Joseph Mills has degrees in literature from the University of Chicago (B.A.), the University of New Mexico (M.A.), and the University of California-Davis (Ph.D). As he was working on his third one, his mother asked, “Don’t you know that stuff yet?”
A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. His work includes poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism. He has published five volumes of poetry with Press 53: This Miraculous Turning, Sending Christmas Cards to Huck and Hamlet; Love and Other Collisions; Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers, and Somewhere During the Spin Cycle .
Joseph and his wife, Danielle Tarmey, are the authors of A Guide to North Carolina’s Wineries (John F. Blair, Publisher). The second edition was released in 2007. He has also edited a collection of film criticism entitled A Century of the Marx Brothers (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)
Geosi Gyasi: What is your book, “This Miraculous Turning” all about?
Joseph Mills: It’s a collection of poetry about, in part, being a white born and bred Northerner raising black born and bred Southerners. This can result in some interesting, complex, dynamics, when, for example, we go to a place like Gettysburg National Park. I’m looking for the monuments to Indiana, and my kids want to find the ones for North Carolina, and my young son asks where he would be.
Because my children don’t talk like me or look like me, people sometimes interact with us differently than they might otherwise. Not just the double-takes, but the questions and the exchanges that can happen as soon as we walk out our door. Many of these are positive and rewarding, for example the flight attendant who said, “Your family is beautiful,” but they wouldn’t happen if we didn’t look the way we do. As my daughter asked, “Why isn’t she saying that about other families?” The poetry considers some of those moments.
Geosi Gyasi: Kelly Cherry, former Poet Laureate of Virginia once wrote about your book, This Miraculous Turning – “In general, poets are not saints, yet in his quiet but unapologetic intelligence, his passion, humility, and wisdom, and his understanding of good and evil, Joseph Mills gives us poems that could change the world.” What do you think of this statement?
Joseph Mills: To be frank, I think, “Wow,” and then I worry about the bar being set way too high. To have someone respond so strongly to your work is tremendously rewarding.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?
Joseph Mills: Growing up and all through college, I thought I would be a writer and I wanted to be a writer and I intended to be a writer. I just didn’t do any actual writing. In my late 20s, I realized, “Oh, I better get started and produce something” and I discovered it was difficult to do well. In my 30s, I got more serious about it, and I began to appreciate the discipline required. In my 40s I got better at it, I think, and, hopefully, that will continue in my 50s (and 60s and 70s and . . .).
Geosi Gyasi: What inspires you as a writer?
Joseph Mills: Juxtapositions. Ambivalences. Odd turns of phrase. Watching my children. Watching other people’s children. Watching other people. Wondering what something may mean. Engaging with art works. Walking the dog . . .
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about your book, “Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers”?
Joseph Mills: It’s a book of wine-related poems. I love the vocabulary and jargon of wine. Not the descriptors – “burnt honey with hints of old leather” – but the metaphors – “the angel’s share,” which is evaporation or “the thief” which is a winemaker’s tool. I also love the stories and anecdotes associated with wine. When you talk about wine, the discussion almost always is operating on a symbolic level. The wine represents something else – metamorphosis, transformation, the fruit of suffering, companionship.
I just did a second edition of Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers, and I reorganized the manuscript, revised most of the poems, pruned many of them. As a writer, you’re constantly trying to improve the work. I agree with the Paul Valery quotation, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
Geosi Gyasi: How much of love is in your book, “Love and Other Collisions”?
Joseph Mills: I have written very few recognizable “love poems,” probably only a handful. But, not to be flippant, I think every poem that I write is a love poem. Love and Other Collisions is a book about family, about how raising your sometimes has you re-evaluate your own childhood and your relationships with your parents. It’s about “The Middle Years” of having young children, but parents who are aging. It’s divided into four sections that are roughly: my education, my children’s education, my mother’s dementia, and my attempts at making sense by teaching and writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a favorite among all the books you’ve written?
Joseph Mills: I think This Miraculous Turning is a coherent, good, collection. I appreciated the chance to take a second crack at Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers, but I’m always most excited about the one I’m currently working on. “This one,” I always think, “finally this one is going to be good.” So, at the moment, it’s a book of poems that have been inspired by stage directions in Shakespeare. It’ll be released in April 2016, and it’s called Exit, Pursued By a Bear.
Geosi Gyasi: Which books have had the greatest impact on your writing?
Joseph Mills: There are plenty of books that I carry around deep within me, almost all of them are stories – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey. But I’ve also been influenced by a number of other artists and art works – Edward Hopper’s paintings, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you keep a tight schedule as a writer?
Joseph Mills: I try to write every day, even if it’s only for ten or fifteen minutes. I sometimes fail, but I often succeed. I’ve learned not to get discouraged if I don’t manage to write much. A draft scribbled in the car five minutes before picking up my kids or a paragraph jotted in the dentist’s waiting room adds up over time. I carry a notebook everywhere, so there is always the chance to put something down in those little spaces and gaps of the day.
An hour of writing is a solid day for me. Two hours is very good. I’m not one of those who can do eight or ten hours at a time. I’m working on lines a lot in my head – in the shower, walking the dog, taking a nap – but I don’t spend a lot of time actually physically writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you know why you write?
Joseph Mills: Mark Strand once said, “Life makes writing poetry necessary to prove I really was paying attention.” Writing for me is a focusing exercise. It’s a way to pay attention, both externally and internally. I write because it makes me feel like a more developed, aware, human being, and, frankly, because if I don’t, I become grouchy and depressed.