Voices of Bettering American Poetry—Millissa Kingbird

Do you feel that your writing is assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption? Does memoir play a role in your poetry?

I’ve never had the courage to really ask this question of my readers. What usually happens is, people tell me more how they identify with my writing and where they see themselves. My writing, sometimes becomes a mirror, so readers don’t really see me in the piece. My poetry is rooted firmly in memoir though, many of the things that I describe have happened to me. Or I am conveying the emotional space of my experiences.

What does it feel like in the body to write the grief space of the inconsolable?

It feels like taking off layers of skin. We shed and renew most of our body every 15 years. At 36, my current skin has never embraced my sister who died when I was 12. When writing about things that rip apart my insides, as grief tends to do, I often relive the events. Sometimes it’s harder to come back from it than others.

How do we navigate the inherent trauma in using language to decipher the unsayable, without letting it silence us? What is lost and cannot be conveyed writing through hegemonic language?

When I write about trauma, it’s like grasping at a bar of soap with wet hands. I use different tools to get the job done. Like, I’ll hold the soap with a rag, I will write around the trauma. My words won’t be the thing itself, they will be the air around the thing. If fill in the white space around it, you can begin to make out the shape. So maybe the exact form is never translated and that’s okay. What I mean to say has to be more than the words anyway. I want my words to convey an emotional intangibility, the English language alone cannot do the work. I need silence to provide texture and growth, I’ve found power in taking something that would otherwise harm me and making it my own weapon.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter? What brings you joy?

For me, sometimes the self-care is writing about the difficult subject matter. It sounds cliché to say that it gives me a way to filter through my troubles with a poetic lens. Sometimes, it sucks. Right now, my poetry is in conversation with an ex who committed suicide recently and my writing to him may not be bringing me joy, but comfort for sure. I don’t think joy is something I seek.

Does gender or gender performance affect your writing?

Yes. I’m very mindful of my place as a cisgender woman. I consider the privileges and disadvantages of that space. Especially as an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe woman) within gendered space. I cannot separate it out of my writing.

What advice do you have for young and emerging writers, particularly of marginalized identities? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

What I want to say to young and emerging writers is, find someone who will be honest with you about your lines. Make friends with someone who loves you enough to tell you when you are terrible because they see your potential to be brilliant. This is especially true for people of marginalized identities, so much of the world isn’t made for our voices. It becomes that much more important to honor your voice and craft and not half ass your writing. Have someone hold you accountable, because there’s a world out there that doesn’t want you to succeed.

My best advice came from Arthur Sze in my first year at IAIA (the Insitute of American Indian Arts) and this will be a bad paraphrasing (I’m sorry, Arthur!) but he had been describing writing like a Zen garden and how you see the surface of a rock and know that there is a rock there, the shape of the rock on the surface gave idea to the actual rock below. You never see the rock, but you know that it’s there. He said poetry should be like that. Also, that you should usually cut out the first part of a poem and write past the ending of a poem. That’s usually where your meaning is.

Do you have any cool selfies or pictures of your pets? Can I see them?

How are you?

Right now, I’m fighting my depression with motion. I’m writing but not publishing. I’ve got the privilege to be co-editing Yellow Medicine Review this season alongside the fabulously talented Angela Trudell-Vasquez, it’s definitely an interesting change of pace to be on this side of the publication process. It’s also good for me to be distracted while I’m generating certain work.

Our submissions deadline is March 15, 2019. So, if this goes out before then, we’re looking for indigenous writing, please read our call out and submit!


A photo of Millissa Kingbird, an Anishinaabekwe woman.MILLISSA KINGBIRD holds a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. She writes poetry and the occasional lyric essay focusing on womanhood, bodies, nature, and trauma. She has been published in Hinchas de Poesia, Yellow Medicine Review, Red Ink, Connotations Press, The Rumpus, and Heavy Feather Review. When not writing poetry, she sells seashells by the lakeshore—or works in a pawn shop. She is a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and lives within her tribal community.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 3. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for this anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.