malcolm, after years of their correspondence, he was a broken old man hardly able to climb a flight of stairs. But he left a legacy of 3,500 poems.
Malcolm (1930-2014) grew up Jewish in the renowned city of Salem, MA, graduated from McGill University, where he befriended Leonard Cohen, returned to Salem and committed himself to living a bohemian lifestyle. This meant not holding a job, living in rooming houses or on the streets.
The film is a revealing portrait of an outsider poet and curmudgeon. Its graceful montage interlaces interviews, readings, mood music, original songs and regional locations. Miller’s short Zen-like pieces are often sarcastic and sardonic. From a unidimensional view of him, I came to appreciate his complex and often surprisingly arresting poetry.
Although art cannot be prejudged through the artist’s biography, it can be illuminated. This film made me think about Yeats’s lines from his poem “The Choice”:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
Malcolm Miller did not compromise one thing for his art, his “heavenly mansion.”
Malcolm Miller’s work was influential enough that Gerald Stern said “all students should read it” and his life was strange enough that he went from being homeless and institutionalized to leaving bundles of hundred dollar bills in his kitchen drawer when he died in 2014. The following are excerpts from interviews with filmmakers Kevin Carey and Mark Hillringhouse, writer and anthologist Rod Kessler, and the musical composers Kevin Carey Jr. and R.G. Evans:
Elisabeth Weiss (Rail): Why was Malcolm Miller’s poetry and life story intriguing to you?
Carey: I was attracted to the “outsider” nature of Malcolm’s poetry and the strangeness of his life. It wasn’t an ordinary story. I was also attracted to Rod Kessler’s story. Having known Rod as a professor and a friend, I was intrigued to find out how he went about trying to bring Malcolm’s poems to a wider audience, and what their brief relationship was like. I felt like I was discovering Malcom on the one hand and following Rod’s journey on the other.
Hillringhouse: I was intrigued because of the poetry. Rod (through Kevin) showed me a selection of poems and I was taken by them. I was with Gerald Stern at the time and handed Malcolm Miller's manuscript of poetry to him, and Gerald Stern loved them. I became very interested in finding out who this Malcolm Miller was through his poetry, and so Kevin and I began to work out how we would approach the subject of his life and work.
Kessler: Having read several thousands of his poems, I’m wary of overgeneralizing and oversimplifying when I speak of his work. In some of his poems, Miller speaks in the voice of a prophet, urging the reader to choose a higher, if harder, path in order to live authentically—to be able to hear (metaphorically speaking) the song the universe is singing. But it’s not all so ethereal. Some of his poems are paeans to sensuality—he had a lusty appreciation for nice pairs of women’s legs. His poems were often witty, sometimes ending with a knockout punch. His writing seems directed at—how shall I say?—real people and not exclusively to other poets, as so much contemporary poetry seems to be. It’s not written in the secret, impenetrable code one might learn in MFA program theory classes. Gerald Stern makes the point at the end of the film that Miller’s poems are nothing like MFA poetry. But that’s not to say that Miller was untaught or anti-intellectual or unliterary. Robert Lowell, Garcia Lorca, T.S. Eliot, Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, and plenty of that sort make appearances in his writing.
Rail: Could each of you speak about your contributions to the collaborative process?
Carey: Mark Hillringhouse and I did most of the filming. Rod contributed some recording and my son Kevin helped film an interview. I did a lot of the rough editing and Mark and I would get together and go over cuts and make decisions together as I went along. Many of the poets in the film helped from time to time, as gaffers and support crew. It was truly a homegrown effort.
Hillringhouse: Kevin did most of the A roll and I did the B roll or second camera as well as most of the lighting. Kevin handled the audio. Rod Kessler handled the interviews. I also shot the aerial footage and the slider footage. We would download our camera files at the end of the day and make backups, and then Kevin would sort through it and edit. I would look at what he edited next time we got together and I would suggest further transitions and cuts. I wanted to capture Salem in four different seasons so it was not just a summer project. Kevin and I went out scouting for places.
