Maggie Millner. Photograph by Sarah Wagner Miller.
It’s easy to feel happy for a friend who has suddenly, and seemingly irrevocably, fallen in love. It’s just as easy to wonder, privately, if they might, one day, fall out of it. Love stories, like rhymes, are initially generative. Both begin with the promise of infinite possibility: the couple—and the couplet—could go anywhere! But anywhere always winds up being somewhere, and that somewhere is very often a dead end.
Couplets, Maggie Millner’s rhapsodic debut, is officially described as a novel in verse, but the poems that comprise it buck constantly against their generic container. Some are in prose, others are in rhyme and meter, and all are spoken by a young woman straddling two relationships and a shifting sense of self. Affair narratives are all about reversed chronologies: they end where love begins. But when the speaker leaves her long-term boyfriend for a first-time girlfriend, her timelines get all mixed up: she becomes a “conduit / between them: a conversation they conducted / with my mouth.”
Couplets is preoccupied by triangulations. The speaker is intensely jealous of her new girlfriend’s other girlfriend, a novelist who every other weekend also has a “tryst” with a married hedge fund manager and his lover, who is a novelist, too. When he ejaculates into one of the novelists, the other pretends that she is a voyeur, peering in on her competitor, the hedge fund manager’s wife. Meanwhile, the protagonist, a poet, finds that her own love triangle produces shifting meaning. She and her lovers are bound together, but she can’t seem to harness them. “Our own story made no sense / to me and twisted up whenever I tried / writing it.”
At the end of January, Maggie and I spoke over Zoom about the language that attends love and the desires that animate the life of any writer, who will always find herself, no matter the genre, struggling between the impulse to act and the compulsion to self-analyze.
Was there a moment when it suddenly became clear to you that you were writing a book, as opposed to a series of poems?
I hadnt imagined writing a single, book-length narrative poem. When we learn to write poems, we usually learn to write these very small, discrete lyric objects, and so I had always imagined that my first book would be a collection of things that I had foraged from various years of my life. But because I had two year-long fellowships, the ostensible goal of which were to write a book, I was able to be more ambitious. The momentum of this particular poetic form took hold, and I followed it until I had the bulk of a manuscript. Then I realized the prose sections also belonged in it—that the verse needed to be aerated.
What was missing in the couplet form that the prose was able to provide?
There’s a relentlessness to writing in rhyming couples that for the reader can be exhausting and claustrophobic. I was concerned about the lack of formal surprise. But also, life has formal qualities, and a relationship model is a formal question. The book was also very much about putting things in dialectical relation to each other, so I realized that there needed to be some other secondary mode or interlocutor.
The title of the book, Couplets, is a pun, but I also felt it to be a kind of joke, because the couples keep being interrupted by the intrusion of third parties: the speaker’s girlfriend’s girlfriend and the speaker’s ex. I wonder if you find this third necessary in matters of love—if the two depend on it.
Three is a more interesting number than two. There’s a romance to the love triangle. There’s an inherent asymmetry, a more volatile set of relationships. Our desires are most manifest when we’re being pulled in two directions, when there are disparate, orthogonal, or even oppositional forces inside us. Those are the moments when complex self-knowledge happens. The times when you have to prioritize multiple, competing selves lead to personal transformation, I think.
I was thinking of Aristophanes’ idea about the source of romantic love: that people were originally conjoined and then split in half, so we’re doomed to wander the earth until we find our missing counterpart, at which point we become complete. His myth actually makes a provision for gay couples, but it unfolds only within a strictly binary gender system, and only within the premise that there’s a single lasting partner for each of us. If you depart from the idea that the couple is the default, preordained arrangement, suddenly the constructed dimensions of relational structures start to open up. The book’s jacket copy says something about coming out: one woman’s coming-out, coming undone. But I do think those two things are discrete. The consummation of queer desire is a realization that anticipates a later realization, which is that relationships are not inherently meant to be durable.
In Couplets, the only mention of coming out is immediately related to climaxing. Was it important to you to describe this supposedly outward and public-facing process as something very intimate?
The speaker is in part resistant to that climactic, self-actualizing narrative because she is also very reluctant to renounce her previous relationship. If we code her as stepping into some presupposed fate, it turns her previous life into a pretext for this other, truer moment. The cultural incentives to read things that way are both very appealing and very abundant. But the reality is that she still feels real love for her ex, which doesn’t neatly coexist with the role that she is stepping into; the relationship with her ex has an integrity that this book wants to honor. I don’t feel that time is teleological and progressive: that we’re always heading somewhere, but we’re not there yet. I believe that everyone has many lives.
Much of the story of these two couples takes place in a rapidly gentrifying Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the highly specific proper nouns that anchor your speaker to a sense of place and social milieu aren’t easy to square in verse. Eckhaus Latta, Saraghina: I find them to be rather ugly words. Why did you include them?
Through this new relationship, the speaker is stepping into an identity, but she’s also stepping into a social class and milieu that is not entirely comfortable to her, where queerness is the opposite of marginal, and where being a person in an alternative relationship model is actually quite common. She is hyper-attentive to the signifiers that attend this world, which she too finds ugly (and alluring). On the one hand, she longs to be naturalized into it, but on the other, there is also this inevitable friction between the person she knows herself to be within the social contexts that she has occupied, and the world that these proper nouns stand in for. Part of why this isn’t a more triumphant coming out story has to do with the fact that queer life, within the circles she’s in, doesn’t attract public shame. On the contrary, there’s social cachet in stepping into that identity. Which is not to elide the homophobia and queerphobia that continue to dominate most spaces in this country, or the elders and activists who have made communities like this one possible. But for the speaker, there’s something disingenuous about claiming her queerness only as a socially marginal identity.
