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Q&A with poet Becca Miles

This week, we're excited to feature two new poems from Becca Miles – 'Plans for After Graduating' and ''What Should I Know About Whales'.

Becca Miles used to be a biologist who wrote to procrastinate and accidentally procrastinated their way into a Creative Writing BA. They've published individual poems in More Exhibitionism, BFS: Horizons, and Vortex. In 2020 they contributed twelve poems to the joint collection Steel-Tipped Snowflakes.

Our editor-in-chief Julian Kanagy had the chance to speak with Becca about the new poetry published with The Wild Umbrella, and about how their spoken word background informs the sonic richness of their work.

Julian Kanagy: I'd love to start by asking about 'What Should I Know About Whales?', which our editors found to be touching and well-crafted. I am especially glad that you chose to record a reading of this piece, as I found the sonic texture especially fun and effective here - listening readers may get a sense of the resonant booming in the deep depicted in the poem. How did you think about the sound, rhythm, and flow of this piece when crafting it?

Becca Miles: My background is in performance poetry (shout out to York Spoken Word open mic) so almost all my poems are written with how they sound out loud in mind. My process involves a lot of pacing while speaking lines out loud to myself, sounding out assonances and feeling out where the rhythm wants to go. With 'What Should I Know About Whales' I got hooked on the word 'harpoon' early into the writing and shaped the rest of my ideas around the sound of it: so 'blueness', 'pulling', 'pushes through', 'booming' all come from that, they've all got that 'oo' sound and the soft, almost muffled consonants. Which of course mimics the whale song.


JK:  Are these poems recent work of yours, or earlier work? How has your relationship with your writing changed over the course of your development as a poet?

BM: I wrote 'Whales' in 2021 during one of the lockdowns and 'Plans' in 2023, so they're both fairly recent. I've been writing poetry since I was a teenager but I started actively trying to improve my craft in 2015 when I started going to open mics. That context meant that I focused heavily on how the poems sounded, putting line breaks and punctuation according to what felt most natural in my voice. While completing my Creative Writing BA (2019 - 2023), my focus has shifted to thinking more about how a poem looks and reads on the page. I still love my old poems, but it's been exciting to explore more of the possibility space.

JK: Both poems here feature one side of a conversation, in a way; "Plans for After Graduating" answers the eponymous question, and the narrator of 'Whales' receives this wisdom over the phone.  Do you feel like this places you, the poet, in a sort of conversation with your readers, or perhaps invites them to fill the "other side" of those conversations as they read?

BM: You know, I hadn't made that connection between those two! I love it when that happens. I think at their core, all my poems are about communication. I'm autistic, so my ways of communicating haven't always succeeded at making myself understood. To an extent that's just what it means to be a human trapped in your skull trying to make the right sounds and shapes to get other people to imagine the same things you do. However, being autistic means that gulf's a bit more tangible for me and I've spent an unusual amount of time thinking about how to bridge it. One of the things I've learned is that sometimes an idea or a feeling just can't be conveyed in the literal meaning of words alone. That's what poetry is for, at least for me. So that's a somewhat existential way of saying: yes, I tend to hope all my poems can be a kind of conversation with their readers.

JK: Do you find 'Plans' and 'Whales' to be hopeful poems, at their core? In my readings, both pieces feature nuanced relationships with hope and despair, and I'd love to hear the poet's perspective on this dichotomy - perhaps both in life and in poetry?

BM: I'll start with 'Whales'. There's some inherent despair in the subject matter; 'Save the Whales' might be the most well-known ecological slogan for a reason, and that 'harpoon head [...] forged a century ago' brings the long history of violence enacted by our species into focus. But that poem is still inherently hopeful to me. The old whale outlived the humans who harpooned it, scarred but surviving. The blue whales boom their songs across entire ocean basins, never alone even as they go for years without seeing each other (you can kind of tell this was a lockdown poem, right?) That hugeness beyond humanity, both in time and space, is hopeful to me.

I find 'Plans' harder to pin down (and not just because I've spent most of the past year failing to break into my preferred post-grad career path). The narrator escapes into possible futures of varying levels of unrealism, before snapping back a more expected answer. You could find that despair-inducing; the crushing mundanity of real life limitations. Then again, compared to shapeshifting and rebuilding civilisation post climate apocalypse, finding an internship sounds pretty achievable, right? Maybe that's hopeful.

I personally think hope is scarier than despair. Despair is static; it's comforting like that. Hope is full of horrifying uncertainty. Irritatingly, it turns out you need hope to live. So for those of us who've decided to keep living, we have to find ways to get over the fear of hope. I allow myself to hope for small things I can control (like my own career) and huge things I can't (like the tenacity of very old, very large sea mammals).

JK: The way that poems sound, especially a poem like 'Whales,' can be such a different experience from just seeing it on a page. At the open mics where you honed your craft, or in general, what do you find meaningful or different compared to forming a poem visually? Is there anything that you would like eager listeners to your recording to pay particular attention to in 'Whales' to understand your craft?

BM: For me, one major difference between performance and page is lineation. When I was writing for performance, I'd put line breaks where I'd naturally want to pause when reading. When writing for the page, I pay attention to how words can relate to each other across line breaks and vertically on the page. For instance, if the first and last lines of a poem end with words that reinforce or contradict each other, a reader's eyes might naturally drift up and pick out that connection. That kind of nonlinearity is possible with spoken word, but lacking the visual component you need to use things like repetition, tone, pacing etc to achieve it. One format isn't better than the other, just different.

I tend to shy away from directing listeners too much before they hear a poem; I limit my preambles at open mics to a couple of sentences for this reason. I think part of the joy of poetry is having it affect you, then going back and figuring out how it did it. So I'd say pay attention to your own reaction first: what parts stick in your mind; what emotions did it provoke; what sensations (visual, audible or otherwise) did it conjure? Then think about why those particular words in that particular order might have done that. If you don't have a clear answer, go and listen to more poems and find some that affect you similarly.


Becca Miles

Becca used to be a biologist who wrote to procrastinate and accidentally procrastinated their way into a Creative Writing BA. They've published individual poems in More Exhibitionism, BFS: Horizons, and Vortex. In 2020 they contributed twelve poems to the joint collection Steel-Tipped Snowflakes.

Julian Kanagy

Julian Kanagy is a Chicago-based poet and editor. His poetry samples a Midwestern upbringing peppered with loss and abandonment, thrives both in the confines of formal structure and the simplicity of its absence, and expands into an ongoing search for the beauty in everyday life when it seems to be hiding. He started Heirlock Magazine to amplify underrepresented voices and The Wild Umbrella to celebrate writing for writing's sake; both as an editor and in his own work, Julian follows the advice of a mentor: “find the poems that nobody else could have written.”


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