MaryAnn L. Miller


Imagine your fate swinging on serendipity. That's the word the diagnosing neurologist used when he said a drug had accidentally been discovered to treat Periodic Paralysis. Starting at age three, my days were duels between paralysis and mobility. Mornings nailed me to the bed or desk and by noon or so I was released from the daily episodes. Luckily, I went to Catholic school where the Sisters preferred children who sat like stones. When the spells wore off I went about the business of the day being a kid, a teenager, a married woman, and a young mother, who had been ignorantly misdiagnosed at age fourteen as "hysteric" an "exaggerated guilt conversion." I was bewildered and ashamed of my condition and hid it in the attic like a crazy twin sister,a duality that became my usual state.(Cures for Hysteria, Finishing Line Press, 2018)

I was thirty-years-old when my three-year-old son suffered the onset of the condition I had unwittingly passed on to him. From my obsessive study of Freud, I felt sure a psychological condition could not be inherited, so we went off to the pediatrician, who correctly diagnosed us in twenty minutes: Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis. My son and I both take acetazolamide to manage the symptoms. It works by driving out the electrolyte potassium that causes neurons to fire in a berserk frequency making muscles boggy and unable to function. Fortunately, it's used to treat glaucoma and altitude sickness, so it's not quite an orphan drug. Without it I would not have been able to sustain a full-time job, drive carpool or take responsibility for other human beings, and I would have far more deterioration of muscle strength. There is breakthrough some days; it's sort of like managing diabetes. Actually, drinking a shot of glucose helps fend off an impending episode.

Because humans see things in compartments, there has always been a seeming duality in my life, and not only because of Periodic Paralysis. I'm either making art or writing poems. Balancing visual art and language art might seem to some like passing back and forth across a border but I see it as all one thing. National Treasure and potter Toshiko Takaezu said once that growing squash in her garden, cooking the squash and making pots were all the same thing, except that you can't eat the pots. I grew to understand what she meant more fully as I have embraced my practice in the arts. The painter Mark Rothko has said some people are foxes and some are groundhogs. Foxes do a lot of different things, but groundhogs do one. Rothko was a concrete poet with paint, composing blocks of luscious color laid like silent verses on the huge canvases. You can feel his colors; he said he painted ideas. He was definitely a groundhog in his art. However, there was foxiness in the varied materials he used for paint and the extremely nuanced changes in his color. Rothko did plan to write a book filled with philosophical thought about art and artists. After his death, his son and daughter gathered his pages, edited and published them (Mark Rothko, The Artist's Reality, Yale University Press, 2004.) Sometimes I think I'd like to specialize in one thing, zoning in on that and not crossing borders.

But, I know that it's healthier for me physically and creatively to work across genres. Instead of forcing myself to make a choice I claim all of it. Besides, I can't help myself. I have written and made art since childhood. I was one of the few of my undergraduate class of Art Education majors who had a minor and it was in English. Literature had great power.

I had an erudite and compassionate teacher of English in high school. Her name was Miss Gertrude Reed and she had taught my mother. She was thin as a literal reed with chin-length downy white hair and a voice like an oboe. When she read Robert Burns "To a Mouse" about a "wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie" even some of the boys would cry. She introduced us to John Milton's "On Blindness" and I pulled that poem into my heart. I thought the last line was especially for me when I couldn't move.

They also serve who only stand and wait.

My creative practice is somewhat dependent on my daily degree of muscle strength. Working in the studio is the right kind of light movement I need. I'm a printmaker and book artist, but, there are some demanding forms of printmaking I can't do without causing pain, cramping, or balky muscles, such as intaglio (repetitively wiping ink), or woodcuts (pushing a sharp tool through resistant wood.) The neurons start firing, the potassium builds along with lactic acid, and the muscles bog down. It's more productive to use less labor-intensive methods like monotypes and serigraphs or combinations of them. My prints are gestural and I partner with randomness and layering. For book arts, I need undistracted focus and fine hand/eye coordination. Everything is measured, cut, glued, wrapped, folded exactly right or I've wasted materials, time, and serenity. I'm back and forth along a continuum from spontaneity in the prints to detailed planning in book arts. Artists' books are a crystallized art form that integrates text and image: words, shape, line, color, texture, scope, content, and scale all in balance.

On the other side of the brain/body scale is writing and the peripherals that are embedded in it: keystrokes with accurate pressure, navigating Word and Photoshop, integrating and revising text, research into content and places to publish. Writing physically, or in my mind, is not as demanding in the same way as visual art. In printmaking often the first one of a series is the best one. It's a big mistake to think the first draft of a poem is the best one. I do love revision. It's the sauce on the taco!

This is where things get sticky. Sitting for long periods of time works against me for the other aspect of my condition myotonia or muscle stiffness. I must get up and limp around holding onto the furniture until muscles loosen up. Sometimes I use one of the canes that I keep in my studio and car, although a cane is one more thing to deal with. While writing I draw on the vocabulary I used in painting to conjure precise meaning in visual images in poems. Building lines of a poem is much the same as layers of ink in a print. Serigraphy is particularly like line building because it's laid down one layer at a time, a different screen for each color. Composing words reminds me of putting color together in harmony or dissonance. Near rhymes are like colors close to each other on the color wheel. A poem with dense opaque language is like the thick build-up of impasto. Open transparent lines are like thin veils of watercolor. The difficulty is finding the combination of words that correspond to the interior eyes and ears. I do word banks when I visit museums or galleries or as I read particularly rich fiction. These result in surprising unintentional eruptions of phrases that might become a first line or concept. I was trying to figure out how to install some large fabric prints and thought of making shelter-like forms from them. The phrase: "the shelter is also the storm" came into my mind. That's now a line in a new poem.

I wanted to include a contemporary poem about duality in this blog. I came upon Margaret Atwood's title Double Persephone(1961) I thought: "Now there's a mythical woman who led two lives." More important to me than Persephone's well-known double life above and below ground is Atwood's process in publishing this first collection. It's an artist's book! Atwood published it herself, setting the type and decorating the cover with a linocut in an edition of 220. She has experienced the transformative nature of publishing one's own work and I think this is why she writes with depth of understanding about the artist's life, in particular her novel Cat's Eye. Atwood has integrated art with life. There are some copies of Double Persephone available from rare booksellers online if you have a few thousand dollars to spend. So tempting.

My visual art practice has not slacked off, but has been refined. There is a congruence within that may not be evident from the outside. The psychologist Carl Rogers spoke of congruence as that state of being when our interior selves match our actual behavior. Visual art and language arts complement each other. I do feel that it's all the same thing to me now. The tools of creativity may change, but making continues whether we use words, paint, ink, metal, movement, or sound. When my workday is finished, usually around three I read, take an afternoon nap and then go in the kitchen to cook something. Recently, I posted a photo on Facebook of a small, oval Japanese eggplant with a little ski-jump of a nose that had mutated out of it—a sort of found sculpture. I made ratatouille out of it and ate it with a glass of pino grigio.


MaryAnn L. Miller's memoir in poems Cures for Hysteria has been published by Finishing Line Press 2018. Her writing has appeared in Ovanque Siamo, Stillwater Review, Kaleidoscope, The International Review of African American Art and Passager. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. She has held residencies at Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Ragdale Foundation. She publishes artists' books via her Lucia Press.