Oct. 10, 2007
Jamaican writer Kei Miller aims for the 'goose-pimply moment'
Kei Miller, the 28-year-old Jamaican poet, fiction writer and essayist who is in residence this fall at the University of Iowa International Writing Program, calls his homeland "a remarkably religious country." And although he no longer actively practices religion, he views the power of religious ritual, scripture and ecstatic experience is an enduring model for what he hopes to achieve in his writing.
"It's the one trope that comes up again and again in all of my work -- modeling things off of religious experience," he says. "I think I have a relationship with the church from growing up, even if I walked a little bit far from that place. Writing is always ritual, and scripture teaches you how to make work powerful. I think religion is also destructive and awful and sometimes I like to talk about it, and use the language of religion to critique it.
"When writers are asked who are their models, we often list other writers, and it's true, but I'm equally aware of pastors who have influenced me. They are equally parts of my literary heritage and it is equally their voice I'm trying to capture."
Miller describes the predominant religious practices of Jamaica as a unique evangelical synthesis of high-church Anglican ritual with intense, expressive African traditions. Preachers, with their stirring oratory, are the most popular figures; services include speaking in tongues; and women prophets buy full-page ads in the newspapers to express their revelations in language reminiscent of the King James Bible.
"I go back and draw on my own experience," he says. "It's what I want literature to do. I've had those experiences in church, of hearing a sermon -- and probably sermons that I wouldn't listen to now -- but of sermons that just hit you.
"And you can divorce yourself from it and say, 'What is it that makes my hair stand on end. What is it that causes that goose-pimply moment?' You stand outside of the experience and ask, 'What is the art of this? What is the mechanism of art working in these spiritual experiences?' You can actually think, 'How can I create that goose-pimply moment?'
"I've always wanted work to operate on that level -- that it's not just good but that it causes a physical reaction in you."
One of the ways that Miller conceives of achieving that power is through symbols -- not merely using the conventional implications of symbols, but also enhancing, manipulating and deepening those meanings -- a common device in preaching.
"I love symbology," he says. "I am always looking for symbols. I'm always trying to invest new meanings in them. One of the ways writing can become powerful is by finding a symbol, using something and invoking all kinds of meaning in it, and layering it each time it is invoked.
"I've never been interested in being simply a 'good' writer, because good simply meant that you got down the craft right, but if you are a powerful writer it meant that you not only got down the craft down, but you also had something to say as well, and you got both right."
Miller won the Jamaica Observer Literary Prizes for both fiction and poetry in 2002. His first collection of poetry, "Kingdom of Empty Bellies," came out in 2005, the same year he attended the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Another volume, "There Is An Anger That Moves," will appear later this year.
His 2006 short story collection, "The Fear of Stones and Other Stories," was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize. Miller is also the editor of "New Caribbean Poetry," published this year.
He attended the University of the West Indies and received a master's degree in creative writing from Manchester Metropolitan University in England. After leaving the UI he will begin a teaching post in Scotland.
He is participating in the IWP through the support of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
Biographies of all the 2007 IWP writers and participants in the program's 40th-anniversary activities are accessible at http://www.uiowa.edu/%7Eiwp/WRIT/WRITmain.html. A description of the program and the 2007 residency period is accessible at http://news-releases.uiowa.edu/2007/august/080607iwp-anniversary.html.
For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit http://www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, go to http://list.uiowa.edu/archives/acr-news.html, click the link "Join or leave the list (or change settings)" and follow the instructions.
NOTE: This is the first in a series of features about writers currently in residence in the International Writing Program.
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