I did all the stills and some in infrared, both color infrared and black and white. I like how infrared creates a different visual reality of light in that it transforms the world into something surreal and magical. This is useful in terms of symbolizing a vivid memory such as the older man who was a childhood friend of Malcolm’s when he remembers them playing in Forest River Park. I used a color infrared of the park to give it that magic of a childhood memory.
Kessler: For the most part, but not entirely, I helped identify, contact, and interview the many individuals who speak about the poet in Unburying Malcolm Miller. I had been researching Miller’s life well before the film project started, so I had a long list of sources, including Peter Urkowitz, the Salem State University library staffer; Paul Tucker, the former Salem police officer; Dan Gallagher, Malcolm’s friend from childhood and age-mate; and the two women who saw Malcolm as a sociopath, Linda Weltner and Lynn Nadeau. And I had interviewed Malcolm’s one-time romantic partner, Patti, and persuaded her to talk about Malcolm into a voice recorder (She had declined to be filmed).
Carey Jr.: There was a symbiotic relationship between the score and the film. Usually the score sonically accents the image, but we also employed the score early on to find the pacing of the story. This back and forth was important to the final product: developing the score like it’s a character. A lot of pieces ended up in the trash. The final three themes, although disparate, are connected by this larger process, like different points on a family tree.
Evans: Having worked with Kevin and Mark on their previous film about the poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan, I was thrilled when they asked me to collaborate on Unburying Malcolm Miller as well. Mark sent me some selections of Miller's poems, the images from which really spoke to me about his status as an outsider and yet a keen observer of society.
Rail: What elements did you focus on when composing the music?
Carey Jr.: With somebody like Malcom Miller, so much is unknown. And what is known is shifting, caught up in myth and hearsay. His story feels like a collaborative fiction piece by those who surrounded him. This really informed my score tonally. I tried to draw out elements of genre that existed in his story. The noir-esque setting of Salem is matched with a creeping piano, while the wistful, reverberating slide guitar conjures up the lone cowboy (a figure not so different from Malcom himself). There’s a tradition of film scores being passive, but why not let it exaggerate what’s already there, lying dormant? The process of unburying Malcom Miller runs parallel to this—a pursuit that doesn't provide answers so much as uncovers an even larger network of mysteries.
Evans: I found through Google the story Rod tells about Miller sending out his books of poetry with requests for five dollars in payment. That gave me the opening lines of the song I wrote for the film, “Malcolm's Song”: “The book is in the mailbox, the check is in the wind.” The rest of the lines for the verses of the song were suggested by Miller’s poems and by iconic Salem itself: “The streets of this old city saw history unwind,” “The man in this apartment never goes outside.” I was very excited to be able to weave together actual lines from Miller’s poems to make up the chorus of the song:
The years end here where the land meets the sea
Rain swept streets last longer than parades
No sad goodbye to a wanderer who never said hello
It’s a song without ending calling to no one so everyone can hear.
Rail: Malcolm Miller’s hometown was the iconic Salem, MA. In what way was he part of it and in what way did he distance himself from it?
Carey: Salem was certainly Malcolm’s landscape for his poetry and his life. I think he felt at home in Salem but was also pretty comfortable railing against the things he didn’t like. It was his home court for sure. It was important to us to make Salem a big part of the visual experience. We elected to have the poets read at sites around the city and Mark’s photographs really present the landscapes in an otherworldly light.
Hillringhouse: Miller distanced himself from Salem only by his personality and demeanor, which wasn’t always pleasant according to people interviewed. He also battled mental illness, was poor most of his life, and lived in section 8 housing. He had a marginal existence. The shopkeepers and business people in town knew him in terms of his interactions with those stores. He would be seen as a local street character who hung out at the library and who sat in the park. Most people were probably wary of him. But he grew up in Salem and had boyhood friends and memories that play into his work.
