Cameron Conaway sits down with blue-collar poet Joseph Millar, who writes about the lives of “people with grease on their hands.”
Joseph Millar has a master’s degree in Poetry Writing from Johns Hopkins University, but it’s the grit of busting his ass for over 25 years in commercial fishing, telephone repairing and many other jobs that pulse his poems forward. Philip Levine is considered America’s great working-class poet, and he had this to say of Millar: “If you want the real news of how America lives, of what it’s like to be here with us…Millar will tell you with exactitude and delicacy in poems like none you’ve read before.” Revered poet and translator Peter Everwine nailed it when he said, “Millar writes about people with grease on their hands.”
Millar’s first collection, Overtime (2001) was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, his second collection, Fortune, appeared in 2007 and his latest, Blue Rust, was released in January from Carnegie Mellon Press. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Montalvo Arts Center and Oregon Literary Arts. His poetry has won a Pushcart Prize and been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac on NPR. Most recently he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, one of the most distinguished awards in all of art.
In 1997 he gave up his job as a telephone installation foreman to try his hand at teaching—he is now core faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA and lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife, poet Dorianne Laux. He agreed to answer some questions for us here at the Good Men Project.
Joseph, congratulations are in store for your recent Guggenheim Fellowship. Well done! Can you give us a glimpse into what kind of project(s) you hope to begin thanks to this?
Well, I hope to visit the fishing grounds in southwestern Alaska and interview some of the Bristol Bay salmon fishermen, to find out how they are getting along. There’s a big mining concern called the Pebble Mine trying to open a gold mine near the tributaries that lead into Lake Ilyamna, where the sockeye spawn, an obvious disaster in the making. I’d like to hang around in Dillingham or Naknek, before the season starts, and talk to some skippers and crewmen. I also want to take my wife to Paris.
In my experience, there’s something about the rhythm and everydayness of tough physical labor that brings a calmness of mind that translates well to poetry. The problem for me was exhaustion. After a brutal day it was far easier to reach for the remote or a beer than the notebook. Were you able to gather will enough to write much during those years?
Sometimes I would be too tired, except when I had a poem that was happening — I would be excited to get back to it, and that would keep me awake. After I made foreman, I would sometimes steal away time from the company and work on poems in my truck. (I also had a lot of intense personal stuff going on during the years I wrote the poems in Overtime, and I wasn’t sleeping a lot.) More recent work poems were “recollected in tranquility,” so that made it easier.
Full disclosure: You and your wife Dorianne Laux are two of my top five favorite contemporary poets. It actually sort of blows my mind that you’re a team. It’s like poetry’s version of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. What do you feel she brings to your writing and creative process and how do you feel you’ve helped hers?
I’m always grateful for her critical responses, she’s been a great teacher to me. She has a true compass inside her, or maybe it’s a Geiger counter, that responds to poetic energy; she can tell where it’s strongest and where it starts to weaken. We share the same basic vision of art, that it should be shaped by thought, and composed of sensual detail, and that primarily there needs to be an emotional fuse burning inside, pulling the poem along by force. Of course you can’t always write a poem like that, so you have to be willing to strike out a lot. I have plenty of strike-outs and of course she has her share as well. But she’s much more prolific than I am, once she gets around to it. She will write three poems in one morning sometimes. She’s badass.
I interviewed her last year and she spoke of your discipline, of your meditating each morning, your voracious reading, your steady line-by-line approach. Are there hours, days, weeks when you take that “clock-in” labor-type approach to poetry but finish the day unfulfilled? What keeps you attacking?
Plenty of days I clock in and finish the day without much to show. And some days I don’t even get the notebook open. It’s important for me to do my writing first, or I get caught up in daily chores. So I try to do that. But I’m kind of slow, and a methodical approach seems to work best. I like the way Jerry Stern speaks somewhere about his “dark and flashy moments.” (His new book “In Beauty Bright” is a killer, you should check it out.) Sometimes I feel that way too, dark and flashy, but not often. Never enough real poetry, the fine distillate of thought and feeling, though it’s a great privilege to be allowed into the game. My favorite poets, Lorca, Yeats, Miloscz, WC Williams, Sharon Olds, Rilke, Lucille Clifton, Roethke, James Wright, Philip Levine — they all have those moments. There’s only so much amazing poetry in the world — these are some of the giants, whose fine example shows us what we can aspire to.
Thanks for taking the time out for us here, Joseph. It’s been a true honor. How can our readers stay up-to-date with all things Joseph Millar?
Well, my website is a good way: http://josephmillar.org/.
Thank you for asking me.
Excerpt from Millar’s “American Wedding”
When the groom lifts the veil from her
delicate temples, I’m thinking someone
should warn them: a future of funerals, car
payments, taxes, kids throwing up in the night.
It’s a job you mostly won’t know how to do,
your naked arm deep in a jammed kitchen sink,
burnt rinds of eggplant crazily adrift.
Your children will lift their small faces
toward you and give you reason to weep,
and if you manage to stay together
there will be nights you lie down
like strangers back to back
falling away from each other in sleep.