LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wilmer Mills, Part 2: Poet, Collector of Words

This is the second of three parts of my feature on poet Wilmer Mills. Mills was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was graduated from The McCallie School in 1988 and The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee with a B.A. in English Literature in 1992. He received a Masters in Theology from Sewanee in 2005. His first book of poems, a chapbook, Right as Rain, was published by Aralia Press in 1999. His first full-length collection of poems, Light for the Orphans, was published by Story Line Press in 2002.Wilmer Mills has published poems in The New Republic, The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, Poetry, The New Criterion, Shenandoah, Literary Imagination, and others. His poems have been anthologized in Penguin/Longman Anthology of Contemporary American Poets, 2004, and are forthcoming from The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets.Mills has worked as a carpenter, furniture maker, sawmill operator, artisan bread baker, white oak basket weaver, farmer, and a white water raft guide, and poetry teacher among other things. He lives with his wife, Kathryn, and their two children in a bungalow he built himself in Sewanee, Tennessee. But he currently teaches poetry at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he is their Kenan Visiting Writer.

To hear Wil read two poems, click here.
To read more of the essay he excerpts in our interview, click here.
To see some of his paintings, click here.

LeAnne: Describe your creative process. 

I’m a linguistic bower bird. I collect words, bits of conversation, road signs, etymologies, etc. I write down what I find in a pocket notebook, and these bits and pieces then germinate in my mind and slowly settle into the lines of my poems. Whole poems grow out of certain images on their own. I don’t go after poems. They come to me as sonic excitement clicking in the syllables. I wait for the idea, the thing, the moment--wait until it appears already packaged in the phonetic music that will make it sing.
Then, ironically, what writes a poem is the syntax. Once I latch onto the right syntactical pattern (a tone, a pacing of clause, subject, and verb), the poem basically writes itself, pulling the subject matter along through the meter, sometimes in rhyme. It is important not to force the language to go where you want it to go, but to listen to it and let it guide you. The word “author” is descended from the same word as “augur,” meaning “seer.” A poet’s job is to see things, to point out the obvious that other people don’t see, not to reinvent reality with some hokus-pokus romantic notion of “inspiration” or creativity. That’s called disappointing the obvious. Once I have a draft of a poem, I sometimes spend years revising it. That’s when the real writing takes place.

LM: Tell me about your book of poems.

In 1999, I published a small chapbook called Right as Rain by Aralia Press. In 2002, my full-length book of poems, Light for the Orphans, was published by Story Line Press. The press is now out of business, and my book is out of print, but used copies can still be found. Many of the poems in that book are narratives, stories about imaginary characters. That means that I am also a fiction writer--only I do it in verse, not prose.

Recently I have begun writing fiction in prose. A short story of mine was in the April issue of Image.

More from Wilmer Mills on Monday.

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