Kessler: Among Malcom Miller’s poems are many that seem autobiographical, that at least are drawn from life. The recurring locations are Montreal, where he’d lived in the 1950s as a student at McGill and where he often visited, typically taking the bus from Boston; southern Europe (particularly Italy and Spain), where he sometimes journeyed on the most shoe-string of budgets; and—especially—Salem, where he was born, where he spent most of his life, and where he died. Many poems are set in Salem, including some that draw on childhood memories, such as of playing pick-up baseball in Forest River Park or having a first taste of beer at age twelve, at the pub his uncle Jake liked to frequent. But the Salem poems of Malcolm Miller’s later life typically express a contempt for the senseless bourgeois lives he saw being lived around him. He always maintained an appreciation for Salem’s trees, seabirds, tides, and beach sands.
Rail: Malcolm Miller’s escape to McGill University in Montreal was life-changing. Tell us about Miller’s relationship to Montreal and to Leonard Cohen.
Carey: Malcolm was proud of having gone to McGill. He and Leonard Cohen were classmates and later friends. I believe Leonard used to send him money on occasion. We were in touch with Leonard twice about filming an interview. He told us he was very fond of Malcolm but was too ill to participate in the film. He died not long after he wrote to us.
Kessler: Following his high school days at St. John’s Prep., Malcolm attended McGill in the early ‘50s, graduating in 1954. He was proud of his McGill connection—and able to show me (and be photographed with) his McGill diploma after all the intervening years. It was to the McGill library that he sent copies of all his self-published books—as well as his correspondence with other writers (including Gloucester’s Vincent Ferrini)—and his manuscripts. He wrote poems about his beloved writing professor Harold Files, who would kill himself in later life in the currents of a Vermont river. Miller was part of the ferment of Canadian poets around McGill in the ‘50s, older poets such as Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, Al Purdy—they show up in the poems. And he was at McGill together with Leonard Cohen, who would over the years let Malcolm use his couch as a crash pad and who would extend him some cash. Miller was proud of their friendship, but in the one poem I’ve found that sheds light on their relationship (“We Meet For Perhaps the Last Time”), I thought I detected a strong dose of ambivalence.
Malcolm was both rejected and celebrated. Pamela Harris, his niece, said, “The family didn’t find much value in Mal. They saw Mal, many people saw Mal, as mentally ill,” while a former girlfriend stated, “I loved Malcolm Miller with my heart and soul because he was brilliant, he was funny, and he worshipped me.”
Rail: Can you elaborate on this disparity?
Carey: This was one of the reasons I wanted to make the film. There were such varied opinions of Malcolm, and all of them passionate. I liked this idea of getting to know someone through the memories of other people, building a character with each new interview or poem. It’s almost like being the only member of a jury, the information keeps coming and you (the viewer) get to make up your mind.
Kessler: The film, inevitably, collapses a life that lasted over eighty years into a single hour. In the course of his actual life, his existential stock had its highs and lows. And there are periods of his life about which not much is known at all. Was he mentally ill? When as an old man he confided in me that the government was planting voices in his head, I’d say, “Yes, certainly;” but at the same time he was far more than that—and he was in the next moment lucid, articulate, firmly embedded in the here-and-now of our conversation. Likewise, one could ask, “Was he charming?” And, yes, such moments flashed by as well.
Rail: How was it possible for Malcolm Miller to consistently write poetry when he was most often unemployed, homeless and mentally ill?
Carey: In some ways those sound like qualifications for being a poet. It was the one thing he seemed to do no matter what else was going on in his life. I respect the commitment to the writing. The mentally ill part was sporadic to my understanding, and being unemployed and homeless never stopped a poet from writing. As a matter of fact, working often gets in the way of my writing!
Kessler: The bulk of his poetry, at least the 58 books, appeared between 1992 and 2013. During some if not all of that period, he lived in public housing and was not on the street. He was also subsidized by Social Security or SSI—I’ve never been sure of why he received monthly checks. So there was some stability. He didn’t actually spend much of what he received. He was proud to show me an envelope crammed with hundred-dollar bills, something he kept in a kitchen drawer. And even before he had his own place, he would camp out in his mother’s apartment in the same public housing development. When she was taken into a rehabilitation center, he slept in a chair by her bed.
Rail: How did Malcolm Miller’s contemptuousness of the bourgeois lifestyle lead to his unethical behavior?
