Matthew Miller on Writing Poems About Everyday Family Activities

Matthew Miller teaches social studies, swings tennis rackets, and writes poetry—all hoping to create home. He and his wife live beside a dilapidated orchard in Indiana, where he tries to shape dead trees into playhouses for his four boys. His poetry has been featured in Whale Road Review, River Mouth Review, Club Plum, and Ekstasis Magazine.

Matthew Miller’s poem “Should We Stay Up Late on Independence Day” is published in Capsule Stories Summer 2021 Edition. The poem contemplates a family Fourth of July gathering, using the images to explore the tension, worry, and celebration in the simple decisions we make every day.

His poems “Lament for March Madness and Remote Learning” and “Infestation” are published in Capsule Stories Second Isolation Edition. “Lament for March Madness and Remote Learning” uses the metaphor of basketball to speak about the difficulty of online teaching in the pandemic, and how mistake-ridden and full of pressure it often feels. “Infestation” speaks of insects and illness—the two irritants that sneak their way into our lives when we can’t explain why and don’t know how to deal with them.

Capsule Stories: Tell us why you wanted to write about your family’s Fourth of July celebration in “Should We Stay Up Late on Independence Day.”

Matthew Miller: Early in 2020, I started to be intentional about submitting poetry for publication. I had always written poems for my family but never really had any published. So in June of 2020, my first three poems were published. When celebrating the Fourth of July with my family, my brother told me he’d read the poems but they weren’t his favorite because he couldn’t understand them. He congratulated me but said that he didn’t think poetry journals would ever publish a poem about “normal” things.

I said that wasn’t true, and a challenge was formed. He challenged me to write a poem about our Fourth of July celebration and then get that poem published. So I accepted the challenge, eventually writing “Should We Stay Up Late on Independence Day.” In that poem, I wanted to capture the themes of freedom and that choices have consequences and rewards, even everyday choices like staying up late. People get cranky but sometimes memories are formed that couldn’t be had in any other way. After writing the poem, Capsule Stories was the first place I submitted it, because the Starry Nights theme seemed so perfect. It was accepted, and I won the bet with my brother! 🙂

Capsule Stories: How do you approach writing poems about regular, everyday family activities?

Matthew Miller: I think these are actually the most important poems. Much of my life is spent as a husband and father. So these are the experiences that I want to learn from and grow in. Poetry for me is almost like a spiritual discipline, a way of examining my life and being comforted or confronted. Sometimes the poem will be in awe of a moment, and sometimes it will be saying, “Look! Look how you screwed up and how you can change!” So, in some ways I use poems to reflect on my life, especially the parts that are most important to me.

Being a loving dad, being a supportive husband, being an involved member of my extended family and remembering our family traditions—these things are most important to me. So they are the places I want to reflect on and grow in. So that’s what I write about.

Also, I must admit that I want my family to read my poems. Seems that when I write about them, they are more inclined to read it! 🙂

Capsule Stories: Where did the idea for the poem “Infestation” come from? The visual imagery in it is so striking!

Matthew Miller: In the fall of 2020, we had just added a screened porch to the back of our house. We love sitting outside, but all the insects make it difficult to enjoy long periods of time out there. Just as the porch was finished, my wife mysteriously contracted COVID-19. It wasn’t the worst, but she was definitely in discomfort. She had to isolate from our family in our bedroom.

During that time, I would use the porch to teach or just hang out. I began to notice that bugs were still making their way in somehow, even though we’d tried our best to seal the porch off and screen every last nook and cranny. It felt the same way with COVID. Even though we were taking every precaution, it still snuck in. So, the images are from sitting on our porch, watching flies and wasps crawl in the screen and then looking through the door and seeing my wife sick in bed. It was an anxious time, one where we were searching for any sign of hope.

Capsule Stories: “Lament for March Madness and Remote Learning” is full of basketball references. What drew you to basketball references to explore and describe your experience with remote teaching?

Matthew Miller: I am a huge college basketball fan, and the stay-home orders for COVID-19 hit right before the biggest college basketball event, the NCAA Basketball Tournament, better known as March Madness. So, it was one of the little things I missed most during that time. Simultaneously, our school switched to remote learning. I missed the face-to-face interactions with my students. And as I was missing those two things, basketball and my students, this poem emerged. And I think the basketball images really work because there was so much of “taking your shot and missing” in remote teaching. We were trying so many new things, trying to see what would work, and it felt a little bit like chucking three-pointers and hoping to make them.

Capsule Stories: “Lament” explores the challenges and frustrations that come with teaching remotely. What has it been like being a teacher (and a parent) in the pandemic?

Matthew Miller: Well, it just feels like so much depends on you. When I’m at school teaching, the students are connecting with each other, getting social interaction, talking and joking with me and their peers. Teaching remotely . . . there’s just none of that life that makes school so exciting to me.

Capsule Stories: What writers and poets have influenced you and your poetry?

Matthew Miller: Four poets have influenced me the most: Shari Wagner, Todd Davis, Tania Runyan, and Dave Harrity. They are all contemporary poets. Shari Wagner grew up in the same area of Indiana that I have—she actually knew my grandfather and my aunts. Her poetry about Indiana and about her cultural upbringing connects to my experience and has taught me ways to write about where I live and who I live with.

Todd Davis writes some of my favorite poetry dealing with the natural world. The spectacular images of flowers, forests, and wildlife give me lenses to process my everyday questions.

Finally, I adore the way Tania Runyan connects deep spirituality to ordinary life events. Dave Harrity encouraged me when I was just starting out in poetry. His book Making Manifest marked my turn from a dabbler in poetry to becoming truly enthralled with the art.

Capsule Stories: What are you working on next?

Matthew Miller: Truthful answer, I’m moving into the high school tennis season and I’ll be pretty intently focused on coaching tennis for the next two months. Then I’m looking forward to getting back into writing, especially with a focus on how to dynamically write sports poetry. Sports are a large part of my school life, and I’d love to be able to make meaning out of these experiences as well.

You can find Matthew Miller on Twitter at @mattleemiller32 and online at mattleemiller.wixsite.com/poetry.

Read Matthew Miller’s poems “Lament for March Madness and Remote Learning” and “Infestation” in Capsule Stories Second Isolation Edition.

Read Matthew Miller’s poem “Should We Stay Up Late on Independence Day” in Capsule Stories Summer 2021 Edition.