In her searing literary debut, the poet renders a portrait of contemporary desire that resists categorization

“If someone assumes that my poetry is autobiographical, I tend to say, Of course it’s not… I’m straight and a virgin,” jokes the poet Maggie Millner. She’s referring to her literary debut Couplets: A Love Story—a searing portrait of queer intimacy and the modern urban experience, told in a structure that “hasn’t been cool since the 1850s.” “I’m interested in bringing the rhythms and textures of a certain kind of marginal queer life into this form that was never meant to accommodate it,” she says from the kitchen of her Brooklyn apartment. She’s drawn up a spread of wine, cheese, bread, and Amish-made herbed butter she picked up on her way back from New Haven, where she teaches writing at Yale. (“Sorry, I can’t help but host.”)

Introduced by Chaucer in the 14th century, the heroic couplet is a form often used to tell “tales of conquest and war,” celebrating masculinity and conveying a sense of built-in nationalism. “Clearly, none of these are my obsessions,” Millner says. “So it’s interesting to think, What does it mean to engage in this tradition as a queer woman in 2023?

For Millner, this question only led to more questions, which spring unbidden to the mind of her protagonist—a woman living in Brooklyn in her late-20s, dating a man toward whom she feels a sense of profound, if filial, affection. Thus far, she’s been able to suppress her desire to experiment with women, ignoring the increasingly homoerotic fantasies that surface in her dreams—at least, until an accidental meet-cute leads her to embark on an all-consuming affair.

Though it’s billed as a love story, Couplets is less about a happily ever after and more about the capacity for relationships to act as an engine for self-knowledge—a stage upon which to audition new versions of oneself, and where the strictures and pitfalls of modern relationships play out, often in startlingly gendered terms. In coming into her identity as a queer woman, Millner’s protagonist grapples not only with the original repressive structures of patriarchal society, but also the ways in which, in the effort to buck one familiar convention, it’s easy to end up at the mercy of another. This is the case when, having just shed the constraints of monogamy, she winds up longing to be possessed exclusively by her new lover. Instead, she is the third member of a polyamorous love triangle, grappling with the new challenges posed by what was once perceived as liberation.

“Part of the project of poetry is that of arresting time, of reminding us of the material qualities of language and the material properties of our lives.”

In utilizing the couplets format, Millner expertly mines the tension between subject and form—conveying how some limits can be psychologically freeing, whether that’s a monogamous commitment, a stylistic constraint, or a pair of leather handcuffs. The book’s ironies and contradictions are echoes of the questions Millner asked herself in its writing: How can you be truly anti-institutional or anti-capitalist, or challenge the repressive systems we live under, if you’re choosing to write in these old-school forms? She recalls how she’s always found pleasure in the stylistic constraints of formalism—but also how it didn’t fit her politics, not unlike the way her character feels about her desire for monogamy. (“Was I not really a bohemian at all?” she asks herself, watching her girlfriend pack up her strap-on to take home to her other lover.)

Her speaker is often pulled in two directions, unsure where the desires of the self end and the structure of society begins—and as she oscillates between these poles, she tells a complex story of the battle for agency. “There is this endless recursive loop of trying to experience oneself as the author of one’s life, but also coming up against these prescriptive forms or categories for living,” Millner muses. “You find yourself asking, Do I want what I want because of an inherited structure, or am I living this way because I’m actively an agent of my own life? It’s in those moments where the speaker is experiencing a total lack of understanding that submitting to something like sexual desire is so liberating.”

Couplets is not exclusively concerned with sex, though it is unapologetically sexy. (“Obsession was a subject that obsessed me, regardless of  its object,” Millner writes, and it shows.) Rather, the book chronicles the conditions under which sex becomes more than the sum of its parts: the physical acting as a foil to the existential, as her protagonist turns to bondage as an antidote to modern malaise—at least, until her new relationship makes the self impossible to escape. “One of the central binaries in the book is this tension between acting and thinking, or behavior and analysis of behavior—being in the world, and then being in the self,” Millner says. “It’s hard to decouple the experience from the urge to name it.”

Through the process of writing the book, Millner says that the tenuous relationship between one’s own experience and the aesthetic object became increasingly clear, with artifice serving to convey truth better than bare facts. It’s why, though Couplets feels intensely autobiographical, Millner opposes the interpretation that she and the protagonist are one and the same. “On the one hand,” Millner says, “the story intersects my own my life in lots of ways”; on the other, she’s critical “of how the public’s interest in the minutiae of someone’s life informs the way we interact with the work they make.” For this reason, she invites readers to approach Couplets as a text with its own “flaws and formal problems, and perhaps even ethical quandaries”—questions that are not direct reflections of the morality of the person writing, or even the narrator. “Couplets is clearly informed by the confessional tradition,” she says, “and is so explicitly in dialogue with other writers of autofiction, and writers of confessional poetry, and writers interested in blurring those lines.”

Millner is part of a new vanguard of poets who are adopting the stylistic constraints of the past, and queering them to fit their narrative: stories of urbanity, vocation, and desire, set in the landscape of late capitalism. One of her contemporaries, the poet Tommy Pico, writes of queer sex, relationships, and colonialism—adopting the epic poem format, yet neutralizing its usual connotations with colloquialisms like Grindr messages and scenes of sex in the pizza parlor’s bathroom. Similarly, Millner’s work does not shy away from contemporary topics—there are references to fascism rearing its ugly head, internet infighting, and the contradictions of existing in Brooklyn’s queer creative class: all factors that serve to shape her character’s desires, escapist and otherwise. A lot of what she is experiencing has to do with the historical moment we’re in, Millner says—“of trying to parse some kind of imminent or internal erotic investment from all of the things we’ve been told that we’re supposed to want, knowing that the things we find sexy aren’t necessarily separable from the society we live in.”

Poetry, Millner says, requires the reader to bring their own selfhood to the table, in order to make meaning of words that arrange themselves anew through the complexity of subconscious association. “Part of the project of poetry is that of arresting time, of reminding us of the material qualities of language and the material properties of our lives,” Millner ruminates. It’s why she has always gravitated toward it, as a medium in which the reader’s subjectivity must rise to meet the author’s—and why she was surprised by the book’s success in an era of decreasing attention spans, which she humbly attributes to luck and the fact that, apparently, “People still like rhyme”—even those who aren’t “pop stars or babies.”

Right now, Millner is in between tours; it’s a brief moment of repose, and her demeanor is warm and open. After a couple glasses of wine, the conversation turns from poetry—the author discusses her upbringing in a small town in rural upstate New York, her academic experiences, and a certain inclination for overthinking. (At one point, she admits to having sent a multi-paragraph apology text to a friend for “being awkward” when she was handed a slice of birthday cake, to which the friend responded, “HAHAHA.”)

This propensity to find, or even force, meaning onto minutiae is one Millner shares with her book’s protagonist—and finding the right ending, she admits, tortured her. At that point, the narrator comes out (and her old life comes undone); there’s been “some renunciation of one’s old personhood, and the taking up of the new one. It didn’t feel genuine to culminate in the flourish of a happily-ever-after gesture”—to see the protagonist donning the same restrictions she had just shed in the quest for self-invention. After being pulled in all directions by the magnitude of her desire, the character’s journey culminates with the sudden stillness of acceptance, that this is the process of living. “At great cost you got a sense / For what your life could be, and still had to admit / That after all, that wasn’t really it,” Millner writes. “And you will lose again. And no matter what you do / You can’t not want. Dip your foot in / If you like. Why not. No one is looking.”