Toward the very end of the book, the narrator declares that in verse, as opposed to in prose, there are “barely any characters at all.” What do you think about the differences between character as it can be constructed in prose versus poetry?
As contemporary readers of poetry, we often assume that the lyric “I” is the writing self, which does seem to preclude characterization, because that “I” is seen as pointing to a nonfictional human figure. But we’re wrong when we make the assumption that the “I” and the self are coextensive, even in poems that seem totally autobiographical. I want to be taken seriously as a maker of artifice, and I’m interested in inviting my readers away from that assumption, while also maintaining a sense of intimate disclosure, which we typically associate with the lyric poem.
The book is classified as “a novel in verse,” and your speaker is, for a period, intensely jealous of her girlfriend’s girlfriend, who is a novelist. Although she never says so outright, you get the sense that she fears the story this novelist will make of her love for the speaker’s girlfriend will be more compelling than the story the speaker can make in verse. Which makes me wonder, how do you feel about novels and novelists?
There might be more references to novelists in the book than to poets, which is reflective of the speaker’s taste and of a desire to be maximally immersed in experiences of every aesthetic kind. Novels provide that exhaustive immersion. It’s not that poems don’t, but poetry is more condensed and demanding and doesn’t act on attention the way that novelistic prose acts on attention. There’s a passivity and submissiveness that the reader of a novel gets to enjoy. The reader of poetry is invited to focus on granular particulate dimensions language—it’s a less submissive experience, or at least a less passive one.
As a poet, I have an inner conflict around the desire to write a novel while being a poet. I feel pulled in two different directions: I have a strong affinity for narrative, characterization, and durational storytelling, but it’s very hard for me to imagine turning off the poetic apparatus. The speaker is entertaining the possibility of being otherwise, of existing in a slightly different shape. She wonders if her life might be radically different if she could find a form that better reflects what’s going on with her.
The couple form is said to be infinitely transformative, and yet many experience it as a restriction. The same can be said of rhyme and meter. On the one hand, it produces infinite meaning; on the other, it can feel laden with rules. How do you feel about living and working within these two forms?
A foundational belief that undergirds this book is that one way to feel free, to experience agency within the repressive systems that govern our lives, is to historicize and try to understand the material conditions through which they came to be. The idea that to write in free verse is an exercise in unmediated personal expression presupposes so many things about what that form does. The shift away from rhyme and meter is extremely recent relative to literary history; the phrase “free verse” is only a century and a half old. It’s also somewhat oxymoronic; to me, as soon as anything becomes compulsory—as soon as it’s presented as the only available option—it doesn’t make much sense to attach the adjective free to it. Contemporary poets are generally expected, with the consensus of the commercial and academic institutions, to write in ways that sound more like speech than like oldfangled verse forms. So the idea that writing in an inherited form is a deviation from the default is, ironically, a basically presentist idea. Still, if radical forms are those that stage a departure from the status quo, we live in a time when using rhyme and meter can actually qualify. I would argue that they can even take on a new political charge when used by people historically excluded from the institutions that propagated them.
I feel similarly vexed about relationship structures. I do feel there is something amazing and irreplicable about the experience of being in a couple. And I don’t think that experience is only a cultural production—there’s something genuinely special that can happen between two individuals. Moments of intimacy with one other person have been the most transformative, spiritual moments of my life. The speaker of Couplets is magnetized toward those experiences. They’re real, they’re important, and they’re beautiful—they’re what it’s all about. But through those experiences, she finds herself unwittingly signed up for a certain kind of partnership—caught in a default she didn’t necessarily choose.
Do you feel as if the couplet is a flawed form that we have to reinvent, to the extent that reinvention is possible? Or do you believe that the couple is an ideal form that is tarnished by lived reality?
I think the issue is not with the structure of the couple, but with the telos of any relationship being eternity—the idea that the couple is a form you only step into and never out of. There is something exalted about the experience that two individuals can have with each other. Suddenly, you’re not really an individual, which is the profundity that you experience in the presence of an other. I feel very attached to that. But this book is an experiment in thinking through the question, What if staying together wasn’t the tacit objective of every relationship? In Poetic Closure, Barbara Herrnstein Smith writes that the couplet is a unit that enacts closure. Every two lines, there’s resolution. And so there’s a propulsive momentum to the form, but it also pretends to arrive at closure over, and over, and over again. There’s an assumption that the couple is a closed container, but the couplet unravels that assumption through repetition.
I was struck by how resistant your speaker is to the endings that might otherwise be imposed upon her; she leaves her boyfriend but feels herself conducting his mannerisms in her relationship with her girlfriend, so that the two meet in her. Why were you drawn to that choreography, which seems impossible for a book about couples, written in couplets?
On the one hand, we are all familiar with the story of falling in love—we all know how it can go. And at the same time, we don’t, as a culture, have many urtexts about voluntary breakups, because divorce only stopped being taboo, like, yesterday. The idea that a marriage is composed of two subjects who are equally entitled to an experience of self-actualization is not very old—even younger than free verse! If we look at our great foundational texts, especially within the Western canon, relationships end nonconsensually, either by death or by some other nonmutual event.
There’s a reason that literature is still being written about the fundamental question of how to know when a relationship is over, even if you still have an attachment to that person. We don’t have cultural scripts for those questions, and the way they are legislated is still retrograde and dependent on conservative notions of the sanctity of the nuclear family. The speaker of my book is very much reckoning with the residues of historical expectations of what women owe men. There’s a great temptation on the part of women in hetero partnerships to feel an outsized sense of responsibility for their demise.
Maya Binyam is a contributing editor of the Review.
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