Alum Teresa K. Miller ’00 shares what she learned during her years at UPrep and why poetry matters.
A graduate of Barnard College and the Mills College MFA program, Teresa K. Miller won the 2020 National Poetry Series with her poetry collection Borderline Fortune, which will be published by Penguin on October 5, 2021. She lives with her partner and cat just south of Portland, Oregon, where she tends a mini orchard.
What led you to pursue and stick with the poetry path?
I think the earliest origin is before conscious memory. When she was pregnant with me, my mom read me Shakespeare. My grandma taught me to read before I was 3. My parents would jump up from the dinner table to get the dictionary, and we would talk about words. When my dad gave me an illustrated copy of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, I thought, “Oh, poetry is something you can do, and it ends up in a book.” One of my most formative experiences was attending a weeklong writers’ conference at Centrum in Port Townsend almost every fall and spring, during my Upper School years. My teachers knew writing was my calling and trusted me to catch up with schoolwork. I’m stubborn and persistent—it never occurred to me to stop being a writer. One of the best pieces of advice from my MFA advisor was to send every submission somewhere else the same day it got rejected. Rejections aren’t personal, and publishing is a numbers game.
How do you think poetry can address the issues we face as a species?
Poetry is my metaphysical response, my bearing witness. A poem isn’t going to lower CO2 parts per million in the atmosphere, but there are ways that poetry reaches people emotionally when we can’t speak about politics directly. Poetry isn’t superfluous—it has the capacity to inspire action and emotional change. It’s a way of being in conversation with each other, to feel validated and like we are not alone. During the pandemic, I’ve found solace, inspiration and meaning in poetry ranging from “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver to collections by Lucille Clifton and Mathias Svalina. Reading Svalina’s The Wine-Dark Sea, which grapples with isolation and despair, made me feel part of the larger human experience—he survived, and so will I.
How did UPrep help you form your identity?
I developed confidence in my academic abilities through teachers who were mentors. My math teacher John Jewitt had a quiet respectfulness that showed me I could handle rigorous content. I never heard him raise his voice. When my father was killed, he came to the funeral, and he later attended the release of my first book. Paul Fleming created an oasis through hosting the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) in his classroom. I’m still in touch with my English teacher Stephen Thomas, who was one of the first published poets I saw in the flesh! My English teacher Vicki O’Keefe had an amazing overflowing love of her subject, and her confidence in me was such a gift. UPrep prepared me for university, which was the launch point for my career.
How did UPrep prepare you to be a socially responsible, global citizen?
I so appreciate the media literacy I learned in my history classes. Those skills are becoming increasingly essential to maintaining a functional democracy. It was meaningful to do community service with my advisory group. There’s not a lot you control as a teenager, so it mattered that the students got to vote on our service project and then go do it. This volunteering shaped my work as an adult, which has mostly been in the nonprofit and public sectors.
The Elliot Bay book launch for Borderline Fortune will be online at 6:00 p.m., Thursday, October 7, 2021; register here. A conversation between Teresa and UPrep alumna Dr. Sarah E. Myhre ’00 about bearing witness to the climate crisis through science and storytelling is available here. Teresa and UPrep alumnus Bryce Andrews ’01, a nonfiction author, are planning an in-person event in Missoula, Montana, next spring; we’ll post news of that event on Instagram.