Carey: There’s a quote in the film that I will paraphrase here: “He felt entitled because of his genius and so whatever he wanted he just took.” This seems to hold true for me. The Malcolm I came to know was comfortable taking things that didn’t belong to him, and it seemed that aside from the practicality of these items (shoes, booze, etc.) he may have been stealing in protest against those who were more well off than he was.
Hillringhouse: I see a poet who is not mainstream, who is an outsider—as in an outsider artist—whose poetry is unlike any other poetry that I have seen in that it is not MFA workshopped, crafted poetry coming out of the schools. It is sui generis, and his voice is consistent with his being outside the system. He has other facets to his work, such as irony and humor.
Kessler: When Henry David Thoreau traipsed through farmers’ fields in Concord, I doubt that it ever occurred to him that he was trespassing.
Rail: What do you see as Malcolm Miller’s many facets?
Carey: He was an observer of the world, albeit an opinionated one. He was a people’s poet, not easily pigeon-holed as one type of poet or another. He was often angry, occasionally mentally ill. He lived in public housing when he wasn’t homeless but died with thousands of dollars. He was a walker, often tens of miles per day. He was well-educated, often cranky. Some thought him untrustworthy, others said everyone loved him. He was above all a contradiction, I think.
Kessler: He had a lustiness about him as well as an ascetic intensity—a cross, truly, between two Henrys: Henry Miller and Henry David Thoreau.
Rail: From the 3,500 poems he wrote and mostly self-published, which stay with you?
Kessler: One of the earliest poems I read—and which drew me to Miller’s poems—was “good night Irene.” Perhaps it’s the humor and the voice that appeals to me:
good night Irene
I have a cousin
she often stands downtown with
a severe condemnatory look
as if the world
has disappointed her
she doesn’t know who
Walt Whitman is
if she did
he could be in
for a real good
Rail: Rod, you went into Miller’s apartment after his death. Can you describe what you saw?
Kessler: What stays with me is the ring of empty Tylenol bottles on the floor (he slept on the floor), suggesting that he’d been in severe pain toward the end. He’d been in failing health. There were a handful of plastic prescription drug containers on a windowsill. What else? A stalled wristwatch on a partly torn-off watchband. The tiny transistor radio tuned to WBCN. A pile of quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. An old sweatshirt on the wooden floor. His sleeping bag, too—that had tears and holes on its underside. On the wall of the one large room he’d taped up pictures of works of art clipped from some newspaper or magazine. In the bathroom the mouth of the toilet was black. Oddly, two toothbrushes, not one, hung over the sink.
Most significant, though, were the typescripts (of plays and fiction) and copies of his self-published poetry books. There were also copies of the issue of Soundings East I’d brought him on an earlier occasion, the issue in which he was the featured poet.
Rail: What were some of the surprises you encountered when creating the film?
Carey: For me it happened in some of the interviews. Whenever you ask a group of people similar questions about the same subject you’re bound to get answers that will blend with each other, but there were some moments where the natural connections presented themselves in surprising ways, when the edit seemed to come to us in the way someone said something, or a turn of phrase that set up the next move. I’d call it a more organic cut.
Kessler: I had never met, much less interviewed, Robert Booth until the filming. He’d worked on the weekly independent paper in Salem that ran Malcolm Miller’s poems. By the way, try as I might, I have been unable to unearth a single copy of the Gazette.
Rail: What do you think will be Malcolm Miller’s legacy? How will he be remembered?
Carey: I hope he is remembered as a complicated, artistic person. But mostly I hope his poetry lives on; that’s more important than anything he may or may not have done.
Hillringhouse: He was forgotten in life and now after death there is this film we made about him. A book of his poems—his selected poems, if it makes the reviews in big publications—could raise real literary interest in his poetry.
Kessler: If I have my way, one hundred years from now educated people will think of Malcolm Miller the way we think of Stephen Crane or Edgar Lee Masters.
We all imagine how we will be remembered and who will tell our stories after we are gone. “Unburying Malcolm Miller” resurrects an obscure poet and raises him from the dead more admirably and satisfactorily than any Salem psychic, medium, or palm reader. This man of many faces would probably nod to the quote from Henry James, “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”