For years, Rod Kessler ignored the poems that Malcolm Miller sent him in the mail.
“In the early 1990s I started getting, occasionally, these little self-published books of poetry in the English department at Salem State,” he said. “I was pretty dismissive of self-publishing then.”
But Kessler eventually changed his mind about Miller’s poetry, which he will read and discuss on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. at the Hawthorne Hotel as part of the Mass Poetry Festival.
“Fifteen years later, I started to read them and much to my surprise, he was very good,” he said.
Miller, who died in 2014, was born in Salem, attended St. John’s Prep, and eventually graduated from McGill University in Montreal.
“There was a literary movement in Montreal in the 1950s, and he was part of that,” Kessler said. “He was a close college friend of Leonard Cohen. There were times he slept on his couch—he’s written about the friendship.”
Cohen, the songwriter, poet and novelist, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
Miller, whose family lived for many years on Summit Avenue, stayed in Montreal for a while after graduation, but eventually moved back to Salem.
“At times, he was homeless,” Kessler said. “Many periods of his life he would disappear and go to Europe. He would sometimes work whatever kinds of jobs he could get.
“He did some teaching, too, but would save his money and take off.”
Miller had published three books of poetry with commercial publishers, but eventually started publishing his own editions with a local, commercial printer.
He would solicit donations of five dollars for his books, which Kessler always sent.
“I admired his spunk,” he said. “If you’re going to be a beggar, what better way.”
This practice fit with the independent way Miller lived, which in turn informed the observations in his poetry and the letters he wrote to local newspapers.
“He wanted to live a life he philosophically believed in,” Kessler said.
“He felt working was a kind of slavery, and material accumulation was something he despised—he had no phone, no TV, and slept in a sleeping bag on the floor. It was a pretty pared down life.”
In a letter he wrote to the editor of the Salem News, which was published on Wednesday, April 3, 2013, Miller responded to a story with the headline, “Salem dreams of streets lined with art.”
“There is beauty in fire hydrants, in trees, in brick laid firmly on brick,” he wrote. “There are already streets lined with art. It is not expert advice we need and costly junk, but our own souls.”
Kessler, who recently retired from Salem State, met Miller after writing and asking him to talk to his students in the creative writing program.
“He turned me down, saying ‘I am a hermit anchorite almost leper,’” Kessler said. “He did give me permission to publish some poems in ‘Soundings East,’” a literary magazine at Salem State. “I met him delivering copies.”
Miller had mental health problems, which he discussed with Kessler.
“These would come and go,” Kessler said. “He told me he was afraid of these voices.”
Miller was kicked out of several local libraries, including Salem State’s, for washing his socks in the bathroom, Kessler said.
He listed Kessler as an emergency contact with the Salem Housing Authority, which contacted him after Miller died.
“Because I was allowed into his apartment, I was able to rescue the bulk of his writing, which would have gone into the trash,” Kessler said.
He found 3,500 poems, which he is currently sorting through with several colleagues, who will be present at the Mass Poetry Festival event.
Miller’s niece, Danvers-born artist and writer Pamela Harris, will also be present.
“I’m going through them and picking out the good ones,” Kessler said. “At this event, we’re giving out a memento publication that’s 36 pages long that the ten of us have printed out.”
He wants to publish a chapbook of Miller’s works with a biographical introduction and hopes anyone who knew or remembers him will attend the event or contact him.
“I would love it if people told me more stories,” Kessler said.