Exclusive Interview With Poet Joseph Mills

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A-ha! Here’s an interview with a poet who participated in the April PAD Challenge and wrote his first ever sestina as a result. As Joseph Mills, author of Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (Press 53, 2008), comments, “It was smart of you (meaning me, of course) to put that towards the end since by then we were invested in finishing.”

In recent years, Mills has published two collections of poetry through Press 53; the other collection is Somewhere During the Spin Cycle (2006). With his wife, Mills has also put together two editions of A Guide to North Carolina’s Wineries (John F. Blair, 2007). It seems only natural that Mills’ knowledge of wine-making and poetry would create its own poetic blend.

Here’s a favorite poem of mine from Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers and originally published in North Carolina Literary Review:


To speak of a wine’s future

is to speak of our own desires,

how we hope as we age

that we’ll become more

harmonious, less acidic,

that our tannins will mellow.

We recognize right now

we have a burst of flavor,

an energy, a liveliness,

but also a harshness

which later may soften

until we’re more balanced,

more approachable,

easier to appreciate.

Hold onto us;

we believe

we’ll get better.

What are you currently up to?

At the moment, I’m working on a novel set in “Carolina Wine Country” and a young adult novel that deals with the nature of time.I’m also drafting a sequence of poems about my mother’s dementia and other work for my third poetry collection tentatively entitled “Love and Other Collisions.”

So, what led to an entire collection of poems about wine?

In the last half dozen years, my wife and I researched and wrote two editions of A Guide to North Carolina’s Wineries.As we traveled the state, talking to winemakers and winery owners, I found myself with material that wasn’t appropriate for the guidebook, but that I was interested in exploring and using.I wrote a few poems dealing with wine, and they appeared in my first collection of poetry, Somewhere During the Spin Cycle.The wine poems kept coming, and once I had more than a dozen I realized that there would be enough for a collection, and that this would give the volume a nice coherence.Eventually I wrote well over a hundred and then culled the best.

Do you think of yourself as writing for poets who enjoy wine or for wine lovers who enjoy poetry?

For the guidebook, I had a clear audience in mind--people interested in touring or at least learning about the state’s wineries.It’s nonfiction with a straight-forward purpose.For poetry, however, I never think of an actual audience.I write for myself.I work on a poem, and I try to shape it as best as I can.Sometimes I’m not satisfied with it, and I shelve it.Sometimes I’m satisfied enough to consider sending it out for publication which is a way of both inspiring me to work on it more and, once it’s sent, having it out of my sight for a while.Even with publication in mind, however, I don’t imagine an audience, someone actually reading it.I learned a long time ago that when you publish poetry, you shouldn’t expect any kind of response.If you do, you might be waiting a long time.

I hope the book appeals to more people than a Venn diagram middle of poetry lovers and wine lovers.In fact, maybe it will get people more involved in both. My brother, who is a teetotaler, has told me that the poems make him want to drink wine, and my wife likes to say that it’s “poetry for people who think they don’t like poetry.”

In your collection, you use specialized terms, such as "thief" and "angel's share." Do you feel jargon helps the writing process?

I love the specialized language of a field when it is in some way metaphorical.For example, the “angel’s share” refers to the evaporation in the barrels.I find this thought-provoking as opposed to technical language like “thirty inch cartridge filter housing.”I’m interested in the language that’s evocative rather than intimidating or limiting.

Jargon can sound pompous and it can obscure, but the specialized vocabulary of almost any field can be fun.On a film set, when you “cheat” something, you’ve set up an unnatural relationship, moving things too close together, so that it will come out on the film looking right.I find the term fascinating.In music, there’s a chord called “the devil’s interval” which is a terrific phrase.

Religion seems twisted into the wine. Do you find that writing about both religion and wine is a natural?

Because of the nature of grape-growing--the seasonal cycle of pruning and rebirth in the vineyard--and the way wine involves a transformation of grapes, even people who aren’t religious tend to use spiritual language to talk about it.Since what I love about wine are the stories, and historically wine has been an element in so many religions, it’s probably inevitable that I would write about the relationship at least a little.

Who are your favorite poets?

I love the work of John Ciardi, James Wright, and Philip Levine.Billy Collins consistently delights.There are poems by W.H. Auden, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell and Gary Snyder that I have returned to dozens of times over the years.I’m a fan of “The Writer’s Almanac” because I like reading just a poem at a time, integrating it as part of the day, and having its selection be a surprise.(It’s why I like the shuffle feature of my iPod.)

What are your favorite wines?

The ones I drink with my wife and with family and friends.The joke in our household is that we only “cellar” wines that we don’t like.If we like it, we drink it.The second part of the joke is that there are only two bottles in the cellar.

One piece of advice for other poets: What is it?

Consider it a life’s work.After twenty years, I’m finally writing poems that I think reward attention.I hope in the next twenty years, I’ll learn to write poems that hold up.And in the twenty years after that…

You write a little bit at a time, consistently, and it adds up, and the work improves.I’ve often had the experience of discovering a way to finally revise a poem that for years hasn’t been quite right or how to use a few lines or ideas that I have squirreled away long ago.

Finally, you're stranded on a deserted island and can only have 3 things with you: What are they and why?

My wife.She’s the only person I know that whenever we leave each other, I immediately want to call her up and see when we can meet.Plus it would finally be a chance for us to have an island vacation together.I would take our two kids, but they would probably get bored, so how about my iPod with a solar charger.It not only has thousands of songs, but also audio books and lectures on subjects that interest me, such as Mark Twain and the Civil War.I also would want a writing utensil that would work until we were rescued and something to write on.Wait, that’s two, isn’t it.Can we consider “a writing package” one item?How about an incredibly durable solar powered laptop?But, then I wouldn’t need the iPod, so what about a guitar with indestructible strings?That’s it:wife, laptop, guitar.


For more on Joseph Mills, check out his Web site at http://www.josephrobertmills.com/

Here are some of his poems available online from New Works Review:

* "The Thief"

* "Release"


If you're a poet or publisher interested in an interview on the Poetic Asides blog, read more here.

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